Monday, Feb 6, 2006 12:30 PM UTC

“Ghost of Hoppers”

Jaime Hernandez's graphic novel about a middle-aged woman taking stock of her life is pure eye candy.

Margarita “Maggie” Chascarillo is back — older, sadder, heavier and a little worse for wear — and that’s very good news. Jaime Hernandez’s new graphic novel, “Ghost of Hoppers,” is his first book in a while to focus entirely on Maggie, the most prominent character from his first 15 years’ worth of comics stories (collected in 2004′s enormous and wonderful omnibus volume, “Locas”). This time, it’s a year or so since the end of 2003′s “Dicks and Deedees,” and former world-class mechanic Maggie is managing a rundown apartment complex in the San Fernando Valley, fretting about her ex-husband’s new girlfriend, and worrying that she has gotten boring. Her greatest years are behind her, and she knows it. Hernandez, on the other hand, is a sharper, subtler cartoonist and storyteller than he has ever been before, and his fascination with the way personal history accrues and resonates means that his stories are growing more powerful as his characters have more of a past.

Hernandez is a national treasure, and like most national treasures, he’s easy to take for granted — his work still has basically the same look and tone it did 20 years ago. The new book was serialized between 2001 and 2004 in the comic where his first Maggie stories appeared in 1982: “Love and Rockets,” the series that’s roughly half by him, half by his brother Gilbert Hernandez. (Gilbert is a gifted but very different cartoonist; they’ve almost never collaborated.) Jaime’s stories almost all concern a group of characters who grew up in the Hoppers neighborhood of Huerta, a mostly Mexican town in California; “Locas” revolved around Maggie’s relationship with her best friend and sometimes lover, a smartass ex-punk named Esperanza Glass but universally known as “Hopey,” and the gradual drifting apart and together of their social circle through the ’80s and ’90s.

As “Ghost of Hoppers” begins, Maggie’s childhood friend Isabel “Izzy” Ortiz has written a well-received book about their hometown, although she’s either seriously mentally ill or, if you ask her, in an ongoing struggle with the devil. Maggie and Hopey, who’s now a bartender, still talk on the phone and occasionally hook up. And despite her better judgment, Maggie’s also getting involved with Vivian Solis, nicknamed the “Frogmouth” for her rasping voice, an ex-stripper who works on a terrible local talk show and can’t stay out of really stupid kinds of trouble. Vivian provides a lot of the book’s prickly comedy, as when she explains to Maggie that she’s kinda-sorta dating the fiancé of a woman who hit her with a bottle (and injured Hopey’s eye):

“The fiancé, he said I move real good. He really likes my French way.”
“French? Earlier you said you’re pura Chicana, girl.”
“Fuck that. French is way more exotic than Chicana.”
“I’m Chicana.”
“Oh, right on. Chicana to Chicana all the way, sister.”

Maggie’s in her late 30s in “Ghost of Hoppers” — this chronology suggests that she was born in 1965. She’s put on a lot of weight since she was a bombshell teenager in the early issues of “Love and Rockets.” She’s started to get bags under her eyes and chin, and her posture isn’t what it used to be, but Hernandez still makes her look gorgeous. He obviously loves to draw her, and to be faithful to the way her body looks as it slowly changes over time. That’s true of all of his characters, actually. One of his favorite tricks is to bring back characters five or 10 years after they last appeared, and make them just barely recognizable as their old selves.

Maggie has changed a lot psychologically since the end of “Locas,” too; she doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere anymore. (Izzy thinks that the devil’s responsible for Maggie’s troubles, and in fact Maggie keeps seeing shadowy manifestations of the kind Izzy’s obsessed with: a huge black dog, a swarm of flies, a salamander with human hands.) She spends a lot of the book shuttling between Los Angeles and Huerta, propelled by a hilariously blatant McGuffin — a “folk art thing” the Frogmouth stole from a boyfriend’s place, which has found its way to Izzy’s house in Hoppers. What Maggie finds, though, is a whole lot of dead ends; her family has moved to another neighborhood and become a “Mexican Beverly Hillbillies,” and Hoppers is so alien to her now that she gets lost in its streets when she tries to drive away.

