GROWING UP IN THE SOUTH BRONX, New York, the closest I had ever been to reading comic books were when I stole my brother’s stash of MAD magazines and abandoned Archie comics. I read them over and over again mostly out of boredom, never really getting the humor. Comic books were strictly for my brothers who loved to imitate Kung fu moves during the day and cheer on wrestling matches at night. This was in the late 1970s and '80s, the era of Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan, the heyday of wrestling. We would even watch Lucha Libre, the Mexican version of wrestling on Saturdays while my father yelled at us that it was all so fake. Although this world was strictly for my rowdy three brothers, they never pushed me aside. Wrestling I can sort of get into, but comics? It wasn't my scene.
There was a moment when all that changed, when comics became more substantial, inclusive even. It happened at college in Binghamton, New York, famous for being the birthplace of Rod Serling, creator of Twilight Zone. It was the first time I was away from home, a time when I was making major discoveries of what being a Latina meant, how complex the answer to that question would be. Nothing was certain but I was open to new ideas. I befriended a kid in one of my courses, a farm boy from the Midwest with red hair and a couple freckles. We would exchange names of authors we liked and profess our love for Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Then one day, he suggested I take a look at Love and Rockets, by the Hernandez brothers. This farm boy felt the need to school me on what was going on outside of New York, outside of my Puerto Rican culture. I shrugged off his suggestion. I had no desire to read a comic made by three brothers. But I looked them up anyway at a local independent bookstore. And it hit me. Where did this world come from? Love and Rockets, created by brothers Jaime, Gilbert, and Mario Hernandez is a crazy combination of Lucha Libre, punk rock and science fiction. It was all there in illustrations so vivid and a spare narrative that spoke volumes. I became obsessed with the punk rocker and mechanic Maggie, her best friend and sometime lover Hoppy, the voluptuous mayor of the fictitious Palomar, Paloma Luba, and the wrestlers Rena Titanon and Vicki Glori. Here was a comic book that completely spoke to me, that featured brown people, my people.
Jaime, Gilbert and Mario Hernandez were born and raised in Oxnard, California in the 1960s. After a crude beginning in the comic world, the brothers hit their stride by making zines of their comics. The first issue of Love and Rockets appeared in 1981. More than 30 years later, the Hernandez brothers are still producing works of art. Gilbert’s semi-autobiographical novel Marble Season published this past summer to great praise while Jaime created artwork for the deluxe edition of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, out October 31. That the brothers still managed to depict strong, complex Latinas without falling into stereotypes is a feat of its own. I loved that the women in their comics were always voluptuous and real. Plus, the Hernandez brothers never overly explained their world through the lens of the immigrant experience; they depicted the human experience through vivid visual storytelling. Period.
Before Love and Rockets, my image of Los Angeles was very specific, shaped by what I had seen on the big and small screen. Los Angeles was Three's Company, the movie Valley Girl, and a sprinkle of Blade Runner. As for the Latinos in Los Angeles, my idea was rooted in the 1992 violent film American Me. Punk rock Latinos? I had no clue. After Love and Rockets, I dug deeper into L.A. history and found rocking bands like The Brat, Los Illegals and artists like Patssi Valdez and Gronk. My view of Los Angeles widened.
In Todd Hignite's 2010 sprawling book, The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death, the author chronicles the history of the talented brothers, focusing more on Jaime with never-before-seen sketches. Here I learned how Jaime balances the black and white spaces, sparing down the art and the words for a more visual impact. The art book is a must for fans, a textbook of the brother's history.
When Hignite's book came out, the private Jaime Hernandez and the author both appeared at the independent bookstore Family. I walked over to the store from my house. (After living here for 12 years, I consider Los Angeles home.) I stood in line with 15 other fans and waited eagerly to meet him. I took his picture but was too nervous to ask him to pose with me. It's funny how meeting your idols transports you back in time and renders your adult self into a stuttering fifteen-your-old. Jaime didn't say much, just a quiet thank you, but I noticed during the chat he doodled on a page the image of Maggie. What I would have done to keep that doodle.
I'm not a hardcore comic fan but Love and Rockets did lead me to Daniel Clowes' Ghost World which led me to Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, which led me, last week, to The Push Man by Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi at the local library book store. And there's still more for me to discover.