Ape 2012: Love, Rockets & Indie Comics

Last weekend in San Francisco, the Alternative Press Expo–Comic-Con’s punky kid brother–brought small-press and self-published comics together with a few major figures and provided two pleasant, low-key afternoons for local comics fans to check out new talent and hear from the masters.

Jim Woodring, Sergio Aragones and Los Bros. Hernandez were the stars, doing signings and giving talks about their careers.  Aragones, after 50 years in comics, remains a humble and entertaining man.  Asked about doing an autobiography, he pointed out that many of his comics are autobiographical, so eventually he’ll have chronicled his life–or at least, all the funny parts.  The 75-year-old also, in essence, he’s too involved with his career now to focus on retrospective, and when he suggested he might change his mind in another decade or so, it was impossible to doubt that he’d still be cartooning.

In addition to this year being the anniversary of Aragones’ 1962 debut in Mad, it’s also the 30th anniversary of Love & Rockets, the amazing and still vital collaboration of the Hernandez brothers.  I’d like to take the next few weeks to review some of the small-press comics I picked up at APE (and at the Image Expo back in February), to explore some new voices, but let’s start with the big guns.

Love & Rockets: Live

In connection with a Hernandez Brothers gallery showing at San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum, the three brothers (Jaime, Gilbert and occasional contributor Mario) were interviewed by museum curator Andrew Farago.  The interview was a soft thing in which Farago had the trio recount their early days and inspirations, and it was fine enough for what it was, but I would’ve wished for more challenging questions about what the brothers are expressing in their art and how their storytelling styles and interests are evolving.

More than once, discussing their rise on the “alternative” scene led to comparisons with “mainstream” superhero comics, and the creative freedom and rights to own their work and characters were mentioned more than once.  Jaime discussed entertaining vague offers to “get their foot in the door”  of doing work-for-hire service on familiar trademarks, in which his style and interests would have to bend to the corporation’s.  Jaime’s reaction: “I’ve already got a comic.”  Gilbert’s:  “They weren’t offering nothin’ except being slaves there.”

“God & Science”

I came away with the hardcover to “God & Science,” the expanded reprint of Jaime’s work in the first two issues of the annual Love & Rockets: New Stories.  Hernandez expanded the story by about 30 pages, which he said he rarely does, because he’s conscious of making the people who bought the first version feel “cheated.”

In either version, “God & Science” is simultaneously a loving evocation of the sillier comic of Hernandez’ childhood and a deeper exploration of motherhood and grief, and a step forward in the continuing “real world” saga of the characters orbiting Maggie Chascarillo.

Maggie, now a 40-something apartment manager in Los Angeles, discovers that her tall, mysterious neighbor is a super-heroine, and then her friend Angel turns out to be one, too.  The story is full of superheroes, including one who seems to be a mysteriously aged version of a cousin of Maggie’s whom we haven’t seen in years.  The stuff is played as though it’s really happening, but at the same time there’s a metaphorical or dream-sequence feel to it, as well.  It seems that the characters are influenced–perhaps created–by Maggie’s memories of obscure comics from her childhood.  In the end, I can’t tell how much of the fun super-hijinks and melodrama are “real” at all, but the ambiguity is handled marvelously.

As always, Hernandez’ art is simply the best on the market.  There’s no one making such good comics and making it look so simple, so effortless.  Hernandez would follow this lark with two more issues of the annual L&R that contained more serious stories, including the stunning “Browntown” in 2011’s issue No. 4, which is the most powerful piece of storytelling I’ve seen in the comics medium.

New Stories No. 5:

This year’s issue of the ongoing series hit stores a month ago, and as always, its 100 pages are split evenly between Gilbert and Jaime.  In the wake of the staggering No. 4, Jaime did a simpler, lighter story focusing on new and lesser characters.  As he was signing the issue for me, I told him that I’d enjoyed the lightness of the story after the more powerful work before it.  He laughed and said something about being glad I liked it, because a lot of people hadn’t.

I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the idea of someone telling Jaime Hernandez his comix is no good, but he said that some had wanted the heavy “Maggie and Ray” story to continue.  The story is over, at least for now, he said, and I replied that I was used to waiting a few years before the spotlight moved to a certain favorite character and storyline, and I was content to let him take the reader where he likes.

Gilbert also returned a compliment about his latest work with a comment that more than a few readers hadn’t been onboard.  In “New Stories No. 5,” he revisits the village of Palomar, the Central American town where his most celebrated stories were set.  Gilbert said that a lot of readers hadn’t understood the transitions (though the clues are there).  Funny, because in recent years he’s spent a lot of his time making increasingly surreal work in which there’s no objective reality to anchor the weird narrative.  I find it difficult to connect to that work, which is less readily absorbing than his earlier Palomar work or Jaime’s ongoing “Locas” narratives.

What’s most powerful about Gilbert’s work in the new volume is the way he ties it to the magnificent Palomar stories of the past without retreading.  He uses a familiar setting to hold a warped mirror up to Palomar’s history, underscore the relationships among key characters, and give us a new side of the protagonist of his recent stories.  All this, and he finds a way to bring his fascination with surreal pulp storytelling into a more easily absorbed narrative.

Killer, granddaughter of longtime protagonist Luba, returns to the village of her grandmother’s youth. As Killer explores her roots, Gilbert gets to open her personality a little.  In past stories, as she pines for an indifferent boyfriend or stars in sub-B pulp movies that sometimes collapse mid-production, she effects a teenager’s indifference to everything.  Since she’s clearly the main character of Gilbert’s work in New Stories, any chance to get to know her better is appreciated.  And the way the story interweaves a flashback, the present tense, and then constantly intercuts a movie version of Palomar history that skews everything to the view of its producer (who’s getting some petty revenge by characterizing former neighbors as petty or insane), it’s virtuoso storytelling with layers that reward multiple reads.