Saturday, January 16, 2010

Maggie the Mechanic: A Love and Rockets Book: A Comic Review!

Maggie the Mechanic: A Love and Rockets Book
Story and Art by Jaime Hernandez

This is one big, fat book! In it, we learn Maggie stands a mere five feet tall and Hopey is even shorter.

Collecting Jaime Hernandez’s earliest Love and Rockets stories, Maggie the Mechanic takes us back to the days when beloved indie comic star Maggie was… a… you know… mechanic. But not just any kind of mechanic. Maggie was a pro-solar mechanic and part of a team headed by the famous and glamorous pretty boy/tough guy Rand Race. But pro-solar mechanic Maggie inhabits a world unequally split between the fantastic and the not-so-mundane. As an adventurer, Maggie’s stories are equal parts Speed Racer, Jonny Quest, Terry and the Pirates and Thunderbirds; back home, she lives among the punk rockers, cholos and vatos of Huerta, better known as Hoppers. After throwing Maggie into many crazy adventures in exotic locales—jungles complete with dinosaurs, deserts full of bandits and revolutionaries and women wrestlers—Hernandez gradually dials back on the sci-fi elements and turns up the knob on the social realism and soap opera.

But for that, you'll need the next two books.

One of the funnest aspects of Maggie the Mechanic is watching as Hernandez gains confidence as both an artist and a storyteller. This is most evident in the growing simplicity and boldness of his page layouts. From his early pages— crammed full of tiny panels and textural movements like cross-hatching and diagonal lines to create tone variations— to the later ones where panels become larger and the figure drawing more assured and less hidden by flash and busyness, Hernandez’s visual skills improved at an alarming rate during the period covered in this book. Story by story, you can see a lot of Moebius- and Wally Wood-inspired inking give way to larger, open spaces and bold blacks and perfectly balanced negative space of Hernandez’s mature work.

And although Hernandez fakes a lot of his cars and buildings, there's something so accurate and natural about the characters inhabiting these spaces the fakery becomes more timeless than photorealism would be, so that a "Locas" story is like looking at a classic Archie story or Dennis the Menace strip from the 1950s. You know, with lesbian sex and live show violence.

Here and there a story drawn with a radically altered drawing style is folded into the chronology, and you can directly contrast ur-Jaime with Jaime-prime. Check out the stylistic gulf in both writing and drawing between the sixth installment of "Mechanics," drawn in 1983 and the short “Hey Hopey!” from 1985 immediately following it. The former is the climactic episode of a multi-part science fiction epic set in Zhato, an imaginary country, and has as its signal image a huge panel full of all kinds of rendering techniques depicting some sort of wild jungle scene where a dinosaur and a spaceship sink into a quagmire and an underwear-clad Maggie clings to Rand Race while dangling perilously from a futuristic helicopter (breaking the fourth wall in her dialogue, no less). The latter simply has punker Hopey taking a bath then stapling up band flyers while having an argument about her sexuality with her insensitive younger brother Joey.

One of my favorite stories is “Maggie Vs. Maniakk,” in which comic-obsessed Maggie relates her abortive career as a superhero sidekick. Jaime pulls out all the visual stops, giving us something akin to Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko times cosmic Jim Starlin… with a Clash soundtrack. Mario Hernandez supplies Maniakk with hilariously overripe dialogue that’s a dead-on parody of Stan Lee’s supervillainese, and Jaime closes the story with his three main locas, Maggie, Penny Century and Hopey; maybe this prefigures the shift in storytelling concerns from the fantasy-inspired to the more naturalistic. Maggie, true to character, imagines something romantic, Penny something heroic and Hopey something vengeful and murderous.

"100 Rooms" is an early classic as well, as Maggie and Hopey experience a wild party at Penny’s mansion. While Hopey disguises herself as a waiter, Maggie finds herself in the arms of a mysterious stranger. Some of the story extras straddle the line between the superheroic and the naturalistic; the overall effect is one of a world where the banal is threatened by a strangeness that lurks around every corner. It also reads like a try-out for the bizarre decadence of Hernandez's late period "Wigwam Bam" storyline.

Hernandez's most successful meshing of punk world sensibilities and newspaper strip action is "Las Mujeres Perdidas," where Maggie-- again in various stages of undress-- journeys on a picaresque adventure with pro wrestler/revolutionary Rena Titanon while Hopey back in Hoppers deals with such heavyweight issues as heavy metal party animals calling her haircut "rad."

Speaking of Hopey's hair, Hernandez shows off his early mastery of observational storytelling with a short sequence in which our beloved Hopeymonster goes to an old school barber for a boy's haircut. Hernandez then jumpcuts from the barber shop to a newly-barbered Hopey sporting a gender-transgressive slicked-back look and then another wonderfully observed panel where she musses her hair into its more familiar spiked do, with a shower of tiny strands. How many other comic book artists could lavish so much attention on one of life's little in-between moments like a girl getting her head buzzed by some old duffer and make it so charming and readable?

As the book continues, the mechanics increasingly give way to las locas, Maggie and Hopey confine themselves to the decaying early 80s environs of Hoppers and one gets the sense Jaime’s own storytelling interests are shifting as well as he became more interested in his characters and their relationships. Farewell rockets, hello love. We're left to wonder just how the pro-solar adventures fit into the series’ continuity. Were they “real” or only stories from Maggie’s imagination? And does it really matter? While the weird and supernatural would sometimes reassert itself—especially during Hernandez’s unfortunately short-lived Penny Century series, only recently, with Love and Rockets New Stories has Jaime again openly dabbled in strictly comic book-inspired scenarios.

By the way-- notice how Maggie twice rips her pants with similar curved sound effect lettering, once in spectacular fashion in a half-page panel that's absolutely gorgeous. I wonder if this was a common occurrence in the punk rock world of the late 70s and early 80s with all the tight jeans everyone seems to have been wearing.

In later stories, Jaime Hernandez would have Maggie’s heart rip in much the same way—over and over. With this hefty slab of a book, you can see how it all began. Maggie the Mechanic is a comic library essential.

Shoot! This is a reading essential.

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