During 1992, nine adult comics were investigated by the Directorate of Publications in South Africa, leading to a national sales ban on four publications. These included Love and Rockets, a comic which started publication in 1982, and is often seen as one of the innovators of the 1980s “alternative comics” boom. The Directorate of Publications commented on their reasons for the ban:
Pages … show male and female pubic nudity, female breast nudity and couples in explicit sexual positions. This in itself however, does not lead to a finding of undesirability. The aggravating factors present in hoc casu do render the publication undesirable as the publication has a wide likely viewership, the focus is on extra-marital sex and there appears to be no merit whatsoever. (Goldstuck)
As these comments suggest, the obscenity of a text is not solely based upon the presence or absence of sexual depictions; it is rather a matter of context. This can be seen in many jurisdictions: the 1959 Obscene Publications Act in the UK and article 235 of the New York Penal laws both state that the publications should be “taken as a whole.” Aspects of context which have historically influenced judgements of obscenity, and which can be seen in the Directorate’s judgement, include the literary or artistic “merit” of the text (“no merit whatsoever”), and the class, gender or age of its “wide likely viewership” (modern comics often trigger fears that children may access sexual material).
Another criticism from the Directorate suggests a further context in which sexual acts are understood: that of the narrative that surrounds them, and particularly narrative closure. The Directorate complain: “the reader is left dangling in the air…” (Goldstuck). This comment could be a frustration with Los Bros Hernandez’s use of temporal shifts and cyclical plotlines, or simply with the serial nature of comics publication which can often drop a novice reader into a complex ongoing plot. Although the true nature of the Directorate’s objections is impossible to determine, I wish to take this suggestive comment as a jumping-off point for considering the role of closure in the depiction of sex acts and sexual desire. This article argues that when a reader makes sense of sexual depictions, he/she relies heavily on the narrative in which they occur, and particularly on narrative closure. Without narrative closure, a sexual desire or act can lack meaning. As a result, it can be not “read” at all and become culturally invisible; or, as may be the case in this instance, it can be judged as incongruous, gratuitous and thus “obscene.”
The most common plot used to give context to sexual acts is the romance. Romance plots traditionally depict a man and a woman moving into a relationship. This endpoint relationship is permanent and exclusive, and may also include cohabitation, children, and legal recognition through marriage. This plot is teleological: it depicts a purposeful development towards this validated endpoint and concludes when it is achieved. It depends heavily on closure to provide meaning for the interactions and sex acts it describes. The conclusion makes sense of the activities which come before – infatuations with other characters, fights, and rash behaviour are all judged by the knowledge that the characters eventually find love. The protagonists are permitted to behave in morally questionable ways as long as it moves them closer to closure. Behaviour seen as persistent devotion in romance could be read as harassment in another genre.
This romance narrative extends into the wider culture. Sex in Western mainstream culture is often judged in relation to this endpoint – how far does it move the participants towards this idealised relationship? This goal turns “good sex” into a narrative act. Sex acts that depart from this plot trajectory – which is non-monogamous, “casual” (not leading to further sex or a relationship), non-reproductive, or in a sexual relationship which is acknowledged to be non-permanent – are all often seen as lacking worth or transcendence.
However, the romance is no longer the only plot to depict sexual desire. A relative newcomer in the field of sexual narrative is the lesbian and gay “coming out story.” This genre emerged in the 1970s and is still popular today. Paul Robinson, in his survey of gay autobiography, defines the new genre by its new political emphasis: “in general the story of oppression remains at the margins of the earlier books; it is a central organising principle in none of them” (16). The coming out story, he argues, rests on the drama of oppression and liberation. Bonnie Zimmerman also states that stories of lesbian self-discovery develop a new political dimension from 1969 onwards: as well as self-recognition, the heroine must experience “an affirmation of [her] lesbianism to the outside world and a journey towards freedom” (35). The coming out story is one facet of a new, confident gay and lesbian identity politics. Hundreds of autobiographical and fictional accounts tell a similar tale – initial feelings of “difference,” self-interrogation leading to a crisis, revelation and acceptance, coming out to friends or family, moving from isolation to community. As with romance, this narrative gives context and meaning to sex acts through a narrative framework. This is a breakthrough for lesbian and gay identity: same-sex sex acts are saved from their cultural isolation, and embedded as elements in a story of personal development, seeking identity and establishing community.
