From the moment the first magazine-sized issue of the alternative comic Love And Rockets was published by Fantagraphics in 1982, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez (with occasional help from their brother Mario) have been at the vanguard of cartoonists creating complex stories for adult audiences. In the early Love And Rockets, the brothers showed their love of Jack Kirby and Dan DeCarlo via stories blending pulp romance with science fiction, but by the mid-'80s, they had settled into naturalism, using the broad cartooning for subtle effects while telling serialized stories about Latin American neighborhoods.
Gilbert Hernandez devoted most of the first half of his career to stories about the fictional village of Palomar, a remote Central American community grappling with the intrusion of a corrupt, cynical outside world. Those stories started small and sweet but became more complex, culminating in the stunning graphic novel Human Diastrophism (also known as Blood Of Palomar). Fantagraphics collected all the Palomar tales last year in the thick hardcover volume Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories.
Jaime Hernandez began telling stories about the international affairs of a rocket mechanic named Maggie, but he quickly refocused on Maggie's richer, realer home-life and her friendship/romance with the free-spirited Hopey. Their relationship is the through-line for Jaime's work, though his supporting characters have given him leeway to write about the daily struggle to maintain a unique identity in the face of adult responsibility. Fantagraphics has collected the bulk of the Maggie and Hopey stories as the hardcover volume Locas.
Los Bros Hernandez retired the title Love And Rockets in 1996 in the face of declining sales and general burnout, but after the brothers' separate projects failed to excite their core audience, they revived the name in 2001. Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez spoke separately to The Onion A.V. Club about the reasons for their disappearance and reappearance, and how they have to keep working to maintain their place at the peak of the underground-comics world.
The Onion: Last year, the collected Palomar was released. What's it like to see a huge chunk of your life's work in one volume?
Gilbert Hernandez: I actually haven't read the whole thing yet. It's sort of daunting. But it's nice to know that I've done something with myself for the last 20 years. [Laughs.] That stuff's been reprinted over and over since it was first released, so it was nice to see it still getting a good response. It looks a little overworked to me. I see some places where I could've self-edited. I didn't re-edit anything when we were going into print, because I probably would've rewritten everything.
O: It's slightly jarring the way your style jumps from the end of the Human Diastrophism storyline to what comes after, because of the three-year gap where you were working on Poison River, which isn't in the book.
GH: Well, I was a better artist by then. [Laughs.] And the writing just evolved because of Poison River, which was the most incredibly dense thing I've ever written.
O: Are there any plans to collect the non-Palomar stories about the character Luba, from Poison River onward?
GH: Maybe way down the line. I don't know. I don't think it warrants it as much as the Palomar stuff. Palomar is sort of a microcosm. The other stuff is a little more spread-out and episodic, and doesn't deal with the same issues that Palomar did. The Luba stuff is more open-ended.
O: You've continued to work with the characters from Palomar, but would you say that you're done with the town?
GH: Yeah, yeah. I just didn't want to ruin it. I didn't want to continue on like a television show that people enjoy and then they complain about the last two seasons or whatever. Or a great comic strip that just should've ended at a certain time. You know, an artist doesn't know his own decline. So I basically destroyed the town with an earthquake. I wouldn't be able to return to it if I wanted to, except maybe in flashback stories. The only regret I have is that there are characters I left there. Carmen and Heraclio and Sheriff Chelo I miss dearly, but I can't figure out how to do them again without making it too easy, like bringing them to America.
O: What about the characters you're still writing? Do you foresee a day when you'll be done with them the way you're done with the town?
GH: Most of the characters I'll just fade out, and the reader wouldn't even notice they're gone. I'm a little stronger that way. In the old days, I just could not leave characters alone. Now I just try to keep the ones that still have something in the way of stories to tell.
O: How do you work with these characters? Do you sit down and think about what might happen to them next, or do you get an idea for a story and try to fit it to your cast?
GH: All of the above. Whichever character I'm using and wherever I am in my mind dictates what kind of story I'm going to tell. Right now, the difficulty is that I have so many characters, and they all have to have individual personalities. I'm pretty burned out on that. I've been trying to scale down. But I've never been a writer who could just write a plot and put the characters in 'em and see where it goes. I have to use the characters' motivations and attitudes.
O: Are you surprised sometimes by what happens to them? Luba was first introduced as a sexy earth-mother type, and then you made her sort of an abusive parent, and now she's more of a dignified matriarch.
