Friday, February 11, 2011

Love and Rockets # 4

Everybody loves bridges. They get you from here to there. Bridges are also beautiful things in and of themselves - to say nothing of the perspective gained while standing on one. New perspectives on old buildings.

I love bridge comics. I guess another word for them would be ground-level, though no one uses that term anymore. Ground-level comics were a middle-ground, or is that a bridge, between the underground comix sold in head shops and the monthlies on the rack at the drugstore. Star*Reach, an anthology edited by Mike Friedrich, is a prime example of these ground-level books. Here you could find work by Howard Chaykin, Michael T. Gilbert and Dean Motter, all under the same title. A lot these guys, like Chaykin, did freelance for the big companies, while some, like Dick Giordano, would work as editors at those same big companies. The early Heavy Metal, back when it was still owned by National Lampoon, and Epic, Marvel Comic's answer to Heavy Metal, can be seen as two other examples of bridge comics. These comics pushed formal boundaries of the medium, while still staying within the trappings of genre.

But format often follows content, or maybe it's more complicated than one leading to the other. Bridge comics were often published as magazines rather than the smaller periodicals. This was to some extent tied into the restrictions of the then-mighty Comics Code Authority, which could not regulate magazines as it could standard issue comics. 'Love and Rockets' began as a magazine, sparking connections in my mind to the above-mentioned anthologies, to the Warren books, to RAW and Weirdo, and to the European Bande Dessinee albums.

'Love and Rockets' is a bridge comic. Or, 'Love and Rockets' was a bridge comic in the eighties, along with 'Cerebus' and 'ElfQuest.' But the work of the Los Bros. Hernandez has since become something else - I won't say something more, but something different. People don't compare it with 'American Flagg!' or 'Church & State' much anymore. But is that really a good thing? 'Love and Rockets' has found a shelf-life as a series of graphic novels, and like Neil Gaiman's 'the Sandman,' it has shifted its identity from a periodical series that has been collected to a series of collections that were once published periodically. These are the realities of the comics market, which is thriving, but in a manner unpredicted by those who used to swear 'Comics aren't just for kids anymore.' While the majority of 'Love and Rocket's individual issues were printed as standard comics, the first handful were published by Fantagraphics as beautiful, magazine-sized volumes.

In 1983's Love and Rocket's # 4, we get an exciting melange of early work by Los Bros. Hernandez. The book is bookended by installments of 'Locas' and 'Palomar' by Jaime and Gilbert respectively. Jaime's rapid development is incredible, as the Milton Caniff and Alex Toth affections are streamlined into a style distinctly Jaime's. Look at the party scene from '100 Rooms.' We can spot female wrestlers, cartoonish dictators and even a women sporting a jumpsuit out of Kirby's Fourth World!

Gilbert's page composition in 'Heartbreak Soup' is looser than his brother's. While Jaime often relies on tight variations of the nine-panel grid, Gilbert's pages sport fewer, wider panels. His composition also finds more room for the truly strange. Sometimes we'll only see the top of a character's head, or the head might even be cut off. Everything is rounded and I'm at a loss to find a comprehensive antecedent - maybe because there isn't one. I am reminded of Jacques Tardi, but with a far greater sense for naturalism. Maybe Jose Munoz as well? There is an architectural eeriness to Gilbert's artwork that approaches the surreal, despite the often earthy content of his stories. Gilbert's shadows are round blotches thrown against walls and dirt yards. Jaime is more likely to use tight shadows defined by their architecture - narrow windows or dark doorways. It's such a lovely aesthetic contrast that it's hard not to believe it's intentional on the part of the brothers. It's also one of the strong arguments for doing the legwork and tracking down these original issues - the reader can experience the interplay of the brothers' work against each other, rather than segregated into separate tomes.

Above is a scan of Gilbert's short story, 'Twitch City.' It is a jarring followup up to '100 Rooms,' which directly precedes it. The Locas epic closes with the skyline of a Latin American ghetto, complete with ragged antenna shooting from the roofs of block buildings. 'Twitch City' opens with a splash page clotted with futuristic skyscrapers all jagged light and shadow. It's a breathtaking transition - the sort that anthologies excel at.

