Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The World's a Mess; It's in My Kiss

The world's a mess; it's in my kiss...


If I don't see you again
For a long, long while
I'll try to find you
Left of the dial


I recently renewed acquaintance with two old friends. Their names are Maggie and Hopey, and like a lot of us, they've been through a lot, though they don't actually exist.

I took some down time during the holidays to re-read my complete run of Jaime Hernandez' Locas stories in Love and Rockets, the comic that changed the rules for comics and helps sum up, for me at least, the strange and wondrous decade of the 80's. Escapist fantasy? Yes, there's that. Nostalgia? It's hard to deny, with their near-perfect blend of 60's comic fantasy, and 80's punk culture, but nostalgia for what?

Like many pop culture milestones, it is difficult to separate Locas from one's experience of it. For me that means going back to my arrival in '85, in Denver's Capitol Hill. It was then a teeming gay/counter-cultural ghetto in the middle of the red state that brought us Amendment 2, the country's first anti-gay hate legislation. I'd moved down after picking up a BFA and exhausting my options in Laramie, Wyoming's tiny art/theater/punk rock scene. I'd taken a huge pay cut to transfer down, so cheap entertainment was a must, and fortunately, central Denver, with its thriving alternative art/punk scene provided plenty of that. No one was interested in Downtown after dark but us.

One of my first stops after arriving was the comic shop. I'd always been interested in the medium and had been introduced already to the NYC comics avant garde. But what I found was something that like a lot of things in Denver, looked more to LA than NYC. It also, in retrospect, was one of the more relevant fictional histories of Reagan's ramping up of the culture wars.

The first issues of Love and Rockets were an attempt to reconcile the existential excess of underground pioneers R. Crumb, Gary Panter and Justin Green with the nostalgia of superhero sci-fi fantasy. It was produced by Jaime and his brother Beto, whose own segments concerned a mythical Mexican town called Palomar and are more expressionistic and violent, as if Garcia-Lorca had been directed by Tarantino. They're brilliant in their own right, but it was Jaime who captured the unique and perversely ecstatic siege mentality of punk America. Love and Rockets was magazine-sized, in gorgeously rendered black and white with an attitude toward comics- and life- reflected in its lead characters.

Maggie and Hopey have silly fun, repair rockets, join punk bands, fall in love with the beautiful and the doomed, get drunk and occasionally have great sex. (both Jaime and Gilberto have a fascination with lesbian culture, another of their cutting edge pop culture sensitivities) It's just your typical story of two cute urban LA Hispanic bi/lesbian punkerettes trying to find tolerable jobs and sneak into 21-and-over shows against a back drop of rockets, dinosaurs and punk music in Reagan's America.

Gradually, the rockets faded into the background (as did rock and roll radio and funding for the arts and countless other American fantasies). Love, no less afflicted by failure to launch than the rockets, took over the story line. As the narrative moves along one feels time passing with its tangents, lost souls and lost weekends, and Maggie and Hopey, estranged from each other and from joy, begin to epitomize something darker and far more intangible about the 80's: the sense of a loss of possibility that is the essence of conservative America then and now. Instead of Morning in America, we got the giant sucking sound of the culture wars ramping up. Into the pages come gang wars, homelessness, workplace alienation and drugs. In urban America, Rock and Roll disappeared from deregulated, corporatized radio; songs unfinished, loves unloved.

Locas is the ongoing tale of two working class barrio women who refuse to be pushed around in life, but who nevertheless find themselves in a neighborhood (and country) they didn't ever expect to see, and don't recognize. There is no bus home and the rockets have stopped running.

For me, struggling to reconcile creative freedom with a crushing corporate culture at my day job, it was a picture of Main Street. A country unwilling to invest in its downtowns, music and art was a country going nowhere. As X paints it in their punk/impressionist travelogue: "Windshield wipers, Buffalo NY/don't forget the Motor City/This is 'sposed to be the New World".

