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Punk comix.

In Seattle, there's a neighborhood called Georgetown that the mysterious forces of Real Estate and Art have conspired to label the Next Big Thing, though right now it's still humble, a mix of singlefamily houses and abandoned factories slowly being repurposed into galleries and condos. There's pretty much one block of commercial interest--a cozy coffee shop, a coming-soon sign for a button-making store, and a record store (literally, it sells vinyl) that shares space with a bookstore called Fantagraphics Books, owned by the graphic novel publisher of the same name. Every single title that Fantagraphics has in print is on sale at the store. Works by Robert Crumb and Chris Ware stand alongside archived comics collections like Krazy Kat and Popeye. The thirty-year-old publisher uses the space to celebrate the work of its artists, and it devoted a weekend recently to the twenty-fifth anniversary of a comic book by brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez.

On February 11, fans packed Fantagraphics's new store for a panel discussion with the Hernandez brothers. People in their sixties who had never abandoned the counterculture joined with teenagers in their awkward Goth-pop styles. In a comic book culture rarity, there were at least as many women as men, and the ethnic mix was diverse, especially for Seattle.

A quick glance around the shelves of the bookstore showed that the brothers have created about a third of the store's stock. Fantagraphics's publisher, Gary Groth, who has a reputation for being the angriest man in comics with his hyperliterate, splenetic rants about the sad state of publishing, seemed downright star-struck as he conducted an interview with the brothers. As they reminisced, it became clear that there were many times, due to lack of funds, when the partnership nearly came to an abrupt end.

For thirty years, Groth has published some of the best graphic novels in the world, and for almost all that time, the publisher has been struggling to keep afloat. In 2004, just after a serious bankruptcy scare, Groth worked with Charles Schulz's estate to acquire the rights to publish collections of every single Charlie Brown cartoon in order for the next twelve years. The Complete Peanuts not only lovingly archives Schulz's wildly popular work, it has ensured that Fantagraphics won't have to worry about money for at least another decade.

One of the most obvious examples of the new financial freedom that Fantagraphics has is the storefront, which opened in December of 2006. The Hernandez brothers were among the first artists who were rewarded for their loyalty to the publisher. Right after the Peanuts deal, Fantagraphics published complete collections of Jaime's Locas and Gilbert's Palamar, the culmi Paul Constant is a columnist and critic-at-large for The Stranger, an alternative weekly in Seattle. nation of twenty-three years of serial smiles. The books are sumptuous and huge--Palamar is 522 pages and Locas is 704. They are, quite possibly, the best graphic novels ever created.

Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez don't seem like the kinds of people whose characters are punk rock icons; they're middle-aged blue-collar-looking men with short hair, dressed in jeans and glasses. Gilbert is the older of the two, and he's protective of Jaime. The brothers each write and draw their own comics and sell them packaged together in an ongoing twice-yearly comic book titled Love & Rockets. Gilbert's comics are mostly about a Latin American town called Palomar, and Jaime's are primarily about two friends, Maggie and Hopey, who work dead-end jobs and really, really want to play rock and roll.

Both brothers present compelling and strong female characters who behave like actual people, even when the smiles are thick with magical realism. Their art is gorgeous--Jaime's got the cleaner line, but Gilbert's more impressionistic style is perhaps better at conveying tone and developing themes. Even though the brothers' stories are unconnected, it's hard to imagine one without the other; it's as though the two graphic novels are spiritually linked. The brothers are aware of this. Gilbert said that if Jaime is "on a roll with a serious or heavy story" he'll "ease off" and tell a lighter or more experimental story, and vice versa. The stories are contoured with each other; created side by side, they fit together as cleanly as a stone that has been split in two.

Palamar is the kind of fiction, big-hearted and wise, that brings to mind names like Steinbeck and Galeano. The narrative centers on a woman named Luba, who moves to Palomar and quickly weaves herself into the fabric of the community. Unlike many comics, time passes in Palomar--children grow up over the course of the book, and start to come into their own. As the reader dives further into the stories, the whole town becomes revealed. Characters who stand in the background in one story are the protagonists of the next. They face everyday problems: One man is simultaneously terrified of doctors and wracked with concern that he's rotting to death from some unknown illness. Another woman keeps falling into bed with the wrong men.

In an especially charming story, an American photographer comes to town, and everyone goes a little bit crazy over him, before becoming disillusioned by his big talk about capturing Palomar's poverty. Luba confronts the photographer: "You want ... a picture of my family all sloppy and ragged--to put in a book for the whole world to see? What the hell do you think we are? A freak show?" The photographer tries to defuse the situation: "No! You do not understand; I want to show the beauty of your town ... your lives." Then Luba goes nuts: "Beauty?! You're going to make hundreds of dollars by making us look bad and you're talking about beauty?!" And then she stomps on his foot and spits out those beautiful comic book swears: "@*#*@!!@," indeed.

Locas is entirely different, pop-cultural and American. At the beginning of Love dr Rackets, Jaime was drawing the things that he was interested in: dinosaurs and aliens and wrestling. He quickly fell in love with his characters, though, and wrote them into situations to see what they would do. "After a while, the rocket ships went away," he says. "There was no room. I write what I know, so they can't go chasing crooks. They just have to talk to each other." This, of course, is an understatement: Maggie and Hopey have the kind of friendship--complex, difficult, adoring--that most authors have to explain to their readers. It's a treat that's unparalleled in modern fiction. And part of the pleasure is that it's been running for a quarter century. Through fights and boyfriends and hookups, through Hopey's irresponsibility and Maggie's weight fluctuations, the relationship has grown as quickly and as powerfully as their creator's skills.

During the discussion, the Hernandez brothers frequently make rock and roll references; they talk about how they "feed off the audience" when a story is released and that their "punk rock ethos" wouldn't allow them to compromise their work for any of the "mainstream comics publishers" when they were getting popular. Their artwork has appeared on countless records and rock show posters. For a decade, it was almost impossible to walk into a good nightclub and not see a half dozen people with bootleg Love dr Rockets patches sewn on their jackets or taped to their guitar cases.

When asked how their Latin American heritage affects their work, Gilbert invokes the films of Kurosawa and Fellini: "To me, the more Italian, the more German, the more Japanese a story is, the more universal it becomes." Jaime points out that he was lauded for depicting Hispanic gang violence and its aftermath in Love dr Rockets with his "Death of Speedy" storyline, but that he didn't want to be an issue-focused author: "Someone said I should write more about the politics of East L.A., but I'm not from East L.A., I'm from Oxnard."

The brothers do create works for other publishers, but Fantagraphics, and Love & Rockets, is where they're the happiest. A few months ago, Jaime completed a serialized comic strip for The New York Times Magazine, which is undoubtedly the largest audience either of the brothers has ever had. Talking about the experience, though, Jaime seems relieved to be going back to the partnership with his brother. With a shy smile, he says that the story will soon be run in its entirety in Love & Rockets, where Jaime wouldn't be constrained by the page and content restrictions that mass media fame requires: "I'm adding four more pages and putting all the cusses back in." Nobody laughs harder at that than Gilbert.
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Author:Constant, Paul
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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