Along with his brothers Gilbert and Mario, pioneering underground comics artist/writer Jaime Hernandez has been a unique and unapologetically Latino voice in comics since 1981. With an influential and beloved body of work out on Fantagraphics, Hernandez started out mixing science fiction into the lives of folks like those he saw all around him in his hometown of Oxnard, California, during the Reagan years. Seen through his eyes, small town life becomes rich with teen anguish, punk rock, Chicano culture, turf wars, romance, strong women, handsome fellas, and the occasional superhero or Mexican wrestling star. Growing his characters into adulthood, Hernandez’s skills as both an artist and a narrator have grown all the richer.
DM: I want to congratulate you — I saw that you won the LA Times Book Prize for Graphic Novel — The Love Bunglers won. It was good to see you get honored in your hometown.
Jaime: Makes you wonder if they’re playing favorites.
DM: Well, you ARE a favorite. And I saw that The Love Bunglers contains “Browntown,” which won the Ignatz Award for Outstanding Story in 2011. Did that come out as an individual book?
Jaime: Yeah, the original was basically Love and Rockets: New Stories #3 (2010) #4 (2011).
DM: Have you guys been doing that with Love & Rockets since you started up again — you’ll do some issues and then consolidate those to put it out in book form?
Jaime: Yeah, now we we start to think about the collected works ahead of time. Before we just did our stories — threw caution to the wind — and then collected them that way. But then started to think: Well what if I do a story and it’ll fill a book, and by the time I finish, it will seem like…
DM: …it was planned?
DM: What’s your creating and writing process look like — mapping that out? Do you write in a notebook?
Jaime: I write on a pad of paper — I start to write either dialogue or action for the scene: “Maggie walks through door…pauses…” Just stuff like that. So by the time I’m putting it on paper to draw the story, I’m editing it. So: Oh, I didn’t need her walking through the door. So I’ll cut that.
DM: Do you storyboard it at some point?
Jaime: No. And that sometimes gets me in trouble…
Jaime: Yeah, I like to work spontaneously, because I’ll get bored if I already know what happens (laughs).
DM: You know, I was going to ask you — when I saw The Love Bunglers with that title and seeing Maggie and Ray on the cover, I thought: Oh my god, this is going to rip my heart out. So, how emotional is it, writing these characters after having them be such a part of your life for so long?
Jaime: It’s easier to get the emotion stuff going because I *know* them — they’re my babies or my friends or whatever. So, knowing how they’re going to react ends up helping me write. Sometimes, though, I like to surprise myself and have them react differently just to see where it’s gonna go.
DM: Is it different to write them as adults than it was to write them as teenagers?
Jaime: Oh yeah! You know, they grew up with me, so I kinda watch how my life goes and how my behavior has changed over the years. When I was 17 — I don’t react the same way now. I take it differently — or I feel it the same way, but I’ve learned to keep it under control more.
DM: So you don’t stage dive as much as you probably did (laughs). Do you just kind of shout, “I feel very excited about this performance!”? Do you still go to shows?
Jaime: Actually, I just went to my first show in a long time. I went to see The Replacements!
DM: I saw that they’re back together again. Did you see them when you were a kid?
Jaime: I was kind of a latecomer to them. But I saw them quite a few times back then — and then when I saw them this time, I was just a little kid again.
DM: Oh, yeah?
Jaime: And I held up with the pit!
DM: Well, they’re definitely a lot less drunk now, so sometimes they actually play their own songs, which is great.
Jaime: (Laughs) Yeah…
DM: I’m so envious — I can only imagine the bands you got to see on the West Coast when you were a kid.
Jaime: Yeah, partly. In my small town of Oxnard, hardcore blossomed about the time Gilbert and I started the comic. So, by then, I wasn’t a kid anymore, I was in my early 20s. That’s when things started to change. With hardcore, things started to get homophobic — and there were kids coming in who had the energy that I liked — but they were like, “I don’t want any chicks in the pit.” So, things like that started happening and that started to turn me off, and I kind of started to watch it from afar. All my friends were in bands and I was too — but then we were doing comics so we didn’t play as much.
