guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

May/June 2006

New York Times Magazine (weekly)

by Frederick Luis Aldama

Jaime Hernandez, “La Maggie La Loca,”

Diversity in comic books is here to stay, a recent article in

The New York Times suggests (May 28, 2006: AR 25). It would seem this hails good tidings for Latinos long absent from the usual mainstream fare. Tejano Jaime Reyes is DC's new Blue Beetle, a character whose title comic sold over 50,000 copies in its first run in April 2006. Mixed Puerto Rican/Mexican character Anya Corazon continues the matrilineal combat duties as a Spider Hunter who battles it out with the Sisterhood of the WASP in Marvel's 2005 Araña. On the not-so-distant horizon lies Marvel's revived White Tiger as a street smart, gutsy Latina. With Chicano Adam de la Peña on board, Cartoon Network's Minoriteam features a deliberately supersized sombrero-wearing Latino, El Jefe, who fights evil with his galactic black hole-sucking leafblower. And this is only to mention a few at the tip of the mainstream iceberg. There are many other Latino comic book creations by independents who have moved into the limelight: Frank Espinosa's double Eisner nominated Rocketo; Oakland-based Chicano author of Pablo's Inferno; Rhode Montijo's comic-book inspired Simon & Schuster publication Cloud Boy; Javier Hernandez's blockbuster adaptation of his macabre-styled Chicano loner, El Muerto; Laura Molina's contract to revive and serialize her Chicana superhero, The Jaguar…. And now we can add to this laundry-list Jaime Hernandez's recent spin in The New York Times Magazine: "La Maggie La Loca."

Your Brain on Latino Comics, forthcoming) aim to grab and move its readers.

I already mentioned that, in terms of style, "La Maggie La Loca" stands in sharp contrast to the more sanitized Ware story. Here we have a more heavily-inked line, a more solid yet subdued blue, yellow, green, mauve, brown palette of colors, a more deliberate space-to-space pace and linear temporal flow (Ware's is a splash of simultaneity gone wild), and a singularly character driven story. As far as the verbal narration goes, bubbles never appear only sub-panel boxes with Maggie's interior monologue: "I WOKE UP IN THE MORNING…." Its verbal-narrative flow never lets us outside of Maggie's head. Panel by panel, all these parts begin to cohere as a gestaltic whole; they impress upon us a storytelling mood and feeling about character. Their accretive coherence leads to deeper cognitive and emotive investment. 

All these elements give shape also to our sense of an author—not necessarily the flesh-and-blood Jaime Hernandez who exists as more than the author of “La Maggie La Loca,” but rather that sense of a master of control who orchestrates in particular ways how the elements of the comic balletically pull together. It's the style of "La Maggie La Loca" coalesced around a signature, "Xaime," that leads us to return time and time again to the comic books we like.

This said, while this might be the gestaltic
aim of "La Maggie," it doesn't mean that the color, pacing, narrative voice, etc. will appeal to all reader/viewer's tastes as a whole. Our particular affinities grown from other aesthetic experiences and memories might not lead us to sign this dotted line.

Let's say we do, however. Let's assume that the colors, pacing, and voice, do appeal—that the comic’s internal narrative logic works. We would necessarily become invested in Maggie; we would begin to ask questions: why is she so paranoid and suspicious? why so apathetic? why resistant to Rena's invitation for a visit, was she a former lover? why so easily swayed by Hopey? why does she seem to always be eating? does that pinch of her tummy reveal a weight concern and might this reveal something about her sense of self? And when questions remain unanswered, we long for more—more of the way this particular comic book author/artist combines the different storytelling elements in his will to style.

This leads me to the element of the double narrator: the visual-narrator and the textual-narrator. The story of La Maggie unfolds simultaneously along a visual and a textual narrative register. Within the first series of panels, our brain has already cognitively mapped the verbal-narrator's past tense, first-person voice to the visual-narrator's focus on the character Maggie. And here things begin to get interesting. The visual-narrator can describe Maggie—facial expression, gesture, behavior—in ways that emphasize and/or conflict with the textual-narrator's voice. One can depict happiness and the other frustration; one comfort and the other paranoia. In such cases Hernandez challenges—and even plays havoc with—the reader's cognitive schemas that work to infer interior state from outward gesture and allow one to determine form a smile, a state of pleasure or contentment. 

There's a certain pleasure derived from figuring out how Jaime creates verbal-narrator and textual-narrator tensions; we can begin to read—and even delight in—an unreliability in Maggie's voice. In spite of the primacy given to Maggie's interior thoughts and impressions, such a pendular cognitive movement between the verbal- and visual- narrators creates certain tensions that allow us to step outside of her perspective (to perhaps not use her as the standard of measure for judging a character like Rena).

