Los Bros Hernandez: The KETR Interview

Oct 19, 2015

The enduring power of the “Love and Rockets” comics by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez lies in the storytelling.

Critics have focused on particular aspects – the influence of Mexican-American culture, the influence of punk rock, the drawing styles, and of course, the now-venerable reaction of “Boy, those are some mighty grown-up themes for a comic book!” But the readers keep coming back because, 34 years after “Love and Rockets” started, they still love the stories.

Jaime’s narratives began featuring two Chicana punk rock girls – they were still girls at the time – whose world in the mythical Hoppers barrio was based very much on the Hernandez brothers’ experience growing up in Oxnard, Calif., north of Los Angeles. Maggie and Hopey have captured and broken hearts both on and off the page in the years since then. Over the decades, the characters have aged in near-real time, with both now well into middle age. Maggie’s endearing mix of vulnerability and strength has made her one of the most beloved characters in comics.

Gilbert’s tales have a heaviness and depth that readers have found both captivating and challenging. Most of the stories have centered on the strange, imagined village of Palomar, which readers have interpreted as being in either Mexico or Central America. The place settings, however, range from Latin American cities to the United States, while the time settings sprawl from the mid-20th century to today. Luba, a character as unpredictable as the chaos around her, emerged as the heroine of the series. Tensions between archetypal, primal forces and consumer society characterize many of the stories.

Jaime and Gilbert, collectively known as Los Bros Hernandez, were on the campus of Texas A&M University-Commerce for a presentation and forum on Oct. 15. The event was hosted by Assistant Professor of English Dr. Christopher Gonzalez, who has published articles on “Love and Rockets” and has books on the subject in the works. Shortly before the event, Gonzalez and Los Bros stopped by the studios of KETR for an interview.

What are Los Bros Hernandez doing now?

Recently, “Love and Rockets” has been published annually, but Gilbert and Jaime are setting their sights on publishing an issue three times per year rather than as a yearly book.

“We just like it coming out more often,” Gilbert said. “I think readers like that, too – they can anticipate the next issue every three months. It helps on the creative level, too, because we’re doing shorter bursts of creative energy instead of stretching it out for months and months.”

“More closure, more often,” Jaime said.

Regarding current storylines, Jaime said that Maggie and Hopey – now into middle age – are back in their old haunts for a reunion with friends from punkier times. And of course, there’s tension between the past and the present.

Gilbert is continuing the Palomar stories, but with newer characters. He’s also exploring the “seedy world” of vintage “B movies” and “Z movies” – the latter being laughably bad efforts with enduring kitsch value. Gilbert cites his wife’s experience at a Hollywood memorabilia store as partial inspiration.

Maggie and her on-again, off-again boyfriend Ray Dominguez are no longer youths.
Credit provided image / Fantagraphics Books

Punk connections

Part of the “Love and Rockets” story began when the brothers, then in their late teens, made the journey from Oxnard to Los Angeles to check out the city’s emerging punk scene.

Gilbert, a couple of years older than Jaime, had been into the early 1970s glam-rock acts that helped pave the way for punk. The high energy of T. Rex and early David Bowie offered an alternative to the boring noodling of that era’s jam bands.

“I wanted no part of it,” Gilbert said of mainstream rock. “I was just a different type of person.”

Jaime loved the rawness of the Los Angeles punk scene.

“It was still underground,” Jaime said. “New York and London already had major-label bands there … No one wanted to sign these bands … I felt very involved in this kind of revolution kind of thing. It was the first time I was ever part of a movement.”

The two took the spirit of the scene and put that into their art. And punk’s network of fanzines, small labels and independent record stores overlapped with a similar culture in underground comics.

The world of Southern California punk rock has provided the backdrop for many "Love and Rockets" stories.
Credit provided image / Fantagraphics Books

Bodies, genders, colors and cultures

“Love and Rockets” is beloved – and in some cases, criticized – for its women. Jaime’s Maggie and Hopey, Gilbert’s Luba and plenty of other women in the stories are depicted in battle with people or forces that try to define or control them.

When asked whether they consider themselves feminists, Jaime said yes, while qualifying his response by pointing out that the label has myriad definitions. Gilbert expressed a reluctance to embrace any political tendency, emphasizing instead his basic motivation for storytelling – to present fully human people and stories.

“I believe in equal rights, of course I do,” Gilbert said. “The only real focus I had for my comics in Love and Rockets was humanizing the characters, no matter what they were, whether women, males, whatever. But mostly Latinos, because it just was not seen in pop culture. You could not find a human being Latino in a movie or a comic book or a TV show. They were always the villain or a joke, the butt of a joke.”

Both Jaime and Gilbert do embrace an identity as Latino artists, though they reject the idea that such a role implies a burden of obligations.

“I think it’s great when my work does inspire and influence my own culture,” Jaime said. “Sometimes certain people do want more from me. They want me to cover it all, they want me to cover the politics, they want me to cover every aspect of being Chicano. All I can do is just tell these stories about Chicano people and then I let the reader do the rest.”

Jaime expressed satisfaction in the idea that he can inspire other artists who don’t come from privilege.

“See, look, I did it. If I can do it, you can do it.”

Maggie's weight gain has been generally received favorably by "Love and Rockets" readers - despite the character's own mixed feelings.
Credit provided image / Fantagraphics Books

Both Jaime and Gilbert’s works feature bold depictions of women’s bodies – often voluptuous, sometimes conventionally attractive, frequently not. Some have criticized the depiction of female bodies in the stories, while others have praised the presentation of women in Love and Rockets.

