Hignite strikes again: The Art of Jaime Hernandez

The intimacy of Todd Hignite’s In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists (Yale University Press, 2006) blew my mind when I first read it. Profiled within its pages are commentary by Hignite and accompanying passages from interviews with Ivan Brunetti, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Robert Crumb, Jaime Hernandez, Gary Panter, Seth, Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware.

To “hear” all of these artists’ voices between two covers was a revelation in comics form and function, with generous and glorious full colour reproduction of many samples of the artists’ work, as well as work that influenced them.

Hignite has more recently built upon his initial treatment of Jaime Hernandez in In the Studio, and has developed a full volume consecrated to Hernandez’ art. The Art of Jaime Hernandez: the Secrets of Life and Death (Abrams, 2011) is not only exquisite because of Hernandez’ contributions, but also because it is infused with Hignite’s poetic prose. Listen to this: can you hear the music?

Hernandez’s titles are always both iconic and insinuatingly evocative. “Wigwam Bam” is taken from a 1970s pop hit by the Sweet and provides a pop culture springboard that magically evokes a deeply personal flashback. The centrepiece is an entry in Maggie’s diary that Izzy reads while searching for her—to the young Maggie and her friend Letty, the song was a metaphor regarding cultural difference and identity, and in particular the mythic proportions that such childhood experiences take on later in life, themes that Maggie will continue to question throughout her stories. While abundantly engaging, as only the most complex art can be, Hernandez’s comics are also great entertainment. His formal virtuosity is in the service of characterization, altering one’s perception of the world while the full range of humanity dances on and below the surface of the page.

During this page, Hernandez’s cartooning begins to reincorporate the detail of his early work within the starkness of the last few years, but in a way that has virtually nothing to do with the dense shading of the early issues, and doesn’t in any way refute the pinpoint clarity of “The Death of Speedy.” Here, detailed hatching, used judiciously, becomes a framing device, pushing forward and back in the panel plane. As Jaime described in a 1995 Comics Journal interview, readers “don’t know how hard it is not to put in a lot of lines. I just noticed as my art progresses—or regresses—that it’s becoming more abstract in that all the lines are beginning to go somewhere. Where in the early days the lines just fit the drawing. Now I’m balancing a lot of little lines in one corner, and putting less lines in the other corner. I’m actually paying more attention to composition, where I used to just put it down unconsciously. Now I guess with less lines to work with, the more I put them to work.” Or as he states more simply, “I’ve always drawn in the way I felt fit the story.” A single page from the first chapter of “Wigwam Bam” touches on nearly all of the formal and narrative elements found in his work, providing great insight into his refined comics storytelling.

By gradually draining background detail, the first panel fades into a flashback by Hopey. As she turns from Maggie in the second panel, the narrative also pivots away from the temporal and physical space leading up to the exchange, and the deftness with which the switch occurs is merely one example of Hernandez’s constant polyphonic mastery, which harmoniously juxtaposes two or more simultaneous narrative threads, be they visual, verbal, or both. Riot-gear-clad Los Angeles policeman replace the hallway of an East Coast apartment building as 1980 replaces 1990. The transition is simultaneously gradual (linked by the urban backgrounds), and decisive, abruptly completed in the large center panel, the background emptiness replaced by a swarming mass of punks taunting and facing off against the police; stark white is replaced by seething black. Contrasts abound in the page, yet visual and textual links bridge time and space. In no other medium could these scenes be interspersed and produced to the same effect. In no other medium could the reader/viewer experience the same collision of time and locale, emotional involvement, and formal and conceptual flow. Yet Hernandez, as always, foregoes superficial formal experimentation in favor of reader interaction with the characters and narrative progression: his layout is exactly symmetrical, and the focus is within the panels rather than on the structure of the panels themselves (which relies on his standardized traditional comic book grid of three tiers, each composed of either two or three panels). (155-156)

But never mind the words in all their lyricism—how about that art? Look at the cover. Of all the choices that designer Jordan Crane could have made, he selected an unfinished sketch, inked but still with visible pencils, portraying Maggie at a young age staring directly at you. Look at her! How can you not fall in love with Maggie?

