Music for Mechanics
This volume reprints the first two issues of the original Fantagraphics series. It contains many short stories and has more of a science fiction bent than later stories in the series. It is also noteworthy for two longer works, Gilbert's "BEM" and Jaime's "Mechanics."
"BEM" introduces us to Luba, though not in the way she would come to be seen in the Palomar stories. Here, she is more a super-powered sorceress and revolutionary who summons a great beast to destroy her enemies. The plot is meandering and difficult to pin down, but it tends to be an action tale with some superheroic tendencies. The art tends to appear more Kirby-superhero influenced here than Gilbert's later style.
"Mechanics" is an epic tale of Maggie doing a job in the fictional country of Zimbodia with Rand Race. Here we get introduced to many of the major players and relationships in Jaime's universe. We meet the main cast of characters, including Hopey, Izzy, and Penny Century, who are back home in the states, reading letters from Maggie. Reading this story, and the series of shorter Mechanics tales interspersed in this volume, I was struck by how much is packed into this sci-fi adventure story. Many of the themes and plots here are still being developed and referenced more thirty years later, though not quite in the same genre.
There is also a Mario Hernandez story, "Somewhere in California..." which is a sci-fi detective tale somewhat in the vein of Blade Runner. He is the brother who most pushed the others to publish their work, and while his style might be called the most rough, it is also full of energy and action.
Among the smaller works from Beto in this volume are "Radio Zero," which introduces us to Errata Stigmata, a character who turns up in several of his memorable stories, and "Music for Monsters," a riff on Kirby monster stories and Jaime's work. The volume ends with "A Little Story," which gives us a brief glimpse into the world of Palomar, the fictional Latin American village where Gilbert would set much of his later work in the first series of Love and Rockets.
Though it seems a bit rough and primordial, this volume shows off the Hernandez Bros. chops well and also introduces us to the sturdiness and longevity of their characters and stories. It is amazing to look back at how many themes, events, and people were conceived here, some seemingly in offhand manner, but that would reappear and loom large in their later works. This volume is almost a comic book Big Bang, a brief, brilliant burst that contains everything that would follow.
My Rating: This volume is a fascinating, dense, and dizzying introduction:
This volume contains a variety of stories, including some one-page shorts from Gilbert and another of his Errata Stigmata tales, as well as Jaime's "Out of Space," which features a young woman named Rocky and her robot Fumble in a sort of "girl and her dog" tale done sci-fi style. Gilbert's stories are somewhat surreal and impactful, setting forth a style that he would rely on for much of his later work. It also has another installment of Mario's "Somewhere in California..." this time featuring a tale of film-making and foul play.
However, what is most monumental in this book is Gilbert's "Heartbreak Soup," a long tale that is part telenovela, part magical realism. In his first extensive look at the lives and events in Palomar, I was puzzled, amazed, shocked, horrified, bemused, and enchanted by the goings on in town. Luba, a newcomer who has opened up a bathhouse, has people intrigued, gossiping, and in arms about her business, attitude, and many children. Her rival is Chelo, who has her own established bathhouse and who also has an intimate relationship with the sheriff, which gives her some leverage in local dealings. Also the story follows Heraclio, Israel, and the rest of a gang of adolescents as they swagger, brag, and grope to gain understanding and experiences, casting a different perspective on the town. Readers are also privy to a cavalcade of other characters, including Toco, a young, troubled lad, the strong-willed sisters Pipo and Carmen, and the local Casanova Manuel and his many conquests, which lead to many a conflict and eventual heartbreak and tragedy.
What is amazing to me about this story is how quickly and seemingly effortlessly Gilbert draws the reader into a fully realized world. It is so easy to feel familiar with the characters, not to say that they are all cardboard stereotypes. Palomar is a magical, strange, fascinating place to visit, and its inhabitants are endearing, maddening, and frighteningly real. Also amazingly, this story plants many seeds that would produce fruit even decades later.
Jaime's stories in this volume include the slightly superhero-themed "Maggie vs. Maniakk" and "100 Rooms" where we see and learn more about the Locas crew, focusing mainly on Penny Century and her relationship with gazillionaire H.R. Costigan. There are extravagant parties, super-villainous bodyguards, and romantic intrigue as Maggie hides out in a vast mansion and shacks up with a mysterious stranger, but what strikes me most are two things: how fleshed out the characters are and how relatable these happenings are despite the fantastical setting. Like his brother Gilbert, Jaime here demonstrates that he is expert at cutting to the chase, making his characters instantly accessible, and telling complex and compelling tales in deceivingly short order. And this is not even mentioning another Jaime tale, "Toyo's Request," a touching, gritty story where we learn more of the mythology behind Maggie's family friend, the world champion wrestler/international activist Rena Titañon. With this book, the hits just keep on coming.
My rating: Comics world-building at its best. An absolute classic:
Las Mujeres Perdidas
If the last volume was notable for Gilbert's extended story "Heartbreak Soup," this one's hallmark is Jaime's "Las Mujeres Perdidas," which follows Maggie as she goes out on another international mechanics mission with her crush/boss/superstar mechanic Rand Race. She deals with jealousy as Rand is also being pursued by a Lois Lane-type journalist and, more significantly, she and Rena Titañon are feared dead after a terrorist bombing. These events send shockwaves in the news and to her friends back home, who fear the worst about her. The story takes a quite rough turn as the duo strive to survive, escape, and find their way back to safety and civilization.
Interspersed in the adventure story are the glimpses of life back home, hinting at the prolonged attention Jaime will pay to the punk rock world of these women in the future. There is an economic and soap operatic flavor to the adventures here, and it feels like Jaime is in some ways working his way through these stories so that he can get to ones he really feels compelled to tell, like the the short tale that closes this volume. With "A Date with Hopey," about one of Hopey's admirers and his misguided attempt at a love connection, we get a glimpse of this endeavor.
Gilbert gets into the punk rock scene himself in this volume, with the brief "Fan Letter," but most of his work in this book builds more into the mythology and universe of Palomar. "Act of Contrition" follows Luba's hesitant relationship with Archie, a local who is smitten by her and is embarrassed to tell her his profession. As the couple go out on the town, the town buzzes with gossip and everybody has an opinion and seems to be somewhat affected. Archie seems like a sweet and likeable guy, and it is difficult not to root for him, though Luba seems more a force of nature and it becomes clear that he might be able to handle or keep up with her.
The other stories "The Whispering Tree" and "The Laughing Sun" establish more local features and background. The first is a short, funny, and haunting account of the local children skulking around a supposedly haunted tree. The second shows us the adolescent gang from volume 2 now all grown up and reunited from their different life trajectories to find their friend Jesus, who blames himself for killing his child and who has disappeared into the mountains outside of town wielding a knife. The goofiness of the old friends reminiscing juxtaposes well with the seriousness, frustration, and concern they feel about their lost comrade and their search for him in the arid and treacherous landscape. The story is at once harrowing, human, and humorous, no small feat to pull off in the space of 20 pages.
My rating: Some great comics from creators who are finding their way through their work.