It seems like the abiding conception of Jaime Hernandez’s Tonta is that it’s a minor work of his, a sort of tossed-off compilation of stories focusing on a character who’s more an Io than a Jupiter, a character actor rather than a leading lady. But the fact is that reading it, for me, produced the same rush of blood to the brain and almost dizzying happiness as his “major” Maggie and Hopey stories. It’s not quite Stendhal Syndrome, but it’s close. Experiencing work that you love so completely is a sort of out-of-body experience, which is what Stendhal was getting at, whether or not he actually became physically weak by hanging out around various Florentine masterworks. Philosophers have been trying to unpack the idea of the “sublime” for centuries, so it’s unlikely that I’m going to put my finger on it here, but the general point is that it’s something that makes you feel small, as though dwarfed in the presence of a god or godlike force. So how does a comics nerd from Oxnard do that once, much less over and over again?
It might seem like it has something to do with the absolute size of the world he’s created over the past few decades, but Tonta shows that’s likely not true. The Maggie and Hopey stories partially get their heft from hanging out with characters for years. There’s context built up, like layers of oil paint, that creates depth. We know who slept with who and how they’ve changed since adolescence. Tonta and Tonta don’t have much of that. There’s some background with her older sister Vivian Solis (a perfect pin-up with a grating voice and a strong tendency toward chaos who’s been showing up in Love and Rockets longer), but mostly she just elbows her way straight to the center of attention, expecting us to know who she is without telling us. That’s Hernandez’s method (the Hernandezes’, more accurately). Why waste space on set-up when you can cannonball straight into the pool? Readers will catch up, and we do. It’s not the established largeness. It’s the suggested size of the universe. That complicated network of connections is part of the appeal of comics and something that word novels, for the most part, don’t do nearly as well. Yes, Proust exists. But even many of the largest novels that exist feel the need to contextualize their new characters more. The nature of words is to use a lot of them. What's that cliché about pictures and their relative impact? We also don’t know what’s going to happen next with Hernandez’s stuff, and that, too, can make us feel lost, small, in the presence of the sublime. Like a long-running TV show, comics can change course on a whim, to follow a new narrative that a creator might find appealing. That allows for more possibilities than most conventional (i.e., less experimental) novels provide. At the same time, comics also have more flexibility than said TV shows: less reliance on advertisers (and therefore more room to be weird), zero reliance on actors (and hence the ability to scrap a storyline on a whim). We know this in some way as we read, and that makes the perceived size of the world bigger.
Hernandez isn’t interested in unpacking complexity on the page; instead, he merely presents it, putting him in the same camp as someone like Chris Ware, who expects you to do the work. But Hernandez a) doesn’t signal that complexity as obviously as Ware and b) doesn’t leave out the joy. The latter is clear from the book’s cover—in which Tonta ollies into the middle of the picture, a big yellow sun hat on her blue hair, gap-toothed goofy smile wide open—and it continues intensely inside. Being alive and able to sense things is a marvel. People are always tackling each other a la WrestleMania, hugging or literally kicking up their heels, with motion lines suggesting even more emphatic energy. They leave their feet a lot, but they’re also quite solidly planted on the earth. They move in extremes. There’s a lot of touching in the way characters relate to one another, both of other people and of objects. It’s a physically based universe, not one that’s all up in people’s heads. That can make it seem caricatured, but the result is that Hernandez pulls interior experience into visible, tangible form. Whether or not you understand it or can explain it, you feel it, like the laws of physics. One example is a page that features six identically sized panels of Tonta, three over three. She moves from telling a story about her school life in a natural way (legs apart, posture relaxed but not slumping, then gestures to show three different skirt lengths) to a sort of power pose of trying to appear cool and casual (one arm somewhat stiffly tucked behind her back to show us that it is indeed a pose and not full truth) to ingratiation (smile a little too broad, leaning toward her audience, shoulders shrugged a touch too high) to realization that her studied nonchalance is transparently obvious as such (shoulders relaxed again, as though giving up; hand splayed across her chest in a gesture that's almost self-protective). The reader gets all of that without even looking at her face, something that's underscored by the final panel, in which her back is to us and she stands with her arms down by her sides, a little unnerved at the length of the monologue she's just given as her peers gawp at her.
There’s also a sort of forgiveness in everything Hernandez creates that makes it feel clear-eyed and accepting. People fuck up all over the place, but it doesn’t prevent them from being given the same credit as humans. This universe doesn’t have anything to do with the Great Chain of Being, the medieval Christian concept that applied ranked orders to everything. Some people are conventionally beautiful, on the outside. Others aren’t. It would be easy for Hernandez to make Tonta the flipside of Vivian—goony-looking and well-intentioned, innocent and kind where her sister is a black-haired Barbie femme fatale—and that seems to be her origin story, but people are more complicated than that. Vivian has her reasons for being how she is. Tonta can be thoughtless, too. Just because her face isn’t “pretty” doesn’t mean she has to have a heart of gold. What she is is a person whose frontal lobe is still developing, driven by instinct and desire. If she wants to put on her sister’s fancy underpants, by god she does it. She makes us feel what it was like to be that person and perhaps less annoyed with teenagers as a result. It’s as though the generosity the author extends to his characters oozes out of the book and into us, making us slightly better people without us knowing it.