Chica de Fuego: Falling in Love with a Loca
I first met Maggie Chascarillo in 2007. I was sitting in the living room of a friend’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts, my wet hair stuffed into the plastic cap of an old-fashioned, soft bonnet hair dryer that was either purchased from a thrift store or inherited from someone long dead. It was a frigid, post-blizzard morning in March, and I was anxious for my hair to dry and relieve me of the bone-deep chill that had set in. Margaret, my former roommate and childhood friend of our gracious hostess Lea, was checking on the bus schedule back to New York as I eyeballed Lea’s bookshelf for entertainment. I was 26, unhappy with my lot in life, and my ego was still feeling raw after being dumped by my non-boyfriend whom I’d quasi-dated for about three months. The weekend trip had been a welcome respite from the existential dread I’d temporarily left back in Queens and I was eager to keep escaping.
I snagged a thin hard cover titled Chester Square, my untrained eye first mistaking it for a Daniel Clowes work. It featured a young woman whittling her time away while waiting for a bus out-of-town, so we had something in common off the bat. Unlike my own wait, this woman spent hers in a ghost town motel being repeatedly mistaken for a prostitute. The weight of her own existential concerns were evident to me, despite being completely blind to the fact that she had any story outside of the Chester Square narrative. Here was a woman who could clearly hold her own in most situations, but her exhaustion with needing to was obvious and understandable. Sure, she could fight off a territorial hooker who misread her as competition, but why would she want to or expect to? No wonder she spent most of the night hiding in her room before spontaneously seducing a young security guard. (Hell, if everyone already thinks you’re turning tricks what’ve you got to lose?)
I made it about halfway through before we had to leave for the bus station, but I was loath to walk away from this new character I’d found both so curious and foreign, yet familiar and relatable. She had a confidence and humor marred by sadness but not destroyed by it, and I felt for her. I noted her creator’s name, Jaime Hernandez, and as luck would have it, we purchased our bus tickets at an independent bookstore where they happened to have a copy of Maggie the Mechanic, the first collected volume of Hernandez’s Locas stories.
Having never read Love & Rockets I was unfamiliar with the breadth of the series, and the way Jaime’s characters had developed realistically, almost in real-time, since 1981. I was initially confused and then hyper impressed when I realized the doe-eyed, curvaceous-yet-slender teenager and titular character of Maggie the Mechanic was the same full-bodied, world-weary woman I’d just met in Chester Square. Over the next year or so I collected the rest of the Locas stories and found myself smitten, not just with the characters themselves but with the depictions of love, sex, and romance that have played to my heart like no other comic has before or since. The constantly evolving physical and emotional states of the characters enable a deep connection between the reader and the stories, especially where Maggie is concerned. Thanks to chronic health issues my own body has ridden a twenty-year roller coaster of weight fluctuations, and seeing this woman adjust to her own physical changes, constantly fluctuating between confidence and annoyance, rang pretty damn true. Even though Maggie is sexy in all her forms, we see her ongoing struggle between owning her body and feeling alien in it.
The early Locas arcs focus on Maggie’s work as a pro-solar mechanic, her crush on her celebrity boss Rand Race, her punk rock friends Hopey, Izzy, Daffy, Terry, and Penny, and her sporadically sexual relationship with Hopey. With time we learn more about Maggie’s family, her struggles with balancing responsibility against her friends’ influences to the contrary, and her flirtations and long-held attractions, many of which come to fruition one way or the other. Watching Maggie endure the emotional spectrum of love and attraction strengthens the ability to project through her and empathize her experiences. Her crush – and later regret of ever having had it – on Rand Race speaks to anyone that’s ever fallen for someone who revealed themselves to be an empty shell of surface charm and little else in the long run. Her dynamic relationship with Hopey Glass speaks to anyone who’s ever tried to navigate and blur the lines between love, sex, and friendship. Her frustration with herself over her attraction to Izzy’s ill-fated brother Speedy is well-worn territory for anyone who’s struggled with the knowledge of their own questionable tastes. Her short-lived marriage to Tony “Top Cat” Chase and their subsequent divorce party illustrates an optimism in breaking up peacefully that we can all admire, if rarely achieve.
