El loco Beto

This week, Douglas Wolk gives a glowing review to Jaime Hernandez’s new graphic novel, Ghosts of Hoppers, and makes a case that Jaime is a preeminent artist, of any form, of the latter part of the 20th century and beyond. (There’s a reason I’m referring to Jaime by his first name; I’ll get to that in a sec.) GOH presents a story about Jaime’s major character Maggie Chascarillo that was serialized in issues of Love & Rockets.

It’s not my aim here to argue the significance of Love & Rockets in American art and culture, but a few explanatory details are necessary for neophytes: 1. Formed by brothers Jaime, Gilbert, and Mario Hernandez, it was one of the first serialized comics featuring a primarily Hispanic cast. 2. Published continually–with a five-year break from 1996 to 2001–from 1981 to the present, L&R is one of the first “alternative” comics, jumpstarting a revolution that led to comics with more realistic plots, more psychologically dense characterization, more aesthetically innovation, and an emphasis on black-and-white art. 3. Its primary focus is on women, and it’s startling, even now, to note how few comics (of any genre) feature complexly portrayed women at the center of the narrative. 4. It’s one of the first comics–before Maus, before Jimmy Corrigan–to receive serious attention from the mainstream media. 5. It’s just damn great, always, and gets better as its characters age.

It’s nearly impossible to overestimate the comics’ importance. Each issue splits the comic more or less evenly between Jaime and Gilbert stories. (Mario bowed out in the early 1980s, but his stuff pops up occasionally.) The duo almost never collaborate. Each chapter is written and drawn separately, so that each issue reads an anthology of installments.

For years, Jaime has gotten most of the attention. In the 1980s and 1990s, the going line amongst fans was that Jaime was the better artist, while Gilbert (“Beto”) was the superior writer. Beto garnered comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez because of his emphasis on magical realism and the fact that his ongoing narrative takes place in a small South American (or central American–it’s never quite specified) town named Palomar. But it’s Jaime who ends up winning the industry awards, being interviewed for major magazines, getting reviews in major periodicals, and revered as a master cartoonist.

When Jaime’s opus Locas was released in late 2004, collecting all of his stories about Maggie and her (sometimes) lover Hopey Glass up to that point, the book got a starred review in Booklist. Publishers Weekly claimed that the Locas stories were “among the greatest comics ever put to paper, and an essential piece of the literature of the punk movement.” Scott Thill interviewed Jaime in Salon. It’s relatively easy to find good commentary on Jaime: recently, Girish gave his love to the cartoonist, and even (perhaps courting litigation) reprinted the cartoonist’s “Our Christmas” on his blog.

That’s all fair and good. Jaime’s so great that I refer to him by his first name. This helps me to separate him from his brothers when I’m talking about comics, but that’s not why I do it. Jaime’s comics are part of my blood; I know his characters better than I know some of my friends. Jaime is an old friend who I meet every few months, who gives me periodic updates on life in the old hometown. (I guess this is the appeal of Garrison Keillor’s weekly updates about Lake Wobegon.)

So I’ve got no complaints in how Jaime is treated by the press; I only wish he were even better known. But, as much as I love Jaime, it’s the work of Love & Rockets’s other half that I cherish. So, since no one else wants to do it, let’s focus on Gilbert “Beto” Hernandez.

Beto and Jaime’s comics have thematic similarities. They both center their comics on small, fictional Hispanic towns—Jaime’s Hoppers barrio; Beto’s seaside village of Palomar). The women are both center-stage; men aren’t exactly off to the side (Beto’s Heraclio is one of the most complicated, rewarding characters I’ve ever seen in comics), but their presence is muted. Both are magical realists, and ghosts are as real as memories in their fictions. Despite eye-popping covers and occasional one-shot forays into full-color art, both artists are committed to black-and-white art.

And there the similarities end.

