For better or worse, manga has become the indisputable zeitgeist of popular comics. Even here at the university, desk hutches inevitably lined with the familiar homogeneous runs of little ?Tokyo Pop? books. Admittedly, groundbreaking graphic work came from Japan between the late ?70s and early ?90s just as the speculation bubble for comics grew here in America. However, the crash in both markets that virtually annihilated American comics did not have the same effect overseas. Instead, the Asian market is now bloated with bland, low-budget, superficial crap substituting for the substance of its forebears, which American readers eat up with a disturbing fervor that threatens to overshadow our own comics? rich history and promise.
What a travesty! Henceforth, I shall devote Comickaze to the singular purpose of revitalizing the fading gems of comic history. Read these titles and their forerunners before they are lost! Share them with your friends! Only you can revitalize a market poisoned by redundant ?sentai? memes! (Sentai is Japanese slang for superhero, but also connotes series like Power Rangers in which every episode repeats the same story.) Join the resistance!
Over 20 years ago, in July 1982, Fantagraphics Publishing released the first issue of Love and Rockets, a masterpiece among comics by the Hernandez brothers: Jaime, Gilbert, Beto, and Mario. Fantagraphics had established itself as a publisher of hot, new, independent comics in the late seventies by carrying R. Crumb?s Fritz the Cat, Harvey Pekar?s American Splendor and numerous other edgy titles. As the story goes, the head of Fantagraphics, Gary Groth, a man possessed of utter contempt for mainstream comics, came across the Hernandez brothers? homemade books while considering drawing his own. He immediately signed them up for national distribution. They achieved overnight success, most due to Jaime and Gilbert?s ongoing dramas.
Jaime Hernandez?s story, Mechanix (later changed to Locas), can be described superficially as a ?teen drama? in the spirit of John Goldwater?s original 1939 classic Archie. Jaime?s characters, however, confront deeper issues such as confused sexuality, Mexican identity, gang culture, poverty, and the ?80s punk revolution. Set in Hoppers, California, the main characters ? Maggie, ?the only girl mechanic,? and her best friend/lover Hopey Glass, a starving bass player ? find the mundane aspects of their lives suddenly shot through with surreal fantasy elements. The story is so well received, even today, that an episode was featured in this year?s McSweeney?s Quarterly Concern, the definitive anthology of contemporary independent comics.
In a different vein, Gilbert Hernandez?s Palomar is not so much a character-driven drama, but rather one centered on the Mexican town of Palomar and its sizable array of characters. The stories are sampled from throughout a period of many decades. The position of main heroine, however, easily falls to the large-breasted Luba, who finds herself involved in practically all of the interwoven plots. The comic was groundbreaking, to say the least, in its representation of Latino culture. Recently, however, Gilbert has laid Palomar to rest, and begun writing a new epic, Julio?s Day, which explores the dynamics within one Mexican family.
The effect on the mainstream triggered by Mechanix, Palomar, and the other stories in Love and Rockets, as well as comics inspired by them, cannot be understated. Firstly, their activist themes echoed in the popular sphere of comics. Chris Claremont, for example, successfully reinvented the stale X-Men in the same decade by taking a more sophisticated approach to multiculturalism than the ?Rainbow Teams? of the ?70s. In addition, the taboo on discussing homosexuality in comics shattered, opening the door for other innovators to broach the subject like Niel Gaiman?s character Fox in The Sandman. Most importantly, though, Love and Rockets in particular unlocked comic books for women and feminism.
?Love and Rockets was a point of entry for women readers in the 1980s,? says Tim Blackmore, an assistant professor of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario. ?The story contained very appealing characters to women. It was not your typical male power fantasy.?
Just a short year ago, the Hernandez brothers got back together to release a new wave of comics under the title Love and Rockets Vol. 2. The double-length tenth issue was one of the hottest items in comics this summer. Jaime brought to a conclusion his most recent episode of Locas, the climax of a story in which the stress of divorce, middle-aged life, and taking care of her mentally ill friend Izzy had brought Maggie to the brink of a nervous breakdown. Gilbert continues strong, also, setting Julio?s family against the backdrop of World Wars I and II. Most surprising, however, is the showering of short stories from Beto, whom I always thought was the unsung hero of the early Love and Rockets.
Although most readers still look no further than the manga adaptations of Cartoon Network programs to fill their appetites for comics, Love and Rockets is a beautiful comic that can still surprise readers with amazing vitality. Even more surprising, however, is the continued timelessness of its early stories: 20 years old, but still riding the wave of the avant-garde.