The coming out story is as teleological as the romance. In the coming out story, every stage of the plot is affected by the assumption that the protagonist is gay and should come to claim this identity. As with the romance, this justifies questionable behaviour; in the coming out story, the protagonist often behaves tactlessly or cruelly to his/her friends, family or sexual partners in his/her search for identity. Robinson notes the “conversion narrative” structure: texts “describe the writer’s inexorable progress” towards “his new identity” (308). For Zimmerman, “the lesbian coming out story takes its pilgrim on a progress towards wholeness” (38); “the hero must ‘come home’ to women” (35). Biddy Martin comments that many coming out autobiographies “are tautological insofar as they describe a process of coming to know something that has always been true, a truth to which the author has returned.” (281) Under these circumstances, sex is not “good” only when it leads to a permanent monogamous relationship, as in the romance plot. Instead, sex is “good” when it moves the protagonist towards their identity – from self-doubt to self-knowledge, from loneliness to community. Margaretta Jolly sees the climax of the coming out story as the “integration of social and psychic parts,” of inside and outside, of personal feeling and the public declaration. She notes “the emotional pull towards a teleological coherence and unity and how easily that becomes conventionalised’ (477-8).
And as with the romance, this plot is not confined to books, films or other narrative products, but determines understandings of sex in wider culture. Sociologist Ken Plummer locates coming out stories as one of the most influential “sexual stories” that have developed in the late 20th century. The plethora of gay self-help guides (Outing Yourself by Michelangelo Signorile, Coming Out Every Day by Bret K. Johnson, Coming Out: An Act of Love by Rob Eichberg) indicate the extent to which this plot of self-discovery and declaration has become a key paradigm for gay identity.
Several critics of fiction have noted that both of these plots have negative implications for their central characters. Joanna Russ argued in 1972 that women characters are tethered to romance plots; they lack other narratives to explore and reflect their roles in society. Expanding on this, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Diana L. Swanson have particularly condemned the role of closure in romance; the woman’s plot is finished when her romance is complete and their brief period of narrative agency is deemed to be over. Judith Roof in 1996 describes coming out stories as “folktales;” formulaic and serving a social purpose. But she believes that lesbian characters are confined by this restrictive cycle of plot and closure, much as Russ sees women characters confined to the romance plot: “Why is the story always the same? […] While for lesbian cultures the coming out story might be liberating, in a more inclusive cultural picture it limits the potential roles and functions of lesbian characters.” (xxvi, 107)
There are differences between these critical positions: Russ’ essay is a seminal example of the “Images of Women” school of criticism, an identity-based approach which assumes the relative stability of a group called “women” and calls for a fuller representation of them (not, as Russ emphasises, descriptions of their lives, but “fictional myths growing out of their lives and told by themselves for themselves” ). Roof is writing from a post-identity queer perspective, one which is in part a reaction against identity politics. Roof does not believe that sexual identities entirely pre-exist their representations in culture. She argues that cultural plots play a large role in constructing lesbian identity, including the plots of “naturalized capitalism and heterosexuality’ (xvii). I will return to both identity politics and queer theory, and their roles in forming and critiquing the coming out story. But despite their ideological divergence, Russ and Roof share an objection to the standardisation and repetition of a single plot, and particularly the teleological focus of that plot.
To summarise my premises: an individual sex act relies, in part, on the narrative in which it is represented, and particularly narrative closure, to have meaning. But two of the key available narratives, for opposite-sex and same-sex sexual desire, have been criticised for confining their characters (particularly women characters, and women who desire women), and having problematic political implications. This conflict is directly relevant to the work of Jaime Hernandez in Love and Rockets, as his protagonists are two women in a sexual relationship. Can a sex act have meaning outside these narratives? I focus on one storyline in Love and Rockets, which follows a group of Latina characters living in the urban American Southwest since the comic’s inception. I explore how the mechanics of comics leave room for a new way of articulating sexual desire altogether, escaping the traditional narratives of romance and coming out.
The image below shows a page taken from the close of “Maggie and Hopey Color Fun Pt 4” (Locas in Love). The lead characters of Love and Rockets, Maggie and Hopey, sit on the curb after a day of events. Their activities all day have been dictated by common Hernandez themes: the need for transport and its breakdown, and the characters gatecrashing and being expelled from a party. The narrative has drifted rather than been driven towards this final panel; this scene has the feeling more of an epilogue than of a climax. Throughout the story, Hopey’s brother has made clear his ongoing attraction to Maggie, while Hopey has been attempting to seduce her brother’s fiancée. After this sexual and spatial wandering, the following panels appear at the close:
Is this an obscene depiction? What does it mean?
In terms of the romance narrative, the sex lacks certain elements. It is certainly not the climax of a romance: this would traditionally involve a declaration of love, a recognition of the relationship’s permanence (such as a proposal of marriage) and its exclusivity, and often a nod towards cohabitation and/or reproduction. This scene does not suggest permanence; Maggie is ready to drive away afterwards, the two women are not cohabiting. And they are discussing the desirability of other women: not necessarily monogamous behaviour, and certainly not common in traditional romance post-coital chat. The closing remarks, although they hint at one character’s desire to live with the other (the speaker is unclear), are diverted into humour. The plot has not concluded, and thus given the sex a definitive meaning; sex has happened, and the plot is continuing.