This book includes generous, page-after-page sublime Hernandez artwork in all of its lucid line, vibrant colour and beautiful black. Less perceptive readers only learn on the last page that the seemingly pretentious subtitle “The Secrets of Life and Death” is also the title of Izzy Ortiz’s diary in Love and Rockets, and that it originally appeared in the diary of Dr. Frankenstein in the movie Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. What a movie! I used to have snap-together glow-in-the-dark models of Frankenstein and the Wolf Man when I was five years old!

La Maggie La Loca

The inclusion of “La Maggie La Loca” in its entirety is a generous addition to the beginning of Hignite’s tome. First appearing in 2006 as instalments in The New York Times Magazine, Hernandez’s mature storytelling in this work is exemplary. Hignite remarks,

While showcasing Jaime’s aesthetic sensibility, “La Maggie La Loca” also serves as an introduction to his most important contribution to the medium—literary characterization that surpasses anything previously accomplished in comics. Crucially, characters come alive through facial expressions and telling gestures as much as in dialogue; in the play between expertly crafted image and text, his is perfect cartooning, and the élan evident in his drawing is matched only by wobbly acceptance of her place in the world—from teen mechanic, wrestling manager, peripatetic drifter, to now apartment manager in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. In agreeing to create this strip for the Times, the task of remaining true to the expansive world he created, while also telling a story that simultaneously stood on its own for both a devout readership and an audience with little knowledge of the intricate histories and relationships accrued over the years, gave him pause. (21-22)

Since he was working outside of his comic book element, Hernandez framed each weekly “episode” to end with a dramatic cliffhanger in reference to the style of classic Sunday adventure strips:

“I purposely did the story in a straight, serialized adventure comic-strip mode because I knew every other cartoonist doing this was going to try and impress the New York Times readership. So I decided to go in the opposite direction and do a straight adventure strip with nothing highfalutin about it.” This rejection of overt formal experimentation in favor of ingrained comic book pacing and “clarity” (which is actually quite complex to do in a manner as sophisticated as Hernandez has) is a cornerstone of his work. And the “adventure” of the strip harkens back to his earliest stories involving Maggie and Rena, demonstrating how his take on such conventions has evolved in “trying to find the balance between Maggie’s science-fiction past—and what she did in that past—and her present real life.” As Jaime mentions, the creation of the strip was in good part dictated by single images that appeared in his mind, and his process of nonlinear jumping from episode to episode, panel to panel, and connecting specific images that then lead the direction of the nascent story—and define character—provides the subtle key to his comics’ resonance; specific, iconic panels lodge in the reader’s mind, which wanders back and forth in the narrative long after the comic has been set aside. (25-26)

Introduction by Alison Bechdel

The Art of Jaime Hernandez includes a balanced introduction by Alison Bechdel. Her candid assessment of the Locas stories as “in part, a masturbation fantasy” would be difficult to argue against. But by no means does this detract from Hernandez’ ability to draw sexy, beautiful women—in fact, it probably contributes to it. And Bechdel praises the fact that “Maggie and Hopey were subjects bursting with agency,” especially given the time that these stories first appeared, in terms of the narrative evolution of comics.

But even with Hernandez’ rich characterization of Maggie and Hopey, Bechdel doesn’t sugar-coat their treatment:

…If their on-again, off-again sexual relationship was titillating, it was all the more so because of the rich, authentic delineation of their complicated personalities and their emotional rapport. Perhaps Jaime romanticized the tolerance the other characters have for Maggie and Hopey’s bisexuality. And perhaps his men aren’t drawn with the same lavish sensuality as his women (though I appreciate the egalitarian esprit of the occasional male frontal nudity.) (9)

Bechdel emphasizes, however, that Hernandez’ positive contributions to comics far outweigh these concerns. Especially for a male artist, for all the voyeuristic presentation of women in his work, Hernandez also presents women as autonomous beings with a depth of feeling and intellect unprecedented in the medium. These are not characters portrayed solely through the lens of testosterone-driven objectification.

The Art of Jaime Hernandez includes interview excerpts and reproductions of Jaime Hernandez’ art spanning the entirety of his artistic process from an early age. Hernandez’ work has been analyzed through the lens of academia, gay, feminist, and punk activists, comics critics and reviewers, and mainstream journalists. His work has positively informed the evolution of sequential narrative in innumerable ways, including influencing a generation of comic artists who followed in his footsteps.

