Thursday, Dec 16, 2004 9:00 PM UTC

If Betty and Veronica were Latina punk lesbians

Jaime Hernandez talks about his massive new comics collection "Locas," the 20-year odyssey of two L.A. rock 'n' roll chicks looking for love (and rockets).

Write what you know, the literary maxim goes. In the early 1980s, three talented brothers named Jaime, Gilbert and Mario Hernandez ditched the superhero game, took a look around at the Southern California barrios they called home and did just that. That’s how the alt-comics phenomenon known as “Love & Rockets” came into being.

But that’s far from the end of the story, one that stretches across decades and is still unraveling, like the great domestic mysteries that have sustained literary culture for millennia. Shakespeare already knew what Los Bros. Hernandez figured out two decades ago, when they threaded their deeply personal tales of racial tension, alternative sexuality, punk rock, familial drama, sci-fi and much more into the dense, magical-realist master narrative known as “Love & Rockets.” After all, the Bard never wrote a play without a family firmly embedded in its middle. He well knew that there are few grander, more compelling narratives than those born out of friendship and kinship. The ties that bind us normal humans — those who can’t change into a cape and tights at the first sign of trouble — are those we sometimes tighten or tear to pieces on the way to discovering who we are. And who we are is often all that we have.

Those who’ve been paying attention to the legitimization of comics over the last 20 years understand the importance of the pioneering hybrid of comics and fiction in “Love & Rockets,” which began before marketers had invented the category of “graphic novel.” If the 19th century belonged to the novel, the 20th century might have belonged to the comic book, a hypothesis supported by the billions raked in from various cinematic adaptations of canonical comics franchises like “Batman,” “Superman,” “Spider-Man” and “The Hulk,” along with more esoteric offerings like Daniel Clowes’ “Ghost World” and Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor.”

Art Spiegelman and Alan Moore are more famous than the Hernandez brothers, and have enjoyed a level of crossover success “Love & Rockets” will never see. But both those artists would be happy to acknowledge Los Bros.’ importance; it was Moore who introduced “Love & Rockets” to some ex-members of ’80s goth-rock outfit Bauhaus, who ripped off the name for their new band. That’s still a sensitive subject for Jaime, Gilbert and Mario — but then again, they’re still here, writing and drawing new work, while the Love & Rockets CD catalog is chilling somewhere in the dustbin of music history.

Comics publisher Fantagraphics has compiled the various “L&R” series created over the last two decades, separated them by author, and released them in gorgeous hardback editions. In 2003, Gilbert claimed the spotlight when Fantagraphics released “Palomar” — a collection of his stories centering on the eponymous Central American town and the interconnected lives of its inhabitants. The newest edition is Jaime Hernandez’s sprawling “Locas,” a 700-plus-page tome (the biggest Fanta has ever published) about two friends-cum-lovers named Maggie Chascarillo and Hopey Glass, rebellious gals who strive to define themselves against the socioeconomic and sexual pressures of the fictional Hoppers 13 barrio and end up in love. (Thanks to our pals at Fantagraphics, here’s a sample page from “Locas.”)

“Locas” is as much a treatise on Southern California’s seemingly insurmountable race, gender and class divide as it is a journey of self-discovery for two women looking for Mr. — or Ms. — Goodbar. Jaime’s early entries in the saga feature an epistolary relationship between the two heroines, amid adventures with space travel and dinosaurs, but Maggie and Hopey soon ditch their more fantastical sci-fi exploits for the real life of SoCal’s burgeoning punk scene. Channeling the music’s anti-authoritarian energy, the duo find a vehicle for their various frustrations and desires, eventually forming an inseparable bond that sustains them until the end of “Locas,” as they are carted off together in the back of a police car.

Like Gabriel García Márquez, to whom they’re frequently compared, the Hernandez brothers find the immanent transcendent in the drudgery of everyday life. “Love & Rockets” is sort of the “One Hundred Years of Solitude” of bisexual punk-gal comic books. Whatever the academics and comics cheerleaders eventually decide their place in literary history may be, Jaime Hernandez and his brothers have poured their hearts and heads into the personal tragicomedies of “Love & Rockets” since 1981. Fantagraphics published the 50th and last issue of “L&R” Vol. 1 eight years ago, and Los Bros. are now 12 issues into Vol. 2, with no signs of slowing down. Jaime Hernandez spoke to me from his Los Angeles home.

Why did you decide to pull the stories in “Locas” out and create a separate volume?

Fantagraphics did my brother’s book last year, so I guess it was my turn! I had a body of work that would be fun to see all in one place, so you didn’t have to jump from volume to volume trying to figure out what’s going on. You get the straight story all the way through. I was kind of sad about this book, however. I couldn’t put everything in it. I had to leave out stories of other characters that I thought were good material. But the book just would have been too fat.

What do you think the stories of Maggie and Hopey bring to the “Love & Rockets” universe?

Well, when I was a teenager, I was still doing superhero comics for myself, trying to create a universe of characters. I noticed that I really got into character interaction, people just talking and bouncing off each other, getting hot and cold — and I wanted to create two characters like Maggie and Hopey that I could do that with forever, who could talk about anything. As their characters progressed, my whole universe revolved around them. Because that’s what interested me most in storytelling: characterization.

What was the force driving you to pour yourself into these two characters?

I don’t know. When I first started doing it, I didn’t really think about it. I just thought, they’re two friends. They have fights, they get along, they back each other up. I just wanted my own Charlie Brown, my Betty and Veronica, my Batman. My own characters that would one day stand right next to Charlie Brown and Lucy, that kind of thing. But, you know, I wasn’t holding my breath. I was thinking, Well, it’ll be fun trying.

