Love and Rockets: Heartbreak Soup
By Gilbert Hernandez
Love and Rockets. From the things I’ve read and from what people have said to me – it’s basically one of the best comics ever. Universally beloved. Critically adored. All of that stuff. It’s tough to write about tone (most of the time we just pay attention to the words that are said): but you know everytime I’m with someone who starts talking about Love and Rockets their tone changes. “Love and Rockets” isn’t said in the same tone of voice that you’d say “Batman” or “Tintin” or “The Beano.” Nah – there’s like a little lilt. Like how you hear someone say “Opera” or “Tarkovsky” or “Proust”
You know: “Love and Rockets”
I’m not much of a fan of Love and Rockets. I can’t see what any of the fuss is about. I’ve tired several times to read several different collections – to find my way in and find the thing that everyone else loves so much. But my experience of reading it is comparable to eating a boxfull of crackers with no cheese. Flavourless and dry. With no trace of anything more substantial…
As far as I can see: when everyone else raves about something that you just don’t understand there’s like two main ways to approach it. The first is just to kinda shrug your shoulders and say “well – everything is subjective right?” 100,000,000 Bon Jovi Fans Can’t Be Wrong. You Say ‘Tomato’ I say ‘Tomato’ – let’s call the whole thing off. And yeah – while I can see the appeal of that kind of thinking (and there is some truth to it obviously): it doesn’t really feel like it gets us anywhere… I much prefer the second approach which is to try to understand the reasons why Love and Rockets is such a seemingly universally adored thing…
The trouble that I’ve found with that so far is that every time I’ve tried to get to the roots of why Love and Rockets strikes such a big chord in people’s hearts – all the answers I get just seem kinda – I dunno – bullshitty? Like: the number one I’ve heard is: “Oh you know – it’s like all those superhero comic books.” And well – LOL: I mean: as you can probably tell from past Book Clubs: I’m nothing like a 100% superhero fan saying that I want to go on dates with Batman or anything like that… You know that scene in Donnie Darko when the lady draws the line with FEAR on one end and LOVE on the other? Like: if you only like Love and Rockets because there’s no capes then – erm: I don’t know if your point of view is really that nuanced you know?
Except well LOL – context matters. And to be fair – Love and Rockets first started all the way back at the start of the 1980s. And in you know: back in those dark days before Watchmen and Maus rode into town to show us the world that BIFF! POW! ZAM! comics weren’t “just for kids anymore” etc blah it does make sense that you want to grab hold of any rock that comes to hand. But then I’m a bit like: I mean – I know a stick was a good tool back when we were all living in caves: but is it really an option now we have like iphones and stuff?
The one other reason that I hear a lot about why Love and Rockets is such hot stuff is that it’s been running for years and years and years and it’s all the same characters: growing older as time gets on. But again: I mean – that doesn’t really seem like much? And you know: Judge Dredd does the same thing (and for longer): but most of the Love and Rocket fans I’ve met tend to turn up their noses at any mention of the thrills of Mega City One… (Plus also you know: there’s Dykes to Watch Out For which is also long running: but is less serious and way more fun to read…).
And the deep suspicion that lies in the dark of my heart is that really all the Love and Rockets love is just an affectation. You know: like drinking fancy beer or pretending to enjoy the films of Jim Jarmusch. But hey – you know: my mind is open to being changed. And maybe there is gold in them hills and all I need it a nudge or a point in the right direction to understand what all the fuss is about. So you know – if you’re a Love and Rockets fan: please try to convince me. What is it that I’m missing? What does this comic do that’s so damn lovely?
Or maybe you agree with me? LOL. I don’t know…
Tell me what you think.
Who pretends to like Jim Jarmusch? He’s fucking brilliant.
I saw Ghost Dog on late night TV years ago and it’s still one of my favourites – those wheezing Godfather piss take mobsters, that soundtrack, that ending? Joel – it’s okay to like things. (Admittedly Limits of Control and the Tilda Swinton Vampire thing were dull).
But PATERSON?! He made a functioning compelling story with zero drama. Nothing dramatic actually happens in it. BUT IT’S STILL AMAZING. Jarmusch made a film that explicitly ignored every major rule we bandy about on “what makes an interesting story” and still managed to make it work. It’s because he’s awesome (and he cameo’d in Bored To Death – so clearly HE CAN’T BE BORING).
(I love caps lock, it let’s me express myself when I no do words goo for Super Nintendo Chalmers.)
I’ve got that volume of L&R kicking around, it was on clearance at Forbidden Planet and i thought “fuggid, 1st volume bored me but I’ll give it another shot”.
It did not pan out.
And I don’t think it’s because the writing was bad or the art was bad or that either of the creators are particularly far ahead on the queue to be shot into the sun on the grounds of ideological incompatibility or anything like that.
I think it’s because of the lettering. And I am fussy with my lettering. The first maybe 30 pages of the book, I loved. It had that sense of epicly intimate detail that writers like Marquez or Bolano did so well, for a good while I was just wrapped up in the story and the characters and the world.
Then the text changed and it got all squinty and smaller and more difficult to read and my brain went:
“Oh look. Air”.
