Summertime with the Amazing Heroes swimsuit special

It’s the end of August and summer is winding down.  Yes, technically it doesn’t actually end until September 23rd.  However, the unofficial end of the summer season here in the States is Labor Day, which is only a week away.  Most people regard these as the closing days of summer.

So before all the kiddies return to school I wanted to end the summer with an appropriate post.  Let’s cast our eyes back to 1988 and the pages of Amazing Heroes #138, their second annual swimsuit issue.

For younger readers, Amazing Heroes was published by Fantagraphics between 1981 and 1992.  It featured in-depth articles and interviews on both mainstream comic books and the ever-growing independent scene.  For most of its existence Amazing Heroes was edited by Kim Thompson.

Amazing Heroes had a few swimsuit editions in the late 1980s and early 90s.  Unlike many of the comic book swimsuit specials that would follow from other publishers that were tacky T&A fests, Amazing Heroes approached theirs with tongue planted firmly in cheek.  A diverse selection of artists contributed to their specials.

Amazing Heroes 138 cover signed

The cover to Amazing Heroes #138 is penciled by the legendary Neal Adams and inked by Art Nichols.  It features four lovely ladies from Adams’ creator-owned Continuity Studios books.  I’m not familiar with the gals in the middle.  But on the left is Ms. Mystic and on the right is Samuree.  I always chuckle at this one.  In the Ms. Mystic series the title character’s costume is always rendered by Adams with zip-a-tone.  So the joke here is that, in lieu of a swimsuit, Ms. Mystic is wearing an actual sheet of zip-a-tone to the beach.

I got this autographed by Adams recently.  It’s a lovely piece by him, a playfully sexy pin-up illustration.  I hope one of these days Adams collects his creator-owned material into trade paperbacks.  I feel that is an often-overlooked aspect of his career.

Here’s a look at just a few of my favorites from the many great pin-ups featured in Amazing Heroes #138…

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 31 John Workman Big Barda

John Workman renders Big Barda of Jack Kirby’s New Gods in a bikini.  Workman is best known for his extensive work as a letterer, frequently working with Walter Simonson.  But Workman is also a talented artist.  As can be seen from this, he also possesses a great sense of humor.  This is a cute send-up of good girl art, simultaneously sexy and self-deprecating.  That “tapioca pudding” line totally cracks me up.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 38 Hernandez Bros

If you are Fantagraphics and you’re going to do a swimsuit special, certainly you’re going to ask two of your best artists, Love and Rockets co-creators Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez, to contribute a piece.  After all, both brothers are well-regarded for their depictions of the female form.  Of course, Beto and Jaime draw some good looking guys, too.  Here’s a jam piece by Los Bros Hernandez.  On the left is Israel by Gilbert.  On the right is Danita by Jaime.

This pin-up and a great deal of other material that had originally appeared in a variety of places was reprinted in the Hernandez Satyricon trade paperback.  As much as I love Gilbert & Jaime for their very compelling characters & intricate plotting it was also nice to have many of their beautiful pin-ups gathered together in one volume.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 39 Fred Hembeck Ditko Zone

I really enjoy Fred Hembeck’s fun, cartoony artwork.  He is a huge fan of Silver Age comic books, especially the Marvel Comics work of Steve Ditko.  Hembeck has done quite a few loving Ditko homages over the years, including this one, “Surfing in The Ditko Zone.”  It brings a smile to my face seeing Doctor Strange, Clea and the dread Dormammu in swimsuits riding the waves in one of Ditko’s psychedelic alternate dimensions.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 45 Reed Waller Omaha

As I’ve mentioned before, my girlfriend Michele is a fan of Omaha the Cat Dancer by writer Kate Worley and artist Reed Waller.  I’ve never read the series, but Michele has all of the collected editions, so one of these days I’ll sit down and immerse myself in it.  Omaha is an exotic dancer / stripper, and the book is definitely for mature readers.  The series was partly created as a protest against censorship.  It perfect makes sense that Waller would draw Omaha as “Ms. First Amendment” here.  It’s a beautiful illustration.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 72 Bo Hampton

In the late 1980s Eclipse Comics was publishing their revival of the Golden Age aviator hero Airboy written by Chuck Dixon.  The talented Bo Hampton was one of the artists who worked on it.  For this swimsuit issue Hampton renders Airboy / Davy Nelson III, the near-mindless swamp monster known as the Heap, and the femme fatale Valkyrie at the beach.  I always chuckle at the sight of the Heap in a pair of swim trunks!

IDW is currently reprinting Eclipse’s Airboy in a series of trade paperbacks.  I recommend getting them.  They contain excellent writing and artwork.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 84 Evan Dorkin

Here’s a great pin-up of the whole crew from Evan Dorkin’s irreverent creator-owned series Pirate Corp$ / Hectic Planet jamming at the beach.  It always amazes me at the insane amount of detail, as well as the just plain insanity, Dorkin always manages to pack into his artwork.  He draws a huge crowd of characters and successfully invests each one with an individual personality.  Dorkin is definitely one of the most talented and underrated comic book creators around.

