Jaime Hernandez's Graphic Behavior

We take the noted Love & Rockets graphic novelist to the Museum of Modern Art

At MOMA, Hernandez and I stand before Warhol's huge 1963 diptych Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times, which features multiple silkscreen prints of the same gruesome auto accident on one canvas next to the blank orange expanse of another. Although Hernandez finds the piece too impersonal for his taste, both he and Hignite are appalled when I mention that the work has sometimes been reproduced with the blank panel cropped out, thus negating the sense of Catholic limbo conjured by the orange void. "Warhol was doing his own kind of punk," Hernandez remarks. "He was going, 'I'm gonna do this and I don't care what you think.' "

Which rather sums up Hernandez's own attitude. He has produced comics his own way from day one. As we wander into another gallery, I ask him how much longer he plans on portraying his characters' lives.

"I'm gonna do it as long as I think it's worth doing. And as long as everybody else does," he replies, laughing.

Panels from 2005’s Ghost of Hoppers.
Panels from 2005’s Ghost of Hoppers.

"I love this," Hernandez says as we peruse Jacob Lawrence's starkly designed, Depression-era tempera paintings depicting, through bold chunks of color, the depredations endured by Southern blacks who headed north for work. When I mention to Hernandez that I'd be interested in seeing how he would draw a crowded 7 train, he replies that the subway reminds him of the DMV or jury duty: "Those kinds of places where the rich have to be with the poor, with the people who don't speak English—where you guys are all trapped here and we're all the same, fucker. You can be wearing your diamond earrings, but I get to sit here, too."

As we check out the abstract expressionists, I ask for his take on Jackson Pollock's paintings, such as the 17-foot drip canvas One: Number 31, 1950 and the densely packed Full Fathom Five, from 1947.

After considerable thought, he says he's impressed by "their intention. . . . I bet a lot of the best artists went in for something and ended up with something they didn't know they had in 'em." He looks around at the Pollocks. "This stuff is impossible to picture before he does it."

As impossible as it would have been to imagine a comic book featuring a pair of Mexican-American punkettes in combat boots ever managing to expand beyond the indie-comics sector—that first issue of L&R three decades ago had a press run of only 800 copies. Now the Locas stories are available in deluxe hardcover editions and in stacks of paperback collections. Fans have told Hernandez, "I love Maggie and Hopey and if I met them, they would be my best friends." Hernandez, however, has a warning for those admirers. "These are two punk kids with good hearts," he relates in the Abrams book, "but to outsiders they might be pretty snotty and make you feel alienated. So don't get too comfortable with them."

Which probably explains Hopey's tangy wit and Maggie's emotional dithering—Hernandez sees his Locas as simply real, and as the gang matures out of their punk-drunk youthful passions and into the existential muddles of on-rushing middle age, their creator may be as helpless as any reader to comfort Maggie about her weight troubles or Hopey over her need for glasses and a real job.

I'm trying to find one of MOMA's Francis Bacon paintings. Wandering through the crowded galleries, I can't locate the canvas I want, but I explain that Bacon would sometimes fling gobs of paint at a portrait he was working on to break out of formal complacency. Hernandez laughs and says, "Sometimes I do that—I'll throw in somebody to fuck things up."

Indeed, Hernandez regularly punctuates his narratives with multi-dimensional shifts of time, space, and genre, often employing Penny Century as his go-to girl to disturb the peace. In his most recent tales, drawn in an exuberantly cartoony fashion, Penny has gained superpowers and is running amok as various teams of superwomen muster to stop her—one retired crime-fighter points out that women are born with super-heroic attributes, but men "gotta go out an' have lab accidents and other stuff to get their cojones."

Although he occasionally falls into flat passages of exposition, for the most part, Hernandez's prose brings the goods as sharply as his drawings. While visiting Maggie's childhood home, one of her friends—a jiggling train-wreck of a stripper—succinctly sums up the neighborhood: "Fuck, ghetto." After rambunctious sex with Penny, Maggie's onetime boyfriend Ray poetically free-associates: "The animals talked. I was speaking in tongues. My dad up in Heaven glanced up from his paper. The angels went on strike."

Somewhere near the impressionists, I ask Hernandez what Maggie is currently up to. He describes some trouble he's having with a scene between her and Ray. But, he adds, "the more I started to draw it and get comfortable with it, I started going, 'God, I love Maggie.' "

It's said that everyone has at least one novel in them. But very few have the discipline to ever write that book, much less the talent to communicate more than half of their story through the powerful, wide-ranging drawings catalogued in The Secrets of Life and Death. Jaime Hernandez is taking a lifetime to create The Great American Graphic Novel, and if you're lucky, you'll outlive him.

That way, you get to see how it ends.

bbaker@villagevoice.com

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