Remember: Maggie and Hopey were apart to begin with. It seems strange to have to say it, given that the earliest Locas stories are built around letters from one of these characters to the other, but if you’ve read enough of these comics it can still feel wrong somehow. “Maggie and Hopey” seems like it should be the foundation of these stories, or at least the point of departure, and yet the letters say otherwise.

The fact that these letters managed to escape from the sci-fi romance Maggie was living and made it all the way back to a dive flat back home might feel equally unsettling, if not for how they landed back home:

Maggie’s adventures among the sundered spaceships are big news, for sure, but everyone wants to get a word in because it’s not science fiction or fantasy – it’s just stuff that’s happening over there, alongside the quickly abandoned and careless tribal tropes Hernandez deploys in these early stories.

Still, as I made my way through LOCAS: The Maggie and Hopey Stories again this year, it was a another kind of distance that kept pulling me back down into the sea of ink in front of me. I’ve not read this collection from start to end since it came out in 2004 – in normal times, most of my reading is done on buses and trains so 700 page hardbacks don’t really get much play – but I’ve dipped in and out enough to know my thoughts about these stories.  I also know enough comics artists these days to be aware that seeing old art and new art together in one collection isn’t always pleasant for the creator, but if you’d asked me about LOCAS before this reread, I would have said that this was the most important journey to follow in these pages.

Watching Hernandez jettison detail as his art style takes off can be a source of real pleasure for the reader, then, but even in the earliest Mechanics stories it’s obvious he would have struggled to compose an ugly panel, let alone an ugly page. His gift for conveying character through facial expressions and body language is exemplary from day one…

…and while the clear lines and flat blacks that would come to dominate Hernandez’s pages are a dream to read, the more detail-heavy pages that front-load this collection have a sense of life and discord to them that Jaime still makes occasional use of in his later work.  Take the spiralling angles of this shot from inside a rocket on page 37…

…which finds its later echoes whenever Hernandez needs to make physical space feel alive with alien intelligence:

Or check out those early wrestling shots, which Jaime will work out how to link together more dramatically a couple of hundred pages into this collection, albeit without the crackle of dead technology that shrouds these early images:

The way Hernandez adapts these early textures into his later work goes some way to explaining the unsettled tone of these comics.  Together or apart, Maggie and Hopey exist in a world that can accommodate horned millionaires, wrestlers who dabble in regime change, crash house poverty, space-bound superheroes and demonic shadows.  These more fantastical elements don’t just survive the development of Hernandez’s art style – in fact, these two aspects of his work make each other conceptually possible, with a shifting sense of realism prompting the easy layering of wild cartooning and clipped portraiture in his mature work, and the cartoonist’s restlessness leading these strips into strange new territories whenever his hand demands it.

The one thing that doesn’t stick around in any form from those early strips is the playfulness with page layouts, and that’s a shame because it means we rarely get to see how Jaime would have developed rhythmic action sequences like this one:

…or what he might have learned to do with these mixed tempo pages, where some of the narrative moves moment by moment while other tiers play back and forward with the narration:

Given what follows, it’s an acceptable loss of artistic possibility.  The storytelling technology of peak Love and Rockets is disarmingly simple, but there are moments where its steady surfaces can be genuinely disorientating even on a second or third read through.  The sensation is one of having swam through calm waters for so long that you suddenly find yourself with nothing but deep, unknowable ocean all around you – there was so little resistance that you found yourself paying no attention to what was beneath your feet, or whether you’ll be able to drag yourself back onto dry land.  If we were talking about Gilbert Hernandez’s work, we’d talk about Poison River here, but as our focus here is on Jaime’s work this is a point that we’ll only fully understand the magnitude of when we come to Ghost of Hoppers.

Some forty pages into this collection, Maggie comes home and the panel layouts begin to stabilise into the steady, even grids that will come to define Jaime’s storytelling.  Another fifty pages after that, we start to get flashbacks to a time that had been implied in the earlier stories.  I almost laughed at the audacity of this manoeuvre this time round, which is possibly as much about my own age as anything else, given that I apparently now see the Maggie and Hopey of the early stories as being too young to look back into the past. Still, it rings true – even in our early days, we bring our own mythologies with us wherever we go, regardless of whether those jacket-patch mythologies are grandiose or debilitating. Perhaps because of this, it’s when the story starts to juxtapose its characters’ youthful adventures with whatever the hell came before them that LOCAS becomes truly great.

Tom Ewing identifies the moment the series finds its rhythm in ‘Locas vs. Locos’, a short story that focuses on “…Joey Glass and Doyle roaming around the rest of the cast looking for Joey’s missing Ape Sex LP, while in the background Maggie and Hopey try and work out where they’re going to live.”

