Jaime and Beto, the Wizards of Oxnard

L.A. Style, February 1990

Mister, I used to have a closetful of comic books.
If I had that closet today, I'd be a rich man. I had Daredevil, I had Spiderman, I had The Fantastic Four. First issues, whole sets. I was up to my pubescent keister in zap bam pow. Then one stupid day, having become a high school graduate, I decided I was no longer a child, and put away my childish things -- threw them away, actually -- and there went my retirement. Today, when I walk through a comics shop and eyeball the prices on those same dumped issues, I weep for it still.
Comics are big business now -- the 50 titles published monthly by Marvel, the leviathan of the trade, have a combined circulation of 6.1 million -- and big news. You saw Batman. Sometimes they're even, um, art. But they are still, overwhelmingly, childish things -- embodying, with varying degrees of blood, and of bod (naked, female, impossibly endowed), and of brains, the feverish power fantasies of hormone-maddened adolescents. The superhero remains supreme.
Well, I am beyond that. My hormone-maddened fantasies are more adult. And so for years I gave comic books a wide berth; I went my own way. Until, that is, I fell under the sway of Love & Rockets, the terrific bimonthly comic the Hernandez brothers -- Gilbert (affectionately "Beto") and Jaime, known to their fans as Los Bros -- have shared like a bunk bed since 1982. There is now a comic book I buy, and it's one of a different order, from the title on down -- "I just liked the idea of having the emotional and the technological in the same breath," says Gilbert, who sets his stories in the invented Latin American town of Palomar (at the intersection of Gasoline Alley and Garcia Marquez) and who came up with the name. (It's since been adopted by an English neopsychedelic pop group -- a robbery Gilbert avenged in a recent strip, when he stole it back and gave it to a heavy metal garage band.) "And something slightly corny," he further muses, "because that works for some reason -- like, you have to have real balls to call something
Love and something."
Consider: The cover of Love & Rockets' first official issue (published, like all subsequent numbers, by Fantagraphics) shows four pneumatic barbariennes flanking a much smaller woman, who wears a ratty bathrobe, curlers in her hair and a Band-Aid on her cheek. She, more than the Amazons who surround her, is the spiritual figurehead on the S.S. Hernandez -- the life-size, lifelike body, captured in an ordinary and, let's be honest, not really flattering pose. The early books are peppered with the rockets and robots and big, bad superthings the brothers took from the comic mainstream that had fed them all their formative years, but even then they seemed impatient to be done with those limiting conventions, to put away those childish things. Oh, they still pop around from time to time, but the basic thrust of Love & Rockets has been away from the Rockets and into the heart of Love -- familial, sexual, friendly, and all the other 54 varieties. The Hernandezes do not shrink from the expression of tenderness; tenderness is pretty much the
meat of their matter.
"We get letters all the time: 'When you gonna get monsters back in?'" says Gilbert. "I like monsters, they're fun to draw; but someone who doesn't [usually] read comics, if they look and see rockets and monster, no matter how serious the story, they're just going to dismiss it."
"The rockets got in the way of what I wanted to tell, the more personal stuff," says Jaime, whose space in the book is largely devoted to his "Locas," a band of young-but-aging Chicana punkettes who battle lovers, bouncers, hangovers, waistlines and one another in the Southern California Anybarrio of Hoppers 13. "I wanted to give it a realistic setting so you would you believe you were there as you were reading it. With a dinosaur in the background, you don't care if someone's dying, or you don't care about somebody's problems. It doesn't really hit home. I found my own friends in real life a lot more interesting to set down that superheroes and hokey drawings."
Two of six kids born to a Mexican father and a Tex-Mexican mother, Gilbert (born 1957) and Jaime (born 1959) began drawing comics almost as soon as they were able to read them. ("I was never comfortable with just doing a single drawing to tell the whole story," says Gilbert. "Even when I was a little kid, I would draw the next panel.") They hail from Oxnard, California, on the coast road between L.A. and Santa Barbara -- a city where the streets have names like Citrus Grove and Vineyard not because they sound quaint but because they describe what's there. Though there's a burgeoning boat 'n' brunch culture taking root along the shore, it's still basically a small town, a working-person's town. At Oxnard High, attended by a party mix of Hispanics, blacks, Asians and "surfers," both Bros were by their own accounts major underachievers -- "I was such a lazy deadbeat, just a stoner lowlife guy," is how Beto puts it. Mostly they were interested in comics (all kinds, including Betty and Veronica and Dennis the Menace, from which they took lessons in cartoon naturalism) and later in film (the artier, often foreign kind) and punk rock, which came buzzing down upon them like an atomic rescuing angel. "It turned me right-side up," says the once be-Mohawked Jaime, remembering that back then he "had different sets of friends. My friends at home who I hung out with on the weekends didn't like rock music and didn't like movies, so I had this whole other lifestyle where we just hung out and got drunk. And then when I got into punk, I hung out with people who were into the same kind of music I was -- and I got drunk with them, too. And then when I was at home, I did something neither group did -- which was comics." (The brothers tend to think of those who don't read comic books as
"normal people.")
