Arts + Books

Rockets men

Brown showcases the comix world of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez
February 7, 2007 11:18:00 AM
REALIST SAGAS: The Hernandez’s ambitious stories broke ground by focusing on women in Latino milieus.
In 1982, two brothers from Oxnard, California, 60 miles northwest of LA, self-published the first issue of a comic they called Love and Rockets. It began as science fiction shenanigans, but it has grown to be one of the greatest realist comic book sagas ever.
“It’s been going so long, there are people who are doing comics like we did that never even read us,” Jaime Hernandez tells me at the opening of “Sex, Love & Rockets” on Monday night. “They’re copying the guys who copied us.”
The exhibit at Providence’s John Nicholas Brown Center serves as a primer to Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez’s Love and Rockets comics, which ran through 1996 and then started up again in 2001. But, disappointingly, there are no original drawings here.
The Hernandez brothers, now in their late 40s, grew up in a Mexican-American home full of comics (beloved by their mom and older brother Mario, who has occasionally participated in Love and Rockets) and rock and roll. A brother was in an early punk band. And Gilbert and Jaime immersed themselves in the local punk scene.
“That’s kind of what gave us the courage ourselves, to do it our way,” Jaime says. This do-it-yourself punk ethos continues to influence comics, and was central to the zine and mini comics boom of the ’90s, which in turn was key to the blossoming of the medium as an art form, as a place for personal expression.
The Brown Center show, organized by a quintet of Brown grad students led by professor Ralph Rodriguez, suggests the punk milieu with a faux punk living room set on a pedestal: a television with an anarchy symbol taped to the side shows a punk band playing, coffee cups and comic books are strewn across a table in front of a beat-up easy chair, punk music blares. Concert photos by Providence’s Richard McCaffrey of the Dead Kennedys, Sid Vicious, and Deborah Harry hang to one side.
The gallery walls are wallpapered with overlapping photocopies of Love and Rockets pages and rock concert fliers. Enlarged reproductions of Love and Rockets pages and individual panels are blown up to poster size and stuck on top, bordered by blue electrical tape. Wall text points out major themes.
Gilbert’s Heartbreak Soup is an epic tale of political strife, crime, love, and lust in a richly realized fictional small Central American town called Palomar. It’s centered around multiple generations of women from a single family — tough gals who survive because of their smarts. Some have compared it to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s stories, but it reminds me more of Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, only here we’re talking about a Godmother, the hammer-wielding Luba, whom we watch grow from scrappy little squirt to skinny adolescent girlfriend of an aging gangster to a fiercely independent matriarch with bags under her eyes.
Jamie’s Locas stories tell of Mexican-American Maggie, her pal and sometimes lover Hopey, and friends drifting through his invented Southern California barrio Hoppers. He expertly portrays the wild goofing off, the awkward conversations, the quiet hurts between people just going about their lives — parties, hanging out, rock shows, touring with bands.
The underground comics revolution led by Robert Crumb in the 1960s opened up many new vistas for comics, but the result was mainly new looks rather than new ways of telling stories. The brothers are both master draftsmen. Jaime’s black-and-white drawings are all cool, clean lines. Gilbert’s line is more varied and expressionistic. But they put their drawing chops in the service of ambitious stories that also broke ground by focusing on women in Latino milieus.
“Luckily we’ve never been pigeonholed [as Latino artists], but every once I a while we put things in the comic to remind people,” Jaime says. The show includes a Gilbert page about Luba gussying up her family to have their picture taken by a passing-through white photojournalist, who has picked her out because she looks so authentically downtrodden. “It’s important to us to let people know that we are different. Instead of: why don’t people accept that we’re all the same in this world; no, why don’t people accept that we’re all different and that’s okay.”
From the start the brothers’ main characters were curvy ladies. “It probably goes back to drawing them in high school, getting hot and bothered drawing pictures of girls,” Jaime says. But these women developed nuanced personalities. “I felt there was a responsibility that I had to back it up, they couldn’t just be curves on paper.” They’re constantly testing how women are seen and the roles they can have in society. Jaime’s Maggie is a mechanic with a wrestler aunt. His women play hardcore punk. Gilbert’s Palomar is a society run by women. And in both brother’s tales, the women are well in touch with their sexual appetites. This isn’t to say that their women break completely free from the traditional sexualized representations of women in comics. Gilbert’s Luba has enormous breasts that play to male fantasies while also parodying them. But one of the remarkable things has been to watch the characters age: Luba fills out and sags, Maggie gains and looses weight.
For much of the ’80s, the Hernandez brothers had alternative comics much to themselves, which helped their achievement stand out and influence other cartoonists. By the ’90s, though, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Dan Clowes’s surreal Eightball books, and Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library had pushed beyond the Hernandez brothers’ work in terms of narrative realism. The brothers’ frequent campiness, a reflection of their catholic love of the medium, came to seem part of the old low-brow comics trappings that the most ambitious cartoonists were abandoning. And their work got a bit lost in the wealth of alternative comics that the brothers helped inspire.
The show touches on the comic Jaime serialized in The New York Times Magazine last year, which is generally seen as a dud, but mostly ignores the brothers’ work since they restarted the series. They don’t have the direct and apparent influence they once had, but recent massive collections Locas (2004) and Palomar (2003) confirmed the scale of their achievement. They remain rare non-white voices in comics and still one of the few places where women are the leads. The characters have grown up beside their creators. “We treat it like it’s home,” Jaime says, “like it’s family, like they’re relatives.”

“Sex, Love, And Rockets: The Comix World Of Los Bros Hernandez" at the John Nicholas Brown Center | 357 benefit street in Providence | through March 2

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