In terms of the coming out story, the scene is even more ambiguous. Neither participant discusses her identity or the meaning of their sexual desire and activity. There is a suggestion that Maggie is avoiding her family (or whoever is “home”) in order to have same-sex sex – a standard coming out motif – but she then returns to them at the close, rather than feeling empowered to move away from them (emotionally or physically). There is, as described, some discussion of living together, but this is not presented as an opportunity to express a gay identity which has been impossible in the family environment.
So by either of these schemes, Maggie and Hopey’s sex scene seems arbitrary and isolated; it is not marked as a narrative climax, and it takes up very little space. This is typical of the comic as a whole, which specialises in one-frame sexual scenes, often in the middle rather than at the conclusion of a narrative.
Of course, to isolate one sex scene is to overemphasise its acontextual aspects. To do justice to the possibility that Maggie and Hopey are either coming out or falling in love, we have to look beyond the confines of this scene at the ongoing series – more than twenty years of publications. Are they moving towards a romance conclusion? Or could they be using the alternative narrative shape provided by the coming out story?
In romance terms, Maggie is involved with or pursuing men, and Hopey other women. Their non-monogamy, their times of separation and their independence seem to threaten the “old bogus dream” Maggie describes: that “Hopey and I would get married and live happily ever after” (Flies on the Ceiling 51). Hernandez does, however, play with romantic tension and expectations. It is interesting that the recent volume Locas, the most comprehensive collection of these stories to date, ends on an episode that sees Maggie and Hopey reunited after their longest separation (“Bob Richardson”). Maggie rests her head on Hopey’s shoulder, and tiny hearts surround the words “the end.” This gives a romantic conclusion to the collection. But the series continues after this reunion – to Hopey’s cohabitation with another woman, and Maggie’s marriage, divorce and subsequent flirtation with a stripper called Vivian. The collection contains a satisfying narrative arc, but gives a misleading sense of completion.
The romance plot as an ideal often hurts Maggie. Heterosexual romance seems, for her, to be incompatible with living as a capable and independent woman. Maggie’s infatuation with heroic mechanic Rand Race makes her clumsy at work. Her relationship with Speedy Ortiz is similarly unsatisfying. After Speedy has dated Maggie’s sister, sparking off a “war” with neighbouring gangs, Speedy finally makes a declaration to Maggie:
I never really wanted Esther, or Blanca, or… You’re the one I’ve wanted for a long ol’ time. You knew that. You did… Please, Maggie, keep me going… Only you can do it for me. I… I-I love you… (“The Death of Speedy Ortiz” The Death of Speedy)
Maggie shrewdly spots this as not the romantic message of her dreams, but an attempt by Speedy to disown the sexual complications and violence which he has helped generate, and to draw on her strength (“keep me going… Only you can do it for me”). Her response: “Don’t you dare put this one on me!” She is also bewildered by the sudden romantic attention. Her reply sums up all the frustration of her unrequited relationships with men:
Damn you, Speedy! Aren’t you guys all sick and tired of watching me make an ass of myself? Aren’t you? I am! I don’t want to want you any more, Speedy. I don’t want to want Rand Race any more. I can’t… I can’t do it any more. It hurts too much… (“The Death of Speedy Ortiz” The Death of Speedy)
Love and Rockets shows the negative fallout of the romance myth – Maggie longing for a transformative romance, but feeling ultimately unworthy of it and unable to achieve it. A single romantic declaration cannot transform Maggie’s life. Speedy’s declaration of love comes near the end of the plot, but rather than leading to a happy ending for him and Maggie, the next scene shows his death.
In relation to claiming a sexual label, neither verbally identifies herself as lesbian or bisexual. If anything, “punk” is the identity which allows them a degree of space in their gender and sexual roles when younger. Through this they find networks of friends and places where they can live; and “punk” provides material and conceptual space for socially dissident behaviour. (The Hernandez brothers have discussed in interviews their own relation to punk as an “outsider” subculture for young Latinos: “We were Mexicans who happened to like rock ‘n’ roll,” states Jaime Hernandez. “That’s kind of rare where we come from.’ [Bolhafner]).
Hopey and Maggie’s sexual identities are not “in the closet” or “out” but function as a form of open secret; Hopey’s relatives and friends are aware of (or guess at) their relationship, and their interaction with revelation and concealment is playful; as in Hopey’s lengthy interaction with her brother Joey:
JOEY: Cmon, Hopey! You’re not fooling anybody! Everybody knows about you and Maggie!
HOPEY: Oh, yeah, Miss Rona? What are they saying?
JOEY: Well, that you two are… you know, going out.
HOPEY: Oh, horrors! Will I ever live it down? Get lost, will ya?
(“Hey Hopey” Chelo’s Burden)
They alternate between accusation and withdrawal, denial and acknowledgement, until Joey suggests that she is “spoiling Maggie’s chance to be with a real man.” This model of sexual desire between women is at least as old as Havelock Ellis, writing in 1896: the invert (masculine lesbian) lover prevents the non-inverted (feminine bisexual) woman finding “real” love with a man. At this point, Hopey chases her brother with a staple gun.
It is scenes such as this upon which any assessment of Hopey and Maggie’s sexual identity should be considered. It’s easy to say that Hopey is a lesbian and Maggie bisexual, but these exchanges typify the way in which information is never abstracted to this point.
There are particular problems with searching for a coming out story in Love and Rockets. This narrative has given unparalleled visibility and coherence to modern gay identity. But it achieves this prominence and coherence in part by becoming standardised, and the focus on one set of experiences and events can lead to problematic exclusions. Paul Robinson states (of the male authors of the genre), “I have been struck by the remarkable similarity of the stories they tell” (307). Bonnie Zimmerman also acknowledges that there is an extraordinary degree of conformity between lesbian coming out stories, but states that this is not necessarily a disadvantage; “…conformity is how a woman knows she is a lesbian” (51). But what happens to the woman with same-sex sexual desires who doesn’t conform?
Such debates around representation and exclusion fit into a wider ideological shift between identity politics in the 1970s and 1980s, and “queer theory’ and activism in the 1990s. The coming out story is a cornerstone of identity politics: as noted by Paul Robinson, the fight against homophobic oppression is the genre’s new organising principle, and the motor for its plot. The new story is a vital tool in the process whereby same-sex sexual desire gains a voice, and cultural and political recognition, by (re)presenting a particular model of sexual identity. Many individuals gratefully identify with this identity. But queer theorists and activists have questioned the limits of identity politics and its strategies.1
They argue, following Foucault’s influential analysis (in The History of Sexuality: Volume I), that sexual identity labels are not essential or cross-cultural. Rather, they are socially constructed and deeply embedded in specific cultures. Thus rather than simply representing a pre-existing sexual identity group, identity politics actually assists in the construction of that identity. Gay and lesbian identity politics have contributed to what is included in, and excluded from, gay and lesbian identity. Particularly problematic is the fact that such exclusions will often follow standard lines of race, class and ethnic privilege in the “parent” culture.
Women of colour who experience same-sex sexual desire have repeatedly described the implicit bias of identity politics and its narratives. Ami R. Mattison in “I Am A Story” states that, far from expressing the subtleties of her identities, the coming out story imposes a normative rubric which compromises her ability to describe her own experience. Editor Sharon Lim-Hing also describes the over-simplification that can arise from women of colour attempting to describe their experiences for white women in the formula established by coming out stories. Jolly, considering queer autobiographies from the US and China, has noted the “interesting convergence between western queer and non-western sexual dissidence. The former, jaded with liberal-right tokenism and identity politics, the latter generally suspicious of them from the start; each seeks contingent, collective, relational kinds of sexual representation that do not depend upon essential ideas of gay or other identity” (Jolly, 476). I feel a similar convergence can be found between queer theorists and minority ethnicity groups within western cultures.
The most practical upshot of this queer critical perspective is a greater awareness that the model offered by the coming out story for conceptualising same-sex desire is not universally suitable or possible. This awareness conflicts with the universalising presumptions often present in the texts themselves. Paul Monette’s autobiography is a white, middle-class man’s coming out story, but he also positions his story as exemplary. At first he claims authority only to tell his own tale – “I speak for no one else here” – but then adds: “Yet I’ve come to learn that all our stories add up to the same imprisonment’ (1). And he denies the same authority to tell their stories to those still “in:” “This I know: Those who are still in the closet will get the tale wrong, however I tell it. Get it wrong as a cardinal would, or a shit-eating bachelor Republican.” (4) (Robert McRuer discusses similar “universalising” strategies in A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White.) This expectation that where individuals share an identity, they will also share similar life experiences is a bedrock of identity politics; common experience is intended to bond a community and inform political campaigning. Identity political organisations have repeatedly experienced fragmentation and fierce infighting because this shared ground has not materialised. The range of life experiences even within small identity categories has proved too divergent to generate any unified politics. Monette’s claims to universality combine with a deep investment in coming out. He compares staying “in” to collaboration with the Nazi regime: “For that is the choice, it seems to me: collaborate or resist” (4).2
With such a negative weight on those who don’t come out, it becomes yet more problematic that the events which make up the coming out process are not equally open to all. For example, leaving the family and becoming part of the lesbian or gay community is a traditional conclusion to the coming out story. However, for Chicana women, the family often provides a sense of cultural continuity and support in a racist society; this is a less pressing need for most white Americans. This conclusion also supposes that the protagonist will feel comfortable, and most fully recognised, in the lesbian or gay community. In her introduction to Companeras, a collection of Latina lesbian oral histories, Mariana Romo-Carmona highlights both the heavy cultural significance of leaving home, and the anglocentricism of the white lesbian community:
Our choice of lifestyle – to leave the family, to live with women or alone, is seen as adopting foreign ways… After the initial relief we experience in being among lesbians, we find that within the white community there is no way to express our identity as Latinas. (Ramos xxvi)
Leaving the home town is similarly significant: as Mark Doty summarises in his memoir: “Young Gay Man Leaves Stultifying Midwest for the Urban World of Romance and Permission: a classic American story, and I won’t retell it here.” (50-1). Critic William Spurlin gives a similar summary, to critique it: “…a romanticized prototype of the queer child who saves money and gets on a train bound for New York or some other coastal city in search of a new life more compatible with his or her emerging sexual identity” (182). This kind of mobility requires money. Often, the protagonist of a coming out story will use their time at further education to escape both the family and the home town, and explore their sexual identity. This suggests a high level of education and again, a disposable income or family resources.
Maggie and Hopey’s lives show the impossibility of universalising these stages of coming out. Education doesn’t offer either character a privileged space in which to explore her sexual identity. Training as a mechanic is satisfying for Maggie, but she is continually reminded that this is inappropriate work for her as a woman, and has only patchy employment; work is not an escape route. Maggie lives in a neighbourhood populated by relatives and family friends and remains in contact with them, and both characters often live with her relatives (Maggie lives with her aunt at one stage, both characters with Maggie’s cousin Izzy at another). There is a risk that their sexual interaction and very real affection will simply not be recognised if the comic is judged according to a traditional coming out narrative path.
The coming out story is also a mixed blessing for those who have both same-sex and opposite-sex sexual desires. Bisexuality and bisexuals have often been excluded from lesbian communities and conceptual spaces, in order to construct a coherent lesbian identity (see Elizabeth Armstrong and Susan M Sturgis). This exclusion is replicated and justified in coming out stories. The standard plot often uses the absolute repudiation of opposite sex-desire as a climax of the coming out process – the protagonist will break up with their opposite-sex partner, swear off heterosexual dating, and cease their search for a “cure” that will allow them to feel opposite-sex desire. This is an understandable plot feature, as gay men and lesbians have for years had their sexual feelings misrepresented as a perverse supplement to heterosexuality or as a phase. For the gay or lesbian protagonist to state, “I desire only my own sex, and always will,” is an ambitious and necessary act.
But where does this leave those with sexual desires for men and women? In the coming out story, they are usually cast as self-deceiving or cowardly characters. In two of the most popular women’s coming out novels, a female character has sex with the female protagonist but then marries a man (Leota in Rubyfruit Jungle and Melanie in Oranges are Not the Only Fruit). The married women are subsequently depicted as racist and “sagging” (Brown 216) and “bovine,” “almost vegetable” (Winterson 124, 171). This demonisation helps to demonstrate the bravery and self-awareness of the gay or lesbian protagonist – again, a useful task in a homophobic culture. But this strategy means that the key cultural story we have for understanding same-sex sexual desire has made foundational to its plot the expulsion of opposite-sex sexual desire. It has excluded the possibility of a character with self-aware, ongoing desire for both sexes.
This is a particular issue for the character of Maggie. Maggie sexually desires men. She also sexually desires women, more rarely, and Hopey, consistently. She is capable of canny observations about the power relations of women around same-sex sexual acts. When a friend asks about her quasi-relationship with Vivian, she replies wearily: “I’m just her little kissin’ buddy. You know, straight girl bustin’ out and gettin’ girl tongue” (Ghost of Hoppers 71).
But Maggie doesn’t (as far as we know) claim the identity label “bisexual,” or attend any groups or events organised around sexual identity. The comic has explored her fears both of becoming invisible, indistinguishable from other women of her age (no longer rebellious and unique), or of becoming a “dyke” – too visible and unorthodox (“The Race” Penny Century Issue 7). Clearly both options arouse negative feelings for her.
Maggie lives as a working-class Chicana woman, trained for a non-traditional job in a sexist and racist society, desiring both men and women. If she cannot complete the standardised gay coming out narrative, where does this leave her? Sometimes Maggie explicitly refers to endpoints she might attain. She defiantly tells her aunt: “[…] I’m gonna find Hopey, an’ I’m gonna marry her, see… An’ one of us will grow a weenie an’ we’re gonna have babies […] Y’all hear what I’m saying?” (“In the Valley of the Polar Bears Pt II” Death of Speedy 112). And she muses on the possibilities of hetero-closure in a combination of optimism and pessimism to Hopey: “Y’know, the way I see it, we’re gonna keep getting fucked around till we’re gonna have to give in and marry some brain surgeons, or something” (“8:01 a.m. – 11:15 p.m.” Duck Feet). But both these remarks are provoked by exasperation, and neither shows a firm faith in the conclusion she describes.
So we have two narratives that might provide Hopey or Maggie with context for their sexual interaction – coming out or romance. It is impossible to define the series as either without doing damage to its complexity. And yet, I argue, Maggie does articulate sexual desire, both same-sex and opposite-sex, at least partially outside either a coming out or a heteronormative romance model. Not as an individual who is entirely at ease with sexual desire without needing an identity; certainly not as someone who has claimed a “queer” stance, deliberately avoiding a label because of the pitfalls of identity politics. Maggie is full of conflicting feelings, and is in many senses a casualty of both the romance narrative and the coming out story. But these stories do express her same-sex and opposite-sex desire without being structured around either of these stories.
I wish to consider the ways in which both Maggie’s same-sex and opposite-sex desire are conveyed to the reader. This is done, I argue, by exploiting techniques available to the comics medium to avoid closure; and also by drawing focus back down from the life-narrative as a whole to the daily experience of queer Latina life. This reduces the dependence on teleology in depicting sexual desire.
These ambiguities of identity/narrative are supported by techniques that Hernandez employs for unsettling closure and end-determined narrative in his strips. Readers already wait a month or two months for each comic. But it is perfectly possible for an artist to condense a traditional plot of closure into one issue, or provide a longer story arc over several issues. Instead, in Love and Rockets, this underlying delay is enhanced by further evasions of closure.
Flashbacks are one of these techniques. They disturb a linear chronology, inserting information about the past that forces the reader to re-interpret the present action. Dream sequences suggest alternative plotlines (one such takes place near the close of Chester Square). Events which may be hallucinations are never proven or disproven in episodes that could be compared to magic realism (in one episode, family friend Izzy grows to an enormous size when suffering from nerves). Ambiguous visual images leave gaps in the reader’s understanding. For instance, in “Chester Square” Maggie has to exchange sex for money to buy a bus ticket. This is an example of a sex act without an immediate explanatory context. It takes place with very little dialogue, and as a result, Maggie’s feelings are hard to judge: Is she upset, excited, sympathetic to her unexpected client? This event only receives a partial verbal explanation much later, in “Maggie the Mechanic or Perla the Prostitute.” The title refers to Maggie exploring her employment options (including work as a mechanic) and telling a friend, Gina, about being paid for sex. Even when Maggie’s sex work is finally discussed, there are hints that Gina’s disapproval may be informing the way Maggie tells, and even remembers, events. Maggie concludes the story by describing Hopey: “Yes, Gina. I had a girlfriend. She was my chick. I was her squeeze. We were in love, but that’s over now. OK?” Maggie seems to be simplifying her relationship with Hopey in order to quash Gina’s enquiries, which implies that she may be oversimplifying similar ambiguities around having sold sex.
Hernandez’s technique of returning to thicken past plots is common – the content of the comic is often the > revelation or re-evaluation of the past, rather than new events. Thus even a “settled” issue – such as Maggie’s teenage love life – may be opened again for consideration. In a recent major move that both deepens Maggie’s emotional life and disturbs its chronology, the reader is told of her marriage; but we learn about this in flashback at the divorce party. Marriage, the ultimate end to the romance plot, has been depicted, but alongside the information that it hasn’t endured.
And closure is not the focal point of the plot, either in individual instalments or in longer narrative arcs. Early issues of the comic involve superhero-inspired tales involving Maggie in international rocket repair missions; these follow plots of danger and resolution (they also demonstrate that comics, despite being a serial medium, can be traditional in their approach to plot structure). But later issues concentrate on presentations of the character’s everyday lives, without central, structuring events. What is most often depicted is the cyclical need to find housing, transport and beer. These daily problems and resolutions lack a sense of overt structure or closure, as characters are constantly in danger of being re-evicted, stranded and carded. By drawing the focus of the text back from an endpoint to the cyclical and meandering plotlines of the comic, meaning is also drawn down; it shifts from residing at the end of the story to resting at the level of the daily event. In the most recent collected edition, Ghost of Hoppers, a subplot involves that utterly standardised romantic declaration: “I love you.” But true to form, rather than this being the end of a narrative, it becomes a source of confusion. Maggie believes she heard Hopey say it during a phone conversation; Izzy points out that the phone was broken at the time. Is Maggie hallucinating? Is it one of the many surreal or supernatural interventions in the comic? The final instalment of the volume shows Hopey repeating the declaration, and Maggie returning it; but again, this is not the end of their story. It is one element in the ongoing negotiation of their relationship.
At times Hernandez demands that the reader understand that they are not in possession of conclusive or complete information about each character or each event. The series, and each instalment, begin in media res; from the first instalment, casual reference is made to characters and events that pre-date the narrative or are otherwise unavailable to the reader. For example, one character (Del Chimney) is often referred to but only ever depicted in flashback; he has been murdered before the chronological start-point of the series. Reminiscence and rumour power the conversations and plots.
