Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: The Hernandez brothers’ Love And Rockets
Why it’s daunting: There are few comics in the history of the medium as universally beloved as Love And Rockets, the long-running Fantagraphics title by Los Angeles-based brothers Jaime and Gilberto (“Beto”) Hernandez, sometimes assisted by a third brother, Mario. The comic helped kick-start the alternative-comics revolution of the 1980s, it inspired the name of a well-known rock band, and has been so good for so long that it’s almost impossible to find anyone with something bad to say about it. None of which means a thing to those who are new to the title and are looking for an easy entry point: Apart from a late-’90s hiatus, Love And Rockets has been published continually for 28 years. There are numerous collected editions, but many are out of print, and even if you can find them, their numbering system and layout is confusing. And even the huge hardcover collections Fantagraphics started releasing in 2003 are daunting. There are currently four of them available, totaling a monstrous 2,248 pages, and they don’t come close to being complete editions.
Possible gateway: The Locas: The Maggie And Hopey Stories hardcover collection, specifically the “Vida Loca: The Death Of Speedy Ortiz” section.
Why: There’s long been a running battle between those who prefer Jaime’s “Locas” stories—a slice-of-life depiction of the L.A. punk-rock scene and its aftermath, focusing on a handful of mostly Latino characters and drawn in a clean-line style heavily influenced by the Archie Comics work of Dan DeCarlo—and those who prefer Beto’s “Heartbreak Soup” stories, which use a rougher, more cartoony style to tell the often-dark story of the natives of Palomar, a fictional Latin American town. The Palomar stories, while extraordinarily literate and often brilliant in how they straddle the line between magical realism and gritty serial drama, are complex narratives which benefit greatly from being read from the very beginning; Jaime’s lighter, simpler approach is probably a better place to start. That’s why Locas is probably a superior jumping-off point than its companion volume, Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories.
Still, at 712 pages, Locas remains a daunting piece of work, and it starts out with early stories, heavily influenced by Jaime’s obsessions with science fiction and superhero comics, which aren’t typical of the work that would make him famous. While it definitely would benefit from a light survey of what comes before in order to familiarize readers with the characters, the “Death of Speedy Ortiz” arc is a perfect litmus test for the entire series. Featuring many of the Locas series’ most prominent characters, it’s beautifully drawn, funny, tense, heartbreaking, and full of the thematic elements that infuse all the rest of Jaime’s work. It’s a skillful piece of sociological storytelling, with keen insights on gang life and the sexual mores of Latino culture. And it let Jaime stretch his storytelling legs: for once, he focuses on his male characters as much as his women, and we get a chance—rare in the early days of the comic—to see Maggie Chascarillo’s personality outside of Hopey Glass’ influence. Add to that the fact that it has one of the most unforgettable endings of any comics story in memory, and it’s a perfect way to learn about the sad, beautiful world of Los Bros. Hernandez.
Next steps: “Vida Loca: The Death of Speedy Ortiz” should be enough to inspire readers to finish the entire Locas book, but before heading on to Locas II: Maggie, Hopey And Ray, the next hardcover collection of Jaime’s work, it’s time to give Beto his due. Pick up Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories and get immersed in his distinctive worldview; the stylistic differences in the brothers’ storytelling is stark, but the thematic similarities are telling, and by the end, the two narrative worlds begin to thread together in surprising, rewarding ways. Move on to Locas II and Luba, and you’ll have read the best of what may be the greatest alternative comic ever.
Where not to start: For one thing, don’t subscribe to the (reputedly monthly) comic. Its publishing schedule is erratic, and with no grounding in the characters and situations, you’ll be hopelessly lost one issue in. Prior collections are more affordable and less physically huge, so they may seem less intimidating, but keep in mind, they were published in chronological order, blending Jaime, Beto, and Mario’s work in sequences that often assume readers’ familiarity with the previous installments. The downside of the hardcover collections is that they leave out the non-“Locas”/”Heartbreak Soup” stories from Love And Rockets, which are often excellent—especially Jaime’s “Rocket Rhodes” stories and Beto’s creepy “Errata Stigmata.” But it’s clear which characters Los Bros love the most, so stick with the hardbacks to start; the rest will be an added bonus after the main narrative lines have worked their magic.