Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

December 26, 2012

CR Holiday Interview #8—Marc Sobel



imageI know just about one thing concerning Marc Sobel, but it's an important thing for 2012. He's written about the Hernandez Brothers extensively on-line, work that's now been shaped and fashioned into two forthcoming books from Fantagraphics: The Love And Rockets Companion and The Love And Rockets Reader. That's an interesting story in and of itself, how a writer in today's industry landscape can start by engaging material that interests them on some level on their own and end up with a formal publishing arrangement. So I'm happy to hear Marc talk about that a bit, in the hopes that we'll all benefit from people similarly following their passions in some way. Mostly, though, I thought it would be a fun way to engage the massive achievement of Los Bros Hernandez during the year we celebrated their 30 astonishing years in comics. Thirty years of making work considered near the top of the art form is a rare, remarkable accomplishment for any artist in any medium. That we're talking two men that happen to be brothers and that this has taken place in the ruthless, fickle arena of North American comic books makes what they've done even more special. I was thrilled to get to talk to Sobel about this. Los Bros Forever. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Marc, I'm familiar with your work after years of reading it but I have to admit that I don't have a strong sense of exactly where you publish and what and for how long. Can you walk me through your professional affiliations in terms of your comics writing, where you do it and how long you've been working for your various outlets?

MARC SOBEL: I've published stuff all over the place. When I first started writing about comics, back in 2000, I wrote reviews for a now defunct British pop culture web site called Insomniazine. It was pretty amateurish stuff and thankfully all those reviews are long gone.

Around 2003 or so, I started writing for Comic Book Galaxy after Alan David Doane posted an open call for writers. I've always admired and appreciated Alan's honesty and candor about comics, so I was excited to be a part of that site. For about three years, I was really prolific, writing multiple reviews per week. While I was cranking those columns out, I was also teaching myself the craft of writing reviews by reading a ton of other, better critics.

In 2006, I got involved with Sequart Research & Literacy Organization after meeting the site's founders at the New York Comic Con. They were just starting out and were actively recruiting new writers. I pitched them my idea of doing a column focused on Love & Rockets and they were all for it. About a year or two after that, I started writing semi-regularly for The Comics Journal, mostly long-form reviews, but I also did a few interviews. I had an article printed in TCJ #300 and I recently did an in-depth interview with Theo Ellsworth for the web site -- I also have another interview forthcoming.

Over the years I have also posted pieces at The Hooded Utilitarian, The Great Curve, The Graphic Eye, Comics Forum and occasionally on my own blog, Unattended Baggage. These days I mostly post my work at The Comics Journal, although my online presence has been minimal since I am still finalizing the Love & Rockets books and am also busy working and raising two young boys.

SPURGEON: Can you place your comics work in the context of any and all other work that you do -- particularly writing, but not solely -- and in terms of how you've interacted with comics in other ways? I mean, I assume with most writers about comics that you were a reader first, and a very devoted one, but that's not always the case anymore for me to make that leap without asking. But are there comics that were important to you as you developed as a writer, or that were important to you generally?

SOBEL: Comics have been a part of my life since before I was old enough to read. My dad used to own a pharmacy in St. Louis when I was really little and they had a spinner rack there with comics on it, mostly Marvel and DC stuff. Every once in a while, I would go to the store with him on a weekend and if I cleaned off and dusted all the shelves, he would let me take a couple comic books and a candy bar. This was how I first discovered superheroes and Star Wars, and I was instantly hooked. I've been an obsessive collector ever since.

In terms of my career as a writer, I see the work I do as a way to share my love for the medium with others who feel the same way. It's also a way to justify the huge amount of time and money I spend on collecting and reading comics. If I could work as a writer or scholar or editor full-time, I'd be thrilled, but it would be hard to support my family doing that. So I basically do this because it's fun, but at the same time, I also take it very seriously and hold myself to a very high standard.

imageSPURGEON: Am I also right in that you have some ambition to make comics of your own? Or that maybe you even have? I'm thinking that you took a trip to Sri Lanka and wanted to make a comic from that, but didn't.

