Why It’s Time To Read Love & Rockets
Welcome to the latest in my scattered series on ‘comics wot I love which are a bit feminist’ (previous posts include Battle Angel Alita, Black Orchid, and Tank Girl). I’ve been meaning to write this one since the good ship BadRep set sail nearly three years ago, but I’ve struggled because I love this comic series so hard I can’t really get it down in words.
Love. And. Rockets.
If you’re at all interested in comics or graphic novels you’ve probably heard of Love & Rockets, and you’ve probably had someone like me tell you about how amazing it is and how you should read it immediately. I’ll try not to labour the point, but it is really, really worth having a look.
The scope of the series, which ran from 1981-1996 – with further stories being added since 2001 – can be a bit daunting, which is why Fantagraphics have produced a guide to how to read Love & Rockets.
In brief: the Love & Rockets title encompasses two separate but slenderly-connected worlds, with Gilbert Hernandez writing about the fictional Central American village Palomar and its inhabitants, and brother Jaime Hernandez writing about the adventures of two punkeras in 1980s California.
Both sets of stories span decades, with meandering plots, sprawling casts, and for my money, the emotional depth and philosophical reach of any ‘great’ work of literature. There are touches of magic realism, and sex and violence feature prominently, although they are hardly glamourised. If anything, the comics focus on the mundane, everyday details of two tangles of human lives with the occasional connecting thread.
Women and humans
What makes each half of the series so compelling (and they are – I have pulled more than one all-nighter working my way to the end of a story arc) is the incredible ability of both artists to give their characters life. And more than that, to make them human, with all the cruelty, confusion and compassion that that involves. I’m trying to pick my way through a bog of clichés here, but for me the Hernandez brothers are up there with Shakespeare and George Eliot in their characterization.
And a hugely important part of that for me is that both worlds have magnificent, believable, complex, varied and interesting female characters. Tons and tons of them, and they get plot. In fact, they get the bulk of the plot. Some are ‘strong female characters’ in the most literal sense (rather than the hilarious Hark! A Vagrant sense) as the cast includes a number of women wrestlers and superheroes. That may sound ridiculous, but trust me, they pull it off.
There’s no way I could do justice to the whole series in a single post (but Colourlines has a good introduction) so I’m going to zoom in on my favourite, the ‘Locas’ stories by Jaime Hernandez, starring two of the most brilliant comic book heroines of all time: kind, adventure-prone Maggie the Mechanic, and spiky, compulsively subversive Hopey Glass.
Maggie and Hopey
We meet best friends and occasional lovers Maggie and Hopey in their late teens, in the fictional town of Hoppers in California. The fact that the two main protagonists in this world-famous, best-selling comic book series are queer latinas is almost enough on its own to recommend reading it as I’m sure you’ve noticed that the comics world isn’t exactly overflowing with such characters. Incidentally, Geek Feminism has a short list of comics featuring women of colour.
At the start Maggie takes a job as a ‘pro-solar’ engineer, and her early stories feature spaceships, dinosaurs and female wrestlers who moonlight as superheroes (there are a lot of these) but when she returns to Hoppers the story sheds a lot of the B-movie trappings and focuses on more earthbound challenges, including love requited and unrequited, friends, enemies, and age.
We follow them, together and apart, over the next 30 years, during which time they change considerably, including their appearance. Most famously, Maggie puts on a lot of weight.
Bodies and sex
At the Comica event Hernandez spoke at recently, he was asked how he responded to some fans’ complaints about Maggie’s weight and their persistent hope that she would lose it and get ‘pretty’ again. He replied: “Oh, I just have to say ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’. Maggie is heavy. She is the only heavy person in comics, still. Why is she the only heavy person in comics?”
While Maggie does worry a little about her weight, it never bothers her lovers, and she is not ostracised or ridiculed or any of the other things we are taught to fear may befall us if we get fat.
That’s something else I love about the Locas stories: they can be a good antidote to body image argh, not just because there’s a huge range of body types on show (there is a lot of nudity – again, it doesn’t tend to be glamorous) but because they are drawn with such skill and honesty that it is impossible to be ashamed.
And, well, the comics are sexy. Not in a brittle, cookie-cutter, performative way (although that is examined too when some of the characters begin working in a strip club1 ) but in the way that real people are sexy.
At the Comica event, Hernandez said he aims to treat sex just like anything else in the stories “because that’s how life is: you have sex, then make a sandwich. It’s that stream of life thing.” He added that even now he can’t draw a ‘pin up’ or deliberately ‘sexy’ female character without knowing anything about her.
Representation and truth
This sensitivity and radical theme of ‘women as humans’ was continued in Hernandez’ comments about the decision to make Maggie and Hopey lovers.
At the start, the comic was in ‘freefall’, breaking all then rules and comic conventions, so it was about doing something different. But he explained that “I knew I had to back it up – I could put in as many Latinos as I wanted because I am one, I know that world. But with relationships between women I was aware of my responsibility to listen and understand.”
I’m just going to end up fangirling all over the shop, so I’ll end the post here. But really, seriously, get hold of a copy of the Locas stories; you won’t regret it. As Jaime said, Love & Rockets doesn’t aim to be realistic, but truthful.
- YES, that’s right, it even portrays sex workers as real people! [↩]