Saturday, December 12, 2009

Love and Rockets 1979-82

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I. Fantagraphics Comics

Gary Groth was a longtime fanzine publisher with FANTASTIC FANZINE 1-13 (plus assorted specials and other publications like the 1972 GUARDSMEN OF INFINITY PORTFOLIO by Groth, George Keitel, Jim Wilson, and future science-fiction author, Carter Scholz), and upon returning to comics to publish THE COMICS JOURNAL he also had a few side projects. THE COMICS JOURNAL #47 (and other early issues of TCJ) had an advertisement titled "Fantagraphics Bookshelf" which lists the following: ALWAYS COMES TWILIGHT (Jan Strnad, Jim Wilson, Bill Cantey, David Anthony Kraft, D[wight] Jon Zimmerman, Steve Leialoha, Don Newton, Clyde Caldwell, Dennis Fujitake, Ron Wilber, Robert Kline, John Adkins Richardson, and Jim Pinkoski contributions); COLOUR YOUR DREAMS (Berni Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, How[ard] Chaykin, Barry [Windsor] Smith, Walt Simonson, Dennis Fujitake, Dave Cockrum, Howard Pyle, Roy Krenkel, Maxfield Parrish, Steve Hickman, and Jeff Jones artwork); and, WORD BALLOONS ("This spectacular fanzine features a cover by Jeff Jones and back cover by Dave Cockrum; a long interview with Neal Adams conducted by Marty Pasko; underground and sf reviews; convention speeches by Jim Steranko, Dennis O'Neil, and Archie Goodwin; art portfolios; and an incredible round table discussion on the merits of comics writing among Dennis O'Neil, Ted White, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Gerry Conway, and Mark Hanerfeld. THE COMICS JOURNAL'S precursor[...]").

So, Gary Groth and Kim Thompson weren't exactly strangers to publishing when the following article (most likely penned by the latter) appeared in that same THE COMICS JOURNAL #47 (July 1979) in the Newswatch section under the heading "Alternative Press":

Fantagraphics, the publisher responsible for THE COMICS JOURNAL, will expand it's sphere of operations this summer with the publication of several new alternative comics.

Fantagraphics Comics will consist of all types of comics, from PG-rated epic fantasies to X-rated undergrounds. "Our only criteria," according to Publisher Gary Groth, "are uniqueness and quality. We have no intention of restricting our output in any other way."

Grass Green, the author of such classic undergrounds as GOOD JIVE, will return to comix after a six-year sabbatical with HORNY COMIX, a 32-page "adults only" comic. Green has built up quite an inventory of material during his vacation from the medium, and Fantagraphics plans to release several more books of his.

Jay Disbrow, the Golden Age artist who retired from [comics] 20 years ago, is back in the saddle with THE FLAMES OF GYRO, an epic adventure saga starring his hero, Valgar Gunnar. The 32-page story is being done in wash, and Disbrow himself considers it the pinnacle of his career.

PORTIA PRINZ, Buscema School graduate Richard Howell's continuing comedy/drama/fantasy will, with a schedule of thrice yearly, be Fantagraphics' first regularly published comics magazine. The first three issues will consist of reprints of stories published in an earlier, limited edition, with new back-up strips and covers; beginning with issue 4, the book will contain all-new material.

Dwight Decker, one of THE COMICS JOURNAL's regular columnists, will script two comics: LORD OF THE MOON and AGE OF STEEL AND STEAM. LORD OF THE MOON will be a heroic fantasy set on the moon in the 25th century, and will be illustrated by longtime JOURNAL contributor Dennis Fujitake; AGE OF STEEL AND STEAM will concern the adventures of a train detective in the late 19th century, and will be drawn by Ron Harris.

Also in preparation is a science fiction anthology title.

All of these books will be 32 8 1/2" x 11", black and white pages with color covers.

Unfortunately, for some unknown reason this line of comics never materialized (with the exception of THE FLAMES OF GYRO, which I always considered the first Fantagraphics comic book) at Fantagraphics. At least three issues of HORNY COMIX were published by Rip Off Press in 1991 and PORTIA PRINZ OF THE GLAMAZONS was published by Eclipse Comics beginning in 1986 with a trade paperback (original or reprint, I don't know) by Marlowe & Co. in 1994. The Dwight Decker material is probably lost in an old issue of K-a, and, likewise, the science fiction anthology never came together.