I love Hignite’s writing and Hernandez’ comics so much, it’s hard to weigh in with anything except positive praise. And it’s hard to write about Jaime Hernandez’ art when Hignite has already done such an outstanding job, which is why I’ve quoted him at length in this post. Read this book and see for yourself.

Excerpts used by permission of Abrams ComicArts:

The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death

By Todd Hignite, introduction by Alison Bechdel; Text © 2010, Todd Hignite

Published by Abrams ComicArts an imprint of Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York.

All rights reserved.

Love & Rockets Sketchbook

The Love & Rockets Sketchbook (Fantagraphics Books, 1989) of Los Bros Hernandez is like a younger sibling to The Art of Jaime Hernandez, thoughit’s a valuable complement in its own right for the samplings it provides of both Jaime and Gilbert’s artwork.

The first seven pages of the first volume present a generous selection of Jaime Hernandez’ early fanzine drawings with predominantly Marvel and DC themes, followed by selections from Jaime’s earliest (1977, unpublished) comic series, “Prosolar Mechanics.” These comics star protagonists Rann Race and Maggie Chase, the latter character being one of the earliest incarnations of a Maggie in the Love & Rockets legacy. A collaboration included in the sketchbook (p. 16) between Jaime (pencils), Mario (inks) and Gilbert (letters) shows how far Jaime’s art progressed in only one year.

Interestingly and tellingly, Jaime explains that after creating these comics, his artwork then regressed back to a looser, less polished but more comfortable style originally used when he drew comics for his own entertainment—due to his earliest submissions being rejected by publishers.

The drawings that follow these early works are from Jaime’s sketchbooks. Most are studies of the female form and visage, and unsurprisingly include early appearances of Maggie the Mechanic, Penny Century, and smatterings of woman wrestlers and new age-punky types. In In the Studio, Jaime explains that a recently completed sketchbook took him five years to fill up. He relates that he enjoys trying to draw in styles that he doesn’t use in his comics, though he has also come to recognize how the use of different media can limit the effects an artist can produce on the page, depending on their qualities. For Hernandez, this was a revelation—it made him realize how entrenched his work had become through the use of a consistent comics language, which in turn invited him to think differently.

Many of the more raw sketches in this volume seem to possess a Frazetta-like quality to my eyes, which I find as powerful for its spontaneity as Jaime’s finished pages are for their crispness and precision. The sketchbook also provides a generous sampling of flyers created for music gigs, which are especially interesting for their diverse experimentation with layout and imagery

Beto’s selections include early fanzine drawings (including spot drawings from The Comics Journal), unpublished work, “space age/barbarian chicks” and various loose and playful sketches.

There is an eight-page story featuring Inez at her most fantastic: dreaming tha her breasts have grown larger, that she has grown a male appendage, and that she is laying an egg. Gilbert’s commentary at the beginning of the story remarks, “Included because I can’t believe I did this story at all.”

The last solo Inez story (originally published in the fanzine No-Sex) is a four-pager about Inez being rescued from planet Ponderosa by an interplanetary biology student. Various self-rejected single pages created by Gilbert for different publications are included.

There are also seven full-page illustrations that look as though they’ve may have been drawn with a heavy brush, and which stand out from the rest of Gilbert’s work for their size and the slightly grotesque, visibly radical departure from the style found in most of his other work.

The Love & Rockets Sketchbook Two (Fantagraphics Books, 1992) opens with a dramatic Beto drawing entitled “Jesus Angel and his Swinging Wet Dreams: Bebopaluba and Tonantzin”—Jesus Angel is smiling and kneeling upright, with a scantily-clad Luba thrusting a spear through his chest from behind, Tonantzin is collecting Jesus Angel’s blood in a pan in front of him. The one overarching theme in this series of sketches is large-breasted women: lots of figure studies of Luba and others in bikinis, summer dresses, one piece bathing suits, gowns and with no clothes at all.

There are occasional contour-style drawings, rapidly drawn gesture drawings, playful cartoons, and some more heavily-inked one page studies.

In contrast, Jaime’s selections in Love and Rockets Sketchbook Two seem includes many more serious studies, especially close-ups of peoples’ faces, balanced with a large number of contour drawings.

The range of styles that are depicted between the pages of these two volumes is one more demonstration of the highly refined artistry that so many comic book artists possess, but which is not always on display for the reader. Kudos to Fantagraphics for making these “behind the scenes” collections available for the average viewer.

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