When I started getting back into comics in my late teens, ‘The Death of Speedy’ was the Jaime Hernandez story everyone harked back to.  His brother Gilbert had a couple of big standout stories, but with Jaime it was always ‘The Death of Speedy’ you were told you should read.

This prompts two questions in my mind: “What was the big deal?” and “Does this judgement hold up?”

In true Love and Rockets style, we’ll get there by going elsewhere first.  I quoted Tom Ewing’s review of The Girl From H.O.P.P.E.R.S. in my first Locas post, and I’ll do it here again at greater length because his description of Hernandez’s working method is still perfect and even more apt to what we’re talking about than it was before:

“Is there a point in Jaime Hernandez’ Locas stories where everything clicks into place and his spatchcocked collection of sci-fi satire, wrestling tales and skits of punk life coheres into the best comic in the world? (Well, for a while it was). Tempting maybe to point to “The Death Of Speedy”, many readers’ pick for his single finest story? It’s brilliant, but it’s a peak in an imperial phase, not the start of one. Maybe “The Return Of Ray D.” which introduces one of Hernandez’ pivotal characters? Ray adds a perspective that makes the Hoppers stories richer, and his self-doubt and well-meaning haplessness grounds the series.

“But I think the moment is in the short story near the beginning of this book, with 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. 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.”

As Ewing says, this is a technique that proves surprisingly durable throughout Jaime Hernandez’s work.  It’s a source of great comedy in some of the early strips where Hernandez establishes Maggie and Hopey’s history.  In ‘Wigwam Bam’, it creates an eerie dissonance between what people are talking about (Hopey’s missing person picture) and what the reader find themselves wondering (“Where the fuck is Maggie?”).  In ‘Chester Square’, this storytelling format lets us creep up on the results of 600+ pages of life, while way down the line in ‘Ghost of Hoppers’ a minor drama about a stolen knickknack leads Maggie on a trail that will break down the barriers between time and reality.

So what’s special about ‘The Death of Speedy’?  Ewing raises the question of its timing in the run, but that’s not all there is to it, right?

For my money, I think the crucial thing is that it’s the most operatic version of the displaced storytelling style described above.  Speedy’s with Maggie’s sister instead of Maggie, except when he isn’t.  Violence is getting dished out in a way that severs the link between transgression and consequence.  Hopey is nowhere to be seen, while Maggie’s other-other love interest Ray is blundering in and out of the story, getting caught up in everything without ever really catching hold of it.  Characters have moments of profound connection but they always come too early, or too late, or both.  It’s a tragedy, basically, in a way that most of these early stories aren’t.  All of the diversions that typically lead us to daft comedy and precarious drama lead to bloodshed here.

The above sequence is one of my favourites in Hernandez’s work.  The way that these panels move from a dog-tired intimacy to a double-dog-tired distance before finally exploding into preposterous rage is perfect, as is the trigger for this eruption of steam and teeth.  In this comic, who really knows what anyone wants?  Better to lay it on the line early if it’s to be anything other than a barbed footnote, but then I guess that’s easier to say from this side of the page than it is to know when you’re in it.

Moving back to the abstract, the fact that much of the violence in this story is tangled with both territorial beef and young romance provides a couple of obvious ways to frame the comic’s aesthetic virtues.  If Hernandez doesn’t allow his story to make any trite points about gang violence – the depictions of what it feels like to get caught up/dragged into dumb macho shit are vivid, the parts of the story about attempts to head off pointless violence are carefully observed, and the pile up of incidents is never less than convincing – then by making this his subject matter, he allows us the opportunity to provide glib commentary of our own.  The mix of young love and tragedy is something many of us will literally have been taught to write about in high school, so again, it might be easier to talk about this story in those terms than it would be to extol the virtues of some of the more low-key chapters.

It’s not my favourite of these stories precisely because those elements make it a bit too easily laudable for my inner contrarian to get behind, and because I think ‘Wigwam Bam’ and ‘Ghost of Hoppers’ outdo it for page-by-page cartooning and scrambled ambition.   As a way to show what Hernandez’ work is all about though?  I get it.  It feels uniquely teachable without being in any way untrue to Hernandez’s art.