In the late 1990s Slave Labor Graphics released three trade paperback collections of Hectic Planet.  You can find them on Amazon at affordable prices.  Again, I recommend them.  Dorkin did good work in those stories.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 81 Bruce Patterson original

Bringing things to a close, here is a scan of the original art for a pin-up of Purity Brown and Nemesis the Warlock from the pages of 2000 AD drawn by Bruce Patterson.  As an inker, Patterson has worked with a diverse number of pencilers.  This piece demonstrates Patterson is also able to do extremely good work on his own.  Purity Brown of course looks damn sexy in her black bikini.  As for Nemesis, there’s comedy gold in seeing the alien chaos lord clad in a black Speedo holding a beach ball.

I won this on Ebay in the late 1990s.  Only a couple other people bid on it, so I got it for an amazingly low price.  I owned it for almost 20 years before eventually selling it to another collector when I had some bills I had to pay.  The art board Patterson drew on had warped a bit by the time it made its way into my hands, but it still looked great.  This is a piece that I feel, due to the subtle shading Patterson utilized, did not reproduce especially well on black & white newsprint.

Older fans often look back at the demise Amazing Heroes in 1992 as an unfortunate setback to serious journalism on the industry.  I think that’s a valid argument.  Even more so when you consider that following in Amazing Heroes’ footsteps was Wizard Magazine.  If Amazing Heroes was the New York Times of comic book reporting then Wizard was definitely the NY Post!

Many of the old Amazing Heroes issues can be found on Ebay for low prices.  They’re well worth picking up for the interviews and the in-the-moment examination of the dramatic changes the comic book industry underwent throughout the 1980s.  And, of course, you also had fun features like their swimsuit specials.

Comic book reviews: Love and Rockets New Stories #7

Ever since Love and Rockets by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez switched to the annual New Stories format, every issue has come out around September… until now.  September 2014 came and went, with no Love and Rockets.  Well we finally have a new issue, with Fantagraphics releasing New Stories #7 this month.  Was it worth the wait?  Yep!

Love and Rockets: New Stories #7 features a Jaime Hernandez cover.  That is such a typical Maggie Chascarillo image.  Ever since she started to become curvy in her 20s, Maggie has often stressed over her appearance, worrying that she was fat.  Jaime has always been brilliant at investing his characters with personality & emotion, and his illustration of Maggie speaks volumes.

Love and Rockets New Stories 7 cover

The cover ties in very well with the interior stories.  Maggie and her long-time best friend Hopey Glass are meeting up for the first time in a number of years.  Back in the day the two were inseparable, and on several occasions they tried to have a romantic relationship.  But inevitably those attempts would implode, and leave both of them hurt & angry.

Maggie has been in a relationship with Ray Dominguez for the last several years, helping him recover from a severe brain injury.  Hopey married her girlfriend Sadaf, and the two of them had a child together.  Even though Maggie and Hopey have been on their separate paths for some time, now that they’ve met up for a reunion of their friends in Hoppers inevitably the old attraction between the two begins to simmer beneath the surface.

When Love and Rockets started out over 30 years ago, Maggie and Hopey were teens, which would make them now both in their late 40s, I should guess.  Jaime does excellent work is this issue showing how the two of them react to at the various changes to each other’s lives, and to their old home town.  Maggie and Hopey both begin to realize that sometimes you can’t go home again, both literally and figuratively.

Jaime peeks in on Ray from time to time.  It’s a measure of how much Jaime is able to make his readers care about his characters that I was genuinely relieved to see Ray on the mend from his injuries. Likewise, the anxiety that Ray feels is palpable.  As much as he knows that he and Maggie love each other, he also recognizes the feelings that Maggie and Hopey have.  It is understandable that he is genuinely worried he could lose Maggie.

We also check back in with Tonta.  Her and her dysfunctional siblings are still dealing with the fallout of her mother going on trial for killing her husband.  Even though their mother was acquitted, the rest of the family realizes that she actually did do it, and are struggling with how to cope with this.  Tonta’s sister Violet is very ineffectually trying to shield Tonta from it.  Fed up with the drama at home, Tonta keeps running away to hang out with her friends.

Finally, Jaime gives us an all-too-brief update on Angel Rivera, who is both Maggie’s friend and Tonta’s former high school coach.  Hopefully we will see more of Angel in the next installment.  She is a fun character, and I want to find out how her current difficulties resolve themselves.

Love and Rockets New Stories 7 pg 15

In his half of New Stories #7, Gilbert Hernandez once again looks at the various members of his extended cast, taking a multi-generational journey through the decades.  Gilbert, like Jaime, touches upon the passing of time, of how people and places change.

Anchoring the story in the present day is Killer.  Through her latest trip to Palomar, we see how that community has both stayed the same and change.  On the one hand, there is the now-adult Theo, still gathering buckets of slugs to sell in the village, much as he did many years past with the late Tonantzín.  Theo even alludes to her, and seeing Killer in his company you are struck by the similarities between the two.

On the other, cell phones and iPads are now commonplace in Palomar, a place that only a decade or so in the past didn’t even have telephone land lines.  Witnessing one of the town’s teens watching a movie on a handheld device, Killer wistfully observes “My grandma used to have a movie theater here. Now you all watch movies that way.”  This she states while holding hammer in hand, standing in a manner very much like her grandmother Luba.

