Breaking Every Rule
Flashback to 1981. In the true D.I.Y. spirit of punk and with some cash from their younger sibling Ismael, Los Bros Hernandez, three twenty-something Latino brothers from Oxnard in Southern California, self-published their 32-page black-and-white comic priced one dollar. They called it Love and Rockets. Instead of the usual Comics Code Authority Seal on the front cover, they drew a stamp stating ‘Fair Warning: This Comic Contains Raw Language, Violence and Nudity’. Inside, they introduced themselves: “We, the brothers (Jaime, ‘Bert, and Mario) Hernandez, have tried to get into the comics jungle for a few years now, but could never seem to make the right connections. But now editor (and future contributor) Mario decided upon himself that it was time to do it ourselves. Our own comics with our own ideas; our own mistakes and our own accomplishments.” Their accomplishments would prove to be remarkable and help trigger a wave of alternative, subversive American comics in the Eighties.
Hawking their debut title at the June 1981 Creation Convention in Washington D.C., reactions and sales were mediocre. Back then, with Marvel and DC practically the only games in town, the brothers’ ambitions to break into comics might have all ended there, if Gilbert hadn’t dared to mail a review copy to The Comics Journal, published by Fantagraphics. Gary Groth, the magazine’s editor and a notoriously severe critic, wrote a rave notice: “First, Love and Rockets is the work of genuine imagination, a very, individual, idiosyncratic, and energetic imagination. Second, both Jaime and ‘Bert deal with ideas, not pretentious nonsense or regurgitated pulp trappings. Finally, they’ve got the technical wherewithal that’s always the necessary complement to the imagination.”
Not long after, a publishing deal was agreed and in January 1982, Fantagraphics Books announced the release of an ongoing, more-or-less-quarterly 64-page Love and Rockets magazine. Within a few issues, oldest brother Mario dropped out, leaving Jaime and Gilbert to complete a first fifteen-year run of fifty issues in 1996. The pair then branched off onto solo projects, before relaunching Love and Rockets, first as a twenty-issue series from 2001 to 2007 and then since 2008 as a series of annual 108-page anthologies. This year Jaime Hernandez won yet another Harvey Award, as Best Cartoonist, and after a gap of twenty-five years, returned to London for a sold-out interview on May 30th at the Institut Français with Woodrow Phoenix organised by Comica Festival in association with BD & Comics Passion (photos below courtesy of Woodrow and of Bridget Hannigan).
Over three decades, Jaime and his readers have grown up with his characters, who have become like much-loved friends, even family. These are not corporate-owned properties passed from creator to creator to be endlessly retconned, rebooted and resurrected, but unique, complex fictions whose lives are being enriched and deepened by their originator and owner, who feels a genuine respect and responsibility for them. Pivotal to his ever-evolving human drama are bi-sexual pro-solar mechanic Margarita Luisa Chascarillo and mostly lesbian punk rocker Leticia Esperanza Glass, or Maggie and Hopey to their friends, two ‘locas’, mad, maddening and madly in love, on-and-off with each other.
Jaime found inspiration for this duo and his other forceful females in the strong role model of his widowed mother. “Our Dad died when we were young and we were raised by our Mom. No matter what worries she was going through, she was this big grown-up person handling things. So that’s where I get these take-charge women. I didn’t realise these were rare in comics.” An avid comic book reader and rock fan in her youth, Jaime’s mother passed on her passions to her sons, who devoured Sixties Marvel and Archie comics and Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace, illustrated in comic books by Al Wiseman.
She also nurtured their storytelling imagination with tales of her own. Jaime has never forgotten how “My Mum would open up the cedar chest and show me photos from Texas, where she was from. I used to love it, I was there. She’d tell this whole story about her being barefoot poor but make it sound so cool. ‘You had no money? That’s the best thing in the world.’ So Gilbert and I put stuff we thought about and felt, like a photo or story, into our comics because it was so strong for us.” Superheroes, dinosaurs, women wrestlers and other fantasy trappings may come and go, but that feeling of realism has kept the series grounded and vibrant.
What also sets Love and Rockets apart is its focus on Hispanic people, who, despite making up seventeen per cent of America’s population, remain mostly invisible in the country’s English-language entertainment industries. Jaime recalls, “When I created Maggie, her name was Maggie Chase. It never occurred to me, why I am drawing a white character if I am Latino? Then one day, Gilbert and I both went, ‘Why aren’t our characters Hispanic? Why don’t we draw about what we know?’ So we felt, let’s show ‘em what our life is like.”