SOBEL: Yeah, I self-published a photo-memoir called 14 Days in Sri Lanka about my wife's family. My mother-in-law is from Sri Lanka and her family's story is fascinating. My wife and I travelled there in 2005 and I basically made a travelogue using photos and journals from our trip. At one time I had considered trying to draw it and pitch it as a graphic novel, like Guy Delisle's books, but I realized I didn't have anywhere near the skill to pull that off. So I just assembled it in Photoshop and posted it online. I don't think very many people read it, but it was a great gift for my wife and her family.

I've always wanted to write comics and I still expect that someday that will happen, though I haven't done anything to actively pursue that end in years. But right now, all my energy and enthusiasm for comics is channeled into my critical writing. I do have a half dozen or so graphic novel scripts that are completed and ready to go. They're just in need of a good, reliable artist which has always been the trouble for me. I've worked with a lot of talented artists over the years, but none have ever stuck around long enough to finish a story.

I've also self-published a few mini-comics over the years. Back in 2004, I printed 500 copies of a mini called Starfish which was a 12-page sci-fi story penciled by Leigh Gallagher, who has done some work for DC Vertigo -- The Witching -- and is now doing some amazing work for 2000AD. I actually inked that book myself with a mouse, if you can believe it. A couple years later, in 2006, I also self-published a book of poems and a short story with illustrations by my friend Leontine Greenberg, another amazingly talented artist.

In 2009, I wrote and drew a 32 page mini-comic called The Red Stiletto. Partly, I was inspired by the Hernandez brothers do-it-yourself attitude, but I also just wanted to experience what it was like to create an entire comic by myself. I have no art training and very little natural skill, but I did manage to finish it. It was an adaptation of an old poem I wrote years ago. If nothing else, it was a good learning process and I blogged about the lessons I learned from that whole experience.

SPURGEON: How did you start the writing that's led you to write so very much about the Hernandez Brothers? Where did that idea come from, and what kept you writing along those lines? You mentioned the pitch to Sequart, but I imagine there's a bigger story there.

SOBEL: In 2006, I contributed my first piece to The Comics Journal, which was an interview with Dan Nadel about his new book, Art Out of Time. Dirk Deppey posted it on a very early iteration of the site. I don't think it's even online anymore. Around that same time, I decided that if I was going to write for the Journal, and follow in the tradition of guys I admired like Gary Groth, Kim Thompson, Bob Fiore, Bob Levin, and so many other great writers over the years, I needed to educate myself in the classics of the medium. That's what led me to start reading Love & Rockets. I thought, "If I'm going to express an opinion about other people's works publicly, especially for the Journal, I want to be informed about the medium's history." I'm still working on that, and probably always will be, but I've learned a ton about comics history since then.

So I decided to read Love & Rockets in its original format and blog about each issue as a way to teach myself about one of the medium's classics while still keeping active as a writer. I really had no idea what I was committing to, and I'm sure a lot of people thought I was crazy, but I had no clue. I just wanted to have fun with it.

I decided to publish those early columns on Sequart rather than Comic Book Galaxy because they were offering the opportunity to collect all my columns into a book once I finished. At that time, they were just getting started with their publishing arm and the two main editors -- Mike Phillips and Julian Darius -- were really excited about my little project. In fact, I owe a lot to them for being so encouraging in the early days. I'm not sure I would have gotten out of the starting gate without their support.

About a year later, Sequart crashed and was offline for a long time. Thankfully I had a backup of all the work I'd done; I think I was around halfway through the series at that point. I thought about trying to move it all to another site, but with so many images and columns, it seemed like a lot of work. So instead, I decided to just put the whole project on hold. My wife and I were expecting our first child around then -- in 2007 -- and I was feeling overwhelmed by it at that point anyway because I wasn't sure how to continue working issue by issue as I got deeper into the series.

So, for about a year, I didn't look at Love & Rockets at all, but then in early 2009, I decided to resurrect and finish the book, mostly because I just wanted to keep reading the series, but also because I had put so much work into it. Since I wasn't sure if I would actually finish it or not, I decided not to post any more online and I just began working on it privately. I figured if I did manage to finish it, I could always find a home for it, though I never imagined it would be with Fantagraphics.


