When Love and Rockets was a (somewhat) on-going comic I didn’t pay too much attention to the Locas section of it. Then, the magazine was usually split into two sections- Jamie Hernandez was the writer/ artist on Locas, detailing life among the Mexican community of Hoppers, South LA, whilst his brother Gilbert was writer/artist on Heartbreak Soup about life in Palomar (reviewed 03/12/03). Not that I didn’t like Locas of course, I did, but the intimacy and closeness of its characters plus the fact that it could take some time for an individual issue to appear meant I’d usually forgotten how and why part-time lovers, Maggie and Hopey, had gotten into the situations they found themselves in. Its tight familial storyline with an assortment of weird and very strange plotlines just didn’t hold my attention as well as the fractured structure and different facets that a whole town of people (think Heimat of the comic world) could conjure in Heartbreak Soup.
Now though, as with Palomar, Locas has received the collected hardback edition and with a more accessible format, the story gels together better and with more cohesion. Its close look at life in Hoppers and all the ups and downs of the main characters is now more rounded and brought to life better. Jamie Hernandez’s’ art and writing grows in maturity and style, fulfilling the early promise first seen in the Mechanics storyline- for Locas looked very different than to how it ended.
The title Love and Rockets gave hints to its contents; it was both a pastiche of the romance comic and sci-fi. At the beginning of Locas, the young heroine,
Maggie, was a girl mechanic who would work on rocket ships and robots whilst worrying about the crush she had on her co-worker Rand Race and how it would have effect her relationship with Hopey. Life in Hoppers was mostly in the background and the sci-fi aspect of the tales did not break through. This was also the case in Heartbreak Soup, wherein when any of the inhabitants of Palomar went to the big city, it would have a Metropolis look, dwarfing the characters with its huge skyscrapers and slightly weird inhabitants. At its inception Locas had a Latin American feel, especially with its stories of revolution, female wrestling and punk music. Jamie’s close panelling and block use of black and white to create outline gave his strip a more guerrilla look and feel, much different to his style by the end when he was using clean line.
Both Locas and Soup use tight story structures to make you care about their characters, creating whole and rounded people that you can relate to. Obstentially about Maggie (or Perla or Shrimp or Margaret. And this perfectly illustrates the fact that by the end of the story, Hernandez had to remind the reader that all these names related to one person what I said about the reader being lost) and Hopey, Locas, with its smaller cast, I now realise matures just as well as Palomar. Both have nuances to make you see the bigger picture out of the corner of your eye but where Jamie beats his brother is in his use of comic timing. Jamie uses comic book and cartoon shorthand to relay broad emotion much better than Gilbert- who has a more deft touch- and it only gets better as his art matures and his characters grow.
Locas (along with Palomar) is one of the missing pieces in American fiction. Sad and joyful in equal measure and with a tale on a community that rarely gets written about (the Hispanic vote is becoming more important in the American South and West); it’s relevant and topical without aging or losing its teeth and an important addition to anyone’s literary collection.
Bone by Jeff Smith is a delight, a sheer and utter delight. It checks all the right fantasy boxes. Dragons? Princesses? Heroes? Decaying kingdoms? Evil-doers? Yep, they are all present and correct- in fact, maybe a little too much. Fantasy is one of the most cliché-ridden of all the genres and wonderful though it is, Bone doesn’t stray too far from it. Mark Oakley’s Thieves and Kings is, perhaps for the moment, the exception to this in that, even though it is fantasy and has the same elements, you just do not know where it is going. Fantasy has always been well done in the comic book world, it is a mainstay of the genre after all, but it’s the multi-coloured cousins in the Kevlar and spandex that usually get the critical acclaim and fanboys, whilst the worlds of magic just get with doing what they do best- big swordfights between good and evil.
Bone scores big in the humour department, and we’re not talking about the forced laughs and play upon silly words ala Terry Pratchett. The titular hero of the title, Fone Bone, is a big-nosed, big-hearted, bald little creature exiled from his homeland Boneville along with his cousins, Phoney Bone (source of all their problems) and Smiley Bone. Stumbling upon the Valley and the Kingdom of Atheia, the three soon find themselves up to their necks in an all out war between the Lord of the Locusts and the people of the valley. It has an exciting, articulate, fast-paced story-line that holds your attention to the very end, but the real stars of the book are two of the rat creatures that are part of the Locusts’ army. Rat creatures (or the hairy men) are huge, rat-like beasts with very sharp claws and incisors and these two simply come across as the Laurel and Hardy, Bud and Lou, of their species. Constantly bickering amongst themselves-mostly about how Fone Bone would taste much better in a quiche-they have a habit of making the situations they find themselves in worse by their own stupidity and ineptitude. Comedic creations at their best.