The lack of ethnic representations remains a problem in American comics. “Most alternative cartoonists are white, so they write about white people. It frustrates me sometimes. ‘Why don’t you guys stick a black character in there, it’s easy. Just make them a different colour, you don’t have to change their personality’.” Jaime has not shied away from his expansive cast’s issues around race, class, gender and sexuality in their struggles for meaning and belonging.
For an artist renowned for his convincing, nuanced portrayals of women, Jaime Hernandez properly connected with the opposite sex only when he was swept up in the Los Angeles punk scene, playing in local bands and designing posters. “All my childhood I was scared of girls. Through high school, I couldn’t talk to them. It wasn’t until punk days, after high school, that I started meeting punk girls and I just loved their attitude, their sense of humour, the whole thing I put into Maggie and Hopey.” Few other comics artists have come close to Jaime’s skills at capturing in pen and ink the crackling energy and life-changing importance of music when it becomes the soundtrack to your life, whether playing on stage in a rock band or being in the front row at a live gig.
His punk experiences also educated him about sexual diversity, a vital theme running through his stories. “I started to see women having relationships with other women. At first, I put this into my comics because anything goes, I could do stuff they’ve never done before in comics. So I made Maggie and Hopey lovers, but they’re also best friends. And I knew I had to back it up. I could put in as many Latinos as I wanted, because I am one and have that experience. But when I started dealing with women, I had to think about it more, observe more. I had to be more careful with a lesbian character, because I’m not one. I tried my best not to take too much freedom with this, because I take responsibility for everything I do in the comic.” Such sensitivity and dedication towards his characters is echoed in his readers’ devotion to them.
Over time his crisp linework in dip-pen became increasingly refined and purified, in harmony with his bravura balancing of solid blacks and white space. “The lines on paper have to make you believe that they are not lines on paper.” Jaime’s drawing especially celebrates female sensuality and the beauty of the body in motion, without a hint of pandering exploitation. “If I want to draw these girls, there’s got to be an element of truth to it, not just a fantasy. When I was thirteen, Gilbert said, ‘You should start drawing girls, it’s fun’. And I was like, ‘Mom’s gonna kill us!’ but I couldn’t help myself. Early on, I understood the whole sexism thing and knew that if I want to draw these characters, there’s got to be something more to it. I’ve never been able to draw a pin-up of a glamorous girl, if I didn’t know the character. If I try to draw a shapely woman, I want to know who she is, because truthfully it’s sexier. I need to add that spark of personality that makes her real to me.” And to his readers.
Contributing to this realism is the way Jaime moves fluidly back and forth through his characters’ lives and loves, fleshing out their childhoods and adulthoods, springing family secrets, devastating shocks and heart-rending resolutions, planting clues and leaving mysteries to be explained perhaps years later. “All this information is swimming in my head and one day it will be a story.” This bigger perspective also results in revelatory sequences. In one recent spread (below), Jaime shows nine wordless panels of Maggie looking out at us as if caught on camera, while the opposite page shows a similar nine panels of her long-term admirer and ex-lover Ray Dominguez. On closer inspection, we realise the two of them are looking at each other across a lifetime of attraction and affection. Ignoring some readers’ objection, Jaime showed how Maggie, good-hearted though lacking in confidence, put on weight from overeating due to depression. He also boldly bumped the series forward in time to show Maggie in her forties as the manager, plump but still pretty, of a seedy Los Angeles apartment complex.
Unexpectedly in his latest graphic novel God and Science (see roughs below for pages 6 and 88), Jaime has returned to his fantasy roots by mixing Maggie up with friends and tenants who turn out to be in rival teams of feisty superheroines. “I broke every rule I could think of doing superheroes, so guess what, all the women in the world are born with superpowers in them, as a gift or a curse, but some don’t get them till they mature.” Free from boundaries, he totally restores faith the genre, blending riotous banter, balletic fight scenes and girl power with tragedy and tenderness.
Don’t be put off by more than thirty years of Jaime’s tapestry of fascinating characters. Their whole saga up to 2007 is available in five affordable, accessible graphic novels, plus the ongoing annual volumes. Start at the beginning and you’ll soon find the more you read about them, the more you come to care about them.Posted: December 8, 2013
This Article originally appeared in Comic Heroes Magazine #21, 2013.