In the gaps created by this absence of information, readers are given permission to elaborate their own interpretations. They are encouraged by proofs that there is more to a scene or a story than is directly depicted. A standard comic technique is the spacing of panels to depict less and less of the action, forcing ever greater interpretative acts from the reader; such as in the scene earlier considered, where the characters change location from curb to car, and move from chat to sex and back again. The structure encourages readers to vividly interact with the text; to take what they know about characters from other issues of the comic, and speculate to fill the gaps. Without this kind of reader investment and imagination, the scene I showed can be labelled obscene – it is a sexually explicit fragment without a context to give it “redeeming value.” But with the imaginative investment of the reader, it becomes a part of a whole: a snapshot of the ongoing relationship between Maggie and Hopey. This relationship has developed over instalments, each of them only a fragment of narrative, since 1983. If as Scott McCloud states, “To kill a man between panels is to condemn him to a thousand deaths” (McCloud 68), then to depict a relationship between panels – and between issues – is to fill it with a thousand conversations and sex acts.
So when reading Love and Rockets we lack closure, and within the pieces of daily narrative that we are given, we lack all the information. These refusals of closure allow characters such as Maggie the space to articulate different sexual desires without a finalising endpoint. Other critics have suggested that holding off closure allows both-sex/bisexual desires to be articulated. Ann Kaloski suggests that within coming out stories, having an open or ambiguous ending might be an effective way in which to sustain the possibility of sexual feelings for both sexes. She returns to Choices, a popular lesbian coming out novel, and uses a queer perspective to emphasise the transgressive power of the bisexual ex-girlfriend. Similarly, Marjorie Garber suggests that a romance plot can also be a way of depicting both kinds of sexual desire, if the heterosexual romantic conclusion is problematised or de-naturalised. Her example is the ambiguous conclusion of Henry James’ The Bostonians.
I wish to conclude with brief a consideration of some techniques by which Maggie’s sexual desires are articulated at this daily level. As noted, Love and Rockets has (at present) no end-point of sexual closure for Maggie. It would be possible for the text to oscillate between two available conclusions – hetero- and homo- sexuality – without breaking down the basic assumption that there will be an ending, and that the ending will retrospectively elevate certain events above others. Maggie could “become” straight, reducing the importance of her relationship with Hopey; she could “become” gay, retrospectively casting her feelings for men as infatuation. I argue that the text avoids this kind of movement back and forth: there is a more subtle interplay of Maggie’s desires for men and for Hopey, highlighting both similarities and differences, which does not allow the reader to ignore either attraction.
Julie Abraham, in a discussion of the concept of “the lesbian novel,” describes the strategy in HD’s novel Her whereby opposite-sex desire is used as a counterpoint to same-sex in narrative terms:
Through the stories of Hermione’s relationships with George and Fayne, which […] “intersect […] with great complexity,” HD uses the heterosexual plot as a means of gaining access to representation for an experience for which there is no literary as well as no social form. (Abraham 8)
Abraham shows how constant cross-references between the two lovers present the heroine’s two relationships as analogous; this, she argues, encourages a reader of the time to acknowledge the sexual nature of the relationship between the two women. Abraham’s argument contains problems: she seems to view “high art” experimental representations as automatically more transgressive than popular fiction, and is reluctant to consider a character having an authentic sexual desire for both sexes, both of which trouble an application of her theory to Love and Rockets. But her reading is useful in suggesting how Hernandez presents Maggie’s sexuality. Male characters, and Maggie’s desire for them, are used as a point of comparison to Maggie’s relationship with Hopey. This confounds the heteronormative plot, which would deny the importance of her female lover, by stressing Hopey’s importance as equivalent to that of a male partner; it also denies the lesbian coming out story that demands the cessation of opposite-sex desire.
For example, in one episode, a flashback shows Maggie in high school, telling Hopey that a boy named Ray is her boyfriend. This is a lie, and one that highlights her contemporary relationship with Hopey, which has no label but which is infinitely more concrete. This high-school lie becomes a rumour. Near the conclusion of the same episode, Maggie sits on the pavement and thinks of Ray: “So he’s always hated my guts. So I started that stupid rumour just cause I liked him. Like I liked Race… and Speedy…” Race and Speedy are other unattainable boys, far less present in her daily life than Hopey. As she speaks, Maggie’s hand trails on the ground where the words “HOPEY LOVES MAGGIE” are drawn in the cement. This message – unnoticed by Maggie – was left by Hopey on the same day that Maggie started the rumour. This scene – and the whole episode – guides the reader back over Maggie’s history of unsuccessful infatuations with boys – Ray, Race, Speedy – then shows the literally concrete signs of Hopey’s continuous affection. This comparison and counterpointing continues throughout. In this same episode, which has several substantial flashbacks, the recollected moments concerning Maggie and Hopey’s relationship are also always moments that record Maggie’s infatuation with Ray. The meaning of the flashbacks is ambivalent; they could depict Maggie’s love for Hopey (who has just left town), but they could also be intended to provide a history and a background for a new relationship with Ray (who has recently arrived back in the area).
