Return to Me:

The Experience of Memory in Jaime Hernandez’s The Love Bunglers

SPOILERS BELOW…

There is a stunning sequence in part five of Jaime Hernandez’s The Love Bunglers — originally serialized in Love and Rockets: New Stories volumes 3 and 4, and recently released in a deluxe hardcover by Fantagraphics — that shows the two main characters, Maggie Chascarillo and Ray Dominguez, at various point in their lives, effectively condensing three decades-worth of narrative into a silent two-page spread.

What’s remarkable about this sequence is how it captures the experience of remembering, both on the part of the characters and the reader. Each panel references a previous Love and Rockets story, and the formal structure of the comics page represents the way individual moments or impressions are strung together to create memories. Even the way the sequence seems to interrupt the story’s narrative structure without any indication that it’s a flashback — besides the reader’s own intuition — mimics the way memories appear in the mind randomly, as if Hernandez is using the formal elements of the comic-book medium to offer a phenomenological account of the experience of memory. In fact, The Love Bunglers is essentially a story about memories, both cherished and repressed, and how they — despite their fleeting, fragile nature — weigh so heavily on the present.

Although story can certainly be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone, it can also be seen as a culmination of sorts, both of the larger narrative of Maggie and Ray’s romance and of Hernandez’s experiments with style. In order to make sense of The Love Bunglers and its place in Hernandez’s oeuvre, it’s worth exploring the different themes and formal techniques present in his other Love and Rockets stories and how they function as phenomenological examples of memory.

Memory plays a central role in Hernandez’s work, and a number of his most influential and, well, memorable, Love and Rockets stories explore the characters’ pasts. For example, Wigwam Bam, Flies on the Ceiling, Home School, and The Ghost of Hoppers are all based on past experiences and show how they’ve affected the main characters. However, what makes those stories unique is how Hernandez uses the formal and narrative structure of the comic-book medium to show how the characters remember those events. The results are not the typical “flashback” sequences one usually sees in comics (an objective recap of past events designed to fill in the narrative).[1] Instead, Hernandez is showing the events as they are remembered by the characters; rather than flashbacks, these remembered stories are “present” in the minds of the characters — and by extension, the readers — and they are experienced like memories.[2]

In the two-page “parallel memory sequence” above, Hernandez uses what Scott McCloud — in his book Understanding Comics – identifies as the “aspect-to-aspect” panel transition. This type of transition, McCloud explains, is “most often used to establish a mood or a sense of place.” The best example of this is the landmark Flies on the Ceiling story, which recounts Izzy Reubens’s nervous breakdown following having an abortion and going through a divorce. Instead of a “voice over” narration, this story is a largely wordless sequence of seemingly unrelated images.[3] According to McCloud, in these “aspect-to-aspect” transitions, “the reader … must assemble a single moment using scattered fragments.” Hernandez seems to use the “aspect-to-aspect” transition to mimic the experiences of Izzy’s nervous breakdown in order to create a similarly disorienting experience for the readers; rather than simply showing Izzy’s breakdown, Hernandez wants the readers to feel it.

Similarly, the two-page parallel memory sequence in The Love Bunglers mimics the subjective experience of the characters’ memories in order to recreate them in the readers. However, since the particular sequence references previous Love and Rockets stories, it actually does trigger memories in the readers, which makes their connection to the characters and the stories even stronger; we are remembering along with them, and our experiences are just as important as theirs are. The sequence is also a perfect example of the connection between the reader and the author; Hernandez simply offers the images in the panels — in a particular, chronological order of course — and trusts the readers to “feel” the memories of Maggie and Ray as deeply as their own. There is no explicit narrative. Instead, it’s up to the readers to provide the essential context to make sense of the sequence. Each panel shows just a small, fleeting glimpse of a previous story, like the individual sensations that make a memory. Like the notes of a familiar melody, the panels mean little individually, but taken together create a larger, more-deeply-felt experience. The memories of Maggie, Ray, and the readers become intertwined; they’re all part of the larger story and they work together to create it. It’s a remarkably canny bit of graphic storytelling, and its simplicity belies the cognitive work required to make it “work”, so to speak. It is also a testament to Hernandez’s skill as a storyteller and his ability to capture and present complex emotions in such subtle, nuanced ways.

There are a few other techniques Hernandez employs to mimic the experience of memory in his stories. For example, Wigwam Bam has Maggie providing a “voice over” narration for the parts of the story that take place in the past. Rather than simply showing what happened to Maggie and her childhood friend, Letty Chavez, the story is about how Maggie remembers those moments with her friend in order to juxtapose them with her current friendships. This narrative technique portrays the characters’ memories in a subjective — rather than objective — fashion. This distinction is important since, as with much of Hernandez’s work, the way those past events affect the characters in the present is more important than the events themselves. The memories presented are deeply personal to the characters, and the readers “see” these past events through their eyes, so to speak.

Hernandez uses this technique twice in The Love Bunglers — once in which Ray recalls a dinner date with Maggie (part two of the story), and the other (an interlude entitled Return to Me) which recalls Wigwam Bam. The sequence with Ray is reminiscent of other stories with the character that present his account of past events; Ray’s “voice over” essentially explains to the reader how he felt about what had happened. Here in The Love Bunglers, Ray’s account of his date with Maggie lets the readers see how he really feels about Maggie and how confused he is about their relationship. Since there is no objective account of the dinner date, nor is it presented from Maggie’s perspective, it’s clear that the purpose is to showcase Ray’s feelings rather than a specific event. Return to Me is an interesting story because it’s essentially a reprise of Wigwam Bam told from Letty’s perspective. Again, we have a subjective account of the past designed to show how a particular character remembers the situation so the reader can experience it “through their eyes”, so to speak. Return to Me also acts as a conclusion to the larger story of Letty and Maggie’s friendship since the readers finally see what happened to Letty; in the emotionally devastating last page, Letty describes how excited she is to spend time with Maggie while the panels show her getting into a fatal car accident.

