The Crusty Curmudgeon’s Comic Classics ~ Love Sans Rockets: Looking Back on Jaime Hernandez’s “The Death of Speedy Ortiz”

© 2013 Paradox Productions LLC

Once upon a time there were three brothers named Hernandez who wanted to publish a comic book. And they did. It was called Love and Rockets.

Originally self-published and distributed by the three brothers in 1981, the comic caught the eye of Gary Groth, head of Fantagraphics and publisher of The Comics Journal. Groth was so taken by the work that he struck a deal with the brothers (“Los Bros,” as they later came to be known) to publish their magazine. Ever since, from 1982 to the present, Fantagraphics has been the publisher of Love and Rockets.

If you came to know the strip in its later years, you’d be more than a bit surprised to see it in its original form in those first few issues. There was sci-fi. There was horror. There was also a brother named Mario who contributed to some of those stories. All of these things disappeared (some more quickly than others) until we were basically left with two separate strips by two separate brothers: The Palomar stories by Gilbert Hernandez and the Locas stories by Jaime Hernandez. For anyone arriving late to the party, these two strips would likely be all they know of Love and Rockets.

Illustratively, Gilbert and Jaime’s styles are very similar yet still distinct. There’s a lot of Alex Toth and Milt Caniff in both, but Gilbert seems to have just a touch of Kurtzman in his style while Jaime’s got some classic Archie in his. (Some identify the Archie influence as Dan DeCarlo, specifically; I see a lot more Harry Lucey, myself.) Early on, Jaime liked to indulge in excessive feathering, hatching, and cross-hatching. Before long, though, he took on his brother’s slicker style of more straight-up black and white.

From a literary standpoint, Gabriel García Márquez and Anton Chekhov are the names that seem to pop up as influences for both of them as writers. The most obvious reason for this is that both Palomar and Locas have extremely large casts of characters. The cast of Locas is a tad less sprawling than that of Palomar, plus it’s set in the present-day U.S., which is why it possesses a slightly broader appeal. (Palomar is set in a fictional village in South America of the 1970s. The storyline would eventually catch up to the present, but not right away.)

While all of the primary Locas characters (Maggie, Hopey, Izzy, Penny) are there in the very first issue of Love and Rockets, they’re still a work in progress. In “Mechan-X,” Maggie is hired to work with the “pro-solar mechanic” Rand Race, rides to work on a “hover cycle,” and is attacked by robots. She also has blonde hair.

Gilbert’s signature character of Luba does sort of appear in the first-issue story “BEM,” but even though she’s similarly drawn and has the same name, it’s really not the same character we would meet later in issue #3. That issue (dated Summer 1983) featured the first chapter of “Sopa de Gran Pena” (“Heartbreak Soup”) and introduced us to the Luba character we all know today, along with nearly two dozen other characters that would serve as the foundation of the Palomar stories going forward. The strip arrived fully formed, with the characters, their backgrounds, and the overall tone of the series pretty much set from the very first page.

Click image to expand.

Click image to expand.

Locas, on the other hand, started out featuring everything from the aforementioned pro-solar mechanics and hover cycles, to robots to dinosaurs to super heroes to professional wrestlers. It’s like Jaime took everything he loved and/or was influenced by—including sci-fi, punk rock, pro wrestling (both North American and Lucha styles) and, of course, every genre of comics—put ’em all in a jar, shook it up, and just spilled the contents all over the pages. Personally, I find it to be a glorious polyglot mess. (It probably helps that I’m a huge fan of comics, punk rock, and wrestling.) But it’s probably not for everyone. Even if you’re a fan of the mature and fully-evolved Locas strip, that’s no guarantee you’ll like this early, more formative material.

Artistically, Gilbert’s Palomar is probably the better strip overall, but the single best Love & Rockets arc ever, in my opinion, is Jaime’s “The Death of Speedy Ortiz.” For anyone looking to sample Locas (or Love and Rockets in general) for the first time, I would suggest starting here.

Now this suggestion might sound strange to other hardcore fans, because the bulk of Locas is about the relationship between Maggie and Hopey, and the two characters are separated for the length of this arc. I still stand by my suggestion because, first, it’s Jaime’s best work, and second, it sets the tone of Locas for the next quarter century of its publication. And even though the two characters are separated, we still get several flashbacks in which we see Maggie and Hopey together. In fact, these are fairly important flashbacks, revealing much of the characters’ backstory, including when and how their friendship became sexual.

