Monday, June 25, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #176: Maggie the Mechanic by Jamie Hernandez

Since Dungeon Fortnight just ended, I thought I might as well dive into the other comics-reading project I've been thinking about for a while. This time, though, I'm going to space the books out, so each one can get its own moment and so they don't blur together.

So, once a week from now through nearly the end of the year, it will be I Love (And Rockets) Mondays. I'll be running through the current Fantagraphics omnibus editions in order, then the trade paperback series of about a decade ago, and including other related stories wherever they make sense as I go. I'll begin with the first Jaime book, since that was listed first in the current reprint series....

Margarita "Maggie" Chascarrillo was originally a SF heroine: her world slightly futuristic, with hovering cars and regular rocket travel. She was a mechanic -- a little clumsy and accident-prone, but good at fixing things. She had dreams to be a world-class "prosolar" mechanic, and she was the assistant of a world-famous mechanic, Rand Race.

That all started ebbing quickly, though. The other side of Maggie's stories were more down-to-earth: living in a rented house with her best friend and sometimes girlfriend Hopey (Esperanza Glass, whose real name will hardly ever be seen in this series), worrying about money or her weight, hanging out with friends, working odd jobs for low wages, living the life of a young Mexican-American woman in a minor Southern California city. (Hoppers aka Huerta, loosely based on Oxnard.)

Eventually, the mechanic career almost entirely disappeared...although some of the other fantastic elements, like the aunt who was a world-champion wrestler and the occasional eruptions of superheroes, would pop up more regularly. But those happened around Maggie, or to her: she was the grounding element, entirely in the real world. She and her friends no longer had access to the fantastic parts of their world -- except, notably, "Penny Century" (aka Beatriz Garcia), the closest thing Jaime's stories have to a main character who lives equally in both worlds. Penny was a childhood friend of Maggie and Hopey -- and also an occasional superheroine and the wife of globally recognized billionaire H.R. Costigyan.

Penny was never taken all that seriously, though: the stories didn't get into her motivations and inner life the way they did with Maggie or Hopey, or their friend Izzy. Even Daffy, a younger friend who is mostly the rich girl slumming with her wrong-side-of-the-tracks punker buddies, has more of a character arc than Penny, who exists to be beautiful and impetuous and untouched.

Note that all the important characters were women: men existed, but they were secondary -- love interests, bosses, guys who were around. Maggie and Hopey were the important characters, and secondarily Izzy and Daffy and Terry -- all women, all depicted like real people and not sex objects, all flawed and interesting and real.

Maggie the Mechanic collects the first batch of Maggie stories, the ones where Jaime Hernandez was working that all out: starting with the mildly SFnal premise, mixing in some real life and his own love of punk rock, and gradually dialing back the fantasy in favor of the real. The dial doesn't turn all the way back in this book -- and Jaime will tinker with that dial, on and off, for all of Love And Rockets's run -- but here is where he tries out Maggie as a globe-hopping mechanic's assistant and then seems to think better of it. There are two long stories in this book -- "Mechanics" and "Las Mujerdes Perdidas" -- that send Maggie on larger adventures to exotic parts of the world, but it's the third long story here, "100 Rooms," that signposts the way the series will go: stories of the women, together or apart, taking what they can out of a life that's not going to hand them anything.

Some people call these the "Maggie and Hopey" stories, or the "Locas" stories, from the Spanish for "crazy." Both have been used for book titles along the way. Maggie is central most of the time, as she was here in the beginning: her friends and boyfriends and girlfriends come in and out, and some, like Hopey, are nearly as important. These are the foundational stories, where Jaime was finding his style and substance.

The earliest stories sometimes have too many panels on a page -- too much dialogue, too much activity, too little space. That opened up pretty quickly, and Jaime's Dan DeCarlo-influenced style was clearer and more distinct just a couple of years into the series. But all of these are strong stories with crisp characters from the very beginning -- Maggie and Hopey show up here, fully-formed and entirely themselves. Jaime Hernandez might have needed to write his way into his world to figure out which stories he was most interested in, and might have been able to grow and strength his art style, but he was telling great stories well from the beginning.

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