Months later, Gilbert Hernandez spot illustrations start turning up with THE COMICS JOURNAL #53 (Winter 1980 [early 1980]). There's a "Two-Face" illustration on page 22 and another illustration on page 65, both are dated 1979. [I don't have access to THE COMICS JOURNAL 50-52, so don't know if any of Gilbert's drawings actually were published in 1979]

II. The Comic
In their collective interview in THE COMICS JOURNAL #126 (January 1989) the three Hernandez brothers discussed how the first self-published LOVE AND ROCKETS came about:

Gilbert remembers drawing Inez and Bang ("Music for Monsters" eventually) after graduating high school, some had Barbarian women visiting them from space in a sort of "Locas"-type setting [ca. 1978 barbarian women sketches (including an early version of "Fritz") can be found on pages 112 and 139 LOVE AND ROCKETS SKETCHBOOK VOLUME ONE, there are three "Inez" and "Bang/Fritz" full comic strips from 1978-79 reprinted as well]. Six Months before Mario came up with the idea for publishing their own comic Gilbert was working on the HEAVY METAL-influenced "BEM," but abandoned it until he needed a story to put in the comic.[page 86-7]

Jaime was going to junior college at this time and taking all the art classes he could, including a figure drawing class by a professor named Dietz who was very influential (aside from Moebius and fine art). He was also going to punk rock shows regularly and some of the characters seen in that scene inspired Hopey. His Maggie character was around before this as an older character named "Maggie Chase" as early as 1977, by 1980 ["Maggie the Mechanic" page 18 LOVE AND ROCKETS SKETCHBOOK VOLUME ONE] she has de-aged and started appearing in sketchbook drawings alongside Izzy and Hopey [page 30 top left LRS VOLUME ONE].[page 75 and 77]

Gilbert says that it took a year between the time Mario had the idea to do their own comic and the time they published while he finished up "BEM" and Jaime developed "Mechan-X" with his Maggie and Hopey characters. "We were doing our stuff, but we were sort of not into it that much anymore, and Mario says[...]"[page 87]

MARIO: [Jaime's "How to Kill a..."] kind of put it over the top. "If this is this good, he'll hold up the book at least. He'll hold it up for everybody else." So I told Gilbert, "We're definitely going to do this." And Gilbert started working on "BEM," and his stuff was getting really polished, and I thought, "Oh, Jeez, this is just going beyond." So I badgered this girl to get us into the print shop at the local college, and made up negatives of the first issue. Then we borrowed money from our brother Ismael." [page 74]
"So we did that, went out and got a printer to print the pages for us, and he did a lousy job of it."
"We used to see ads for these little 50 cent comic books that guys self-produced, and it had been years since I'd last seen one, but I assumed it was still going on.
[question from interviewer Robert Fiore: "Like, mini-comics?"]
"Yeah, but they were just rip-offs of super-hero comics. So I just took it from there, I figured we could always sell it through fanzines." [page 74]

According to Jaime, they took copies of the book to the 1981 Creation Con and didn't get any positive reactions. Gilbert added they sold some copies to "one of the Schanes brothers," who Mario remembers buying "a bundle of them at 50cents apiece." Finally,Gilbert sent a copy of the self-published LOVE AND ROCKETS #1 to "the meanest sons-of-bitches in the world" at THE COMICS JOURNAL, and the rest is history...[page 74]

The original self-published LOVE AND ROCKETS #1 was only 32-pages long, the front cover featured a character from Gilbert's "BEM" story and Jaime's back cover featured all his "Mechan-x" characters, Hopey, Maggie, and Penny Century. The front cover lists these stories: "How To Kill Isabel Reubens" by Jaime; "Music For Monsters" by Gilbert; "Mechan-X" by Jaime; and, "BEM" by Gilbert. With the three images posted by Comics and Comix on their ebay page, you could probably reconstruct what Gary Groth and company saw when the self-published LOVE AND ROCKETS 1 arrived in their mail. Comics and Comix posted the covers on their ebay store page when they had a copy of the book for sale, they also kindly reprinted the introduction Los Bros wrote for the inside front cover. Here's the text for historical purposes:

Welcome, Ladies and Gentleman, to the first issue of "Love and Rockets," brought to you by the "New Unholy Trio," Los Brothers Hernandez? Who? Hernandez? Oh, didn't they used to letter "Superfriends" or color "Tooth of Dracula"? Have an loc printed in Manswamp? Not quite folks. We, the brothers (Jaime, 'Bert, and Mario) Hernandez, have tried to get into the comics jungle for a few years now, but could never seem to make the right connections. (You may have seen a smattering of our work in "The Comics Journal", "The Buyer's Guide", and "Fandom Circus" to name a few.)

But now editor (and future contributor) Mario decided upon himself that it was time to do it ourselves. Our own Comics with our own ideas; our own mistakes and our own accomplishments.

This is what is before you now. Our comic. Done our way. We hope you enjoy it, and we'll be hearing from you soon.

Love and Rockets-
Los Brothers Hernandez
[stamped] P.O Box 861
Port Hueneme, CA

III. The Reviews

Kim Thompson astutely mentions the self-published version of LOVE AND ROCKETS in "Comics in 1981: Waiting for the Fruit Salad" (THE COMICS JOURNAL 71 page 40):

The Hernandez Brothers LOVE AND ROCKETS, a witty and gorgeously drawn collection of stories and vignettes.

Gary Groth wrote the only full length review of the self-published LOVE AND ROCKETS in THE COMICS JOURNAL 67 (October 1981) pages 52-4, that I'm aware of or frankly the only one (besides Kim Thompson's) that matters:

"Love, Rockets and Thinking Artists"

LOVE AND ROCKETS is a most impressive debut of, not one, but two very promising young artist-writers. The fanzine is self-published and showcases the strip-work of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. (A third brother, Mario, acted as editor, production supervisor, and business head; they bill themselves as "Los Brothers Hernandez.")

Obviously I like Jaime's and 'Bert's work--they also publish in THE COMICS JOURNAL--but even I wasn't prepared for the literate, witty humor and carefully crafted eidetic style. There are three very important elements that separate this fine, "amateur" effort from the galloping mediocrity littering the comics stands these days. First, LOVE AND ROCKETS is the work of genuine imagination; a very, individual, idiosyncratic, and energetic imagination. Second, both Jaime and 'Bert deal with ideas, not pretentious nonsense or regurgitated pulp trappings. Finally, they've got the technical wherewithal that's always the necessary complement to the imagination.

Most mainstream comics artists (and writers) mistake visual storytelling--the moving of one central image from one panel to the next--for narrative. When an artist draws a fight scene, he thinks he's telling a story. (The same is true of television; give a TV director a car chase to photograph, and he's on his way to becoming an auteur.) The Hernandezes never fall into this trap. They are obviously concerned with the writing first--which is to say the narrative--and those concerns shape and influence the artwork.

The lead strip, entitled "BEM," is written and drawn by 'Bert, and if the title isn't a tip-off, you probably won't understand the story. It's a sharp, snappy parody of superheroes, Japanese monster movies, formula plots, dimestore-mentality melodrama, horror flicks, pulp fiction--in short, everythin that that particularly low breed of illiterate comics fan cherishes above everything better. The strip is filled with cleverly disguised sterotypes from popular culture that come and go and that haven't much to do with the forward thrust of the narrative per se, but are meant as wry comments on all kinds of American kitsch--which is, after all, the point of the strip. (I especially liked a three-panel aside that refers to King Kong and Fay Wray which features the two characters who make the point and are never seen again. In such a way does 'Bert avoid the tedious logorrhea of a Steve Gerber.) The strip works remarkably well, not only because of the economical, wry script, but because of the acute visual pacing. Everything is very tightly organized visually so that the narrative structure has a very concise, ordered feel to it. Sequences begin and end on a single page (or less when less is called for) and the last panel of one page foreshadows the action in the first panel of the next to excellent comedic effect.

'Bert has a good ear for dialogue and is especially adept at capturing that clipped, staccato rhythm of speech indicative of frustration, fear, or anger. The artwork (like the writing) is lean and economical and while the influences are evident--Eisner, Ditko, and, of all things, Archie comics--'Bert's composition and storytelling are very much his own, and very much a part of the story itself.

"Mechan-X" (written and drawn by Jaime Hernandez) isn't much of a story, really; it's an episode in a day in the life of Maggie, a prosolar mechanic (whatever that is). The story's conflict arises when a criminal tries to escape the planet by disguising himself as a member of the mechanics' team, programming robots to do his bidding and taking Maggie hostage. The plan backfires so quickly that the action is clearly subordinated to the oddly endearing characters, whom we get to know through the relaxed and credible dialogue. (It's obvious the story takes place in the future, although the futuristic trappings never call attention to themselves. There were hints of bi-sexuality in the story, too, which I felt struck an optimistic note, suggesting more civilized--i.e., advanced--attitudes toward sexuality.)

The title of Jaime's second story--"How To Kill Isabel Ruebens" actually helps define this four-page tour-de-force. In fact, it's not a story at all in the accepted sense, but an exquisite, focused depiction of a journey into the writerly imagination in purely visual terms. (It's rather like the visual equivalent of programme music, not so much a story as the suggestion of a story.) Isabel Ruebens is a writer of intrigue, mystery, or detective fiction, but a writer who takes her work seriously. The strip illustrates her inner search for the narrative components she needs; without them, the book won't hold together. Anyone who's ever put pen to paper should appreciate this woman's struggle to find the right word, the right tone, the right structure. The last six pages are a sober portrait of a modern day elucubration.

The production values are modest, but adequate. The magazine weighs in at 36 pages (including self-covers), printed on paper approximating that used by ECLIPSE magazine and THE COMICS JOURNAL. The printing is a bit sloppy--paste-up lines are visible and large areas of black tend to bleed--but for a dollar (plus 50[cents] postage) this is a real bargain.

Since creators in the comic book industry hold rendering techniques in much higher esteem than cogitation, only a handful of American comic book artists actually think--and the the ranks of thinking artists we can add 'Bert and Jaime Hernandez. Their minor but superb effort is cause for celebration.
(c) 2009 Gary Groth For historical purposes only, do not re-post.

You can see why Gary Groth and Kim Thompson combined to slowly change the comics industry (whether for the better or the worse) into what it is today, one wonders if anyone else would have recognized the special qualities in this modest package of stories by unknown (past their spot illos for THE COMICS JOURNAL) artists and not only write so succinctly on their merits but in short order plan an entire publishing company around them. What you see from Fantagraphics Books today began with the package containing the self-published LOVE AND ROCKETS arriving in THE COMICS JOURNAL offices.

IV. The Competition

Gilbert and Jaime felt their work was only good enough for fanzines at the time, as it didn't fit in with Marvel or DC styles at the time. Gilbert says that they were too lazy to submit stuff to the undergrounds, although the drug content and lack of economical motivation also factored into their passing over the underground and sticking with their fanzine structure (self- publishing).[page 73]

A look through Clay Geerdes' 1981 COMIX WORLD newsletters (162-186, to be exact) to get perspective on what underground comix were being published, and to what exactly LOVE AND ROCKETS could have been considered an alternative:
CRYSTAL NIGHT (Sharon Rudahl); COMMIES FROM MARS 3 (Tim Boxell); COCAINE COMIX 2 (Bruce Sweeney, Jim Valentino, Chidlaw, Warren Greenwood)
COCAINE COMIX 3 (Sean Kerri, Warren Greenwood, Rich Chidlaw, George DiCaprio [Leonardo's Dad], T. Jensen); SNARF 9 (Robert Crumb, Howard Cruse, Rick Geary, Steve Stiles, Joel Beck, Julian Hoge, "Stumps" Schwind, Leslie Cabarga, Kim Deitch, Dan Steffan, William Prince, Denis Kitchen); WEIRDO 1 2 3 (Robert Crumb, editor); DOPE COMIX 4 (Rand Holmes, Greg Irons, Jim Valentino, Aline Kominsky-Crumb); RIP OFF COMIX 8 9; DOPIN' DAN 4 (Ted Richards); DR. ATOMIC 4 (Larry Todd); WHOLE WHEAT 3 (Vincent Jackson); NARD 'N' PAT 2 (Jay Lynch); FLAMING CARROT COMICS 1 (Bob Burden); ANARCHY COMICS 3 (Matt Feazell, Jay Kinney, Spain); ULTRA KLUTZ 1 (Jeff Nicholson); BIZARRE SEX 9 ("Omaha the Cat Dancer" Reed Waller); POWERPAK 2 (Aline Kominsky-Crumb); PHOEBE AND THE PIGEON PEOPLE 3 (Jay Lynch/Gary Whitney); AFTERSHOCK (Rebecca Wilson, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Diane Noomin, and Phoebe Gloeckner); GUTS (Steve Lafler). Clay Geerdes also mentions, CHOLO, a hispanic-oriented comic published by early underground publisher Gary Arlington which I've never seen a copy or mention of before.

V. Fantagraphics Books

Although Fantagraphics Books had published THE FLAMES OF GYRO and Dwight Decker's THE ELQUEST GATHERUM, I trace the true beginning of the company we know today to this news story written by Dwight R. Decker in THE COMICS JOURNAL 70 (January 1982) pages 14-15:

"Fantagraphics Schedules Five New Books"
Coming in 1982: Two X-Men Books, Kane's SAVAGE, and LOS TEJANOS

Fantagraphics Books, a sister company to Fantagraphics, Inc. (which publishes THE COMICS JOURNAL), has announced its publishing schedule for the next several months. Fantagraphics Books specializes in books of or relating to comics art, and its first title, THE ELFQUEST GATHERUM, a book about the popular alternative comics series ELFQUEST, appeared in late December, 1981.


LOVE AND ROCKETS: Seen for April 1 release is LOVE AND ROCKETS, a 64-page comic book by Jaime and 'Bert Hernandez, a collection of stories that by turns satirize and challenge the assumptions by which most comic books are based.

About half the material in the book saw print before in an edition printed by the Hernandez Brothers themselves; when Fantagraphics Books president Gary Groth saw it, he called it "a cause for celebration" in his review in JOURNAL #67, and arranged with the Hernandez Brothers to reprint it in an expanded, quality format.

"Almost all alternative comics have followed very traditional patterns of storytelling and story content, utilizing creators with a proven track record," Groth said. "With that in mind, LOVE AND ROCKETS is inventive and courageous, coming as it does from two highly talented but unknown artists and writers."

The stories include "BEM," a long adventure epic that parodies nearly every cliche in the genre, from Japanese monster movies on, and "Mechan-X," a day in the life of a "pro-solar mechanic" that includes foiling the plot of a malevolent alien.

LOVE AND ROCKETS will be 64 pages with color covers and black-and-white interiors, and sell for $2.95.


Satisfying High Standards: When asked about the overall philosophy guiding his company's choice of publications, Gary Groth replied, "LOVE AND ROCKETS and LOS [TEJANOS] in particular--as well as other projects we are now working on--should answer JOURNAL readers who have been wondering what kind of comics art comes up to our high standards and elitist expectations. Well, these are they, published in as high-quality format as we can manage.

"We feel we have a responsibility to publish superior even though unknown talent," he added, "and we hope the readers who frequent the direct-sale market will support our efforts."

"One of the most dismaying recent trends," added Kim Thompson, an editor for the company, "is alternative comics' attempts to emulate 'mainstream' comics in format as well as content. So far, two alternative publishers have adopted the shoddily-printed four-color format that has been the bane of American comics for so long. We feel that quality material deserves quality production--that is the only way for comics to come out of the ghetto they've built for themselves."

In conclusion, this long and winding trip through the prehistory of LOVE AND ROCKETS will hopefully shed some light on how the paths of Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario Hernandez and Gary Groth and Kim Thompson all diverged at several points to not only launch the LOVE AND ROCKETS series still going strong today, but also the Fantagraphics Books line that likewise is still publishing today on the same principles they established back in 1979--"Our only criteria are uniqueness and quality" to repeat a quote from Gary Groth.

Self-Published LOVE AND ROCKETS front cover (c) 1981 Gilbert Hernandez (reprinted from inside back cover of Fantagraphics reprint of LOVE AND ROCKETS 1, Fifth Printing 1995)
Fantagraphics LOVE AND ROCKETS 1 front cover (c) 1982 Jaime Hernandez via

1 comment:

  1. Great article! Thanks so much for putting all this work into this. I check out your page every day for updates.