Los Bros Hernandez duet, with kissing

The boys talk about their women.

Published February 20, 2001 8:07PM (EST)

On the day I interview Jaime Hernandez, who, with his brother Gilbert, has written and illustrated the serial graphic novels "Love and Rockets" for the last 20 years, he tells me that Hopey's birthday is coming up any day now.

Hopey, readers of "Love and Rockets" will know, is a spiky-haired punk rock Latina lesbian Jaime has followed from the time she was 18 or 19. Now, she would be about to turn 37.

"Remember that time, when someone asks Hopey why all the girls like her so much?" Jaime asks, "and she says, 'Because I have a tongue as fast as Muhammad Ali and as sweet as Dolly Parton?' Well, I found out that Muhammad Ali and Dolly Parton were born two days apart. And so I decided that the day in between was Hopey's birthday."

Jaime gave Maggie, his central character, his younger sister's birthday and so now, each year, as he watches his sister age, he thinks, "Wow, Maggie must be 36 now. Is it possible?"

Gilbert, for his part, goes silent when I bring up the death of Tonantzin, the young woman who starts out as the town beauty and ends up dying a political martyr.

"Now I'm going to cry," he says. "I loved her so much, and she's gone. No one will ever replace her."

Talking to Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez about their work is like asking them to describe the women they love most. The brothers grew up in Oxnard, Calif., with their mother, a rabid comic book collector who suffered so greatly when her own mother threw out her comic books that she vowed that her children would have all the comic books they desired. She even let them read comics at the dinner table (though she stopped reading "Love and Rockets," says Jaime, "because it got a little too racy for her.")

The boys she raised on comics grew up to be perhaps the most influential and revered comic book artists of the '80s and '90s. When "Love and Rockets" debuted in 1982, both brothers say that they had planned to do a serial graphic novel that would follow the same set of characters for 15 years or more. Twenty years later, they are still doing just that.

Perhaps this is why the brothers weave stories of their mother, sister, wife (Gilbert) and fiancée (Jaime) with those of their characters. Jaime claims that his fiancée was one of the original models for Hopey, though he rarely mentions it to others, out of fear that people will think, "How gross is that? He's marrying Hopey!"

And Gilbert says that his wife was originally disturbed by Luba, his buxom lead character. "She would say, 'People can see these characters aren't like me, so what are they going to think when they read this?' I would say, 'They aren't going to think anything. You are like them.'"

During our interview, the brothers Hernandez talked about the art of the graphic novel, punk rock, the impossibility of politics, Jennifer Lopez and the importance of maintaining artistic integrity in the face of banality. But mostly, what you will read here is a conversation with two men about the women they love.

So much of the press on L&R is in adult book review sections. People don't seem to be certain who your peers are. Gabriel García Márquez, for example, comes up all the time. How do you feel about being compared to literary novelists, rather than to other graphic artists?

JH: I think it's great. Obviously, novel writers get more respect than we do, so it can only help. I don't read that much, but it's nice to know that we are being taken a little seriously.

GH:I'll take it as flattery if they are talking about the essence of what I'm doing -- looking at the characters. In comics, a lot of the effects you want are not in words. It's that tricky integration of visual art and text. So it's not really a novel on a novel's terms.

But I'm on the fence about this one. We want comic books to reach a new audience, to keep getting better and better, to get more perspective, and when we are old men, we want to see new, young comic artists whose work is taken as seriously as any novel. We hope to see that in our lifetime.

On the other hand, the comic books are in their own neat, kitschy, junky world that is unique to comics. We like that too. We like that it's outlaw. You can't repair comics, you can't hang them in a museum and say, 'This belongs next to the Mona Lisa.' It's the whole squirrelly factor, like early punk: There is the sense that this is bad, and we want it to be bad.

The early "Love and Rockets" are filled with rockets. But they abruptly disappear after the third issue. What made you decide to move away from the sci-fi stuff?

JH: Readers said that they loved the characters. And I said, 'Well, good, because I prefer the characters.' I was itching to show their real lives. The sci-fi stuff was just for fun. It started getting in the way. You can't really take Maggie seriously when she's bummed out if there is a rocket ship in the background. But if I put her in a realistic setting, you can get deeper into it, because you can relate, you can feel it.

