The Hernandez Brothers. Love and Rockets New Stories, No 5. Seattle: Fantagraphic Books, 2012. 104 pp. $14.99.
The experienced Hernandez brothers reader approaches Love and Rockets: New Stories, No. 5 with anxiety and zeal. One of the better-reviewed comics of 2012, it follows the volume of New Stories destined for consideration as one of the brothers’ best efforts. After an intense reconfiguring of destinies regarding key figures Maggie and Ray in that volume, a familiar reader jostled into new familiarity anticipates volume 5 with the knowledge that Gilbert and Jaime regard no character as safe—physically, emotionally, or mentally—even when rendering tender triumphs for their A-list characters. So, it is with some sense of reprieve that one comes to see volume 5 as an interlude focusing on ancillaries acting as stand-ins to the major players.
Gilbert conspires with unwitting readers to create a Platonic multi-framing of Palomar via mining comics’ capacities for multilinear narrative. Jaime focuses on half-sisters Tonta and Vivian—one an uncomely analogue to younger Maggie and the other a more physically vivacious but just as befuddling entanglement as Hopey.
In four parts, Palomar is framed as a lived space currently visited by Dora “Killer” Rivera, eager to learn her family’s history; a pseudo-fictional space framed by the unsure memories of its current and past residents; and as a filmic space via another Fritz movie, this time one in which she plays Bula, a bumbling, poor man’s Luba. Her and Pipo’s “Proof That The Devil Loves You” takes liberties with the other liberties, troping—perhaps through Gilbert’s attempt at self-critique?—the sensationalism, magic, and mystery of Palomar. One is never quite sure what is real, what is imagined, and what could be canon. Where is the Platonic truth? The Platonic Palomar? In the spectrally acknowledged space, all representations are removed from their possible envisionments, even the “final” printed product (as if there is a “final” form when it comes to the Hernandez brothers’ opus, which is constantly repackaged and rearranged, another element of their work that Gilbert might slyly acknowledge via his puzzle-piece approach in this volume).
Jaime’s sections investigate crushes; bad decisions and their consequences; notions of beauty, body, and worth; friendship, and power: par for the course for those who know his work. Indeed, is that why Jaime provides the cover image of Tonta and Vivian, searching if not unsure of their place at a country club’s pool, complete with golfers, uninvolved and uninterested in the girls, in the background? After unsettling and resettling in the last book, is he signifying that this text is “safe,” a spin on stories we’ve seen before? Perhaps, but it doesn’t help that even as a teen, Tonta’s cover image looks like an older, worn-out, slumped-back Maggie, leading one to wonder if Jaime is suggesting that caring for Ray was not in her best interest. As it is, the sisters seem suspiciously close to revisiting troubles caused by other characters’ shenanigans with H. R. Costigan via affluent and influential Mr. Spropp’s interest with Frogmouth, but with a grittier, lower-rent feel.
Tender moments are interlaced with shock and schlock in both features. Palomar’s Vincente is given an origin story in which he is saved by birth parents ready to drown him due to his physical appearance, only to be rescued and adopted while his mother and father drown twice: once in a bottle and then in the river that would have filled his lungs. Water ultimately claims the life of unstable Bula as well, as she is unable to find her place in Palomar even as others embrace theirs or seek the courage to escape. Tyrants rise and crumble. There is the seemingly obligatory sex and wantonness of certain characters that underlie their searching, longing, and dissatisfaction. Tonta’s crush on Eric Lopez and sneaking to punk concerts further instills a comfort and nostalgia, alluding to the series’ earliest tales. Hope and positive change through youth appears to be an undercurrent, as Dora’s interest in her ancestry suggests healthy and prolonged revisiting of Palomar. Luba ends the volume possibly embracing new happiness with Dom and is surprised to find herself lacking the hammer she has long clutched—either literally or psychologically as a self-help trace (she has given up carrying the physical artifact)—and not wanting or needing it.
And then there’s Ray, narrating a scant segment as infused with (intentionally?) confused nostalgia as the rest of the volume. He recounts his friendship with Doyle, who seems to save the day vis-à-vis Vivian and Tonta’s troubles. Intermittent, blacked-out panels suggest that Ray is cognizant sometimes and out of it others, but it is a phrase imbued with ambiguity that rocks his three-paged narration. He says of Vivian, “I wanted to do something nasty with her right there but she shortly left with the guys” (91). Is he referring to the past, or now? If now, has safe nostalgia collided with brewing conflict? Is Ray not so transformed, even reverting to wishy-washy type? Is he just okay with Maggie, whom he calls a “mother hen,” but still hot for Frogmouth? If so, does his futile attraction nullify the culmination of fates suggested in volume 4? Can three pages of a 100-page volume unravel thirty years of narrative?
An interlude, even one rife with Platonic meta-rhetorics and analogues of nostalgia, is insufficient to tell, but while Love and Rockets: New Stories, No. 5 could be a break, it could also be a rupture.