Time And Tide In Jaime Hernandez’s Angels And Magpies

by Koom Kankesan

Angels and Magpies, the latest of the softcover collections featuring Jaime Hernandez‘s work from the pages of Love and Rockets, comes out this week. Clocking in at almost 270 pages of gorgeous Jaime art, this luscious tome includes a serial collected in The New York Times featuring a Maggie on the cusp of forty visiting ex-wrestler and larger than-life-figure Rena Titanon for the first time in decades, a cartoony strip about Maggie as a child living with her pregnant mom and siblings, a multi-part TI-Girls story involving a fantastical superheroine-inhabited space opera, and The Love Bunglers, one of the most touching and accomplished works in comics I’ve ever read.

Let’s handle them one by one. Except for the New York Times serial (which I’d previously read in Todd Hignite’s The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Love and Death), the other material originally appeared in Love and Rockets: New Stories issues, around 2008 and onwards. There’s something about reading Jaime’s work in collected form that’s more satisfying and powerful as opposed to installments, especially when those installments arrive months apart. Even the NYT serial seemed more plugged in and poignant this time. It runs at the top of the page while the more cartoony serial about Maggie as a child runs at the bottom. You end up doing this thing with your mind where you’re reading about Maggie at two junctures in her life, told through two different sensibilities and then juxtaposing them.

The space opera involving the TI-Girls seems totally at odds with the subtly crafted dramatic vignettes Jaime is more famous for: the various criss-crossings and detours and significant moments in the lives of Maggie, Ray, Hopey, Vivian, Doyle, Izzy and all the other wonderful, unique, and well-trodden characters he’s created. The common denominator is Angel (of Tarzana) who is roommates with Maggie. Angel realizes that she has ‘the gift’ (superpowers!, which like the gift of intuition, seems particularly predisposed toward women in this work) and tries to enter a complex world of sci-fi personalities and competing groups with names like Madame Time, Space Queen, Tiger Woman, Fuerza, Dr. Zolar, Saturna, The Weeper, the Fenoms, the TI-Girls. Their adventures and histories have the tenor of a hybrid between Golden and Silver Age (Palladium Age?) comics and Saturday morning TV cartoons.

There’s a lot of text and exposition in the panels and I’m never really sure how seriously I should be taking things. I mean, obviously it’s sort of postmodern and tongue-in-cheek but at the same time, Jaime’s committed to his own special world. It certainly isn’t cubic zirconia. The characters feel a range of human emotions and the melodrama is made up of small moments and reconciliations, while also being outrageous and outlandish. If you’ve been missing Penny Century and all of her wackiness, now it gets pushed to interstellar limits: Penny’s got superpowers, has lost her children, and is terrorizing worlds, while still looking like the Platonic ideal of a 50’s pinup and wearing the cutest superhero outfit replete with a very short skirt, redolent of Supergirl’s 70’s phase, combining lightweight eroticism with wholesome Americana. Bottled and delivered by a middle aged Jaime from Oxnard.

Once again, how seriously are we supposed to take this? If it wasn’t for the incredible virtuoso art (Jaime is just so adroit at his shifts in comic shorthand, it’s unbelievable), I don’t know that the content would hook me. But then again, you can’t really separate the art from the content when it comes to Jaime, can you? He really does give himself over to it. Unlike Alan Moore who also regularly dips into the pool of pulp archetypes (but with whom you can see the archetypical antecedents drawn upon), Jaime comes up with characters that are pure Jaime-verse. That is, they smack of his own special sensibility while evoking something we all feel is familiar, while separated from it at the same time by a folkloric force particular to Jaime’s work. Yes–it’s endearingly maddening.

The pages which transition from the outlandish space opera featuring Angel and Maggie in some unreal world to the very physical and real Angel and Maggie dealing with the ruts and twists of their everyday lives are interesting. They involve people forgetting what happened, losing ‘the gift’, and stuff slowing to a ‘normal’ Jaime pace. The superheroine stuff is sort of like the women’s wrestling stories. They’re technically part of the same universe, but the culture and metaphysics are different. In the very first Love and Rockets issues, both these tones existed concurrently (if somewhat awkwardly). Jaime would sidestep into the realistic and leave the sci-fi mashup behind as his work garnered acclaim.

Sometime in the mid to late 90s, Jaime gravitated back to the postmodern pop sensibility, all the while retaining the realistic vignettes he had become noted for. Now, in this collection, Jaime handles this shift between the two tones by slowing time down, and having a lot less text and movement on the page. The storytelling relies on inference rather than exposition. Shadows and contours take on a more three dimensional quality. Texture becomes part of the landscape. It’s quite a brilliant shift towards ‘The Love Bunglers’ which the collection’s back cover unashamedly hails as perhaps “Hernandez’s greatest masterpiece in his thirty-five year career.”