It is interesting that the character of Killer sees Gilbert moving his stories forward towards the future, chronicling the latest generation.  Yet aspects of Killer invariably evoke Luba, Gilbert’s iconic protagonist from Love and Rockets series one.  Killer appears to embody one of the central themes of Gilbert’s writing, the idea that while time inevitably marches on the events of the past will still continue to influence the present.

Inspired by her great-grandmother Maria and her great-aunt Fritz, Killer is still doing work as an actress, although for her it is just a hobby, something that is fun.  She really just wants to lead an ordinary life.  Consequently, Killer is very alarmed when, much like Fritz before her, she finds that she has gained a few extremely obsessive fans.

I wonder if Gilbert was influenced by his own experiences as an acclaimed comic book creator.  Obviously something like 99.9% of Love and Rockets fans are relatively sane, reasonable, well-adjusted people who understand & respect boundaries.  But then there’s that 0.1% you have to watch out for, the ones who probably lurk about eBay trying to find an auction for one of Gilbert’s half-eaten sandwiches that someone retrieved from the garbage at the San Diego Comic Con!

In my review of New Stories #6 I wrote “I never had too much sympathy for Maria in the past.  But thinking it over, I realize that Maria was a flawed woman who led a difficult life, and who did change over time.”  Gilbert returns to his examination of Maria, examining her gradual development over time via a series of moments set through the years entitled “Daughters and Mothers and Daughters.”

As we see Maria with Fritz, first when she was an infant and then a teenager, it is apparent that her Maria really did love her.  Maria made many mistakes, including when it came to how she raised Fritz.  But underneath it all, for all her stumbles, Maria did at least try with Fritz and Petra to be the mother she never was to Luba.

There is a brief scene, some years in the past, where we see Luba’s daughter Doralis, after moving to the United States, discovered Maria.  Doralis asks “Grandma, why don’t you want me to tell anybody in the family about you? My mama and my sisters and brother would love to know that I found you.”  With resignation, Maria responds “No, Doralis. I’m happy that you and I happened upon each other, but… no… it’s too late Doralis. Promise me you won’t tell anybody that we’ve met.”

This is a sad moment.  Maria genuinely believes that she can never repair the damage between her and Luba, make up for the hurt she caused by abandoning her daughter as an infant, and that the past is best left in the past.

Love and Rockets New Stories 7 pg 24

Gilbert also devotes part of the issue to one of his movies-within-the-comic-book.  “The Magic Voyage of Aladdin” is one of Fritz’s B-movies, this one co-starring Mila, one of the women who married motivational speaker / con artist Mark Herrera after Fritz divorced him.  As always, I’m left wondering if there is some sort of hidden meaning and subtle subtext to Gilbert’s “movies” or if he’s just having fun sending up genre conventions.  Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

(For the full details of Fritz’s relationship with Mark, and Mark’s subsequent other disastrous marriages, I recommend picking up the High Soft Lisp trade paperback published by Fantagraphics in 2010.)

Interestingly, Jaime follows Gilbert’s lead with his own movie-within-the-comic-book.  “Princess Animus” is a pulpy, sexy space opera that turns out to be the movie that Maggie and Hopey have been attempting to catch a screening of in the early pages of the issue.

Once again clocking in at 100 pages, the latest edition of Love and Rockets: New Stories has a wealth of material from both of the Hernandez brothers.  Jaime and Gilbert continue to develop their large casts of characters and unfold numerous plotlines in an intriguing manner.  And the artwork from both of them is gorgeous.

Comic book reviews: Love and Rockets New Stories #6

This one’s a bit late!  Love and Rockets: New Stories #6 by Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez came out this past September, and Michele bought it right away.  I ended up procrastinating taking a look at it.  And then when I did want to read it, I couldn’t remember where the hell I’d put it!  Well, I finally found it a few days ago.  So here, at last, is a look at the 2013 edition of Love and Rockets.

Love and Rockets New Stories 6 cover

Gracing the cover of New Stories #6 is Killer, the sexy granddaughter of Gilbert Hernandez’s longtime protagonist Luba.  Within his half of this issue, Gilbert successfully looks to the future, while at the same time acknowledging the past.  The fact that the teenage Killer is depicted clutching Luba’s iconic hammer is an apt symbol for how the young character successfully straddles present day and earlier years.  Killer divides her time between California and the Central American village of Palomar, and she has affection for each of these different worlds.  This is a very effective way for Gilbert to write about the next generation of his ongoing saga while maintaining roots with the older characters.

Actually, Killer is much more interested in the past than many of the elders of Palomar.  Killer is fascinated by the stories she’s heard about her late great-grandmother Maria.  Having found a surviving short sequence from a now-lost movie that Maria starred in decades before, Killer wishes to find out much more.  In certain ways she seeks to emulate her great-grandmother’s legend.  In contrast, Luba, who was abandoned as an infant by Maria, understandably could not care less.

