Interview: Gilbert Hernandez Part 1

Categories:  Interviews

VenusIf you haven’t heard of Love and Rockets, you don’t know much about alternative comics. But that’s O.K., because this ground-breaking book by Gilbert Hernandez and his brother Jaime (with occasional participation from brother Mario) recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with the release of new softcover editions of Gilbert and Jaime’s best-known storylines.

If you’ve never read Gilbert’s stuff, pick up Heartbreak Soup, the recently released first volume of Gilbert’s famous Palomar series; you’ll be struck by its intricacy, depth, and above all, compelling female characters. Beto (as he’s known by his fans) has something up his sleeve for long-time fans, tool: brand-new stories set in the early days of the series, in New Tales of Old Palomar.

In the first part of our interview, we spoke to Gilbert about revisiting the work that made him famous, the differences between the Palomar stories of today and those of a quarter century ago, and his upcoming farewell to serial-form comics. There’s plenty more of the interview to come, and an exclusive guest strip later this week, so stay tuned.

Since you wrapped up Luba in America, you’ve published a lot of pages, but not much Palomar stuff until New Tales and The High Soft Lisp and the recent Fritz & Mark stuff in L&R. Were you burned out on the Palomar and post-Palomar storylines? I’d heard rumors you were pretty much finished that storyline.

Officially I intended to end the Palomar stuff with Love and Rockets #50–that was volume 1 of Love and Rockets—and just give it a rest for a while, and just use characters I had stories for. That would be the Luba in America stuff. Well, it turns out that I had so many characters, that the Luba in America stuff just kept getting longer and longer. And I didn’t really want it to get that long. So I finally cut it off after so many years. Then I got the opportunity to do New Tales of Old Palomar, basically filling in a slot for the new Ignatz Press.

They came to you and asked you to it?

They asked me if I was open to doing a new series of self contained stuff? I said, yeah, I could do that. And I asked, “what are you looking for?”

“Palomar.”

And I said, “ok.”

Is it hard to come back to Palomar again, 25 years later?

No…Well, it’s finding new stories for old characters—that’s the hard part. It’s not that I’m bored, it’s not that I don’t want to do it again–it’s not that. Like you mentioned in your review, I have a thousand pages on each character already. So finding new stories for them is difficult. So that’s why the first New Tales of Old Palomar is sort of a streamlined, simpler version.

How would you describe what’s different this time?

I was looking for a more reader-friendly book, because my stuff had gotten so dense, halfway down the run. I mean, yeah, sure, it was rewarding for the readers who were really following it, but if you just tried to jump on board in the middle, you’d have a hell of a time. And that’s not good for sales. You have to balance all that all at the same time, and even though I want to be true to myself, I have to be…you know.

Sales aside, it’s probably also nice to have more than one entry point for readers.

Yeah. So I took the traditional Palomar characters and story and just made a simplified, almost a young-people’s version of it. You know, like an Easy Reader version (laughs), and started out that way. As things progress, though, it’ll get a little more complex, a little darker, a little more original.

There are three New Tales coming out?

I’m hoping to do at least three, but it might be four, depending on what the publishers want.

Are these stories you’ve always wanted to tell? Tonantzin, whose origin story gets told in issue #1, is a character you’ve said is close to your heart, and here you’ve filled in a gap in her story.

Right. And then the third issue of New Tales will actually be a story of her adolescence, which I’ve never shown. They all follow different time lines. In the second issue, which will come out in May, I jump back about ten years. It’s a time I’ve never really shown in Palomar. I’m looking to do the same characters, but what you haven’t seen, that I haven’t done before. And to keep it reader friendly, for a mass audience, a general audience.

Do you see these as the next big Palomar arc? Is this a story that’s going to keep growing organically the way the original ones did, or maybe the Luba in America did?

If there’s an interest in it.

It’s hard to imagine your fans not being interested in it, but then I’m not on the publishing side.

Yeah, yeah, I always go back to that. The publishers, you know, are they willing to continue? Because this is a kind of a prestige project, you know? They’re putting a lot of money into it, The original Love and Rockets was really cheaply made, and we were able to get away with that for a long time. But now we have a more expensive package, a more expensive book. It depends on what the returns are and what the publishers feel is worth pursuing. If it works out in a positive sense, then, you know, sure.

Even you, one of the more successful names in alternative comics, have to think about projects that way.

Yeah. It’s the kind of comics that I do, and that my brother does; nobody else really does them. It’s a type of alternative comic that only my brother and I do, for the most part. Everybody else is going over to Pantheon because they’ve got a tragic biography to tell. I’m fine with that, but I’m just trying to do just stories with imagination—just old fashioned stories, you know?