They might be right. While most independent comics stake their territory by distancing themselves from the superhero genre, Jaime sort of bleeds the superhero out and brings it back in when he wants to, yet never quite combines them. In Marvel comics, the hokey drama interweaves with the superheroics. In Jaime’s work, they’re more like olive oil and red vinegar: you can combine them and dip your bread, but the constituents never mix. He achieves a particular and unique style this way.

The Love Bunglers, despite its silly, clowny title, possesses texture and gravitas and is a sustained meditation upon Ray and Maggie and where they are and whom they are to each other, as well as who they have become through time. It’s been published in hardcover before as a collection, and as mentioned, was first serialized in Love and Rockets: New Stories. Still, it’s worth reading again. I have no idea what new readers will think of this material. It got rave reviews when published in hardcover, so I can only assume that new readers will not have any problems finding their way into the material, oblique as it sometimes may be.

I cannot read it without my own history of reading Jaime’s work over time, involving these characters: the moments that have stayed with me through the piquancy of his storytelling, moments that are like those in my own life or those of my friends. There is all this time and tide beneath the surface of his new stories. Yet the stories float along with a kind of watery calm, unbogged by previous continuity. Here, the story moves between Maggie as an eleven/twelve year old, her family moving to another town to be with her dad, to Maggie in the present, her tenuous interactions with Ray–a significant ex who still has feelings for her.

The childhood scenes feature Maggie’s coming of age, the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, and the effects upon her younger brother Calvin (who suffers sexual abuse, involving some of the most harrowingly detached and delineated sequences I have ever read in comics, and keeps his trauma to himself until it erupts and upends their family life). The destruction upon Calvin’s life affects Maggie’s (and ultimately Ray’s) life, both in the past as well as the present. And all the while, she never truly knows what’s going on with him–we are privy to just enough to be left in a state of heartwrench and agitation. It’s really hard to write about this stuff without spoiling what happens–all I’ll say is that the story reflects backwards and forwards in some powerful ways.

Towards the end of The Love Bunglers, the story becomes a paean to the subtle, fleeting forces of union between Ray and Maggie and jumps to a different orbit, time and perspective wise. There is a two page spread where each side mirrors the other. On the left, we have glimpses of Maggie (from Ray’s perspective) throughout her life. On the right, each panel corresponds to its counterpart on the left. Now we see Ray from Maggie’s POV at the exact same moments. Not only is this a supreme act of comics craft and formalism (one that takes away my breath every time I look at it), but it draws upon the history of Ray and Maggie’s relationship within the comics over three decades. Once again, I don’t know if a new reader will see what I see, get what I get, but those who have been following the tributaries of Jaime’s storytelling will be floored.

And then, because of events I can’t reveal due to damn spoilers, the story ends with a jump after this two page spread, which serves to shatter time in a rather mesmerizing way. We’re given Ray and Maggie years later, and even a little bit of Hopey. Everything’s moved forward. We’re given a glance at the ties that hold them in place in the new ‘present.’ It not only sets the stage for the stories that follow but reorients us to new iterations of their personas and bodies. Of course, Jaime has been doing this since the characters were youths but it’s startling every time. Sort of like getting used to a new Doctor Who, but much more organic. Or perhaps it’s like the documentary series 7Up–it’s ultra-fascinating to follow these characters through what amounts to real time. This is odd because comics, even literary works, seem to freeze time on the page. Characters are identified by their ‘look.’ Jaime’s passage of time feels eerie and dreamlike, like he’s an enchanter and has the mystical ability to shapeshift time. That’s the greatest praise I can give.

And that’s only the storytelling and craft. What about the actual art? Jaime’s art, like his characters, has also shifted from epoch to epoch. It always takes me a little time to adjust to the new economy of style because he’s so damn talented–I get attached and want to linger in whatever period of his I was last immersed in. Once this lag is over, you sort of just want to rub your eyes and go ‘Wow!’: – his – art – is – just – so – perfectly – toned – and – goshdarned – beautiful! How does he do it? I don’t know but it looks better, even more effortless than before. Perhaps he sold his soul to the devil to be able to draw and compose this well? If he did, the devil certainly got the short end of the bargain.

What can I end with? It’s an incredible work, and is no poorer for the fragmentation of its episodes, now unified through Jaime’s careful choices. If I had any complaints, it would be that I miss the old Fantagraphics Love and Rockets collection format. Remember the older, larger size collections with the sturdier glossy paper stock and the bold colour on the covers? I realize that Love and Rockets: New Stories was smaller to begin with (perhaps it was an attempt to make things smaller, cuter, fit in with the selling graphic novels through bookstores trend) but the Hernandez Bros work has always beneftted from a larger format, especially Jaime’s pages which need room to breathe. They’re rich with text or line work or some other detail that should not be cluttered. I think that their reboot of the newer single issues, which return to the older, larger format, is a positive move and I hope that the compendiums will once again be liberated in a similar fashion. I can’t wait to read the next volume of collected material.