Gilbert effectively illustrates how someone can be many different people, depending upon who they’ve known, and how they’ve acted, at various points in their life (reminding me of the song “Too Many People” by the Pet Shop Boys).  Through a few brief flashbacks, we even see Maria stating, or perhaps rationalizing, that Luba was better off without her.  I never had too much sympathy for Maria in the past.  But thinking it over, I realize that Maria was a flawed woman who led a difficult life, and who did change over time.  The Maria who gave away Luba is not the same Maria who years later did attempt, in her own imperfect way, to raise her other two daughters, Petra and Fritz.

Killer, as we see in New Stories #6, is actually a very fortunate individual.  Luba never really knew either of her parents.  Luba’s daughters each had varying degrees of difficulty in their relationships with her.  Killer, while her parents Guadalupe and Hector may be divorced, still has both of them in her life, offering her their love & support.  In a way, Killer is a glimpse at the woman Luba might have become if she’d had a more stable, loving upbringing.  Killer is confident and independent like her grandmother, but she is also, despite a seemingly impregnable exterior, much more capable of establishing friendships with and ties to other people.

Love and Rockets New Stories 6 pg 52

Over in Jaime Hernandez’s portion of New Stories #6, the focus returns to Tonta, the teenage half-sister of Vivian “Frogmouth” Solis who was first introduced last issue.  As a reader, I felt that I didn’t really get to know Tonta all that well in her debut.  But, as I observed in my write-up of New Stories #5, just as it took Jaime time to develop Maggie, so too it was likely that it would also be a gradual process of witnessing Tonta grow as a character.  Indeed, she had a much stronger presence in New Stories #6, and I found myself becoming interested in her, invested in her story.

Last time I also commented that I hoped Jaime would bring Maggie’s friend Angel back, involving her in Tonta’s life.  Well, that is exactly what occurs, as Tonta is introduced to her high school’s new physical education instructor, Coach Angel Rivera.  And despite joining the hallowed halls of academia, Angel is still wild at heart, secretly moonlighting as a masked wrestler on the weekends.

We also get a close look at Tonta’s family life, meeting her mother and several of her other siblings.  And, oh boy, I’m starting to understand how Vivian turned out to be such a nut job!  Tonta’s family is so incredibly dysfunctional that they make Maggie Chascarillo’s childhood look like a portrait of sanity in comparison!  By the end of New Stories #6, I was really feeling for Tonta, as her already-screwy family splintered completely apart.  The teenager is left sadly wandering through half-remembered reminiscences of when she was a little girl, before everything in her life became horribly complicated by betrayal and insanity.

Those last few melancholy pages of New Stories #6 definitely left me wondering what’s in store for Tonta in the future.  At times like this, the annual format of New Stories is frustrating.  Part of me wishes that I did not have to wait until September for Fantagraphics to publish the next issue.  Of course, that is the mark of great creators, leaving you wanting to find out what happens next.  Jaime and Gilbert certainly possess that ability.

Love and Rockets New Stories 6 pg 31

Actually, I find it interesting to compare and contrast the work of the two brothers.  There are, inevitably, certain similarities.  But there are also undoubtedly very distinctive qualities to each of their individual writing and art.  In a way, it is almost like looking at Kirby and Ditko side by side.  They were the two preeminent Marvel superhero artists of the 1960s, but in very different ways.  I’ve sometimes likened Jaime to Kirby, and Gilbert to Ditko, in regards to the sensibilities of their work.  Jaime is rather more straightforward in his plotting & scripting, and his artwork has a, shall we say, polished look.  Gilbert, on the other hand, often utilizes more offbeat, unconventional narrative structures, and his art style possesses a gritty, quirky mood to it.

Hmmm, okay, I am probably not doing as sufficient a job at articulating this as I want!  But hopefully you will get my point.  In any case, both Gilbert and Jaime do wonderful work in their own unique ways.

After thirty years of Love and Rockets, Los Bros Hernandez are definitely still going strong, creating engaging, thoughtful, moving stories with beautiful artwork.  This one is highly recommended.

Looking back at Love and Rockets series one

I have been meaning to re-read the first series of Love and Rockets by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez for some time now.  The first time I read it was over a nearly decade-long period when I sporadically began picking up the 15 book trade paperback set published by Fantagraphics, which reprinted the contents of the initial 50 issue run.

I first picked up book one, Music for Mechanics, at the 2001 Pittsburgh Comic Con.  I had heard about Love and Rockets a number of times in the past, but had never tried it before.  The Hernandez Brothers were guests at the show, so I decided to start at the beginning with the first collection.  I immediately took a liking to Jaime’s “Mechanics” stories, but the offerings by Gilbert, “BEM” and “Music for Monsters,” were very bizarre, surreal pieces, and I just could not get into them.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later, in 2003, that I next read any more of the series.  St. Marks Comics was having a big sale on everything in their store, so I decided to give Love and Rockets another try.  This time I picked up book six, Duck Feet.  This was my first real exposure to Gilbert’s stories of Luba and the denizens of the Latin American village of Palomar, and I really enjoyed it.  Gilbert’s writing was full of character, containing a distinctive voice, his artwork imbued with real atmosphere.

love and rockets duck feet back cover

As for Jaime’s half of the book, with the stories of Maggie, Hopey and friends in Hoppers, that was also enjoyable.  As much as I liked Jaime’s early works, I was even more intrigued by this material, where he had dropped most of the sci-fi trappings to focus on a contemporary setting and the everyday problems of young adults.  And I also thought that Maggie, as cute as she was as a teenager, became much more attractive & sexy when Jaime began drawing her in her twenties with longer hair & a curvy figure.  That image of Maggie from the back cover of Duck Feet is one of my all time favorite depictions of her.

