Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it is Love And Rockets #5. Written and drawn by Jaime Hernandez (Whoa, Nellie!, Penny Century) and Gilbert Hernandez (Assassinistas, Blubber), this issue finishes a heartfelt journey down memory lane that builds on over 35 years of character history. This review reveals major plot points.
The most profound moments in life can arise from the most mundane circumstances. In Love And Rockets #5, Jaime Hernandez ends his ongoing story, “Is This How You See Me?,” with a one-page comic strip of a middle-aged married couple grocery shopping, but these eight panels encapsulate decades’ worth of change for both the characters and their creator. Hernandez’s narrative is focused on the relationship between the past and present: While his Locas characters have a punk reunion in their old neighborhood of Hoppers, Hernandez explores the start of their friendships with flashbacks to their adolescent years. Like a lot of teenage friends, these women have drifted apart over the years but still have those memories to keep them connected.
One of the women, Daffy, goes through the motions of shopping as standards like “Give A Little Bit,” “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted,” and “I Want To Know What Love Is” play in the background, but she stops in her tracks when a song by Ape Sex, one of the Locas’ favorite punk bands, begins playing over the loudspeaker. She excitedly points out the tune to her husband, who has clearly heard a lot about the band but isn’t familiar with its music. “Well, that puts the final nail in the coffin,” he says. “No kidding,” Daffy replies, and then the two of them go back to their routine, wondering about their paper towel inventory as “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” plays. What is in that coffin? Ape Sex’s punk reputation? Daffy’s youth, and by extension, that of the rest of the Locas? This entire story has been about how these women have grown. Hearing Ape Sex in the grocery store closes the door on a period of their lives that they tried to return to for a single night.
Love And Rockets has changed a lot over the years, not just in content, but also in form. Originally published in an oversized magazine format, the first series stopped after 50 issues and 15 years so that Hernandez and his brother, Gilbert, could pursue solo projects. The title would return in the early ’00s as a traditional comic book floppy, and later it switched to annual graphic novels to capitalize on that growing market and free the creators from the grind of regular single issues. Over time, Los Bros Hernandez felt that itch to go back to an ongoing series, and the book returned to the magazine format for its 35th anniversary, a fitting shift considering the focus on nostalgia in these recent issues.
Jaime Hernandez’s five comics in Love And Rockets #5 range from one to five pages, the varying length allowing him to accomplish different things. A two-page story has teenage Maggie strolling through Hoppers after making out with Speedy; having the comic unfold in side-by-side nine-panel grids allows Jaime to take advantage of the full width of the open book. This is where a print copy is preferable to a digital copy, which breaks the story down into two individual pages. When the pages are side by side, the reader is able to take in the entire story as a single image composed of different panels, bringing out new facets of the storytelling. The cross-hatching of Maggie’s ripped sweater makes her stand out in each panel, which emphasizes the emptiness when she’s gone in the final image. “Nobody comes over anymore,” laments drug dealer Del after he watches Maggie and Daffy head off to a Siouxsie And The Banshees show. Having that blank space on the page after 17 panels of Maggie intensifies Del’s loneliness.
While Jaime wraps up his ongoing tale, Gilbert delves into the psychological effects of a different kind of reunion with his one story in this issue: “You’re Right, It’s Not About You.” After meeting her celebrity birth mother, Rosy is now living in the movie star’s cavernous mansion, alienated from the rest of the world and struggling to fill her days. The comic begins with Rosy’s mother and sister discussing calculus, an exaggerated way of separating Rosy from the rest of her family with language that similarly isolates the reader.
The differences in the brothers’ tones can be seen in how they start their stories in this issue. Like Gilbert, Jaime begins in the middle of a conversation, but the dialogue invites readers into the action rather than keeping them at a distance. Hopey is looking back at messy moments in her angsty, aggressive past, her first line recounting the time she and her friends beat up Hilary Pute and stole her lunch box. Readers might have already forgotten that this story was presented in the previous issue, putting them in Maggie’s position. Hopey continues by lamenting how she treated her old boyfriend, Tex, during their time together on the East Coast. Once again there are multiple options for engagement that depend on the readers’ retainment of past Love And Rockets stories.
