Monday, March 29, 2010

Love and Rockets: The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S

I knew I’d seen the work of one or all of the Hernandez brothers before (Jaime, Gilbert, and Mario) on the shelves of the Center for Southwest Research where I worked throughout my undergrad years. I’m embarrassed to say I think the particular collection that featured the Love & Rockets characters was an anthology of risqué Hispanic comics! Not only was The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S easy to fall into and utterly addictive, I think it’s one of the best graphic novel collections I’ve ever read.

I shouldn’t have started with the second volume, though I’ll grant you that. The main characters are Maggie and Esperanza “Hopey” (Colombian and Scottish, as it turns out), a pair of girls out of high school, drifting, on the periphery of the punk scene in LA in the 1980s. (Hopey plays bass in a punk band, Maggie is in and out of jobs.) Around these two is a colorful kaleidoscope of characters, all in various degrees crazy, and living in the mostly-Hispanic surburb/barrio of Hoppers or Dairytown. Colorful in personalities, but not literally: Hernandez’ is a magnificent style in pen and ink that presages manga and hails back to the graphic design of the 1950s. I really admire his ability to capture expression, body types, in the narrative and really marry the drawings to the script. He was largely self-taught, coming out of the LA punk scene himself, and his work is just amazing (hence why Love & Rockets is now considered a modern classic).

The world of Hoppers really plays around with time, which is how we get a look into female pro-wrestling from the 1960s at the beginning of the book, and end with a surreal trip by battered mystic Izzy to Mexico in some indefinable period. Because Maggie’s aunt Vicki is an ageing wrestling star, we see a lot of the stories of Vicki and her rival and Maggie’s friend Rena (Queenie). A particularly poignant one involves India Chala, “The Little Monster”: “Ever since she was very young, she always had her share of humiliation, even from her own family. She was put in carnival sideshows to help out the family financially because that’s all they felt she was good for.” Through the wrestlers we meet Maggie, Hopey, and Izzy, and eventually their friends in Hoppers, “locos and locas.” It’s a tangled web these kids weave, all the way from 18 to the older generation, such as Terry Downe, Hopey’s bandmate and sometimes-lover. (Actually, give Hopey any girl and she’s likely to “j’g” her. The lesbian fetishists are in for a field day.)

I identify in some ways with Maggie (Locas 8:01 AM begins with Maggie strutting in her underwear in front of the mirror, examining all the weight she’s gained) and in a weird way, the land where words like “Tia” and “Holmes, eh” (TERRY: What’s a tee-ah?”) are bandied about feel familiar, a lot like . . . well . . . home. The scenes of Dairytown look just like downtown Albuquerque. The multiculturalism is expressed in a totally unsentimental way:
DANITA: Maggie, how come you Meskins always gotta look like you wanna get revenge on somebody?
MAGGIE: That’s ‘cause we get ourselves stuck in shitty jobs like this one.

This volume sees the return of Ray D., my favorite character if I’m honest, who got out of Hoppers, pretending to go to University when he was actually living the artist’s life in the big city. Ray is level-headed, artistic, smart, and I’d like to think a fair bit of Hernandez is in him. Problem is, he likes Maggie who likes both Hopey and a cholo she knew from her childhood in Dairytown, Speedy Ortiz (who’s dating her younger sister Esther!). “Hoppers hasn’t changed a bit since I was gone. These guys would kill their best friend over a girl . . . or drugs. Whichever is more important to them.” Ray is the only one who seems to care about the self-destructive element of his own neighbourhood, which comes to a head in La Vida Loca: The Death of Speedy Ortiz. It’s Esther who starts the Dairytown/Hoppers war by “having a boyfriend on both sides.”

This all takes place while Hopey, Terry, and their band (at that point called La Llorona) have “gone East.” As can be expected with their volatile personalities, it all goes to Hell in a handbasket really quickly. Hopey manages to befriend Texas, the drummer from another band, and they keept the car and try to find food and shelter on their way West. Just when things are looking their darkest, Hopey’s eccentric friend Penny shows up—married to a millionaire (her real name is Beatríz Garcia), she has waaaaay more money than sense, though at least Tex and Hopey benefit from her hospitality (with major consequences).

Just when Maggie and Ray finally get together, Vicki takes her niece on tour with her. Maggie tries to use the time on tour to find Hopey (in the days before the internet and cell phones) and Vicki hightails it to Vegas to get married! By the time Maggie is back in Hoppers, she and Ray are a genuine item. Possibly my favorite story is Boxer, Bikini, or Brief, where Ray tries to paint Maggie (“I’d sure like to do a full body portrait. Actually I’d love to do an ‘odalisque’ of Maggie, but I’d likely get slapped or laughed at for just mentioning it.”) Tear it Up, Terry Downe is a really sad story that charts how first Terry, then Hopey got passed off from one drug dealer to the next, and explains some of Terry and Hopey’s devotion to each other, and rather anti-social behavior!

There are some really fun ventures into alternate styles with Lil Ray and the Gang clearly influenced by Dennis the Menace and The Adventures of Maggie the Mechanic more of a Marvel superhero comic. And the conclusion of the tale, rather predictably, sees Maggie choosing Hopey over Ray. Alas.

A final consequence is that I really, really wanted to draw some comics of my own after reading this.
Contrastingly, Batman: The Black Casebook was pretty disappointing. It’s a collection of odd stories that Grant Morrison used as inspiration for his Batman: R.I.P. arc. They are from the ‘50s and ‘60s and while some have a glimmer of curiosity, rather in tone like The Daleks’ Masterplan, overall they’re a bit embarrassing really! Especially in the case of Batman- Indian Chief (1954) and Batman Meets the Bat-Mite (1959).

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