In Jaime’s stories, the most famous example of the female form is Maggie’s gradual transition from her nubile teen years to curvy young adulthood and then chubby middle age.

“I’ve had women who really liked the fact that I made, say, Maggie put on weight,” Jaime said. “They felt it was real, it just added to her personality. … We did stuff like that in the beginning because that stuff wasn’t out there. And so we were like, let’s try this, let’s try that.”

Luba, Gilbert’s most famous protagonist, is tall and thin with enormous breasts and a somewhat gaunt face. Gilbert said that he tended toward dramatic physical representations in his early work due to influence from science fiction. But he kept presenting voluptuous women and other people with non-normative physical characteristics as a challenge to readers used to the picture-perfect people in comic books.

“I challenge the reader to accept the character as a person,” Gilbert said. “I’m going to show you characters you don’t want to take seriously. … Every time something like that is on a TV show or a movie, it’s a joke. There’s never a character like that who’s supposed to be a person.”

Luba's body doesn't define her character in the mind of creator Gilbert Hernandez.
Credit provided image / Fantagraphics Books

Crossing cultural boundaries

A theme in “Love and Rockets” involves characters who cross cultural boundaries – Chicanos in the “white” worlds of punk rock or high art. Sometimes, they encounter resistance, and not all of the resistance comes from the dominant culture. But the boundary-crossers are generally successful in asserting and expressing themselves, even when the expectations of others are in the way.

“When I was growing up, Latinos mostly listened to oldies from the 50s or romantic soul music,” Gilbert said. “And I just wasn’t interested in that – I was into hard rock and all that stuff.”

Once Los Bros were older, coming from Southern California and entering a New York-centric visual art world presented a different challenge.

“Nothing from Southern California is supposed to be any good,” Gilbert said. “So, when Love and Rockets came out and we put everything Southern Californian in it that we could muster, it got some attention. And the art snobs thought ‘Well, it’s just sort of an underground-y comic but it’s really not important. Well, 34 years later, they’re still trying to squelch it. It’s not going to happen.”

Themes from Southern Californian life are a unifying current in "Love and Rockets."
Credit provided image / Fantagraphics Books

Texas underground comics connection  

Los Bros Hernandez have family from near El Paso, so Gilbert and Jaime have some Texas ties. They’ve brushed shoulders with Sulphur Springs native and East Texas State University alumnus Gary Panter, who relocated to Los Angeles during the early height of that city’s punk scene. Panter is most famous for his “Jimbo” comics series, a highly abstracted presentation of a friendly but knuckle-headed hardcore punker in a post-apocalyptic world.

Panter isn’t the only high-profile underground comic artist from Texas. Back in the 1960s, Jack Jackson, Gilbert Shelton and Frank Stack (Foolbert Sturgeon) all came out of Texas to play a large role in the creation of the genre.

“Those guys started in 64-65,” Gilbert said. “I guess they gravitated toward San Francisco and that’s where the underground comic scene started. But once we figured out who the main guys were, everybody realized, ‘Wait, they’re all from Texas.’ So underground, indie comics start from here.”

Esperanza Glass, a.k.a. Hopey, is a Californian, but she does think about Texas from time to time.
Credit provided image / Fantagraphics Books

Gonzalez working on Hernandez books

Gonzalez is writing a scholarly study of Gilbert’s stories and plans to follow that with a similar exposition of Jaime’s stories.

“I was shocked that no one had yet written a book-length project on either Jaime’s work or Gilbert’s work,” Gonzalez said. “While I’m glad to be the one to take these on, in a way, I don’t understand what took so long.”

Gonzalez credited Dr. Frederick Luis Aldama of The Ohio State University as helping pave the way for Gonzalez’s current projects. Aldama is the author of “Your Brain On Latino Comics: From Gus Arriola to Los Bros Hernandez.” Gonzalez is also helping to edit a forthcoming collection of essays on Los Bros Hernandez.

Narrative method is a focus for Gonzalez.

“(My) dissertation was basically looking at Latino authors and how they have, within the last few decades, really tried to challenge readers,” Gonzalez said. “Whereas early representations or works of Latino literature were very much constrained by what the publisher thought they should be writing,  producing – with a reader in mind that doesn’t want to be challenged. And so, of course, (Gilbert Hernandez’s) “Poison River” is a perfect example of a challenge to the reader.”

Gilbert Hernandez's "Poison River" series does not present a sequential narrative.
Credit provided image / Fantagraphics Books

What’s good about doing the work today?

After three and a half decades of work, both Jaime and Gilbert are finding satisfaction in the place where they are now – still making comics, creating new art – even though the past does influence the creative choices they make today.

Jaime said that, like his readers, he’s enjoying the journey of the characters from the Hoppers stories as they negotiate the new territory of middle age.

“I think, for me, it’s mainly watching the characters that I like doing – like, say, Maggie – watching where she’s taking me,” Jaime said. “I know it’s me taking her, but the way she writes herself, it’s like the way she’s taking me. I really enjoy like, ‘Where are you going here? Don’t go that way, you’re going to get in trouble – OK, this is going to be good.’”

Gilbert is enjoying his newest characters.

“The old characters have this burden of carrying the past with them – within the stories and with the readers,” Gilbert said. “I don’t care to do that right now. I really want to emphasize the new, younger characters. Now the tricky part about it, the hard part is – I don’t want to repeat what the old characters have done. … I have maybe different angles on new characters that are similar to the old characters, but hopefully, they have their own life.”

Maggie and Hopey...Las Locas.
Credit provided image / Fantagraphics Books