Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Favorite Comics Part Eight: Love & Rockets (Part 1)

Love & Rockets (the comic book, not the band... for those who don't know, the comic came first), is very high on my list of all-time favorite comics, and one of the single most influential on my art style and approach to comics. Like a lot of books from this time period I didn't catch on immediately. My lack of access to a direct sales comics shop was the primary reason for this. It was only through the enthusiastic reviews of a couple of friends of mine who were more adventurous than I that I finally read L&R. I think I read the first four or five issues in one sitting. I've been a confirmed fan ever since.

While it's been on my list of books to write about for this project from the beginning, I have been hesitant to begin. A lot has been written and said about Love & Rockets, and I'm not sure what I have to add to the conversation. L&R by itself is a complex work, and my own reactions to it are complex as well. Trying to find a focus for this article has been difficult.

I have heard Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, the primary creators of L&R, referred to as “the most important comics creators of their generation.” This is a generation that includes Frank Miller, Alan Moore and a host of other significant writers and artists, so that is a pretty remarkable judgement, and one I don't completely disagree with. It is not just loved by fans, and they tend to be rabid supporters, it is one of the most critically acclaimed comics of the last thirty years.

That wasn't always so. When the first Fantagraphics issue came out in 1982 a reviewer for Amazing Heroes, R.A. Jones, was less than receptive. I'll let his words speak for themselves;

So, Jones seem to think L&R was dated and hopelessly rooted in the past, when what actually happened was that L&R was the vanguard of a new generation of comics creators. While thoroughly immersed in the comics traditions that came before, a much broader spectrum than the Underground Comix Jones refers to, L&R presented a unique outlook and voice that has changed the approach to what comics can be. Rather than a pastiche of a dated past it represented a future not yet fully understood or comprehended.

The reasons I feel this way are mixed in with my experiences of reading the book. But, there are a few things I can say in general. L&R was post-modern. The Brothers Hernandez (and in the earliest days of the book, brother Mario contributed as well), threw everything they knew and loved into their work. Their influences came from the traditional superhero comics, but they seemed to incorporate everything they read: Romance comics, Archie comics, Sci-Fi. Their characters lived in a world where everything that existed in comics existed. The day-to-day lives of the characters were the normal stories of people with jobs and families and relationships, but it was easy to imagine that the Fantastic Four were fighting giant space monsters just over the horizon, that you could run into Betty and Veronica at the local fast food joint, or that the neighbor kid was Dennis the Menace. As a comics fan of their generation who had grown up devouring all of these it was as if the Hernandez Brothers had delineated the world I had always lived in in my head, and somehow it all fit together.

And it wasn't just comics that served as an inspiration. Anything they were fans of made its way into the comic. Monster movies, music, television, and wrestling (particularly the masked luchadore tradition), all went into the mix.

The cover of a police lineup of fantasy figures with a real woman in a housecoat summed this up. It was intriguing and stood out as being something very different than what we had seen on the racks before.

This drawing by Jaime was inspired by the Punk Rock artist Raymond Pettibon and his artwork for the back cover of the Black Flag single Nervous Breakdown.

The Hernandez Brothers were among the first distinctly Hispanic voices in comics. They related that cultural heritage in the form of traditional imagery and folklore handed down to them through older generations as well as through their own urban experience as Hispanic youths in America. Their approach was also multicultural. Though most of the primary point of view characters were of Hispanic origin they were not the only character types present, especially in Jaime's work. The Punk Rock culture of Los Angeles that provided the backdrop for his stories guaranteed that many other races and cultures were represented as well.

It's important to me to redefine the term multicultural for my purposes here. What I mean by Culture in this context goes beyond specific racial or religious backgrounds. I want to expand the definition to include any culture or sub-culture one finds oneself a member of, in this case specifically, Comics as a sub-culture and Punk Rock as a sub-culture (though there are many others included as well). If I were to completely simplify the primary themes of Love & Rockets I would say that it is the continuing story of the attempt to define oneself, within the strictures of the various cultures to which you belong and identify with, and against the expectations they bring with them. A recurring idea is that as characters grow and age, which they do in this series, they often become something they never dreamed of in their youth.

