I used to wonder what it would have been like to grow up in Los Angeles, where I was born but lived for only the first eight months of my life. Would I have been a square, or a chola, or a gangbanger instead of finding punk rock? Because I grew up in conservative, predominately white small-town California during the 1980s, I couldn’t see an L.A. where any of those identities, square, chola, gangbanger, or punkera, intersected, but of course they did intersect. Jaime Hernandez, author of Maggie the Mechanic, the first compendium of Love and Rockets, depicts these intersections through characters created and drawn from his own life, people he knew, and the music scene that he and his coauthor brothers, first-generation Mexican Americans, inhabited.
Even though I was in a 1980s punk band myself, as many of Hernandez’s characters are, I didn’t read Love and Rockets then, or even in the 1990s, when some of my punk friends were fans. Instead, as a kid, I read my brother’s Archie comics. I wasn’t interested in Archie, Reggie, or Jughead, only Betty and Veronica, what they were wearing and any panels that showed them playing in their band. Because she had beautiful long black hair, I imagined that Veronica was Mexicana like me, even if she was a snobby rica, and like Hernandez, I always wondered why they all stayed the same age. Opening Maggie the Mechanic, I was struck straight away by the influence of the Archie comics on Hernandez’s style. Some of the lines; the shifts in style depending on the characters or setting; the glamour; and the way illustrators almost seem infatuated with the women characters, as seen in a sensual focus on their hair and bodies—it all echoes Bob Montana and the other Archie cartoonists. In one of the stories in Maggie the Mechanic, there’s a stunning drawing of Maggie Chascarillo at work on what looks like a telephone pole, wearing tiny short shorts that hug every curve. It’s the depiction or gaze of a young cartoonist who seems to be drawing his fantasy woman into being. Fortunately, however, Hernandez purposely complicates the male gaze by depicting women who, in the 1980s, did not fit the beauty standard, Mexicanas with short hair and lesbians.
This disruption of the male gaze can be seen in this text from the strip called “Locas Tambien—Con Maggie, Hopey and Gang”:
This is my friend Maggie…She’s only five foot tall, has a cute face and ass, is kind of naive about things, and lives with her best friend Hopey, who is just as cute, a little rebellious, and is even shorter. They live in a small run-down apartment in a Mexican neighborhood, always without food, months behind on rent, and rumor has it that they’re lesbians. How perfect can you get? The only thing she does have is super power. But, wait! Maggie has a job.
It’s as if Hernandez invites the male gaze, maybe even his own, only to bat it down by suggesting that Maggie and Hope are lesbians: “How perfect can you get?” The gaze is further complicated by the way in which it directs readers’ attention to women not normally deemed worthy subjects of such a gaze, working-class Mexicanas with short hair, women who defy even their own communities’ social mores and who don’t depend on male approval. One could argue that Hernandez, like many men in America, is titillated by lesbians, but the Maggie and Hopey stories are not overly focused graphic (double meaning intended) fantasies of lesbian sex. What’s more, the Maggie and Hopey comics usually pass the Bechdel Test, even in the early stories from a different era of sexual politics, and refreshingly, Hernandez’s depictions of the women mature as he does.
Hernandez’s choice to zoom in on women, queer characters, and people of color (rather than the white male superheroes who dominated in the early 1980s, when Love and Rockets first launched) appears now, to the mainstream, to be way ahead of its time. His foresight is particularly startling when considered in relation to current online debates about the lack of representation in publishing. Despite always having been here, we’re still wildly underrepresented in Hollywood and other forms of media, so the cartoonist’s focus on ordinary punk rock characters with Latinx rebel youth identities probably seemed fresh and futuristic in the ’80s and ’90s to those unfamiliar with the ways many Latinx youth have repped their cultures. We been rebelling and expressing angst about racial profiling on the streets, educational tracking in schools (Chicano student walkouts), the expectations of immigrant parents, and second-class citizenship (pachucos) in radical ways since at least World War II.
In multiple interviews, Hernandez has said that he was just depicting people from his neighborhood in Oxnard and those he saw at punk shows in L.A. at clubs like the Hong Kong Café. As angry as it makes an awful lot of people in the United States, what we know now is that queer folks and people of color were or are the future of America. Hernandez observed this multiplicity, living and creating art in the L.A. area in the state of California, which has been a minority-majority state since 1999, and depicted it early on. His success was unlikely. Because here’s the thing about dominant culture: even when it’s not intentionally hateful, it’s so busy replicating itself in its own image through publishing, language, and a myriad of other ways that it neglects to recognize the cultural wealth, the wisdom, or even the financial viability of non-white markets until an artist like Jaime Hernandez manages to break through. But he did break through via a small publisher because his work is fresh and visually stunning and because white folks aren’t the only ones who read, appreciate art, or want to see themselves represented by it.
What was especially ahead of its time was Hernandez’s refusal to ask or await permission to draw rebellious, unwhitewashed people of color and to capture our likeness, beauty, and worth. He never debated the visibility of La Raza or queer girls in punk rock; he just believed in what he saw and captured it.
Even today, when people of color have taken over punk, the popular portrayals of “punk,” whether in the news or in movies, feature angry white kids, usually young men who drink excessively, start fights, and punch one another while moshing in front of the stages of dark and dangerous-looking clubs. Alice Bag, the Chicana singer of one of the first-wave L.A. punk bands, the Bags, commented on representation in punk rock in a recent interview: “Women, people of colour, queers, and anyone who identified as ‘other’ were always involved.” The Bags were one of the bands that Hernandez saw live before creating Love and Rockets with his brothers. Bag is still active and making music today. While in the Bags, she had short jet-black hair jutting out at all angles, and she was a clear prototype for a number of Hernandez’s characters, who would have most definitely sung along to the Bags’ “Babylonian Gorgon,” arguably one of the best punk songs of all times:
Don’t need no false reasons for why I’m out of place.
I don’t goose step for the masquerade.
I don’t scream and twist just for the fun of it.
I’m poisoned blood when I’m pissed!
Love and Rockets shares with Bag this broader understanding of punk and Latinx history by bearing witness and turning it into art. It’s a version similar to my own, as I came of age as a gritty, androgynous, bisexual punk girl who played in bands with other women and who preferred women’s spaces.
Now newly immersed in the world of Las Locas and Maggie and Hopey, I no longer have to wonder what it would have been like growing up in L.A. and who that version of myself would have been. Likely, I’d have been a fluently Spanish-speaking version of myself at the intersections of rebel youth cultures, an audience member in one of Hernandez’s infamous drawings of crowds at punk clubs, or a member of one of Hopey’s bands, just as I am now a version of Maggie with my punky mom bob and pansa—an angsty menopausal mujer from California not created by Hernandez but worthy of representation as well as opportunities to tell my own story.•
Join us on Zoom on Thursday, January 19, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Hernandez will join CBC host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss Maggie the Mechanic. Please drop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the book. Register for the event.