Between mnemonic quanta

The principal characters in Jaime Hernandez’s long-running Locas series are, I guess, the same age as him, which is to say around ten years older than me, but when I first encountered them I was roughly the age they are at the beginning of the narrative, and I have grown up with them. They are desirable and familiar, but also unobtainable and exotic, a balance that is perfectly compatible with the imaginative life of many teenagers, including my younger self. Since that time they have been transformed from images into people, as their readers have matured from those who might be this or that, to those on whom the world has inscribed a biography. Rather than the superficiality and unending repetition of a soap opera, Hernandez’s continuing episodic narrative is characterised by actions and reactions with all the weight and contingency of shared personal histories. The exoticism, which was injected by Hernandez as science-fiction, but which for an English teenager was already inherent in the Mexican-American cultural milieu and Californian setting, has largely dissipated, as the characters’ lives, while still specific to their time and place, have evolved into forms that are recognisable to any middle-aged, developed-world individual with a foot in the counterculture.

The Love Bunglers, which is not the most recent of Hernandez’s books about these characters, but is the latest one that I’ve read, is a physically beautiful object. Its exterior graphic design is perfectly balanced, and perfectly matched to Hernandez’s always economical, but never schematic drawing. I think it’s fair to say, that over the forty-ish years he’s been drawing this strip, Hernandez, who never had a professional background in the comics industry, has evolved from a comic artist into a cartoonist. Where his earlier work signifies through detail and finish, and repurposes a received set of stylistic conventions, he is now capable of investing the subtlest variations of line with affective meanings so diverse and precise that whole territories of understanding can open in the viewer’s mind from a single panel. Hernandez is a stylist so unique, that although the origin of his technique in the superhero tradition is apparent, the surface of his panels could never be mistaken for any other artist’s work. Although his layouts and scenes are sometimes plagiarised, his art itself is almost immune. A minimum of lines and a bold chiaroscuro produce images that have to be examined closely before it can be seen that they are not detailed mimetic representations, so eloquent is Hernandez’s language, and virtually every panel could be framed as a work in its own right.

The economy of Hernandez’s ink on the page is paralleled by the economy of his narrative, in which relatively self-sufficient episodes, as though dropped into still water, produce ripples whose interference constitutes a larger story. Sometimes the most momentous events of that larger narrative are seen on the page, but equally often they occur between episodes, and appear to the reader through their consequences. The story is punctuated by moments of violence, producing a rhythm of rupture, that denies the reader any comfortable experience of simply spending time in the company of familiar characters; these are not exciting events, but random accidents and tragic eventualities, whose causes and consequences can be unravelled from other episodes in the book. As in W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, which was the last book I read before this one, these recurring narrative features (a butterfly catcher in Sebald’s book) feel literally structural, like a cadence of repeated architectural features supporting the roof of a building. Also just as in Sebald, they don’t seem to me to be the repository of the work’s meanings, which are to be found within the structure, in the very specific details of the biographies it encloses.

The Love Bunglers also shares some themes and concerns with The Emigrants, although it is a very different sort of story. Memory, loss, and the long-term ramifications of the experiences of childhood are important motifs for Hernandez, as is the process of recollection; narrative arcs weave between timeframes, producing a spatialised sense of time. In the standalone episode ‘Return For Me’ Hernandez writes a fantasy of recollection, an impossible preservation of memory from a life cut off brutally by the most unexpected of the moments of rupture that punctuate the work; again like Sebald, he insists on the unique, irreducible, and non-devaluable importance of the particular human being, and all the idiosyncratic details of their experience. If only we could stave off the death of memory, he seems to say.

But this is the point at which the two writers diverge radically. Where Sebald’s narrative portrays a tragically quixotic attempt to stem the tide, Hernandez’s features characters wise enough to embrace the particularities of their present tense; and where one of the book’s violent ruptures severs much of the specific detail of memory, it is made clear that what does cross that horizon, the memory of love, and of the object of love, is what matters. For Sebald’s narrator every biographical detail is equally worthy of preservation, every material recollection possessing equal weight; for Hernandez the particularity of a person can survive the loss of those mnemonic quanta. Perhaps this is some kind of metaphysical fallacy, in which we are all animated by some uniquely recognisable spirit distinct from the material detail of our biography, but it is a truth that doesn’t need to be taken literally to remain true. The experience of love can resist weathering indefinitely, even when dementia has eroded everything we might once have considered a facet of personality. Where Sebald’s narrator looks backwards through the prism of memory, for Hernandez’s characters it is the ground from which they move forwards.

This does not imply that Hernandez’s characters are generic emotional agents: far from it. Every page, every panel, every line, is refulgent with the particularity of people, places and events. Nothing and no-one is instrumental, even to the plot. When as a child, Maggie speculates as to  whether Calvin is colourblind or just weird, he is in the foreground of the frame, wearing a very specific facial expression which is not at all a reference to his future behaviour in the narrative, or to Maggie’s thoughts.  This is emblematic of Hernandez’s faithfulness to the specificity of each character, the particular subjectivity of every human, and the importance of each moment they experience. This is what makes the short episode I mentioned above, ‘Return For Me’, a central rather than a digressive element of the story: when the recently introduced narrator is cut off mid sentence the reader is likely to be genuinely shocked. In the final chapter, in apparent contrast, Hernandez draws on the whole history and depth of his saga: having begun telling stories in a medium where episodic narrative is conventional, has gifted Hernandez with an enormous resource, in terms of drawing on the memory and biography of his characters for continuity. But as Hernandez’s characteristic chiaroscuro blackens the site of death in ‘Return For Me’, the absolute equivalence in worth of a short, abruptly concluded life to any other, is given an ineluctable moral weight.

The complexity and sophistication of The Love Bunglers’s construction is belied by its formally straightforward surface, the themes and enquiries that weave in and out of timeframes, characters and locations, seeming to emerge very naturally from the succession of panels. The only point at which the linear narrative is disrupted is in the prelude to the book’s final violent rupture, in which Maggie and Ray appear to run towards each other across the page, although they are in different locations. The use of such a relatively low-key technique, in such a carefully chosen location, is indicative of the great care and expertise with which the whole book is constructed. And although the characters have a particular resonance for me, as I have known and loved some of them for more than half of my life, when such care is used by a master of their medium like Hernandez, the results are uniquely moving and beautiful.

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