I feel like we’re all just supposed to know how to read Gilbert Hernandez’s “movie books,” even though they’ve never been clear, and their publisher (Fantagraphics) has stopped even mentioning the movie connection. These days, it seems to be just the distinctive end-papers that give us a clue, and then we’re on our own.
You see, Hernandez has been writing stories, in the various comics mostly named Love and Rockets, about a group of people, originally centered on the residents of a small South American town of Palomar though in recent decades shifting to the extended Southern California family of a woman named Luba who lived in Palomar for a long time. Luba’s younger half-sister, Fritz, had a career as a film actress: not a great career, and not a lasting one, but she made a bunch of movies. And Hernandez has not just told stories about Luba and Fritz and others – stories in their world, meant to be “true” as much as any fiction is – but also told stories retelling those movies, telling stories that are meant to be seen as fictional from a fictional world.
It’s complicated and knotty, and not explaining it in the books themselves makes it even weirder and complicated. The most recent, and most major, Maria M. , was the height of convolution, telling the movie version of Fritz’s mother’s life (with Fritz in that “role”), which readers of Love and Rockets had already seen the “real” version of, years before. Prior movie books were from “earlier in Fritz’s career,” when she did pulpier, less ambitious….OK, let’s say bluntly bad and derivative and exploitative movies: Chance in Hell and The Troublemakers and Love from the Shadows . (And I can’t explain explain clearly how Speak of the Devil fits into this schema, either — I think it’s the “real” version of a story not about Fritz and Luba and company that was also made into a movie with Fritz, and maybe we saw some parts of that movie made in the main series.)
Hernandez was most active with these stories just over a decade ago – the first burst came out roughly every year, 2007 and ’08 and ’09 and ’11. Maria M. took longer to gestate. And, along the way, Hernandez also made two shorter movie stories, which have now been collected together in flip-book format.
That is Hypnotwist / Scarlet by Starlight , both of which “star” Fritz as a major role, though (and maybe this is meaningful?) she doesn’t speak in either story. One is a pretentious movie that I don’t think Hernandez expects us to take entirely seriously. The other is a pulpy genre exercise.
And I still don’t get the point of either book, or of this entire sequence. Is it meant to be some kind of parallax view of specific events in the “real” story? Are they just goofy, clear-the-decks stories that Hernandez wants to get out of his head, and this is a way to tie them in? Or what?
Hypnotwist is the longer story, 59 pages long: it’s some kind of art film with no narration or dialog that follows a woman who may be dreaming, or sleepwalking, or hallucinating, or something. A sequence of surreal things happen, some of them sexual and/or violent, with some other characters reappearing and a central image of a creepily smiling face. Oh, wait! I forgot the magic shoes! She gets magic shoes at the beginning, and that might explain it all. If anything can explain anything here.
(You might have gathered that I don’t get this at all. Hernandez has done a bunch of dream-logic stories in his career, and I like looking at them and appreciate the visual inventiveness but never get anything specific out of any of them.)
Scarlet by Starlight is tighter, a ’50s-style space opera movie in 37 pages of comics – though, in the world of L&R, I guess it was made in the late ’90s. Three Americans are on an alien planet, researching something or other, two men and a woman. There are two seemingly-sapient races here, though neither can speak: the human-height and furred Forest People and the dwarfish pinkies. The humans have befriended the Forest People – well, at least the couple Scarlet (female, Fritz’s character) and Crimson and their children. The pinkies, though they seem to be more organized – they have a village with buildings, and a much deeper curiosity about the human’s technology – are considered basically vermin.
But then Scarlet comes into heat, I guess, and tries to have sex with one of the Americans, and it all goes to hell. There’s a lot of Hernandezian violence until the survivors are able to regroup with a Hollywoodesque happy ending. Again, Hernandez is not trying to present this as a good movie: rather the reverse.
I get the sense that Hernandez makes these stories either to scratch an itch to tell junky stories or to comment on junky stories, but I have no idea which, or if it’s both, or if those are the only two possibilities. I enjoy the way he moves characters around and evokes junky movies without ever getting a clear sense of why he thought spending months of his time to do this would be worthwhile.
It’s weird, man. The “movie books” are just an odd sequence of stories, and these two are the very weirdest of that sequence. People who like weird should dive in here; this book is about as bizarre and random as Hernandez gets.