X marks the spot

Marc Sobel pens perhaps the best essay I’ve ever seen on a Gilbert Hernandez comic, and deserves extra bonus points because it’s a “difficult” Beto work. The scare quotes are intentional. Before reading Love and Rockets X, I read or was told that it’s incredibly challenging, frustrating, and dense. I only agree with the last part–X quickly became one of my favorites by Beto, or by any cartoonist for that matter.

Honestly, I didn’t see why it was so hard to comics readers to “get.” The page format is a more-or-less static nine-panel grid. (Six panels, in the original serialized version.) X moves chronologically, without flashbacks. Its art is minimalist and thus somewhat easier to read than, say, an overstuffed Jack Kirby page. (It’s even in black-and-white, to ease the eyes.) At 60 pages or so, it’s short. Unlike much of Beto’s output, X features mostly brand-new characters–you don’t need to see any previous issues Love and Rockets or know the complicated backstory of Beto’s universe to decode this story.

Then again, I was taking some things for granted. For one thing, I read X in its bound paperback edition, which adds pages and expository panels to the original serialized version. (This is par for the course. Beto expanded both Poison River and Birdland when they were bound as paperback books. He’s always tinkering.) I imagine that reading this narratively dense comic–some scenes only last a single panel, and there are over 20 major characters–would be hard if you read it piecemeal, over the course of three years in back issues of Love and Rockets.

Frankly, though, I doubt that was the biggest challenge for its initial readers. As an urban black man who grew up in a city with a large Hispanic population (Dallas), X’s subtle depictions of racial and ethnic tensions felt right at home, not like homework. I understood its concerns firsthand rather than from an academic distance. Tellingly, he draws the multi-ethnic cast without hatchmarks or any sort of shading that would indicate skin tone. (In the above panels, everyone except the figure in the distance is African American.) As with his brother Jaime, Beto forces the reader to figure out race from minor physical detail, dialogue, and situational context. What looks white often is not. This story, about racial flare-ups and their consequences, wants you to look deeper into received notions of race, ethnicity, and class, and Beto’s choice regarding skin tone forces you to look past those notions. For nonwhite readers, who may not automatically assume that three black teenagers at a party spells trouble, X had formal–but not thematic–challenges. For white readers, however, I imagine the comic was an uncomfortable, and (intentionally) discombobulating experience. In short, the Hispanic cartoonist assumes his readers look like he does, and X continually plays with the notion of whiteness as “normal” as opposed to non-whiteness as “other.” He doesn’t take whiteness–of his characters or his readers–for granted, which makes his work different from, um, approximately 95% of American comics.

Anyway, Sobel gets at all these points and more, in a piece that should serve as Ground Zero for anyone confused by what Beto’s up to in X or who wants to need more. As for me, the essay’s got me itching to read the masterpiece again. Here’s a taste:

What makes L&RX such an enduring classic is how accurately it captures these complexities of American society. The story is a street-level depiction of life in Los Angeles in the early 90s, but in Gilbert’s inimitable and increasingly cynical style, that reflection is exaggerated and distorted. The mirror the artist holds up for us is cracked; each panel is a jagged shard which, when studied carefully, reveals some tiny truth about life in America’s melting pot. The story directly addresses some of the most complex philosophical questions about society and culture, and, as a result, it requires careful scrutiny and multiple readings. As Douglas Wolk concluded, “the effort it demands from its readers echoes the slow and difficult process of understanding those forces.”

Perhaps the most compelling testament to just how accurate Gilbert’s portrayal of Los Angeles was is the fact that, in 1992, just a few months before the final chapter was published, the city was consumed by violence in response to the acquittal of four white police officers accused of using excessive force in the infamous beating of Rodney King. The media frenzy created by the videotaped assault sent shockwaves through the city, culminating in days of looting, violence and racial hostility. The intersections between art and life are so striking, the LA riots could almost be seen as [the book’s] true final chapter.

Go read it.

(Thanks, ¡Journalista!)

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I’ve written about Beto at length here and here.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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