Professor LatinX and Ilan Stavans in Conversation with Jaime Hernandez

Jaime Hernandez, the Latinx comic book co-creator (with his bros Gilbert and Mario) of Love & Rockets fame, grew up in rural, agricultural Oxnard, California, where he and his brothers inherited their mother’s love of comics; they also listened to and were influenced by the DIY worldview of Punk and Lowrider culture. In the early ‘80s, they all became pioneers of Latinx comic book art. As the story goes, in 1981 he and his brothers Gilbert and Mario had the courage to send their first issue out to Gary Groth at the Comics Journal. History was made at that moment. In fact, many people say that Fantagraphics, the main publisher of alternative independent comics in the US, owes its existence to Los Bros Hernandez. Jaime (and his brother Gilbert) went on to have an incredible career as a Latino comic book. In addition to his Love & Rockets fame, Jaime has created the ongoing serial narrative, Locas, along with many other titles, including recently The Love Bunglers and his return to the serialized print mode with his publishing (with Gilbert) of the all-new Love & Rockets: The Magazine (2016- ). It is without a doubt that Jaime Hernandez is one of the most significant forces behind the Latinx and alternative comics scene in the US.

Professor LatinX: I know you get this question a lot, but can you speak to your influences, including perhaps most importantly the influence of your mom?

Jaime Hernandez: Mom allowed us to read comics, which was kind of a rare thing. She collected comics back in the ‘40s when she was a little girl in El Paso. She loved comics, but she had to hide them from her mom because, if found, she’d throw them away. My grandma thought they were trash. So my mom grew up on all the Golden Age great comics: Captain Marvel, The Spirit, Superman, all that stuff. By the time our oldest brother, Mario, was old enough, our mom told him: “Why don’t you buy some comics. They’re fun. You should buy them.” In the late ‘50s Mario started buying comics. So by the time I was old enough, comics were so much a part of my everyday life at home I thought reading comics and having them at home was something all people did.

Mom also encouraged us to listen to pop music and rock ‘n roll. In 1959, when she was pregnant with me in the hospital, she had a roommate who blasted rock music from the radio. She loved what she heard. So, at home we always had the radio on—and comics in the house. Dad didn’t really understand it, but was okay as long as we were quiet. They would give us comics as well as paper, pencil, and crayons to draw and keep quiet.

ProfLatX: You liked reading comics—and drawing comics from an early age.

JH: I came fourth in a line of six kids, so I just copied what ever the older siblings did. Mario could draw best, then Beto, then Richie, then me. It was just something to do. While we all started out as a family of drawers, as my siblings grew interests in other areas like sports, they dropped off. Mario, Beto, and I were the only ones who drew all the way through our teenage years. And Mario stopped drawing when he got married and started having a family in the ‘70s. Beto and I kept at it, drawing comics into adulthood and still today.

Ilan Stavans: Jaime, collaborating with someone is not easy. You have to bring together two sensibilities. Doing it with a colleague is challenging, but doing it with a sibling might either be less challenging or more challenging. I wonder if you could talk about what does collaboration mean with your bro’s at different points in your life? Who did what? Who came up with ideas? Who did drawings? Were there tensions?

JH: Mario did his comic. Beto did his comic. Richie did his comic. Ismael did his. Lucinda did hers. And I did my comic. We didn’t so much collaborate as inspire one another. If I saw one of my siblings drawing, I’d jump in and work on my own comic. This was especially the case with Beto. He had this talent of getting me excited to draw comics. He was always had this energy of wanting to create a new series of comics and in different genres. Even if the comics were typing paper folded over so you had the cover and then the two pages inside. To learn how to become a better storytelling I read Beto’s comics. He was always had the cool story. I always wanted to be part of whatever Beto was into.

ProfLatX: We all have our strengths and weaknesses in whatever we decide to do. At the Latino Comics Expo in San Jose you mentioned to me and the audience how you don’t draw horses well, and that you would never do a Western as a comic book.

JH: I’m just too lazy to learn to draw horses. [laughter]

ProfLatX: So maybe you can speak to how you deal with constraints like that, either not do a Western or etc.

JH: You do what you’re good at. I hate drawing cars, too, but I’m such a product of Southern California with its car culture that all my characters are always in cars, yet I hate drawing cars. My characters are always driving somewhere. I could learn to draw a horse in a day, but I’m lazy.

IS: My question is about aging: aging as a cartoonist and the aging of your characters?

JH: I mostly try to relate how I’m aging with that of the chronology of my characters. If I’m aging, then so is Maggie. With this I ask myself what’s important to a character like in her 30s or 40s that wasn’t so important to her when she was 19. Aging is hard to draw, though. If you’re not careful, when drawing a character who has aged from 19 to 30 or 40, using too many lines can make them look like they’re 60. When Maggie was getting to that age, I didn’t know whether to put lines on her face or not.