From one city to another.

Gary Groth writes on the inside front cover that "Twitch City" follows in the tradition [Gilbert] began with "Radio Zero" in L & R #2, succinct but devastating commentary on the present hidden masterfully in a tale of the future." That reading strikes me as dishonest. Groth, especially in the early 80s, was prone to ham-fisted and bellicose editorializing. His attempt to position 'Twitch City' as a social parable smacks of an urge towards relevancy.

The Over-Boys, the neighborhood practice of going 'thermo,' president (Brooke) Shields, these are all hilarious red herrings masquerading as world-building detail. We get near-death visions of Frida Kahlo, bio-regenerative booster shots and teenage Nazi parties. What does it add up to? It all builds to a crushing malaise. to a dead time of emotion. Emico, our seventeen year-old protagonist complains "It's all getting so old... all that shit people do for kicks nowadays... it's getting worse, of course... that is, more boring than ever..." And the story ends with Emico having sex with the man-child she earlier saved from the Over-Boys, holding a bowl of cottage cheese and trying. "When I joined the force two years ago, somehow," she thinks, " I thought it would be different..." The final image is loaded, with a number of potential centers. My eye is drawn to the tears trailing down Emico's cheek, as well as the bowl of cottage cheese she awkwardly cups in her hand. But then we see Ito's hand in the lower left corner of the panel, flat on her stomach. It vitalizes everything that came before in the story - the estrangement, the boredom and the dread.

One of the delights of handling back issues is reading the letter pages. I wasn't even born until 1984, so the best way to get some sort of context for this work is via the correspondences and ephemera at the edges of the comics themselves. There are letters from both Scott Hampton, a talented artist with a Franzetta-influenced style who did some excellent work with writer Bruce Jones at Pacific Comics, and Bhob Stewart, who occasionally contributed articles to Heavy Metal in the early 80s when Lou Stathis used to provide (unpopular) music and arts coverage for the magazine. I was especially amused to find a letter from artist Steve Leialoha. Leialoha is an occasionally brilliant artist whose collaboration with Elaine Lee, 'Steeltown Rockers,' is a favorite of mine. 'Steeltown Rockers' is a charming teen comic sometimes reminding me of Archie, and sometimes reminding me of 'Love and Rockets' itself. I always thought the Leialoha of the mini-series was under the spell of Jaime's Locas work. I was glad to see that hunch somewhat substantiated.

Here is the cover to an issue of 'Steeltown Rockers.'

The letter pages on the whole speak more of Gary Groth and the mentality of Fantagraphics in the early 80s than it does of either Los Bros. Hernandez or 'Love and Rockets' itself. His responses are often curt and defensive. At one point he quips, "...things could be worse. We could hire Deni Sim to write our editorials for us." But then, Groth comes off every bit as insouciant as Dave Sim. And I get just as much of a kick out of reading vintage Groth editorials as do Dave Sims'. Groth explains Fantagraphics' "...editorial/ explanatory overkill may be a result of our perception of the direct-sales market as controlled by the four-color comics sheep and of 'Love and Rockets' as bucking this trend." Any early issue of the Comics Journal or Amazing Heroes is littered with such harsh soapbox-ranting about the 'sheep' who dare to enjoy their four-color funnies. But Groth does pinpoint one of the chief causes of such anxiety - the direct market. I could be wrong, but I'm assuming 'Love and Rockets' wasn't sold in the head shops that used to stock 'Dope Comix' or 'Bizarre Sex.' Instead, 'Love and Rockets' could only be found at the direct sales comic store, shelved next to Marvel's direct market titles like Micronauts or Moon Knight. It wouldn't be until the mainstream exposure and acceptance of cartoonists such as Daniel Clowes, Seth and especially Chris Ware that 'Love and Rockets' could be seen in a comfortable context. I can imagine a comic store owner being bewildered how to sell the book when the majority of customers can in on Wednesday looking for the latest issue of Dazzler. He should have just sold them both.


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