“The Death of Speedy Ortiz” (and its aftermath) were worked on by Jaime from 1986 to 1987, and released sporadically from 1987 to 1988 in Love & Rockets #20–27. The story begins just as Hopey has run off on an impromptu tour with her band, leaving Maggie behind in Hoppers, the Los Angeles barrio where they reside. Maggie is very upset by this—more upset than one would expect a mere friend to be.

From their very first panel together, Maggie and Hopey were shown sharing a bed. This didn’t mean they were having sex, necessarily, but it was something that had been hinted at, danced around, and joked about by the supporting characters for quite a while. But at the same time, we also saw Maggie pining over Rand Race and crushing on Speedy like mad. There was even one panel where Hopey was shown in bed with a guy. The truth was hardly clear.

Finally, just before this “Speedy” storyline, it was revealed that the two had indeed slept together—a fact that was still slightly shocking to the comics audience in 1986. Still, it wasn’t certain what this might mean. Were they just messing around with each other for fun, between boyfriends, or could there have been something deeper between them?

speedy2

Maggie’s reaction to her abandonment seems to suggest the deeper attachment. As fate would have it, just as she’s dealing with the loss of Hopey, Speedy Ortiz finally starts showing an interest in her. The timing could not be worse, of course. She angrily rebuffs his advances, which leaves the door open for him to hook up with her younger sister, Esther, who happens to be visiting from Dairytown. Hoppers and Dairytown are the home bases of two rival gangs. You don’t have to be a fortune teller to see where this is headed.

speedy4

In the midst of all this, Ray Dominguez has just returned to Hoppers. Ray was a couple years ahead of Maggie in high school and was one of her earliest crushes, though he barely noticed her at the time. He certainly notices her upon his return after a few years back east, however. This sets up a classic triangle where Maggie is torn between the good boy, Ray, and the bad boy, Speedy.

This may sound like a soap opera, and it is in many ways, but Jaime makes all the characters feel so very real and recognizable that the emotions, the motivations, the behaviors all ring true. It’s not the cheap drama that most soap operas offer; it’s the true emotional release that great literature offers.

speedy3While the other guys in Hoppers still seem trapped in high school, Ray is able to bring a fresh perspective: “Hoppers hasn’t changed a bit since I was gone,” he observes. “These guys would kill their best friend over a girl…or drugs. Whichever is more important to them.” Anyone who grew up in or around an urban area during this era (the time of the original crack epidemic) will recognize the real-world atmosphere that is evoked here all too well.

Ray has clearly reached the point at which he’s starting to put things together. He’s grown past mindless, adolescent skirt chasing and appears to have never had a taste for violence to begin with. Conversely, Speedy is completely immature, only interested in getting laid, getting high, and getting into fights. We all know Ray is the guy Maggie should choose; just as surely we know Speedy is the guy she inevitably will choose.

speedy6

Maggie is a bundle of insecurities. She’s a beautiful girl who doesn’t realize how beautiful she is—a condition exacerbated by both Hopey’s leaving and the fact that she’s put on some weight recently. By the story’s end, Speedy’s pushed her past her breaking point. She explodes at first, then quickly surrenders to her every doubt and fear. When the explosion happens, Jaime gives Maggie a demon face and makes steam shoot out of her head. This cartooning should break the tension but somehow it does not. Like so many other flourishes we get treated to over the course of this story, it’s the perfect melding of both literary and cartooning tropes. It’s also quite cinematic at times.

speedy5

The jump-cuts between the flashbacks and the present can be dizzying. Then there are the one-panel interstitials like Izzy noticing some Dairytown grafitti and ominously remarking, “Time to put up the bulletproof window screens.” Some of these one-panels function as a modern Greek chorus—one has a pair of dogs commenting on the action; another features a random woman watering her flowers. Early on we have old man Chucho, a Shakespearean figure who prophesizes Maggie’s fate like the witches at the beginning of Macbeth.

What we’re seeing here is a comics master at the height of his skill. It’s Jaime Hernandez at his best and it’s a wondrous thing to behold.

You can find the whole storyline in Love & Rockets Volume 7: The Death of Speedy, which is out of print but still available relatively cheap on used book sites; or you can take the plunge and buy the 700-page Locas hardcover. Whichever route you choose, I’m confident you will not be disappointed.

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  1. The Original Curmudgeon Blog | The Crusty Curmudgeon's Comic Classics
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