Screens Quick study

Javier Hernandez' comic-book series El Muerto inspired a film before its superhero even discovered his powers

After a weekend spent watching Japanese monster movies, including the 1956 Rodan! The Flying Monster, 8-year-old Javier Hernandez returned to his second-grade classroom with one thing on his mind.

"I actually always think about that day - the day I became an artist," Hernandez, 39, told the Current via phone from his home in Whittier, California. "I remember ... it was time for art and I drew `Rodan` on one of those big drawing pads. I remember it had some type of form and resemblance to the actual character."

Wilmer Valderrama plays Diego, the boy who becomes El Muerto (above), in the forthcoming film based on Javier Hernandez' comic-book series.

That same year, Hernandez' oldest brother, Albert, gave him a box of Marvel and DC comics. From Batman to Daredevil to the Fantastic Four, Hernandez quickly acquired a passion for the art form and never looked back.

"What influenced me was the art," said Hernandez, who is a fan of Jack Kirby, known to comic-book fans as "The King of Comics," and Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man. "The art is what got me hooked on comics at that age."

With his $2 allowance, Hernandez would go straight to the local 7-11 to buy comics, which at the time cost 25 cents apiece. "I could buy six comic books and a Slurpee," Hernandez said. "Then I would take my comics and drink and go to the park and read them there. That went on for quite a while."

Hernandez' love for comics continued throughout his childhood, teenage, and young-adult years, but it wasn't until 1998, at the age of 32, that he debuted his first original comic-book character, El Muerto the Aztec Zombie, in black-and-white photocopied 'zines.

"El Muerto stemmed from my lifelong love of comics," Hernandez said, adding that the character is drawn from his own persona. "When I got down to wanting to do my own comic book, something inside me told me to do a superhero that reflected my own Mexican background. I wanted to do something I knew about. I didn't want to write about a superhero from New York because A, I've never been to New York, and B, there's too many damn superheroes in New York."

Inspired by the folklore and imagery of the Mexican celebration Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Hernandez created a 21-year-old slacker named Diego de la Muerte, who, on his way to a Día de Los Muertos festival, is abducted by the Aztec gods of death and destiny and sacrificed in an ancient ceremony.

"I'm incorporating the old mythologies and folkore, but there is, of course, superhero grammar," Hernandez said. "I transferred a lot of the American comic-book stuff with the stuff I wanted to use, like the Aztec mythology."

Four years after introducing his comic 'zine, Hernandez decided to print a full comic with a large print run under his production company Los Comex. Although the unveiling of the 48-page El Muerto the Aztec Zombie No. 1, was exciting enough, Hernandez said he never expected what occurred next.

After his first edition, which doesn't even reveal El Muerto's superpower (that won't happen until late this summer in No. 2, Dead and Confused), the comic landed in the hands of director Brian Cox (Keepin' It Real), who was interested in the story.

Hernandez worked with Cox on the script and the film El Muerto was born. Currently in post-production, the film stars Wilmer Valderrama (Fez from That '70s Show) as Diego, who ultimately becomes El Muerto, the first Latino superhero character to jump from comics to the silver screen.

"I've been extremely fortunate," said Hernandez, who is now an associate producer. "This was a one-in-a-million chance. The stars were perfectly lined up."

By Kiko Martinez

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