While the cast was large and varied, both Gilbert and Jaime focused on female point-of-view characters, and both managed to create some of the most fully-realized women characters in comics. Their protagonists were real, with a fully human spectrum of emotions, motivations, strengths and flaws. Unlike the standard, idealized superheroine form, the women who populated L&R also showed a full range of body types, and just like real people, their bodies changed over time.

Some of the varied female residents of Palomar.

Maggie Chascarillo at various points in her life.

They were also able to present the reality of human sexuality in ways that always felt real and not exploitive. There were characters who were straight, gay and bi-sexual, transvestites and transsexuals the polyamorous and the chaste. There were characters in committed relationships and those who were promiscuous. Characters were tempted and fell in love and fell in lust. Sex was presented as powerful, life-changing, emotionally messy, romantic, prurient, ridiculous, embarrassing, hysterical and confusing... just like it is for all of us in real life. It was a topic that stood on equal footing with everything else that went on in the characters lives. There are scenes I'm sure some people would view as pornographic (and the book is really not meant for kids, for a variety of reasons), but if L&R is porn, then so is the life of everyone I know.

L&R can be difficult for a new reader to jump into. Like Marvel and DC, at this point the L&R universe has a long history. Reading the latest installment has great meaning for me, but only because I have watched these characters grow for thirty years. They are old friends by now, and I know the back story that has brought them to their current place. If you don't know that back story, it's just events happening to strangers. Even though the series has been collected in various formats over the years it's not as simple as saying “Start at the beginning.” Unfortunately the original format and printing history can make it difficult to follow, though it has gotten better than it used to be.

L&R was originally a magazine-sized black and white comic. It is important to note, for those of you who have never read it, that its contents were never simply one big story. L&R was essentially an anthology featuring separate stories by each of the brothers. Over time both Gilbert and Jaime developed recurring casts that they focused on (loosely speaking, the Palomar stories and the Locas stories, respectively), but they both contributed tales in each issue that had nothing to do with their longer, continuing narratives.

It was obvious in the beginning, like many young creators, that they were experimenting and had not yet found their voices or their style. If you pick up the original issues, or read the original trade paperback collections that presented the issues as they first appeared, the experience can feel a little choppy and unfocused and are likely to make the uninitiated wonder what all the fuss is about.

More recent collections have streamlined the experience, collecting each of the brother's main stories separately.

This is probably the best way to read the best work by both of them, or only the one you're most into, but all of the extra stories, those outside Palomar or Locas, are missing. 

While not as essential, the lack of side characters like Errata Stigmata and the adventures of Rocky and Fumble lessens the overall L&R experience.

Errata Stigmata
That's Rocky and Fumble in the lower right.
The central figure is Cheetah Torpedo.

I'm pretty sure I haven't done justice to the series. It's difficult to talk about just why this book has been so important to me. Part of it, the part that a new reader simply can't experience, is the concurrent growth of the series with my life. These characters have been with me for thirty years now. As the circumstances of my life have changed, as I have grown from a twenty-something to a fifty-something, these characters have gone through similar changes. They feel like old friends, friends with whom I have an investment of time and emotion. I go about my life and they go about theirs, and once a year or so we get together and get caught up, discovering what has happened in the meantime, and learning more about each others journey. To new readers my old friends are simply strangers with an interesting past. For me, they are people I have shared the road with, just like real people in my life. There is a difference between hearing someone's story and feeling like you have shared it.

It's impossible to talk about L&R without considering the contributions of Jaime and Gilbert separately. While both are instrumental to the overall feel of the book, they are, in the end, very different creators. I plan on spending time with both the residents of Gilbert's Palomar and the cast of Jaime's Locas in the next couple of posts, reminiscing with these old friends of mine. I hope I can convey why I love them.