Hernandez has been following Maggie’s life for almost 25 years, and he has been filling in the gaps in his characters’ stories with flashbacks for most of that time. “Ghost of Hoppers” stands on its own as a story — if it’s the first of his books you’ve read, you can pick up what’s going on pretty quickly. (He has a gift for dialogue that implies a whole lot of back story without coming off as exposition, and the new book’s early scenes, especially, are funny enough that they keep things moving while he clarifies who’s who.) But it also picks up emotional and thematic momentum from everything he’s done before.

One of “Ghost of Hoppers’” subplots, for instance, is the question of whether Hopey has ever told Maggie she loves her. (At the end of the first chapter, Maggie hears her saying “I love you, y’know” — on a phone that Izzy later points out was broken at the time.) Maggie can’t remember if Hopey’s ever actually said the words, but she has — once — not that Hernandez ever mentions it in “Ghost of Hoppers.” In a 1986 story included in “Locas,” “The Return of Ray D.,” there’s a flashback to 1980, when Hopey told Maggie, “That’s why I love you so much! You are such a weirdo!” — a few seconds before the first time she kissed her.

Hernandez knows that, of course. He knows every detail of his dozens of characters’ lives, and throwaway comments in his stories may only make sense three or five or 10 years later. Still, the subtleties of his characters’ interactions only really appear on rereading. On the surface, “Ghost of Hoppers” is a straightforward story about a woman taking stock of her life, and it reads so smoothly that you have to make a conscious effort to slow down and note what else is happening.

Fortunately, the creamy grace of Hernandez’s artwork makes it worthwhile to pause and stare. His drawings are pure eye candy — a few simple, curvy lines and crisp geometries that economically communicate facial expressions, body language, the way clothing drapes. His sense of composition is one of the sharpest in comics; almost every panel in “Ghost of Hoppers” is balanced between exquisitely bold white and black areas. (A house illuminated by moonlight is blackness interrupted by four tiny white squares for a window, a white parallelogram separated by horizontal lines for the lit side of the roof, and a white squiggle for a tree cut off by the roof’s other diagonal.) One of Hernandez’s signature techniques is slicing scenes down to a few discontinuous panels with abrupt jump-cuts between them, because every image he draws is a very pregnant moment: You can look at it and intuit at least a few minutes’ worth of what has just happened and what’s about to happen.

His drawings thrive on simplification, so he makes the most of comics’ visual shorthand: speed lines, puffs of smoke, sweat droplets flying off characters’ foreheads. When Hernandez draws little kids, they look like “Peanuts” or “Little Archie” characters, with huge heads and enormous, wailing mouths, and the adults around them look a bit more like caricatures too. And one of the tenants in Maggie’s apartment complex is an eight-foot-tall superheroine called Alarma, although we only see her in about a dozen panels. That world exists deep in the background of Hernandez’s stories, but Maggie and her friends aren’t really part of it. Their world is small, and it keeps getting smaller.

In the book’s final chapter, Izzy’s house has burned down, and Maggie (whose coffee may or may not have been dosed with acid by a trio of penny-ante Satanists) wanders near its ruins, seeing the whole history of the building and its curse: the people who lived there before she was born, herself and Izzy playing in front of it as little girls, a birthday party in her teenage glory days, Izzy making a final deal with her devil. The conventional way to handle this sequence would be to show the ghosts of Maggie’s past passing in front of her. What Hernandez does, though, is trickier — the book’s title is singular, and Maggie is, as she puts it, “an old graveyard ghost” herself, hovering around the fringes of scenes she experienced and things she never saw, in the building where she once belonged. That’s the difference between memory and history, Hernandez suggests: Memory can lose a crucial detail — like, say, the declaration of love that Maggie’s aching to hear — or dissolve into immaterial nostalgia, but the past is real, immutable and growing all the time, and it’s haunted by the present.

Douglas Wolk’s writing on graphic novels appears at the beginning of each month in Salon Books.