SPURGEON: The natural follow-up, then, is how this developed into a book. How different is what's to be published from your original writing?

SOBEL: The Fantagraphics books are very different, and much better, than my old Shelf Life columns.

What happened was at the MoCCA Festival in 2010, Jaime was in town promoting the new Ti-Girls collection from Love & Rockets New Stories #1-2. I had never met him, so I was excited to go and introduce myself. I had just finished a very rough draft of all 50 columns at that point and so I put together these little one-page fold-over brochures describing what Shelf Life was and including some of the nice quotes I had gotten -- including one of yours actually, Tom -- and printed up a few copies. I gave one to Jaime, who I was surprised to learn had read some of my columns when I was posting them on Sequart.

I also gave a copy of that flyer to Eric Reynolds and he asked me if I had finished. I told him I had, and he said to call him when he got back to Seattle and that Fantagraphics might be interested. That was pretty exciting, as you can imagine. It actually took several months before we connected, but when we finally did speak, we discussed the possibility of publishing my work as part of the 30th anniversary of the series.

Once it sank in that Fantagraphics really was interested, I realized I had to completely edit and improve the book, especially the early columns, which had been written without any sense of perspective on the series as a whole or the Hernandez brothers' place in comics' history. As a result, I undertook a massive research effort where I was reading every piece of scholarly writing and hunting down every interview I could possibly find related to Love & Rockets and the Hernandez brothers. In the process, I rewrote almost the entire first half of the book.

I also recognized that I had to restructure the book since it doesn't really make sense to write about Poison River or Wig Wam Bam in an issue-by-issue format. So I reworked all of the sections on the longer stories as well. I also added chapters on Mister X, Brain Capers and Birdland, as well as a "Love & Rockets Pre-History" chapter. 2010 and 2011 were very intensive and that's why I stopped blogging and went completely offline to focus.

In October 2011, my wife and I had our second son. Leading up to that was the most insane period of writing I've ever experienced; I was working on the book every spare minute and even took a bunch of vacation days from my job to work on it because I knew I had to get a complete draft to Fantagraphics before the due date. I think I sent the manuscript off to Eric sometime in early August, and after that, I spent a couple months madly preparing to interview all three brothers, which I did just a few weeks before my son was born.


SPURGEON: Talk to me about the 30th Anniversary. Do you think that went well, that they received at least some of the credit they were due? I mean, I know that's impossible, but it seemed to me there was some genuine goodwill for them at San Diego and at SPX, and comics isn't exactly a place that recognizes people in that way.

SOBEL: I think so. I didn't make it to San Diego, but I was at SPX and I definitely felt like there was a lot of goodwill. It was great to see that the fans and pros there voted the Brothers for three Ignatz Awards: Outstanding Artist to Jaime, Outstanding Story to "Return To Me" and Outstanding Series. I also thought both Jaime's and Gilbert's panels were very well attended.

I also know that the Brothers did a tour of the East Coast and also had a party at the Fantagraphics store in Seattle. There were some neat things on the web as well. I thought Sean Collins' tribute was really nice. I think these are good signs and show the respect people still have for the Bros. How many other cartoonists can you think of that are celebrated like this in the middle of their careers? Though there are many who probably should be.


SPURGEON: Now, were there stories or issues of Love & Rockets that really hit you in a certain way. I know for me that Death of Speedy, "Bullnecks and Bracelets," "For The Love Of Carmen" and the Frida Kahlo story were all comics that hit me like a ton of bricks. Can you talk a bit about the key stories in your own estimation of their accomplishment, what stories might have stuck with you more than others?

SOBEL: That's a tough question. I've read the series so many times, all of the stories are memorable to a degree. Even individual panels or sequences stand out sometimes.