Love and Rockets and all associated characters are copyright by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

New 5-Star review for Bedivere

Here's what happens when you don't check your Amazon page for awhile. This is the second review of one of my ebooks I've seen today. I don't even know this reviewer, but thanks!

5.0 out of 5 stars Heartfelt story of a knights memories.August 6, 2012
Amazon Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Bedivere Book One: The King's Right Hand (Kindle Edition)
Beautifully written. I stumbled upon this book by accident...or perhaps not. If you were enthralled by Gillian Bradshaw's Hawk, Mary Stewart's Merlin, or Sarah Luddington's Wolf (strong adult content); then Wayne Wise's Griflet will not disappoint (there is a twist to this one folks -- no spoilers here) Will anxiously await the coming books as Sir Bedivere slips his memories through the veil and into the hands of Wayne The Wise.

New Review for Scratch!

In the interest of fairness I want to point out that the reviewer, Laura, is a really good friend of mine that I don't see enough of these days. She is one of my oldest, dearest friends and one of my harshest critics (and I say that in a loving and grateful way).

4.0 out of 5 stars
Really enjoyed this book!July 27, 2012
Laura C Lewis (Wyckoff, NJ USA) - See all my reviews
Amazon Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Scratch (Kindle Edition)
So I guess I have Mr. Wise to thank for a couple of new bruises... after dropping my Kindle on my face at 1:30 in the morning because I COULDN'T STOP READING! (Hurts a lot more than a paper book, if you're interested...)
As a native of the town upon which Appleton is based, it felt particularly "real." He absolutely captured with 100% accuracy, the cadence of life in that area, the speech, the behaviors, the small-town interconnectedness (not always a good thing, regardless of the opinions of John Cougar Mellencamp) of the citizens of Canaan. I loved the juxtaposition of Gabrielle and Scratch and the implication that one could not exist without the other, the light and the dark, the good and the bad, although I didn't think of Scratch as evil any more than a shark is "evil." It is the nature of the beast, so to speak.
Even the "other bad guy" was fleshed out in such a way that it was possible to see him as a sympathetic character. His fantasy about his future life was very sad.
There are a lot of other things I'd like to address but it would make my review too much of a spoiler.
All in all, it moved along at a snappy pace, was entertaining, thought-provoking and led up to an appropriately apocalyptic finish (a previous reviewer said something about "cinematic," and I have to agree, this book would make a GREAT movie! I'd go see it!!)
All my best to the author. I will definitely be looking forward to his future works!

Favorite Comics Part Eight: Elfquest

I took a lot of crap back in the day for being an Elfquest fan. And make no mistake, I was a fan. A really big fan. Elfquest has been easily dismissed by many comics fans (and I'm going risk sounding sexist by saying primarily male comics fans), as being too cutesy. People tended to see the art style, with the big eyes and the child-like anatomy and protagonists who smiled in wonder a lot and misunderstand what the series was about. Apparently, it appeared girly, or silly, or too pretty at a time when Miller's Daredevil and the Wolverine mini-series were starting the grim-and-gritty ball rolling. As popular as fantasy has been in fiction, as Lord of the Rings has proven, there are still a huge contingent of people who just can't take anything with elves or other fantasy creatures seriously. Weird aliens and Lovecraftian monsters, it seems, are just fine, but dragons and fairies push the bounds of acceptance.

Whatever. Elfquest was so much more than what people assumed.

First, a little history. Elfquest was one of the first self-published, Direct Sales only comics in the late 1970's (along with Cerebus, The First Kingdom, and a few other contenders). Wendy and Richard Pini (WaRP Graphics, as they eventually named their company), had met through the letters page of an issue of Silver Surfer, connected through the comic convention circuit and got married. Wendy was the writer and artist and Richard the business manager, though they have always insisted that his role on the creative end of Elfquest could not be ignored. If memory serves they had approached Marvel and DC with Elfquest and were rejected as not being marketable.

