When I was seventeen years old, I got hired at what’s still the best job I’ve ever had. The official policy of Comics & Comix was that employees had to be eighteen, due to the “adult” comic section in one corner of the store. Apparently, the manager saw some combination of enthusiasm and/or maturity on my part that overrode any misgivings she had. I showed up to work each day at a wonderland of comic books, magazines, toys, and t-shirts. The walls were lined with posters and back issues from bygone years, and the stereo (in those pre-Spotify days) was tuned always to classic rock.
What a time it was… Batman was all the rage thanks to the Tim Burton movie and the Arkham Asylum graphic novel. Venom had arrived at Marvel and the “British Invasion” at DC. Black-and-white indie comics filled the shelves. (They didn’t all sell, but they filled the shelves.) A regular group of goth kids came in every month for Sandman. I met Jack Kirby and Grant Morrison at signings. Harlan Ellison shook my hand and told me I had good taste in comics.
In the midst of it all, I was about to discover a new love right under my nose… in more ways than one.
Jaime, Gilbert, and Mario Hernandez’s Love and Rockets had been published by Fantagraphics since 1982, so I was already years behind the rest of the readership. I’d seen the magazine-sized issues on our store shelves but really knew nothing about the series other than it was maybe, sort of science fiction? Then, I found a little one-off book on our discount rack one day – this cover is still the first image I associate with the title — and decided on a whim to read it at the counter on a slow afternoon.
Which brings me to 100 Rooms — the moment the lightning struck.
The story synopsis is fairly simple: Friends Margarita “Maggie” Chascarrillo, Esperanza “Hopey” Glass, Isabel “Izzy” Ruebens, and Penny Century (a.k.a. Beatriz Garcia) have a staycation in the empty mansion of traveling billionaire H.R. Costigan. While wandering the halls looking for a bathroom one night, Maggie stumbles upon a stowaway named Casey, living secretly in one of the other empty bedrooms. He first holds her prisoner in his room before they begin a torrid affair. Costigan eventually returns, further complications ensue, and the climax comes when Casey asks Maggie to run off with him. She instead chooses to stay behind with her best friend — or are they more than that? — Hopey. The end.
As far as the plot goes, not a lot “happens,” but it felt unlike any other comic I’d read; there were no villains, no fisticuffs, no powers. The characters just hung out and talked. If not for the horns on Costigan’s head, I would’ve assumed this to be set in the real world. I got the Love part, sure, but not the Rockets.
From there, I was hooked. I grabbed the collected editions: Music for Mechanics, Chelo’s Burden, and House of Raging Women. I grabbed whatever back issues I could find. While I appreciated Gilbert’s Heartbreak Soup stories, my heart belonged to Jaime’s “Locas” and the Southern California town of Hoppers. It felt as real of a place as my hometown of Albuquerque, NM. As kids, my friends and I could leave the familiar setting of our sun-baked, middle class cul-de-sacs and, in the span of a single alleyway, arrive in a neighborhood seemingly from a different story altogether, with cars up on cinderblocks, music blaring from behind screen doors, and seemingly every man in a white tank top. The pages of “Locas” took me back there while also introducing me to new cities, new neighborhoods, new citizens: Ray Dominguez, Speedy Ortiz, hunky mechanic Rand Race, women’s wrestling champion Vicki Glory, (Tear It Up) Terry Downe, and so many more.
I was reading out of order, going from “floppies” to collections and back again, trying to build a mosaic from years of scattered pieces. Characters and plot threads bumped up against each other like spinning meteorites, then went careening off in other directions. People grew and regressed and grew again. Relationships ended before they began, as did pregnancies. WRestling titles were won and lost, and conflicts simmered or exploded or just petered away. Penny married Costigan. Hopey went on tour with her band(s). A rocket with Maggie and Rand aboard crashed in a mysterious jungle. Isabel had a hallucinatory adventure in Mexico. Penny became a superhero. Maggie worked various jobs as a robot mechanic, strip club waitress, and accountant for her wrestling champion aunt. Joy, anger, laughter, and heartache infused every tale.
Speaking of heartache, let me pause the narrative here to introduce my high school senior crush; we’ll call her Savannah. It’s funny how, even though she burned like a supernova at the center of my existence for a time, I can’t remember the exact school circumstances under which we met. She with her piercings and infectious smile, leather jacket, and outward vibe that belied a kind, open heart – a musician, writer, and curious about the world. It’s like I’m describing a “Locas” character; in my defense, I fell for her like a guy down an open manhole before ever picking up that first book.
