15762214087_8d1ef67813_hBy Jarrod Jones. There are two separate B-movie sequences that stand out in Love and Rockets: New Stories #7, longer and decidedly more rambunctious than most of the tighter, vastly more grounded vignettes that populate the book. They’re hyper-violent, rowdy, and overtly sexualized, while beautifully playing to the strengths (and influences) of their creators, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. What’s even more intriguing about the two sequences – aside from the fact they’re pure, unadulterated, comic-pop bliss – is that they both have a crucial subtext that belies their kinetic, frenzied abandon.

The sequence belonging to Gilbert (actually, I’ve always felt more comfortable referring to him as Beto), titled “The Magic Voyage of Aladdin!” evokes memories that are owed more to Sabu, Conrad Veidt, and June Duprez of The Thief of Bagdad than anything else, while the episode crafted by Jaime (or Xaime, if you prefer), Princess AnimaUS!, is definitely a throwback to the lurid EC sci-fi yarns from the 1950s, or even the Philip Francis Nowlan Buck Rogers strips from the 1930s. They abruptly upset the quiet, lovely moments between the book’s stalwart characters (like Fritz and Killer or Maggie and Ray D.), keeping them at bay for an extended period of time with a raucous, insistent verve. But both men’s extended action-packed stories mean something far more to the book’s overall narrative. Underneath all the wacky hullabaloo, there lies a real and beating heart.

That shouldn’t be too surprising for anybody even remotely familiar with the Fantagraphics Books series, one that has haunted the more discerning book shelf and comic book store for well over three decades. Created by The Hernandez Bros. (that’s Jaime and Beto, with their brother Mario) in 1981, Love and Rockets created two fully inhabited worlds that have grown and aged as our own years passed us by. And whether you follow Beto’s densely populated Palomar saga or Jaime’s well-spun Locas yarn, if you’ve committed to the book for more than a few years, odds are you’ve cherished every minute of it. Love and Rockets has a gift to offer any reader willing to put in the time: A real and potent sense of legacy. In an industry that ceaselessly scrambles in a frantic state of constant renewal, that’s a rare and beautiful thing.

love-and-rockets-new-stories-7-pg-24 - EditedIt’s an annual tradition that’s carried on for over seven years (since Los Bros Hernandez embraced their once-a-year, 100-page prestige format back in 2008), and one that’s always – always – proven to be well worth the wait. The very moment a new copy of Love and Rockets: New Stories finds its way into your hands, you’re met with a comforting familiarity. Don’t bother looking for a narrative preamble or a “Previously on…” with Love and Rockets (because there has never been any), and don’t worry. Beto and Jaime’s characters are like old friends: they’re instantly recognizable because they’ve held onto all the tics that endeared you to them in the first place (with a modicum of temporal seasoning applied, of course).

Surrounding the two feature-length spectacles are a dozen smaller, more intimate vignettes that tell a fractured tale of two separate worlds. Beto examines the dichotomy between Fritz and Maria in the affecting “Daughters and Mothers and Daughters”, a sequence that gathers all of the lies and innuendo from the last few years and places them under a scrutiny that neither woman would be too keen to employ. Beto’s gift is his ability to weave a wide tapestry with the smallest of thread, and his Palomar storylines always offer at least one small jigsaw piece for the reader to keep for a later application to the bigger picture. It’s a heightened version of an elaborate soap opera, one that engages the fantastic with a crippling emotional realism.

The secrets that are kept in this family cause far more destructive emotional havoc than Maria and Fritz are willing to admit, and it’s with this vignette that we receive a better understanding as to why both women require tunnel vision to help them move on with their lives. Looking back – embracing painful truths – may be beneficial for these women in the long term, but the mounting anxiety behind the truth has dulled their ability to acknowledge the past.

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Beto and Jaime’s segments thematically compliment each other tremendously well; their segments parallel far more thoroughly in this volume than in any installment of New Stories thus far. The worlds of Palomar and Locas may be as far apart as can be, but they couldn’t be more emotionally intertwined: It seems that Fritz will repudiate her long, lost daughter for a little while longer, but on the other side of L&R, Maggie and Hopey are ready to engage their past head-on.

Jaime has developed these two characters in such a full and realized way that it feels perfectly natural to see Maggie and Hopey swap spraypaint for smartphones. Because even though these two have adult lives with adult responsibilities (realizing that Hopey Glass is a mom is still a disorienting thing), they’re still Maggie and Hopey, full of the same insecurities and false fronts they’ve used since the days of Stevie T.V. and Del Chimney. Jaime crafts these grown-ass women with the lined faces and hardened exteriors indicative of two people who have been through the fire together. They’ve experienced so much with (and without) each other, but the universe still gravitates around them. Fate should bring them back together…

But Hopey isn’t the gutter punk she once was (she’s not even the shitty bass player who once survived a disastrous road tour). Hopey cleaned up years ago, got married to a prim and proper wife, and now raises a needy, cherubic imp that demands almost all of her attention (and has more than a passing resemblance to Hopey’s former, uber-religious, would-be paramour, Guy Goforth). This has tempered our former hell-bent valkyrie, so much so that the quasi-romantic opportunities laid before her and her former flame only begin to register after it’s far, far too late.

Others sense that the flame between Maggie and Hopey flickers once more (Ray D’s reliably sullen interior monologues give away plenty), and Maggie – who is still very much in love with her best friend – knows this too. A return visit to the old stomping grounds (Huerta, loosely based on Oxnard, California where the Hernandez Bros grew up) should be enough to rekindle what these two once shared. If only time hadn’t already made that impossible.

My God, why did we ever break up?” Hopey asks, as she nestles her head on Maggie’s shoulder. Because, Ms. Glass, life – for better and worse – is more interesting this way. (Insert tremendous, whistful sigh here.)

Fantagraphics Books/$14.99

Written and illustrated by The Hernandez Bros.

10 out of 10