Axel-In-Charge: Unmasking the "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Gilbert Hernandez’ trilogy of B-movie books is almost a new kind of comic book; Movies from the Love & Rockets world, these are fictions from a fictional world. Each of the three books (Chance in Hell, The Troublemakers and Love from the Shadows) are adaptations of non-existent b-movies that his character Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez acts in. With this very meta concept, the stories are free to be completely disconnected from anything happening in the “reality” of the Love & Rockets universe and as films, each one is perfectly encapsulated so that new readers can jump on to any book with no context.
Story wise these are strange, clearly owing much to the pulp fiction world with classic looking painted covers and titles straight out of the scandalous late ’50’s novels. In Love & Rockets we have already witnessed Gilbert Hernandez’ increasingly surreal, lyrical stories. Now in his movie adaptation comic books he develops this style with nods to all the best of b-movie inspired film directors.
These hardcover little black books hide a strange universe of films and in each successive book/film, Fritz has an increasingly large part, gradually climbing the ladder of her acting career. Each story involving more and more nudity and strange power plays. The disturbing pacing, the strange silences, the lack of coherence and hints of a much greater vision behind the whole, give these books the feeling of being made by some disturbing Russ Meyer / Ken Russel / David Lynch / John Waters hybrid. Think Ed Wood with a budget and a tiny bit more restraint.
At this point I could give you a synopsis of the books, but you can find those elsewhere if you want spoilers. Basically you’re either a fan of what Gilbert Hernandez does when he goes off-topic with his characters, or you aren’t. If you are, this is going to work for you.
Filled with the longing of unfulfilled desire and lost innocence, these stories are the kind of schlock film that is accidentally life-alteringly great and I suspect Hernandez might have missed his calling as a screenwriter in the early ’60’s… That’s the thing, this kind of movie doesn’t really happen any more which is why Hernandez’ use of the comic book medium to tell Fritz’ movie roles is particularly delightful. There ought to be some kind of innate sexism about Fritz as a character, but there never has been. Now that she is merely an actor in a story (rather than a woman who’s most intimate moment we voyeuristically witness), it feels even less so.
It is interesting how completely these read as movies, as distinctly fictional works within the world of an already fictional (yet far more real) world. Somehow Hernandez has managed to create a double layer but without any need for an overt mention of it being a double layer, they simply feel exactly like movies, not life. There is never any behind-the-scenes stuff, no commentary to indicate that these are movies and not life but they are, there is no mistaking it.
Hernandez’ skill with creating atmosphere and tension is utilized to a higher degree than ever. By allowing the sense of unease to slowly grow over the course of the books, there is the feeling that these films are increasingly affecting Fritz as an actress and a woman. I can’t help but think back now to all the Love & Rockets stories, times she got back from shooting a movie and talked a tiny bit about it.
Love & Rockets is already a strange beast in the comic book world. Personally, I’d always rather wait for quality than have a rushed product on the shelves monthly, so I was a big supporter of their decision to switch to a larger book, published annually. I love the way the Hernandez brothers have allowed the medium to adapt to suit their work, rather than the other way round, where deadlines motivate content (which can happen all too frequently.)
In a way, publishing these movies as a series of stand-alone novels makes them feel even more like videos or dvds that we’re buying, separate from the world that Love & Rockets exists in. They’re compact and collectable, delightfully handy. One book fits in a handbag, perfect for upsetting fellow passengers reading over shoulders on planes and buses (which is always amusing.) The physical differences of these books delineates them from any other Love & Rockets books as a different kind of fiction, movies not “real'” life. The different format is a different type of medium within that world and it makes them that much more satisfying to read.
As a tactile reader and lover of high quality, well printed books, the look and feel of these comic books is particularly nice. While I didn’t love the painted pulp-fiction style dust jackets, once I understood the concept, I couldn’t imagine them any other way. Besides, underneath those flashy, retro covers are very elegant black, cloth-bound books with a single foil printed color used only for the title and a band of diagonal lines down the spine. The paper used for the pages is so heavy that I kept fearing that I’d turned two pages at once (but of course, Hernandez being the detail-oriented professional he is, numbered each page.)
These are comic book adaptations of movies which never existed and so there is a strange realism to them, (unlike the usual feel of comic book adaptations of actual movies which are oddly literal.) They are comic books designed to exist for their own sake, not as some poor substitute for a movie, and they have an odd weight to them. It is unclear whether Fritz’ acting ambition inspired Gilbert Hernandez’ to write these books, or whether he gave her those ambitions as an excuse to write his own fantasy b-movies. Whatever the reason, the fact is that she’s an established, recurring character from Love & Rockets, and I’ve long been curious about her work outside of psychiatry. In reading these strange little comic books we now have a chance to “watch” those movies and it is an interesting experiment with all sorts of unexpected effects.
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