Review: Fatima: The Blood Spinners and The Love Bunglers

by Derek Royal

Fatima: The Blood Spinners, by Gilbert Hernandez (Dark Horse Books)
The Love Bunglers, by Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books)

What a prolific time it is for the Hernandez brother. In addition to their annual Love & Rockets: New Stories volumes, which have come out consistently since the title’s inauguration in 2008, both Jaime and Gilbert have demonstrated impressive individual output. The younger Hernandez released God and Science: Return of the Ti-Girls in summer 2012 (and reviewed on the August 22nd podcast) and then illustrated the deluxe edition of Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her in October of last year. With Gilbert, the books have been flowing like water. Since July 2012, he has published no less than five works outside of the New Stories annual. Some, such as The Adventures of Venus and Julio’s Day, are repackagings of previously published material. Other books from Beto, most notably Marble Season and Maria M.: Book Fatima1One (the latter reviewed on the December 11th show), are entirely new narratives that either stand outside of or supplement his Palomar stories. And a look at the publishing horizon looks equally impressive for Gilbert, with three brand new books — Grip: The Strange World of Men (collecting the 2002 Vertigo miniseries), Bumperhead (a companion to last year’s Marble Season), and Loverboys — due for release later this year. The output of the brothers is truly amazing.

And now come two more new books from the Hernandezes, both of which pull together stories that were previously published in serialized form. Fatima: The Blood Spinners (Dark Horse Books) collects all four issues of the Dark Horse miniseries that originally appeared between June and September 2012. The 80 pages of story that we get in this new hardbound edition is exactly what appeared in the original comics, with no additional or re-edited (that I could tell) material. So if you’re someone who already owns the original miniseries and is only interested in the story, not the package, then this book may not be for you. Unlike Beto’s earlier books that also pulled together previously published material, such as Julio’s Day and The Adventures of Venus, there is no additional story or art that enhances and gives more depth to the original narrative. What you get in the miniseries is what you get with the book. There are, however, four pages of sketchbook art that gives us a glimpse into Gilbert’s process, including a fallback truncated “ending” that might have been used if reader interest in the first issue or two hadn’t been enough for Dark Horse to justify continued publication. (In the original miniseries, there was one page of sketchbook art, included at the tail end of the final issue, but that page isn’t included in this new hardbound edition.)

Fatima2If you’re not already familiar with Fatima: The Blood Spinners, then you can get a good sense of the story from the blurb (from The Comics Journal) that appears on the front cover of the book: “If you like comics about people getting shot in the head, it’s literally impossible to find a better one.” That more or less sums up Fatima, for better or worse. This is a post-apocalyptic tale where a highly addictive drug, called spin, causes users to turn into zombies. Those addicted also become carriers of the disease, which can become highly contagious (how this happens from a drug-based infection is never explained, nor, I’d guess, does it really need to be). There are a very few who are immune to the zombie infection, as it’s called, while most who are near it for long periods of time — usually nefarious individuals who stand to profit from the drug or its fabled cure — develop an unexplainable desire to be eaten by the zombies. Into this scenario comes Fatima, a young female agent who works for Operations, what appears to be a government facility charged with controlling, containing, and even finding a cure to spin…as well as eliminating those goners infected with the disease. The story is told from her perspective, and she begins narrating events about a year after she begins in Operations. There are spin cartels that are infiltrated, double-crossing agents who are uncovered and eliminated, and of course, hordes of zombies that are blown away.

As the cover blurb suggests, there’s plenty of gratuitous violence in this book. In fact, the first two pages of story are nothing more than a series of zombie headshots, seven full panels of them, so you know from the very beginning what you have in store. In the first Fatima3half of the book, spin has made the world an unlivable place, so Fatima and several of her fellow agents go into deep hibernation in hopes of waking up to a future cure. But then in the second half of Fatima — basically the last two issues of the original miniseries — things get really weird: people who look like zombies but who aren’t zombies, slug-like mutations that mate with and impregnate human women, bird-looking creatures with mohawks and snake-like feet (the offspring of the slug-human couplings) who strangely impregnate men, brains that are easily kicked out of heads, cryogenic chambers that explode sleepers like microwaves, and plot twists that involve massive operational coverups. Anyone familiar with  the more experimental and fantastical side of Gilbert Hernandez — basically, his non-Palomar and non-Luba family comics — shouldn’t be surprised at the visual and narrative extremes found in Fatima. When I first read the original four-issue miniseries, I didn’t know what to make of it. I wondered if after almost two years, and in one collected volume, the story would resonate more with me. I’m not entirely sure if it does, and perhaps that’s one of the beauties of Fatima: The Blood Spinners: it’s not a story to make sense of or feel good about, but a narrative roller coaster to be experienced in its extremities. Just make sure you don’t eat much before you get on the ride.

