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.

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.