Monday, September 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #260: Angels and Magpies by Jaime Hernandez

Sometimes the highest highs and the lowest lows happen right on top of each other. It makes for easy contrasts, which is nice for anyone who finds himself writing about that thing.

For example, Angels and Magpies, the sixth book reprinting Jaime Hernandez's "Locas" stories from the various publications called Love and Rockets over the past nearly forty years (and some other related comics as well) has one long story that I and pretty much everybody else agrees is one of the best things he's ever done, and one of the masterpieces of modern comics.

It also has the equally long "God and Science: The Return of the Ti-Girls," of which no one has ever said that, and which I would describe, if I'm being particularly charitable, as an interesting experiment with superhero storytelling and metaphor.

("Interesting" is a great word; it can mean whatever you want it to mean and still provide plausible deniability.)

But first up are two stories that run concurrently on the first thirty pages -- "La Maggie La Loca," on the top two-thirds, originally appeared in weekly installments in the short-lived comics feature in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in 2007, and beneath it is "Gold Diggers of 1969," which I think was originally in the last issue of the second comics-format Love and Rockets series, maybe as normally comics-formatted pages there.

"Maggie" is another Queen Rena story, told in the same style and structure as similar stories back to the mid-80s: Rena gets back in touch with Maggie, asks her to come visit, and so Maggie ends up in a strange tropical country (left unspecified), mostly bored and at loose ends, until Maggie does something impulsive and causes trouble. Like those older stories, it's also told entirely in captions, as Maggie's stream-of-consciousness, seemingly told to someone as a letter or diary entry. Like those older stories, it's largely a signpost for Maggie's life, to show us where she is and how she feels about that.

"Gold Diggers" is a flashback story: Maggie is about four years old, living with her mother and younger sister Esther, with next brother Calvin on the way. Her father is away, "busy with work" most of the time -- we see all this from young Maggie's perspective, so we can believe that if we want. Hernandez draws this as a homage to Charles Schulz, at least with his characters: his backgrounds are more detailed and particular than Peanuts's were, since his aims are different. We've seen a number of flashback stories to Maggie's childhood and teen years before, but this one is the most focused; everything before (and some later) were more clearly flashbacks, relying on our knowledge of "present-day" Maggie for context. "Gold Diggers," instead, is entirely embedded in 1969 and shows us what little Maggie sees and does, unreliable-narrator-style, letting us make connections a four-year-old can't.

Then comes a hundred and thirty pages of Ti-Girls comics, in which Maggie's roommate Angel becomes the superheroine Boots Angel and sort-of joins the rag-tag (and defunct for a couple of decades) Ti-Girls team. You see, women have "the spark" -- most of them, or all of them, or all of them unless they deny it, or something like that -- and can have superpowers if they decide they want them enough at the right time. Well, it's mostly an excuse to get versions of some Hernandez characters -- primarily Alarma, who also lives in Maggie's apartment building, but also a version of her cousin Xo as an older superheroine called La Espectra, and what seems to be an alternate older version of Rocky from Hernandez's other L&R comics continuity as a non-powered hero.

I suspect there is some grand scheme behind it, and that every Ti-Girls character maps carefully back to some older L&R character in Hernandez's head. I didn't find that to be clear at all in the story itself.

The Maguffin of this story is Penny Century, who has been chasing superpowers -- and drifting more towards being a cartoon of herself and away from being a real person like the girls she went to high school with as Beatriz Garcia -- for twenty-plus years. She's finally gotten those powers, fallen afoul of the evil witch who gave them to her, and is chasing two of her multiple children, who also both have superpowers. She's mostly a force of nature rather than a real character in this story, but there are some traditional villains as well (that evil witch, the standard evil-version-of-a-major-character, a brick-like cowgirl) and characters somewhere in the middle, who can be misunderstood heroes or cackling anti-heroes as the moments dictate.

There's a lot of action and fighting and superhero dialogue, but I can't say I found the Ti-Girls saga particularly successful. It's silly and broad and dumb in boring ways I've seen a thousand times before. I didn't find that it worked to Hernandez's strengths at all, but it's clearly something he wanted to do, and grows out of a lot of elements in his work over the years -- wrestling, the strength of women and their friendships/rivalries, that recurrent strain of SF and related fantastic elements -- so, well, here it is.

The last hundred pages of Angels and Magpies collects "The Love Bunglers," a long, powerful story about Maggie and Ray and Calvin and Maggie's original best friend Letty and growing older and lost connections and how what happens to us in childhood never lets go of us. It's got at least three of the saddest, most powerful moments in Love and Rockets. And it has an ending I still don't know how to take.

(I'm not going to tell you what the ending is, or what my big question is about it. But, on the one hand, it's clearly an echo of Hernandez's happy Maggie-and-Hopey vision at the end of L&R volume one, which is a big clue. But does that means it's exactly like that earlier vision? I haven't actually read any of Jaime Hernandez's later stories yet -- I started piling up Love and Rockets for a big complete re-read almost a decade ago and finally got to it this year -- so I don't know what happens next.)

I think "Love Bunglers" works even if you've never read Hernandez before. You might not know what happens to Letty, or get all of the nuances of Maggie and Ray's long relationship, but the story provides what you need. I'd still say the best way to read Jaime Hernandez is to start with Maggie the Mechanic, but if you want to give him one shot with his best work, Love Bunglers was published as a standalone -- go try it.

As I said before, this is where I paused reading L&R -- not on purpose, but it worked out that way. So everything from here on, an entire decade of comics, will be new to me. Come back next week to see if that changes how I write about the work of Los Bros Hernandez.

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