Wolk describes Jaime’s work:

…the creamy grace of Hernandez’s artwork makes it worthwhile to pause and stare. His drawings are pure eye candy—a few simple, curvy lines and crisp geometries that economically communicate facial expressions, body language, the way clothing drapes. His sense of composition is one of the sharpest in comics; almost every panel in Ghost of Hoppers is balanced between exquisitely bold white and black areas. (A house illuminated by moonlight is blackness interrupted by four tiny white squares for a window, a white parallelogram separated by horizontal lines for the lit side of the roof, and a white squiggle for a tree cut off by the roof’s other diagonal.) One of Hernandez’s signature techniques is slicing scenes down to a few discontinuous panels with abrupt jump-cuts between them, because every image he draws is a very pregnant moment: You can look at it and intuit at least a few minutes’ worth of what has just happened and what’s about to happen.

His drawings thrive on simplification, so he makes the most of comics’ visual shorthand: speed lines, puffs of smoke, sweat droplets flying off characters’ foreheads.

Beto, aesthetically, is almost Jaime’s opposite. Beto’s lines are frenzied, frayed, and thick. Though not shaky or unwieldy, the ink seems loose and veers towards uncontrollability. Whereas Jaime’s lines and backgrounds are sharp and minimalist, Beto’s are rough-hewn and dirty; his panels are filled with stray ink that flies off his characters. Whereas Jaime’s settings and exterior are minimal, suggested by silhouettes and shadows, Gilbert’s Palomar is a place in which I could navigate, if it actually existed. The result is that Beto’s comics look unsettled, his characters slightly unstable, his world beset by tension. His world is better defined visually than most comics worlds, but it’s defined by his hand and his hand alone. (Jaime’s Hoppers, an adjunct of Los Angeles, could be any urban wasteland; that’s part of the point.)

Beto’s narratives have as many characters as a typical Robert Altman movie, and as many tangled storylines as a soap opera. Some important plot details about Palomar were introduced in 1985, but weren’t resolved, and resolved gorgeously, until 1996. With his long-form stories, he’s an acknowledged master of pacing, foreshadowing, and characterization. No one in the comics community doubts his skills as a writer.

The impression I get from comics critics about his art, however, is that they think it’s basically a series of happy accidents. While it’s true that Jaime’s art is formally more precise, almost cool to the touch, Beto’s work affects me more. He’s not sketchy, but rather Expressionist; his lines evokes the emotions felt by his characters, by himself. So, his art is often antic, cluttered, and messy. A lot like life. He uses his drawings, instead of voiceovers and thought balloons, to reveal psychological depth. It’s less efficient and less clean than Jaime’s, and than most comics art in general, so it’s less immediately accessible.

At least, you think so until you see it.

Five years ago, I was browsing in Stage & Screen, a bookstore in Oak Lawn, Dallas’s gayborhood. Amidst the Judy Garland posters and life-size Marilyn Monroe cutouts, there was a well-stocked comics section. Most of the comics were regularly sized, but a group of bedraggled, sun-damaged, magazine-sized comics called my attention. Love & Rockets back issues. It’s always been one of those comics I had meant to pick up. I came up with a litany of reasons not to: too realistic, too many characters, too much backstory.

But there was this stack of five or six tabloid-sized back issues, larger than any other comics around them. Issue #16 (March 1986) serenaded me. A nude black—well, I thought they were black—couple embraces under the moonlight. A barren tree branch cuts into the moon. The sky is purple; the foliage around them is a muted green. The embrace is erotic, but not pornographic. The man’s eyes are closed, and he looks serene as his cheek rests on the woman’s bosom. The woman leans into her man, but she stares at us. Well, not at us, exactly—her gaze is more over our shoulder. She’s thinking of something else, maybe not even the man in her arms. It’s as if they don’t have an audience, as if we’re seeing a private, treasured moment of intimacy. I felt slightly embarrassed looking at them, even though the art makes it clear that they don’t mind, or even know we’re there.

Issue #16’s cover didn’t look like any I had ever seen. The outlines were thicker, the gestures were stylized. The mood was enigmatic. Unlike most covers, designed to splash out and pummel your eyes, this one was withdrawn, almost averting its gaze. (The most lurid part is the title’s covers, done in pink.) I bought it, and any other comic I saw that looked like it.

