Every now and then, if I'm lucky, I might just bump into a stone cold masterpiece. The kind of art that makes you just want to shout and scream it is so good. So, in the interest of doing just that, let me say that this Jaime Hernandez's "The Love Bunglers" ((Love and Rockets: New Stories no. 4) is such a work. I don't even need to qualify it for myself (i.e. "what's coming later; what's come before; shouldn't there be a cooling period?") when I say: This is not just Jaime's finest work, but one of the best (at this moment I'd rank it in my top five of all time) works ever created in the medium. You can hold that over me in twenty years and I'll still be right, and Frank Santoro will still fight you for it.
"The Love Bunglers" is the story of Jaime's longtime heroine, Maggie, finally holding onto something. That something is also a someone: Her longtime off and on lover, Ray Dominguez. Maggie's losses over the last thirty years have been dramatic: She lost her culture; her brother; her profession; her friends -- in issue 4's side story, "Return For Me", we learn the sudden, chilling fate of an adolescent pal, shown in detached detail. But Maggie's ability to navigate and find life is what's made her a compelling character. Ray, as in the films Jaime loves, is the one man we, and his creator, want for Maggie. Not because she needs him, but because they, together, are part of a more perfect equation. In taking us through lives, deaths, and near-fatalities, "TLB" and "Return For Me" encapsulates Maggie's emotional history as it moves from resignation (Maggie fails to purchase a garage, i.e. fails to fulfill her dreams) to memories of loss, to sudden violence (a theme in this story) to love and contentment.
Jaime does all this with such apparent ease that for many readers, myself included, the suddenness of his twists are actually physically affecting. Of course, that's in the pacing and the prose. But then there is the drawing: Jaime's line has passed out of mechanical perfection and into something that is personal, with the occasional wiggle. It's a lived-in line that now indicates ideas and emotions as much as it delineates forms. Nothing in his comics looks like anything in anyone else's comics. So, for example, this alleyway is not just any alleyway -- it's an alleyway constructed entirely from Jaime's lines, gestures, and pictorial vocabulary.
And this end-of-the-day-going-home-alone look of exhaustion on Ray's face is startlingly familiar in its realism. But it's a realism particular to Jaime's characters.
Jaime is an artist in complete control of his medium, and in such a "simple" way: with him it is all ink on paper. There are no outs in his work -- what he lays down is what it is. Formally, Jaime is an artist who seems to adore cartooning, but has always resisted histrionics or anything smacking of "formal play". But on pages 92 and 93 (which I won't reproduce here because really should be experienced) he gives in, and in two facing pages 9 panels each, replays the history of Maggie and Ray's relationship from each player's point of view, structured so that each of their faces in each panel is both looking at the other and, in the bottom row, at us, too. It's eerie. It's also suspenseful, as Ray has just been horribly assaulted, and since I was reading this in real time, I assumed he was dead. The mirroring effect (which echoes a crucial sequence three pages earlier, as Maggie and Ray literally run towards each other on paper) summarizes the duo's story so well that even a reader unfamiliar with the story could grasp the emotional arc. Jaime's panels are so evocative and information packed that anyone can tell from the direction of Maggie's look on page 92, panel 4, and the bemusement on Ray's face on page 93, panel 4, that this was a time when she needed him, even if it wasn't quite the right time.
Moving out of the doubling effect of plot and internal history, this spread also impacts the reader in personal way. As I took it in, I realized that I remembered not just the moments Jaime was referring to, but also the narratives around those moments. And furthermore, I remembered where and how and what I was when I read those moments. I remembered like the characters remembered. That's an extraordinary thing to do to a reader. And that's the thing about Jaime's stories -- they work on you, and embed themselves in you like little else. Structurally it's because Jaime's characters have aged with us, but on a deeper level it's perhaps because, as Jaime has said, these characters are, in a sense, real to him; maybe his belief in them somehow allows us to believe in them too. It just works. They're real.
In the end we flash forward some unspecified amont of years: Ray survives and he and Maggie are in love and Jaime signs the last panel with a heart. That signature sealed it for me. On top of everything else, "TLB" is also a love letter from its creator to his readers and to his characters. It's a letter from an old friend, wise to the fuckery of life, to the random acts that occur and that we have no control over. Jaime, I think, used to be a bit of a romantic. He's not anymore, but in this story he gives us something to hang onto: A piece of art that says that you should allow fear and sadness into your life, but not let those things cripple you. That sometimes life works out and sometimes not, but the things we can control, things like comics and storytelling, carry redemption. And on a more direct level, it's as though Jaime is saying "Thank you" to us and to his characters, but he does so with all parties involved understanding that this is not the end (though as Jeet Heer reports in his upcoming column, Jaime said that when he drew the story "he was thinking that if he were hit by a bus tomorrow and killed he wanted to leave behind a story that would complete his life's work." Read literally, I guess I could connect this to the violences of the story itself). After all, Jaime and everyone else knows that no one stops a series at number 4. That would be silly. Comic books go on forever. What a brilliant way to show life: Give the "happy" ending, but hint at all the pain and trouble and joy, too, that will come before it.
And two last things: In talking about this issue with pals, everyone says, "But man, Gilbert is also on top... how do you even choose?" And I agree, Gilbert is on fire right now. But to discuss Gilbert is to discuss a dozen different stories and then add them up. That's not what I want to do here. I want to do this one story. Plus, even though they share a book, to constantly link the two brothers to the exclusion of individual examination is to diminish their individual powers. And second: Lest you think our artist is going soft: A few weeks back, Jaime Hernandez, who has been publishing comics for thirty years, tweeted: "While you Brooklynites were at SPX I snuck into your studios and finished all your unfinished work and then I wept at 9/11 for each of you." In other words, Jaime is competitive. He will crush you. I know one other "semi-elder" (sorry, Jaime, but age ain't a lie) who cops to that kind of feeling, but man, that's some wonderfully aggressive talk. It is as it should be: When you release a comic as great as "TLB", and you do it as part of your ongoing series, with no fanfare, no warning, no design, no apologies, no blurbs... When you are just laying down a comic... well, Jaime did what he tweeted about, and if I was a cartoonist I'd be concerned. This guy. This guy wants to basically kill you with his work. As he should.