Elfquest first appeared in Fantasy Quarterly #1, published by The Independent Publishers Syndicate. When that company quickly folded they regrouped and republished the story as Elfquest #1. The original series appeared three times a year as a black and white, magazine format comic book. It ran for twenty issues, plus an issue #21 that featured background info and artwork. The second series, ElfQuest: Siege at Blue Mountain, was eight standard comic-sized issues long, with inks by Joe Staton. There was a third series called Kings of the Broken Wheel that, for me at least, brought the main story arc to something of a close. Over the years there were spin-off series by other creators and some one-shot and mini-series by Wendy.

But, for the purpose of this post, I want to focus on the first series. If you have a negative reaction to fantasy and elves, you might want to stop reading now. If you're interested in seeing why this book is worth checking out, stick around.

Elfquest was the story of Cutter, eleventh chief of a tribe of woodland elves struggling to survive a harsh environment and the ever-growing threat of humans encroaching on their space. These were not the willowy, high elves of Tolkien lore. The Wolfriders, as they were known, were small, fierce hunters with more in common with Native American woodlands tribes than with European High Court culture. Though long-lived they were not immortal (though we eventually discover other Elves are).

They were displaced from their traditional forest home by a fire set by humans to drive them out. After surviving a journey through a desert the Wolfriders discover something they never dreamed existed: Another community of Elves. They had believed they were the last of their kind. This encounter provides the spur for the rest of the series. Cutter embarks on a quest to discover the origins of Elves and to discover if there are others out there.

As usual, I don't want to dwell on details of plot. For me, while I enjoyed the story, the plot was secondary. What made Elfquest one of my all-time favorite comics were the characters, and this is why I urge everyone to get past whatever anti-elf prejudices you may have.

This is a cast shot from much later in the series with a few different characters than
appeared in the original. I just like this picture.

Yes, Wendy's Elves had big eyes and pointed ears and unlikely hair, but they were some of the most fully realized human characters I've ever read (and I hope the comparison to humans doesn't upset Wendy or the fanbase). I was able to see myself and the people I knew reflected in the Elves. Their complexity reminded me of the real people I knew. For all the swords and magic and Trolls and other trappings of fantasy, Elfquest evinced my real life more than most stories I have read. Each character, and there were a lot of them, was deep and meaningful and real. The plot, the Quest itself, served as a framework to explore these characters and to focus on relationships and the events of life more than on any more specific fantasy trope. Through these characters we felt the joys of love and new life. We experienced the grief of lost loved ones. We felt jealousy and rage and the consequences of hatred and prejudice. We saw the effects of violence, as well as the intimacy of family and friendship. We watched as old ways of thinking, traditional values, were challenged by new, sometimes necessary views of the world and the conflict this can cause. It has been said for years that the story served, for the readers as well as the characters, as a SelfQuest.

It was the depth of character and the intensity of genuine emotional content instead of mere sentiment that impressed me and made me a fan.

The complexity of the characters came through their dialog, but more importantly, through Wendy's art. Over the course of the series we saw her get more refined and assured in her skills, but from the beginning the signature traits of the characters were there. Each of them had distinct features and characteristics, and Wendy was the master of conveying personality through expression and body language. In any scene, especially those with a lot of characters present, each and every one of them was recognizable. More importantly, each of them was always engaged in a character-specific activity. Expressions, stance, placement with other characters, and what they were doing always conveyed specific personality. Wendy communicated more information about her characters in subtle gestures than some artists can manage in their entire career. The Wolfrider Woodlock doesn't have a single line of dialog until issue #6, but by then we already know everything we need to know about who he is and the role he plays in the tribe, simply by his presence in the preceding five issues.

Wendy was one of the first American comics artists who was significantly influenced by Manga. This is obvious now, but at a time when most of us had no access to Japanese comics it felt very fresh to eyes grown accustomed to the Marvel and DC house styles. But even then, Wendy didn't slavishly copy Manga, the way so many American and Japanese artists have done since. She filtered the influence through her own lens, combined it with other forms and created something that was uniquely her own style.

