When Los Bros. Hernandez suddenly appeared on the comics scene in 1982, they changed everything. Eventually.
Only indie-comics connoisseurs may have noticed it at the time, but the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets announced a new generation of artists in what was then referred to as underground comix. Robert Crumb and his many associates had defined this niche for two decades, from Zap Comix to Weirdo, infused with an aesthetic that combined drug-fueled doodles and soul-baring biography. While Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s RAW Magazine took comics for a sharp turn into New Wave art and European-style “graphix” in 1980 (culminating with Spiegelman’s Maus), it didn’t make much of a dent among traditional buyers of comic books: boy-men with disposable incomes.
Love and Rockets, however, had it all. Jaime Hernandez’s sci-fi Latino punk-rock girls mingled with Gilbert Hernandez’s complicated Central American villagers to create a truly unique piece of comic fiction that appealed to all sorts of readers. It’s difficult to overstate just how important Love and Rockets was in creating the decidedly above-ground independent comics scene that we know today. After it was picked up by Fantagraphics (thereby giving the company the means to expand its own offerings), the oversized black-and-white comic book inspired dozens of artists and publishers to step into what felt like an entirely new culture. Although the brothers may have used some larger-than-life storytelling devices (superheroes, magic realism), they created characters that were instantly recognizable and down to earth, illustrating them in disparate styles that complemented each other perfectly. Self-taught artists, the Hernandez brothers’ talents were nevertheless fully formed right from the start, drawing and inking effortless lines that were full of life.
Gilbert Hernandez’s new series for Dark Horse Comics, Fatima: The Blood Spinners, is pretty much full of death, however. That much is obvious from the opening panels, which consist of two pages of zombies getting their heads blown through by bullets from the futuristic guns of the title character. She’s revealed on page three, standing over their twisted bodies, a blood-splattered wall in the background: a tall Amazon with skin-tight clothes and a bouncy ponytail. “Bring on all you’ve got,” Fatima tells us. “I’m not killing them; they’re already dead. I’m putting them at final peace.”
This is a long way from the dusty streets of Palomar, Gilbert’s mythical village of quirky people with sad stories, collected as Heartbreak Soup. Why are we here?
With only a few issues out so far, it’s difficult to say. Gilbert’s no stranger to tackling money-making projects (Birdland, for Fantagraphics’ adult EROS imprint) or B-movie tributes (The Troublemakers), but if Fatima is intended as a shameless glomming onto a pop-culture trend already on its way out, then it’s an odd one. So far, it’s not exactly a fun romp. Gilbert is clearly investing a lot of effort into creating a serious zombie tale while employing his trademark black-and-white style, setting Fatima apart from the hordes of other zombie comic books already consuming brains. But for someone who’s a fan of his much more nuanced, relatable, and moving tales from Palomar, it raises a few questions: Why is he bothering to draw zombies now? Doesn’t he have his own, fresher ideas?
Perhaps, but they don’t appear in the first two issues of Fatima, which use many familiar zombie tropes: The zombifying element is a designer drug called “Spin” that sparks euphoric productivity before devolving its victims into hollow-eyed flesh-eaters. It gets out into the public and quickly spreads. Society collapses. The only known cure is a bullet to the head. Our beautiful heroine gracefully shoots first (repeatedly) and asks questions later. She learns that her secret government team, Operations, may have had something to do with the end of the world. She’s bitter about it.
Where do we go from here?
Maybe Gilbert has some surprises for us, ones that have yet to be introduced into zombie mythology—some twist that hasn’t already been undone before in all of the other recent zombie comics, movies, TV shows, and video games. After all, Time named him and Jaime as part of their “Top 100 Next Wave Storytellers” in 2009. But I’d feel more confident in Fatima’s upcoming entries if Gilbert’s drawings weren’t so, well, lifeless. In his previous work, with but a few squiggly marks, he was able to create characters that you simply knew existed in real life, somewhere. Although his style may be described as less polished in comparison to Jaime’s sleek, bold lines, it has a natural warmth that comes through in the decidedly more life-like body shapes and imperfect faces. In Fatima, Gilbert’s “heroes” are mostly robotic in their perfect bodies and lifeless eyes. It’s the zombies that look more human. Right before their heads explode in a spray of black ink.
Perhaps this artistic reversal bodes well for new installments—maybe Gilbert is visually preparing the reader for his story twist. I hope so. Zombies may yet still have some life in them. But based on its first few issues, Fatima has not quite found the antidote to their malaise.