About a year later, the Hernandez Brothers both returned to the East Coast, as guests at the Big Apple Comic Con in NYC.  That is a really mainstream show, so most of the fans that went were there for whatever Marvel, DC, and Image creators happened to be on hand.  Gilbert and Jaime’s table was not busy, so it gave me the opportunity to chat a bit with them, and to get a drawing by Gilbert in my Beautiful Dreamer sketchbook.  A couple of days after the show, the Brothers did a signing at the Forbidden Planet comic shop by Union Square, and that’s when all the long time readers showed up, lining up around the block.  After all that, I really started to get hooked on Love and Rockets, and so spent the next several years hunting down the remaining collected editions.

The final piece of the puzzle was when I started dating my girlfriend Michele, who has been reading Love and Rockets since she was a teenager, and is a tremendous fan of the Hernandez Brothers.  Finally having someone to talk to these stories about made them even more interesting to me, and offered up an alternative perspective on the characters & events.

For the last few years, once I had all fifteen books, I told myself one day I’d sit down and read them in chronological order.  Both Gilbert and Jaime’s characters age in real time, and there is a definite progression of events as their characters go through life.  Well, two months ago I started a temp assignment at the other end of the city, which meant I was riding the subway at least two and a half hours a day.  With all that time to kill, I thought it was an ideal opportunity to finally re-read Love and Rockets series one from beginning to end.  I decided to go through Gilbert’s stories first, and then return to Jaime’s.

love and rockets poison river

For Gilbert’s contributions, I chose to literally take things in chronological order, first skipping ahead to book twelve, Poison River.  This prequel chronicles the life of Luba from infancy to her arrival in Palomar as a young single mother, with her childhood & teenage years recounted against a backdrop of organized crime and political corruption.  After Poison River, I went back to the beginning, with Gilbert’s first “Heartbreak Soup” tales set in Palomar.  Following Luba and the rest of the mammoth cast of Gilbert’s stories in order, watching them age & develop, was a very interesting, insightful experience.  I definitely got to know them much better this time through, both because I was following events in the order they occurred, and with the benefit of one or more previous readings of the stories to give me deeper insight into their lives & personalities.  Gilbert expertly crafted an almost epic tale that spans across a generation, giving us very real, flawed, dysfunctional characters.

One of my girlfriend’s favorite moments from a Gilbert story is contained in “Duck Feet.”  After Palomar’s nightmarish encounter with a lonely bruja (a sort of witch), Luba contemplates “Don’t know what’d be worse… losing someone where I could never be with them again… or having that someone always close by but having lost them just the same.”  It’s a very introspective moment.  This time around, I was left wondering if Gilbert intended this as a foreshadowing of Luba’s eventual estrangement from her daughters.

love and rockets duck feet pg 58

Jamie’s involvement with Love and Rockets is centered on Maggie, Hopey, their gang of friends, and their families.  Initially there are the aforementioned sci-fi elements, with Maggie working as an assistant mechanic repairing rocket ships and pining for the attentions of prosolar mechanic Rand Race.  These aspects are gradually phased out over the early books, and eventually Maggie and Hopey are very much grounded in reality.

There are exceptions, namely the bombshell Penny Century, who with her wish to become a superhero and her marriage to billionaire H.R. Costigan remains with one foot firmly planted in the fantastic.  There is also Izzy, the woman who first introduced Maggie and Hopey to one another, and who for many years was their close friend.  As with Gilbert, Jaime includes elements of magical realism in his stories, and this manifests in the apparent pursuit of Izzy by the devil, who has an infatuation with the unfortunate woman due to the guilt she carries over having gone through a divorce and an abortion.

I think that one of the key elements of Jaime’s stories is the process of growing up, of maturing, the struggle to become an adult and leave childhood behind.  Maggie and Hopey both have to face the choice of pursuing long-term adult relationships or continuing teenage flings.  A great deal of the tension revolves around whether or not they will continue to be lovers in a dysfunctional relationship, or if each of them will decide to walk away and set down roots in a stable relationship elsewhere.  Other characters face similar choices.  During the events of “The Death of Speedy,” we see the return of Ray Dominguez to Hoppers after several years on the East Coast.  Ray is alarmed to find his old friends, now in their twenties, still acting the part of wannabe gangsters and macho street hoods, unwilling to grow up, ready to start fights with rival gangs at the drop of a hat.  Ray despairs at this, having gained the maturity and worldview to recognize that his friends are on a path of self-destruction

