Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez on Punk, Latinidad, & Reviving Their Seminal ‘Love and Rockets’ Comic Book

Courtesy of the Hernandez Bros.

In 1981, an independent comic book series called Love and Rockets arrived on the scene to completely redefine the standard for what underground, creator-owned comics could be. Conceived by Chicanos from California – brothers Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, with help from a third brother Mario who is no longer involved – the series was born at a time when comics that centered the lives of Latinos were virtually non-existent. Its relatable portrayals of people many of us recognize – the woman who’s always leaving her kids with her cousin so she can go to the club, or the neighborhood junkie with a traumatic and tragic backstory – provided complex, honest, and progressive representations of race, gender and sexuality, even by today’s standards.

Over the course of its initial 15-year, 50 issue run, Love and Rockets became a revered cult favorite (it was later revived in subsequent series and and graphic novel-length annual issue). The Nation has called it “one of the hidden treasures of our impoverished culture,” and Rolling Stone ranked it the greatest non-superhero graphic novel of all time. This month, as Los Bros Hernandez celebrate their 35th anniversary of publishing Love and Rockets, the series will return to newsstands once again. It’s a major event for the many Latinos who saw themselves reflected for the first time in Gilbert’s tales of the mythical Latin American town of Palomar and Jaime’s stories about a group of aging Chicano punks in Southern California.

Natasha Hernandez and her Maggie the Mechanic tattoo. Photo: Mari Hernandez.
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Natasha Hernandez, a San Antonio Love and Rockets devotee who I connected with on Facebook, literally wears her Love and Rockets fandom on her sleeve, sporting a massive tattoo of character Maggie the Mechanic on her upper arm. After stumbling upon Jaime’s ‘Locas’ series when she was 16, she immediately fell in love with the comic’s representation of queer Latinas, one she’d never been able to find in the other comic books she read. Before discovering Maggie, Hernandez says she most identified with the blonde haired, blue-eyed tomboy Betty Cooper character from Archie comics. “But I’m so not Betty Cooper!” she exclaimed to me over the phone. “Betty Cooper is not a brown girl! Betty Cooper’s parents did not speak Spanish!” As a self-identified queer punk rocker girl, Natasha explained “I saw myself in those [Love and Rockets] comic books. It had such a huge impact on me. It made me feel normal and reinforced my reality.”

In 2016, as the subject of diversity in writers’ rooms gains more media traction, it is helpful to look to Love and Rockets as a case study in what can happen when writers of color have complete control over their creative work and stories; when they are free to depict compelling worlds and appeal to a wide audience without relying on tired stereotypes.

The cover of the forthcoming issue of ‘Love and Rockets: stories of SoCal punks’.
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I spoke with Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez over the phone in separate interviews and we talked about the influence of punk music in their work, growing up in the small town of Oxnard, and their portrayal of women and Latinos in their cult comic books Love and Rockets. Here’s what they had to say.

I know your Mom was the one who exposed you and your brothers to comics. But also I feel like in Chicano families, as in a lot of families, the idea of becoming an artist isn’t exactly encouraged. Did you experience that with your mom?
Jaime: She liked comics and it fit, but she didn’t know this was going to become our job. She was happy that we found a job in the end. We weren’t raised to go grab the gold ring. We were raised to get along and survive. When our father died when I was very young she never remarried and raised 6 kids on her own and the five oldest were boys. She knew she couldn’t handle us by the time we became teenagers so she just hoped we would turn out OK. Like ‘Oh God I just hope they won’t get in trouble.’

Punk gave me the freedom to trust my instincts.

Obviously you were inspired and influenced by the LA punk scene. Can you talk about how witnessing the punk movement translated into the comic?
Jaime: Mostly it was just kids like me who were in bands who were doing it themselves, who weren’t intimidated by big stadium shows. They were like, ‘I’m going to play this club to ten people, and we are going to do it our way.’ That turned into the way we looked at our comic. ‘I want to do it this way and I know it’s a good way and I don’t care what other people think. I’m going to trust my instincts.’ Punk gave me that freedom. It was the right time.

You portray Latinidad in all its diversity. There are black, white, indigenous characters. That’s so real. And you’ve been doing it since the 80s, when Latino identity was so often portrayed as this monolith. What made you acknowledge and portray this diversity within Latinos?
Gilbert: In the real world there is diversity. I grew up in Southern California. Some people question this, but it was diverse. The school was a melting pot and that was normal to me. I didn’t realize people were trying to avoid each other and hate each other behind doors. It was embedded in me to have people of different colors in the same place. When I came to do Palomar, I wasn’t seeing [something like] that in any [other comics]. Comic books are terrible. They’re the worst about [diversity]. Spiderman, Superman, Batman, they were over a long time ago. The only reason they’re around is because of movies and video games. By the early 70s and 80s, when I started doing comics, I asked myself how I was going to be different. I was listening to punk and the smarter bands like The Clash or X and they always suggested to be yourself, be the real thing, be honest. That was an inspiration to me. The only way to be different was to be myself.

I never thought ‘If I do it, it’s going to be good.’ I just did it. The fanbase came later. I didn’t project the fanbase. It was more just putting the comic books out there because that’s what I knew how to do. When the books got picked up, that was a happy surprise actually.