This counterpoint encourages the reader to ask questions about the meaning of Maggie’s relationships without final knowledge of their outcome: regardless of what may happen in future instalments, what is meant by Maggie’s crushes on men, what is the substance of her relationship with Hopey? How does a fantasy investment in a heterosexual romantic ideal compare to a non-monogamous and unlabelled relationship with one’s female best friend? The text provides no definitive answer.
Finally, the time-scale of this episode is central to its lack of closure. “The Return of Ray D.” is one day in Maggie’s life and this is typical of Hernandez’s work; for example, the episode ‘8:01 a.m. – 11:15 p.m.’ (Duck Feet) is one day depicted over 16 pages and nine locations, and arranged in episodes denoted by announcements of the time. These are not the most remarkable days in Maggie or Hopey’s lives, but the most typical. The emphasis on the daily in these pieces gives less opportunity to depict the monumental metanarratives of a life, and instead offers a series of different insights. It is through the daily story, rather than the life story, that a certain irreducibility of the topography, economic situation, familial and friend networks, and sexual meanings of a life emerges. And it is through the lack of closure that the register of meaning is shifted back from being end-determined to being daily-determined, or even indeterminate. It is through delaying closure, through not relying on an end-point or overview of life, and through focus on the daily rather than the overall life, that Love and Rockets is able to articulate Maggie’s sexual feelings with such a degree of success.
Although this article is informed by a queer and post-identity perspective, I am aware of the dangers of appropriating minority ethnic and working class experiences and texts in order to substantiate an academic discipline that is for the most part produced in white and middle-class institutions. I do believe that queer theory has helped interrogate the normative construction of gay and lesbian identity in ways that may be of use to non-white and working-class subjects. I also feel that this may lead to nuanced and interested representations of same-sex sexual desire. However, I don’t want to romanticise the characters of Love and Rockets for deconstructing sexual metanarratives when their options are limited by their circumstances. For example, it is difficult to distinguish between Maggie’s close relations with members of her family and her forced reliance upon them because of her lack of money. Given the time, money and transport, Maggie could perhaps be attending a meeting for women who love women, buying a house with Hopey or participating in other acts from a standardised coming out narrative. I don’t wish to re-install the daily and fragmentary as the privileged mode of life story for queers, bisexuals, women, and people of colour; and especially not to argue that the life stories of such people are innately more hybrid and fragmentary. Neither would I wish to suggest that access to more traditional forms of narrative is unimportant or disempowering – plots such as the romance or the coming out story, the traditional autobiography or the Bildungsroman can be powerful tools when written by the culturally marginalised. Academic debates around lesbian depictions in fiction (to which Abraham contributes) have often valued modernist, fragmented and experimental texts as more inherently or usefully “lesbian” than realist popular representations; this seems a dangerous dichotomy to establish, as it discourages those marginalised from depicting themselves, or seeking to be depicted, in a large proportion of our culture’s texts.
However, while avoiding queer euphoria, I wish to question the imposition of a monolithic identity politics. To see characters as perpetually pre-gay or in the closet, with their sexual identities not fully realised until they embark on an established sequence of acts, is to impose one narrative structure as a requirement for same-sex desire – a narrative that not only requires money but also often ignores gender and race. I believe that queer desire can achieve visibility without standardising its representation in ways that are exclusionary. Love and Rockets makes an invigorating case for less standardised, more complex depictions of sexual desire. It also demonstrates that a text can be experimental and innovative without being elitist.
The critic Peter Brooks describes the desire for meaning provided by closure and death as “knowledge of death,” “the death that writes finis to the life and therefore confers on it its meaning” (22). Love and Rockets insists that meaning be found not finally, retrospectively, at the grand conclusion, but continually in everyday life. I believe this offers great possibilities for the articulation of same-sex desire. Love and Rockets insists that the reader make decisions about the meanings of sexual interactions without having “the full picture.”
To conclude I offer Judith Roof’s aspirational description of how a text might begin “breaking up the heteronarrative:”
breaking up the heteronarrative… would mean not just never ending, but never perceiving an end as a possibility, as something missing, sacrificed or misplaced… putting repetition, alternation and accrual in place of progress and closure. (Roof 182-3)
She suggests music and popular television as possible venues for this form of anti-narrative. I suggest that the narrative strategies of Love and Rockets are already strikingly suitable for her requirements. They work far more with “repetition, alternation and accrual” than with closure; through this they offer a new form of pleasure in inconclusive desire.
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