For a first-time reader (or any reader for that matter), to follow "La Maggie La Loca" is a cognitively complex feat. Much is going on upstairs when we move from panel to panel, when the reader establishes the relationship of form in the pendular motion between visual-narrator and the text-narrator, and when the reader uses memory to sustain the plot narrated by both. (Even though Maggie is drawn slightly differently panel to panel and part to part, we still recognize her as Maggie.) The more the story demands that we keep track of its verbal and visual configurations—how they are related and separate and how we have to keep them together as a whole—arguably leads to a greater cognitive pay-off. 

All cartoonists have the choice of how they want to configure the verbal-narrator and the visual-narrator, and Jaime Hernandez has total artistic control over his. It could be that they exist in harmony, in tension, and/or even where one is much more diminished than the other. (Peter Kuper's a case in point here.) A heavier or lighter presence of either will affect not only the pacing and rhythm of the story, but the feeling we have when encountering individual panels. Too much of the verbal-narrative element within a panel can create a sense of claustrophobia; little to none, a sense of expansiveness, for example. The choice also effects how big the panels might be and how many are used per page—decisions that also affect the story's mood, and by implication, that of the reader/viewer. Los Bros Hernandez can choose to lean more on the image-narrator or on the text-narrator in their total artistic control over their work; as such, they can vary the rhythm of their narrative both in the way their image-narrator conveys meaning, in the size of the lines used to ink the images, and in the degree of proximity to the objects within the mise-en-panel (blow up, close-up, medium shot, distant shot).

The double narrator determines how we are to cluster together traits for scenes, characters, events, to prime fragments of memories (our own and those of others) and thus how, in our synthesis of the schemas, we are directed to respond in specific ways to the characters. The way the visual-narrator and the verbal-narrator prime our memories of behavior and action deepen our understanding of La Maggie; they complicate our inference of other characters’ actions as mediated through her consciousness.

In closing, let me return to points made at the beginning. That I'm a Chicano who reads
The New York Times regularly and who could flip through its Sunday magazine and follow for a spell a Chicano-authored comic book story itself is a telltale sign of a change of the times. And these days, I rarely come across mainstream comic books with unidimensional Latino characters. (Though there is the recent Daredevil, "The Devil in Cell-Block-D" [#82], in which Murdock faces off with a tattooed-to-the nines Carlos LaMuerto, or the "Black Tarantula", whose bubbles fill up too easily with "ESE", "VATO", "CHALE".) Skeptically speaking, that the mainstream lately seems more interested might have something to do with the fact that there are more and more like myself out there (now one or two generations away from a field or factory line) whose wallets come out not only when there's diverse representation, but also complexity of character, sophistication, and a greater degree of cognitive work-out.

Of course, Jaime has been around since (comics) time immemorial; he and his brothers (more Gilbert than Mario) have been at this since the early 1980s. And arguably, Los Bros Hernandez's various Chicano storyscapes single-handedly kept Fantagraphics in business alive in the publication world. What's different is that Jaime has moved out of the Fantagraphics publishing frame and has succeeded Chris Ware's metafictional "Apartment Stories" in the new “Funny Pages” section. Beginning April 23, those expecting Ware's cross-sectioned domestic spaces, ironic witticisms, and connect-a-dot, zip-lines style opened to Jaime's solidly framed and colored, rather straightforward day-in-the-life tales of Maggie. After reconnecting with an old friend, Tse Tse, one thing leads to another and she ends up sojourning with another long lost friend, Rena, who lives in some Island Otherland; dialogue deficient, the audience is privy only to her impression, reflections, and subdued revelations. 

This might be the moment that I could speculate about the politics of representation—that for all the lip-service paid to diversity in comic books, those like Jaime are still holding the proverbial leafblower. But I'd like to take a slightly different tack by considering what Jaime does in this ongoing series to engage and move readers. Long-time followers’ store-houses of Los Bros storyworlds add additional layers of meaning to La Maggie. At a first glance at part 1, for example, we already know that "Maggie" is a Chicana: Margarita Luisa Perlita Chascarrillo, from Hoppers, who now manages an apartment building (Capri) in the San Fernando Valley filled to the brim with a rag-tag gaggle of misfits; that although she's queer (and forever in love with the ever-slippery and non-monogamous Hopey), she was once straight and married; that before managing the residents of Capri, she made a living as a high-tech mechanic; that she's been in and out of depression and can be bitchy as well as sweet; that her story appears in black & white, and not full color. There are also Los Bros first-timers—readers who flipped a page of the Sunday magazine to find La Maggie standing there. These readers learn much of this character in a short space and period of time and probably even invest emotionally in the story and its outcome.  I would like to focus briefly on two main elements: how the style and "double-narrator" (see my