Looking at Jaime's work, I definitely agree with a lot of fans that Flies on the Ceiling is a masterpiece. The way Jaime was able to nail Izzy's back story after so many years of not knowing exactly who the character was, even though she was there from the very first issue, is just amazing. It's such an incredibly satisfying payoff. Even the way he explained the symbolism of the flies was perfect. And there's so much natural beauty in those 12 pages, it's a pleasure to read over and over.

imageThe Death of Speedy is another one that's unforgettable. The ending, despite knowing its coming, was still surprising, beautiful and heartbreaking all at once. Plus, that's the story where Ray really first comes to life, and it was clear immediately that Jaime had a great grasp on his character.

And of course, like everyone, I really loved New Stories #3-4. Having spent so much time studying these characters, those stories really hit me hard. Especially when Ray got attacked. I agree with a lot of people that those new stories may be Jaime's greatest work to date, not because they're necessarily better objectively, but because they bring so much of the past into clearer and deeper perspective, while still remaining perfectly true to the characters. I sometimes think people take for granted how incredibly difficult it must be to write the same characters over and over for 30 years. There aren't very many artists who've even attempted it, at least not in such a realistic human way.

But then, of course, Jaime also has some stories that I think are kind of underrated. "Camp Vicki," for example, is just awesome. The structure of that story, the way it swings from past to present and fleshes out Vicki's background, which informs her long-running feud with Rena is so impressive, and it's also one of the best examples of Jaime's ability to draw characters at different ages.

"Tear It Up, Terry Downe" is an impressive short story for its economy and symmetry. That kind of formalism is pretty rare in Jaime's work.

With Gilbert, I really love his Palomar short stories from the teen issues, just before Human Diastrophism, especially "Holidays in the Sun," the story about Jesus Angel on the prison island. That was such an astounding psychological journey that he put Jesus through in just 12 pages, and yet it worked. I also think Gilbert's compositions in that story are some of his best from the early part of his career; you could really see him developing in the way he staged his scenes. There's one panel in particular where Jesus discovers that his friend Obregon has killed himself that blows me away every time I look at it.

imageI also love the cinematic narrative style of "Ecce Homo," the way the camera keeps wandering through this crowded party like an anonymous guest, picking up little bits of personality and revealing background about the characters. "The Way Things're Going," that four-page story about Vicente and his friend searching for work, was the first time I really felt like Gilbert blew me away with his prose.

There are also certain character moments from larger stories that really affected me. For example, the rape of Ofelia in Poison River is one of the most moving and unforgettable scenes in the entire medium. The courage and strength she showed by warning off baby Luba while being physically brutalized, it's just so powerful. And all that emotion was conveyed silently; it's such a masterpiece.

Gilbert also has some stories I think are kind of underrated. For example, "Mouth Trap," where we first start to see a human side to Fritz and Petra, after their insane escapades in Birdland. That is such a heartbreaking yet beautiful story and Gilbert is such a master at doing children characters.

Gilbert also produced some real gems in the period following Poison River. "Hernandez Satyricon" in particular is one of his most underrated stories. The mayhem and the mad, crazy energy of that story, all targeted at the ancient history of the series and filtered through a Fellini lens still blows me away.

I could go on and on.

SPURGEON: Do you think there's something about reading those comics as a comic book series that might be lost to readers that get at the stories in a collection? I know that there are many people that read a bit into how the stories play off of one another?

SOBEL: I think ideally the first 30 or so issues are best experienced in their original serialized format, although the material is so strong it can be read in a variety of formats. But the individual issues are how they were originally conceived, and the stories were designed specifically to be read as comic books, as opposed to the longer works which followed.

There are a lot of little things that are lost when the material is collected. For example the covers, both front and back, informed the stories inside each issue. Also, the letters columns were an essential part of the experience of reading Love & Rockets. Those hearken back to the brothers' love of old Silver Age comics where fans could directly engage with creators. Actually, in the Companion, I've excerpted some of the highlights from Love & Rockets' letters columns because they really were an integral part of the journey. Also, the way the brothers played off each other, whether it was influencing each other's storytelling, especially in the early years, or the way the characters would occasionally cross over into each other's universes, were all part of the shared creative space. By pulling each brother's work out and separating it, you lose that sense of balance.

