[21 May 2010]
There are some things that are simply known. They’re imprinted on a kid’s brain at an indeterminate age. Even without exact details or context, we learn certain facts: John Wayne is a cowboy; Clark Kent is Superman; Bruce Wayne is Batman. Asking older kids, the ones who play in the yard and walk themselves to school, asking them these things is the same as questioning an infant, “What does the cow say?” even if they’ve never been on a farm.
If you read comics, you know of the Hernandez brothers whether you’ve read their work or not. Even if you grew up in a tiny town where the only places to get comics were the drug store or the gas station, the name Love and Rockets somehow entered your vocabulary. You probably didn’t know what it was about, and you were probably confused when you learned there was a band with the same name, but you knew the comic was in black and white and that it was way different from Darkhawk.
The Hernandez name has become something of a reliable brand, but their work is not monolithic. Author Todd Hignite details the life and work of Jaime Hernandez, best known for his Maggie and Hopey stories, in this beautiful, lavishly illustrated coffee table book. Through interviews with the artist, original and unfinished artwork and family photos, Hignite shows us the world of Jaime Hernandez with both a biographer’s eye for detail and a fan’s enthusiasm.
The artist was born in Oxnard, California in 1959 and was one of six siblings. Comics, television and “junk” culture fueled his early years, and punk carried him into adulthood. His father died when Hernandez was a young boy, leaving him to be raised by his mother and aunts, as well as his siblings. Many of these scraps of biography play into Hernandez’s later work with Maggie and Hopey in the fictional town of Hoppers.
As a boy, Hignite writes, Hernandez would sometimes ignore the words in the comics he bought and instead focus on the pictures. He would follow the frozen images and fill in the story himself, a hobby that no doubt aided his the development of his own storytelling. Hignite’s book lends itself to this approach. The art and photographs literally dwarf the prose. The text is in small blocks at the bottom of most pages with the art towering above. Hignite gives us raw information, but the art is the connective tissue, the electrical charges pulsing between our synapses.
Hignite’s prose is informative and rich with detail and analysis of the artwork, but the fan aspect of his work is often prominently displayed. Claims like, “The continued growth of Hernandez’s revolving cast of characters is one of the greatest achievements in fiction, comics or otherwise”, and praise of Hernandez’s “constant polyphonic mastery” come across as worshipful rather than analytical, making them hard to swallow.
Despite the hyperbole, Hignite makes it clear that, above all, Hernandez is an artist uninterested in reinventing the wheel, defying expectations, pushing the envelope or any other artist clichés. Hernandez is interested in telling good stories and making good comics. That those two things have historically been mutually exclusive is beside the point.
As with any prolific artist, finding entry into the work of Hernandez can be daunting. There are numerous story collections, such as the massive Locas, as well as single-issue comics and work from various periodicals. At the start of the book, Hignite includes a full-length reprint of the story La Maggie La Loca, originally published in the New York Times Magazine in 20 installments. The story is of a middle-aged Maggie visiting wrestling queen Rena Titanon, and though it doesn’t explore every detail in the long history of the characters, the first-person narrative hints at the larger world waiting to be discovered by new readers. Hignite included the story, he writes, because:
... the strip epitomizes all that is engaging about Hernandez’s lengthy career: his inimitable ear for dialogue and eye for telling detail; ethnic diversity ...; seamlessly shifting narrative perspectives and tenses; a dignified voice given to the marginalized or dismissed ...; seemingly slight pop culture references that provide the springboard for deep emotional resonance; and characters who always resist easy definition.
Hignite captures the enthusiasm for comics of both his subject and himself. It’s displayed in every caption, piece of artwork and sentence, even the hyperbolic ones. In Hernandez’s work Hignite finds a bridge between “the remembered pleasure of discovering [comics] as a child, and the rewards of reading the best of them as an adult”.
The pleasure of reading this book is beyond the page. It comes when the covers are closed and the book sits on the shelf waiting for some gray afternoon and the comfort of the familiar is the only thing that seems bearable.