Maria M. is a movie about a character as acted by her daughter Fritz, the movie is told in the form of a comic book, (and remember, in the world of these comic books Maria M is a real person). Once you've got your head around that, you can dive in and fall in love with Gilbert Hernandez' wonderfully sleazy, exciting film noir about a good girl in a bad world. (And if you can't get your head around it, it won't matter in the least because it's still a marvelous story, beautifully drawn and lovingly told.)
Regular readers of mine are probably familiar with my great love for the creations of the Hernandez brothers. After a childhood spent resigned to finding fictional female characters weirdly unrealistic, they were the first writers to pepper my adolescence with women I could relate to, both young and old. Over the years my allegiances to the characters have changed along with their own developments and changes, it has felt very similar to the way real-life friendships evolve. When I finally made the move to Southern California a couple of years ago it was the Hernandez brother’s observations about the city which stuck with me and helped it to feel like a home to me.
Maria M. is another one of Gilbert Hernandez strange movie-books, he has a series of them which depict the various B-movies which Fritz (Maria’s daughter and Luba’s half-sister) has starred in. (If you're interested, you can read a little more about these books in the column I wrote about them in 2011.)
As with the other three volumes in the series, this book is an elegantly designed item with thick paper and the now characteristic black-with-a-single-color cover, plus the diagonally striped spine (under the dust jacket). I am such a fan of these books, the whole idea of presenting movies starring characters we already know and care about is such an interesting leap to have made. With this fourth book in the series actually a film about the life of one of the existing characters from Love & Rockets, and starring another, Hernandez is taking us just a bit deeper into the wonderful insanity of this new genre of comic book he has invented. Using the freedom he has created in his odd little enclave of the genre in this way is yet another creative leap he makes, outside of the damn fine quality of the book itself.
So with this book we’re “watching” a movie about Maria M. Originally she was introduced in the pages of Love & Rockets merely as the long lost mother of Luba, here Maria's arrival in America and subsequent survival is depicted. Played by Fritz (Luba’s younger sister, born to Maria after she moved to America) is starring as her own mother (even up to the point of conceiving herself, if you see what I mean). Yes, it’s all very strange and meta, but with the very unique physical characteristics of the women in this family she really is one of the only women in the world who could play her. Over the years, with all of the glimpses and anecdotes Hernandez has dropped about Maria within the pages of Love & Rockets, it is satisfying to get this rich look at the character’s journey, her checkered life in America, and her miserably dramatic experiences. Overblown with the hyperbole and sexual scandal of a classic B-movie, the story still retains the bones of Maria's tragic life which have always been hinted at.
In many ways the unrelenting, unflinchingly graphic sexual fetishes depicted are reminiscent more of his work on the book; Birdland (a crazy, surreal sexual story which Hernandez wrote on the Eros Comix imprint of Fantagraphics, using his Love & Rockets characters in more graphic situations). At the moment Birdland is out of print, which is a shame since it is one of the most free celebrations of sexual joy and imagination that I’ve seen in a comic book. Told with humor and seemingly genuine affection for this aspect of the character’s lives, it was an oasis of fun in a genre which is often far too gloomy. Unfortunately for us, Maria M is not a book about a group of liberated, contemporary people enjoying each other, instead it is an all-too-familiar story of a voluptuous woman who is objectified by everyone she meets. Staying true to the B-movie genre, she is a victim of circumstance, her existence dictated by the tremendous size of her breasts. It is heartbreaking to read her depressing tale, and I find myself wishing she had the sense to carry a hammer like her daughter Luba.
Set in the 1950’s and ’60’s, the book doesn’t just show is the limitations faced by young women in the era, but also has the side benefit of giving Hernandez the opportunity to depict a true femme fatale. Each characters face speaks volumes about the attitudes and mores of the time, all couched in the most wonderfully dated lighting, costumes, hairstyles, and makeup. Beginning like some kind of tragic small-town-girl-lost-in-the-big-city tale, it evolves to a tragic film noir, through to a full-on creepy exploitation sex/violence B-movie. It really would make the most spectacular movie if someone could handle the adaptation faithfully.