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With the upcoming release of a quarterly Love and Rockets comic, it's time to reflect back on the past eight years of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez's seminal series. The Love and Rockets New Stories yearly comics have been strange but fascinating creatures. Jaime Hernandez has used his half of the book to write stories of love, of fear, of gangsters and even of superheroes. Sharing the annual (o.k. semi-annual) 100-page book, Gilbert Hernandez has drawn his versions of offbeat and disturbing B movies, the kind of cult hits that don’t seem to exist anymore in the age of Netflix and Blu-Rays. Jaime is the classicist, drawing with the pure cartoonist line that would just as easily be at home on a Sunday gag comic strip as it is on the grueling emotional ride of young punks in L.A. Gilbert is the man who’s always moving on the page. His line just never stops as he keeps on moving from one story to the next.
It’s hard to quite figure out exactly what Gilbert has been up to lately because he's done so many different kinds of stories in the past eight years both in Love and Rockets and in other strange comics like Blubber or Fatima. Years ago, he said goodbye to his fictional town Palomar and said hello to Luba’s stateside family. There have been occasional and short returns to Palomar but the last few years he’s been more interested in creating B movies on paper, taking the fictional films of his character Fritz (a psychiatrist turned actress) and making comics of those movies. It’s like the old movie adaptations that Marvel and DC used to do but these are movies from Gilbert’s head. They’ve run the genre gamut from horror to science fiction to crime and even a bit of exploitation like his fake movie adaptation, “Proof That The Devil Loves You,” a slightly fictionalized story about Palomar. Just as Gilbert revisits his old narrative stomping grounds in the movie, his character Dora “Killer” Rivera visits the real Palomar, where her grandmother Luba spent so much of her life.
Gilbert actually plays it much more subtle than coming out and telling us that one Palomar is a movie and the other is real but as you’re reading it, something never clicks about the two parallel stories he’s telling. One story follows Killer and her discovery of the town that means so much to her past while the other follows the town's inhabitants, including Bula, the town sheriff, a dance teacher that wants to leave the town but just can’t do it and a family that has major problems with the sheriff. Gilbert peaks into the lives of many beloved characters and a few new yet familiar characters without ever letting on what’s real and what’s just a celluloid story. He lets you get close to the story but keeps certain elements of it hidden, keeping you at arm's length from the characters and their town.
While Gilbert plays with what is real and what is fiction, Jaime settles in for a good, old-fashioned story of sibling rivalry and small time gangsters. Taking a break from the heart-wrenching story of Maggie and Ray that he effectively gave a point of closure in The Love Bunglers, Jaime turns to Vivian "Frogmouth" Solis and her visiting sister Tonta. Viv actually shares a few personality traits with Gilbert's Killer, namely their self-obsessiveness. As if dealing with her younger sister wasn't enough, Viv attracts the attention of a small time gangster and can't quite see the trouble she's possibly in.
Jaime moves so gracefully over the page, with every line being the perfect ideal of that singular part of his storytelling. Over the years, he has developed a purity in his art, perfectly meshing it with the emotional beats of his story. Even without the gripping drama of the last couple of issues, his artwork is both uptight and simultaneously giddy, capturing the qualities of the two sisters. It's both fun and dangerous, often within the same panel. In a sequence where Tonta finds a hidden handgun, Jaime gives us a bit of sex, violence, slapstick and the innocence of youth. It’s one page but it speaks volumes about Tonta.
After 30 years, it would be easy to pick up a new issue of Love and Rockets and have it feel like visiting an old friend. It could just be the continuing adventures of Palomar or the unending love of Maggie and Hopey. It would be comfortable and warm but the Hernandez brothers refuse to make it that easy for us. Instead of getting caught up in the past and repeating the saga over and over on an infinite loop, Jaime and Gilbert have allowed their stories and characters to have their own lives and to keep moving forward. Their characters have lived and changed, loved and lost and continued to live, reshaping life from one year to the next like all of us do.
Both cartoonists have built up a history in their respective stories (let's not call it that ugly word "continuity") that informs the present as much as we know that it somehow sets up the future. As much as there is history, Jaime and Gilbert refuse to rest within the comfort of the past. They've always had large casts, with so many supporting characters ready and waiting to take on a lead role in the stories. Viv has existed as a character in Maggie's life, having a presence in Jaime's stories but usually just a foil for Maggie to react to. Now she takes center stage and has the story develop around her.
That strength in their characters, from the stars to the walk-ons, is what creates the reality of Love and Rockets. These are characters who have lived lives on the comics page and that’s what you see in every story that Jaime and Gilbert tell. From the odd movies to the brief glimpses into longtime characters that we see, time keeps on moving forward for these characters and for us. Sometimes they disappear for awhile (it’s been years since we’ve seen Hopey) but isn’t it that way in real life as well?
After 30 years, the Hernandez brothers still manage to surprise you with each new book. It’s not that they’re surprising you that the books are good or that they’re still pulling it off year after year. It’s the characters that surprise you through their actions, their words and the way they’re drawn. Gilbert and Jaime write and draw comics that begin with the heart of their characters and then spiral out of there, creating galaxies that exist with characters like Dora, Vivian, Tonta and even Bula at their hearts.