Behold the woe of Isabel Ruebens. “Flies on the Ceiling” is her great novel, her great mystery finally told. A tale of longing, regret, and terror. Jaime Hernandez has loads of Love and Rockets stories set in Hoppers, Texas, but mostly they’re about Maggie and Hopey. Izzy is a friend. The crazy old goth surrogate mother to the punk kids. She isn’t anyone particularly special. She’s not the first woman to get a divorce, or an abortion, or to attempt suicide. That’s not why the Devil chose her.
This is the standalone story of what happened in Mexico, before the comic, before Izzy got weird, what made her weird. Roosters and lizards. A crucifix falls from the wall and stands on its head. We interrupt the Love and Rockets you know for a short story, raw, horror – and one of the finest character portraits the series has to offer. Its beautiful ugliness is mesmeric. One could stay forever in a single panel, despite the suffering it may contain.
You can crawl through it an inch at a time because it is decades of work rendered down to a concentrated essence. Jaime’s work is about longing. POV character stories end up being about not them, but who they’re obsessed with, the character and the reader both watching, but separate. Here, it manifests itself in a single panel. Desire on the Wong Kar-wai level. He stands outside her window, only the edge of his face and arm and a snake of cigarette smoke in the blackness, his cross-hatched shirt and double-scored pants are a gray that falls away, a frame that makes the window he stands beside even brighter. The window is the big blocks of pure white, its frame black bars standing between her and he. She is just a silhouette of lines, gray head in gray hands, as unaware of his presence on the other side of the glass as he is painfully aware of hers. The crucifix on the wall casts the other shadow on the pane, impossibly, evocatively. Maybe Izzy is praying.
A tremendous amount of emotion told with silence. Jaime is an unparalleled master of character drawing, in expressions and emotions, but also body language. He captures poignant moments of people being, relating, living. Then, an arthouse frame. Instead of showing us how a promise makes her feel once it’s been said, the camera retreats a hundred yards outside the house, catching the word balloon in a net of bare tree limbs. Then it leans hard into extra strength magical realism. A series of unnerving, supernatural visions. Inexplicable horrors (Jaime’s ability to convey terror is just as potent as his grip on infatuation), and Izzy is running away from happiness again to keep her loved ones safe. From Him.
Just enough is explained, really explained, once Izzy isolates herself. The details come out as confession, vulnerability she’s been tricked into admitting. Vulnerability she’s given up freely. But not explained enough to make it fit. All that space around her makes for silence, but the horrors she goes through, some of the joy too, is without “sound.” There is no peace for Izzy. She seems doomed to retrace her steps, the same towns, the same search for safety among the chicken tracks on the ground. She’s from Texas and needed an abortion, it isn’t out of order to assume she’s been to this place before. But why would she retreat into her past to escape it? She finally leaves the apartment and the shadow she casts on the wall is a cartoon devil with an erection.
Bold, high contrast black and white art, thy name is Jaime Hernandez. Not only does he know how to cut a figure in ink, he knows how to soak the page in blacks, creating a dynamic lighting to his scenes that film noir can’t reach. More like a lino print, or a woodcut. Something out of a museum, if museums preserved punks. What separates Jaime from David Mazzucchelli or John Paul Leon is that Love and Rockets will let expressionism override professionalism. “Flies on the Ceiling” vibes very Exorcist but isn’t William Friedkin, it’s Jean-Luc Godard. A shot of Izzy through the crack in the wall. The dialog is blocking the actor’s face. Like, completely. There is a scene with lovers in bed, one can finally sleep having come home, the other kept up at night wondering about the time she was gone. Holding her hair, now grown past her shoulders, it was as short as his the last time they were like this. In the moment, in the unlit bedroom, there’s no demarcation between blacks. No way to tell he’s holding her hair but the faintest sliver of hand. I must’ve read this comic a hundred times before I saw what was happening in that panel, understood what I was looking at. A tremendous moment, and it still bows to style. The art wrestles reality to the floor, pins it, and I, too, am floored.
And then there’s all the depictions of the Devil. Giant chicken feet. The growing man, is this how it felt as a child to stand beneath a father’s wrath? A crack in the wall. Flies on the ceiling. How He comes. The story is relentless as He is. The nine panel grid Jaime uses is more formal than Love and Rockets is normally. The read feels locked in, an inevitable rhythm-structure that plays in sync with the beats of the story. Happy or sad or driven to fear by madness, the future for Izzy is unwritten, but it is coming.
It is an incredible way to break the series, a coda to the long story of how everyone’s youth died with Speedy Ortiz. Speedy’s fate with Maggie and Hopey’s band going on tour, the half-way point in the original series, are events that overturn everyone’s life in Hoppers. Things find a satisfying balance by the issue before this one, then Jaime jumps back to before the series began with poetic trauma, a secret piece of Izzy’s past always looming but never before told. Then, in the issue after, time jumps ahead, past where we left things; everyone is older again, older than before, and everything is broken again, more broken than before.
The Archie influence on Love and Rockets shifting into dark territory is extremely effective. One of the best issues of the pre-2000s comics is from the Penny Century miniseries, done completely in that Bob Bolling style, and it is bittersweet and heartbreaking. In “Flies on the Ceiling” however, when two retro style, Gold Key Comics looking girls play at religion in a dark bedroom, a cartoon depiction of prayer becomes a nightmare, the dresser drawer contains Jesus’ severed head. The birth of a thousand lizards. Is that what you were afraid of?
Flies on the Ceiling was the title of one of the original collected Love and Rockets paperbacks, the one that had this story in it, but can you even get those anymore? “Flies on the Ceiling” appears in the 29th issue, with the start of Luba’s story, “Poison River,” by Gilbert Hernandez. The collections split the two brothers’ work into separate volumes, but in the issues, they were published together. “Flies on the Ceiling” is the last story in the obtainable and excellent Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S collection of Jaime’s Love and Rockets work, which tells the complete “Speedy” story from first crush to flies. A great way to get to know the series. Speedy was Izzy’s brother. She’s known everyone in the town of Hoppers since they were kids. She’s not anyone particularly special. Not the first woman to get a divorce, or an abortion, or to attempt suicide…