In Jaime Hernandez’s Ghost of Hoppers Chicana punk Maggie Chascarillo returns briefly to the Southern California town of her youth, Huerta (the “Hoppers” of the title). Momentarily distracted, she loses her way in the streets where she grew up, and even appears threatened by a mysterious figure. The experience is disorienting and disturbing, and has an uncanny quality. Ghost of Hoppers finds the popular Love and Rockets regular in a state of disequilibrium, perturbed by aging and increasingly alienated from family, friends and lovers. She eventually finds some temporary comfort in her continuing friendships, especially with Hopey, but not before several curious episodes such as the one reproduced in the above excerpt.
Sigmund Freud popularised the trope of the uncanny (via Ernst Jentsch), illustrating the concept by recounting an anecdote about getting lost in a provincial Italian town and always, inadvertently, returning to the brothel quarter (Freud, 359). 1 The phenomenon of unintended recurrence provoking a sensation of helplessness and uncanniness (Unheimlich) is achieved via the interpenetration of the familiar with the strange, and the non-recognition of that which is hidden and brought to light. Although Maggie is in an environment that ought to be familiar, the result is much the same; the feeling of discomfort and disorientation emphasised by the visual shifts in scale and perspective.
Freud is careful to note that the uncanny in fiction differs from the experience of the analysand, adding that it is “a much more fertile province than the uncanny in real life, for it contains the whole of the latter, and something more besides.” (Freud, 374). He goes onto say that writing located predominantly in the fantastic, such as fairy stories, exhibit no uncanny traits, while those that present a “world of common reality” achieve the uncanny by bringing about events that never or rarely occur (Freud, 374) – something we can clearly see in the page reproduced here.
Admittedly a somewhat overfamiliar academic trope, the uncanny nevertheless retains critical purchase on the Gothic imaginary. The work of the Hernandez brothers in the ongoing Love and Rockets series has drawn on such diverse elements as science fiction, soap opera, punk rock, and Mexican wrestling to construct an utterly idiosyncratic blend of spectacle and narrative. 2 Ghost of Hoppers makes inventive use of the Gothic to examine the relationship of the past to the present and the alienating effects such a disjunction may produce. Less a genre, more an affective modality, Chris Baldick argues that:
For the Gothic affect to be attained, a tale should combine a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration (Baldick, xix).
Baldick has provided what is perhaps the most economical (if a touch, understandably, hyperbolic) description of the Gothic, one which is relevant here. Let us look again at the extract. The unexpected arrival of a silhouetted figure in the first panel is something of a shock, if not quite a complete non-sequitur, appearing as he does to come from nowhere. The figure signals the narrative intrusion of the uncanny into the “world of common reality.” The transition from the first panel to the second is subject-to-subject (McCloud, 70-73), but rather than being straightforward is unsettling.
The reader is called on to construe closure (in McCloud’s sense of the term) and to connect these two panels even as they appear disjointed by way of their positioning, point-of-view and tone. Once such a connection is established, the sensation of dis-ease is, if anything, intensified as it it is apparent that these two figures share the same space. Focalisation is, uneasily, with Maggie, the transitional connection instantaneous; thus we “see” from her perspective, and are then repositioned to read the wordless reaction of her face, uncertainty and unease conveyed minimally and effectively by a single bead of sweat.
The following four panels switch perspective and location very quickly and economically, further enhancing the impression of disorientation. As readers, we are not quite aware of how much narrative time (as opposed to reading time) has passed, only that Maggie is lost. Identification is compromised in these panels, and there is a queasy sense of voyeurism; we watch Maggie from what may be the single or multiple perspectives of concealed antagonists. Focalisation is restored in the sixth panel (“Steady girl”). It has taken just six panels to establish this uncanny sensation. The final two panels of the page shift perspective closer to Maggie as she accidentally cuts her hand on a broken crucifix in her pocket, her wound curiously stigmatic, the pain apparently breaking the uncanny spell.
Hernandez employs a rigid, rectilinear grid for the panel layout; eight panels, two-by-four – a characteristic trait. While this grid may appear inflexible, it works to focus the attention as much as on individual panels as on the page itself as a unit. 3 The manipulation of narrative events within panels is every bit as complex as what goes on between panels.
For Will Eisner, the panel is an important narrative device. In his own work, Eisner frequently dispenses with panel borders altogether going as far as to contend that the “conventional container-frame keeps the reader at bay” (Eisner, 46). This is countered by Hernandez’s precise use of repetitive framing panels and their content that arguably draws the reader in or works to deliberately estrange them as a way of conveying the uncanny effect. The page brings together various strands at work in the wider narrative of Ghost of Hoppers – it becomes clear that Maggie is “just an old graveyard ghost”, out of place wherever she goes, ill at ease with her surroundings and troubled by the events of the past which haunt her in grotesquely altered form. She eventually finds some temporary closure, leaving her ghosts behind for the time being. That, however, is for another time.
Baldick, C. (1992) “Introduction”,The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press), xi-xxiii
Freud, S. (1919). ”The ‘Uncanny’”, translated Alix Strachey in Art and Literature: Jensen’s “Gradiva”, Leonardo da Vinci and Other Works (1990) (London: Penguin), 335-376
Eisner, W. (1990) Comics and Sequential Art (New York: Poorhouse Press)
Hernandez, J. (2006) Ghost of Hoppers: A Love and Rockets Book (Seattle: Fantagraphics)
Hignite, T. (2010) The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.)
McCloud, S. (1993) Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: HarperCollins)
Venezia, T. (2010) “The Guy from H.O.P.P.E.R.S. – An Einterview with Jaime Hernandez” ttp://frivolousnow.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/the-guy-from-h-o-p-p-e-r-s-an-einterview-with-jaime-hernandez-6/>.Accessed 3 July 2011
- Freud also provided the oneirically Gothic example of a person lost in a forest returning to the same spot over and over again. He goes onto read E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman drawing out the uncanny qualities of the story, i.e. that which has been repressed and returns in an altered form, in this case the doubling of the subject in the shape of an automated doll. ↩
- For a recent and extensive overview of Jaime Hernandez’s oeuvre, see Hignite. ↩
- Jaime Hernandez: “The frames are basically there to be ignored. It’s the stuff going on inside the frame that dictates the pace, setting etc.” Einterview with Tony Venezia ↩