Speaking of which, let’s finish off by considering how true to style of Locas this story is in the end.  Despite the fact that this story is called ‘The Death of Speedy’ (or rather, ‘Vida Loca: The Death of Speedy’), we never actually see the event itself.  The crucial moment happens abruptly, off-panel, and is given the minimum exposition on the page.  Whatever parties are involved in this death, their actions are obscure to us.  All we know is the whirl of bodies and feelings that led up to Speedy’s final moments, and the hauntings that follow.

The first of these is literal.  We’ll get to the story of Speedy’s sister Izzy and the devil in Keep Your Distance #2, but Speedy’s appearance here is a reminder that this story follows the rules of melodrama, and that death does not necessarily mean an end to trouble and worry, no matter what “Speedy” might say in this scene.

Then, a page later, at the very end of the story we get a scene from the past.  While it’s a stubbornly low-key finish, it’s every bit as melodramatic as the visitation that preceded it: a sentimental look back to an untroubled time with many of these characters weaving in and out of each other’s lives, seemingly without consequence.  It’s a fairly straightforward bit of pre-curdled nostalgia, so why does this scene stay with me like a threat?

Because textually and metaphysically, the door is always open in these comics.  This scene is a warning: the past can only grow stronger and there’s no telling what it might have to say to you tomorrow.

My first post about Jaime Hernandez work was already a couple of thousand words long, and all I really talked about there was the various kinds of distance crossed in LOCAS: The Maggie and Hopey Stories.  That’s the first in a series of maybe eight or nine posts about Jaime Hernandez’s work, and the next “real” post will look at the same era of those stories as collected in the more recent paperback editions.

That post is almost done, but I’m amused to find how much I’ve not even talked about.  This is always the way, of course – criticism cannot hope to be truly comprehensive, and a large part of the art involves working out what you can talk about to make a coherent point without telling any lies about the rest.  Still, given how rich these stories are, and how much they’ve made my brain fizz while I’ve been re-reading them, I feel the urge to follow the instruction of my Irish Lit tutor and “Say more”.

Thankfully, I’ve got a little bit of spare material at hand.  You see, the initial idea for Keep Your Distance #1 was to replicate the way those stories skip back and forward through time by including a lot of footnotes that would take you in and out of the flow of the main argument, complicating your reading as you went.   Whatever surface cleverness that provided ultimately didn’t seem to be worth the way it broke up the throughline of the piece – turns out that Jaime Hernandez is a genius and I’m not, go figure.

So, rather than let those tangents go to waste I’m going to post some of them here in the run up to Keep Your Distance #2.

First up, a few thoughts on The Wrestling Stuff and the way you can sometime drag problems of your own making with you into a book!

While I’m not the intended audience for this Kate Skelly-curated book of Hernandez’s drawings of female wrestlers, I do still enjoy Jaime’s wrestling stories.  They give him an excuse to break out some wild caricature and to test his skill at panel composition, and they introduce another flavour to an already spicy cocktail of genres.  All of this is for the good.

The thing is, though, these work best for me when they’re part of the low-key/far-out tapestry than they do when allowed to stand alone.  Whenever the story lingers in this world, as it does intermittently throughout the strip’s run and completely for the brief span of Woah Nellie, I find my interest splintering.

Now my knowledge of the off-centre world these wrestling strips take place in is limited to trying to make sense of twitter posts by my friends and listening to that one Mountain Goats album, but I think I get it.  I’ve spent enough time in bookselling / comics / Scottish politics to understand what happens in worlds that are allowed to grow into their own pocket universes for at least for as long as there’s a crowd around to get the in-jokes.  The way people’s roles start to eat their faces, the bitter rivalries that can only come from the knowledge that your enemy knows you more intimately than many of the people you love… like I said, I think I get it.  Maybe that’s the problem though – when I’m in this space for too long, I’m too busy thinking about how to react to actually react.

Somehow this isn’t an issue when the wrestling escalates into the cosmos in Hernandez’s later stories, but there’s a different type of familiarity at play there, one that has already been well chronicled on this website.  Maybe I just need to read more wrestling comics to make Woah Nellie sing for me like God and Science does.  Maybe one day we’ll find out.  For now, I only know that when we’re deep in this world I’m not.

Still, some cracking pages to appreciate as pages along the way.  Can’t fuck with that.

When I first started trying to work through this, I thought I’d just encountered a weirdly specific failure of the imagination on my part. This is almost right, but not quite, and in the end it’s exactly this sense of things almost-but-not-quite being as I understand them that seems to make it hard for me to stay fully involved when these bouts take over the story.

On this occasion I am very much letting my brain get in the way of the eyes and the page.

