I first met Professor Frederick Luis Aldama in 2015, at a conference held by the International Society for the Study of Narrative in Chicago. His talk on mixed-race superheroes was part of a larger panel on comics which attempt to recenter and reframe identitarian margins – a prescient topic given the troubled times we’re living in, and the frequency with which the mainstream comics industry seems to find itself at the epicenter of race-related controversies.
In light of his current Eisner Award nomination for Best Academic/Scholarly Work, I reached out to him for a brief interview.
SHAWN EDREI: Frederick, aside from being the author of many books on Latinx pop culture, and the founder and director of the award-winning Latinx high-school-to-college-pipeline program (known as LASER/Latinx Space for Enrichment Research), you are also the Arts & Humanities Distinguished Professor at Ohio State University. Has this diverse range of scholarly interests and academic and community engagements provided you with any unique insights into the ongoing evolution of Latinx superheroes?
FREDERICK LUIS ALDAMA: What a great ice-breaker, Shawn. Let me begin with talking about how my scholarship on Latinx superheroes grows concentrically from my interest as a reader of comics, the way I see comics in the lives of other Latinxs (my 11-year-old included), and how I see family members and those in the Latinx community as superheroic in the way they overcome daily monumental obstacles thrown their way.
Let me break this down a bit more. From my first scholarly foray into Latinx comics in 2009 with Your Brain on Latino Comics through the multiple publications since that include today’s publication of Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics, there’s been a real scarcity of representation of Latinx subjects and experiences. On the one hand, this comes as little of a surprise. Take a look at the mainstream media in the US. We’re hardly visible; less than 2% represented, actually. Yet, we’re the majority minority at 18% plus percent of the US population. And when we do appear in mainstream TV shows, films, comics and the like, it’s usually as lazy reconstructions of age-old caricatures and destructive stereotypes. Today’s producers and creators (mostly non-Latinx) prefer reproducing Latinxs as bandidos, buffoons, or exotic-erotic types inherited from a maligned and racist mainstream cultural imaginary. And this when the complexity of Latinxs subjectivity and experience is unavoidable in all aspects and all regions of US everyday life. As Chris Rock said of the nearly all-white Oscars nominations in 2016, you really have to go out of your way not to find a Latinx in LA and beyond. In spite of our long presence in the US and now as the majority minority (some have called this the Browning of America) mainstream producers and creators from Hollywood, Network TV, and DC/Marvel comics continue to either look the other way, deliberately erase us, or lazily turn their attention to stereotypes of yesteryear.
LASER has been extremely successful at clearing pathways for new generations of Latinx students to gain entrance to college. And, with this it’s also helped open doors for these same students to realize their full potentialities as active transformers of culture and society, including the making of comics, art, films, and the like. One of the important pieces of the LASER puzzle is not only to provide the tools for successful entrance to college, but also to provide networks for these students; this includes introductions and internships within all sorts of fields of inquiry—and the making of cultural phenomena like comics and films. This is possible because of my own active interface with these different industries and creators of color actively involved here. Recently, a LASER high school scholar interned with the famous animator and comic book creator, Rafael Rosado. The experience and skills learned led to the student’s admission to a prestigious art summer program at the Cincinnati College of Art and Design that ultimately led to a full ride to the University of Toledo.
I realize that I can do all this because I’m in a position to do so; that is, I have the academic capital to be able to institute programs and build networks with industry captains, including a recent creation of a pipeline program with James Younger, Executive VP of Morgan Freeman’s Revelations Entertainment.
Certainly, having the academic credentials of a titled professor has helped open doors for future generations of Latinx scholars and cultural creators. And, once tenure was safely in the rearview mirror I could comfortably explore and write books on Latinx comics. Out of grad school I was hired into a literature department (CU Boulder) and knew that my first books out of the gate needed to be squarely focused on literature, or I’d likely not get tenured.
I’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth mentioning again that old-guard English department scholars still looks at pop culture scholarship as somehow not as worthy as say literature. I tell my PhDs to be sure to include in their dissertation a chapter that’s literature based—one that they can give at job talks to appease these old guard gatekeepers. Trojan-horse style, they can enter then enter such spaces and transform from within.
As you can see, the multiple levels to your question weave together into a rather complex tapestry where each thread (scholarship, community, and cultural capital) depends on the other in my work on Latinx comics. Indeed, if one were to unravel one of these thread, the whole tapestry would fray apart.
EDREI: Your book Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics (currently nominated for an Eisner Award) has been recently adapted into a documentary film! How did that project come about?
ALDAMA: While delving into the Marvel/DC comic book archives to excavate the story of the Latinx superhero presence in mainstream comics, I realized that not only did the in-print encyclopedias fail to mention Latinx superheroes, but that there was an equally silent and silencing visual-auditory presence; where YouTube has plenty of documentary histories of superhero comics, including some focused on the African American presence, there were absolutely none on Latinx superheroes.
From my more intuitive sense things as a kid and teen to the more systematic and scholarly formal work I’ve done as an academic, I knew that Latinx superheroes have been present in world comics history—and in important ways. However, the lack of mention of Latinxs in documentaries and those Marvel/DC encyclopedic tomes would have people believing otherwise.