GH: Actually, the reason Luba's still around is because she's probably the closest character to me, but at the same time, she's a mystery to me. I don't know who Luba is, and the characters don't know who she is. But I don't think that far ahead, other than the goal of actually finishing a book. I plan to finish in so many months, or a year, and I work to the ending of the story. I guess the only surprise I have now is that I'm still able to write new stories with old characters. If I'm repeating myself, I haven't noticed it yet.
O: You've dealt with a variety of themes using these characters, but the one that keeps popping up is the collision of the third world and the modern world. What is it about that contrast that interests you?
GH: Palomar was sort of a microcosm. The characters were all really at home there, even if they didn't always get along. Right now, with the characters out in America, they're pretty much lost. They don't have that connection. That's why they tend to hang out together, and live near each other. This happened in my family. My mother's family moved from Texas, and they all lived in sort of a big neighborhood at first. Once they moved apart, things were strained.
O: At what point did you begin to get the sense that you could do more with these people and places you'd created than just tell little short stories? When did you start conceiving work as lengthy and complex as Human Diastrophism?
GH: That evolved organically. I just felt ambitious at the time. I felt I could tell any story I wanted. We had our readership. The issues were selling well. I felt like challenging myself and challenging my readers with something darker and heavier. I don't know how to explain it, because I'm not a political person. I have two political stories, and that's it: Human Diastrophism and Poison River.
O: Did that decision to challenge your audience cause you to lose some readers?
GH: Actually, when I was doing Human Diastrophism, I was building an audience. They stuck with us, and kept wanting more. I remember one review that said, "By now, we shouldn't be surprised by anything Gilbert Hernandez does." I read that and thought, "Okay!" [Laughs.] It wasn't until I started to do Poison River that the readership started falling. Poison River started out very slowly and simply, but then it got really dense and complicated. I don't know, I think the readers just got fed up or burned out. They started dropping off.
O: Did you lose any momentum when you shelved the Love And Rockets title for a few years?
GH: I'm still on the fence about whether that was a mistake or not. We ended it at issue 50, because it was starting to get repetitious for Jaime and I. We were putting out the next issue and we didn't even know what number it was anymore. I don't know if that's good or bad, but I just felt I was heading toward trying to second-guess myself and our audience, thinking, "What's the next big thing I can do?" I could see it becoming tired at the time. Jaime wasn't so anxious about quitting, but he'd never had his own comic book before, so that's what inspired him to go his own way.
O: Then you brought the title back.
GH: We brought it back because, "Enh! Wrong!" [Laughs.] We did a few years of our own comics, but for some reason, Love And Rockets is such an iconic title. It's the perfect umbrella for our readers to go to us, find our work, and read what they want to read. Doing the separate comic books, we sort of scattered our readership, and they never came back. It was difficult to sell those books, because readers didn't even know they existed. I'd do a six-issue miniseries and no one would know about it. Basically, the title Love And Rockets was bigger than we were. We brought back the title, and boom, the readers came back. Not in the droves they were before, but… [Laughs.] It's a living. We're going to stick with it and try to expand. If we feel ourselves starting to get burned out, we'll just shift gears.
O: Do you try and hold to a publishing schedule? Do you try to get out three issues a year, like you used to, or do you just wait until you have enough material?
GH: We don't want to do any less than three a year. We try to do four, but we won't do any less than three. Right now in alternative comics, there's not really a lot that comes out on a regular basis. They come out once a year, or every two years.
O: It took Eightball two years to get from #22 to #23.
GH: Yeah, well, Dan Clowes is doing other things. And what he's basically doing is graphic novels. That's the direction alternative cartoonists are going.
O: Would it be viable for you to take two years to work on one project and then put it out in book form?
GH: I'm doing a graphic novel for DC right now, a 120-page self-contained book, and the only way any artist could survive doing that is if they're paid against royalties along the way. I can do that. But if I was going to do 200 pages and wait two years to get paid, that's not viable.
O: You've been doing a lot of work for DC in the past couple of years. How did that relationship come about?
GH: Love And Rockets hadn't started back up yet, and Peter Bagge got an offer to do a kids' comic [Yeah!] for DC. But they didn't want him as an artist, because his art is way too stylized. DC's pretty strict about what their books are supposed to look like. So he asked me, since I already draw in a mock-Archie style. [Laughs.] He's a writer I trust, with a great track record, so I just jumped in. It was just a job, and I'd never done comics as a job before. I learned a lot. It's hard work putting out monthly comics, man. It's brutal for me, since it usually takes me three months to do an issue of a 24-page comic. This was three weeks. I had to bang 'em out.