I also hadn't realized that my life at the time was more exciting than what I was reading in comics. We were just showing what we were experiencing -- going out, seeing bands, having fun, and things like that. We found out that a lot of people didn't know about this stuff, but were intrigued by it. So we just said, 'Well, I have a whole life full of this stuff that you people don't know about.'

GH:It's more fun to draw a rocket ship than a Volkswagen. It's more fun to draw an alien asking for change than it is to draw a homeless person. But you're missing a lot of the real world when you decide to draw a rocket ship, rather than a Volkswagen. So by the third issue, we realized, we didn't want to do the science fiction anymore. Of course, we didn't realize that, while our readers liked the characters, they also liked that Flash Gordon world. If we'd stuck with the science fiction, we'd probably be millionaires by now.

At the time, we were part underground, part mainstream. We didn't know at the time that we would end up being the kind of cartoonists who would be interviewed for Time magazine.

What I find fascinating is how central the women are to the narrative. First of all, because these fabulous women are drawn by two boys, and second of all, because the comics industry is one in which there are so few female characters to begin with.

JH:Well, that's part of the reason they were put out there. It all started with loving to draw women. And then we decided that, 'Well, I can have my cake and eat it too if I make them interesting characters, because we certainly ain't getting it from anyone else.'

I like drawing Maggie's big butt. But I'm not happy unless her personality is well-rounded. No pun intended.

GH:We learned to draw women after we learned to draw men. At first, we couldn't draw them -- they looked like football players with hair. But once we reached our adolescence, we began to refine them. Then it became an obsession: We just drew women all the time. When it came to writing stories, we would usually create a male. But they weren't as interesting. We immediately went back to the women. So we just gave up.

When we asked ourselves why it was so easy for us to do, we came up with the answer: We grew up with women. Our mother and grandmother raised us, because our dad died when we were pretty young. We were influenced by our mother's attitude towards the world. She was real boy-crazy.

How much do your women have in common with women that you actually know?

JH: Maggie is a tough one. She's a million people in one. A lot of her is me, if you can believe it. Hopey is a little easier because I created her look from a type of punk girl that I saw at the clubs in the late '70s. I thought they were so cool -- these little tiny spiky-haired girls with big mouths. When I created her, she was going to be this cute little thing that was so loveable. And then I said, 'Wait a minute, what am I doing?' I've got to make her the biggest pain in the ass I can.

GH:I would say that the temperament comes from my mother and Latin women that I've known. There's another cliche: Besides the Latin lover, there's the Latin temperament, and boy, that ain't no myth. Also, Latin women are a lot more vocal -- not always in front of men, but certainly in front of children -- about sexuality. They let you know which men they like, in no uncertain terms, without being coy about it.

Where did you learn what women say to each other?

GH:My mother and my grandmother raised us, and my mother's sisters also lived in town. I watched how the women interacted in our home, and then I went into the outside world to watch what women do. It just became a normal thing to do. I don't know what the psychological reasons for it may have been. Sometimes, I was just one of the fellas. I was thin and small, but I wasn't the wimpy guy. Until male aggression reared its ugly head -- then, I would back off. I didn't mind playing a bit of baseball with the guys, but then it went to football, then it was war games. I wasn't necessarily scared of it -- I just got bored with it. I didn't go for male bonding rituals. I thought they were bores.

But I'm introducing a new male character. His name is Hector Rivera. He's going to be the male character I never really had. The closest thing I've ever had to a standout male character would be Heraclio from the Palomar stories. But I left him behind, because that's where he belonged, I felt, in Palomar. Now I've moved the characters to the U.S., and I needed a new character.

Do you find it difficult to create a male character after having worked with women for so long?

<GH:Yes. I have to work hard to convince myself that this is a good male character and that he is someone we will want to follow. I had to create a conscious effort to do it. Heraclio was like Luba; he just kinda came out.

And Heraclio is a very vulnerable character: He was seduced by Luba as a young boy; he's very devoted to his wife and daughter.

GH:Yes, he was very sensitive. The women had the aggressive role; he had the sensitive one. This new character is going to be interesting, because he is going to have both: He's going to be sensitive, but he's going to be aggressive as well. I've never done an aggressive male character before. He's basically a rounded character. It's my new challenge: to create a male character as real as a female character.

How do you react to the new tough-chick movement in popular culture? You guys have been doing that for years.

