New Love (1996) #4

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New Love #4 doesn’t really have a feature story. There’s a “Letters from Venus,” where creator Gilbert Hernandez checks in on the latest drama surrounding the strip’s young protagonist, and it’s six pages (twice the length of any other strip); it just doesn’t feel like a feature. The episode’s a grab bag with some echoing throughout, but they’re either vague echoes or intentional non sequiturs.

For example, the first strip in the comic is three pages about some drunk dad who doesn’t want to go home to the wife and kids. He knows he should want to go home, so he’s going to give up drinking for sure this time. Shame someone offers to buy him unlimited drinks. It’s a very stylized story, with Beto absurdly (literally, intentionally absurdly) visualizing the characters only to tighten them into “real people” at the end.

That story echoes with one later on about a concerned dad confronting his teenage daughter about her going out with her lowlife friends. He gets drunk in a bar to get his courage up. Beto’s art on this story is very dark, very inky, very moody. There’s that single echo back to the first strip because of the bar, but otherwise, it’s entirely separate. It’s a particularly depressing story; Beto’s somewhat bearish on humanity this issue.

The comic’s got eight one-page or less strips. A one-pager starring Venus and Fritz, the last strip directly nods back to another four-panel strip. But their content is entirely different. The four-panel strip is Beto playing with art and how to focus attention. The Venus and Fritz strip is a flashback to Fritz’s high school days (I can’t remember, did Beto establish teenage Fritz looks like one of the cover suspects on Love and Rockets #1 in that series). It’s all story, with Beto giving the narration to Venus so the reader wouldn’t have to translate Fritz’s lisp.

The other short strips range from black comedy gags to parables to history lessons, at least the ones written by Beto. Gary Groth and Seth contribute a talking heads script discussing modern pop culture and literacy. Beto draws them like superheroes. Some of the conversation ages OK; the part where one of them goes on about how great it was people loved their Bibles in the eighteenth century is, frankly, messed up. It’s not a matter of aging poorly; it’s a matter of the poop getting stinkier every year since publication.

That conversation will echo into the last of the three pages strips, which is about a well-meaning man who accidentally profits off the ramblings of an unhoused person and tries to make things right. There’s some talk about pop and art in the strip, which the Groth and Seth conversation set up. That story, entitled “Roy,” is probably the best in the comic. It’s the most consistently ambitious gesture.

There’s a history strip about a Black boxer, which strangely becomes all about (white boxer) Jack Dempsey. Good art. A child abduction black comedy strip. Then there’s another comedy strip with some exquisite line work. The oddest strip is the one about racism, which is somewhat noncommittal.

The best of the short strips is the “Origin of the Mosquito,” which is really funny.

The “Letters from Venus” story seems to resolve the de facto love triangle between Venus, mom Petra, and comic book store clerk Carlos. Petra’s been shagging Carlos on the side, which Venus unconsciously might know but also doesn’t. She is aware something’s wrong with mom and step-dad (I think this issue’s the first time she’s mentioned the step), but not what exactly because it’s all focused around her crush on Carlos. Venus’s crush, not Petra’s.

It’s a good entry, with very nice character work for step-dad David (the first time Beto’s really given him anything), and the plotting’s neat; it just doesn’t have much oomph overall. Some excellent art, of course.

Finally, there’s a nude self-portrait from Beto. Presumably just because.

By definition, it’s a looser New Love than usual (or ever), but Beto’s got just enough theme crossover to make it work as a package.