O: Since then, you've done the Grip miniseries for DC's Vertigo line, and you wrote some issues for Birds Of Prey.
GH: Yeah, Grip was my own comic. For me, it was kind of a failed… a flawed experiment. But it was okay. And then Birds Of Prey was just a complete disaster. While I was writing it, I came to the conclusion that I have no idea what that stuff's about, DC superhero stuff. I always prided myself, when I was younger, that "Aw, shit, if I ever did a DC comic, I could knock it off in an afternoon." It took me forever to get that stuff done. I just don't know the neighborhood anymore.
O: Had you ever imagined yourself working for Marvel or DC?
GH: I never wanted to, only because right away we had success with Love And Rockets, and I didn't need to deal with the problems of working for a mainstream company. It was never a dream for me. I was never interested in doing Spider-Man or Superman. Oh, maybe when I was 10, but I was already creating my own characters when I was 10. It wasn't a great lure.
O: Was it strange to move from the alternative-comics world, where you're known and respected, to the mainstream-comics world, where every fanboy with a blog was saying, "Who is Gilbert Hernandez and why is he ruining Birds Of Prey?"
GH: It was a nice wake-up call, you know? [Laughs.] I got a little bit of that. But how could they tell the difference? That's what got me. That's how naïve I am. How could they tell the difference between this Birds Of Prey and some other one? I can't tell the difference. Superheroes, for me, were over in the late '60s. I continued reading comic books into the '70s, but I didn't have a close relationship with mainstream comics for a long time, except for artists I really enjoyed, like Jack Kirby. When I jumped into it, I was lost.
O: How much do you keep up with alternative comics?
GH: I try to keep up as much as I can, but I usually just follow my favorite artists. Dan Clowes, Richard Sala, people like that. And the occasional graphic novel that pops up from Top Shelf or Drawn & Quarterly. But it's hard, because I'm working now more than I ever have been.
O: Is it ever awkward when you encounter a fellow creator who's a fan of yours, but whose work you don't much like?
GH: [Laughs.] It can be uncomfortable. That's been happening for 20 years. People say, "I really love your work," and then wait for a response. And I just say, "Thank you." [Laughs.] It comes off real egotistical and real smug, but I can't lie. I'm not interested in a lot of mainstream comics. I enjoy the art sometimes, but I'm just in another place. I don't get it.
O: Are you competitive with other cartoonists? If you see something really great, do you get inspired to top it?
GH: Oh yeah. I don't know about topping it, but I do get inspired, like, "Oh, I better get back to work!" It's the competitive edge that keeps a lot of us old fogies going. I know Dan Clowes and Robert Crumb are very competitive. They want to get noticed, and they want to be top dog. That's all good for their work, and all good for comics.
O: Does that include your brothers? Are you competitive with them?
GH: Yeah, but in a different way. It's more like I'll do my half of Love And Rockets, and Jaime will do his, and sometimes he'll do a story that I'll look at and go, "Oh my goodness! Now I feel dumb." [Laughs.] It's more like "keeping up with" than "being better than."
O: How much do you try to put in a 9 to 5 workday?
GH: Well I've got a 4-year-old, so it's a little different now. I work at home, and he's home all the time, and my wife has a part-time job. By the time it's time to work, I'm burned out. Kids are great, but they're work, and they suck up all your energy. I don't have any fixed schedule right now. I work when I can. I'll get up in the morning raring to go, but then there's always some errand to do, having to do with the kid, you know? [Laughs.] Since I work at home and I'm my own boss, I can't say no. I'm free to go, to do something else. But I try to get in five hours a day, spread out throughout the day.
O: How many pages can you get done in that time?
GH: I could never get a page done in a day. It's really scattered. I'm usually doing three comic books at once, so I'll work on the pencils for one page and then put it aside, and finish the ink for another page from another book, and then do the writing for another book. I'm always juggling.
O: There's kind of a tradeoff in comics: You can get some effects in a drawn page that you can't get in regular novels or movies. On the other hand, the work takes so long. Do you ever wonder whether the slow grind is worth it?