Love and Rockets, Vol.1 #24
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It’s like people were waiting for it. Latinos have been thirsty for that kind of representation. What I don’t understand is why, after 35 years, representation is still a problem. Do you have any ideas about why that is?
Jaime: I think there’s a hell of a lot more Latino creators than I knew about back then. They’re doing it their way, some differently than I would. Which is cool. Everyone’s got their own view. I think the problem is still when money is involved. Whenever money is involved there’s going to be stereotypes. Everything is going to be done to please whitey. Money is going to steer you toward the money – and who is the 1%? You find out that the people in control of the TV studio or the movie studio or whoever is paying the check for this art –  they don’t care. They don’t care about other cultures. When they find out that, “Oh well golly! Lots of Latin people spend money on our product” they don’t know what to do! The bottom line is when money is involved someone is going to get shorted.

We got bored of comic books being a boys’ club.

You’ve said, “The more ethnic I am, the more attention I get.” Why do you think that is and why does it work?
Gilbert: I think I become more truthful when I get closer to who I am and where I’m from. I can tell a more truthful story and even a funnier and darker story because I’m just reflecting who I am. There’s a small element though, I hate to say, [which is that] is it’s safe for non-Latino readers. It’s on paper. The characters are drawings. They’re not a threat. When it becomes a pop singer or actress or actor, they’re in your face. That’s a real person there. I think [real life Latino characters] are a little tougher to take for some people.

Then you’re giving them your money.
Gilbert: Then they’re a real threat because they can take your job, they can take the attention away from what you’re into. Like, for example, I remember when Jennifer Lopez got popular as a pop singer. Immediately people disliked her. Right away there was this prejudice of like, ‘oh she’s bad.’ I could read between the lines. I could read that. They didn’t want her to be the star. They wanted Britney Spears. It’s that ‘Don’t come to my neighborhood kind of thing.’ I suspected that.

You and your brother’s work has influenced tons of creatives. Junot Diaz came out and said he was informed by ‘Love and Rockets’ in a very big way. How does that make you feel?
Gilbert: I’m flattered. I’m glad I did something good. I hate to say though, and I know it sounds egotistical, but I’m also not that surprised –  only because had I been a kid and seen something like Love and Rockets, that would have inspired me. But I didn’t see it. It just wasn’t out there. On one hand I’m flattered, but on the other I’m like, ‘what else did he have to look at?’ I’m very flattered, of course.

‘Love and Rockets’ still resonates with audiences. It’s an amazing thing to have been continuously published for 35 years.
Gilbert: That’s a slightly unique situation outside of being Latino. We’re still making comics for 35 years, and they’re still being ordered by people and comic book stores.

Both you and your brother are known for giving your female characters nuanced lives. Yes, they are sexy, sexual, but not stereotypical. What pushed you to write enticing female characters?
Gilbert: We got bored of comic books being a boys’ club. It was a boys’ clubs from the beginning of comics. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, because you have a lot of boys making good comics, but that’s only one part of it. We didn’t see a lot of female characters that we liked – and I guess since I grew up with my mom and my grandma and my aunts – I knew the dynamics of how they talked to each other, what life was like for them. It was something to put in the comic because you weren’t seeing it. It was something we knew. That’s why people for years have been confused, like ‘where did this come from?’ It came from my observations. I didn’t make this up or create this to be anything special. I put what I noticed on paper.

Jaime: I just like writing women. I like drawing women. I like making women come alive on the page. There’s the other side of it. It’s the right thing to do. There’s not great portrayal of women in the past or not a lot, especially in comics.

Some of the comics touch on political ideas. As a writer who is a woman, a Xicana, I feel I can’t help but include politics in everything I do. Do you believe everything you do has a political element?
Jaime: In my work, I try to keep out of it with the characters, because I want a balance of different kinds of people. I want smart, dumb, clueless, evil people because that helps with writing the characters. Every once in a while, I want to take a stab at something. My politics live with me and rarely get out. I imagine my main characters are pretty liberal minded. I like to throw a curve once in a while. What if this character has been a conservative this whole time?

Well “Latinos for Trump” does exist…
Jaime: Oh God. This has been the most terrible or the most entertaining couple of years I’ve ever had with politics.

Do you think Trump would show up in a comic?
Jaime: I hate to say it but he’s beneath my comics. It’s such a cheap shot. It would just feel like cheapening the work if I had something like that.

We’re in a time where a lot of Latinos are being awoken politically, and they are actively trying to discover a lineage of Latinos in the arts who may have slipped through the cracks. I think some of these people are looking toward Love and Rockets as that work.
Gilbert: The two things that work against it is it’s still looked at as just a comic book, and also our books are very sexualized and very sexy. That might scare people away. When people say I‘m a role model, I say ‘well don’t look at this book.’ [laughs].

At what age should I give my nephew Love and Rockets?
Gilbert: Ehhh….I’d say 16 years old, but some people start as early as 11.

The new volume of Love and Rockets will hit the stands in a magazine size edition September 28th, but if you want to start the Love and Rockets sagas from the beginning, check out this great reading guide.