A more humorous look at the struggle between adulthood and immaturity can be seen in the long running feud between professional wrestler Vicky Glori and her former tag team partner, Rena Titanon.  Vicky is Maggie’s aunt, and Rena becomes a close friend of Maggie’s.  Years back, Vicky turned on Rena and cheated (“She used the ropes!”) to take the world championship title from her.  Since then, neither woman has been able to forgive the other.  Much to Maggie’s dismay, each even seems ready to use Maggie as a pawn, with both trying to turn her against the other, leading Maggie to despair at “old ladies playing junior high school games.”  Certainly I can relate, having been in situations where people I’ve known in their thirties and forties still act as if they were teenagers, with all of the accompanying petty jealousies, backstabbing, and selfishness.

love and rockets house of raging women pg 95

I think the relationship between the past and the future is actually a pivotal aspect to both Gilbert and Jaime’s stories.  In Gilbert’s final Palomar tales contained in Luba Conquers the World, Luba’s past comes back to haunt her, and she resolves to set out to close the door on the legacy of her youth.  In the process, she realizes she needs to leave the town of Palomar and move on with her life.  Her future lies elsewhere.  For Jamie’s two protagonists, however, the first series of Love and Rockets appears to end with them much as they began.  While many of Maggie and Hopey’s friends and family have realized it is time to grow up and move on to the next stage of life, the closing pages of Chester Square sees the two women contentedly reunited in the back of a police car, arrested for carrying on as if they were still juvenile delinquents.  For them, at least at this stage, they are happy to stay put and remain who they are.

Of course, both Jaime and Gilbert continued to create material after the conclusion of series one.  So this is certainly not the ending of Maggie, Hopey, and Luba’s stories.  In future series, especially in Jamie’s installments, time does continue to march on, something very much epitomized by the continuing developments of Maggie’s life, and those around her.  But that’s something to discuss in a future blog post!

So, re-reading these Love and Rockets books was definitely a rewarding experience.  I’m now looking forward to moving on to the later stories by the Hernandez Brothers, to once again see what happens next.

Comic book reviews: Love and Rockets New Stories #5

This year’s edition of Love and Rockets: New Stories, written & drawn by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, published by Fantagraphics, came out a few weeks ago.  Here are my thoughts on the 2012 installment of the Hernandez Brothers’ long-running series.

First off: a year is a long time to wait!  Yeah, I realize that each edition of Love and Rockets: New Stories clocks in at one hundred pages each.  But both Jaime and Gilbert have such amazingly well-written (and large) casts of characters, that there’s only so much each of them can cover in even that amount of space.  And each issue of New Stories always leaves me wanting more.  Especially last year’s New Stories #4, which Jaime Hernandez ended with Ray tragically suffering from brain damage after Maggie’s mentally-disturbed brother Calvin hit him over the head with a brick.  As a reader who has been invested in the relationship between Maggie & Ray for years, I desperately wanted to see what happened next.

In his half of New Stories #5, though, Jaime shifts the focus to the infamous Vivian “Frogmouth” Solis and her teenage half-sister Tonta.  The reason for Vivian’s nickname is that, despite looking absolutely gorgeous, she has a mouth like a sailor, and a personality to match.  Vivian is a tough character to get a read on.  I’d really need to re-read her appearances in Love and Rockets volume two in order to jog my memory, but she strikes me as the type who thinks she’s much more competent and invulnerable than she really is.  This leads her getting involved with all manner of people who are no good for her, including some genuinely dangerous individuals.  Especially in this issue, when she’s flirting with a married gangster.  She’s also hiding a handgun in her lingerie drawer as a favor for a street gang who want to murder the aforementioned mobster.  As a result, Vivian really gets in over her head, but she never seems to realize the seriousness of her circumstances, wandering around with self-centered blinders.

Her sister Tonta is presumably part of Jaime’s intention to introduce a new, younger cast of characters.  Since Love and Rockets takes place in real time, the characters age accordingly.  Maggie, Hopey, Ray, and their compatriots are now in their forties, I believe, so Jaime has been introducing a newer generation, first with Maggie’s young friend Angel (who I would love to see more of) and now Tonta.  It’s difficult from this one story to get a feel for Tonta.  In certain respects she reminds me a bit of a young Maggie, living the punk lifestyle, coming from what appears to be a dysfunctional family.  Tonta appears to be a bit more on the naïve side, though.  It did take several years for Jaime to develop Maggie into the multi-faceted character that she would become, so I don’t expect Tonta to blossom fully overnight.  Hopefully we will see more of her in the future, perhaps have her meeting Angel.  I have no idea if they’d become friends, but it would be interesting to see Jaime have his two new young female protagonists get to know each other.

The most heartbreaking part of Jaime’s half of New Stories #5 is a brief three page segment which sees Ray reflecting back on his long friendship with Doyle.  The story is literally drawn from Ray’s point of view, and periodically we get these black panels when his mind goes blank due to his brain damage.  As sad as it is, I’m glad that Jaime did briefly check in with Ray, Maggie and Doyle in this year’s issue, so that we could get a glimpse of what is going on with them.

