One of the things that separates the Great Cartoonists, capital jee capital see, from the rest of the great cartoonists milling around the comics industry, is the quality of their ephemera. Comics has enough one-off masterpieces of various lengths to keep you busy for a decade, but finding markably lesser work created by those masterpieces' authors that still has something of substance to offer can get pretty difficult. I'm talking about comics like McCay's Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, Tezuka's Astro Boy, Ware's Quimby the Mouse... work that forms the lower echelons of a master's canon but remains essential for what it tells us about its artist. To cut to the chase, I'm talking about comics like Jaime Hernandez's 1983 short "Hopey", which succeeds as a piece of comics on its own merits but is far more interesting taken with the benefit of hindsight, as a pivotal step in Jaime's multi-decade career.
More than any other comic Jaime ever drew, "Hopey" feels youthful. As far as the story goes, that's got its ups and downs: it gains plenty from the palpable energy imbued in all Jaime's "Locas" stories, but it's dogged by the cloying cuteness the artist couldn't quite drop until 1987 or thereabouts (which, not coincidentally, is when he started producing real masterworks as well as fascinating curios). Where the feel of exuberance and freedom really benefits the comic is in the art, which for the first time ditches the Noel Sickles/Steve Ditko illustrative bent of Jaime's earliest work for the length of an entire story, stripping away excess linework to center itself around the graphic boldness of black shapes set in white space. (Footnote here, cause I can't resist: why does nobody ever talk about the numerous intersections between Jaime's work during this period, when Love & Rockets was the alternative comic, and that of Paul Smith, who was drawing the superhero comic, X-Men, right at the same time?)
There's a massive sense of excitement at play in this comic, the unhinged glee of a kid with a new toy. Jaime's early sci-fi stories follow in the mold of Roy Crane and Bernard Krigstein, forever searching for a way to put a single line in place of many, to imply texture or drapery with a few stray marks. As his skill set grew, though, more and more Alex Toth leaked into his pages, which began leaving orchestrated areas of linework behind in favor of single, contorting inked areas that impled more and more of a panel's contents. "Hopey" sustains this approach for a full eight pages, using hatched linework almost exclusively as a gray tone and relying on sparse, solid blacks and whites to put over pictorial information. It's an approach that Jaime has been refining ever since -- by this point he's got it down to such a virtuosic system that it's tough to argue the contention that he's the greatest B&W cartoonist of all time, even if you don't agree with it. Here, though, it's a novelty, and watching Jaime piece together a beginning, middle, and end without deviating from it is like watching a talented amateur walk a tightrope. The moments or trepidation and hitches in balance are what make it so exciting.
The most immediate advantage of Jaime's chiaroscuro approach is its potential for high drama, which is taken direct, frequent advantage of in "Hopey": this comic is lit like a Fritz Lang movie, full of sprawling shadow blots and razors of white light cutting through black. It's a far cry from the unerringly honest Southern California lux perpetua of Jaime's current work, and it overdramatizes the slice-of-life content regularly, but the dizzying smack of a comic in which a car passing by a few kids walking down the street lights up the panels like an atomic explosion is undeniable. Just about every drawing in this story is a new chance taken, an idea about minimalism and how best to show something with as little as possible. It doesn't always work (as in the panel above), but there's a palpable joy of drawing at play here. You can almost picture Jaime (then all of 24 years old) at the drawing table, excitedly figuring out the drastic effect that the next miniscule change in light source is going to have on the way he draws his characters and their surroundings. Or at least I can, cause I feel the same thing all the time. Tonal appropriateness comes in a distant second to the experiment of the thing in "Hopey", which sees an artist weighing the tools that would eventually lead him to stylistic mastery for the first time.
It does all come together and work in a few places, though, and when it does it's pretty spectacular. Seeing the young Jaime's enthusiasm for dynamic shots and impactful sequencing (he hadn't shaken off all the influence of genre action comics yet, not by a long shot) combined with the older Jaime's poised sense of reserve and economy is pretty breathtaking. The steady balance in how the bright-to-black fade above is orchestrated, or the rhyming areas of horizontal white blotching on the car and vapor trails below -- these are the building blocks of something much greater, an artist spinning out the most assured work of his career to date, discovering it on the page, unfiltered and not yet put in any kind of practical working order.
"Hopey" veers back and forth between masterful and mediocre time after time in eight pages, which probably would have made for a frustrating read at the time. But reading it almost thirty years after the fact, with one of the greatest bodies of work in comics history rolled out in its wake, makes that exact inconsistency the joy of the thing. The gusto put into panels that miss the mark as often as they connect is part of the fun. Musical analogies are always apt when you're discussing Jaime's vintage work, and this story reads like a demo tape or early album by an iconic band listens: perhaps not so satisfying on its own, but the moments when everything locks into place and calls back to high points yet to come are a thrill all their own. "Hopey" is the place where Jaime first really gave a workout to the tools he'd later use to do this
and just recently used to do this
and seeing that is something you can't get anywhere else.