How does it feel now, 20 years down the road?

I’m pleased. I’m also happy that I was young enough to find what I wanted right away, instead of having to struggle and finally get it when I’m 35. I’m also glad that it took off as early as it did, so I could have time to build on it.

One of the things I love about “Love & Rockets” is that it’s about families, not simply meaning blood relations but your “family,” regardless of whether they’re related to you or not. Which is only accentuated by the fact that you worked with your brothers.

Family has always played a big role in “Love & Rockets.” I hung out with my brothers and my sister as much as I hung out with my friends. And in Mexican or Latino culture, family is a big deal, which is why we have gangs, who are basically families of a sort protecting each other while killing the other families in town. So it’s something that’s natural to me.

Do members of your family, or other people you know, see themselves in “Love & Rockets”?

Yeah. When we self-published our first issue and were showing it to friends, I can’t remember how many people told me, “Maggie, that’s me. I’m Maggie.” OK, whatever. (Laughs.)

Did you take story lines from your family and friends?

Yeah, but I changed the names to protect the innocent! But yeah, that happened. Or I would be getting drunk one day with my friends and they’d tell me an amazing true story that happened about a guy they knew at work or somewhere who did this or that. I would steal some of that. When you realize that real life is more fun than art, that’s when you’ve got to stop and say, “Hey, wait a minute.”

Did you have any problems writing your narrative from a female perspective? I mean, you’re a guy.

I just went for it. It just seemed cool at the time. I guess it goes back to when I was a teenager, drawing my superheroes. It wasn’t long before I wanted to create female heroes, before I wanted to draw a girl in tights. (Laughs).

But seriously, do you have a sense of how ambitious that was?

I think about it. Sometimes I think, Why were we one of the first? That shit should have never been ignored, but you can say that with everything. Women couldn’t vote years ago; we think about that now and it seems ridiculous.

Were you worried about alienating anyone? Or were you comfortable with the fact that these were the stories of people you knew who lived in alternative communities and didn’t abide by the dominant culture?

Pretty much the second part. I’ve known people like Maggie and Hopey. The only thing that made me nervous was approaching types that I didn’t know much about. I deal with lesbians and I’m not a lesbian, so I can’t really jump inside and tell the whole story. I have to be very careful about where I go. I cannot make things up. So instead of concentrating on lesbian stereotypes, I decided to just treat them like a person. It’s pretty simple. Maybe that’s why it seems natural.

Did you catch any heat from lesbians for Maggie and Hopey’s relationship?

I heard things like, “Lesbians don’t do it that way.” But I can’t listen to that argument, because it’s just as much a stereotype. I’m sure there’s someone out there who does it the way I wrote it — for lack of a better way of putting it. (Laughs.) If you can think of it, someone’s already done it. If you think of a way to kill someone, someone’s already done it.

“Love & Rockets” dealt at length with Los Angeles’ subculture, but people all over the nation responded to it. It gave readers a chance to escape the dominant culture’s stereotypes and to see L.A. in a different light.

Well, you and I grew up in Southern California, so we know what it’s like. We’ve seen the ins and outs, the ups and downs. But most of the country and the world hasn’t. They only know “Baywatch” or “The O.C.” and the dominant culture is still trying to sell that: SoCal, the Gold Coast. And believe me, I saw a lot that had nothing to do with that. Which made it easy to write “Love & Rockets,” because there is so much about Los Angeles that people don’t want to talk about. I grew up a Mexican-American, but I grew up a rock ‘n’ roller too, so I saw my culture split in half. I saw the guys who couldn’t relate to my music and then I saw people who like my music but who couldn’t relate to my culture. So I was lucky that I was able to step outside of all that and look at it all. I got to watch everyone around me doing shit. Instead of my culture looking at their culture, I got to see everyone’s culture — and it’s not what TV is telling us.

You’ve been an “alternative” comics artist for 20 years. Have you outgrown that, now that you’ve published this huge $50 volume that might end up on Alec Baldwin’s coffee table?

It’s fine with me. Because I know where it all came from. It came from my drawing board and there was no compromise. If, say, Alec Baldwin likes it, well, I didn’t lie. He’s getting the same story that the alternative kids are getting.

How do you feel about the way alternative subcultures inevitably get appropriated? You’ve been watching it happen for a long time.

I have to admit that I get cranky when some “normal” person off the street starts talking about the legendary Sex Pistols. Everyone knows now who the Sex Pistols are. Everyone knows now who the Ramones are — and they’re all experts. But did they put their asses on the line, leave their homes every day with stupid haircuts, willing to die for their music? No. But you could say that about a lot of things. I don’t usually like to talk about it — but, yeah, I get annoyed.

It’s a much more nebulous pop-culture landscape than when you were coming up, isn’t it? It’s hard to find something to rebel against when everything has been packaged for you, whether it’s punk, hip-hop or whatever.

Right. It’s all packaged, and there are few secrets left. I guess I’m lucky. I’m old now and not as energetic and fiery as I once was. I mean, I still have my anger, but now it’s all channeled through my pen or in more subtle ways. But when I was a youngster, I used to go out and, um … make my mark. (Laughs.)

Are you uncomfortable with being incorporated into the underground comics boom?

I’m uncomfortable with being fucked over. Or with “Love & Rockets” being put through a strainer and coming out “Friends.” Of course I’m weird about that. But there are parts of my work that I don’t know will ever be accepted, because — and this is a real big argument — much of it is my culture. And I don’t know if my culture will ever be accepted. After 45 years I’ve just seen what’s going to get through and what’s not. The rest of it has to stay in the subculture. Which is fine, as long as you’re allowed to have one.