Latinx cartoonist, novelist, and performance artist, Erika Lopez, was born in New York City and raised by Quaker activist lesbian mamá in the suburbs of New Jersey and West Virginia. Lopez grew up self-identifying as Afrolatinx; her biological father was Afrolatinx Puerto Rican. She also grew up tremendously influenced by comics like Adam Hughes’s Betty and Veronica (1953-1987). During high school Lopez began to hone her craft as a visual and verbal storyteller. After graduating she continued to acquire formal skills in the arts at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Moore College of Art and Design, and Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. A cross-country road trip inspired Lopez to write her first graphic novel, Flaming Iguanas (1997). She followed this with the publication of Lap Dancing for Mommy (1997), They Call Me Mad Dog (1998), Hoochie Mama: The Other White Meat (2001), The Girl Must Die: A Monster Girl Memoir (2010), and The Girl Must Die: 18 Postcards (2010). She lives in San Francisco, California.
ProfessorLatinX: How do your experiences as a Latina inform your graphic fictional/autobiographical works?
Erika Lopez: What’s good about being Latina is you take a meeting with a business white guy and you’re glad you’re not black because they’ve got stories for black people all typed out and bound. Everyone’s confused about Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, so you can make it up as you go along. Until the cleaning lady comes in to empty the garbage pails, then you make sure you look her in the eye and say hello.
ProfLatX: Is there some essential connection between how you identify as a Latina and your verbal/visual storytelling choices?
EL: As a Latina creator it all comes down to trying to get someone’s attention. Art can be self-indulgent or communicative. Trying to constantly find the balance never seems to end for me. It forces me to constantly learn new forms of art, and traditional ones. It makes me stretch.
ProfLatX: You began your career creating cartoons for the San Francisco Bay Times—a newspaper for San Francisco’s LGBTQ community.
EL: Everything I do is still essentially cartooning, it’s just dressed up. It’s my most natural form of expression, next to the basic emotions. While anyone can give me feedback on other work, don’t touch my cartooning and illustration. I know what I’m doing and what I want there.
ProfLatX: Many Latinx creators of comics are self-taught. You received more formal training in visual and verbal arts.
EL: I think you need to learn how to draw before you can splatter ink across a page. Training is hard because you need it. But then you also need to put it behind you to create something new.
ProfLatX: Who are your readers?
EL: I have a complicated demographic. Each “type” (gay, colored, female, and biker) thinks they’re the only ones. They see one element and that’s all they see in my work. And yet some of my biggest champions have been middle-aged white guys. I pride myself on having been a chameleon: watching everyone and speaking from different sides of myself.
ProfLatX: You challenge conventions, and yet you’ve been published by an East Coast publisher Simon & Schuster.
EL: I’m not trying to challenge conventions. I just see hypocrisy everywhere and it drives me crazy.
ProfLatX: Was Simon & Schuster committed to growing creativity in the graphic novel/autobiographical arts, or simply about the bottom line: money?
EL: When I asked the publishing guys at Simon & Schuster about this, they said it all comes down to sales.
ProfLatX: The scholar Laura Laffrado identifies you as an “alternative-comic artist.”
EL: Laura caught things I had no idea about. She asked such pointed questions that I broke down into tears. I once heard Jim Jarmusch on the radio say, it’s best not to know this stuff going in, and so I’ve got to leave it to you all. I only agonize over my own hypocrisy and what I’m angry at, what I wanted, what I see, and where I see people continuously giving up power for baubles. Latinos, women, artists, colored people, we have a chance to say fuck you and they distract us by tossing balls in the air and we go catch them. I don’t have time to think too much. I don’t need to be elevated by being on gallery walls or in books. I want to be out there in the populace. Graffiti. Cheap. Affordable. I’m all about affordability and being as free as possible. But I have to support myself at the same time. It’s a crazy quest.
ProfLatX: Does the stretched rectangular format of your books shape your visual and verbal choices when creating your graphic novel-autobiographies?
EL: As a visual artist, I think of format first—all else comes after that.
ProfLatX: What’s your process when conceiving of a story?
EL: I make up things in my head and live them out like it’s a fairy tale. I take signs in silly things. It’s more fun that way.
ProfLatX: Why 1950s clip art of domestic women?
EL: Why not? They are hyper women!
ProfLatX: Flying motorbikes, Carmen Miranda drawings, and so much more that mighe be identified as part of a camp aesthetic.
EL: Not camp. I followed those images as I was trying to become a girly girl. I appropriate caricatures in order to find myself, and then incorporate them into whatever project I’m doing.
ProfLatX: What about your drawings of postage stamps with penis images?
EL: I like how they’re small, affordable art that you share and everyone sees.
ProfLatX: Untraditional depictions of bodies are everywhere in your stories: characters with head lice, distorted bodies, drunk dirty chubby uncles. Did Underground Comix have an influence on you?
EL: Underground comix: Suburban kids with too much free time are the ones into pimples and weird body things. I was hustled around so much, I didn’t know people like that existed until I was much older. It’s not bad, it’s just they were working out of a different reality.
ProfLatX: Your characters relishing in their own bodies.
EL: I’m actually not comfortable with hearing about physical stuff. I just write as if no one’s ever going to see that stuff.
ProfLatX: Is there a place for heroism in your aggressively gritty and corporeal graphic realist works?
EL: Heroism is all over my stuff. I’m constantly being tested to be heroic: true to my world, my creations, and my beliefs. When will I break? If I do, can I have a second chance? And does anyone care? No. They’ve got their own fights, make their own choices. And none of it matters. Sure, in the agreement of society’s ideas of who is good or bad. But history and time changes perception, so maybe heroism comes down to being comfortable, being loved, and having a good time.
ProfLatX: Can you make a living at what you do?
EL: It’s hard. I have to try to hustle all over the place and in different ways. So many of my fans saved my bacon when they had me perform at schools. They would buy my books even before they were published. I’ve also learned to act and produce and make films. By trying new media I’ve grown certain creative muscles. That said, I still go back to awkward teen-age insecurities, feeling as if I was never successful at anything.
ProfLatX: You founded Monster Girl Movies.
EL: Before chickening out, I ran out and registered the business name “Monster Girl Movies” at City Hall. I followed this with writing the screenplay then producing “Flaming Iguanas”—with me as the lead, “Kitten Lopez.” In my screenplay Kitten gets into a catfight Judy Garland for the lead in Wizard of Oz. Kitten turned it down and instead took her role in “Flaming Iguanas”. Kitten goes downhill with this flaming movie, audiences go see The Wild One with Brando, including Kitten’s manager and family. So Kitten bought all the copies of “Flaming Iguanas” and hid them, only to be discovered in someone’s garage freezer later on. My impulse to make movies and to create art generally: for girls and young women to see that we can be the agents of our own complex creations that counter the mainstream’s production of us as caricatures.