Even the graphic design of the individual issues, and the house ads for all the merchandise, or other Fantagraphics titles, were part of the beauty of the series. You had some really talented people doing in-house page layouts for the inside covers, like Dale Yarger's movie poster-style inside cover of Maggie holding her suitcase in issue #40. All of that stuff may not be important for people to appreciate the brothers, but to me, I'm really glad I experienced the work for the first time in its original format and I'd encourage others if they really want to have the full Hernandez experience, to do the same. That being said, I of course recognize that those old issues are out of print and hard to find, and I would never want people to think that the new collections aren't worth their time. Of course they absolutely are.

The final 20 or so issues, particularly with the longer works -- Wig Wam Bam, Love and Rockets X and Poison River -- those I think actually are better when read in the collected format as opposed to the original issues. For one thing, the brothers, especially Gilbert, added a lot of additional pages to the collected versions which were not in the original issues and these additions really do enhance the stories. So, to me, in those cases, the collected editions represent the brothers' final visions. Also, those stories are so complex, it is better to focus on each one rather than try to follow all three at the same time like they were originally presented.

The one exception to that, I think, is Human Diastrophism, which I still prefer in the original issues better. For one thing, the collected version, at least the latest 2007 reprint, excluded the title pages from that story which is a shame, because Gilbert designed some really wonderful opening splash pages for each chapter that break the story up and are also just beautiful in their own right.

SPURGEON: Who is the audience for your L&R books? For that matter, what was your audience like for the original essays? You said Jaime was reading a few of them, but I assume that he's not a typical reader.

SOBEL: Well, I have no idea who was reading the original essays. I guess just fans of the series, or whoever happened to find my columns while Googling the brothers. I didn't get very much feedback, though from time to time I would get a nice supportive email from someone asking me to keep going and finish the series.

But with the Fantagraphics books, I tried to write them so that they would appeal to anyone with any interest in the series at all, including longtime fans, new readers, scholars and students. It's a fine line, but since I am not affiliated with a university, my work didn't necessarily need to include all of the theory and methodology that a lot of academic writing has which can sometimes make it dry or hard to penetrate. I tried to write very directly so that anybody, no matter what their background with the series, would be able to access it.

At the same time, I recognize that this is a series that means so much a lot to people, and I didn't want to short change anyone. That's why I did such an extensive amount of research. I really tried to give readers, especially fans who've been reading the brothers' work for 30 years, something much more worthwhile than just my impression of Love & Rockets. My goal was, whether you're a longtime fan or new to the series, for these books to deepen your appreciation and understanding of the series. I also hope that a lot of people who maybe haven't read Love & Rockets in years will be tempted to take a fresh look at the series.

I also recognized that some people might just want to read about their favorite stories, rather than a full study of this magnitude. That's another reason why I structured the book to mirror the latest reprints, so it would be easy for someone who just wanted to read about the origins of Errata Stigmata, for example, to flip to that section and read my write-up.


SPURGEON: I know that for all they have accomplished, you could look at this year as significant in light of two perceived snubs: they weren't invited to the conference in Chicago that assembled all of those great cartoonists, and Jaime didn't receive an Eisner or a Harvey nomination for work that was at the top of a lot of best-of-year lists. Do you have a guess as to why they're sometimes not perceived in the first order of cartoonists by various bodies?

SOBEL: Well, I have no idea about the Chicago conference, but regarding the Eisners and Harveys, I just think that there is a whole new generation of comics fans now that didn't grow up with Love & Rockets, and although they know who the Hernandez Brothers are, and have some familiarity with their work, they haven't gotten around to reading the series because there's a huge amount of material and it's kind of overwhelming. I think that's an unfortunate issue that a lot of artists face as they get older, especially when they're as prolific as the bros.

It's also about accessibility. Even though there's that "How to Read Love & Rockets" page on Fantagraphics' website, and I know Chris Mautner did a "Comics College" essay on the brothers' work, a lot of people just aren't sure where to start.

