Sunday, September 20, 2009

Love and rockets: Ti-Girls adventures number 34

With the publication of the second issue of the second issue of the latest incarnation of the "Love and rockets" magazine, Jaime Hernandez's latest story arc comes to a close. "Ti-Girls adventures number 34" was the de-facto leading feature in the first two issues of the now-yearly Hernandez brothers publication, and it is certainly a very controversial choice, for multiple reasons.


Firstly, "Love and rockets", have been published in multiple formats for almost three decades, being home to stories by both Gilbert, Mario and Jaime Hernandez. The latter has to this day more or less stuck with basically the same set of characters he began his career writing stories about, in the process becoming one of the most solid and accomplished cartoonists. And while his stories, dubbed "Locas" because of their focus on a colorful bunch of female friends in Californian punk milieu, have started with heavy genre elements, that has not been the focus for some time. Truly, as the artist started drifting away from the alternative music scene in America, so did his stories mature to encompass the day to day life of his ageing protagonists.

Just like the subject matter, Jaime's art style became more subdued and instinctive, with his mastery of the human form being the chief attribute through which he conveys the feelings of his cast. Over the years, Maggie and her friends have been through a lot, but the personal dynamics was never played as a soap opera, with Hernandez focusing on the subtle and nuanced characterisation. In recent years, the stories have gotten even more introspective, with heavy use of the captions for narration. This doesn't mean that the unreal was completely abandoned, as the fantastical elements kept sticking to the background, with horror always disguised as surrealism by the way of dreams, or mind-altering drugs. The nods to the superhero genre were likewise, more or less, always present, but never really elaborated on.

In the closing days of the title's previous incarnation, Jaime Hernandez' work was on the surface the familiar solid storytelling. Yet, it was really hard to predict in what way his future tales would take shape, as "the Education of Hopey Glass", collecting his latest work, had a bunch of disparate surface elements, despite concentrating mainly on two very distinctive stories. On one hand, it certainly seemed that the writer/artist would in some way continue with one of his two female leads, Maggie and Hopey, whose lives have gotten increasingly grounded. It was somewhat unlikely that he would continue the heavy focus on Ray, Maggie's one time boyfriend, having just featured the character in what was for all intents and purposes, the middle aged version of "Death of Speedy Ortez".

In fact, Hernandez's latest work, serialized first in "the New York Times magazine", seemed to offer no easy answers. Deliberately structuring the story to echo the Sunday newspapers strip format, the writer/artist had decided to tell a distinctively special story. Using no word balloons, but relying more than ever on caption boxes, Jaime had placed his every day protagonist in a story flirting with adventure elements, that are a part of Maggie's past. Still, the reunion with her old friends, no matter how strange and even dangerous, served to capitalize the difference in the character, as told in a very literary and realistic manner.

Thus, it was more than surprising, to discover the shape that the "Locas" stories would resurface once more. It bears mentioning that in relaunching the magazine, Gilbert Hernandez, the other Love and Rockets co-creator, had decided to make a clean break from his previous "Palomar" stories, and the vignettes featuring Luba, and her sisters, the characters that he has been associated for so long. His brother Jaime decided not to surprise his fans in any similar way, and the genre-shift was certainly foreshadowed for a long time.

Still, having the magazines' lead-story be a superhero send-up is really off-putting, no matter how many times he has managed to previously make mention of the superheroes existing on the periphery of his characters' "universe". They were never really a part of the magazine, being merely a part of Maggie's nostalgic reading material, and her friend Penny Century's life-long fantasies. In fact, Jaime Hernandez' "Locas" stories featured a much more extensive focus on female wrestling, which was at the same time much more realistic and distinctive, making the series all the more charming in turn.

Because, "Love and rockets" have from it's inception been at the forefront of the independent comics scene, being an rare example of the creator-owned magazine, published for years with the same creative team, that is in every way at the top of their game. The Hernandez brothers were rewarded for their consistency and hard work with a career that amazingly did not necessitate their working for the traditional superhero publishers. It was by sticking to his established series that Jaime Hernandez managed to stay in the spotlight for nearly three-decades, producing work that was always relevant and topical.


It is possible that the writer/artist decided that a more freewheeling tale would be exactly what he needed to maintain his interest in the medium, and "Ti-Girls adventures number 34" could very well been the result of such an experiment. In any event, the three years spent developing the story resulted in 100 pages of material, divided by four chapters of retro superheroics.

Starting out as a continuation of his standard "Locas" work, the series immediately picks up on a plot-thread hinted earlier in the previous incarnation's history. The ambiguity behind a bit player's nightly activities is resolved within pages, as Hernandez story makes it clear that this is not another of Maggie's stories. In fact, it centers around the latest addition to the cast, that of "Angel of Tarzana", a younger, more athletic version of Jaime's heroine, that is also her current roommate. She quickly finds herself in the centre of a superhero adventure, starring no less than three all-female superhero teams, and a plot that rushes on with nearly non-stop action.

After the slow and measured pace of the recent "Locas" stories, "Ti-Girls adventures" couldn't be more different. Gone is the caption-heavy narration, substituted for rapid fire expository dialogue that revels in the details of the non-existing superhero universe Jaime Hernandez was hinting at in the long years of his stories' publication. Considering his place in the comic-book community, it was always clear that this superhero story would have much more in common with the somewhat simplistic genre tales of 60-ies and 70-ies that the writer/artist grew-up reading. It's very difficult to actually compare this "Love and rockets" offering to the revisionist tales of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison that have memorably tackled some of the similar themes.