Love and Rockets: New Stories #5

Over in Gilbert Hernandez’s side of New Stories #5, we have another look at the younger generation, as the sexy Killer takes a vacation in the Central American town of Palomar.  And at long last I’ve finally figured out who exactly Killer is related to.  Her grandmother is Luba, and her grandfather is Heraclio, and so Killer’s mother is Guadalupe, the daughter Luba had after a one-time seduction of a then-teenage Heraclio.  Glad we have that sorted out, although my girlfriend, who has been a Love and Rockets fan for a lot longer than me, claims she knew it all along!  In any case, it was great to see all of the rich back story of Gilbert’s Palomar stories alluded to, and to catch up on the current state of the town & its residents, through the perspective of Killer.  The whole trip had a poignant quality to it.  It also offered Gilbert the opportunity to explore a different side of Killer, as we see her discovering her heritage.  Before this, she seemed a rather aloof, indifferent individual to me, but New Stories #5 shows a warmer, sentimental side to her personality.

Interspaced between Killer’s explorations of Palomar are scenes from one of her great-aunt Fritz’s B-movie art-house films, “Proof That the Devil Loves You.”  Set in a fictionalized version of Palomar, Fritz plays a character that is across between Luba and Tonantzin, the fried babosa vendor who killed herself in an act of self-immolation at the end of Blood of Palomar.  “Proof That the Devil Loves You” is actually produced by Pipo, who seems to be using the film to express her feeling for Palomar.  She holds a lot of ire towards town sheriff Chelo, who in the film is portrayed as a dictatorial brat who marches about barking orders and abusing her authority.

As with many of Gilbert’s movie-within-the-story sequences, there is a certain amount to “Proof That the Devil Loves You” that is nebulous and open to interpretation.  I sometime have an ambivalent relationship with Gilbert’s adaptations of Fritz’s movies.  They can be very thought-provoking and atmospheric works, and Gilbert often excels at exercising his illustrative & storytelling abilities in them.  On the other hand, attempting to discern the meanings of the surreal events of those narratives can be very frustrating.  The difference this time around in New Stories #5 is that Gilbert is drawing clear parallels between the “real” events of his story and the “fictional” occurrences of his film, making its meaning somewhat less obscured.  That said, I still feel that there is plenty that is open to interpretation, and (as always) additional readings may reveal further layers.

In any case, New Stories #5 has certainly made me more interested in the character of Killer, and I look forward to Gilbert exploring her further in future volumes of the series.

All in all, Love and Rockets: New Stories #5 was a solid read, with quality writing & artwork from both Jaime and Gilbert.  This time around, Gilbert’s contributions slightly edged out Jaime’s as my favorites, but I was satisfied with each of their efforts.  I’m looking forward to re-reading New Stories #5 again soon, to get a different perspective on it, and maybe I’ll take a look at the preceding editions of the New Stories beforehand, as well.  With both Gilbert and Jaime, often the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, and reading several issues together will give you a much clearer focus on characters & events.

So, once again I now have to wait yet another year for the next edition of Love and Rockets.  Torture, I tell you, sheer torture!

Comic books I’m reading, part three: independent titles

It’s the Fourth of July, American Independence Day, and so today I’m going to do a rundown of what independent comic books I’ve been reading recently.  For the purposes of simplicity, I’m just going to consider anything that is not Marvel or DC as an independent.  And I’ll be covering graphic novels in a later post, because otherwise this one is going to be way too long!

I’ve already written an in-depth review of The Grim Ghost before, but I wanted to mention it again.  Written by Tony Isabella, with artwork from Kelley Jones & Eric Layton, for my money The Grim Ghost was the best superhero comic book of 2011.  This six issue miniseries published by Atlas Comics unfortunately ran into some distribution problems with the final issue.  As I’ve heard it, Diamond Distributors decided to cancel (or, as they would say, “re-solicit”) the shipping orders for a number of small companies at the end of last year, so that they could focus their resources on sending out the copious amounts of DC’s New 52 titles that were being ordered by comic shops.  That’s the problem when it comes to dealing with a monopoly, folks, you’re at the mercy of decisions like that.  Anyway, I was eventually able to obtain a copy of #6 by ordering it online from the Atlas Comics website.  It was a great conclusion to a fantastic story.

Grim Ghost 2 cover

As I’ve posted before on this blog, I’m currently following Erik Larsen’s long-running Savage Dragon and his revival of Supreme, both published by Image Comics.  Larsen is one of my favorite comic book creators, a total fountain of colorful characters & imaginative ideas, and I really look forward to seeing what he does next on each of these titles.

Additionally, there is another pair of books from Image, written by Joe Keatinge, that I’m reading.  The first is the re-launch of Rob Liefeld’s Glory, which Keatinge is doing with Ross Campbell.  The other is a brand new series, Hell Yeah, with artist Andre Szymanowicz.  That one is really interesting, as it looks at “the first generation raised in a world where superheroes exist,” to quote Keatinge himself.  The protagonist, Benjamin Day, learns that across myriad alternate realities, other versions of him are being murdered.  The identity of the killer is revealed within the first few issues, so it’s not a whodunit but rather a “whydunit,” so to speak.  Keatinge’s writing is very riveting, and I cannot wait to find out what happens next.  The artwork by Szymanowicz is very well done, having the feel of something out of Heavy Metal.

