Thirty years of 'Love and Rockets' explode in Minneapolis

'Love and Rockets'
An image of perennial Love and Rockets characters Ray and Maggie.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

When many people think of comic-book heroes, they likely picture Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and a host of other ultra-muscled superheroes.

But some hard core fans of the comics prefer "Love and Rockets," which portrays real people and is considered by some to be the pinnacle of the art form.

Created by artist Jaime Hernandez, "Love and Rockets" has followed the lives of a rag-tag group of friends living outside Los Angeles. The series delivers true-to-life stories that go far beyond the caricatures of standard comic fare.

A new show at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design allows visitors to get a close-up view of the work of Hernandez, a Mexican-American who aims to capture the sensibilities of modern life -- and his culture.

Artist Jaime Hernandez, creator of the "Love and Rockets" comic book series, will speak at Minneapolis College of Art and Design exhibit of his work on Aug. 16. He also will be the special guest at Autoptic, a one-day comics festival held at Aria in downtown Minneapolis on Aug.18.

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"In 1981 when we started the comic there just really wasn't that much known about my culture in comics, in TV, in movies, even," recalled Hernandez, who will in Minneapolis on Aug. 16 to speak at the exhibit. "And if it was handled, it was handled poorly because people really didn't know it."

"Love and Rockets" grew out of the do-it-yourself ethos of the early punk rock scene. It centers on the life of a young woman named Maggie and her best friend, Hopey. But they are only part of a large ensemble of characters, notes cartoonist Zak Sally, who teaches comic book art at the college and is the show's curator.

There are no superheroes. Instead, Hernandez opts for actual human beings.

"Over the course 30 years he's explored their lives and how they work and how they intersect and just kind of what their lives are made of," Sally said.

Zak Sally and Kerry Morgan prepare the exhibit of Jaime Hernandez' work at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

There are occasional incidents of magical realism, but more in the vein of stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez than J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter.

The genre doesn't get any better than "Love and Rockets," said Sally, a big fan of comic books.

"It almost seems derogatory to call them a cast of characters," he said. "I mean, for anyone who has been reading "Love and Rockets" long enough, you have been checking in with these characters every four months... I've been checking in with these characters every four months since I was 16 years old."

In the Minneapolis College of Art and Design gallery, Sally and gallery manager Kerry Morgan set about measuring and arranging the show of Hernandez original artwork. They handle with reverence pages of crisp and pristine images hand-drawn in black ink.

Hernandez is so good he rarely has to paint over mistakes and make revisions. He also is a masterful storyteller.

Morgan said she wasn't much of a fan until she began working on the exhibit. But the work blew her away.

"It's a perfection of storytelling and a perfection of drawing... It's hard to find something that in the fine art world is this beautiful."

"It's a perfection of storytelling and a perfection of drawing," she said. "It's hard to find something that in the fine art world is this beautiful."

In addition to the work on the walls, the exhibit will include a small reading room where visitors can read entire editions of "Love and Rockets." Morgan warns that once visitors start reading the comics, they will find it hard to put them down.

"I was sick one day and couldn't come to work," she said. "And I completely forgot to pick up my daughter at school because I was so immersed in reading these stories about Maggie and Hopey."

In a comic, Sally said, the words and the pictures have to come together perfectly to tell the tale succinctly, understandably, and in the exact number of panels to fit the page.

"People try to relate comics to literature, film or whatever, and it relates to all those things," he said. [It's] actually its own language."

Sally considers Hernandez to be the greatest living comic book artist -- and maybe of all time.

"To people who know Jaime's work, they are kind of in awe of it," said Sally. "Nobody has ever done what he has done in comics as far as I am concerned -- and I know my stuff."

Hernandez jokes that he wanted to draw comics to avoid having to "get a real job."

He said the "Love and Rockets" characters were often based on people he knew, or maybe a hairstyle he saw in the street. Maggie began as a generic character he first drew as a teenager. But she slowly developed into a complex and charismatic individual.

Although he will talk passionately about the challenge of getting a comic right, he can be disarmingly dismissive about what he does.

The Minneapolis College of Art and Design exhibit of Jaime Hernandez work includes examples of how original artwork progresses to become cover art for editions of "Love and Rockets." This is from 1993.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"The first thing is, the words help the pictures and the pictures help the words," Hernandez said from his home in California.

Hernandez doesn't like doing one without the other. Even after 30 years, he said, it's still a struggle some days.

"I guess the easy part is I understand it more," he said. "The hard part is actually still putting it down, and putting it down right."

The opportunity to see a show of work by Hernandez is becoming increasingly rare. Art shows make him uncomfortable.

Initially, Hernandez found the experience difficult because he typically had to organize a show, frame the drawings, arrange the lighting and obtain the insurance. But recently he realized that he prefers to see his work in the form of a comic book. He does the drawings as a means to an end.

"Once they are in print, those pages are like gone, they are useless, and I put them away," he said. "It's like they are done, man. I guess I'd rather go and see someone else's art, you know?"

When asked if he will be doing "Love and Rockets" for another 30 years, Hernandez said he doesn't know. But that's only because he can't predict if he'll still have the hand or the eyes to keep doing what he does.

"Because I'm not done," he said. "These characters have a whole lot left to do."