Memory plays a huge role in Jaime’s story; the flashbacks are integral in reminding readers where these characters started and how far they’ve come. He did the same in his masterful story The Love Bunglers. But while that focused on Maggie’s relationship with her long-time boyfriend, Ray, “Is This How You See Me?” examines the bond between Maggie, Hopey, and their group of teenage friends. As middle-aged Maggie and Hopey stroll through Hoppers in the present, Jaime jumps to the past to show them as teenagers who have just started their romance and how even after all this time, vestiges of their old selves remain.
In that flashback, Maggie and Hopey have embraced the punk style and become copies of each other; one panel shows them both in profile with nearly identical facial expressions, hair styles, and gestures. Maggie is the copy here, and while Hopey smokes a cigarette, Maggie apes her behavior even though she doesn’t have a cigarette in her hand. They are reflections, and at the end of the flashback, they come together for a kiss that is framed so that their faces overlap. While long-time readers know that Maggie and Hopey’s future will have plenty of unforeseen bumps, they make it past all the obstacles and hold on to their friendship. They’ve also changed considerably. A profile panel of the women as middle-aged adults alongside one of them in their teens reveals how Maggie and Hopey have developed their own identities over the years.
While I’m deeply invested in Maggie and Hopey’s relationship, I don’t have a particularly strong attachment to the characters in the Fritz storyline. I’m still fascinated, though, by Gilbert’s use of the medium and the expressive qualities of his layouts and compositions. In “You’re Right, It’s Not About You,” Gilbert uses negative space to accentuate Rosy’s solitude. She’s also often dwarfed by her surroundings: She’s tiny when she stands in front of the massive portraits of her mother, and when she enters her mother’s in-home movie studio, she becomes so small that her features are indistinguishable. As Rosy watches a video of Fritz’s most critically successful film, Gilbert distinguishes between cinematic and comic book storytelling by using widescreen panels for the film that aren’t anywhere near as extreme as the Rosy visuals. The film is far more limited, a contrast that draws attention to the creative opportunities of the comics medium.
Another difference in the brothers’ storytelling is that Gilbert’s isn’t as immediately emotional as Jaime’s. His abstractions can make it challenging and off-putting for readers who are looking for a more traditional narrative structure. His story only clicked for me once he made it explicit in the text that he doesn’t care, essentially telling his readers that their opinions aren’t going to change how he approaches the material. There’s no danger of cancellation here. Fantagraphics is going to publish Love And Rockets for as long as Los Bros Hernandez want to keep making it, so there’s no need to cater to fans to retain a reader base.
Gilbert is also grappling with the past, but he’s less interested in spending time in days gone by. There’s a contingent of Love And Rockets fans that wants to see Gilbert return to the town of Palomar and shift away from the Fritz family drama that he’s been exploring for years, and he briefly makes that move in Love And Rockets #4 for a story about how difficult it is to go back when you’ve been away for so long. Pipo is supposed to return to her home village for a friend’s funeral, wherein she recalls the events that led to a friend being incarcerated for murder. Gilbert checks in with characters who haven’t been seen in years, but the tension in the storytelling gives the impression that he doesn’t want to be back in the past.
It’s as if Gilbert challenged himself to see if he could enjoy a new Palomar story, but he came away realizing he doesn’t. Pipo never ends up in Palomar, instead taking a return flight immediately after she lands. When Pipo visits Luba, the most popular character of Gilbert’s stories, and she gets emotional about her recent divorce, Luba tells her that she’s still 14 after all these years. “I guess we’re all fourteen for the rest of our lives,” says Pipo. But readers know this isn’t the case after following Pipo for years and seeing just how much her life has changed since her adolescence. Luba also recognizes this. “I wish,” Luba replies, and as Pipo walks away, Luba turns to the reader and adds, “For the rest of our lives.” It’s a cryptic ending, but there’s an undeniable sense of mortality there, an awareness that the rest of our lives may not be very long. The wheel of time never stops turning, and while memory keeps the past alive, it shouldn’t stand in the way of moving forward.