Real women

The heroines of the Hernandez brothers' "Love and Rockets" graphic novel series are no longer whip-thin punk girls. They're among the most fleshed-out female characters in American literature.

Published February 20, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

It's a familiar experience. There is a woman and she is a woman you love. She is your sister or your lover or your cousin or your friend and you have loved her since she was a child. Now she is a woman. She is, let us say, in her late 30s, nearing the cusp of middle age. She has done well and she has done not so well, and when you see her now, you see in her all that has come before.

Now she is reclining on a sofa bed in her apartment; she has done the laundry, but she has not yet put it away. She is wearing a tank top and underpants that bind and bunch and her thighs and belly spill out slightly over the too-tight edges, and you love her new softness but you also see, underneath, the whip-thin punk rock girl who once terrorized the neighborhood and commanded the secret love of everyone, even her best friends' brothers. She turns her head and her chin line blurs; she could be 40. She smiles, with red, oil-slick lips; she could be 14. And then her sister (but it could be her daughter) walks into the room, and this sister, who is still thin, with a chic short haircut modeled after the one she loved on her older sister 10 years ago, looks more like her than she does.

The women we love do this to us. We see their past in their present. Sometimes an actress will do this too -- Catherine Deneuve, Elizabeth Taylor, Jeanne Moreau -- but when we follow an actress, we follow her outer life; her inner life remains her own. Women in books may do it, too -- we follow Isabel Archer from 23-year-old ingenue to middle-aged cynic; Anne of Green Gables from bookish orphan to teacher to mother; Tolstoy's Natasha from young virgin sprite to old milk sow -- but in those cases, we are following the inner lives, and the author does not provide us with a visual yardstick that we must follow, whether we like it or not.

But I would wager that no one -- in fiction, in film, in theater, in painting -- has united the inner and outer lives of fictional women and made it possible for those fictional women to seem as familiar and immutable as the women who are our sisters, our lovers, our cousins and our friends as completely as have Los Bros Hernandez, Jaime and Gilbert, in their graphic serial novels "Love and Rockets." There are 15 volumes in all; they ran from 1982 to 1996, and just resumed last month.

When people talk about the Hernandez brothers, they mention how much their work is like that of Gabriel García Márquez in comic book form, and how, in the early '80s, they virtually invented the alternative graphic novel as a pleasure for art kids and "mature" readers who would never, ever have picked up a comic book. They mention how they chronicled Latino culture, from the barrio to below the border; and punk rock culture, and women's wrestling long before these things became part of mainstream American culture.

But all of these explanations for the success of "Love and Rockets" -- as literature, as a stage in the development of the graphic novel as art form, as sociology and ethnic documentary -- while true, fail to get at the singularity of the achievement of two brothers from Oxnard, Calif., who grew up mainlining Marvel and DC comics given to them by their mother.

In part, this is because there is still no body of criticism for graphic art, though today, 20 years after "Love and Rockets" debuted, there is a small but significant canon of graphic artists -- Daniel Clowes, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Art Spiegelman, Lynda Barry, Edward Gorey -- who are worthy of the highest critical attention. Comics journals cover comics as a scene, but when graphic novelists get attention from the mainstream press, they tend to be lumped in with the book reviews, as literature.

Certainly, the best graphic novelists are also literary, but the unique impact of their art comes from combining the techniques of literature with those of painting, cinema and theater. Like filmmakers, graphic novelists can use jump-cuts and flashbacks to move through time, and shadow and perspective to create a mood. Like playwrights, they must depend upon dialogue to create narrative and characters -- the reader knows each character by what they say and what they do to the people around them (with the exception, of course, of the rare interior monologue). Graphic art is the artistic medium perhaps most suited to chronicling life as it is lived: as a visual record of physical action and change, and an emotional record of people as the sum parts of their speech, interactions and relationships with the outside world.

The Hernandez brothers are unique for having mastered the visual and the narrative techniques common to all graphic novelists and fused them with serial fiction -- a genre that reaches back to Homer and Dickens and soap operas and telenovelas -- that unfolds in more or less real time. Their characters have aged along with their readers, leaving or losing lovers and children and parents and friends, adding pounds and wrinkles and more lovers and children and friends, changing hairstyles and cities and apartments and houses, all the while keeping an essence that, throughout all these additions and subtractions, remains the same, or at least, in the right light, on the right day, familiar.