Even though it may seem odd to put the story in the middle of the longer Love Bunglers saga, Return to Me is a fitting interlude for a story about memory, friendship, and the weight of the past. It is also an example of another narrative trope Hernandez uses to mimic memory in his stories in which past events are presented as separate, self-contained stories within the larger narrative. These stories, like Home School or Browntown, are different from typical “flashbacks” since there are no formal indications when they take place. Instead, Hernandez leaves it to the reader to intuit when in the larger narrative they occur. Since they are presented as stand-alone stories, it is also largely left to the readers to “place” them in the context of the larger story, like a forgotten memory suddenly being uncovered. Hernandez seems to use these stories as a way of explaining or “fleshing-out” the relationships between characters without interrupting or slowing down the larger story. Home School, for example, explores how Maggie and Izzy first became friends as young children, in order to give more dramatic weight to their adult relationship. As Douglas Wolk explains in his book Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, “Hernandez’s fascination with the way personal history accrues and resonates means that his stories have grown more powerful as his characters have more of a past…” Returning to the characters’ pasts allows Hernandez to create deeper, more complex stories about them and their relationships. It also means that there are always new stories to be told, especially about characters the readers may have forgotten about. Wolk continues, “[Hernandez] also sometimes likes to leave characters alone for a few years so they can spring something on us when they reappear.” One example of this is Browntown, a story about Maggie’s estranged younger brother Calvin who had been mentioned years earlier, only in passing. Although Browntown, like Return to Me, takes place much earlier chronologically than The Love Bunglers, it appears between the first two parts of that story, after Maggie and Ray briefly discuss what had happened to Calvin. Browntown gives an objective account of Calvin’s past — specifically, the sexual abuse he suffered and his violent reaction to it — in order to give a character unfamiliar to the readers a dramatic, sympathetic weight. The fact Browntown “interrupts” the narrative of the The Love Bunglers makes it feel more important, since it is clearly important to the larger story; not only does it provide essential information about Calvin’s past, it also foreshadows the end of The Love Bunglers.

Calvin’s return serves as a catalyst for The Love Bunglers. He’s living as a transient man near the apartment building Maggie manages. Although Maggie interacts with him, Hernandez leaves it vague whether or not she recognizes him; she seems shocked when Ray mentions running into Calvin, just like the readers are surprised to learn that the shifty-looking homeless man from the opening pages is actually such an important character. Like a repressed memory, Calvin had been there unnoticed, but he suddenly reemerges. Unfortunately, Calvin’s reappearance has a tragic consequence; in a state of confusion, Calvin attacks Ray and puts him in a coma. Maggie only learns about this attack two years later after making an offhanded comment about Ray ignoring her phone calls. When she does learn what happened, the story flashes forward; Maggie and Ray are living together, finally happy after years of confusing on-and-off-again romance. Of course, it’s a bittersweet conclusion, since Ray is suffering memory loss as a result of Calvin’s attack.

In some ways, what happens to Ray is a fitting way to end a story that explores the power and importance of the past; the memories we have and share shape our lives in often imperceptible ways. Rather than simply concluding the long-running romance between Maggie and Ray, the story offers readers a chance to reflect on the characters’ pasts, as well as their own experiences of the Love and Rockets series. That’s really what makes it such a powerful story; it bridges the divide between the reader and the author in a way only comic books can, since Hernandez makes uses of the formal structure of the medium in such innovative ways. The Love Bunglers is also an example of Jaime Hernandez’s continually growing skill and evolving style as a cartoonist. It is an essential bit of comic-book storytelling that rewards repeated readings, and each experience with it will never be forgotten.


[1] Obviously flashback sequences are often shown as memories or recounts of past events with a character providing a “voice over” of sorts. However, the narrative function of these types of flashbacks is usually to “re-cap” the events of a past issue or to “fill in” a plot hole rather than subjective memories of the characters. I’m also not suggesting that other creators don’t use more subjective flashbacks, but that Hernandez seems to use them almost exclusively for particular narrative and stylistic purposes.

[2] Just to clarify, although memories may refer to or represent past events, they are experienced in the present. As William James explains in The Principles of Psychology, “that what is past, to be known as past, must be known with what is present, and during the ‘present’ spot in time.”

[3] It may be tempting to claim Hernandez is using the “non-sequitur’ transition McCloud also identifies for parts of Flies on the Ceiling, since there are moments where there seems to be no connection between the panels. However, it seems clear that the story shows things that are happening to — or being experienced from the point of — the main character, Izzy. Therefore, the seeming “non-sequiturs” are just shifts between subjective and objective perspectives.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul R Jaissle is a philosophy professor, collage artist, and musician who writes about film and comic book theory and blogs for destroythecyb.org. He earned his MA in philosophy and art from Stony Brook University, and currently lives in Grand Rapids, MI. You can follow him at paulrjaissle.tumblr.com and @ohhipaulie on Twitter.

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