Wendy and Elfquest are significant in a larger “History of Comics” way as well. Being one of the first self-published, Direct Sales only comics is only part of what WaRP accomplished. As much as readers in the early frontier days of the direct market said they were looking for an alternative, a lot of the content was still superhero based. Surprisingly, to me at least, given the overlap of Science Fiction and Fantasy readers among comics fans, there have been very few successful series that focus on those genres. So, while WaRP was successful with a small, very supportive and vocal fanbase, they still wanted to reach out to a broader market they believed existed. As a result, they made a deal with book publisher Starblaze Donning to collect the first five issues of Elfquest (now hand-colored by Wendy instead of the original black and white), in a trade paperback format and to make it available through traditional book distributors to bookstores instead of just to comic shops. This was one of the first times (maybe the first time... I need to research this), that this had happened. Today we can find pretty much any comics graphic novel or trade in bookstores but at the time it was an innovation. And, it was successful. Elfquest found a much bigger audience among SF/Fantasy fandom that led to greater sales in bookstores than through comics specific outlets.

If an audience for your work doesn't exist within the traditional comics fanbase then find that audience elsewhere. This is pretty much what I recommended the major publisher do now in my post on comics companies and taking chances.

This color volume was the way I first encountered Elfquest. I had read about it in some comics magazine, but had no access to comics shops when the issues were first coming out. I saw some of the actual issues at the first Comics Con I went to (PittCon '81 at Duquesne University), but didn't buy them. When I saw the TP in a Walden Books at the mall I put it on my Christmas list that year. I devoured it that Christmas Day (the internet tells me this was published in 1981). At the next PittCon I bought all of the back issues, including the first five that were in the collection, from Jack McGonigle, a long-term comics fan and retailer in the Pittsburgh area (RIP Jack). They were up to issue #12 at the time. From an ad in the back of the issues I subscribed and about a month later issue #13 arrived in the mail.

Then I waited. Elfquest came out three issues a year, so it took a little over two years for me to finish the story. Patience was a required virtue for Elfquest fans back in the day.

I think, for any of us who pursue the hobby of fiction, whether in books or comics or movies or TV or all of the above, every once in a while we encounter a specific character who for some reason resonates with us in very personal ways. It can be really difficult to describe exactly why that is. I think it is because, more than other characters, we are able to see a reflection of our true selves. I'm on record as saying that Hawkeye is my favorite superhero, but as much as that is true, and as much as I see aspects of myself in him, he doesn't always resonate with my true self. Part of that is because company characters are written by so many hands that there is no real consistency. Elfquest provided a character that has made the very short list of fictional personas that seem to reach into my psyche in a way that makes me see aspects of my deeper nature.

Skywise was the curious stargazer of the Wolfrider tribe. He was intelligent and curious and filled with a joy of life. Even before Cutter went on his quest, it was Skywise who was always looking to the sky and imagining that there was more to life. He was the one who wanted to fly and touch the stars. As others grew older around him Skywise eventual became the immortal, the eternal youth, the puer eternis. The love he felt for his best friend, Cutter, was one of the core values of his life. They were referred to as “Brothers in all but blood” and the constancy of that friendship through changing circumstances perfectly reflected the way I felt about my relationship with my best friend (and still does).

And I'm aware of how silly some of that may sound to others and I don't really care. I'm truly sorry for those who are embarrassed by sentiment and genuine depth of feeling.

To lighten things up a bit, here's a picture of my one official Cosplay at a comics con (though the term Cosplay wasn't in use then). This was at Creation Con at the Chatham Center in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1982. That's my friend Peggy as Leetah in a much better costume than I managed.

So, to summarize... Elfquest Good! I get that it will not appeal to everyone, whether it's a matter of taste or elf-prejudice or whatever. It's a great example of comics art and storytelling (I can't imagine any fan of Manga not seeing some value in it. Everyone else should read it too). The series is not currently in print, though I'm sure there are countless volumes available out there for sale somewhere. The good news is that WaRP has made the entire series, everything, available to read online for free at their website. Go to Elfquest.com to learn more and read some great comics.

Elfquest is copyright Wendy and Richard Pini.