Saturday, September 18, 2010

"Do you think the sun is yellow or blue?"

Love and Rockets: New Stories #3 is the best issue so far since the relaunch as an annual, and contains a story by Jaime Hernandez that is as good as, or better than, the very best of his many great works. Much more on that shortly.

First, let's take a look at Gilbert Hernandez's contributions to the book, the short stories "Scarlet by Starlight" and "Killer * Sad Girl * Star." As faithful Gilbert fans are aware, he has been releasing a series of graphic novels which are meant to be "adaptations" of films in which L&R fan favorite Fritz has starred (or played supporting roles) in over the course of her career as a cult B-movie actress. The graphic novels Chance in Hell and The Troublemakers comprise this series, and are of course highly recommended, as is Speak of the Devil, a comic book mini-series (later collected) that is meant to be a depiction of the actual events that inspired one of Fritz's films, as opposed to one of the adaptations of the films themselves. Still with me? If not, don't worry about it. All you really need to know is that Gilbert Hernandez has been producing some pretty amazing comics in a variety of genres over the past few years, and he offers another one here in "Scarlet by Starlight," an adaptation of a science fiction film in which Fritz "plays" a kind of alien cat-woman named Scarlet who becomes infatuated with a human male. I was pretty excited by the idea of reading a story where Fritz is depicted as a nonhuman character, and I was not disappointed. Gilbert expertly uses the tropes of pulp sci-fi and exploitation pictures to tell a story that delves first into eroticism and spirals quickly into depravity and violent horror. I was reminded of the classic R. Crumb comic "Whiteman Meets Bigfoot," as well as the recent horror film "Splice." I'll leave it at that, and let you uncover the perverse pleasures of this strange and wonderful story for yourself.

I haven't got as much to say about Gilbert's "Killer * Sad Girl * Star," except that it brings us up to date with some of the players in the ever expanding "Palomar/Luba" universe, and makes a place in that world for the great "Dreamstar" superhero comic Gilbert did for Dark Horse's online Myspace effort.

As good as Gilbert's work here is (and it's fantastic), Jaime steals the show this time around with his sure to be classic short story "Browntown," wherein we bear witness to a previously unseen chapter in young Maggie's life, a time in which she and her family moved away from the familiar environs of the neighborhood that would come to be known as "Hoppers" for a few years. Maggie is eleven at the beginning of the story and thirteen at the end, when her family moves back to Hoppers. Crucial years for just about anyone in any circumstance, made more painful and difficult for Maggie as she must adjust to a new town she doesn't much care for. As it turns out, these are a crucial few years for the entire family, as Maggie's father's infidelity is brought to light (by a guilt-ridden Maggie herself), and her younger brother, who a preoccupied Maggie doesn't seem to pay a great deal of attention to, enters into an increasingly toxic relationship with an older neighborhood boy who Maggie may be developing a crush on. In fact, while Maggie is ever the star of the show and the emotional journey she endures in this story is compelling and significant, at its heart "Browntown" is a story about her little brother Calvin and his relationship with the unnamed older boy. Their relationship begins with Calvin's being bullied by the boy and his friends, then brought in as a junior member of their group and later a particular friend of the unnamed boy, before taking a dark turn that would have lasting, tragic consequences for Calvin and his entire family. Jaime depicts all of these events with an almost superhuman level of skill, compassion, and subtlety. There are so many great moments in this short story, simply depicted but pregnant with meaning. Maggie's letters home to her friend Letty. Maggie's chastisement by her father when she tries to sit on his lap, as his young mistress looks on. The heartbreaking changes young Calvin undergoes over the course of the story, depicted partly through body language, like the young boy's exuberant leap into the air when watching a passing parade contrasted with his more contained, hunched posture as the story progresses before reaching its violent and devastating conclusion. To read this expertly crafted story by our greatest living cartoonist is to be haunted by it.

At first, I sort of wished that Jaime had not included his two-part "The Love Bunglers," which reunites Maggie and ex-boyfriend Ray in the present day, not because it isn't very good, but because "Browntown" was such a powerful piece of cartooning I felt perhaps it should stand alone. That is until it becomes apparent in the final pages that the latter story comments on the former, and the way in which Hernandez connects these two stories adds an additional, powerful layer to an already powerfully moving story.

I honestly didn't really know what to do with myself after having read this book, other than just to sit and think about what I had just read, about the characters(people) whose world I had just lived in and the ways in which their stories(lives) had resonance with my own. Finally, I picked the book back up with the intention of perusing Jaime's gorgeous and perfectly composed artwork one final time before putting it on the shelf for a while. I ended up turning the pages slowly, being drawn in again by the story. I closed the book and stared for some time at the cover, a depiction of Maggie and her siblings that seemed like a nice enough drawing before I had read the stories inside, and which after having read them had become a perfectly composed image containing multiple layers of nuance and meaning. The gaze of the children is intense but focused in different directions. They do not look at each other. They are unobserved by the adults in the background. In the sky above them, a strange blue light hovers mysteriously, a light perhaps only one of them will see, or perhaps has seen, or perhaps not. It is an image not of innocence nor of innocence lost, but of three children who have each come to regard the world a little differently than they had before; a world filled with beauty and decay, grace and sin, in equal measure, as the children themselves are filled. Yeah. It's that kind of comic.


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