Surface Dweller

[This one’s for Natasha, who’s cool enough to own the Hopey zippo lighter.]

I think this is the picture that sparked something:

This pin-up – entitled “Ray And Maggie Down At Leo’s” as you’ll note at the bottom – or, rather, its trace signature of grin, posture, shit-faced gaze, and the harsh pop of black against white, is what would come to mind whenever Jaime Hernandez or, more likely, Love And Rockets (not yet having the knowledge to differentiate between Los Bros. themselves or the title to which they were attached) was mentioned. It’s what piqued my interest, the first cheap fix that’ll bring you back for more. I can’t say where I first saw it – it flashed by quickly and it stuck, not as an epiphany or a cause for pause, just another bit of sound and vision I grabbed and made a bit of my own internal environment when I was In Love With The Modern World, if not quite a part of it.

I don’t plan on making this a Proustian promenade of my past, but they have been on my mind, those shiny bits of pop that made life bearable for late-teens/early-twenties Me – Faye Wong reflected in the walkway glass, the opening clang of “Pyjamarama”, the title sequence to Band Of Outsiders, and a few dozen others; moments of pure possibility that never failed for a contact high. A lot of it has kept its thrill but, as I’m no longer prone to inveterate romanticization, what I’m left wondering is how they worked. This image in particular – devoid of tension, yet always eagerly summoned up; a depiction of a moment that seems to continually unfold but never quite reveal itself, Zeno’s Paradox-style.

So bear with me as I burn holes into it with my eyes.

Well, bluntly, it’s a nice slab of beauty; this being Jaime, any discussion of the picture’s quality can be handily dismissed in a barrage of superlatives. You can find it echoed, along with a less vivid and more typical drawing of Ray, in the story “Ninety-three Million Miles From The Sun…And Counting” (page 15, panel 2, true believers), though you can’t slot “Ray And Maggie…” in there as, say, a documented moment seen from another angle – should questions of continuity bother you, you can probably peg it as occurring a little before then; regardless, it’s self-sufficient, the association of a many-volumed opus notwithstanding. Mind you, it’s not divorced from narrative – there’s the fun gag-strip ploy of that sign being flouted by our man of inaction, but the real storytelling qualities to be found aren’t those typical of a comic.

You could, of course, easily reduce the image to a preset function – a couple’s portrait, with “leisure” and “contentment” damn close to the center of its web of associations – and let that iconography dictate our reading, aesthetic effect flattened out for the sake of a message. But we don’t have to stop there; we can, if not willfully ignore, then proceed from that premise, deem this image discussion-worthy by virtue of its considerable cultural cache, not unlike an auteurist faced with a minor film in a director’s canon – it’s Jaime, why not? Or we could view it as I first did – as something isolated, absent any “modern master” context, an object which, by simply existing, means to fight for your attention; something made it stick out, at least for me – a disjunction, a feeling of lives in motion rather than a single note, played very nicely.

If you’d care to cast a glance back at Jaime, compare and contrast, you’d probably pick up a certain emphasis on realism here rather than generalization, a clarity, that harsh pop I mentioned before; this would probably be explainable by the pin-point focus demanded by a stand-alone image, free from sequential constraints – seen in an average Jaime story, the strip would stop stone dead on this panel, the storytelling momentum never to be recovered. But it’s an oddly lopsided realism – the setting around them spare and precise, we see Maggie pretty close to her page-bound presence, but Ray is worked over with detail: the very fine layers of hatching on his jeans, the folds on his t-shirt (worthy of an hour or two of art class discussion), his stubbled double chin above which you’ll see a plain ideal of alcohol-induced contentment.   

So there’s no surprise that, at a first glance, he’s the one who dominates our attention; despite the presence of cutie-pie Maggie, Ray’s the visceral punch of the piece, his very demeanor an event, an instance of complete ease and the airiness that arises from that ease. He’s pretty buzzed, only vaguely conscious that he’s on display, his focus more to his right – probably a friend in a comparable state – the bottle in his hand the third of the evening at least; he’s nowhere near us. Much closer is Maggie. If Ray is in thrall to circumstance, Maggie is creating hers and clearly having a ball doing so, hamming it up as Betty or Veronica to Ray’s oblivious Archie for an onlooker, an almost certain photographer.  

