If you are me, you will have noticed that this post is not tagged “I Love (And Rockets) Mondays,” and that it is not appearing on a Monday. If you are not me, you did not notice and do not care.
But that tiny, silly issue of nomenclature is at very central to this book — Gilbert Hernandez’s full-length graphic novel Maria M. is not a “Love and Rockets” story. But it is a meta-Love and Rockets story, a comics version of a movie from his L&R world, like his previous stories Chance in Hell and The Troublemakers and Love from the Shadows . (And then there’s Speak of the Devil, which is really weird — supposedly the “true story” of the events that inspired a movie of the same name within the L&R world, so the true fictional version of something that we previously half-saw a fictionalized fictional version of.)
So this is a version of the story we’ve already seen part of in Poison River – but Hernandez is specifically telling us it is a packaged story, designed for a purpose, turned into fiction and cleaned up for a particular audience. I think it’s meant to be a ’90s movie set mostly in the ’60s, something from the Goodfellas era, in a world where that gangster era was more Latin than Italiano.
And, of course, all of Hernandez’s graphic novels are fictions. But the level of fiction in them is clearly important to him: that some are the “real” story and some are the sensationalized movie version. This one is a movie version, but Maria M. looks to be a relatively big-budget, moderately prestigious picture – probably not made with serious expectations of Oscars, but one that would be reviewed well and remembered fondly, that was a strong stepping-stone for its cast and crew and a sturdy, dependable, engrossing piece of entertainment for its era.
It is is that: Hernandez is good at making fictions that resemble other fictions. (Though, this time out, he isn’t deliberately trying to ape wide-screen images with his panels, the way he mostly did with the earlier movie-books; Maria M. is laid out like a “normal” Hernandez comic, with standard panel progressions and lots of variations in size.)
And the story itself? We are somewhere unclear. From Poison River, we know it’s an unnamed Latin American country, but here it’s left entirely unspecified. It’s probably that same country; it’s probably not the US. We begin in the late ’50s; Maria is a voluptuous eighteen and has no daughters. Unlike Hernandez’s Palomar and Luba stories, Maria M. is not about family – not about that kind of family, not about Maria’s family. It is about family in the way that all gangster stories are.
Over the course of the next couple of decades, she weaves in and out of the lives of a group of pornographers and gangsters, many of whom become obsessed with her. She never accomplishes much, never gets rich and famous the way she wants to be, never really gets out. But she does come to be happy with what she gets, as far as we see, which is not nothing.
The later parts of the story are largely about her relationship with the fictional version of Gorgo – I won’t spoil any of that, but I mean “relationship” in an expansive sense that is not at all equivalent to sitting-around-talking-about-our-feelings. This is a Hernandez book about gangsters, and a crime movie presented on the page: there will be gunplay and ambushes and torture and various horrors along the way. But Hernandez means this to be a movie, and he knows how movies are supposed to be structured: he knows how audiences want movies to end.
Maria M. is the most successful of the Hernandez movie-books, which is unsurprising. It was designed to be the capstone of them to begin with: the book that was actually based on a good, successful movie, with the biggest dramatic sweep and the strongest story. We should not be surprised that Gilbert Hernandez can make a strong, crowd-pleasing story when he sets out to do it; we should remember that he usually sets out to do different things each time.