All periods of repression generate great art, and L&R is as true a document of the punk years as Alex Cox' Repo Man or Penelope Spheeris' Suburbia. Jaime and Beto stand with Haring, X, The Replacements and untold others in the 80's who made the music and art that right wing corporate America didn't want you to know about, and shoved to the left of the dial. The stories unfold organically without a hint of political correctness and formulaic sit com moralization, plotted off-handedly, much like life itself. In the comic's stark graphics and jump-cut pacing a lost decade's nagging questions are posed without the easy answers of mainstream entertainment or the unrelenting dogma of the ascendant right; the rockets remain in the distant memory of characters, like the dreams of childhood, but the disillusionment is real. There are no heroes, super- or other wise, just survivors, and the dialogue, caught in snatches in bars and bus stations, places you in the middle of a group of friends and catches you up on backstory with well placed tidbits. It is as taut and poetically concise as the best power pop anthems of the times, such as "Left of the Dial" and The Pretenders' "Chain Gang". As with those songs, the words contain within a sense of their speaker's -and the era's- lack of a real future.

None the less, joy exists, its white hot glare balanced in the concise graphics with the menacing black of America in the post-industrial shadows, with its disdain for the urban counter culture. The sense of place, in b&w snapshots of Oxnard-like "Huerta" will be both familiar and exhilarating to anyone who has lived in any well integrated, decent sized city and experienced the youthful impulse to fill every empty warehouse with art- or rock shows.

As one critic in Salon noted, L&R is best enjoyed while re-read. It was hard to track Locas' many characters and shifting time frames on a once every two month reading. Its amazing depth and complexity make the characters seem all the more real, and the strip's interior timing is remarkably consistent as has been documented, here. One moves through a sense of youthful fantasy and adventure to the disillusionment and uncertainty of middle age in pen strokes that capture the child like romp of "Archie", the taut drama of "Steve Canyon" and finally, the dessicated cultural numbness and dogged resolve of Crumb. All without forsaking that sense of possibility that was taken from us with the rockets, and 'Just Say No'.

There are now collections and graphic novelizations available even in mainstream chains such as Borders and Amazon, as well as the publisher, The saga is ongoing, though Los Bros have finally left the true comic-book format behind to join the cartoonists they once inspired in soft- and hardcover European-style albums. The first two of these, which is only tangentially linked to the Locas storyline, is a bit of a departure, narratively. It seems generically bizarre and unconnected to anything real or meaningful, like a... comic book. Still, Jaime has often digressed into flights of fancy before (pro wrestling!), only to land firmly back on Main St, Oxnard, CA.

At their best, Jaime's stories celebrate one thing the bleak cultural negation of Reaganite culture wars could not kill- a sense that our differences make us stronger.
For those who benefited (or felt they did) from his agenda there was comfort in his ability to slow the accelerating pace of change. Locas characters have learned, sometimes the hard way, that you can't hide from change.

How did we get here? A simple enough question, with no easy answers. In an unwell society, memory takes on the hallucinatory quality of fever dreams. We lived through Rock and Roll's best decade, yet never heard it on the radio. We moved away from the cities, but the poor and sick didn't disappear. We bought flat screens; no one is foolish enough to believe the answers can be found in gridiron football and cop shows. It's a very real question at this stage of my life, having had an eventful year in which I beat a hasty retreat from blandly right wing corporate America, and entered what the C-of-C types like to delicately refer to as the "Creative Economy", meaning that part of the economy that provides the substance that mall culture does not; yet attracts very little investment of capital.

My own journey has brought me across mountain and high plain, industrial back alley and downtown skyscraper canyon. It seems surprising that in a few punk rock songs and a lowly comic book, I would find one of the few places that these questions get asked. All the more reason to stop ghettoizing the counter culture.

In fictional Varrio Hoppers, Jaime Hernandez lines out the ups and downs of just how we got here, and in the sparse yet rich ideographic truth of ink on newsprint, a fleeting ecstasy of angry guitars and young girls' kisses, how we might rocket back out.

One of his (super!) heroes is, after all, named "Hope".

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