During my first week working at the library, I met a man named Bill. In addition to his work at the library, Bill is also a radio personality and something of a local celebrity. He’s nice and funny with a great radio voice. He also knows his comics and probably has been into comics for the last forty years – at least. As soon as I heard that, I asked him what comics I should be reading. He recommended the Hernandez brothers, Jaime and Gilbert. I am incredibly glad that he did.
Los Brothers Hernandez, as they’re sometimes known, are an incredibly prolific duo of graphic artists who’ve been creating in tandem and solo for over thirty years now. They’re best known for their Love and Rockets series (of which their brother Mario collaborated), which they started self-publishing in 1981. There are now over forty volumes of these stories, including seven new stories that have been published in the past seven years.
Love and Rockets is kind of hard to describe. Depending on who’s writing them, they might be about the fictional Mexican village Palomar or a group of friends in Los Angeles. They might contain magical realism, sci-fi, horror, or romance. They always have a Latin-American/Latino cast, and there’s usually some variation of the theme of family, self-discovery, or growing up. Music and sex/beauty are important. Sometimes the time jumps around a lot, and sometimes it’s hard to figure out who’s who, what’s happening, what’s real, and where this is happening in the timeline, especially if, like me, you didn’t start reading until 2013.
But I absolutely love it. The pacing is engaging but not sloppy or too fast. The characters are dynamic, flawed, interesting, and endlessly appealing. The world is fully realized. There are women – strong women, weak women, annoying women, difficult women, foul-mouthed women, sweet women, voluptuous women, vicious women – women in all shapes, sizes, and personalities, which is, sadly, something you just don’t see a lot.
But what I really love is the art. I love how solid and well-balanced the lines are. I love the attention to detail in the bodies, especially the women, the slight bulging of arms and legs as they gain weight. I love the well-done hair that moves naturally. I love the spare backgrounds and use of white space. I love everything about it, and I love it even more because I’ve never seen anything like it before. Since I first started reading Love and Rockets, I’ve come across Darwyn Cooke and Javier Pulido, both of whom share some stylistic qualities, but there is nothing quite like the Hernandez brothers’ lines, especially Jaime’s.
Every time I read one of their stories – whether by Jaime or Gilbert – I always leave feeling like I’ve never encountered anything like it before. Even when I meet reoccurring characters or read a story from a side angle, I still feel like that. The art is just so absolutely flawless, and the stories are so magical, so full of possibilities and consequences, and so beautifully introspective. There is nothing like a Hernandez brothers’ story – not thirty years ago, not now.
The Hernandez brothers’ stories occupy a very important space that other, more widely known American comics aren’t. They’re bringing Latino, Latin-American, and immigrant stories into the public consciousness, and because they’re doing so unapologetically and naturally, they’re able to show all of their characters as fully actualized and fully normal – even when being pro-wrestler superheroes and buxom film stars. But they’re not just showcasing diversity – they’re also showcasing great writing and great art. They’re showing what a cartoonist can do when they don’t limit themselves to being fully realistic or fully fantastic. They’re showing what a cartoonist can do when they ground their characters in real, every day emotions and desires. They’re showing what a cartoonist can do when they take their art seriously but approach their work with a smile. Most of all, they’re showing what an important part of American culture comics are. This is something I struggle to articulate, and I’m probably going to say it wrong, but I’ll try anyway.
In a lot of ways, the Hernandez brothers’ stories are more American than Captain America and Iron Man. The characters engage with pop culture, and they occupy a lot of different jobs – bath-giver, movie star, bartender, gang’s showgirl, crappy talk show host, mechanic, therapist, and janitor to name a few. They deal with helping their family members immigrate to America, getting along with their siblings, understanding the shitty things their parents do, and finding decent boyfriends and girlfriends. Some of the kids go through periods where they believe in the supernatural and are open to otherworldly occurrences. Everybody just wants to find something decent to do and decent people to do it with. Even when there’s time travelling and demon boys, the people still stay normal, sane, and American. It’s unbelievably cool to see.
Their stories are what I’ve always wanted from comics. Their world is one where anything can happen, but that anything will happen in very rational, logical ways. It’s a world of consequence and punishment but also of light-hearted fun. It’s a world where a strong personality (and maybe some help from a hammer) can shape reality. It’s the world I want to see cartoonists creating – one that understands comics’ history but has no desire to rehash the same old story lines. One that doesn’t care about getting new fans or appealing to old ones – because it’s confident in its worth.
It’s a world I was lucky enough to find, and I am so grateful to Bill for showing it to me. Thanks, Bill, and thank you, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez – you’re doing amazing work.
* For a good summary of the Hernandez brothers’ work (and how to buy it), click here.