DM: My friend who started me reading Love and Rockets said you guys did it like a zine at first, with a Xerox machine and stapler. Was that true or just Love and Rockets fan mythology?
Jaime: In 1981, we were kind of thinking of our comics in the old Marvel Comics way. You didn’t just go to the copy store and Xerox stuff, out in a half hour. We took it to an actual printer — and the first one turned us down because it was “pornographic”! But the second one did [the printing] and then we had to staple it together ourselves. But there were no guidelines. Now if I wanted to do a little “mini” of sketches, I would just put it together, run to Kinko’s and a half-hour later, I’d have one.
DM: I wrote a lot about 1980s punk rock music culture becoming the alternative industry in the 1990s because it was such an unexpected turn of events.
Jaime: It changed the music industry a lot. I didn’t understand the music industry as a teenager, I just went and bought the records. But in the ’90s, people would say, “The music industry has changed everything…that Nirvana album sold this many because the music industry did this instead of this.” And I still don’t really understand it. But I’m guessing that a lot of people now say, ”Fuck, why do we need the music companies when we can do this stuff ourselves?”
DM: I feel like because it was difficult for us to get our hands on the stuff we wanted — albums, clothes, comics — during punk rock, it made us work harder — so when we got it, it kinda meant something different.
Jaime: Yeah, yeah exactly…yeah! Now you can just go to the mall and say, “I need this,” and just go get it. For us there was all this searching, you know. I was in a small town that didn’t have punk stores. Even if LA was just an hour away, when you’re a kid, it was still this mythical land and you don’t have a car!
DM: Did you guys go to LA for shows?
Jaime: Yeah, that was how we started the punk thing after buying records…
DM: What was your first punk album?
Jaime: Gilbert gave me The Jam’s first album for Christmas.
DM: What a good brother!
Jaime: Yeah, and that same Christmas I got “Bat Out of Hell” by Meat Loaf…
DM: (laughs) So, you had a well-balanced musical diet. But yeah, being able to get stuff that easily makes it mean something different.
Jaime: I think so. It’s a lot different. My wife and I talk: “You know the days when you took your bike or rode the bus to the record store because you wanted that one New York Dolls album?”
DM: It was an epic journey…
Jaime: Yeah! And I said, “Remember when you were listening to it, you looked at every single image on the cover and you looked at all the credits on the back. You knew who everyone was…”
DM: Dead Kennedys records — I probably spent a million hours just looking at every little tiny thing on those album sleeves. It was just so dense with images that looked like nothing else.
DM: A constant topic for us at Dark Matters is representation. When you were growing up, were you aware of Latinos in pop culture and stereotypes as opposed to representation?
Jaime: When we would watch TV as kids, whenever there were Latinos, it was incredibly racist stuff. Like “Speedy Gonzales”? As a kid, I totally didn’t get the racism, and now I go back and look at it and think: Holy crap, how did this get on television?
DM: Were you looking for Latino faces in pop culture growing up?
Jaime: Sure, but not until I was a teenager and started to get more concerned about things. As a kid, I liked “Speedy Gonzales” as much as I liked the next cartoon. I remember when they had to get rid of the “Frito Bandito,” one of my brothers was like, “It’s because it makes fun of Mexicans.” And I was a kid so I didn’t see it. I was thinking: Oh, it does?
DM: With Love & Rockets, you’ve always done a great job at representation — before people even had a word for it.
Jaime: Yeah, we put stuff in, because it wasn’t there. Both the punk thing, the Latino thing. Because I was like: “I don’t see this, I know this stuff, and this stuff is worth telling.” Punk, but also from my life before I was a punk. I spent time riding around in lowriders, and I just thought: God, what a rich culture. And then punk came — what a rich culture. And when I’d see it on TV, the punk kid has a switchblade and he’s trying to rob you in an alley, and I’d think: I have never met a person like that before in my life.
DM: (Laughs) I know, most punk rockers would tend to hurt themselves with any kind any weapon before they could do anything to anybody else usually. So, one thing I saw in Love and Rockets that I didn’t see elsewhere in comics back in the day was the bilingualism of Locas — which was very matter of fact, like in real life. Do you feel obligated to provide translations within the panel or do you ever think about leaving the reader to seek a translation for themselves?