The woman on the sofa bed, in Jaime's work, is Maggie Chascarillo (aka Margarita, the Magpie, Maggot, Perla, Perlita and Shrimp). In 1982, Maggie hovered somewhere between 18 and 20; she was a young punk-rock Chicana, already out of high school and living on her own in an apartment in Hoppers, a barrio outside Los Angeles. She shared the place with her best friend and sometimes lover, the wild, incomparable Hopey (Esperanza Letitia Glass, aka Hopita, who is, by the way, Scottish and Colombian) who looked so much like Maggie -- boy-slim, with short chunky hair and bright glossy red lips -- that they were often referred to as "the incest twins."

Although all the Hernandez characters deal with (malfunctioning) love, Maggie was the only one to have an intimate connection with rockets. She begins the series as a "pro-solar mechanic" -- a rare occupation for a girl, we are told -- under the tutelage of her crush, Rand Race. The rockets and other extraterrestrial props lasted through the first volume, "Music for Mechanics," but abruptly disappeared in subsequent volumes, to be replaced by the more naturalistic, but no less surreal, mechanics of love, sex and politics. (Other characters occasionally flirt with the supra-natural world, most notably Penny Century, a billionaire's trophy wife and friend of Maggie and Hopey, who wants to be a superhero. But Penny's "superhero" persona is made possible by the fact that rich people have the darnedest gadgets, not because she has any magic powers.)

Each brother writes, draws and inks his own series. Gilbert's "Heartbreak Soup," also collected in the "Love and Rockets" volumes, follows the inhabitants of Palomar, a tiny fictional town somewhere below the Mexican border. Like Jaime, Gilbert commands dozens of characters, stretching back in time (sometimes in flashback) from the founding of the town in the early part of the 20th century through the '50s to the present, chronicling the lives of Marxists, factory owners, scabs, serial killers, lovers, wives, children and grandchildren.

But the center of "Heartbreak Soup" is inarguably Luba, the daughter of a fair-skinned, green-eyed failed beauty queen who had the talent of cracking walnuts with her belly, and the habit of giving herself to any man of means who asked -- or in the case of Luba's father, her Native American gardener, a man of means by no means. Luba's genetic heritage is her mother's buxom silhouette and her father's high-cheekboned face, but she loses both parents by the age of 3.

Luba grows from abandoned child to child bride of a gangster (and smack-addicted housewife) to divorced single mother of four children by three fathers who supports herself by running a public bath and then a movie house. Finally, in middle age (now the mother of eight children by five fathers), she exchanges her status as Palomar's sexual symbol to become its civic symbol -- the town's matriarch, the mayor of Palomar.

It would not be romantic hyperbole to state that both Jaime and Gilbert are clearly in love with their women. And most every woman in their work is unquestionably beautiful. But they are not beautiful in the way that women in, say, movies and magazines are beautiful. Fantastic women are beautiful through omission -- cameras capture the tilt of a perfect nose, but avoid a soft chin line; they skim over heavy hips to focus on small shoulders. This tendency to edit women into beautiful fragments only gets worse as an actress or model ages.

The Hernandez women look like the women who men and women actually make love to. Luba has the breasts of a fertility goddess, but loathes her spindly chicken legs (at one point, she even begs Gilbert to go easy on her chest, which she claims is getting too heavy to hold up.) By 29, her face is crisscrossed with fissures that only deepen with age. Later, her stomach develops those two little humps so common with women who've had many children, while her legs stay as stick-thin as ever, the kind of detail that is so often seen in life, and so rarely represented anywhere else.

Maggie, meanwhile, starts out with a generous ass and a slim body, but puts on at least 30 pounds by 23, a fact that pisses her off but does nothing to turn off her lovers, many of whom claim to like her better fat. (And yes, they say "fat." No soft-pedaling euphemisms here.) And even as she outgrows her jeans, Maggie continues to appear in bikinis, undies and tank tops, and tight dresses, and she still causes quite a stir when onlookers notice the way her rounded calves fit into her high heels.

But even the Hernandez Bros' young women are not airbrushed: Danita the stripper has a Playmate body and a gaptoothed smile; teen girls have braces and middles that bulge over the edges of their tight jeans. When Luba's plump, red-haired, freckled teenage daughter Doralis becomes a backup dancer on a fitness show in the United States, she upstages the gaunt, blond hostess. "Well," says the blond, "Latin American men do like corpulent women."

"I suppose I shouldn't tell her," Doralis stage-whispers to a friend behind the jealous hostess' back, "that most of my fan mail is from white English speakers."

Not only do Hernandez women look like real women, but their emotional, political and familial range is, quite simply, astonishing. There is certainly no "typical" Hernandez character, and these women represent no one but themselves. Reading one issue of "Love and Rockets" is a pleasure, but the real pleasure accumulates over time, as the characters' lives evolve and criss-cross in ways that even they themselves would not have predicted.