I also think that we've reached a point in the comics industry where there's so much new material being generated, that it's impossible to keep up with even all the high quality stuff. So, at least from my very limited perspective, the industry awards kind of reflect that. I think of the Eisners and the Harveys as more mainstream-leaning awards, which is why you get votes for books like Daredevil; whereas the Ignatzes are pretty much exclusively for the alternatives. Sure, there are some crossovers sometimes, and that's because super-fans like me tend to still have a foot in both camps, but on the whole, people usually gravitate to one side or the other. I could be overstating it, but I don't necessarily think that's a problem, just a reflection of the current state of things.


SPURGEON: Something that Gilbert has talked about a few times is that maybe he and Jaime and Mario are in an odd place vis-a-vis younger cartoonists because they deal in the practical solutions they learned from mainstream comics and are very story-oriented. At the same time, you mention that it's the Ignatzes and not the Eisners or Harveys that honored the Hernandez Brothers this year. Do you think Gilbert's point is correct? Why haven't we seen more cartoonists working that same general area that Jaime and Gilbert work?

SOBEL: That's a tough question. First of all, I'm not sure I 100% agree that alternative cartoonists are moving away from storytelling entirely. What I do see happening, though, is a shift away from the open-ended, mainstream-inspired style of storytelling used in Love & Rockets toward more discrete graphic novels. To me, this is mostly driven by the publishing market and fans who want complete stories in a single package. It's also probably a function of the disappearance of major-publisher-supported serialization of alternative comics. But I see lots of storytelling in the graphic novel side of the industry.

I also think you have to look at what influences cartoonists. The Hernandez brothers grew up with heavy doses of comic books and television/movies. Those influences inform their entire bodies of work. So, when you think about their stories, they obviously go to great lengths not just on the visual aspects, but also the dialogue, characterization and plot. Ultimately their main goal is to tell entertaining stories. But a lot of newer cartoonists have moved beyond that goal. The current generation of alternative cartoonists, at least in some cases, though certainly not everyone, seems to be moving closer to the fine art end of the spectrum.

So I think, in some ways, we're in the next stage in the evolution of alternative comics. When you look back at the history of modern art, you can see each generation trying to define itself in contrast to what has come before. Like with the Pop Artists, or abstract expressionism, it's an attempt to distinguish yourself from the past, so to speak. It's demonstrating that, 'hey, art can be something else than what we have always accepted it to be, and here are some examples.'

To an extent, I see this trend playing out in the current alternative comics scene. You have a movement, though it's kind of unstructured and vague, against narrative storytelling, especially the really detailed, literary kind of storytelling that the Hernandez brothers pioneered. Now you have things like abstract comics, or very surreal stories where the idea seems to be that comics are just sequential images and don't necessarily need to tell a coherent story. Just a couple of weeks ago, Sean Collins interviewed Aidan Koch for The Comics Journal and she said that "to be honest, I don't feel like I'm really trying to tell stories. I don't care if people don't totally 'get' what's going on." In some cases, alternative comics don't even have to look professional anymore, either, because sometimes they are intentionally ugly or crude as a statement against what popular conceptions of beauty are.

I do understand why the brothers may see this move away from story as a problem, and I tend to share their tastes, but I think it's just a natural part of the evolution of the medium. It may also just be part of a larger cultural trend where comic books are taken more seriously now.

Also, it is important to recognize that many of the younger artists working in this new context have produced some truly magnificent work. Al Columbia's Pim and Francie, to name just one example, is an absolute masterpiece, but there is very little narrative there. Same goes for Theo Ellsworth's Capacity, which is a work of genius. And there are many others.

So, I think it's just where the creative energy of this new generation of cartoonists is focused, but to me, it's encouraging that the medium is big enough and diverse enough to accommodate these new types of work, as well as the more traditional ones.

SPURGEON: Talk to me about all of those influences for a second... is there something that you see in their work that you might have to convince me is an influence, something that you think is underplayed as an influence on either cartoonist?

