FAIR WARNING: THIS POST IS PROBABLY NOT SAFE FOR WORK UNLESS YOU ARE CURRENTLY WORKING FROM YOUR LIVING ROOM

When it comes to the space between desire and action in these comics, the only thing that speaks as loud as money is its absence.  Okay, that’s not quite right, the presence of the devil also speaks pretty clearly in some of these stories, but we’ll get back to those stray shadows in a minute.  Right now I want to talk about a certain kind of freedom.  Right now I want to talk about what’s going on in all those rooms.

When money first makes itself known in the Locas stories, it’s distorting life elsewhere, in another country – and well, you know how that story goes.  The fact that Penny Century is introduced in this same story is almost certainly coincidental – Hernandez was still finding his way at that point, after all – but it doesn’t feel that way when you look back on these early scenes.  Penny’s brand of expressive, ultra-femme fantasy will be synonymous with questions of money and power book throughout its run.  Here as elsewhere she is not necessarily the source of this influence, but she knows where it is and where she hopes it might take her.

Before Maggie the Mechanic has closed out, Maggie has come home to Californian poverty and life with her punk pals.  Money is now something that lives with Penny, away in the labyrinthine halls of H.R. Costigan’s house:

Despite the horns, Costigan isn’t the devil but like I said, we’ll get there eventually.

The absence of satanic involvement having been noted, it’s still fair to say that the line between desire and reality gets thin in these rooms.   In these carefully enclosed boxes, panicked kidnappings turn into prolonged fuck sessions and babies are born out of boredom-induced threesomes:

Anything the cartoonist might want to draw is possible in the world of the rich then, so long as it is framed in these little panels of possibility.  Well, almost anything – for all her wealth, Penny is forced to hire actors to play out her superhero fantasies during this stretch of the comic’s history.  Whether this has to do with the limits of the in-story economy or how much room the artist’s interest in drawing this stuff would buy him in the alt comics culture of the moment is arguable, but this is the one hard limit we find here.

Almost all of the elements described above exist outside of these boxes, of course.  Hernandez’s aesthetic is one of classical beauty, no matter how grimey his subject matter sometimes gets, and he allows himself plenty of opportunities to indulge his talent for drawing beautiful punk girls.  The difference is that when the stories stray from the world of the rich, desire and its expression feels both more truly embodied and more dependent on forces that have nothing to do with that desire.  Housing is the main theme that comes to mind here – outside of Costigan’s mansion, our characters spend a lot of time scrabbling for a place to stay, and the lack of magic money to smooth the way defines the context in which Maggie, Hopey and pals can relate to each other, sexually or otherwise.

I think once again of Tom Ewing homing in on “Locas vs. Locos” as the start of this story’s imperial phase, and of the role that housing plays in this strip.  The A-plot involves the hunt for a missing punk rock record, but in the background we see Maggie and Hopey trying to move their stuff out of their old apartment and into their friend Izzy’s place.  This arrangement will in itself prove to be unstable, and as these stories progress through the question of where people sleep and what spaces they get to play in will lead to fall outs, periods of homelessness, fumbled forays into sex work, harried motel stays and to the unfathomable distance between our leads that comes to define these volumes.

Like I said, sex still happens out in the world, but it’s not always to be relied upon and this more grounded context leads to the more tender aspects of Hernandez’s portraiture.   In Hernandez’s work, cheesecake art and nudity exists in abundance, and it generally feels of a piece with everything else that’s going on.  Sometimes sex is the aim of these stories and sometimes it’s incidental to the action, but it always feels like it’s continuous with the mess of circumstance and psychology that’s playing out elsewhere the page.  Hernandez’s linework sets the tone: his caricatures are lusty but affectionate, the work of an artist who is always interested in the characters as characters, which is to say, as faux-autonomous human beings.

Money brings a different edge to these stories though, and while we’ve already noted what it enables, let’s also make space to talk about how those little rooms where wild shit happens are maintained.

In Wig Wam Bam, Hopey ends up living in another set of rooms made possible by money, this time while she’s crashing in the house of “America’s number one favourite comedienne” Nan Tucker.  These strips play out like the nightmare flipside of the Costigan scenarios.  At first Hopey drinks in the details of Nan’s kinks, safe in her own distance from the work at hand:

It’s a short journey from amusement to knowledge of how particular Nan’s control over her fantasy is.  From there, it’s an even shorter journey to the outbreak of violence between customer and sex worker shown above – “Insolent child!” – and the further violence that’s meted out in order to make sure the fantasy remains sealed within the rooms of Nan’s house.  The reality of this threat is only reinforced further when the next story, Chester Square, depicts Maggie’s life in another series of rooms – a remote motel where she dabbles in sex work and finds herself treated to violence, suspicion and derision in return.  Money is a shield in this world, but only for those who have it; beyond the protection of these carefully maintained fantasy worlds we see moments of real tenderness, but also the vulnerability that comes with being merely human in a world ruled by the whims of the rich.

***

Here’s a thing about the way these comics were collected in LOCAS: The Maggie and Hopey stories – there are great big holes in the story, holes that seem less designed to let the light in than to give the devil a plausible escape route.

The main thing to recommend The Girl From H.O.P.P.E.R.S. over the gargantuan LOCAS hardcover collection is still its portability, but the fact that it reinstates ‘Flies on the Ceiling’ is a close second.  A fifteen page strip, “The story of Isabel in Mexico”, ‘Flies on the Ceiling’ exists only as a rumour found in a diary fragment in LOCAS.  Without this story, our reading of both earlier and later stories in this series might err on the side of the purely rational – like the rich, the devil is free to act as he chooses if we cannot even admit that his power is disastrous and real.

We’re halfway through ‘Flies on the Ceiling’ before the devil announces his presence:

Once we know what we’re dealing with, though, everything that came before looks like it was tainted by his influence.  The marks on the ground in the first panel of page three are a clear sign of his passing, of course, but once you’re in the right state of mind every mark Hernandez makes on the page starts to look sinister.  You can take this sort of paranoia too far, of course, but it pays to have a sense of the devil’s hand in all of this when you’re making your way through these stories.  The ending of The Death of Speedy?  Not just melodrama but a sign that death is not the end of the story in these strips.  The haunted house shit in Ghost of Hoppers?  Not just the result of a spiked drink but of an encounter with a genuinely cursed object.  The whims of the rich?

Not necessarily an expression of the devil’s will but they both operate on the same principal, that whatever he wants to happen might happen within these little boxes.

 ”You are also afraid. I love for you to be afraid” – honestly, what a prick!

It’s wild that I’m now five posts into this series and I’ve barely talked about Maggie and Hopey as characters, never mind Izzy or Speedy or Ray or Penny or Danita or any of the dozens of other characters that live on these pages.  Jaime Hernandez’s gift for design and dialogue make the pleasures of his character work immediately obvious – it’s what you come to these books for, the sense that you might experience the mess and humour or life condensed down into an endless series of short comic strips.  This in itself would be a great gift, but there’s more than that going on in Hernandez’s pages, and it’s the combined effect of these stories that I’m trying to make sense of here, one little box at a time.

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