Love & Rockets is an anthology. Los Bros Hernandez–Beto and Jaime–alternate strips. In this first issue, Beto gets six parts, Jaime gets five. Most of Beto’s are chapters in one story, Bem. The issue runs sixty-eight pages. This #1 is actually L&R’s second; Los Bros put out a thirty-two page ashcan a year before. Fantagraphics scooped them up. The issue even opens with a mildly problematic introduction from Los Bros fan and Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth. The introduction’s problematic in how much Groth emphasizes the writing over the art.
Bem opens with mollusk shells. Detail on mollusk shells, a single page spread (with title). The first words? “Meanwhile.” Groth’s not wrong to be impressed with Los Bros’s writing, it’s exceptional. But to intro the comic and tell people not to pay attention to the art. Sorry, it grates me.
The first page of Bem introduces the monster. A moth slash grasshopper looking giant monster. Cut to Leonore. Leonore and her boyfriend, who I don’t think gets a name, get a lot of time in the story without ever doing much. She’s the Cassandra. Beto’s going to mix a lot of things–evil-looking Mothra and the woman with the strange connection to it–but he also mixes them visually. Bem gets positively absurd, while still serious because people are going crazy and terrified, but there are rayguns and maybe an alien or a clown type thing. Regardless, his name is Bob Zitz. The guy with the raygun is Harold Penis. Beto’s all over the place. He’s staying busy with the visual pacing–very noir while still keeping some comic strip visual gag nimbleness–while he’s drawing attention through the text.
Then it’s time for Luba. Luba and her male servant. They’re on the island where the monster is going to make landfall. Luba’s going to go on to a lot in Love & Rockets and while that future’s unknown in issue one, Beto loves the character. She’s hilarious and imposing.
Then it’s the detective. Castle Radium. He’s a noir detective, just one in a somewhat futuristic (sometimes) setting. Beto goes for some weird humor with him. Then cuts away fast back to Cassandra. And it seems like the strip’s done. Only it’s not. There’s two more pages with a lot of exposition for Luba and Castle and the reader.
Beto establishes everything in Bem, then does some more. He’s a little light on the “Bem” backstory. He’s this unseen menace, the monster is the present danger. He keeps the story compelling over the characters.
Jaime does the opposite with Mechan-X, which introduces Maggie, Hopey, and Rand Race. Jaime did the story under pseudonym–Izzy Ruebens.
The page starts with Maggie and Hopey crashed out after partying. It’s a messy apartment. They’re sleeping on the pullout sofa. Lots of talking, lots of movement. Maggie sits up between panels, lays down between panels. She moves around the apartment, getting ready for work, bickering with Hopey. Jaime does a bunch with expression when he gets closer, but there aren’t many close-ups. Like close-ups would get in the way of the movement.
The page ends with Maggie on a hoverbike. Because there are hoverbikes in Love & Rockets. Maggie’s off to her new job as a mechanic again. She’s working with prosolar mechanic Rand Race. Prosolar just means you’re a rich and famous mechanic. Jaime introduces Race to Maggie (and the reader) along with the boss. Race and the boss both know Maggie’s cousin, “the world’s female wrestling champ.”
There’s some more bonding between Maggie and Race, some foreshadowing thanks to odd behavior, and some ground situation exposition. The mechanics haven’t gotten to finish a job in months. They get sent out, then the “business magistrates” call to cancel and the mechanics blow up the job.
Jaime splits subplots on each page. Race and his boss and the jobs never getting completed take up maybe a third of the page. More when it’s something involving Maggie. It results in this great rhythm. You read Love & Rockets at a pace. Because there’s the art to look at too. Not just the exquisite detail, but Jaime uses foreground and background to deliver information.
The story doesn’t end with the job being over; instead, there are robots the crew decides to check out. And then there’s a criminal out to get Race. Or does he just want to escape to outer space. Jaime does this section fast, never slowing to make the panels easy for the reader. Lots of jump cuts between action. It’s particularly jarring for a bit just because Jaime started the strip with such an attention to smooth movement.
After the action with the space criminal is done, there’s a quick sum-up with Maggie, Hopey, and Penny Century. Penny used to date Race, she’s not thrilled. Hopey–who pushed Maggie into the job–is perplexed why she’s keeping it. But Maggie’s excited. Even if she does end up having to take a taxi to work. Because even though there’s been a war involving robots, people still have to commute.
Then Jaime’s got this strip called La Chota (The Snitch). The story stars Frenchie Firme. Supposedly it’s in German, but thanks to Google translate, it’s confirmed it’s not. It’s a weird little strip. Frenchie Firme’s a blonde bombshell. She’s on the witness stand. The prosector has got a really long head. The judge is a dog. The real translation might ruin it.
Bem comes back with Leonore the Cassandra having a moment. She’s thinking about Castle Radium, the detective, who’s close to finding the Horror. Sorry, Bem. Sorry, the Horror. Because Castle Radium ends up in a fight with a giant gorilla in a mask. Only it’s not a gorilla, it’s a man in a suit. A golem suit, it’s called. Then the strip’s pretty much over. It’s back to Leonore and her unnamed boyfriend for the bookend.