Punk rock -- or the punk rock attitude, the do-it-yourself, do-it-your-way, bugger-the-establishment fashion of doing business -- was also in some way responsible for L&R; it let the brothers follow their instincts, realize visions that were their own and no one else's. (The cheerleading of older brother Mario, an early contributor to L&R, was also key.) A self-produced first issue was picked up and published by an impressed Fantagraphics in '82. They were "hip right away," says Jaime, and now they sell around 20,000 copies an issue (Love & Rockets No. 31 is the most recent) and win international comics awards. The Yellow Kid Award they picked up in Italy sits on Jaime's shelf ("It fell apart on the way back in the luggage"). They went to England last year and were treated, Jaime practically gasps, "like rock stars." Fantagraphics has published six book-form collections of Love & Rockets, plus four volumes gathering the work of each brother individually, plus a Love & Rockets Sketchbook. Further collections have been published in the U.K., Holland, Denmark and Sweden. Someone's doing an animated short featuring one of Gilbert's characters, Errata Stigmata. And while this acclaim has not yet been converted into a high-powered lifestyle -- they live and work in no-big-deal apartments, Jaime in Oxnard a couple of miles from where he grew up, Gilbert in Woodland Hills with his wife Carol - they are at least blessed with a publisher, Gary Groth, who schemes to rob them neither of copyrights nor creative control, and have the rare luxury of exercising a natural talent, feeding a passion, and getting paid for it.
What exactly goes into this stew? Gilbert, despite his lowlife stoner deadbeat past and claim of an "attention span like a cocker spaniel's," is an earnest autodidact, with a respect for "real literature." (It's appropriate that Heraclio, Gilbert's "Heartbreak Soup" alter ego, is a teacher.) He cites as influences Fellini, early Sophia Loren (alive in the figure -- hoo boy -- of his Luba), "the kids in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird," Victor Hugo, "the look and setting of the Brazilian film Black Orpheus," and Elvis. Jaime digs Paul Klee, Toshiro Mifune, Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, Rembrandt, baseball, Johnny Cash, "the young Bardot," and professional wrestling. Gilbert, especially, digs into his cultural inheritance, incorporates into his comics Mexican folk tales and art -- one issue contained his cartoon biography of surrealist painter Frida Kahlo -- and Jaime recently sent one of his own characters down to Mexico to confront her demons in pages rich with Christian, occult and dream imagery -- an orgy of good Catholic, God-fearing guilt. (Jaime says he remembers a time when it ward for him "to even say 'Jesus.'"
I'll be hanging on to these comics, and not just because I don't want to screw up another nest egg. (I have seen that self-published first issue priced at $200, but I don't own that one anyway.) I'll keep them because they're endlessly rereadable, because they're great places to visit. Each brother creates a real if sometimes cockeyed world and peoples it with characters who grow more complex and human with every new panel they inhabit. What happens there can run far out of the ordinary -- even to the supernatural -- but more often involves the righteously familiar: Characters go to parties, drink, make love, get married, fix cars, play music, play ball. Jaime's main character, Maggie ("I guess you could say she's the female side of me"), spends one whole story just trying to wake up. It's not all that commonplace: Characters sometimes die, sometimes by their own hands, and sometimes by others', and , unlike most comic book deaths, they never happen gratuitously, and are always moving events -- these are comics that can make you cry.
The stories are marvels of development, pacing and editing, of set-ups so delicately played that the payoffs are at once surprising and inevitable; characters are so internally consistent and finely wrought that you can't tell where the reporting stops and the invention begins. Fuses lit quietly on page two spark explosions on page eight -- or in another story altogether: You can read backwards not only through an issue but through the whole series to find portents of later crises, confrontations, revelations, conclusions.
Of course not every panel is brilliant, nor every scenario a success; but if they don't always exactly hit what they aim for, it's mainly because they pick elusive targets -- something as deceptively simple as, in Gilbert's words, "trying to show emotion without being manipulative." Says his brother, "I'm not fooling myself into believing that, ha ha, you can put this alongside Moby Dick. I aim toward that, but I know I've got a hell of a long way to go." The fact is, Love & Rockets has been for Los Bros, from the beginning, a learn-as-you-go proposition. One of the joys of following the comic is watching Beto and Jaime bloom, much as from issue to issue their characters grow. In one case, literally: Jaime's Maggie, who began life in the body of a pin-up, got fat, and stayed fat. "Basically I just wanted to draw her that way, round and big, and when I did, one hundred percent was added to her personality. She should have been fat the whole time. Now I know so much more about her when I'm writing her."
It's typical of Los Bros not only to allow her such everyday frailties, but to revel in them -- Maggie's actually more attractive since she bulked up. Call it faith -- faith in the power of the real, the "merely" human, the germ of the extraordinary that all ordinary action contains.
"A lot of the stuff that we put in the comic we don't think is that big a deal," says Gilbert. "We put it in because we think it's true.
"My wife was working at the Fantagraphics office," he continues, "and she overheard this kid who worked there say something like, 'Latin culture really bores me.' And even if that was just a racist crack, I was thinking, the reason why is all he ever sees is the shit on TV -- he doesn't know anybody in school. The closest to Latin culture many people get is One Hundred Years of Solitude, and that's a fairy tale."
Can Love & Rockets make a difference? "There was a time," remembers Jaime, "when I would think, 'Well, golly, this is only comics; maybe I should be doing something more.' But then I slap myself and say, 'I'm doing what I'm doing -- this is it, this isn't step one.' Because there really are no limits to comics; the only thing that's limiting is me -- my own knowledge and intelligence and experiences.
"And if we're not going to do this comic, who will?"


Copyright Robert Lloyd © 1990 and 2006