GH: It is for me, because I have absolute godlike power over everything. I was in rock 'n' roll bands before and I dealt with other people, which was difficult, probably because of my personality. I just like doing things on my own. Working on a film would be a different experience. A lot of fun, I'm sure, but at the same time, I'd have to explain to people what I want. That sounds kind of tiresome. I'd rather just draw it, and not have to explain anything.
The Onion: The collected Locas was released this year. What's it like to see a huge chunk of your life's work in one volume?
Jaime Hernandez: At first, I took it for granted, because the work is so old, and I was like, "Aw, that stuff again!" Then when we were putting it together, I was like, "Oh yeah, this is in there!" I started getting excited. It's pretty cool.
O: Is there any part of you that wishes you could go back to page one and re-write or re-draw everything?
JH: Maybe not everything, but there's some things that I would change.
O: Would you drop the dinosaurs and rockets from the early stories?
JH: I don't look at it that way. What's done is done. And I have a fan base for those rockets, you know? And then a fan base for the other stories, the real down-to-earth stuff. If I worried about that, it would take up too much of my time.
O: The drawing style changes throughout the book: It's richly detailed early on, but then you develop a cleaner line and more open space. That's a different experience for the reader than a regular novel, which usually has a consistent style from start to finish.
JH: I think if I had thought about the art having to be same from issue one to issue 50, it would've drove me crazy. It just let it happen, and it gradually changed, because that was how I felt. There were times when I was dropping out all the cross-hatching because I just found it unnecessary after a while. But it was all natural, the way it happened. No game plan.
O: When you first introduced Maggie and Hopey and the rest of your cast, you dropped right into the middle of their lives without much backstory, but you've gradually revealed more of their past over your 25-year run. How much did you have in mind from the beginning?
JH: Some of it. Their backgrounds, maybe. Where they came from. Maggie obviously had a Mexican-American upbringing, so I was just thinking of my family the whole time. That stuff wasn't important at first, but I filled in little tidbits as her life went on. I try really hard not to rewrite history in the comic, but sometimes it feels that way when I add in the past.
O: How do you work with these characters? Do you sit down and think about what might happen to them next, or do you get an idea for a story and try to fit it to your cast?
JH: Basically, I invent scenarios and let the characters fill them in. Like say somebody's going to take the bus. If Maggie catches the bus, one thing will happen. If Hopey catches the bus, this other thing will happen. If Izzy catches the bus, it's a whole different story. The characters dictate where the story's going to go, because I've pretty much thought out their whole lives. What makes them tick.
O: Do you know what's going to happen to them 10 years from now?
JH: Ten years? No. I really don't. And I don't want to, either. I want to be surprised along with everybody else. It keeps me from gettin' bored. [Laughs.]
O: Do you foresee a point down the road where you would drop them completely, and not write any more stories about them?
JH: I would always have to keep some little speck of what came before, just to keep a sense of life… a past, you know? What's been before really helps give what's happening now so much more worth.
O: Does that attraction to continuity have anything to do with growing up as a comic-book fan, knowing that a Superman story from 1968 has a connection to past issues and future ones?
JH: Partly, maybe. But the continuity really comes from seeing someone's life pass: what they're like when they're five, and then what they're like when they're 20, and then what they're like when they're 35. It just makes it all the more real when you know a person has a past. It's like the way we live our lives, you know? Life isn't all that exciting if it doesn't have what came before.
O: One of the best stories involving these characters was Wig Wam Bam, where Hopey hangs out with a group of high-living young people who sell their sexual services to aging sitcom stars. You seemed to be commenting on a new "seduction of the innocent," in the form of easy wealth and pop-culture worship. Was that theme at all intentional?
JH: Well, it all started because I wanted something kooky in that world that Hopey found herself in, and I had heard rumors about a certain celebrity in real life. I thought I'd run with it and make up my own story based on what I'd heard. Themes don't really occur to me until later. I don't figure it out until the reader figures it out, sometimes.
O: Given that you're still telling stories with these characters, why did you choose to end the collected Locas where you did? Just because that ends the first 50 issues of Love And Rockets?
JH: Yeah. We had too much material as it is. We had to break it down from an 800-page comic to a 700-page comic, and I had to take out a lot of material I liked. We had to whittle it down to just a Maggie and Hopey book.
O: Is there an advantage to collecting all of this in one book, especially when all the individual volumes are still in print, and many of them are self-contained?