Jaime Hernandez may tackle the same subjects of scientific and magical origins of the superhero characters, their eternal youth, and the sexism in comics, but he does it in a completely different way. Perhaps the closest comparison could be made with Michael Allred's "Madman", in that it routinely introduces the reader with scores of completely new superhero concepts, that are at the same time representative of the genre's Silver Age past, while keeping a healthy amount of madcap energy of their own. Of course, the reader is never meant to take the story on it's own as nothing more than a reenactment of the Marvel and DC's comics, but it's steeped in so much of the superhero iconography that it provides for little space for the cynicism to creep in and make a real distinction needed to provide the much-needed distance.

For instance, teamed-up with writer Peter Milligan, Michael Allred had managed to turn "X-Force" (later renamed "X-Statix") have managed to make the title into both a vehicle for their retro sensibilities, as well as a much needed, razor-sharp critique of the genre. "Ti-Girls adventures number 34" takes a much fonder look at the material.

If anything, it concentrates on the idea of the female role in the white-male dominated genre. Little is made of the racial subtext, but most distinctively, Jaime Hernandez offers the readers a rare book featuring scores of women in spandex, being as capable and prone to misunderstandings leading to non-stop fighting, as their male counterparts. This is one idea that is developed throughout the story, especially in a section detailing the history of Jaime's superhero universe, as told around a rare male character involved in the proceedings.

That aside, most of the comic is taken up by scene after scene of fighting, with multiple locale changes, and different powers exhibited. It's difficult to remember any kind of superhero comic that exhibits this number of slug fests, particularly since the reader quickly realizes that no permanent damage seems to come to the characters, rendering the squabbles without much point. With no stakes, comes a lot of campy banter, which is made all the more tedious by Jaime's adherence to a large number of panels, doing away with the dynamic that the splash or even double-pages could have given the comic. Being an expert storyteller, Jaime always makes sure that the actions his characters take are clear, but it still makes for an experience that is neither dramatical nor really humorous.

The chief problem exists with the characters, as the sheer number of them makes it hard for them to develop any kind of charm of their own. Maggie's friend, codenamed Boot Angel is meant to be the reader identification character, who is new in the world of established female superhero teams, and she certainly reacts to both the hardships of constant struggle and the emotional distance of the long-time heroines. It's just that she never develops into a distinctive character in her own right, and it will be strange seeing how her creator decides to use her after "Ti-Girls adventures". Nonetheless, Angel spends the most of the story looking up to Alarma, the other previously established "Love and rockets" character. The "Fenomenons" team member is actually given an actual character-arc, parodying the bad-girl makeovers of classical female superheroes. As for Angel's mentors, "Ti-Girls", they all get some time in the focus, making for more defined characters. Both Weeper and Golden Girl are possessed with interesting gender-based gimmicks, but it is Espectra that takes the spotlight. Sharing more than a name with Maggie's cousin Xochitl, the elderly super-woman is the victim of a very Silver-Age like physics, actually making for some rare emotional moments in the story.

Still, Jaime's idea of mapping out even more of his super-hero universe's history meant that both "Fenomenons" and "Zolars" get to play roles in the plot, which still makes way to reference the previously mentioned "Love and rockets" superheroes Space Queen and Cheetah Torpeda. Not only that, but ultimately, a villain team appears beyond the story's direct antagonist, eventually making way for explanation that even the mothers of a couple of team-members are former heroes. This ties into the writer/artist's chief theme, along with the explanation of inherent female superhero "Gift", but ultimately takes away from the focus on the "Ti-Girls".

In retrospect, the book may have worked better if it was paired down to a less complicated plot. The quest for finding the components to defeat the super villain had run it's course around the half of the book, after which a prison break diverts the story even more, adding yet another character to an already over-crowded cast. From that point forward, it's hard to believe that anyone except the book's author cares enough to make sense of the whereabouts of all of the superheroes, which might serve as an echo to the "Crisis"-like events, but ends up as making the reader indifferent.

It's especially hard to fathom Maggie's role in the plot, as she returns to the proceedings to complicate matters more by adding the meta-element. Her being a comics fan who has read about all of the superheroes present makes for an unclear metaphor, that should have been better developed. Like many of the developments in "Ti-Girls adventures", the idea that the final showdown takes place in her apartment must have seemed like a hilarious concept at the level of breaking down the story, but the final script doesn't really cohere into the enjoyable tongue in cheek romp it desperately tries to be.

Just like Maggie, the reader is constantly tugged in two directions at once, forced to both try and make sense of a new superhero mythology, and at the same time not take it seriously enough to care about the drama behind it. In the end, she is written out of the mythical world of urban crime-fighters, and it's hard to imagine that many readers wanting to see these characters revisited. Jaime Hernandez ends his tale by driving a line in the sand, seemingly promising that his series will never again cross paths with superhero cliches. All told, "Ti-Girls adventures number 34" remains as a very peculiar experiment that the writer/artist has gravitated towards for years before breaking down and giving it his best. Hopefully, now that he has in every way made his parody as overblown and distinctive as possible, he will return to the more grounded style that characterized his "Locas" stories, and brought him to prominence as the master storyteller.

1 comment:

Rafa Rivas said...

As somebody who has never read Love and Rockets, my opinion was slightly different. I just made my own review and it's a bit more optimistic. However, I still this post as a reference of the opinion of a guy who is well versed in both L&R and good comics.
I think that maybe 20 extra pages would have made the story flawless. Jaime left me craving for more Zolars and Fenomenons. I think I was attracted to all characters but Angel and Maggie.