It sort of reads like Beto took his giant monster and Luba on the island story and grafted it to this noir detective in semi-future hunting the evil genius Bem. The grafting works though. It’s weird but it works.
Then Jaime does Barrio Huerta, which is a Hoppers 13 strip. It’s all in Spanish. Thanks to Google translate, it’s clear the strip’s about a death. But it’s only a page. Four panels. Jaime’s going to mood through dramatic comic strip. It’s got great art and great implication. Translating it doesn’t do anything for the strip.
Then another Jaime. A one-page Penny Century strip about her devilish (literally, with horns) male friend, Mr. Costigan. Mr. Costigan is maybe the one who made Rand Race a prosolar mechanic. If not him, another Costigan–H.R. Costigan. Penny wants to be a superhero. Because it turns out superheroes are real. They’re all flying past the window at one point. It’s a beautiful strip–Penny is in an evening gown, Costigan in a tux.
So two one-page Jaime strips and it’s back to Bem. Luba on the island–her toady boy’s name is Peter–they’ve just put on their costumes for the ritual. Got to do a ritual for the monster. Maybe Bem made the monster? The Horror? Luba runs into a bunch of other people who want to do a ritual for the monster’s power too. There’s a lot of comedy, sight gags, giant monsters. Meanwhile, Leonore is missing and her nameless dude is trying to find her.
The monster then gets to monologue. Bem did brain surgery to make the monster smarter. Luba isn’t impressed. Beto wraps it up with some giant monster action, which looks great.
The next story is Jaime’s How to Kill A (by Isabel Ruebens). Is it the same Izzy Ruebens who’s credited on Mechan-X earlier? Who knows. But the protagonist, Isabel, is having some writer’s block. She then goes on a strange vision question, presumably to find some inspiration. It’s a gorgeous strip, with Jaime doing a lot of white on black–Isabel writing in the dark–and then the detailed (while still dark) vision quest. It’s very noirish.
Music for Monsters is Beto doing this strange future Old West comic mixing cheesecake and monsters. The setting feels like Mechan-X more than anything else Beto’s done in Bem. It always seems like it could be a Jaime strip. But it’s not. It’s Beto.
And it’s Beto doing a lot of work. Every page of the story has something like fifteen panels. Lots of minute detail as the two leads try to survive hungry monsters, horny monsters, and sexual predatory dudes. It’s Beto showing off how well he can do big action even on a tiny scale. And he makes it work. The small panel size for giant action turns out to be perfect.
Maybe I always think it’s Jaime because one of the girls is wearing a black dress similiar to Penny’s earlier?
The next chapter of Bem establishes Leonore is just fine. She’s run off to San Sassafras, where it’s Fiesta Days. She’s finally going to meet Bem. Also there is the Monster, who moved consciousness into one of the guys on the island. Not the one with Luba.
The chapter brings together the various elements–Luba (eventually), the no longer Monster, Castle Radium, and Leonore. Radium spends most of the strip battling Bem’s associations, trying to find the Horror himself. There’s also a reference to a character maybe mentioned in the first chapter, but only as a pinup girl. It’s a strange detail. We also learn Bem is sort of an immortal evil monster thing. Shapeless if need be. What does it all mean? Only one chapter left to find out.
But first, Locas Tambien. Or, Maggie and Hopey. Without the sci-fi. They go visit Izzy. Izzy Ortiz, not Ruebens. So not from pseudonym to costar. She’s one of Maggie and Hopey’s friends. They’re visiting because Joey, another friend, wants to borrow witchcraft books. Joey’s scared of Izzy’s brother Speedy, who wants to “kick [his] ass in school.” Remember that last part.
Izzy freaks out on everyone with a page long drunken rant about nails and the universe. Maggie blows up, gets them kicked out. It leads to a flashback to Izzy and Maggie being straightedge a few years before when Izzy introduces Maggie to Hopey.
Then it’s back to the present, where they all run into Speedy, leading to the biggest action in the whole strip. Only it’s off page. Hopey and Maggie just talk about it at the finish, when they’re at a punk show. It’s a weird, awesome device. Jaime’s great at focusing the attention. He has this expansive world going on all around, but he can refocus instantly. Panel to panel.
The final chapter of Bem is a visual freakout. Leonore witnesses the showdown between the Monster (still in human form) and Radium. And Luba’s there too.
Beto’s got some plot twists after the action is over. There’s a noirish moment or two, some great comic strip expressions and pacing. The way he resolves the story–through Leonore telling the still-unnamed boyfriend–is fantastic. The finale is a relief, even though Bem has never been particularly dangerous. I forgot to mention the last chapter had the Monster (in man form) getting drunk and partying.
Beto wins the issue with Bem. It’s not really a competition–as Jaime doesn’t have any long, multi-part narratives–but Bem is one heck of a starter for Love & Rockets. It goes all over, it’s loud, but Beto has it all under control it turns out.
Or maybe it’s just whoever gets to finish the issue. We’ll see what happens in #2.
Story and art, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez; editor, Gary Groth; publisher, Fantagraphics Books.