SOBEL: Well, the brothers have talked at great length about their many comics influences, so I'm not sure I have any hidden ones to reveal, but I do have a long section in the Reader where I tried to pull together all of the various discussions they've had over the years regarding their diverse influences. The one area that I think is still an unknown, or lacking in sufficient details, is the extent of the influence of b-movies on their work, especially Gilbert's. I do explore this to a degree in the books, and even moreso in my interview with them, but my familiarity with these old movies is limited so it is hard for me to talk specifics.

imageSPURGEON: What do you think in general of Gilbert's more recent work? It has its detractors and its champions.

SOBEL: I fall firmly in the "Gilbert is one of our greatest living cartoonists" camp, although I do understand why people have a hard time with his more recent work. The stories that resonated with people back in the '80s and '90s were very focused on realistic human characters living in a world that seemed familiar, even if it wasn't. That allowed readers to relate to the characters and, like Jaime's work, built a bond that for years Gilbert mined to great effect.

Suddenly, starting in the final issues of Love & Rockets Vol. 1 and solidifying with New Love, that all ended. Even though Luba and her family were still featured in many cases, once they left Palomar, it was like the spell was broken. So, people who wanted more of the same were left out in the cold, and the impact of that was magnified because Jaime stayed the course.

But, if you take a step back and look at Gilbert's more recent work objectively, without constantly comparing it to the Palomar stories, there is no question he is a stunning visionary with a unique sensibility. In fact, part of what I find so fascinating about Gilbert is that he's like ten different cartoonists in one, and he can do them all so successfully. For example, a story like Julio's Day, which is going to open a lot of eyes now that it's finally being collected, shows that he can still do the kind of sensitive, character-driven human realism that made his Palomar stories so beloved. Yet, at other times, he can do sweet, little charming children's comics, like the Venus stories in Measles. Then there's another side of Gilbert that can channel the insanity of the old underground comix creators like Crumb or Wilson, with all the wild sex and over the top violence. Girl Crazy and Birdland, or even the new series, Fatima, are all good examples of this. And along similar lines, sometimes he'll just go completely crazy and do these short pieces that are absolutely surreal like Rick Griffin or Robert Williams. Then just when you're not expecting it, he'll turn around and hit you with a fun, little Peter Bagge/Daniel Clowes-style gag strip, like the Roy stories, which are just hilarious. And he can even pull off straight-forward, authentic autobiography, a la Chester Brown, like in "My Love Book," his RoadStrips piece, or the forthcoming Marble Season. And then, of course, there are the Fritz b-movie books which, since they're the longest works he's done in recent years, garner the most attention. These allow him to explore his love of old movies and recreate the kind of obscure lost schlock cinema he's become an expert in.

I think this constantly shifting focus gives his overall body of work a manic quality than can drive people who just want more Palomar stories nuts, but to me, it's at the heart of what makes him so fascinating as an artist. I can't think of anyone in the history of the medium that is half as versatile as Gilbert. I'll admit I don't love every single thing he's done since 1996, but on the whole, I always find his new work at the very least interesting to examine and I honestly believe he's produced at least half a dozen masterpieces, all of which are sadly underappreciated, since the end of that first series of Love & Rockets.

imageSPURGEON: What do you think of Mario's comics? Is there one you'd recommend over the others? Is there a way you think his influence is felt that we might not see at first?

SOBEL: Well, you have to be careful not to judge Mario based on his early "Somewhere in California" stories in Love & Rockets. Those are pretty rough compared to his later work. I think the first thing that Mario did that really blew me away was that back cover from Love & Rockets #9, with the airplane and the car going off the edge of a cliff. I looked at that piece and immediately thought of Jack Kirby. As I was going through the series for the first time, it got me really excited because I thought Mario was going to show up more and blow me away like his brothers, but obviously he faded into the background.

I do think that Mario is a much better writer than people give him credit for. He's definitely inspired by Gilbert more than Jaime, like in Me for the Unknown, which dealt with a lot of the same themes that Gilbert explored in Poison River, like America's cultural imperialism, the impact of globalization, etc. He's also got a pretty sharp sense of humor which I think really came out in Citizen Rex.

