Fear of Comics

At the time, it was meant to be read as a great compliment: Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez create comic books for people who don't read comic books! A publisher or pitchman couldn't have come up with a more glorious phrase, one magical sentence that would reel in the literate and their loot. Finally, it was safe for the straight and narrow to enter a comic-book shop without feeling like a grubby perv scouting the sticky bins for staple-bound superhero porn. The critics, writing from such lofty perches as The Nation and The Times of London, bandied about comparisons to Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes; they tossed around phrases like "magical realism" and other leftover lingo from college-lit courses. They adored the brothers for what they weren't (comic-book writers, ink-and-sweat-stained geeks penning supermen-in-tights tripe for the grown-up toddler) as often as they celebrated them for what they were (comic-book writers, ink-and-sweat-stained artists penning thoughtful, evocative Latino-centric literature for the grown-up grown-up).

But that was nearly 20 years ago, back when Jaime and Gilbert threw their comic book Love and Rockets into what was then the junk heap of pulp fiction--a pile of silly, musclebound titles, kiddie fodder with rare exception. At the time, they were two Hispanic twentysomethings from Southern California, punk-rock freaks raised by a mother who collected comics and allowed them to be read by her boys at the dinner table; their own work would later reflect the range of what they consumed, everything from Superman to Betty and Veronica. But more important, Love and Rockets nearly single-handedly proved it was possible for novelists to exist between the slick covers and hand-drawn lines of the comic book. Jaime told small, intimate stories about women named Hopey and Maggie in lust and love (sometimes, with each other), while Gilbert created a mythical South American town called Palomar and gave birth to the most human of heroines, the put-upon Luba, who bathed Palomar's residents but could never quite get the world's grime off of her own skin.

From 1982 to 1996, Jaime and Gilbert--Los Bros Hernandez, as they're known among the acolytes--published 50 issues of Love and Rockets, and they stuck with those characters during that entire period. What they ended up creating was nothing less than their own universe populated by characters who became as familiar as friends. For newcomers late to the craze, that was often maddening; it was like coming in on a soap opera 40 years too late. But at the beginning of a millennium, old friends return, and they've been rendered familiar even to the novice: This month, the brothers return with a second volume of Love and Rockets.

"People have heard of Love and Rockets, and sometimes a lot of people will say, 'OK, show me,'" says the 43-year-old Gilbert. "Well, here it is, and when they pick it up, they will be able to just follow it right from the get-go, at least in the first few issues. I'll get crazy later, I'm sure. But unlike most pop culture, our work demands your attention and having a memory. The most difficulty readers have with my work, at least in Love and Rockets, was that you must remember what's going on. You must remember who somebody is, what their past is like, and it's difficult. I understand, because I look at other comics that I don't understand and have the same problems. They're not good comics. I'm talking about mainstream stuff, like an X-Men comic book."

In 1981, the brothers submitted the first issue of Love and Rockets to The Comics Journal editor Gary Groth, hoping for a review in his magazine, but Groth decided he wanted to do more than merely evaluate Love and Rockets. He wanted Fantagraphics, The Journal's parent company, to publish the book, which he received as a 32-page fanzine printed on flimsy newsprint. Groth initially loved the book because it bridged the gap separating the mainstream and the underground. He would describe it in his introduction to the debut issue as "hallucinatory...naturalistic and richly textured," and he insisted there were parallels to the early, influential works of George Herriman (Krazy Kat), Frank King (Gasoline Alley), and E.C. Segar (Popeye). Eighteen years later, Gilbert agrees: He insists he initially envisioned Love and Rockets, at least his contributions, as "Gasoline Alley with Hispanics." Groth, who celebrated within his magazine's pages disregarded underground icons such as Gilbert Shelton and Robert Crumb while condemning the lazy superhero hackwork going on at DC and Marvel, had found in the brothers his own revolutionaries to publish and publicize.

"They were bringing in the sensitivity of the underground--that freedom and imagination and the cartooning chops, along with a strong narrative drive and emphasis on characters," Groth says. "All through the '80s, we were excited about Love and Rockets and The Bros. There were a lot of cartoonists who were part of this period, this revolution in comics, but The Bros always had a central place in the revolution. I'm actually not sure when I realized they had represented a real turning point in comics. The funny thing is, although there have been a lot of cartoonists that have been influenced in some ways by their work, nobody has gone on and done anything like they have."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky