In 1981, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez were living in Oxnard, Calif., working as janitors to fund the trips they took down the 101 to see punk bands like Black Flag in Los Angeles, and their work on a comic book series they called “Love and Rockets.”
Once they self-published the first issue of the series, the brothers mailed a review copy to The Comics Journal, a Seattle-based magazine that took an almost perverse glee in skewering many of the top superhero titles coming out of Marvel and DC Comics. “It was a very adversarial magazine,” said Gary Groth, who was, and remains, the journal’s editor in chief. “There were so few comics coming out that even approached what I imagined the medium was capable of.”
From the first issue of “Rockets,” Groth said, he “was blown away.”
“It was truly unlike anything I’d seen in comics,” he said. “There were glimmers of what I thought comics could be.”
There were Chicana punk rockers and Southern California skinheads; entire panels of untranslated Spanish; horn-headed gajillionaires and female ex-gang members; and a dialogue-free, noirish fever dream about writer’s block. There were dozens of characters who looked a lot like the people the brothers grew up around, eating, sleeping, laughing, partying, and grousing about work. Much of “Rockets” was set in Huerta, nicknamed Hoppers, a majority Latino town not unlike Oxnard.
This year, the series celebrates its 40th anniversary, a noteworthy accomplishment for any print publication, let alone an indie comic created far afield of the superhero mainstream. To mark the occasion, Fantagraphics is publishing “Love and Rockets: The First Fifty,” a collection of the comic book’s original run, which ran from 1982 to 1996. Separately, the Los Angeles PBS station KCET recently released a retrospective documentary, “Love and Rockets: The Great American Comic Book.”
The series has received critical raves nearly since its inception. The cartoonist Adrian Tomine discovered the series in 1987, after reading “Death of Speedy Ortiz,” a story by Jaime about a Hoppers local who becomes embroiled in a gang war. “I thought it was the greatest comic I’d ever seen,” he said. Neil Gaiman, an award-winning graphic novelist, called it “one of the finest pieces of fiction of the last 35 years,” while Douglas Wolk, writing in The New York Times, said Gilbert was “one of the great craftsmen of modern comics.”
“Rockets” also has, over the years, captured the industry’s top prizes — including the Harvey, Ignatz, and Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards — and influenced generations of indie artists, including Daniel Clowes ( “Ghost World”) Jillian Tamaki ( “Boundless”) and Tomine ( “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist”).
In an industry where artists routinely hop from book to book — Spider-Man stories, for example, have been written by hundreds of authors since the superhero’s debut in 1962 — the run is a feat of stamina and memory. Both authors contend with an enormous cast: 10 years ago, the last time an official count was attempted, there were about 750 characters.
From the beginning, Jaime and Gilbert have split the book in two, with each artist writing and drawing their own stories. Their older brother, Mario, has contributed sporadically to the series. The collection contains every issue in its entirety, including ads and letter pages, and features tales on everything from the female pro wrestling circuit ( “House of Raging Women”) to clueless first-world do-gooders abroad ( “An American in Palomar”).
Gilbert and Jaime grew up in a house filled with comics, the second and fourth brothers in a family of six siblings. “Our mom was a fan when she was a kid, so she’d give us money to buy comics, because she liked them, too,” said Jaime, sitting in his East Hollywood home, his collections of “Nancy” and “Dick Tracy” on a nearby bookshelf.
Before long, the two were writing and drawing their own comics. As they got older, their influences expanded from Dennis the Menace, Archie and Peanuts to indie comic artists like Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Robert Williams. In high school, the brothers played in small punk bands around Oxnard.
Superhero comics, indie books and the largely underground Southern California punk scene had a big influence on their earliest works. In the first issue, readers meet Maggie, nee Margarita Luisa Chascarrillo, a teenage Mexican American rocket mechanic who tools around on hover cycles and battles robots when she isn’t going to punk shows with Hopey Glass, her best friend and sometime lover. “Hopey came along in my punk days, because I liked the look of the girls with the spiky hair,” Jaime said.
For his half of the book, Gilbert created Luba, a beautiful, hammer-wielding woman with a mysterious past. “I loved Sophia Loren movies, where she would be yelling at someone with her arms akimbo, and then crying the next second,” he said, sitting in a cafe near his home in Ventura. “She had such a presence and vibrant acting style, I thought it would be cool to have a character like that.”
Gilbert and Jaime produced their first issue themselves, printing pages and stapling them together by hand. “The whole punk thing was, ‘Well, if they don’t want us, we’ll do it ourselves,’” Jaime said.
They didn’t have to. Once Groth saw the copy they had sent to The Comics Journal, he offered to publish the series.
Many of Jaime’s most popular tales center on the star-crossed relationship between Maggie and Hopey. Before the comic launched, Jaime came to a realization that would forever define the book. “At some point, I was like, ‘Maggie’s Mexican,’” he said. “In comics, it was just natural to think of characters as white people, but I remember going, ‘Why aren’t my characters like me, or the people I see around me?’”
Several of Gilbert’s earliest stories take place in the fictional Central American village of Palomar, population 386, and feature a cast that seemed to grow with every issue, and at times, with nearly every panel.
Unlike the superheroes the brothers grew up reading about, the characters in “Love and Rockets” come in all sizes and body types. “With superheroes you kind of understand it, because everyone has to be in shape to wear the tights,” Gilbert said. “But in the real world, everybody looks different.” In Palomar, there are heroes with potbellies and wrinkles and pockmarked faces.
Another element that set the book apart was that all of its characters aged, often in near lock step with their creators. Maggie, who has become perhaps the book’s most beloved character, began the series as a teenager. Today, she is nearing 60, Hernandez said, with a laugh.
The idea to have the characters age in nearly real time came from “Gasoline Alley,” a long-running newspaper strip that debuted in 1918. Over the comic’s century-long run, baby Skeezix grows up, fights in World War II, gets married, has children, becomes a grandfather. “The strip outlived several artists, and has just kept going,” Gilbert said. “That inspired me.”
In the four-decade run of “Love and Rockets,” the Hernandez brothers have done book tours and made appearances at Comic-Con; created covers for music albums (Indigo Girls, Los Lobos) and magazines (Punk Planet, The New Yorker); dabbled in superhero books for Marvel and DC; created solo books; and in 2017, been inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame.
Over that same period, Maggie has worked as a prosolar mechanic’s assistant (in one of the series’s interesting idiosyncrasies, just what a prosolar mechanic might be is never explained), gotten married, worked as a manager of a seedy apartment building in the San Fernando Valley, had her heart broken by the vivacious, vocally-challenged Vivian “Frogmouth” Solis and pined for Hopey, even as the miles and other lovers often kept the two apart. Hopey, the former punk, became a grade school teacher. Luba, said Gilbert, “is now this mellow older lady with white hair.”
And their creators? Jaime and Gilbert, now both in their 60s, hope to keep going for another 10 years or so, to finish 50 issues of their latest “Love and Rockets” run. Gilbert holds up his fingers, stiff with arthritis. “Look, this one I’ve got to keep bending,” he said. “See? It won’t go any more.”
Jaime added, “I remember early on, we said, ‘Let’s do this for 20 years! And then 20 years in, we go, ‘We’re just starting.’ So now, we’re thinking, ‘OK, I’ll be in my 70s in 10 years.’ The biggest worry is that, well, if I do this when I’m older, will it suck? I think about that a lot.”
“But right now, when I’m at my board,” he continued, “it’s just me and my story. I’m going to finish it, and then it’s yours. I’m not going to worry about the future. It’s just me making this story for you.”