Now, back to the story… I passed 100 Rooms to Savannah, because she was the kind of girl you’d pass a comic to. This scene I do remember: standing between buildings during a passing period as she flipped through the pages. “Is it about wrestling?” she asked when she saw the opening. Oh boy, what was the correct answer? “No,” I said. “Well, sort of.” Then, as she flipped through, “I really like this artwork.”
She ended up loving it. I kept passing her more of the volumes as I devoured them. We had an unofficial book club – membership: two. I knew the series had a wide, devoted following, but as far I was concerned, Jaime was making those stories just for us.
When a fellow store employee told me that a band had named themselves after the comic, I went to Tower Records (Remember them?) and found a Love and Rockets cassette. (Remember them?)
That cassette came with me to Savannah’s house on the rainy afternoon she invited me over, sans parents. I self-consciously wanted to make this a moment; if I couldn’t live inside the comic, I could try and create a world around me that reflected it. (Oscar Wilde would’ve understood.) Ah, but reality has a pesky habit of plowing over the best laid plans. Instead of how I thought the day would play out, Savannah sat on her bed and blew her nose into a growing pile of tissues, warning me not to sit too close because of her newborn cold. The music played under the scene the whole time; I barely absorbed it beyond the level of ambient noise. It was supposed to be the soundtrack for when we made the leap from close, flirty friends to something more.
My one-act play project for class was titled Love & Thorns, about a romantic triangle on an intergalactic space cruiser. (The title referred to the onboard rose garden.) I couldn’t resist making one of the characters a sexy tomboy mechanic — what else, who else could an obsessed teenager have written about? “Locas” was my comic book north star, filled with the stories I wished I could tell, the stories I couldn’t have told.
Spring surrendered to summer, the end of high school arrived at last, and Savannah moved away shortly after. Summer behind the counter of the store was one of golden days seasoned by melancholy. At least Maggie and Hopey were still there for me. I finally left my job when college got too demanding. After that, I was off in pursuit of a Hollywood career, and comics fell by the wayside altogether.
That time of my life now feels like an extended music video or a Jaime Hernandez story. Or both. The “Locas” books have become a memory hole, the gravity pulling me in, sometimes bringing a moment of uncertainty to determine which events are from my life and which from the lives of my friends in black and white.
Boys riding a hotel elevator up and down floors, accompanied by a large, stolen potted tree… A man found asleep in his car at the roadside who turned out not to be asleep after all… What was that eighteen and under club we used to go to? Electric Banana? Maddog’s? The Vortex?
A frustrated, infatuated boy waits while a girl struggles with whether she’s gay or not… A fake gangster with a bandanna and switchblade delivers the message to a certain inconvenient boy that it’s “time to find a new school”… A girl gets arrested on her eighteenth birthday for peeing on someone’s lawn…
Did I used to listen to a band called Missiles of October? Ape Sex? The Damachers?… A part-time job at Sal’s Garage… Two boys outside an arena with homemade wrestling signs and grins as wide as the horizon…
Wandering the aisles of a nighttime toy store, the perfect person by your side and nowhere else you’d rather be…
“Los Bros Hernandez” kept their series going on and off over the intervening years. If seeing those old stories now is like looking back through a yearbook, the new ones are like attending a class reunion: The Love Bunglers, The Education of Hopey Glass, God and Science. My long-ago friends kept aging while I was away; we were all real adults now, inhabiting adult bodies, living adult lives. Some got heavier, some better looking; some got their shit together, others didn’t. Maggie, you sold off your comic collection too, huh? Poor, old Costigan passed away? Wait, Hopey really became a teacher??
It wasn’t only the maturation of the characters, but the artist, as well. Jaime’s raw, scratchy, punk rock energy from the early stories had mellowed into lush, smooth linework that got me all over again.
Nostalgia is a powerful drug — just ask any adult at a comics convention. I’ve accumulated many favorite memories over my history with this medium, but my time with “Locas” will always be something more. All those laughs and hurts that got us from there to here. Who we were back then, who we are now, who we’re still to become. As long as Jaime wants to keep telling stories, I want to be part of them… and for them to be a part of me.