JH: I think it's kinda funny, because the tough-chick movement is naught. It does not mean a well-rounded character, it means a girl who can beat up a guy. Which is OK, but I'm not taking it too seriously as far as making women real. Sure, do a movie about a woman who can kick everybody's ass. But what's she like? Where does she live? That's what interests me more.

Jaime, when did you realize that Maggie and Hopey were going to get together? And why did you decide to do it?

JH:I knew fairly early on. It was another thing that wasn't done too much. Gilbert urged me not to. He wanted them to just be close friends, the unbreakable bond kinda thing, rather than lovers. I thought that was a good idea, but I decided to go with the lover thing, but with a twist: Hopey is a lesbian, but Maggie just loves Hopey.

Coming up, Maggie will get caught in a situation where she will meet another woman. And she'll have to ask herself: Do I go with this woman? Do I even like women? I don't know what the outcome will be, so I'm interested to find out myself.

When Maggie and Hopey became popular as two lesbian characters drawn by a heterosexual male, people said, 'Who do you think you are? Why do you think you can do it?' And I just said, 'Well, I do it. I make no apologies for them. These are the characters. If you don't like them, do your own comic.'

It's hard to imagine a sexier character than a 21-year-old lesbian punk rock chick. And it's hard to imagine a less sexy character than a middle-aged woman, [most of] who[m] famously claim to be invisible as a group. But it seems that Maggie and Hopey are just as interesting as always.

JH:I hope so. I'm not trying to cheat, to make them stay young forever. Of course, sometimes I'd love to draw them as young as hell, with no wrinkles and stuff. But I understand that they have to move on. Maggie's aging more than Hopey, I have to admit. I have to work on Hopey, because she's been 21 for a long time. I'm taking care of that. I don't like it, I have to admit. I don't like it anymore than they do. But I'm trying. I'm trying to stay real here.

Gilbert, what do you see as the challenges of drawing middle-aged women?

GH:I based them on people I see -- my mother, my sisters, the neighborhood women. They didn't seem less vital in their 40s and 50s than they did in their 20s. And in our family, we are lucky enough to have people grow very old. It's normal for people to hit their 90s and still be running around, or at least hobbling around.

You don't automatically associate L.A. Latino culture with punk rock. Did you ever get criticism for not being "Mexican" enough?

JH:It's more common now, but then, Mexicans were not rock 'n' rollers. They liked soul or funk. It's kinda like the comic book thing. We kept the rock and roll thing to ourselves, because all of us brothers were into it. So we had a rock 'n' roll support group at home. But when we went out, there were a lot of things we couldn't talk about, because they would think we were weird, or they would say, you listen to "that white-boy music."

Do you feel pressure from the Mexican-American community to be the voice for Chicano culture?

JH:When we got into the comic world, it was almost zero Latin. We were in this world with almost all white people. In the beginning, people were afraid of us, because they thought we were hoods. How racist is that?

But people supported us. I like to think that we speak a universal language in the comic. So even though these people are Mexican, you can still relate to them as people, which was our main objective. I want people in China to like our stuff.

GH:People will say, 'Why aren't you at the forefront of the Cause?' We say, well, we're not selling anything. We're presenting Hispanics in the most, let's say realistic and sympathetic light we possibly can, even though many of the characters are flawed.

Which is of course what makes them so compelling.

GH:Well for writers and filmmakers, the more ethnic it is, the more universal it is. The more Swedish a film is, the more we like it, the more we understand it. It's when they try to water it down, and try to second-guess the foreign audience that you run into trouble.

Even Spike Lee -- the more black his films are, the more universal they are. The whiter the Beach Boys are, the better they are. I know a lot of people don't like the Beach Boys because they say they are too white. I say, that's what's good about them. That's one of the main ingredients. Joni Mitchell, the Beach Boys, Buddy Holly are really great artists because they are as white as they can get. This is going to sound weird: White people, black people, Hispanic people, people of color -- I sound like MTV.

What do you think of the mainstreaming of Latino culture 20 years after you broke into pop culture as Latino artists?

GH: Well, the question I usually get is, 'What do you think of the romantic and sexual stereotype of the sexy Latin?' Obviously, Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez are sexual icons now. That's one myth that's never bothered me. If they want to have some cartoon myth about the Latin lover, I'm OK with it. I don't think: 'People are calling me a sexy creature! I don't want that! I want to be an intellectual bore!' You can be sexy and intellectual at the same time. I've known that since I was a kid.