Pick any character: Gilbert's Tonantzin, for example, who starts out as a plump teenage girl who gives herself to any boy who asks, then grows into a slim young woman who gives herself to any man who asks. In her mid-20s, Tonantzin, who is illiterate, surprises everyone by becoming a political radical after she gets an education in Marxism and indigenous people's rights via a correspondence with a prisoner. (Since she can't read, she enlists the help of Luba's daughter, Maricela, and her lesbian lover.) Tonantzin eventually becomes a political martyr, an ending that Gilbert says even he found shocking.

Palomar is matriarchal both politically (Palomar's mayor and sheriff are both women) and in the sense that many families are headed by single mothers. The stories cover the full range of motherhood, from fucked-up (both Luba and Hopey appear balancing whiskey glasses on their pregnant bellies) to fulfilling (Luba marries her true love, Khamo, who was once a spectacular beauty, but who ends up scarred in the fire that killed Tonantzin).

And the Hernandez women are often as interesting when they fail -- in their careers, in love, in living up to their own expectations -- as when they succeed. For example, Maggie the Mechanic, from age 18 to age 36, rarely works as a mechanic. The reason is simple: Most people won't hire a girl. Maggie, it seems, would rather be a mechanic without a job than suffer the humiliation of being turned down for a position she is qualified for. This alone is a rare insight: Many women would rather ignore sexism than confront it.

But it's difficult to find a more compelling story than "Chester Square," ("Love and Rockets" No. 13, the last in the original series to feature Maggie) in which Maggie the failed mechanic flirts with becoming a whore.

Maggie, now in her mid 30s, has just broken up with Hopey and finds herself stranded at a truck stop, trying to make a bus back to Hoppers. She is wearing a tight dress and has no money and, at first glance, the locals take her for a whore. Maggie is furious, but then one man recognizes her and defends her honor -- she is Maggie the Mechanic, he tells his friends.

Because Maggie is a woman with an unconventional profession, her friend is attracted to her. He tries to take her home. But Maggie surprises him and herself by reverting to the oldest profession: She demands money.

Her friend declines, but someone else accepts. And Maggie is left with an identity crisis: Is she Maggie the Mechanic or Perla the Prostitute? Is a woman who can't find work as a mechanic still a mechanic? Is one act of sex for money enough to make a woman a whore?

In lesser hands, this plot line could be sheer melodrama. But Jaime's -- and the readers -- love for Maggie makes this a sensitive and compelling story about the price of being an unconventional woman in a world which rewards the conventional. In this post-sexual revolution age, the issue for Maggie is not the sex, but the money. Many men and women have certainly had casual sex with someone they may not be attracted to, and the line between casual sex for pleasure and sex for compensation may be more fluid than we would like to think.

Today, you can find Maggie Chascarillo, newly divorced and reclining on her unmade bed with her unfolded laundry, waiting for Izzy, the "Witch Lady," to come through town on her book tour. Hopey tends bar and sometimes still tends to Mag's sexual needs, and the preppy girls who taunted the pair in high school are just as bitchy in middle age.

Volume two of "Love and Rockets" came out from Fantagraphics Books in late January, and will publish roughly four times a year. Jaime will continue to spotlight Maggie in "Love and Rockets," and he will continue his separate quarterly comic, "Penny Century." Gilbert will contribute roughly 100 pages of a new serial novel, "Julio's Day" to the new volume and continue his quarterly "Luba."

"Love and Rockets" began with the bang of youth, but in its middle age, it refuses to whimper. Certainly, the young "Love and Rockets" was a pop-cult phenomenon -- a spinoff group of the British band Bauhaus paid Los Bros the dubious compliment of naming their band "Love and Rockets." For a good part of the '80s, the poseur-punk-Goth band was arguably better known than "Love and Rockets," the graphic novel of non-poseur-punk-Goth culture. (For Los Bros' take on this thievery, see "L&R X," No. 10 in the series.)

But the novels have aged far better than the youth culture that they documented. For an account of what it was like to be a young street punk in the '80s, there is still no better document than Jaime's early "Love & Rockets" -- Hopey fighting her graffiti-lust, or Maggie spare-changing her way into a punk show, or Izzy, the Goth "Witch Lady," delivering a truly mad rant on the plight of the nails that hold together her bookshelf. But while Sid is dead, and Daniel Ash and David J. are playing reunion tours to kids half their age, Jaime's aging punks are more interesting at 40 than they were at 20.

Most of us are.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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