Just don’t tell Vicky though, cos I can still see well enough to know that wouldn’t end well for me!

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.

Hello / Cosmic

June 11th, 2021

Dan McDaid – DEGA (self-published, 2021)


First up, the snappy review!  Our very own Botswana Beast has already provided a handy back-cover blurb (“Beautiful… Valerian meets RONIN”), and I won’t pretend that I can disagree or top it because the Lynn Varley 1985 feel of the colours was definitely what kept my eye working through these pages at first.   These colours step out beyond the literal in a way that is alien to many Western genre comics in 2021, creating an emotional palette that operates in tandem with the other narrative elements on the page without ever quite feeling like it’s totally determined by them.  This colour scheme is established in the transition between the loveless blue-greys of space on the first page, and the spark-lit orange glow of the second.  Where colour occurs in the rest of the story, this contrast is played out again and again, always in a slightly different configuration.   This description makes every sound overdetermined, with the harshness of the environment DEGA plays out on being illuminated by the sparse scraps of technology our protagonist has about them, but you generally get the sense that McDaid is more willing to go with what feels right in the moment.

The resulting approach is subtle and varied, finding alien intelligence in the pale tones…

…and unfathomable danger in the warm ones:

Abhay has already talked about the way the colour comes in and out of the story, an “awkward” element which he nevertheless flags up as being a big part of the fun of the book.  I think I can relate – as you might already have guessed, my stupid, structure-obsessed brain definitely spent its first reading focusing on what resonances came out of where and when colour was used in the book.  This wasn’t entirely fruitless – those colours never stop echoing the shifting tone of the first couple of pages – but in the end I think the approach Abhay takes is the more rewarding one.  Sometimes it’s fun to be given the opportunity to question what you’re reacting to and why even when you’re still in the process of reacting, you know?

McDaid’s line has always had a robust edge to it, and there’s a reason that his art lends itself so handily to drawing big lads with chins built for action – wherever they come from, whatever era or milieu they inhabit, his characters tend look like they’ve been summoned into existence to scrap it out with the blank space on the page.    There’s another quality to his images in DEGA though.  Everything McDaid draws here feels like it’s mere seconds from flying apart, and while this effect is given dramatic expression in the coloured pages, the effect is no less striking when it’s conveyed in by the variation in the thickness of the line on the black and white sections:

Either one of these approaches would be magnificent.  Having both of them playing out in front of you at the same time is sublime, and adds to the sense of this book as a journey where all your certainties are slowly blasted away.

It’s a genuinely beautiful book, DEGA.  “Valerian meets Ronin” they’re saying, and they’re right.  It might make you feel like you’re just about to die on your arse in space, but without that feeling it’s not much of an adventure, right?

Sarah Cochrane and Joe Kelly – Fit For Nothing

Esther McManus – Elsewhere

“Because I work I am nothing” – Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School

“No food in my stomach and my pockets fucked up Plus my mother still work, so why should I give a fuck?” – Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire, ‘The Last Huzzah (Remix)

Two different ways of transforming the experience of poverty into art, though anyone who longs for dark times because they want a new punk boom is not to be trusted.  We don’t know what art would have been created without a decade plus of government hostility towards those who aren’t optimally useful to capital… you know, people with disabilities, people who’ve had kids when some weirdo thinks they shouldn’t, people who had the audacity to get sick, or have a bad month, or fall behind their monthly quota… but we can be fairly sure that talented people would have done good work regardless.  The death and pain caused by these political realities is undeniable, however, and while we shouldn’t measure a government by how many albums we bought along the way, we might want to ask whether art made in such a hostile environment has enough to offer us.

Which is to say that if we’re going to accept an invite to a party in the year of our lord 2021, we might want to be sure that we’re not going to end up with someone who’s going to start banging on about how people should just keep calm and whip up some lobster ravioli using the leftovers they found in their spare sowing rooms…

Fit For Nothing isn’t exactly shy about its politics.  Billed as “the story of a dead man’s search for work”, it takes the hateful illogic of fit-for-work assessments to their endpoint and assumes that there’s no reason why the demands to work should stop once someone has drawn their last breath. It gets there via a playfully daffy skit featuring a glib job centre employee’s holiday to Egypt, but even this jokey introduction makes the direction of Cochrane and Kelly’s anger impossible to ignore…

The body of the comic develops this attack on administrative indifference to the fullest…

Four comics about empty places & the people who live there + extras, now available in print. 176 beautiful black and white pages, created by me and brought into the physical world by Comic Printing UK.

