Repurposed and edited Goodreads reviews of the Love And Rockets Library (by Los Bros Hernandez; published by Fantagraphics).

Heartbreak Soup (Gilbert Hernandez)

This is my third or fourth time reading these stories, but the first for a decade or so. No criticism here – these are foundational for me, some of my favourite ever comics. The first time I read the early stories here – 25 years ago now – I remember feeling a little sad at how quickly Gilbert Hernandez moved time forward. The world of the first Palomar story was so charming I wanted to stay there longer – but time and change, the steady accretion of consequences and histories, is the essence of both sides of Love And Rockets.

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So this reading the stuff which really stood out for me was at the end of this collection, the sequence of stories focusing on the individual boys from that first story, and the nearby strips, one a mad whirl of a cast-reunion party, one a surreal tale involving a bruja‘s visit to Palomar. What these have in common is Hernandez moving his storytelling style on from the whimsical but straightforward magic-realist narration of the first half of the book, trying out new structures (first-person and third-person narratives in the Heraclio and Vicente stories; the way Israel’s life is purely relational, defined entirely by who he’s with; the constant, panel-to-panel perspective shifts in the party story; and the feverish breakdown of storytelling in “Duck Feet”). This understandable thirst for variety and experiment would flower more in later stories – in this one it’s in delicious balance with the more consistent location and loveable cast.

Maggie The Mechanic (Jaime Hernandez)

When I was a nipper, received wisdom from the older comics heads seemed to be that Jaime Hernandez was the better artist and Gilbert Hernandez was the better writer. I kicked back against this for a long time, as when I got around to picking up Love And Rockets in collected editions I fell hard for Maggie, Hopey, Izzy and the rest. But on this re-read I get what they meant. The art in these early stories is, of course, absolutely glorious, there are pages that just take my breath away (the first appearance of the robot warehouse!) and there’s a confidence to the storytelling and structure that points to the peaks of later volumes. But while the world of Locas is enchanting, it still at this stage reads a little too much like a young guy’s punk girl fantasia – it’s telling that one of the stories that really works here as writing is the brief vignette of Speedy Ortiz and Joey chatting about Isabel and Maggie: the dynamic, a younger guy trying to impress an older one, feels dead-on in a way the interactions between the women don’t quite (yet).

And yes, I’d forgotten quite how much time is taken up by the Rand Race storyline. Los Bros Hernandez always wore their influences and interests on the sleeves of their drawing arms – but where Gilbert Hernandez kept the small-town magic realism and the B-Movie madness separate before finding ways to gradually integrate them, Jaime’s early stories are asking “Why CAN’T I do a comic that’s about punk life and robots and spaceships and revolution and lady wrestlers all at once?”

It’s a glorious question, it’s the right question, he approaches it with a swagger, and this book reads like him working out the answer, which is roughly, “I can, but not sustainedly”. Maggie at home is more interesting than Maggie in Rio Frio; Speedy is more interesting than Rand; Queen Rena is more interesting as a wrestler than as a pulp adventurer. “Las Mujeres Perdidas” does the everything-at-once approach as well as it can possibly be done, and has some amazing scenes, but it’s explicitly the end of the road for that strand of Locas stories. Race’s next appearance, where he’s the one in transit, dropping by Hoppers to check up on Maggie, is a reminder that the terms of the comic have shifted for good.

Human Diastrophism (Gilbert Hernandez)

So it takes only two volumes of the reissued Love And Rockets for the promised “perfect chronological order” to break down. The linked cycle of stories about the enforcer Gorgo that take up the second half of this volume play off the epic “Poison River”, and a big chunk of Maricela’s story happens in the LA-based “X” – both of which stories are held over until Vol.3 of the Gilbert Hernandez material. This makes Human Diastrophism, as an individual book, a good deal less user-friendly. But that was inevitable, as this volume also marks the point at which Hernandez’ sprawling universe of interlinked characters, chronologies and fictional layers fractures, abandoning its sometime focal point, the village of Palomar.

Except that’s a little too easy. From early on, characters cycled in and out of Palomar – some of the best early “Palomar stories” involved the cast’s fortunes outside the village. The publication order of the stories, with “Poison River” running alongside many of these shorter pieces, made it clear that by this point Hernandez’ vehicle was Luba and her wider family, and her 20-year sojourn in Palomar was just part of that far bigger canvas. And as early as “An American In Palomar”, Hernandez was exploring the tension between the convenient fiction of the self-contained village, its reception by American audiences (his readers included), and the messier, more complex stories he wanted to tell.

“Human Diastrophism” brings that tension to a head, stretching Palomar to breaking point, in fictional, metafictional and structural terms. The village is plagued by monkeys and murders, its dysfunctional families are breaking apart, and its magic realism and family saga genres are also breached by that most crassly American of tropes, the serial killer story. Meanwhile, readers used to wise and whimsical one- and two-parters were suddenly asked to cope with a 100+ page story with a far larger cast and far more demanding storytelling techniques.

The fact that many apparently balked (and “Poison River” got an even more boggled reception) is a reminder that the 80s golden era of independent comics didn’t necessarily take its readers with it at the time. “Human Diastrophism” is a masterpiece, a unique combination of a creator paying off years of emotional investment in his characters while simultaneously accelerating wildly in his storytelling ambition. It’s also brilliant at fucking with its audience, misdirecting them as to the type of story they’re reading and the directions plots are heading in, so that what happens at the end is more upsetting and shocking. It’s not the serial killing which breaks Palomar’s spell – the point of magic realism is to be omnivorous, to absorb even horrible stories into its patchwork – but the fatal incursion of the political (which turns out, tragically, to be just another story itself).

The second half of the book has a few Palomar follow-ups, tying off the Jesus Angel storyline among other elements. But it’s dominated by the Gorgo cycle of stories. “Human Diastrophism” has a tight focus in time and place but switches focus continually among a sprawling cast. The Gorgo stories follow a handful of characters – mainly Luba’s mother Maria, Maria’s children, and cadaverous gangster Gorgo himself – but leap wildly about in time and place, demanding careful attention from the reader and a willingness to think about the hidden connections between each shift of scene and era. It’s a more distancing way of telling a story, letting us form incomplete judgements on characters and their relationships before shifting the picture with new information. It’s not as successful as “Human Diastrophism”, but it feels even bolder.