If I have to squint and focus on the text, I will stop paying attention. I will look out of a window It should be easily to read – it’s a GRAPHIC novel. It’s a legitimate criticism to say the art style made it difficult to follow and not fun to look at. The same should be more true of the font. How am I meant to care if I have to put back into enjoying it?
What’s worse is – Hernandez is a great writer, I’ve read other things by him over the years and he has an ability quietly grab your attention and lock you into a story full of selfish children simply because of how innately good he is at understanding how we connect to characters by empathy. Which is an obvious statement, but Hernandez is often able to do it so well. And it makes sense L&R became such an institution to comic readers looking for something more literary than Stan Lee’s booming alliteration. Especially for it’s time, it was the main example of compelling human characters, it didn’t need an apocalyptic deconstruction of hero fantasies nor did it need to achieve drama through a topic as devastating as the Holocaust. For all the talk of the late 80s comic book literary revolution, L&R is probably the only one that manages it with characters alone. Which is why I’m annoyed that reading it is often a squinty chore.
I’m in the middle of Black Monday Murders which is text heavy as hell, told through dense speech bubbles, deliberately baroque text academic pages and redacted memos. But I race through it. Why?
BECAUSE HICKMAN MAKES HIS LETTERS EASY TO READ.
The substance of Black Monday is complex and often aggressively obscured – but it’s still fun and compelling to read because it’s easy to read. It’s in clear comic sans, which for all the shit it gets is a great font for comics because it’s so unassuming you forget it’s there – your brain just ignores it and goes straight to the meaning.
I kinda realise this is just a regurg of a rant on fonts I wrote aaages ago. But, it’s spilt milk. Except there’s a delete button and I don’t want to press it.
(I actually wrote this maybe 2 weeks ago, but then I decided I wanted to proof read it, forgot about it and remembered today. I did not proof read this).
Feel like I should chip in before time runs out even though I have to rely on memory. I do understand where Joel is coming from, in that I also had to force my way through Love & Rockets. The characterisation and storytelling is impressive, but there was something preventing complete buy in for me. In the Palomar stories in particular, part of the issue may have been how quickly Gilbert Hernandez moves time forward, so that characters are introduced and then grow up quite quickly into different people, and you only get to skim across all the interesting bits in between that add up to a full personality.
In the Palomar stories specifically, there is a cool development that comes through in the next volume ‘Human Diastrophism’, where the village starts becoming connected to the wider world, and you can see its political and religious ideologies start to infect the inhabitants. I think part of the point of these stories is to celebrate the quotidian human experiences that emerge when you strip out the bigger picture.
In b4 deadline?
I guess I might be the only one who realky liked Heartbreak Soup. And I really did, a really lot. I enjoyed the art, I enjoyed the writing. Even the lettering didn’t bother me. There were a couple places which were a little squinty, but I got it in digital, so zoom, baby.
As I was reading it I thought, this is really good. And then I thought, Joel must really love controversy because I can see this going over okay in the 80s but it’s the kind of story that would get you crucified if you wrote it now. Adult men having sex with little girls (adult women having sex with the boys), sexism, domestic violence, racism, objectification of women….
And maybe the most unforgivable thing is that the characters doing those things aren’t the villains, they’re the sympathetic heart of the story.
So I reflected on our changing mores and tolerance for art while I was reading it. And what I want to talk about in this book versus what opinions might be acceptable kept me thinking over what to write (and what not to) for a while. Nearly too long.
I recall Joel saying, either in one of his posts here of maybe on Twitter, people like it because of how it follows the characters as they get older. I don’t think that mattered so much to me. I enjoyed how the characters evolved, but I the thing I really liked was the way different characters perspectives and stories added nuance and changed the meaning of stories that had already been told.
(I should say “spoiler alert” here.)
Like the way Luba entirely forgets seducing Heraclio when he was a boy, while from his perspective, it was a profound life event with far reaching impact in his relationship with his best friends and his wife.
For me, the female characters dominated the story. I don’t know what proportion, in terms of panels and word count, was actually given to them; there was plenty of page time for the male characters too. But the women seemed seemed… elemental. And even in the world of the story, the women of Palomar are considered remarkable. There’s the relationship between Chelo and Luba, their rivalry and friendship. Luba’s matriarchal clan, fierce Carmen and broken Pipo and wild Tonantzin.
I have a hard time defining exactly what I like about it. The dignity of the characters is part of it; the way they’re deeply flawed but still sympathetic. The depth of the story, and I haven’t even mentioned the social issues Hernandez doesn’t shy away from, like when the photographer Howard comes to Palomar, and he wants to take pictures of Luba and her family looking dirty and ragged in front of the theater. Or the treatment of homosexual relationships.
A lot of culture from the 80s feels so dated now, but this doesn’t, even with Tonantzin’s cold war references. It feels very contemporary. There aren’t a lot of comics in my library that I find have the depth to sustain rereading, but for me this is definitely one of them.
* Also, after reading Amir’s post, now I need to look up Black Monday Murders – ‘complex and often aggressively obscured’ sounds right down my alley.