Maggie’s two great loves throughout the series, however, are without a doubt Hopey and Ray Dominguez. An entire book could be written on Maggie and Hopey alone. They are inarguable comic icons and their relationship is rightfully celebrated by fans and internal characters alike.
But personally, I find myself on team Ray. Maybe it’s more relatable to me because my own heteroflexibility never moved beyond drunken make-out sessions with college friends. Maybe it’s because he reminds me of one of my great loves, a soft, sweet guy with a doofy side that I just had to take time away from. Whatever it is, I find there’s a comfort and innocence to her relationship with Ray that feels true and enduring. Her love with Hopey is electric and unpredictable; her love with Ray is warm and reliable.
Maggie ultimately finds her way to Ray through the stories The Return of Ray D and Vida Loca: The Death of Speedy. Their connection strengthens while Hopey is away on tour with Terry Downe, a woman both fiercely possessive of Hopey and jealous of Maggie, and they wind up together for two years before she is eventually sucked back into Hopey’s orbit, her relationship with Ray fading out like a sigh.
With time Ray settles into being a caricature of a lonely middle-aged man. In One More Ladies’ Man he reflects on the women in his life, the “fire women” as he calls them, for their ability to ignite a flame within him, and Maggie is honored with this label alongside the eccentric, erratic, erotic Penny Century, Danita Lincoln his bodacious-bodied post-Maggie girlfriend, and Vivian “Frogmouth” Solis, a sailor-tongued stripper whose exaggerated figure becomes the object of Ray’s obsessions. All of these women are deserving of the honor (I could easily write another 1,500 words on Penny) but Maggie stands out as the one woman who bucks the trend of the fantastical body-type that Ray is often drawn to, who offers more to him than physical novelty and excitement. (Okay, this assessment may not be totally fair to Danita, who is more akin to Maggie in terms of level-headedness, but Ray’s fetishism of her body is more on-par with that of Penny and Vivian.)
Maggie is a fire girl to me in a more literal way as well. Three years ago I lost my Locas collection when my apartment burned down. In that time I lost my colon to colitis and closed the book on a seven-year relationship with the same man that reminds me so much of Ray. When I finally re-built my comic library two months ago I discovered The Love Bunglers, the most recent and possibly final installment of the collection to be had. The themes of loss and trauma are at the heart of The Love Bunglers, and I found myself again connecting with Maggie as I have so often in following her life story.
After decades apart Maggie and Ray find their way back to each other, just in time for an act of violence to put Ray in a life-threatening situation. In a poignant, tear-jerking two-page spread Ray and Maggie’s lives are mirrored panel-to-panel: As children growing up in Hoppers, as stricken teenagers and unlucky twenty-somethings, as best friends, estranged lovers, and lonely adults. Sometimes life’s patterns make you wonder if happiness is anything other than fleeting, if there’s anything that can be held on to without fear of it slipping away before you’re ready, and The Love Bunglers captures this beautifully while managing to nurture hope along the way.
One of the benefits of being able to read a series that spans over thirty years in a compressed amount of time is getting to see the payoff. So much of the dread of love comes from not knowing what’s beyond the horizon. If a love has been lost will there be reconciliation? Will the memories be painless, enabling bygones to be bygones? Will there be sorrow or anger or regret? Love is not a clean-cut narrative – even with the conclusion of The Love Bunglers, the overall patterns reflected throughout the series demonstrate that love, be it romantic, friendly, or something that traverses the two, naturally ebbs and flows. While Hernandez has stated that the ending of The Love Bunglers would be a perfect capstone to the Locas were he to be hit by a bus tomorrow, his endings are rarely finite. Maggie and Ray may very well happily live out their days together, but it’s just as possible that another jump forward in time will find them separated and in the arms of new partners, returned to old ones, or even contentedly alone.