So as far as those folks making it in the mainstream, I'm all for it. I mean, Jennifer Lopez -- yeesh! Wotta bod. And she's also changing, at least in a slight sense, the way that people are looking at female bodies. I mean, she still has an idealized body, but we're talking about a little heft and girth now, which has been missing in the last 20 years.

Which is something you guys have always done beautifully.

GH: Because that was reality. You ask guys now about Jennifer Lopez, and they will say, 'We always liked girls like that.' It's just nobody listened to us. They were just listening to fashion magazines.

I have women friends who have beautiful bodies, and they are always worried that they are too hippy, or their legs are too much. I always say, 'Look at the two most famous pin-up icons of all time: Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page.'

Luba is obviously an exaggeration of the whole thing, but at the same time the challenge for me is to humanize her. I can draw her as insanely exaggerated as I want, but as long as I make her a human being, as long as gravity does take effect, and social and cultural pressures are still around, it makes the character pretty interesting.

JH:That's what I did with Maggie's weight, too. I did the weight thing as a way to challenge the reader and myself. I was surprised to find out that many readers hated it. They were so insulted.

The main question I get asked is still: 'Will Maggie ever get thin again?' And I say, 'How many people do you know in real life who get thin again?' Some do, yes, and Maggie goes down in weight, and then she goes back up again. She can't keep it straight. I thought it was my duty to make it real, and to go through with it.

One of the things that I think makes Maggie so lovable is that she seems to chronically fail at the things that are the most important to her.

JH:Maggie is told 'You're a great mechanic,' and she thinks, 'Oh, OK.' She has that guilt of being a girl mechanic when she wasn't supposed to be; when she should have been dating boys. It's her Mexican upbringing that she just can't shake. She's learned to be a good Mexican. When she's a Mexican-American, she's kind of caught between being a good Mexican and a good American.

I take that from my upbringing: You're caught in the middle, and you can't please either side. So she feels like a failure, even though she's very intelligent and very talented at what she used to do. But she just has this block that doesn't let her get anywhere.

She's going to deal with it in the future. I could have been that way if we didn't do this comic. There was a chance we wouldn't have done it, because we weren't confident enough. I don't know what I would be doing if I didn't do it, but I think about it once in awhile. What if I didn't take the chance? So I stick all my insecurities on poor Maggie. She carries my load.

I do it to her because I love her. It sounds weird, but I do this, because I love my Maggie, so I throw all this shit at her. And she's a survivor. She's going to be OK. I always try to give her that tiny, tiny light at the end of the tunnel for her, because I have faith in her.

Although there is a lot of sex in Love & Rockets, it isn't often very explicit, and rarely lasts for more than one panel. It's pretty much an R-rated comic.

GH:NC-17. Some of the sex is just in and out, in your face. Showing the sex in one panel is kinda neat. I don't think you need pages upon pages, showing it in slow motion. I've always thought that looked silly in films. Usually I depict sex one of two ways: The panel either shows they shouldn't be having sex, or that they definitely should be having sex. I don't want to say sex is necessarily a goal -- but it certainly finalizes something in the relationship. I could have characters doing the will-they-won't-they dance forever. So I just like to show them balling, to finally show that this is where the relationship is.

That's what it meant to me when I was growing up. I was a teenager in the '70s, when everyone was having all this free love and sex. But that wasn't what it was like for me. It was all pretty traditional stuff. I went out with one girl at a time. It wasn't any of that wild Playboy stuff -- even though that was before AIDS, and I should have taken advantage of it.

Whether you have sex or not is a major part of a relationship -- even if kids today don't feel that way. They say, we did everything but sex, so we didn't have sex. Then you find out they did worse things than sex. It's like, 'Well we were hanging from a chandelier and she was dripping wax on me, and we did it for nine hours. But we didn't have sex.' They're in such denial. That's sex.

But they are getting better. Now they are starting to understand that kissing is more intimate. It's like they've come full circle, and now kissing means a lot, which is really good, because I love kissing. Have you ever noticed that I don't have much kissing in comics? It's because I can't draw it. It's the most fun thing you can do in a physical relationship, and I can't draw it. That's got to say something about me.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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