From the stack: Maggie the Mechanic

May 3, 2007

One of the first things that struck me about Jaime Hernandez’s Maggie the Mechanic: A Love and Rockets Book (Fantagraphics) is how many qualities the title character shares with the stereotype of a shôjo heroine.

She’s clumsy, spacey and boy-crazy. Her romantic notions and general haplessness lead her into absurd situations, and while she’s prodigiously gifted in a particular field (mechanics, in this case), her lack of confidence keeps her from excelling. She even gets her own variations on the upskirt phenomenon.

Another thing that struck me early was how little the fantastic genre elements in these early stories bring to the party. How, I asked myself, can stories with dinosaurs, rocket ships, super-heroes, evil billionaires, lady wrestlers, and civil wars be so boring?

Take the first long-form story in the collection, “Mechanics.” Maggie has joined her crew (including dreamy celebrity wrench-wrangler Rand Race), and Hernandez heaps the trip with genre elements – mysterious industrialists, tribal legend, tropical disease, political unrest, lady adventurers, you name it. It’s told in a series of letters home to Maggie’s friends, which mostly serve to demonstrate how ill-suited she is to serve as the center of this kind of story. She spends most of her time waiting for things to happen. Maybe that was the point, but I felt like it took ages to make it, and I ended up excessively eager to see brief interludes with the recipients of Maggie’s letters.

A second, similar adventure, “Las Mujeres Perdidas,” is much more effective. The genre elements are scaled back, and Maggie takes a much more active role. Hernandez strips her of some of her illusions of high adventure and romance, but he does so without cruelty or condescension. It’s not that Maggie can’t survive this kind of madness, but the experiences fail to satisfy. Instead of reducing the friends back home to a bemused audience, Hernandez illustrates how much they care about Maggie. There’s an emotional core and a seriousness of potential consequence that “Mechanics” lacked, and it indicates a transition from genre mash-ups to emotionally driven narrative.

And god, the transition is welcome, because I never like Maggie as much as when she’s interacting with the folks back home. Not to mention the fact that I absolutely love the folks back home.

There’s Maggie’s best friend, Hopey, a feisty punk-rocker with a complex emotional core that pings nicely off of Maggie’s own. Underneath the goth-supernatural trappings, Izzy is a genuinely haunted soul, though often funny and generous. Penny Century is a hoot – a sexpot would-be superhero with a playful spirit and a rapacious hunger for life. Pretty much everyone in Maggie’s everyday life makes a vivid, specific impression, putting them miles ahead of the outsized figures of her adventures as a mechanic.

By the end of the volume, Hernandez seems to have settled his focus on this rowdy, emotionally layered crowd. If he sticks with them and keeps the wackiness on the margins, I’ll be with them for the long haul.