Steve Mannion is an artist with this incredibly wacky, zany, sexy art style.  His work is somewhat reminiscent of EC Comics, both Wally Wood’s sci-fi spectacles and the offbeat humor of Mad Magazine.  I first discovered Mannion’s artwork when he drew an utterly baffling, but nevertheless very funny, issue of Captain America about twelve years ago.  Mannion went the self-publishing route for a while, but in recent years he’s had his books coming out through Asylum Press.  His signature character, Fearless Dawn, has been featured in several books.  The most recent have been Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp and Fearless Dawn in Outer Space.  I haven’t had an opportunity to pick up the second of these yet, but The Secret of the Swamp was an insane riot, just lots of crazy fun.  Mannion continues to grow as an artist, and I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp
Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp

Over at IDW, there are a few licensed titles I’ve been picking up.  The main one is G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, written by Larry Hama.  That’s the series which continues the continuity from the original comics published by Marvel back in the 1980s and 90s.  It seems like Hama is having a lot of fun writing this book, and it’s definitely an exciting read.  I’ve also been picking up some of the Doctor Who books, which do a good job of capturing the feel of the series.  Right now IDW is publishing the improbable but entertaining Star Trek / Doctor Who: Assimilation miniseries, which has beautiful painted artwork by J.K. Woodward.  This one is more of a natural fit than you might think, as the Borg are really pretty much the Cybermen with a bigger budget.  So it makes sense to combine those two cyborg menaces, and then have the crews of the Enterprise and the TARDIS come together to confront them.

IDW is also publishing Godzilla.  I bought the first few issues of their initial title, Kingdom of Monsters.  That had nice art, but the writing just never clicked for me, and I ended up selling them on Ebay.  I was much more impressed with the five issue miniseries Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths, written by John Layman, with artwork by Alberto Ponticelli.  That was an incredibly deft blending of the kaiju genre with a noir hardboiled crime story.  Layman wrote some very compelling human characters.  Ponticelli’s art was stunning, offering stunning giant monster action sequences, as well as more human moments.  Gangsters & Goliaths was published last year, but it has been collected into a trade paperback, which I highly recommend picking up.

Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths #1
Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths #1

I got the first two issues of the new X-O Manowar series published by Valiant.  So far so good.  The writing by Robert Venditti is very well done.  He appears to have done a great deal of research into the historical era that the initial story arc is set in.  The artwork from Cary Nord & Stefano Gaudiano is quite impressive.  I really enjoyed the original Valiant books in the 1990s, so it’s nice to see them return.  X-O Manowar is definitely a great initial title for their reboot.  Hopefully I will have the funds to continue picking this one up.

I certainly cannot close out an entry on independent comic books without mentioning Love and Rockets by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez, published by Fantagraphics Books.  Since around 2001, I gradually began reading Love and Rockets through the collected editions.  And within the last four years, I’ve really got into the series, as my girlfriend is a huge fan of the works of Los Bros Hernandez.  Having someone I could discuss these stories and characters with really made them come alive for me even more so than in the past.  As I have written previously, the Hernandez Brothers have both created large casts of interesting, multi-faceted, nuanced, compelling characters.  I often find myself talking with my girlfriend about these characters and the plotlines they are involved in as if they were real people & events.  And, of course, both Jaime and Gilbert are incredibly talented artists who not only draw amazingly beautiful women but also know how to tell a story through pictures.

Love and Rockets: New Stories #4
Love and Rockets: New Stories #4

For the last few years, Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez have been releasing Love and Rockets as a giant-sized, hundred page annual publication.  Love and Rockets: New Stories #4 came out last autumn, which hopefully means the next edition will be on sale in a few months.  In New Stories #4, Jaime continued the story of Maggie and Ray’s on-again, off-again tumultuous romance, as well as the tragic tale of Maggie’s brother Calvin.  Jamie’s story had a really dark, heartbreaking occurrence, followed by an ending that seems deliberately ambiguous.  It reminded me of his classic tale “The Death of Speedy,” where Jaime left it up to the reader to decide exactly what had happened at the conclusion.

In his half of the book, Gilbert appears to be continuing his recent practice of creating graphic novel adaptations of the B-movies that his character Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez has acted in.  Fritz’s niece Killer (at least, I think that’s how they’re related… I’d love if Gilbert would put together a family tree for his characters, there are so many of them) follows in her aunt’s cinematic footsteps in New Stories #4, starring in a very strange vampire story.  There seems to be a great deal of subtext and symbolism to Gilbert’s recent stories, and they no doubt benefit from repeated readings.  I think that at times his work is perhaps too obscure.  But at least it does require you to think it through, and work to interpret it.

This is an aspect that both Gilbert and Jamie’s work possesses, that their stories are not something you can just breeze through.  There is a very substantive quality to their works.  Love and Rockets is not the easiest read out there, but it is worth taking the time to try and figure out what the Hernandez Brothers are attempting to articulate through their stories.  In other words, they really make you think, definitely a good thing.

There are obviously a great many more really good independent comic books currently being published besides the material I’ve covered in this blog post.  Unfortunately, financial and time constraints prevent me from picking up more of the books out there.  Just remember that those books do exist.  They may not be as easy to find as the latest big events from Marvel or DC.  But it is well worth it to take the time to seek out all the great stuff being published.  The creative future of comic books really doesn’t lie with the Big Two any longer, but with the creators working on new & exciting projects released through the smaller independent publishers.