The cover, of course, was by Gilbert Hernandez. Inside #16, the couple—Heraclio and Carmen—star in an 11-pager called “Love Bites.” It’s the story of a major argument between the two, and how they kiss and make up the next day. That’s it. Somehow, Beto shows the contours of the entire town, gives snippets of life from several major characters, reveals what I would discover is a major secret, and makes a simple argument engaging, all in 11 pages. It ends with Tonantzin, the town slut and fried slug saleswoman (no, really), standing outside Carmen and Heraclio’s house. She directly addresses the reader: “Yeah, they’ll be in there all day making up. What do you mean, is that it? What do you want? Blood every time?”

It’s a nice joke that upended my expectations. It’s that type of joke that satisfies Beto lovers, but probably infuriates some comics readers. Beto is a trickster, willing to engage in wild experiments just to get people scratching their heads. Jaime is magical realist. So is Beto, but he’s often just downright surreal. He’s content to draw two-page stories, with really tiny panels, that feature a character raising a ruckus for the hell of it. He creates primordial myths, oddball aliens, and narration that’s nonsensical. Though both brothers portray sex casually, naturally, and frequently, only Beto’s bothered to draw a full-length hardcore graphic novel. And only he would draw Birdland (soooooo NOT SAFE FOR WORK), the porn comic in question, with an emphasis on compelling characters, a plot involving aliens and a magical necklace, and would use this comic to introduce characters who now appear as regulars—with more clothes and less gushing gonads—in Love & Rockets. It’s hilarious to know that, if you want to know the full chronology of Luba, one of Beto’s most beloved characters and one of Palomar’s key matriarchs, you must buy a smut book.

Beto is the id to Jaime’s superego, and it’s this rush of energy—of new books, of raw sexuality, of dazzling incoherence, of experiment for experiment’s sake—that probably makes people think Beto is the lesser of the two. After all, Beto does stumble. Sometimes his experiments go nowhere. Sometimes his two-pagers don’t make enough sense. Sometimes I think his ideas are better in theory than in execution. Sometimes I think even his theories are a little crackpot.

That’s part of the excitement, that you never know quite you’ll get when reading Beto. Jaime holds his share of surprises, too, but he’s more conventional. They don’t collaborate, but Beto and Jaime still remind me of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. (Music is very important to both cartoonists.) Like McCartney, Jaime’s comics are always pretty good, and sometimes amazing. He’s Mr. Even Keel—he’s rarely drawn a comic that’s just awful.

Like Lennon, Beto has wild quality swings. His worst stuff is far worse than Jaime’s bad stuff, but that’s because Beto is always swinging for the fences. Beto works in more genres—autobiography, sci-fi, fantasy, thriller, pornography, slapstick—than Jaime tends to, and is more willing to let it all hang out. So, yes, sometimes Beto sucks. But I’d argue that his best work (Blood of Palomar, Poison River, Chelo’s Burden) is more ambitious, more satisfying, and better structured than Jaime’s. In terms of ambition, it’s telling that Beto’s Palomar: The Complete Heartbreak Soup Stories—which collects all of his L&R stories about the town, reads like a singular novel. Jaime’s Locas collection, spanning roughly the same time period, feels more like an anthology of great short stories.

In any event, the “Beto vs. Jaime” dichotomy is reductive. Both are masters of the form; the former’s just a little more masterly.

Further reading: If you’re wary of shelling out $40 on Palomar, Blood of Palomar (which features the 90-page masterpiece “Human Diastrophism”) and Duck Feet are both terrific introductions to Beto’s world. Poison River is the fragmented biography of Luba from her birth to the moment she sees Palomar for the first time. For the adventurous, Fear of Comics will give you an ample taste of his weird side.

In 2001, Amy Benfer conducted one of the best recent interviews with Los Bros Hernandez, and wrote a dandy piece of criticism about their comics as well. If you can lead me to Beto-only interviews on the web, I’d be grateful.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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2 Responses to El loco Beto

  1. winter says:

    Damn, I don’t think I’ve opened a comic in 15 years, but that post made me want to have a long look at these guys. Thanks.

  2. Walter (QB) says:

    Winter, it’s good to see you again. If you’re interested in Jaime, seek out House of Raging Women or the aforementioned Ghosts of Hoppers. Great stuff.

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