As an artist, Mario is obviously nowhere near his brothers, which he freely admits, and yet he does have some very impressive stories. I think his best work is his children's work. Like the stuff he did in Measles, for example, which is really fantastic. The story "The Legend of Celestra" from Measles #2 is one of my favorites.

Also, at the end of Brain Capers, there are two stories for children which I think are the standouts of the book. His linework in those pieces is really open and airy and it's a style that suits him well. Supposedly he's working on a couple of different graphic novels, so I'll be very eager to see what he's got planned next.

SPURGEON: This might not work with everyone's comics, but I wondered if you might talk a little bit about their characters. Is there a character or two that you find particularly affecting? For instance, I always liked Daffy Matsumoto, because I played a similar role in my group of friends: the slightly younger true believer.

SOBEL: Speedy Ortiz, without a doubt, really hits home for me. In the Fall of 2010, my brother-in-law committed suicide and it was such a long, drawn out, painful process (I blogged about it here) that it's still hard to read The Death of Speedy without thinking of that whole painful experience. It's weird, but they even kind of look similar to each other.

As far as personally connecting to the characters, I found the punk attitude of the main characters, especially Hopey and Luba, inspiring. There were a lot of times throughout the project where I started to doubt myself and then I thought, fuck it, I'm just gonna do this and try to enjoy it and screw anyone who doesn't like it. I didn't grow up with punk at all, so that attitude really helped me to finish.

SPURGEON: You've been super-careful to mention that the Hernandez Brothers are in the middle of their career, and I agree with you that we should see years and years of work from them yet. At the same time, it's hard not to see your work as something that speaks to their more general legacy. Do you think they'll have a specific place in comics history? Is there anything about how they'll be viewed 50 years from now, say, that might surprise us?

SOBEL: Well, if the brothers stopped making comics today, I think their legacy would have several components. First, they would be celebrated -- as they already are -- for being among the first creators to have to have broken down the barrier that comics could only be about traditional genres: super-heroes, horror, fantasy, etc. They also were the first artists to seriously explore diversity and multi-cultural issues in a meaningful and intelligent way in comics. They also proved that comics are a medium with limitless potential, and they inspired a generation of creators to make comics the way they wanted to, rather than the way some corporation or audience expects. On top of all that, they created some of alternative comics' most enduring stories and characters.

But, of course, they're not close to the end of their careers and if I could try to speculate into the future another 20 years -- a very risky proposition -- I think Jaime's work will be regarded as one of the very best sustained narratives ever produced. The real-time aging of his cast of characters will be studied and enjoyed forever.

Of course, Jaime has a major challenge ahead of him as well, and that is answering the question of when and how his characters will die -- or if they will at all. I can't imagine how Jaime will address this, as I'm sure the thought of killing off Maggie or Hopey, characters he's worked on for three decades must be incredibly difficult. It will be fascinating to read.

Gilbert's future is harder to predict, partly because he is always going in so many different directions. I think the legacy of his early Palomar work is cemented, even if he goes back to tinker with it from time to time, but I hope that in the future, people will also recognize his more recent comics -- especially books like New Love, Julio's Day, Chance in Hell, and Hypnotwist, to name some of my personal favorites -- for the masterpieces that they are, and avoid comparing everything to Palomar. I also have no doubt that Gilbert will produce many more brilliant stories. So, at this point, if I had to guess, I'd say that Gilbert's legacy will be as one of the most versatile and visionary artists ever to work in the medium.


* Marc Sobel
* The Love And Rockets Reader
* The Love And Rockets Companion


* black and white art from Love & Rockets Vol. 1 #50
* photo of Sobel provided by Sobel
* from the Sri Lanka work mentioned
* from the Ti-Girls saga
* from the Los Bros 30 panel at Comic-Con
* from the Frida Kahlo story
* panel from Death Of Speedy
* I believe that's from the story Sobel mentions there; only about 98 percent sure, though
* cover from early in the run of volume one
* storytelling in a traditional way
* later Gilbert work
* comics from Mario
* Gilbert and Jaime signing at SPX (below)



posted 4:00 am PST | Permalink

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