For my post-semester decompression read, I’ve been working my way through all the post-volume-1 Jaime Hernandez Love and Rockets stories. (Although I have the new, squat, streamlined collections, I read all this material in the older hardbacks — maybe just to convince myself that this wasn’t as big a commitment as I thought it was?) A few thoughts here, for possible future elaboration. Spoilers:
1. I first read these stories piecemeal and out-of-order, which contributed to my sense that, until the material recently collected as The Love Bunglers, there wasn’t much direction or coherence in these tales. In particular, I remembered the Penny Century series as being a bunch of good, if lightweight, hangout stories plus the great Maggie’s-secret-marriage issue at the end. Reading them together and in order is a different experience — though not entirely. One of Jaime’s strengths is to make it feel like you’re just puttering along in his world, killing time with familiar characters, checking in on the old haunts, drinking in the linework — and then a sudden, vertiginous shift in perspective lets you look back at your trail and see the intricate pattern you didn’t even know you were tracing.
2. Penny Century (the series) was my first encounter with Jaime’s work, so it didn’t really register with me then that this (plus the Color Fun Special) was the first time readers were getting a close look at Maggie and Hopey together after their apparent happily-ever-after at the end of volume 1. Knowing that now helps throw a little dread and anxiety over scenes where they act awkward or hostile to each other without clear motivation.
3. I just taught several selections from The Girl from HOPPERS, including “Flies on the Ceiling,” to my undergrads, so the rematch between Izzy and the Devil in Ghost of Hoppers landed hard. And the whole sequence with Maggie as the ghost that haunts her own life is beautifully done, a version of the same trick he pulls at the end of Penny Century that reaches back to some of the earliest stories and makes it seem inevitable that she’d arrive at this point. (More on this later.)
4. Jaime’s long game also paid off in my re-read of The Love Bunglers. The only bum note that those stories struck the first time I read them was Reno’s infatuation with Maggie. It felt like a case of creeping Poochyism, as though Jaime felt like we needed another character to tell us how Maggie is just the greatest. I still think that’s a little overplayed, but it helps to see Reno and Maggie moving in each other’s orbit and talking about their chaste childhood liaison from very early in the post-vol 1 material.
5. Jaime’s boldest move is to emphasize that Ray Dominguez, arguably an aspirational viewpoint/identification character for a lot of the book’s sensitive straight-guy fans in volume 1, has become something of a passive, self-pitying slouch. Actually, I don’t know if he’s showing us that Ray has become this way as much as he is revealing that Ray was kind of always this way. He’s handsome, decent, affable, reasonably charming — and a total passenger in his own life, wallowing out a comfortable rut with whatever shockingly attractive girlfriend comes his way until she decides to leave, drifting through life with no particular direction or desire. Ray’s artistic ambitions have always been the thing that separated him (geographically and metaphorically) from his Hoppers cronies — and so it’s a big deal for Jaime to reveal Ray as a pedestrian, uninspired artist. Okay, let’s be more charitable: maybe he’s someone who is, at this point in his life, making pedestrian, uninspired art. But either way — surely we’re not meant to be impressed by the spinning nude badminton women thing, right? Maggie isn’t. That’s a tough moment between them at the gallery. I legitimately felt embarrassed for ol’ Ray in that scene.
6. Along those lines, I love how Ray’s first-person narration casts him as a noir protagonist, down on his luck and all but invisible, buffeted by forces that he can’t understand, caught up in an existential mystery whose answers elude him. Of course that’s how Ray sees himself! That attitude is enormously seductive. There’s something romantic about flitting mothlike from one neon light to the next on the mean streets of the hidden city — especially if you can get Jaime Hernandez to draw you doing it. But Jaime simultaneously makes clear how that attitude barely covers up a whole lot of anger and self-loathing, which comes to the surface every now and then — Ray actually complains about Vivian putting him in the friendzone at one point! And yet: despite highlighting this less attractive side of his personality, Jaime still manages to keep Ray’s essentially decent nature in focus.
7. Granted, there’s an arc here. Ray gradually comes to some awareness of the fact that he’s let his life get away from him. And he does decide to exert some meaningful agency in the world when he gets out of his car to help Calvin — and he gets a traumatic brain injury for his trouble. (So hey, maybe there’s something to be said about just letting yourself float along on life’s rushing currents.) But man, a lot depends on how you read that ending. What’s Ray been doing all day? If the answer is “sitting in the dark” or “watching television,” then in some ways that conclusion is like a reward for Ray’s worst self: Maggie is as much his caretaker as his lover, and his injury release him from all responsibility, even the responsibility to do the dishes. But — if he forgot to do the dishes because he’s consumed by some new art project … that’s a different conclusion. And Jaime’s brilliance is to leave us suspended between those possibilities, at least for a few years.
(8. Side note, on that justly celebrated two-page spread of Maggie and Ray through the ages. I’ve been struggling to figure out what it reminds me of, and I finally remembered. Did you ever go to a wedding where they have set out pictures of the bride and groom from childhood through adulthood? From when they were kids who didn’t know each other (or maybe did but were indifferent to each other) to their early dating days to their engagement photo? It creates a sense of inevitability and destiny. But of course that’s nonsense. Left out are all the people that either member of the happy couple dated along the way — it would be weird to have them in there, right? But if either person getting married had ended up with someone else, the same kind of narrative could have been constructed, with the same sense of inevitability and destiny. I don’t really think Jaime is using that spread to try to convince us that Maggie and Ray are “soulmates,” blech — but there is a temptation to read it that way. It’s important not to succumb to it, though. Jaime drew this spread; he didn’t discover it. I think he knows that, and we should, too.)
9. So I’ve been thinking a lot about Ng Suat Tong’s wonderful piece on The Love Bunglers in this regard, especially its cautionary catalog of the false resolutions that litter Jaime’s stories. And it makes me hopeful. I’m excited to see Jaime take Maggie and Ray anywhere next.