Smith has beautiful clean-line in the Carl Barks style. His expressions and faces are emotive, full of meaning and his environs are lush, strange, especially the ghost circles. Strangely, Smith seems almost schizophrenic with his atmospherics. On one hand it’s menacing and dangerous- look at the 3 panel scene where the rat creatures are searching for Bone, Thorn and Grandma Ben, or the cavern of Tannen Gard and the Crown of Horns- but he seems to have problems with weather, not getting something like rain quite right, or depicting Queen in hiding, Thorn, as a sexbomb (but this was in the early days of the tale and perhaps can be excused).
In the end, these are tiny niggles in what is, in the end, a masterpiece of the genre. Perfect for both children and adults it deserves a wider audience, and as with Locas and Palomar, works well in its complete volume format (though it’s a bit hefty). Even better, it looks damn good on a bookshelf.
Back to things that go bump in the night for Courtney Crumrin in Courtney Crumrin in the Twilight Kingdom by Ted Naifeh. Naifeh’s young heroine is a perfect antidote to the whiny, needs a good slap, Potter. Courtney’s world of magic and witchcraft is deliciously dark and dangerous, populated with creatures that would have no problem with eating any succulent human child that they came across. No public school romps or visits down to the tuck-shop here, Courtney’s adventures hearken back to a pre-Grimm and Christian Anderson era when woods were full of nasty things and you should be very careful of takings gifts from strangers, especially the fairy type. With Potter now becoming and feeling as familiar as a Dickens type Christmas tale (leaving you with just as much a bloated feeling as the padding in the books) and publishers starting to destroy the children’s book market by snapping up anything that smacks of something similar, it’s good to read something that strips away all the sentimentality and sugary niceness that make up today’s children’s literature.
Naifeh brings home neatly the alienation and loneliness that a lot of young people feel. Try as she might, Courtney does not feel at home or empathsize with her fellow warlocks and witches. She thinks all of them have something slightly mentally wrong with themselves, but because of her somewhat aloof manner and natural sarcasm she can hardly relate to normal folk either. The fact that she has the potential to become a powerful mage brings no comfort whatsoever. Events in the previous volume have even led her to become estranged from her Uncle, someone she felt she could trust. The first story in the book also makes Courtney realise that you cannot go home again. Her life in the world of magic is now set, for good or bad.
The Twilight Kingdom was once the mighty kingdom of elves, fairies, goblins that once ruled over the Earth. Now hiding underground because of the relentless rise of mankind, it is not a place where any human would be welcome-except as a slave or dinner. But this is the path Courtney and her companions have to travel if they are to save and recover the missing brother of one of them who has been accidentally cursed and changed into a night-being.
Naifeh’s art is dark and brooding, full of shadows and atmosphere. The Twilight Kingdom is both oppressive and menacing, with winding staircases and twisted thoroughfares. Its inhabitants are downright weird, both cruel and majestic. The humour in the story is black- Courtney’s glee at the discomfort of her companions being described as morsels by her thrall, or the reader’s inside knowledge as one of them being led unwittingly to the ovens by some goblins. But Courtney is mirrored by the Twilight Kingdom; if she does not overcome her self-imposed isolation she knows that she will become as unfeeling as its inhabitants and that this could lead to being as mad and ruined as the rest of her fellow mages. What Courtney Crumrin in the Twilight Kingdom is about most though is loss-the loss of a mother or a child, of humanity or friendship. A lot of children’s literature handles the same subjects, but Naifeh is different in that there are little or no answers.
Locas is written and illustrated by Jamie Hernandez, published by Fantagraphics in hardback and priced £32.99.
The Complete Bone is written and illustrated by Jeff Smith, published by Cartoon Books in both hard and soft back, priced £80.00 for signed edition.
Courtney Crumrin and the Twilight Kingdom is written and illustrated by Ted Naifeh, published by Oni Press in soft back and priced £7.99.
All are highly recommended and available from all good comic-book shops.