I’m going to quote Tom at length now because he’s got a good eye for what makes this strip such a useful template for Hernandez’s mature work:

“It’s a simple story – a way of reintroducing the Hoppers cast after a bunch of wrestling tales – but it’s delightful, and it’s also Hernandez showing off the style “The Death Of Speedy”, “Wigwam Bam” and others will depend on, his ability to switch and shuffle narratives with amazing speed, letting a story develop for a tiny handful of economically plotted panels before shifting perspective and checking in on something or someone else. There’s always a narrative throughline (even if it’s not often as obvious a MacGuffin as the Ape Sex LP) but the really vital action and development is generally happening in the background. It’s a structural trick that creates the sense of a vibrant, complicated world.”

This sense that the focus of the story is always changing, and that you can see it changing right in front of your face, is key. Let’s bring in another voice, Aditya Baktar, talking here about a story that we won’t get around to for another four or five posts:

“I think my favourite thing about it is how the choice of scenes almost seems arbitrary at first – entirely slice-of-life – but going towards the end, it gathers the momentum of a singular story, while never losing its acknowledgement of all of its characters’ humanness, and not just that of its principals.”

Again and again, LOCAS follows this method, using the sort of seemingly shattered structure described above to suggest a new sort of wholeness.  The story loops back on itself as a way of moving forward, tracing and retracing arcs of desire and frustration and rage, sometimes within the same page, sometimes in stories told whole decades apart.  Described this way, the effects in question might sound like the stuff of the elliptical short story or the postmodern mystery, but the steady accumulation of information ensures that nothing is mystified here – we are shown why these characters matter to each other over and over again, but the trouble is that none of them will stop moving.

So if the basis of Maggie and Hopey’s relationship can seem baffling at the start of ‘The Return of Ray D’, where we learn that Hopey has left to go on tour with her band without so much as waking Maggie up to say goodbye, then the rest of that story will complicate that sense of bewilderment by flitting between past and present and trusting that the reader will keep up:

There is a sense of adventure in these historical fragments, a sense of adventure underlined by shared vulnerability: stealing cigarettes (“What do you mean?  I got gum, too!”), shagging on a scummy mattress, just about managing not to get talked into becoming drug mules.  All of this might serve to explain the basis for their enduring, fractious romance – a sense of fearlessness so thin that it takes two of you to believe in it is a powerful thing – but it can’t be read purely in this light because this same story sets up Ray as another long-term love interest for Maggie while also complicating her entanglement with Speedy.  Like I already said, things won’t stop moving, people don’t stop being people when we form our own ideas about them, and whatever we think we know is always a few moments away from being transformed by circumstances.  The fact that these circumstances might have been there all along does not necessarily stop them from changing everything.

(Changing everything for whom?  The characters?  The readers?  Sometimes and often, yes – and not just in the funnybooks!)

Some 425 pages later, the ache of this abrupt and disorientating separation will be translated into a fantasy sequence at once frustrating (“Are we really going to do the It Was All A Dream ending?” we cry like a global community of English teachers) and painfully appealing.  Maggie and Hopey spend most of the back half of the book apart, stranded in different cities, in a web of different relationships, in proximity to extreme wealth and desperate poverty.  Maggie herself disappears from the book for a smooth hundred plus pages of ‘Wigwam Bam’, a black hole in the narrative that is made all the more alarming by the circumstances – she was left stranded by Hopey after an argument over some racist shit talk – and by the way that story is held together by the mystery of who has made Hopey the star of a missing person spot on the side of a milk carton.  This section of the book is agitated, with violence or the threat of it always visible out the corner of the eye…

…and the link between this violence and the wealth it supports drifting into frame with bleak regularity:

On one level, then, how could we not want to dream of simpler set of Maggie and Hopey stories than the ones we have?   But note how I said this fantasy was painfully appealing – as this three page sequence progresses, even details that predate this injury start to bleed from the telling: “What about Speedy?” “Speedy? There is no Speedy.”  What’s the cost of the fantasy?  Of a set of “Maggie and Hopey” stories that fit the perception of their relationship – see Penny referring to it as “the greatest love imaginable between two beings” mere moments before Maggie decks Hopey – rather than what’s actually happened?  Ultimately, everything.

In life, these stakes are huge – we cannot escape our image of how things are, or should be, but if we don’t try then we erase some of the parts of the world in which we claim to be most invested.  It is a testament to LOCAS that these stakes feel like they have a similar weight on the page.

When this imaginary reunion fades out and Maggie and Hopey are reunited for real by an act of reckless solidarity, we experience the frisson of a fantasy made real.  Still, despite all temptation to the contrary, we may find ourselves freshly reluctant to imagine that this reunion will last forever or wash away all the pain.

If I’ve kept harping on about page counts here, this is partly because of my own attachment to the idea that the physical size of a comic impacts how we read it.  More than that, though, it’s an attempt to avoid having to apply these thoughts about what it means to try to know and love people without turning them into phantoms.

We know these feelings from the world, or at least, I do.  Sometimes it’s easier not to think about them, even when we’re aware of the damage done.

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