I was in the mood for something like Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar collection, but the library didn’t seem to have anything along those lines. They did have collections by both Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, as well as several by Jaime Hernandez alone. It was one of the latter that caught my eye.
While I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped I would, it did speak to a question raised by another Hernandez collection.
A footnote in my review of Esperanza read, in part:
The original setting had superheroes in the way our world has rock stars; they were around, but the odds were that mundanes never got to meet them. One of Maggie’s friends, Penny Century, was a genuine adventurer who kept hoping she’d have an origin.
Thanks to God and Science: Return of the Ti-Girls, I now know that’s not the full story.
Maggie Chascarrillo has long suspected that her statuesque tenant Alarma Kratovilova is a superhero, maybe even one of the Fenomenons. It’s not just that Alarma is an unusual physical specimen, standing about seven foot tall. Alarma’s habit of dressing up in a colourful cape and hood and casually vaulting from the roof of Maggie’s multi-story hotel is something of a tell.
But focused as she is on her mysterious tenant, Maggie has overlooked what’s right in front of her. Her friend Rose “Angel” Rivera, like Alarma, has the Gift that distinguishes superwomen from women1. Maggie’s speculations about her neighbour prompt Angel to don her own (affordably priced) costume and the appellation “Boot Angel” to investigate the supposed superheroic Alarma.
And just in time! Because Alarma has a problem and while it doesn’t involve Maggie, it does involve Maggie’s close friend Penny Century. Penny’s long quest for powers has finally paid off; Penny even managed to finagle powers for her toddler daughter Maite.
Faustian deals with the devil may sound like a sensible idea but in this case, it’s not working out so well. To quote Alarma, giving Penny the Gift is like “giving matches and dynamite to a chimpanzee.”
Penny has refused to pay the sorceress Vakka Boome the agreed-upon fee: Penny’s newborn child. The result is a war of cosmic proportions between Penny and Vakka.
Not only that—Penny may have been the one to make the ill-considered deal but it’s her kids who will pay the price. Baby Thimbelina was born just one inch tall; young Maite’s powers condemn her to premature aging and death.
Someone has to do something about Penny. The Fenoms, the Zolar Bratz, and even Cheetah Torpedo have failed to stop Penny, so it’s up to Angel, her grudging mentor Alarma, and the mysterious Ti-Girls to save the day!
Another perfectly valid title for this could have been Mean Supergirls (well, aside from the C&D letter that would attract from DC).
The middle-aged Ti-Girls seem to have matured out of being reflexively nasty to each other, but the other supergirls are quite keen on shoring up their social standing by undermining other people’s. The superhumans lob scathing critiques of each other’s looks, age, fashion sense, and powers. Civilians are so far down the pecking order that they are treated with dismissive contempt.
The author devotes a fair bit of page space to the elderly Zolar’s exploitative, increasingly creepy treatment of superhuman women (and later, when adult women prove too independent, teens) but he’s really just the crap cherry on a crap sundae. Not only does superdickery seem to be inherent to superpowers, whatever the rationale for them, but it’s clear that women can be just as vicious and violent as the men, and even more catty and judgmental.
Angel can’t fly. As the Atom once complained, superheroes who cannot fly are basically nobodies in the mask communities, even if they have enhanced strength, durability, and reflexes. But Angel’s colleagues also diss her for being neither tall nor thin.
On the plus side, one of the reasons superheroes in this universe don’t have much impact on mundane people (despite epic, destructive battles) is that they tidy up after themselves, both the battle damage and the witnesses’ memories. There may be more to it than that. Hernandez’ universe itself seems grudgingly tolerant of superhumans, only allowing mundanes a distant awareness of their activities. Even if the masks didn’t have handy amnesia rays, the universe itself would slowly erode memories of the weird and wonderful.
Persons looking for a linear, completely logical plot should look elsewhere; this is a Silver Age-style story that cares naught for puny mortal logic! Also, it strikes me that Jaime has modeled some of the action on pro wrestling; lucha libre has always been an element in Love and Rockets, but there are overtones of the theatrical WWE approach. Expect lots of face-heel and heel-face turns. Perfectly reasonable for a Silver Age comic: consider the Scarlet Witch and her brother Quicksilver and their memberships in the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and in the Avengers.
Speaking of the Silver Age, it’s not a good sign if a character suddenly dons garish make up and a skimpier costume, or approvingly compares their new look to that of a prostitute. Consider that fair warning.
Parts of this collection were amusing but for reasons I cannot completely articulate, I wasn’t crazy about the whole. It’s not just that the Penny plot centers on maternity in a way that reminds me of older comics that saw women primarily as reproductive engines. It’s not just that Penny totally gets away with her lousy deal, but her kids don’t. There’s something about Jaime’s world, at least the part that relates specifically to superheroes, that grates on me. Perhaps it’s the cosmic censor that steals memories of having had the Gift from most women2. I understand that growing up often means abandoning, even forgetting dreams, but this felt less like giving up one thing one wants to get something else one wants more and more like being forced by outside forces to conform to restrictive roles and I didn’t much like it.
1: Men can only get the Gift through artificial means: lab accidents, dubious medical procedures, and technology indistinguishable from magic. While you’d think the comparative propensity towards risky behavior would even up the numbers (death by injury rates suggest men are much more likely than woman to lick a glowing meteorite or inject themselves with radioactive ferret adrenaline), the super-powered women vastly outnumber the super-powered men. I’m thinking the fatality rates for newbie superheroes are probably pretty high. Or perhaps Jaime just wanted to write about super-powered women, not about men.
2: I have no idea what this footnote was going to say.