Love, rockets, cucarachas

Latino stories and satire flourish under the pen of Los Bros. Hernandez and Lalo Alcaraz

Long before graphic novels were popularized - reviewed in the literary pages, bestowed with accolades once reserved solely for the printed word, and turned into films ranging from the sublime to the subpar- Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez started publishing their stories of punk rock Chicanas and Central American villagers, respectively, in the pages of the unparalleled Love & Rockets series. More than two decades later, Los Bros. (as they are affectionately dubbed) are still at it, chronicling the lives and loves of their impressive, sprawling cast of characters in what has to be one of the most complex, layered, and detailed portrayals of Mexican-American and Latino communities ever committed to print - let alone sequential art.

Jaime's stories follow the trials and tribulations of Maggie Chascarillo, Hopey, and their friends and family from Hoppers, a Southern California barrio stand-in for the brothers' hometown of Oxnard. Through the course of the series Maggie matures, gradually, as one does in real life; unlike anyone in the Spandex-bound Marvel or DC universe, Los Bros.' characters gain weight and grow older, and the only ones wearing masks are the Mexican wrestlers.

Gilbert's stories, initially set in the fictional Central American town of Palomar, now follow the exploits of Luba y su familia in las entrañas del monstruo, their lives and loves in the city of the angels. During the past year, indy press Fantagraphics Books has collected both brothers' series in two massive, hard-to-find tomes. Already, Gilbert's Palomar sold out of its first printing, while Jaime's Locas appears poised to do the same. Fortunately, for those of us unable to wrap our hands around either, there's a bevy of back issue reprints and collections (a personal favorites is "The Death of Speedy") as well as new issues which appear on a semi-regular basis.

Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories
By Gilbert Hernandez
Fantagraphics Books
$39.95, 512 pages
ISBN: 1560975393

Locas: A Love & Rockets Book
By Jaime Hernandez
Fantagraphics Books
$49.95, 780 pages
ISBN: 156097611X

La Cucaracha
By Lalo Alcaraz
Andrews McMeel Publishing
$10.95, 128 pages
ISBN: 0740746596

Migra Mouse: Political Cartoons on Immigration
By Lalo Alcaraz
RDV Books/Akashic Books
$14.95, 125 pages
ISBN: 0971920621
Like Los Bros. Hernandez, cartoonist/comedian Lalo Alcaraz hails from the sunny state of Califas, which, despite its liberal reputation, has been home to some of the most vehement and reactionary anti-immigrant attitudes of the past decade. Immigration, and Alcaraz' illustrated responses to the backlash against it, forms the organizational theme of his Migra Mouse: Political Cartoons on Immigration, a collection of his L.A. Cucaracha editorial cartoons. (Long-time readers may recognize some of them from when the Current carried his strip on a semi-regular basis.) Through sharply aimed barbs and lighthearted jokes on a serious topic, he turns the tables on the attitude of many whites - and quite a few Hispanics - who supported measures like Proposition 187, which would have banned undocumented immigrants from receiving any public services, including schooling, as well as the post 9/11 climate that has made immigrant synonymous with terrorist.

For better or worse, it's a quick read from cover to cover, as many of the pages feature just one of his single-panel cartoons. Furthermore, his comments under a number of the selections add little, and, although the issues he addresses remain relevant, a number of the pieces seem dated. I wish there was a more substantial collection - reprinting a year or two of his quarter-page cartoons, perhaps, in a reformatted book - with more consistent commentary, whether panel-by-panel or as preface to the different themes he addresses. Still, as an example of subversive, rasquache Raza humor the book is certainly worth checking out.

That said, I found La Cucaracha, a collection of his daily strips (not to be confused with the weekly editorial cartoon), to be a far more rewarding, albeit uneven, production. Over the course of the strip's infancy, Alcaraz introduces us to his 20-and 30-something protagonists: Eddie, a mild-mannered Mexican American, Cuco Rocha, his Chicano-powered cockroach counterpart (in the grand tradition of Latino letters where the much-maligned critters serve as metaphorical stand-ins for our people), and a cast of characters including Eddie's seemingly oblivious 'mano Neto, his schoolteacher girlfriend Vero, an ex-luchador turned bartender, the neighborhood taco stand vendor, and all sorts of gente that you meet when you're walking down the barrio streets.

No, this is not a gritty, hard-hitting urban drama, but neither is it as family-oriented as Baldo (the other Latino strip currently in syndication). Alcaraz' characters lack the edgy wit of Aaron McGruder's Boondocks - but the potential is there, and Alcaraz is clearly headed in the right direction. At its best, the strip's poignant punchlines - as when bartender Titan puts his dreams of retiring in Mexico on hold because, "Mexico came to me," or when Vero questions how she's supposed to teach her students to think for themselves if she's not allowed to express her opposition to the war - hit their mark on so many levels. Too bad it's not carried locally.

By Alejandro Pérez


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