Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Jaime Hernandez: Love, Rockets, Punk Rock, and Comix

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

“I set my own rules and knock down old ones. Maybe I should work more on knocking down my oldones,” Jaime Hernandez says with a shrug. Says with a cool wisdom, as if his life’s work isn’t really that big a deal.

At least not to him.

“That’s how Love and Rockets started: we were just cocky and didn’t know we could fail. We went ahead and published the first one ourselves and didn’t care what the outcome would be, we just wanted to be printed. Hopefully we could sell it and make money, but there was no one to tell us not to. That was the punk part of it. The more we got good response, the more we kept doing it.”

We’re in the bowels of the Armory, where the MoCCA Fest has been going on all day, technically the “green room”, surrounded by wood molding on the wall. Jaime’s here to promote not Love and Rockets, the indy book he’s been cartooning one half of since 1981 (his brother Gilbert does the other half), but The Art of Jaime Hernandez, a hardcover art book written by Todd Hignite and released by Abrams, that is both art appreciation and career retrospective.

“The first thing I said to Todd was ‘Really? Do you really want to do this?’” Jaime confesses. “One reason was that 90% of my art was in Love and Rockets. It was my life’s work! At first I was a little scared that people had seen that stuff already. And then, of course, I went ‘Me!? Me!? Of course!’

    “As this book started to gel and be put together and designed, after a while I was going ‘You mean my name has to be on the cover?” Jaime laughs. “I have to be the guy it’s about? There’s no more Maggie and Hopey?’ I’m very flattered that someone would want to write a book about me. When Todd interviewed me for it, at different times when he came to visit me and would look through the art.

“He made me come to my hometown, and the neighborhood where I grew up. I took him up and down the street and showed him all these little places that didn’t look like anything but had such history, for me. By the time he put it down on paper, in the book, I thought how he brought out what I was about was the real art of the book. I thought he did that really well and I thought ‘Nobody has to look at any of the art in the book. I want them to read it, because it covers so much that doesn’t come out in the art.’”

Jaime’s hometown of Oxnard, California is northwest of Los Angeles, where the six Hernandez siblings grew up in the quietude of a small suburban neighborhood in a rural farm area, with a large Hispanic population. To know Jaime’s Love and Rockets is to know part of his childhood, as several stories are set in the fictitious town of Hoppers, based heavily off of Oxnard.

Jaime’s father died when he was young, and his brothers, sister, and himself were raised by their mother (with other relations nearby), Aurora. While most parents in the 1960s were throwing their kids’ comics away, Aurora was herself a product of comics reading, and actually encouraged her kids in taking four-color adventures.

“She read them as a kid, so she inspired my brothers to start buying them,” Jaime recalls. “I was the fourth in line, so the comics were there for me. I didn’t have to buy any.”

While it’s typical for siblings to hang out on a lazy Saturday afternoon drawing comics, it’s also typical for them to give comics up as they get older. Not so with the Los Bros Hernandez, and Love and Rockets.

“I would say it’s more collaborative, but in the way that we never worked on each other’s work,” Jaime says of Love and Rockets. “I never got in the way of what Gilbert was doing because I knew he had his plan, and I knew he could pull it off. I never had to step in and say ‘I think you drew that badly’, or something like that. And I wouldn’t, because he’s an older brother.”

Jaime laughs.

    “I guess it was just the energy that we were doing comics and it was just really inspiring. It was ‘Oh, boy, we’re doing this, and we’re going to conquer the world,’ even if we weren’t going to conquer the world. We went in with that attitude, and it kept us going.”

By 1981, Jaime had been contributing art to the fan scene, and the Hernandez brothers became immersed in the exploding punk rock scene. At brother Mario’s urging, he, Jaime and Gilbert put together the first issue of their black and white comic Love and Rockets, printed at a meager 800 copies.

For his section, Jaime introduced adorable girl mechanic Maggie and her best friend Hopey, who live in a sci-fi world attributed with jetcar-like mopeds, woman wrestlers, and a man with horns. The Locas stories (as they’re collectively referred) combine old school b-movies with a bit of cheesecake comics. Even in that first issue, Jaime’s appreciation and understanding of the nuances that make women lovely is in effect.

Gary Groth, publisher of comics interview and criticism magazine The Comics Journal gave Love and Rockets #1 a positive review and, before much longer, had agreed to publish Love and Rockets through his own Fantagraphics. Los Bros. Hernandez expanded on the original Love and Rockets #1, providing a new color cover by Jaime for the 1982 relaunch.

Jaime’s cover is to the 1980s alternative comics movement what Meet the Beatles is to rock ‘n’ roll: Iconic. Five women stand in a police line-up: a Jack Kirby-ish amazon takes a drag from a cigarette, while a superhero in a tattered costume looks on complacently, a woman in bathrobe and hair curlers shies away from the camera angrily, an Asian warrior woman and pink-hued spacewoman look on curiously; a spotlight adds drama to the scene, along with two red splatters on the ruled wall behind them. It mixes the commonplace with the amazing, and encapsulates the punk rock Love and Rockets mentality from the black and white insides.