Includes: Looking Glass Heights, Labyrinths, the Alasdair Gray adaptations of Beyond Whiles and a brand new comic called Raptor, which brings the LGH sequence to a close.

You can buy the print edition here and the digital version here. Nae extras in the PDF version, and it can’t sit on your shelf making you look damn attractive like the book can, so weigh both options accordingly.



PRAISE FOR NOT BECAUSE OF THE PEOPLE

The best haunted house comic you’ve never read” – Dan White, artist of Cindy and Biscuit and Sticky Ribs.

Classic British indie small press pamphlet, and a sharp burst of mood and ideas. It’s very much comics as poem – it’s the sort of work that Douglas Noble has been known to do” – Kieron Gillen, writer of The Uncanny X-Men and The Wicked + The Divine

A spooky zine… Liked this a lot. The writing is really strong and the art suggests just enough to make you uneasy” – Sarah Horrocks, artist and creator of Aorta and Goro

***

If you enjoy Not Because of the People or have enjoyed any of the individual LGH comics in the past, please consider giving some time or money to Living Rent (Scotland’s Tenants Union) or another similar group closer to home –

thanks,

David

Oh Shit, Comics!

May 14th, 2020

Short and to the pointless, here are a few comics you might want to check out online if you haven’t done so already…

Erika Price – Disorder

A series of experiments in unmaking, Disorder doesn’t need me laying it on thick, a quick glance at a couple of pages will tell you that you need to read more.

What impressed me most my second time through the series as it currently stands was the range of approaches Price adopts from a strip-to-strip basis.  Episode 2 achieves a sense of real vulnerability by showing us a figure in motion, its shifts in mood and physicality tracked in great detail panel-to-panel:

Episode 3, meanwhile, plays out a similar drama in a totally different format.  Here, whatever pain happens is framed by a writhing, corporeal, semi-expressive landscape, inner space projected outward until the difference between self and world is obliviated:

The next six strips see Price trying out a variety of different approaches to narrative, image making and panel layout without every blurring her vision of what Disorder is.  It’s remarkable work.  It’ll get under your skin.  You’ll want it there.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

Quick Snacks

April 21st, 2020

Sophie B – Last Orders (self published, picked up at Thought Bubble comic con, 2019)

A confident comic book debut from the talent behind 2018′s You Can Be Anything, Last Orders gives you attractive characters in an attractive setting then works to show you how much flavour can be achieved with just the right combination of ingredients.

Those elements being “Gays, Ghosts and Grub”, obviously.

Even a passing glance will tell you that every aspect of this comic has style to spare, but a more attentive eye will reveal a sense of purpose underpinning the design. After all, it’s not just the info boxes that tell us who Robin and Esther are.  The way their outfits reflect each other’s haircuts, the way their conversations move from friendly sparring to sparkling monologue by way of shared glances, the way that those info boxes drop down into the story itself as it progresses – all of this tells us the same story, with no single aspect overpowering the light feast of narrative detail.

That it manages all this and plot about unfinished business almost seems like too much to ask from a first issue…

Dis-orientation

March 28th, 2020

Esther McManus – Windows (See You at the Potluck, 2018)

This one comes from what my partner calls the “They Saw You Coming” side of the comic/zine world.  Every time I visit a comics festival or zine fair I come back home with at least 2-3 books full of pictures of buildings, or parts of buildings, or spaces where buildings used to be.  I rarely regret it.

Esther McManus’ Windows is an excellent example of the form, a series of portals that have been removed from any supporting context in a way that serves as startling prompt to the imagination:

The work demanded by this zine doesn’t just come in the form of having to reconstruct the urban environment – that’s the most immediately striking element, of course, a natural by-product of the composition of the piece, but it’s the start of a process rather than its final conclusion.

In its gradual blurring of the distinction between windows and the shapes that frame them, its removal of the human from the urban environment, and its finding of new ways to recombine familiar shapes, Windows is ultimately more Ballardian in its effects than it may initially appear.

Moving beyond brutalist cliches, this is a work that re-imagines the city as something that is no longer for us – a space that exists on the other side of the portal, where there is nothing to be reflected except windows looking on windows looking on windows all the way down.

It is March 2020.  I suspect that this scene is more familiar to many of us now than it would have been at any previous point in my lifetime.