Sometimes there are inspirations out there you don’t realize until you find that you’ve been unknowingly trodding along in their giant footsteps.

For years I’d been vaguely aware there were these highly regarded independent comics being published under the title Love and Rockets. I never paid much heed to the buzz, since most of the excerpts I ever saw seemed to be heavy on the slice-of-life drama and distressingly light on any kind of rockets or science fiction. I had no time for that guff as a kid, and when I got back into comics again after college, I was still preferring the sort of flights of fancy enabled by such works as the Sandman series, or Hellblazer. Yes, John Constantine himself is pretty grounded and “street level” as protagonists go, but he still got himself regularly tangled up with angels and demons and epicness of that nature.

Then one day, years later, that same me started writing Zombie Ranch — a comic deliberately meant to be non-epic. No one here was saving the world. Nor are they the last survivors of a world gone by. They are not the scions of the prophecy, or possessed of secret divine blood… and to be brutally honest, they are probably not even the best they are at what they do. There’s no quest to perform, no macguffin to seek. It’s ultimately about people living their lives, albeit lives being lived (and unlived) in some very Interesting Times.

Twenty-something me probably wouldn’t be much of a fan of what thirty-something me is producing. Thirty-something me has become a belated, but thoroughly engaged fan of Love and Rockets. I took the plunge at APE in October of last year, where one of the vendors was having a sale that included several of the collections… and they’re big collections, so it’s lucky that we drove up there rather than taking a plane.

One thing you have to understand about Love and Rockets is that, after the initial wild and wooly days of the early 80s, the series settled into two main forks, each fully written and drawn by either Gilbert or Jaime Hernandez. While they share similarities in style, the thread and continuity of Gilbert’s “Palomar” comics are a separate animal from Jaime’s “Locas” storyline. Both are worthwhile to check out, though, because in them you may see, as I did, the roots of the magic realism and narrative freedom inherent in a lot of today’s webcomics, long before the Internet even existed.

It’s difficult to really define what the stories are about except to give you the basic scenario. Palomar is a Central American village that time forgot, populated by eccentric generations of characters… and I do mean generations, as one of Gilbert’s most fascinating conceits is that he freely moves around back and forth in time as he picks out various stories to tell. The squalling baby in one tale is a cocky teenager in another chapter, and then is a doddering old woman before rewinding back to when she was raising a family. Her character status also fluctuates, sometimes being a mere supporting player or even a cameo, but then maybe getting her own turn “in the sun” for a star outing.

Jaime’s stories revolve around Maggie and Hopey, two teens who might be growing up in the Los Angeles punk scene of the 1980s, but one that apparently has dinosaurs and rocketships just around the corner. No big deal. On one page you might be treated to the gritty realities of the jobless and depressed vomiting into a trash can after a nasty bender, and on the next a masked wrestler is delivering two-fisted justice to International hitmen. The richest man in the world quite literally looks like Satan, horns and all, but he’s at a loss when dealing with his crazy girlfriend who wants the one thing he can’t possibly give her: superpowers.

Jaime is a bit more freewheeling with his stuff than Gilbert, but neither brother shies away from shifting freely between heartwarming moments, absurdist comedy, and subjects that are (quite literally) deadly serious. Their art styles also shift as necessary, at times becoming comically abstract in the style of some of the classic newspaper strips like Blondie or Popeye, with steam pouring from the ears of the angry or people swept off their feet in shock with a puff of dust in their wake. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the obvious influence of the Archie comics which the Hernandez bros. freely admit cherishing as kids growing up– I saw Betty and Veronica more than once in some of those mugs, but then classic Archie never dealt with serial killers or suicide.

The bizarre genius of Love and Rockets is that no matter what flights of fancy the brothers get up to, the tales remain ultimately grounded and recognizable, and most of all compelling. They are at once entirely self-aware and completely freewheeling, creating a world where it’s entirely excusable for a character to suddenly rattle off a paragraph of game-changing exposition in the middle of the event that exposition affects. This would normally be a big no-no, but Jaime for example does it so much you get the sense it’s less of a mistake than a running gag, and he fills each page with such an enthusiasm it’s nigh impossible to get mad at him for it.

2012 actually marks the 30th anniversary of the series, so if you’re lucky enough to attend Comic-Con San Diego this year we’ll probably be seeing a good chunk of fan art and articles in the souvenir book, though conversely it probably won’t be the best time to try to get any autographs. But still, even though we started Zombie Ranch before we’d gotten around to delving into Los Bros. Hernandez, I’d say we and a lot of other webcomics owe them a conceptual debt for being guys who showed that slice-of-life stories about “everyday” people could be fantastic, in all senses of the word.