This is a long way of stating that from the second I began to research and write Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics, I actually had in mind the making of a documentary; in my mind, it would an organic expansion of the book that would provide yet another means and mode for educating audiences about the importance of Latinxs in comics.
Of course, pulling something like this off requires a huge amount of intellectual and creative work on the part of many many people. I recruited supremely talented and creative Dan Garee of DG Cine—a local, Columbus film outfit. And, I knew that we could create this on a shoestring budget if we had everything ready to film by the time of last year’s SOLCON: The Brown and Black Comics Expo and Cartoon Crossroads Columbus. There would be a huge number of creators of color and comics scholars in town that we could pull aside and interview. So, Dan and I quickly worked up an outline for the through-narrative and set the camera rolling. We ended up with hours of footage that we had to chisel and sculpt into a coherent narrative in postproduction. This took months, of course. Now we have the first ever documentary on Latinx superheroes in mainstream comics. This fall, it’s already booked for screenings it this year’s SOLCON and CXC as well as at university campuses across the country. I think it’s bad-ass enough for the film-fest circuit, too.
EDREI: The history of the mainstream comics industry in America hasn’t been overly kind to minority characters, especially nowadays – are there any particular Latinx characters you would point to as potential positive templates for current and future writers?
ALDAMA: You are absolutely right, Shawn. While I excavated from the mainstream comics archive over a hundred Latinxs superheroes and supervillains, this is still a drop in the bucket when compared to the thousands of Anglos. And, as I discuss in the third section to Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics, when we start looking at the recreations of Latinx superheroes from in-print to animated, televisual, and cinematic modes there’s a willful erasure. Chris Nolan’s casting of Tom Hardy as Bane is a case in point. Bane is one of the greatest Latinx supervillains ever. In the casting of a Brit to play this role Nolan missed a great opportunity to set things right in terms of representation. This is only one of many many instances of Latinx erasure as we move from comic book to comic book film.
There are so many great Latinx superheroes. Two mainstream superheroes come readily to mind: George Pérez’s White Tiger (and the White Tiger legacies that include Latina nieces and the like) and Joe Quesada’s Maya Lopez as Echo. White Tiger appearance (Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #19, 1975) showed the world that we could have a complex Latinx superhero; one anchored in ancestry (Boricua) and language (bilingual Spanish/English), and with a contemporary race consciousness (his T-shirt read, “Puerto Rico We Down”). And, in another radical departure from the mainstream comic book norm that simply browned-up (shades of brown) otherwise Caucasian featured characters, Pérez used his geometric skills to give Hector Ayala/White Tiger more Afrolatino facial and hair features. Quesada’s (and David Mack) introduction of Maya Lopez as Echo (Daredevil Vol. 2 #9, 1999) affirms the significant indigenous ancestry that informs Latinx identities. In addition to the use of visuals to identify her native indigeneity Quesada/Mack create one of the most compelling superhero coming of age narratives. We follow her on an extraordinary journey of the education of her self through all her senses but hearing. She’s deaf so learns, for instance to play the piano through the training of her other senses of sight and touch.
Recently, with the runaway success of Black Panther we saw how folks of color front and center in the Marvel Studio universe reaps big rewards for those counting dollar profits. If for no other reason than this, the studios need to be figuring out ways to do the same with Latinx superheroes. I’m thinking White Tiger could be a good bet.
EDREI: You recently gave a presentation on Geometric Storytelling, Production and Consumption in Latinx comics at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center in New York; what stylistic or literary trends do you see Latinx comics embracing in the next few years?
ALDAMA: When writing Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics I wanted to figure out a term, a concept that would capture the significance of the visual shaping devices used in comic book storytelling. I came up with geometric storytelling and geometrizing the narrative as a short-hand to identify all the visual elements (line, ink, balloon placement, panel layout, perspective, shapes, etc.) that work as the primary means of constructing dynamic stories. And while there’s been a certain regularity—conventionalizing?—to this in superhero comics, with the infusion of and drawing on the kind of radical experimentation seen in alternative comics, this geometrizing of the narrative is today constantly pushing the boundaries of visual storytelling styles and modes. Of course, this is not new. Back in the early 1980s when Los Bros Hernandez created Love and Rockets we saw them absorb, distill, then reconstruct all variety of comic book visual storytelling conventions. Their blend of Archie styled characters with the everyday-life stories seen in the Alternative comics scene combined with flying superheroes created made new readers perception, thought and feeling about Latinx characters and experiences.
Today, we’re seeing all variety of new geometrizing of Latinx stories from all corners. I think of the 80 plus creators that threw down to create 2-4 page epiphanic biographical comics for my forthcoming collection, Tales from La Vida: A Latinx Comics Anthology. Here we see the vast ways that Latinx comics creators can use the visual and verbal elements to create comic narratives about in all sorts of styles from sci-fi, manga, fotonovela, codex, social satire, and the lyric and much more; we see how Latinx creators use the art of comic book storytelling to explore issues of language, identity, racism, family, community, pre-colonial myth, the body. It shows the world that when it comes to Latinx comics, there are no limits.