As much as the misadventures of Hopey and Maggie changed from sci-fi romantic comedy to slice-of-life living the punk rock scene of the ‘80s, all wrapped in the Hispanic experience, so too did Jaime’s style and stories. Jaime will give the antics of Penny Century (dream girl and flake extreme), or the neighborhood kids in Wigwam Bam (which combined his more traditional and realistic style with a stylized “cartoony” style for the children of the strip). Upon realizing that Jaime’s influences tend to lean more towards Bob Bolling’s kids than Jack Kirby’s superheroes, that DNA becomes more obvious in his other work.

“Pretty much from the beginning, doing Love and Rockets,” Jaime admits. “I was thinking ‘I want to do comics like these guys.’ It’s not so much stealing from them, but they gave us the drive to continue. It was more like capturing their souls than their lines.

“My influences were rarely direct, but more in having this spirit of ‘Yeah, I love these guys comics. I want to make comics that make people feel like I do, looking at their stuff.’”

It’s easy to fall in love with Jaime’s characters, not only because of their obvious features, but also from their lifelike gestures and expressions, naturalistic in everyday scenes and exaggerated in comedic and suspenseful ones. His teachers, like Archie Comics artists Bob Bollings, Dan DeCarlo, and Harry Lucey, were experts in gestural drawings with their simplified cartooning. It’s a trait Jaime Hernandez has successfully adopted and made his own.

“I’m just happy that I’m still allowed to do comics. They’re still letting me because they’re paying my rent.”

The Underground movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s had died down by the Hernandez Bros. Time, and they became founders of the black and white Independent movement of the ‘80s. Incidentally, Fantagraphics also published two other important cartoonists: Hate’s Peter Bagge and Eightball’s Dan Clowes. While the three have been historically linked as lynchpins of the movement, their association is loose at best.

“I knew their work, obviously, and when I met them it was a ‘Wow! Guys that think like us!’,” Jaime says of Bagge and Clowes. “It was a different camp: you had your Marvel and DC gang which, at the time, were dominating pretty much everything at the comic conventions. We were friends with mainstream people before we were with alternative people, because there were no alternative people around, until they started coming out of the woodwork. Meeting up with Pete and Dan was refreshing, because they were coming from the same place that we did. We could relate a lot to where they were coming from and where they were going.

“The funniest thing was we all lived in different states. We weren’t this bullpen or worked in the same studio: you could only talk on the phone to them. It was always fun to see them at a comic signing or convention, because we didn’t always get to visit them. We were kind of lumped together at the time, but part of that was that we were some of the only guys we knew.”

Throughout Love and Rockets’ run, with the exception of a brief hiatus from 1996 to 2001, both Jaime and Gilbert have had their characters age naturally, matching their readers. That doesn’t keep them from jumping about in time, a device that builds backstory and also reminds the readers of the characters’ evolutions. The most famous of Jaime’s character evolutions has been in Maggie, who has grown into a more rubenesque woman in her forties.

“As I started to do it, I started to realize ‘Hey, these characters are getting older, and you can look at an old issue and they’re just babies,’” Jaime reflects. “It was all remembering who they were while looking at who they were now. Aging them helped the stories and emotional part of it, and just made the stories seem more worthwhile to follow, because it has a past.

“The biggest trick for me is keeping up, because they’re time is slower. Trying to keep it in the present world can be kind of tricky, so every once in a while you have to jump ahead to catch up. That’s what I’m doing right now, a story where it’s happening five or six years ago. Near the end of the story, I might do the jump, to just catch up. It works out because it’s a certain point in the characters’ lives where the jump will help dramatically.”

    It doesn’t hurt that Jaime has his entire career’s worth of stories to fall back on to figure where his beloved characters are going.

“Now the thing that keeps me going most is the backlog of work, that I have so much past that pushes the future of my characters, wondering about how ‘They’ve been through this and have been through a lot. Now let’s see where they’re going.’”

    During the course of the interview, Jaime’s simultaneously admirable and frustrating quality is his coolness about his work. He clearly doesn’t subscribe to the Stan Lee school of self-promotion, and is soft spoken and laid back with all of his answers.

“It’s hard to explain,” Jaime says of the art of drawing one of his beautiful women. “All I can say is I put the lines down where they belong. It’s kind of an organic thing. Of course, when I want to draw a beautiful woman, I am concentrating on making everything right – the space between the nose and the mouth, how far the mouth goes out, how low the chin can be – it’s all that balance. Everything’s got to be perfectly separated in order to be a striking, beautiful drawing.

“That’s basically it.”

And "it" is it: he’s just a guy who puts lines on a page to tell his comics stories.

He just only happens to be very, very good at it.