IS: What’s your process for creating and developing your characters?

JH: Yes, in many ways the characters write themselves. I might start the story with wanting to draw Maggie wearing a, say, a hat and then I ask: where is she with this hat and why is she wearing this hat? Once I answer these questions, the story starts rolling as guided by her personality that determines what path the story will take. Sometimes I don’t like that path, so I change the character. I think how the story would be better if, say, Hopey, were the main character personality and temperament.

IS: Is it easier, harder, or the same for you to draw male or female characters?

JH: I like drawing women. I like every aspect of women. They are in my comics. It’s simple as that. When the Love & Rockets started, there were not a lot of strong women characters in comics; women that did appear were stereotypes of the worst kind. Beto and I made it our mission to correct stereotypes that we were seeing in comics—and TV and movies. There were a lot of women in my life—and continue to be—and I knew they had nothing to do with represenations of women in comics, TV, and movies.

In my comics, the male characters are far fewer and they come and go. There’s no real reason for that, other than that maybe I know my female characters better and their personalities are stronger so they write more stories.

ProfLatX: Did you have a light bulb moment when you said I am going to become a professional comic book storyteller?

JH: Just out of high school I printed then mailed off my first comic book story—a barbarian story with sword fights and etc. I didn’t care if it made money I just wanted to see it in print. I knew then that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to draw comics. I didn’t know where I could do this because in 1977 you moved to New York and drew the Marvel way: Spider-Man spinning webs across the Manhattan skyline. I didn’t want to do that. Gilbert and I kept drawing stories hoping they would be printed and maybe enough money so we could survive off the comics; Gilbert was working sweeping a mall at the time. In 1981 we self-published our own comic (we had to borrow money from our younger brother) but had not idea how to sell it. There was no Alternative comics market at the time, so we would drive a bunch of them from Oxnard to LA for local conventions. It was during this time when Gilbert sent the copy to the Comics Journal. We heard back from Gary Groth a month later. He wanted to publish it immediately. He told us that if we published with him that we’d make more money than working for Marvel or DC. What he meant was that this wouldn’t be work for hire and we would ultimately own our work. So we took the leap with what was at the time a small start-up publishing company.

IS: You have had tremendous career as a comic book creator that many might envy. This is a lot of work in isolation. Is there anything you think you might miss from, say, a regular 9-5 job?

JH: Sometimes I wish I had a weekly paycheck and that I actually worked with people. I’ve always been alone in my bedroom or my little studio. Sometimes I wish I could interact with people. But then I think I’ve got the luckiest job in the world.

IS: To what extent do your fans shape your characters and stories?

JH: I have a lot of fans who like the punk elements when Maggie and Hopey were younger so I’ll create a flashback for that particular audience. And there are fans who get into the magical realism of the stories so I’ll create a magical realist story for them. And, there are those who really love my sci-fi fantasy stories so I’ll create one for them.

ProfLatX: How has the comics scene changed from when you started 30 years ago to today?

JH: Since the alternative movement in the early ‘80s, there are a lot of creators telling stories in many different ways and about all aspects of life. I try to keep an interest in all of them.

ProfLatX: There remains a certain prejudice against reading comics; that somehow this is not serious literature. In 2006 you smashed this misconception when you published La Maggie La Loca strip in the high-brow newspaper, The New York Times.

JH: That was a learning experience. I was following Chris Ware who was at the top of his game. I was working under the constraint of a weekly, needing to fill the page once a week. And, I was worried about speaking to a much larger audience than I was used to. I started to think more like this is serious literature, and it was killing me. And then one day, I told myself not to worry; that they hired me for what I do best. So I gave them a self-contained (22 weeks or so) Maggie story.

I wasn’t sure if people were getting it or simply passing over the Maggie story. Then The New York Times published a letter from a woman that made it all worth it. She said something like how “I’m not usually a comic reader, but every time I get my Sunday New York Times, I go straight to this Maggie story. And that’s the first thing I read.” This person wasn’t a comic reader or anything and yet she looked forward to my story. I was so touched.

ProfLatX: Over the years, technologies for creating comics has changed radically yet you still use ink, pencil, and paper.

JH: I still do it the old fashioned way. I pencil it and then I ink it and have it printed. I still do it that way. The only way I use a computer is when I scan the pages to send to the publisher to be published. I’m old and too set in my ways to learn how to draw on a computer. I like sitting at the drawing board, opening the drawer and pulling out the latest page and then just start working, just drawing. It’s just more intimate to me. It’s more personal. And it makes great original art. I still do it the old way because they haven’t invented a way of me making comics better than that. Put another way, I’m a control freak. The whole page has to be me one hundred percent.

2017-12-02T00:55:22+00:00