Culture - A B&W and Brown Revolution

Back at the dawn of the ’80s, when comics were created almost exclusively for pubescent boys and stores specializing in comic books were practically unheard of, a strangely named series popped up that, by any reasonable expectation, shouldn’t have lasted more than a couple of issues.

The comic, Love & Rockets (no, they didn’t steal the name from the band — it was the other way around), was an unlikely candidate to make history: It was printed in black-and-white, for one thing, which was nearly unheard of outside the Underground hippie comix found in head shops. It was created by three no-name artists from Oxnard, California, who called themselves Los Bros Hernandez. And while it contained occasional genre elements like spaceships and aliens, those took a distant back seat to more realistic storylines about Mexican-Americans and other Latino characters.

Yet more than a quarter century later, B&W “alternative” comics are everywhere. If the comics world remains largely white and male, the range of artistic voices has grown enormously. And two of those bros, Jaime and Gilbert (the third, Mario, was not a regular contributor to the series) have been touted as part of “the next wave” by that arbiter of the mainstream, TIME magazine.

“Imagine a Mexican-American TV soap opera,” the magazine wrote a while back, “written with Federico García Lorca’s dramatic intensity and passion for female characters but produced with the randy exuberance of a soft-core-porn video.” (TIME’s writers, evidently, have never seen Gilbert’s occasional ventures into no-holds-barred hard-core.)

What’s more, Jaime Hernandez is just wrapping up a 20-episode serial in a newspaper famous for not running a comics page: He is the second artist to write for the New York Times Magazine’s new Funny Pages section (following art-and-design-world darling Chris Ware), with a story starring a character introduced in that very first Love & Rockets tale.

“Twenty-five years later,” Jaime says, “I’m finally able to tell friends and relatives what I do for a living and they actually understand.”

Hernandez spoke to the Current from his home in Pasadena, not more than an hour’s drive (well, this is Southern California, so factor in traffic) from where he grew up. As his characters know, though, a few dozen miles can make a world of difference. Take Maggie Chascarrillo, who takes an exotic vacation in the NYT Magazine serial, but these days calls Los Angeles her home. Hernandez’s most recent book, Ghost of Hoppers (Fantagraphics), chronicles a couple of uncomfortable trips she makes back to her old stomping grounds, a Mexican-American neighborhood in Huerta, California.

Hoppers is where we first met Maggie and her running buddy (and sometime lover) Hopey Glass, a pair of troublemakers whose love of the LA punk scene mirrored the author’s. Longtime readers have watched Maggie go through a lot: She’s been a mechanic; trained with megastar wrestler Queen Rena Titañon; married and divorced; and been so down on her luck that she’s accepted money for sex. None of these travails caused as much controversy among readers as when she started to put on weight.

Hernandez has resisted pleas from readers who hated to see Maggie and Hopey grow apart and — horror of horrors — succumb to the physical realities of aging. He treats his characters like actual people, which is more common in the “alternative” comics realm than in the superhero world, but still rankles plenty of fans. When asked about his affinity for non-traditional, realistic characters, he’s matter-of-fact: “When we started, we thought what was happening around us was far more interesting than what was happening in comics.”

Asked how long it took him to realize he’d be telling Hopey/Maggie stories for years to come — almost his whole career to date, with the exception of occasional work-for-hire illustration gigs — the answer is surprising: “As soon as readers told me they liked them after the first issue.”

But maybe that shouldn’t be a shock. After all, Siegel and Shuster knew they’d done something new when their first Superman stories were embraced by the public; the Hernandez brothers were accomplishing something almost as original in the early ’80s.

Real-world characters had been popping up in underground comics since the late ’60s, after all, but most of those male cartoonists gave no hint of wondering what goes on inside a woman’s mind. Jaime and Gilbert not only were clearly interested, they created a handful of three-dimensional, believable female characters who dominate the series to this day. (Not that they were immune to male fantasies: Gilbert’s women are inhumanly large-breasted, and Jaime is fond of background characters like the buxom, rich, and blonde Penny Century.) The now-established explanation for this female fixation is that the boys’ father died when they were young, and they were raised by a mother who not only tolerated her kids’ interest in comic books, but was an avid fan herself. Contrast this with one of the most common complaints heard in fandom — “My mom threw out my whole comic collection!” — and you can understand how Los Bros failed to buy the conventional wisdom that their medium was supposed to be a boys’ club.

In addition to the usual Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko heroes, Jaime was particularly drawn to more down-to-earth funny-book stuff like Dennis the Menace and Archie. If the latters’ influence is clear in the day-in-the-life stories he tells now, it’s even more pronounced in his drawing style. While Hernandez has refined his crisp graphics to the point that his draftsmanship is revered by peers, he also has a special knack for the perfectly deployed cartoony gesture. He’s happy to make Maggie’s hair stand on end when she’s startled, or to have steam and whirlpools of fury shoot from Hopey’s head when she’s refused backstage entry to a punk show. In some of the series’ most endearing moments, Hernandez draws flashbacks to characters’ childhoods as if they were penned by a barrio-born Charles Schultz.

(Asked what obscure cartoonists he’d reprint if he ruled the world, Hernandez says, “Gee whiz, I can only think of a few. Bob Bolling who did Little Archie comics. Owen Fitzgerald who did Dennis the Menace comics. Ogden Whitney who drew Herbie comics.” Attention, indie publishers ... )

Hernandez’s style, characterized by a beautiful balance of foreground with huge swaths of black background, was developed out of necessity. Love & Rockets’ unusual B&W format “started out an economic decision,” he recalls. “But, hey, it accidentally helped start the black-and-white comics boom in the ’80s, and I think it made me a better artist.”

Not that Hernandez doesn’t like taking an occasional break from that monochrome world. The NYT Magazine serial pops off the page in vibrant color, courtesy of Hernandez’s friend, cartoonist Steven Weissman (Chewing Gum in Church). And, to address a now decades-old question, he’s also not against moving way beyond B&W line drawings, to the silver screen itself. Comic-shop gossip has sometimes envisioned movie producers begging a reluctant Hernandez to make a Maggie and Hopey movie. Asked if the pressure is high, though, he responds, “Only pressure from myself. Movies have been as big an influence on me as comics and real life have, and I would feel foolish to pass up the opportunity if it comes up.”

The question is whether the opportunity will come along without requiring too many compromises. Hernandez says that watching Dan Clowes’s experience with Ghost World “showed me that it’s possible to stay close to the original material. But then again, mine is about Latinos.” And unless an L&R movie were to star J-Lo or Salma Hayek (a ridiculous notion that the artist has naturally rejected), the prospects of it being made with a Latino cast are slimmer than fans may think.

Then again, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez helped change the face of one entrenched art form 25 years ago. Who says they can’t show Hollywood a thing or two?


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