What’s the best comics universe? For some readers, it’s not a gaudy superhero multiverse but a fictional L.A. suburb barrio known as Hoppers, which Jaime Hernandez has been building for nearly 40 years in Love and Rockets, the enduring and heartbreaking collection of stories that Jaime and his brother Gilbert create.
The Hernandez brothers self-published the first issue of Love and Rockets in 1980, and it’s been released in various formats—as a periodical comic and as an annual trade paperback—by Fantagraphics since 1982. The series is one of the most acclaimed, beloved, and influential comics of all time. Each issue of Love and Rockets includes works set in the distinct worlds of each brother. Gilbert’s world, centered on the fictional Central American town of Palomar, isn’t connected to Hoppers (Palomar is more magical realism, Hoppers is just realism); each is its own complex universe where characters age and change and the tiniest detail of everyday life can have a profound impact.
Jaime Hernandez has had a banner 2019 with the release of two books, showcasing different aspects of his uncanny ability to capture emotions both fleeting and life-changing. Is This How You See Me?, published in April, is a powerful look at the lives of Maggie Chascarillo and Hopey Glass, onetime lovers—and the stars of Love and Rockets since 1982—who have matured from punk waifs to middle-aged women.
Hernandez’s newest book, Tonta, to be published by Fantagraphics in July, is, by contrast, a return to the teenage hijinks that filled early issues of Love and Rockets. Loosely connected to his better-known stories, the narrative focuses on Tonta, a teen girl who is enthusiastic about her crushes, passionate about her enemies, and completely stunned when her family life turns out to be a melodrama of murder, secret siblings, and jealousy.
Both books showcase Hernandez’s gorgeous art and naturalistic, nostalgia-drenched storytelling.
Tonta’s dueling worlds of Latinx culture and punk are familiar terrain for Hernandez, whose own experiences in L.A.’s punk scene in the 1970s and ’80s left an indelible mark on him. The youngest in a family of six, he and his brothers drove to L.A. for shows and performed in bands together. (Brother Ismael was in Dr. Know, one of the best-known bands of the Nardcore scene centered in Oxnard, Calif., where the family is from.)
Recalling those days, Hernandez speaks of the mood rather than details: “All I can say is that it was a really, really fun time. It was the first time I felt part of something; it was my revolution. For some people it’s their college days, for some it’s high school. For me it was eye-opening. But at the same time, growing up in my Mexican neighborhood was also exciting as a subculture. Hanging out, cruising on Sunday nights—that was also free and open.”
But punk formed Hernandez as an artist. “Punk was when I decided, ‘Okay, I know what I want to do and I know how I want to do it,’ ” he says.
While punk was a coming-out party, making comics was still something Hernandez did in private, often with his older brother Mario (who has contributed to Love and Rockets on and off through the years) and Gilbert. But comics weren’t as cool as punk among their friends, Hernandez says, so “I kept them separate.” He adds, “I didn’t know as many kids who were into comics.”
Hernandez’s incredible artistic skill was evident early on. “The only time I was cool in school was when I was the guy who could draw,” he says. “I think that kept me from getting my ass kicked every day. Pretty early on I knew I was good, but it didn’t stop me from trying to be better.”
Tonta started as an attempt to return to the simple world of a teenage girl who likes bands. “I wanted to create a young person and a younger world that mixes with the old world,” Hernandez explains. Tonta’s story originally ran in Love and Rockets’ New Stories series, coming after Browntown and the Love Bunglers (two serials collected in 2015 as The Love Bunglers, a serious work generally acknowledged as one of Hernandez’s masterpieces), and it was a lighter contrast to that story.
“I needed some kind of fresh air,” Hernandez says of Tonta’s origin. “Maggie and Hopey’s world is so, so tight and so, so involved.” He adds that he’s found it necessary to develop several spin-off series over the years to accommodate looser storytelling ideas. Anima, a female superhero series, is where Hernandez gets to “flex my muscles and draw stupid robots and monsters,” he notes. And Tonta has “young people problems”: “She has a crush on somebody and that’s it. It’s simpler times.”
Although Tonta starts out relatively carefree, murder, family secrets, and darkness inevitably creep in, although Hernandez says he didn’t start out with that in mind. Tonta’s drop-dead sexy sister Vivian, also known as Frogmouth, is trouble all the way, involved with a sinister millionaire and gun-toting criminals. Hernandez says that he was interested to see how naive Tonta would deal with being drawn into Vivian’s more violent world, because “she’s got no clue about it.”
Hernandez’s stories can seem daunting with their sprawling continuities, recurring characters (several characters in Tonta have appeared fleetingly in Maggie and Hopey stories over the years), and subtle echoes of familiar themes. When writing, he says, it’s as if the characters are telling him how they will respond—a highly organic process integral to the way he develops his stories.
“I don’t know how it works itself out sometimes,” Hernandez says. “I put a situation into a [story], and it’s my responsibility to follow through.”
However, like real people, the characters in Love and Rockets never find total closure. Maggie’s life continues in Is This How You See Me?, where she and Hopey go on a literal nostalgia trip via a reunion concert of the punk bands they saw as kids. For Maggie, it’s a near-disastrous attempt to reignite their relationship, but for Hopey, it’s a chance to confront some of her earlier bad behavior. We see that “of all the main characters, she’s the one who has changed the most and grown up,” Hernandez says.
Future stories will keep filling in the blanks in the stories of Hernandez’s sprawling cast, but, as usual, the way it plays out will be unexpected. He can foresee Maggie and Tonta crossing over more, and a recent story featuring a call from Ray, Maggie’s boyfriend, to Hopey foreshadows more drama to come.
Hernandez’s characters will keep telling him where they want to go. “I want unexplained things to be explained,” he says. “There are still a lot of holes in Maggie’s life that haven’t been filled, and I’m going to keep telling those stories.”