Hignite, Todd. The Art of Jamie Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2010. 224 pp. $40.00
In The Art of Jamie Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death, Todd Hignite, as he announces at the end of the book’s “Preface,” intends “to introduce and give voice to Hernandez’s richly varied oeuvre” (28). In this purpose, Hignite succeeds while attempting to straddle both the popular/mainstream and academic audiences that exist for this book. Lavishly illustrated, The Art of Jamie Hernandez not only includes extensive examples from throughout the artist’s career of what its title promises, but also numerous photographs—e.g., of Hernandez’s family, his adolescence and beyond, and his studio—as well as the work of other artists within and outside of comics that exert a profound influence on Hernandez. Often working in juxtaposition with the text as well as each other, the visual materials included within The Art of Jamie Hernandez make it a strikingly attractive introduction to the artist and his work.
Following the “Preface,” which includes an extended version of Hernandez’s piece for the New York Time Magazine, “La Maggie La Loca,” The Art of Jamie Hernandez follows an essentially chronological structure, beginning with Chapters One and Two which, respectively, detail Hernandez’s childhood in Oxnard, California, and the various pop culture influences that feed into Hernandez’s work. Chapters Three through Eight, and thus the bulk of the text, concentrate on the fifty issues that make up Love & Rockets Volume 1 where, alongside his brothers Gilbert and Mario, Hernandez would introduce and publish his first stories featuring his best-known and loved characters, Maggie and Hopey. With the exception of Chapter Seven, a brief study of Hernandez’s storytelling using the complete piece “Spring, 1982,” which originally appeared in Love & Rockets (Vol. 1) #31, these chapters chart not only the narrative evolution of Hernandez’s characters, but also of the artist’s style, influences, and themes. The remaining chapters cover Hernandez’s non-Love & Rockets work (Chapter 9), the second volume of Love & Rockets as well as its current incarnation as an annual, Love & Rockets: New Stories (Chapter Ten), and conclude with Hernandez’s work and philosophy as an illustrator, followed by a glimpse into his sketchbooks (Chapters Eleven and Twelve, respectively). As a whole, these chapters comprise a fairly comprehensive survey of Hernandez’s life, work, and art.
Hignite’s second chapter best demonstrates the strength of the book’s content. Entitled “‘Junk’ Culture,” the chapter details Hernandez’s myriad childhood interests from American pop culture that exert a profound influence on his work. Hignite adeptly surveys the wide range of comics that ignited the artist’s passion for the medium: Golden Age super heroes (transmitted from Hernandez’s mother to her children), cartoon/humor comics such as Herbie and Harvey Publications’ staple of characters, Peanuts, Archie, Dennis the Menace, Silver Age superhero comics from DC, Marvel, the lesser-known characters from the Charlton and Standard companies, and MAD Magazine. Additionally, Hignite covers in detail the young Hernandez’s fascination with televised movies and shows from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Dr. Strangelove, monster movies to televised wrestling, the last of these remaining particularly evidenced in Hernandez’s work today. Finally, Hignite closes the chapter by both capturing the adolescent Hernandez’s exposure to southern Californian punk culture, another prominently displayed factor in his work, and paralleling it to Hernandez’s maturation as a comic artist. Overall, the chapter adroitly marks several transitions in Hernandez’s early life and career, assembling his various popular culture interests from childhood to adolescence into a larger picture of his developing artistic sensibilities, which lead into his contributions to the first volume of Love & Rockets.
Another significant feature of The Art of Jaime Hernandez is Hignite’s inclusion of a variety of images, documents and other materials from throughout Hernandez’s life and career. Hignite effectively juxtaposes Hernandez’s work with those of other comic artists. Examples of Hernandez’s early work—such as the original artwork for his “Li’l Ray and the Gang” strip that appeared in Love & Rockets (Vol. 1) #28 (see pages 42-45)—not only demonstrate, as Hignite’s captions reveal, how Hernandez translated his family and Oxnard neighborhood into his work, but also evidence the clear artistic influence of Peanuts and Dennis the Menace. A pairing of another panel from “Locos” (Love & Rockets [Vol. 1] #7) with a section of an Archie splash page (see page 125) marks a moment where Hernandez clearly shows a direct homage to another of his influences. The Art of Jaime Hernandez also comprises numerous and copious examples of Hernandez’s own work, including several complete stories from Love & Rockets and elsewhere: in addition to those already mentioned, “¡Mojado Power!” (118-119), “Jerusalem Crickets” (132-133), “La Blanca” from Measles (1740-175), and “To Be Announced” from Penny Century (177). But the visual offerings of The Art of Jamie Hernandez extend beyond the artist’s published work. The text is replete with photographs, while other rarities such as a two-page spread of the young Hernandez’s Pee-Chee folder covered in drawings (56-57), flyers, sketches, advertisements, album and magazine covers, character studies, and hand-written notes for such sequences as “Chester Square” in the first volume of Love & Rockets (162-163) and for Love & Rockets: New Stories (186)—likewise loom large throughout the book’s chapters, giving the package as a whole a strong visual appeal.
While the text’s combination of coverage and illustrative materials seems directed towards a primarily popular or mainstream audience, The Art of Jamie Hernandez also attempts some appeal to an academic audience. This effort ends up somewhat mixed in its results. The “Introduction” by Fun Home creator Alison Bechdel, for example, identifies a theme of “otherness” in Hernandez’s work, as well as the artist’s “deconstruction of the male gaze” in his visual depictions of women (9), both of which are points Hignite repeatedly circles back to over the course of the text and throughout the various phases of Hernandez’s life and career. Hignite similarly touches on Hernandez’s tendency towards magical realism, both in his youthful predilection for making up stories, “many of which involved the extraordinary in the ordinary,” and the various oscillations of his characters and realities in later work (38, 109-110). The Art of Jamie Hernandez, finally, undertakes some analysis of the narrative construction of the artist’s work. Hignite mentions several times how Hernandez deviates from, plays with, and reinvents comic book conventions, and notes how “[s]triking juxtaposition is key to Hernandez’s brand of narrative whether in stories or single images” (103).
However, it is in its attempts at narrative analysis that The Art of Jamie Hernandez starts to reveal some of its weaknesses. For one, Hignite at times is given to rather superlative and hyperbolic statements, most often when comparing Hernandez to his comic peers. One such instance appears early on in the book, where Hignite writes that, “Moreso than any contemporary cartoonist, Jaime’s pen line is replete with an entire history […]” (20), and later: “To some degree, the freedom of the Hernandez brothers must have been respected by a segment of career mainstream artists who either longed to pursue their own vision but didn’t have the creativity, or who were scared financially to make the leap” (111-112). But more problematic is the seventh chapter, “The Art of Narrative: ‘Spring 1982,'” which only offers one page of text that only very briefly delves into the construction of the story at hand, with the bulk of the chapter being taken up by the reprinting of the complete “Spring 1982” story, accompanied by no real analysis. Thus, though it does bring up some more scholarly topics and approaches to Hernandez’s work, The Art of Jamie Hernandez perhaps more suggests avenues for scholarly analysis than pursues them.
The acknowledgment of these limitations does not take away from the overall value of The Art of Jamie Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death, and not just because of a dearth of scholarship on his (and his brothers’) work. Hignite’s text is a lavish and attractive introduction to the work of Jaime Hernandez that ably surveys the artist’s life and career from its inception to the present and sets the stage for more focused analyses of Hernandez’s comic art.