(Throughout 2011, every month CCLaP staff writer Oriana Leckert is looking at a different graphic novel from a "girl's" point of view, examining this notoriously male-dominated medium from a female perspective, and sometimes aided by her fellow members of a Brooklyn book club, Jugs & Capes, devoted to the same subject. For all of Oriana's J&C essays, please see her main article index here at the site.)
Maggie the Mechanic
By Jaime Hernandez
Reviewed by Oriana Leckert
I'm listening to the band Love & Rockets while I write this review. It seemed only right.
As with so many of the Jugs & Capes books I've been reading and reviewing this year, I knew before I even cracked this one that people have strong opinions about it. And all my research leads me to the same thing: these are early, early stories by a writer at the wide-eyed innocent beginning of his illustrious career. He's still finding his footing, he's flailing about a bit; many of the elements of these early stories fell by the wayside as he honed his talents and settled into his stride. Which is all a bit of a relief. I mean, I really enjoyed these stories, but they're for sure a little rough around the edges.
For those who don't know (are there any left other than me?), Love and Rockets is the name for the extremely prolific work (spanning three decade) of two brothers, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez. Each has their own subject matter and style, and now that they're basically canonized, Fantagraphics has re-released their work in digestible collections, along with a handy "How to read Love & Rockets" guide on their website, to help out the novices. We had to do a blind vote in Jugs & Capes because we couldn't decide whether to go with Jaime's Maggie the Mechanic or Gilbert's Heartbreak Soup, and Maggie won.
Jaime's stories center around a group of Latina teenagers in the Southern California suburbs. They're punk rockers and goths, sexpots and graffiti artists, rebels and drunks. Titular Maggie really is a mechanic--a pro-solar mechanic, to be exact, meaning she fixes rockets and robots rather than cars. She's also endearingly klutzy, kind of a ditz, and very emotional. Her best friend and maybe possibly sometimes lover is Hopey, a reasonably clichéd angry punk who plays in bands and is in love with Maggie. Then there's a slew of others, including Penny Century, a voluptuous stunner who's having an affair with (maybe?) the devil; Izzy, a loopy stoned goth; Rand Race, famous playboy and genius pro-solar mechanic and also Maggie's boss (and love object); Rena Titañon, a retired and presumed dead (but not, obvs) champion luchador; and on and on.
While I did like these stories, I could tell they were a bit all over the place, and it took me a little while to get into them. The first couple, about Maggie's exploits learning to be a pro-solar mechanic in the remote jungle of Zimbodia, are related through her letters home to Hopey and the other girls, and they're incredibly dense with text and backstory and explanation. This is definitely necessary, but it's also a little overwhelming, and I was worried about having the stamina to real 300 pages of it. But the stories, of course, suck you in, because they're absurd and funny and warm, and even though they're the kind of stories where it's not a question of whether the good guys will win, only when they will, they're well told and well plotted, and I was sad when they ended. Apparently they're meant to be the sci-fi version of magical realism, which is neat, but the dinosaurs and aliens and rocket ships were far less interesting than seeing the girls get drunk and run around, or even just try to decide what to wear. I guess Jaime came to the same conclusion, because it seems he started phasing out the sci-fi stuff shortly after the issues in this volume.
And so here's the part where I try to do a bit of a feminist reading. First let me say that Jaime passes the Bechtel test on pretty much every page. This is an incredibly female-centric cast, and he does a good job of covering different personalities and body types. I fell a little into the same trap I did with Watchmen, where I was going to bitch that Maggie is such a love-struck flake and therefore presents a reductionist view of women--but I'd be wrong. She's just one of many very varied characters, and although I find her mildly irritating at times, she's definitely true to the character she was created to be. One thing that bothered me a little was what I considered to be gratuitous nudity and practically-nudity. Not that I mind some cartoon boobs--and every single graphic novel we've read in J&C has had at least one page we were all a little embarrassed to have opened to on the subway--but Maggie is nearly naked nearly all the time. She and Hopey share a bed, and though they're not lovers (in this book, at least), they sleep naked. Maggie even works in little more than her underwear--and she's a mechanic, remember? With hot oil and sharp edges and dangerous machinery everywhere? I don't think she'd last a day under the hood of a car--let alone in the guts of a rocket ship--without any pants on. Maybe I'm harping on this too much, but it does seem to me to be a very male view, literally and figuratively, to show two sexy young things who, as soon as the door closes and they're left alone together, start stripping and giggling. It just creeped me out a little.
Not that it ruined the reading experience or anything; it was a minor snag in an overall awesome, fun read. I sort of never felt totally awed by the book, which I'd hoped to, given its cult-classic status, but I enjoyed it the whole way through, and I'm definitely eager to read more Hernandez Bros.