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Jaime Hernandez, co-creator of Love and Rockets, spoke about his love of women, wrestling, comic books, punk rock, and Dennis the Menace—and how it all feeds his work telling epic stories that ring true—at the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE) last weekend.
“I like to surprise myself,” the soft-spoken Hernandez told Paul Karasik, who acted as the interviewer. “That’s how I have as much fun as the reader does.”
Brothers Mario, Gilbert, and Jaime Hernandez started self-publishing Love and Rockets in 1981. The series gained a wider audience after it was picked up by Fantagraphics. Most of the stories Jaime writes and draws for the book follow a cast of characters from a Mexican-American community in Southern California not unlike the Hernandezes’ own hometown of Oxnard, Calif.
“My brothers and I were the weirdos in our neighborhood, because we were rockers,” Hernandez told Karasik and a diverse crowd of 125, some of the 4,255 attendees who filled the halls of Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., for the tenth edition of MICE. Karasik is a New Yorker cartoonist and the co-author of How to Read Nancy, among other work.
“Even before we got into punk, we were into glam rock, like T. Rex and Kiss,” Hernandez recalled. “Then punk came along. . . . At first, we went to L.A. to see bands. Then we started a little Oxnard scene. You’d go to a record store and see—‘Hey, that guy’s wearing a Blondie pin! He’s a punk!’ We were so hungry for this in our little town.”
Connecting with fellow outsiders at record shops and sweaty DIY shows sparked Hernandez’ confidence and inspired material for Love and Rockets. “Punk freed me,” he said. “I was shy all the way through high school, never talked to girls. Then in the punk scene, I met a lot of loud girls who spoke their mind and didn’t care what anybody thought.”
In other words, girls like his two central characters, bass player Hopey and rocket mechanic Maggie. (They would move beyond those occupations as the series evolved and the cast aged in real time.)
About his images of women, particularly the curvaceous Maggie, Karasik had a question to relay from Tillie Walden (Spinning), one of several comics creators he solicited for queries ahead of the event. Walden wanted to know: “Are these images based on your own attraction to certain physicalities?”
“And be careful,” Karasik added, to laughter. “I think this is the anti–R. Crumb crowd.”
“I love women,” Hernandez responded. “I’m not afraid to say that. I love them for 100 different reasons—how they look, how they move. . . I don’t get tired of drawing these characters.”
But Hernandez made it clear he is not a pinup artist. It’s a character’s personality, he said, that makes him or her leap off the page, and Hernandez finds women’s personalities more often multi-dimensional.
“Put a character in a situation,” he said. “A guy’s gonna have one of two responses. Well, a woman might go with any of six responses. There’s so much more to write. . . . It’s as simple as, a man or a woman, who would it be more interesting to show fixing a toaster?”
To be sure, Hernandez said, “I didn’t know if I was doing it right until at a convention a woman came up to me and said, ‘I like the way you write women.’ Phew!”
As if to confirm that reception, during the Q&A several women in the crowd praised the series for depicting strong but complex female protagonists. One woman offered, “Maggie was ahead of her time—she gained weight at a time when it was not cool to gain weight, and had self-esteem issues because of her size. And I just want to thank you for that.”
Hernandez seemed humbled by the compliment. However, he pointed out that strong female characters predate him by centuries. For a recent children’s book, Hernandez adapted a Latin American folk tale about a kitchen maid who faces off against a seven-headed dragon. “It’s like a Cinderella story, but she does all the work herself. It’s kind of like Maggie—she’s got no superpower, but she feels the need to fix things, and she always tries, even if she doesn’t always succeed.”
Dragon Slayer was fun to draw, Hernandez added, because “nobody can tell you, ‘That’s not what a dragon looks like!’”
Not that he’s a stranger to the fantastic. Though Hernandez’ Love and Rockets stories are chiefly rooted in reality, Karasik pointed out there were surreal, sci-fi elements in the early issues: “You’d have aliens and other oddities walking around in the background.”
“That’s because I’d rather draw an alien than a car,” Hernandez joked.
“I’d rather draw anything than a car,” Karasik agreed.
But Hernandez confirmed that at the beginning of the series, “I threw in there everything I was into or had ever been into,” from punk rock to cruising, sci-fi to superhero comics. “Eventually the stuff I liked the most stayed.”
One thing the Hernandez brothers were into as kids that persisted in the plots of Love and Rockets: pro wrestling.
“It was not so much the macho aspect that drew me, but more the humor—and there’s no humor like wrestling humor,” Hernandez said. “Especially in—I hate to say ‘the olden days.’”
“The feuds, the drama,” Karasik prompted.
“Yeah, and the villains who knew how to whip up a crowd. Like Ric Flair coming out in his expensive suit and taking off his shoe and saying, ‘This shoe cost more than your house.’ That’s just cool. And then he gets his butt kicked in the ring and we’re going, ‘Yeahhhhh!’”
Acting, Hold the Ham
What about the comics? Kim Deitch (Boulevard of Broken Dreams) wanted to know who were Hernandez’ favorite artists when he was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s.
The response: Owen Fitzgerald, who drew Dennis the Menace; and Harry Lucey, who drew Archie.
“Lucey had whole stories of people just talking. There were no trappings for them to hide in. But they were doing something while talking, whether it be walking down the street or going into the store.
“Same with Fitzgerald. Dennis would be having a conversation with his mother while she was giving him a bath, toweling him off, putting on his PJs, putting him to bed—just normal stuff. Fitzgerald’s a genius at that.”
“I see that in your own work,” Karasik noted. “Rarely is a character just talking to the reader. No, they’re walking, getting coffee—they’re acting. Because you learn so much more about a character that way.”
“One of the biggest tricks I had to learn,” replied Hernandez. “Yes, they’re acting, but they’re not hamming it up. Get them off the stage. You want it to be as natural as possible.”
When Your Characters Surprise You
What about the time Hopey and Maggie were in a ménage à trois? That was the question from David Mazzucchelli (with whom Karasik collaborated on the graphic adaptation of Paul Aster’s novel City of Glass).
“I read that a number of fans complained about that panel, saying, ‘Hopey would never do that!’ And you responded, ‘I think I know better than anyone what Hopey would do.’”
“Oh yeah, now I remember,” said Hernandez, nodding as Karasik read aloud the email from Mazzucchelli and showed the panel in question on a projector screen. “And then a few months later, Hopey learned she was pregnant.”
“Did you plan that?” asked Karasik.
“So it came as a surprise to you, too!?”
For the most part, Hernandez said, he appreciates feedback from fans. “Sometimes they think of angles I hadn’t even intended. I get a lot of insights from that. That’s why I started leaving stories open enough so that readers could make up their minds, come up with their own interpretations.”
The last question of the evening came from an audience member: “As an artist, is there anything you still struggle with?”
“To tell the story the best way I can figure,” said Hernandez. “It’s still important to me to get to the point where you forget that it’s just lines on paper.”