Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Love & Rockets: New Stories #4

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Love & Rockets: New Stories # 4 (Fantagraphics, 2011).

Admittedly, I am very, very far behind in covering some new releases, but one particular problem kept me from writing a few words about the most recent edition of the Hernandez Brothers' Love & Rockets anthology: everybody else beat me to it. I'd like to bring my readers something a little original or insightful when I have a new Bookshelf entry for you, but as the months wore on and the conclusion of "The Love Bunglers" was annotated and dissected by dozens more reviewers and critics than me, every darn time I tried to come up with something, it was nothing new.

Then the year-end "best of" lists started coming out. This comic sat atop every one of them worth a spit, giving more and more praise for it. I found it tougher and tougher to find something new to say. Then it hit me: yes, "The Love Bunglers" is certainly the best comic of the year, but Love & Rockets # 4, all hundred pages of it, is certainly not, because it also contains, alongside this masterpiece by Jaime Hernandez, about fifty pages by brother Gilbert, and they are horrible.

(Yeah, that's my big, insightful revelation. Go negative.)

No, seriously, Gilbert has been losing me for years, and this is despite the fact that, by and large, his "Palomar" stories were, once upon a time, more engaging to me than any of Jaime's concurrent Hopey and Maggie stories. Gilbert's still doing "adaptations" of sex-filled sci-fi B-movies. If these were real movies, nobody would watch them. They're dumb, grindcore garbage. There's about thirty pages of one of Luba's brain-dead movies, this one about vampires, and about fifteen pages of Killer - I think - talking and talking and talking with some guy. I find it interesting, the way reviewers are sort of glossing over just how bad Gilbert's writing has become, dismissing the work here as being just a mere distraction in as few sentences as possible, probably because reviewers, rightly, want everybody to stop what they're doing and read "The Love Bunglers," and don't want to suggest to any potential new readers that there may be some deeply subpar material in the book with it. For fifteen bucks, you don't want wasted pages.

When a collected edition of "The Love Bunglers" is eventually issued, it, on the other hand, will be worth every penny. It's a masterpiece, even if it doesn't end the way anybody really wanted it to. I'll agree with everybody else that if this is the conclusion of Maggie's story, then it reached a fine one. There's that double-page montage that everybody's talked about. My family is used to me laughing and occasionally exclaiming aloud when I read - awful habit, I know - but I apparently made such an unpleasant choke when I hit this thing that my wife rushed around the corner to see whether I was okay. It's that amazing. And this is after Jaime already smacked me upside the head with a baseball bat by filling in a much older plot and explaining, in an explanation as blunt and tragic and terse as comics can get, what happened to an old supporting player in his large cast.

I really, really like how Jaime chose to defy readers' desires for the characters. The last time that I dipped into their story, rereading the stories in the Penny Century volume, I was reminded of how Hopey, mostly loyal, just patiently waits for her flighty soulmate. I would expect that many, many readers have felt the same way that I have, that when Maggie finally did get her shit together and stopped letting her demons ruin her happiness, the series would naturally conclude with she and Hopey together. Not, I have to say, that anybody wanted this story to conclude. It's in part just how brilliantly Jaime uses the medium to jump from a moment of pointless violence and stupidity into that montage, and in part the sudden, emphatic upending of our expectations and wants. It is an argument-halt as firm as any I've ever seen, it definitively ends any debate, it breaks your heart and leaves you completely fulfilled. We were wrong. Hopey would have been settling. How the hell did that happen?

"The Love Bunglers" is amazing and magical and so incredibly sad. It's been one of the very best stories I've read in the comic medium in years. I wish I could recommend it without any reservation, but, in its present form, I can't. When it gets repackaged in some better format, I certainly will. As for this particular volume, approach with caution, and maybe you'll leave the Gilbert stories thinking that they're not that bad, and that I don't know what I'm talking about.

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