It’s an easy contrast between the two, but you’ll find little push and pull, their visual relationship being more complementary: spontaneity to poise, naturalism to artifice. Maggie throws Ray into relief, ensuring that his off-hand exuberance doesn’t exist in a void, nor does it annihilate everything else in the picture, and vice-versa. Take one of those elements out and you’re left with an ad, or something very close to one, a free-floating gesture which would come with both a single point to make and a definite barrier between us and the picture, one we might surmount only by a literal (fiscal) transaction. As is, though, there’s nothing to upend the image either way, as buoyant or alluring as we’d care to interpret it; it only means what it says – Ray and Maggie down at Leo’s.

Which means what we can see clearly is two ends of a spectrum of being, ably defined – and from that perception a moment is conjured up, and the possibility we feel within that moment. This is the key juxtaposition, because it alludes to every state in between, leaving us, the spectators, to cross the vast gulf linking the expression on Ray’s face and the one on Maggie’s, to define the stations you’ll find however you wish.

That could be the real appeal of spontaneity, Ray’s or anyone’s, when we encounter it in art – the actions on view are secondary, what matters is what they represent: a sensation of time suspended when nothing is happening and, as nature abhors a vacuum, everything comes rushing in to fill that empty space, the action ready to swing any which way you feel appropriate – choose your own adventure. They’re rare enough. Narratives – comics, movies, books, whatever – have the burden of hampering them with consequence, something to put the moment in its place, to label it as either positive or negative, a plot necessity or a waste of time. As autonomous objects, as a song or, as here, an image, they become nice engines which set the mind humming, replayable.

That simple juxtaposition may be its substance, but it’s not the whole of the image – what keyed us into it? There’s no mystery in this picture – the states depicted are, while not banal, fairly common. I’ve been on both sides of this camera and there’s a good chance you have too.

Well, there is that camera – the onlooker, the one personally privy to this moment, whose vision we view it through. You could reject this claim, say it’s only circumstance playing its part – Jaime’s whim of drawing this picture, at this spot, a wispy bit of artifice concerning people he’s portrayed so many times before and after; beauty needs no justification.

Of course it doesn’t. But if we’ve agreed that iconography won’t override their identities, to treat them as more than a vague notion of a pretty girl and some drunk dude and let them exist as full-bodied ideas, of significance (as is the Jaime way!), to let them affect us, then nothing about Ray and Maggie can be taken for granted here; everything we see demands a purpose. They don’t point toward themselves or each other, really, but outwards: Ray to that bit of distraction to his right and Maggie’s glance, her pose, her smirk, directed our way, at an onlooker, someone with enough presence to make her aware of the sliver of time she occupies – someone with the means to capture it.

But audience identification, our role as a witness, probably isn’t where the real potency resides here – any image which addresses us directly, should we choose to acknowledge it in return, accrues no small amount of realism; and with the playing field between us and that object instantly leveled comes an implicit suspension of disbelief. Plenty of those are around and this is no exception. What girds this image, I suspect, makes it seem less like a plain depiction of a night that once happened and more like an invitation to an existing moment, may be how we see it, the odd and very physical place we see it from.

And so it becomes peculiar – seeing immediacy, randomness, depicted with such clear deliberation. The composition suggests a tripod and enough careful preparation to seem illogical – a sense of patience, as if waiting all along for reality to orchestrate this precise moment. A more practical and less pictorially-driven point of view – a little higher, less like a frame from an Ozu film, further back for the sake of ease, off-balance enough to imply something casually grabbed and more attuned to the prevalent mood, take your pick – and that iconographic pretext (a boy, a girl, good times) would run roughshod over our perception, place us at a discreet distance; a lovely glimpse, like many. Instead what we have is a freedom of vision we might ascribe to an all-seeing eye or, as we definitely know to be the case, an artist’s preconceived vision – yet, thanks to Maggie’s glance and Ray’s lack of self-consciousness, we’re bound to that narrative trap, taking this image at its word.

And that is what I think implicates us as a part of the picture, creates a space we can inhabit and to feel everything which follows when we’re there. It’s why I can’t shake it, bound as I am to see omens in the clouds and patterns in the pavement. I have no idea if Jaime intended it, if I’ve just created a bridge of rickety conditional clauses from me to this image. Could be. It may not look safe but, if you care to cross, you’ll be welcomed on the other side.

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One Response to Surface Dweller

  1. Pingback: I’m In Love (Part 3) | It's Like When A Cowboy Becomes A Butterfly

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