JH: For me, it's because every day of my life, I meet people who don't know what the hell I do. Twenty-some years later, I'm still explaining, and they don't get it. They always ask me which volume I recommend to start with, and I think, "Gee whiz, they could start with the first one, but oh, that has the dinosaurs and stuff. They won't take me seriously if they read that." With Locas, I can proudly say, "Get this book, and you'll know all about me." [Laughs.]
O: Was Locas in the planning stages before Palomar came out last year?
JH: No, it was more like, "We're putting a big Gilbert book out. You're next." That's how it usually works.
O: Would it be viable for you to not release your stories in serialized form, and instead to wait until you had enough material for a complete graphic novel?
JH: There's a lot of reasons for not doing that. Some of them are just my quirky personality. I love to have the stuff out all the time. Another reason is financial. I have to have a steady income in order to survive. Another thing is that I would be too anxious. I'd be like, "God, I've got 50 pages of work here that nobody's seen." It would just drive me nuts. I like chunks of it coming out little by little. And then it becomes one big chunk in the end. Half my readership is people who don't buy the comic, they wait for the book collections. So I get it twice.
O: Gilbert seems to prefer long narratives that take years to complete, while you do more short stories.
JH: He's more disciplined that way. He's got 10 ideas going on at one time and I have a half an idea. It's the way we work. Mine start out with just a little tiny speck of an idea, and then I turn it into something, while he knows how his stories are going to end five years from now. I don't know how he does it.
O: During your early association with the punk scene, did you ever have to deal with any of the baggage of being "punk," like your fans thinking you'd sold out?
JH: Early on, we got a little grief for being too commercial, because we drew so slick. I didn't understand that. I mean, I know why people think that way. The alternative-comics scene got really punk, and we weren't punk enough. But we ignored it, because, you know, punk doesn't have all the answers. [Laughs.]
O: Were you ever guilty of harboring those feelings toward the bands or artists you liked?
JH: When I was young, of course. When my favorite band was signed, I was like, "Oh, they're not mine anymore. Boo hoo." But I was missing out if I refused to hear their new record. So after a while, I just stopped thinking that way, because it put me in this hole. It wasn't doing me any good. Everybody else was having fun but me. [Laughs.] Sure, I still have my favorite personal likes that when the "normals" start to like it, I get a little bent out of shape. But I'm grown up enough to know that that's my problem.
O: Do you try and keep up with what other cartoonists are doing?
JH: The cartoonist Steven Weissman, he's a good friend, and he recently moved to L.A. We talk every once in a while, and he fills me in on what's new. I had never realized how out of it I am. So many new people, and from my point of view, it's hard to tell who's who, because I'm so removed and untrained. A while back, I stopped all the competition with everybody else and just ignored it so I could focus on my own work, and then I just got further and further behind. There's a lot I don't know. A lot of the new stuff leans more to an art scene than a comic-book scene. I'm an old-fashioned comic-book fan from way back. I like things from as far back as the '30s. Comic books, that's my forte. A lot of these youngsters, if I can call them that, came from an art background and never read comics. I don't want to say that I can't relate to them, but it comes from a different point of view—and yeah, part of the time, I can't relate. I don't want to be narrow-minded, or old and set in my ways, but sometimes it comes out that way. So, yes, a lot of talented people. But I don't know where in the hell they're coming from. [Laughs.]
O: So you don't feel competitive anymore?
JH: Just with myself. I've kind of decided to take on the world, instead of my little comics world, and so I think of this stuff in a really big picture. It's kind of strange. I don't know who my enemy is, you know? [Laughs.] I just do it and expect the world to want to read it.
O: What do you think your place in the comics scene is now versus 20 years ago, when Love And Rockets was automatically mentioned in the same breath as Maus and Watchmen as the exemplars of superior "comics for adults"?
JH: I would hope we still hold that place, but I don't see it in the press, and that's usually the only way I can judge where I stand. By the mid-'90s, our comic started to drop off the list of the most influential comics of the time. I remember when it was Love And Rockets, Eightball, and Hate, and then once in a while, Maus. And then all of a sudden, we dropped off and we never came back. [Laughs.] So is it that they still like us, but we're not the top? We're not the flavor of the month? You know, I couldn't tell. So I gave up trying to keep up. I thought, "Well, I'll do this comic, and hopefully there's someone that'll listen. Goddammit." [Laughs.]