Whereas Gilbert’s new book is visceral and raw in its execution, Jaime’s The Love Bunglers (Fantagraphics) — in a beautiful, album-sized edition — is a deliberatively crafted narrative that evokes a completely different range of emotions. Indeed, this has to be one of Jaime’s most moving and memorable stories of his career. It’s right up there with Wigwam Bam, The Death of Speedy, and Ghost of Hoppers. For those invested in the Locas world, LoveBunglersand familiar with the always complicated interactions between Maggie Chascarrillo and Ray Dominguez, this is a poignant and satisfying (and tentative?) wrap up of their relationship. If Jaime’s comics are primarily defined by their representations of personal growth, emotional conundrums, and entangling relationships, then The Love Bunglers is certainly an artistic crescendo.

The book collects seven different, and interconnected, stories that were originally published in Love & Rockets: New Stories # 3 and Love & Rockets: New Stories # 4. The core of the narrative is made up of the five “Love Bunglers” installments that take place in the present day. Maggie is still the superintendent of her apartment complex in Los Angeles — and still uncomfortable with who she’s become — and Ray is still a casually employed artist who is unable to bury completely his feelings for Maggie. Other figures from the Locas world are here playing key roles, as well (most originating in the second volume of Love & Rockets, 2001-2007), including Reno Banks, Angel Rivera, and the ever-memorable “Frogmouth,” Vivian Solis. But the pivotal actant in this story is Maggie’s younger LoveBunglers4brother, Calvin. This is where the two other stories from the Love & Rockets annual, “Browntown” and “Return for Me,” become crucial. These are flashback narratives that fill us in on the Chascarrillo family past, when Maggie and Calvin were just kids. They move from Huerta, known to everyone as “Hoppers,” to another community, and then back again, due to unexpected family drama. During this time we see Maggie grow into a teenager, but equally important, we witness Calvin undergoing traumatic experiences that will apparently mark him for life…and become an underlying context for the climax of The Love Bunglers.

What drives Jaime’s narrative more than anything is his art and panel arrangements. This is most notable in the last half of the book, where time is more fragmented, flashbacks are more prominent, narration is handled more distantly, and the story is carried heavily through scene-to-scene sequencing. The latter is used most effectively toward the end of the story, both to establish a shared sensibility between the star-crossed Maggie and Ray and to compress time dramatically. The result is a temporal bird’s-eye view that allows us to grasp the larger story between the two main protagonists — and, by association, the larger Locas universe — in a way that brings us emotionally closer to them and their frustrating dilemma. I dare anyone to read the last page of the book, particularly its final panels, and not honestly admit to being profoundly moved.

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The conclusion of The Love Bunglers appears to provide closure to the Maggie and Ray saga, but I wouldn’t necessarily bet on that proposition. There was a short three-page story about Ray struggling with his memories in Love & Rockets: New Stories #5 that takes place after, or perhaps right before the concluding scenes of, Love Bunglers, and Love & Rockets: New Stories #7 (due out in September) will include stories about both Maggie (along with Hopey on a road trip) and Ray. We’ll have to wait and see if these comics take place before or after The Love Bunglers. However, there’s no denying that the relationship between Ray and Maggie is still fertile territory for Jaime to explore, and I hope that he continues to do so along with what has been his most recent narrative concerns, the ongoing adventures of Angel Rivera and the dysfunctional Solis family.

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Use this summer to catch up on your Hernandez brothers reading:

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The Comics Alternative is a podcast and blog focused on the world of alternative, independent, and primarily non-superhero comics.

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