Jaime: Sometimes one, sometimes the other. Depending on what I feel is more important at the time. Sometimes, the slang I use comes solely from my old neighborhood and it won’t be in the Spanish (dictionary) or on Urban Dictionary.
DM: There are a limited number of Latino superheroes in the worlds of DC and Marvel. Are there Latino characters on smaller presses that interest you?
Jaime: There’s a small press comic called Midwestern Cuban Comics by Odin Cabal that I think is hilarious.
DM: In one of my favorite scenes in Love and Rockets, you look at hipster racism. At a party, hipsters think Maggie is “exotic” looking so they start trying to guess her ethnicity. It’s still so relevant. Is that something you ran into in the world of comics?
Jaime: Almost never to my face. I used to hear about people who wouldn’t read our comic because they didn’t know anything about “Spanish culture.” A simple “not interested” woulda sufficed. And punk taught me, you know: think for yourself. I just started thinking: Hey man, let’s tell it how it is. Or to the best of our ability. Like, all the characters in the comics we grew up with, they were all white kids. So, at first, Maggie was “Maggie Chase.”
DM: Which is such a comic book last name! Like Rand Race.
Jaime: Rand Race was left over from my teenage, science-fictiony comics days before I did Love and Rockets. So, they were Race and Chase, space mechanics getting into adventures. But by the time Love and Rockets came around I thought wait a minute — there’s something missing here. That’s why she’s “Chascorillo.” There’s no such last name as that. I looked in the Spanish dictionary for something that started with “Chas.” So it would be like “Chase.” And if I was going to continue with the Mechanics stuff, the more popular The Mechanics got — they were like celebrities — they were going to make Maggie change her name to “Chase” for the media. I was going to do a story about that.
DM: Why did you move away from the sci-fi aspects that were a big part of Love & Rockets initially?
Jaime: The real-life stuff eventually became more interesting to me, therefore more important to the stories I wanted to tell.
DM: Speaking of Maggie, when I saw the spread that you did in Love Bunglers that had the pictures of Ray and Maggie that were from previous books? I knew exactly what stories they were from. I love that page. It was really moving. I kept coming back and looking at those two pages together — that was fantastic.
Jaime: That was the one thing in the story that I was surprised got such a big response.
Jaime: I enjoyed doing it. I thought: This is a good touch, reflecting on their lives. But I got the biggest response from those two pages.
DM: It’s gorgeous.
Jaime: And so, I’ll pretend it’s on purpose.
DM: I’ve often wondered about your design, the way you pose stuff in the panel, the placement and the composition. I never realized how much like noir detective movies your black and white stuff is — the composition. Is that intentional? Did you watch noir detective stuff when you were a kid?
Jaime: Sure, sure! I mean also because we had a black & white TV (laughs).
DM: Yes! Everything is noir on a black & white TV — even cartoons!
Jaime: (laughs) Sure, I learned from noir. But drawing in black and white, in the beginning that was just ’cause we just couldn’t afford color. So, I learned, how should I say? To color the panel without color. I learned a lot from the shadows of film noir. And film noir — just like our comic — it was low-budget. They had to do what they had to to make it beautiful, so they used a lot of shadows and things like that. And that’s the same with me. I use a lot of composition and contrast in things to make it vibrant. I wanna entertain, but at the same time, I wanna entertain myself so I won’t be bored.
DM: Excellent. And, the one thing I wanna ask you before we wrap up is, did you see “Ghost World”?
DM: I think that might be the best comic movie adaptation that I’ve seen.
Jaime: It was very close, yeah. I’ve known (Daniel) Clowes for years, and when I read the comic, and then the movie came out, I was like, “Wow, they let him go and do his thing.”
DM: So if you had the opportunity to do a Love and Rockets movie — if you had enough creative control…
Jaime: I would need COMPLETE creative control (laughs). The older I’m getting, the crankier I am, and the more control I want: ”I know what this looks like, you don’t.” And… “Did you draw it or did I draw it? C’mon…” You know, that kind of thing.
DM: I’m gonna wrap it up, because you’ve been really generous with your time — and I could talk to you all day because I’m a huge nerd.
Jaime: I’M a huge nerd! (Laughs)