Your early works get compared a lot to 100 Years of Solitude, people talk a lot about Márquez-like magical realism, but once Luba and her family and the other characters leave Palomar, there’s more focus on the realism, less on the magic. With the return to Palomar, you returned to that more magical feeling story. Is that a function of the time and place? Is that something you wanted to go back to with the New Tales?

Actually, yes. I looked at what made Palomar successful for me and the readers, and what made it what it was. And, like you said, a lot of that stuff got put in the back seat with the Luba story. Looking back at the Palomar work and thinking of new stories, it seemed like, well, this is what made it what it was. I’m a big supporter of basic imagination in stories: You know, tall tales, but tall tales that intermingle with the character’s real lives. That was one of the strengths of the strip. Also, the ensemble cast, and not necessarily in the Luba way. The way Palomar was, all the characters, the main characters, had equal weight. And they all looked different. So there was that, too. I was letting go of a lot when I did the Luba stuff. I was pretty much focusing on a family, and a lot of the characters looked alike, whereas in Palomar they all looked different. And I thought a lot about that, because comics is a visual medium, and it’s important to have it look like something.

Your new Palomar does look different. The drawings are a maybe a bit simpler but much more cinematic.

Well, what I’m trying to do with that, I’ve basically got the opportunity to just open up the stories visually. In the early Palomar stuff, I was just cramming in so many small panels. That was restricting, but I did my best. Basically I was trying to write a novel in each issue of Love and Rockets, and I had 15 pages! (Laughs) This time I had 32, and it was all open, and I could tell one story, about one thing happening, and just expand the visuals in a sweeping sense, you know. So basically it was an opportunity to expand and stretch.

Are you happy to be doing what looks like a happier storyline? I mean the Mark and Fritz stuff that’s in Love and Rockets now is incredibly sad, and seems to be getting sadder.

(Laughs) It’s pretty grim.

I read that your brother said he envies your ability to formulate and hold a whole 700 page story in your head, but I’ve also read that you have no idea where your stories are going. Which is it?

Probably a little bit of both. Things like that, like the Mark and Fritz story, I do think of that as a collection as I’m doing those stories. With that one, I just decided I wanted to do the story of a motivational speaker, and then threw the other elements in. It always helps to start a story off when I’m using a familiar character. Because the characters are projections of different parts of me, so it’s easier to get started that way. If I’m making up characters cold turkey, it takes me a longer time to develop them. Usually I’ll stick a familiar character into a new setting, and that’ll get me started. But what I’ll do is sometimes I’ll start it that way, and then I’ll change the character that was originally a character that had already been around. This time I stuck with it with Fritz, because I just knew what I wanted to say about her life. And so I just kept that going. But as I was moving along I thought, well, after 120 pages of this, this’ll be a nice book. So I focused on that, as it progressed, on having a story arc, and then an ending…

Where does Mark Herera come from?

Like I said, I use a lot of old characters in new settings. He was actually a character in Birdland. The porn comic, right? And, when I did Birdland, he was a type of character I’d never done before, basically you know a good-looking businessman. I just never had done that before. He became interesting to me. I just decided to hold onto him and use him as a real character.

Is Birdland the first place you introduced Fritz and
Petra? I’m a little fuzzy on the relative chronology there, since it wasn’t printed in L&R. You’ve done so many different titles, the only way to figure it out is to go back and look at the publication dates.

(Laughs) This is how it works. Petra was made up at the last minute, because you have to do the covers a long time before you get started on the work, for solicitation. The cover for Birdland was supposed to be Fritz, but it didn’t look like her. So I decided “I’ll give her a sister.” Simple as that just, instantly, I’ll give her a sister.

Did you know when you were writing Birdland that they were Luba’s family?

Yeah, because Fritz had been around…she was actually the first character I made up, back when I was in my early twenties, or actually my late teens. She was the protagonist of a science fiction series I was going to do. But I lost interest in that, and at the time there were no alternative comics, really, and there was no place for it. I just lost interest in it, but I kept the character around. She pops up in the first issue of Love and Rockets, in a small cameo. She pops up in Love and Rockets here and there. But I never really had a place for her. So when I came to Birdland, I thought, well, there she is, I don’t have to make up characters, I’ve already got plenty I haven’t used yet.

Is that why in her later career she’s a science-fiction cult actress, because of that earlier story?

Yeah, yeah, I would just pull in ideas I had from the old days. But I thought, well, I can’t really stick science fiction into Palomar stories. So I just came up with this thing where she makes the films.

There is a precedent for science fiction in Love and Rockets.

In the early issues there’s plenty of that stuff, but when reader interest was more focused on the characterization, that was where we went.

Birdland has aliens in it, and the early stories have S/F in them. Did the stories like Birdland actually happen? Are they canon?

That’s just another (bursts out laughing) excuse me, but that’s kind of another dimension. It’s comics, so you can do whatever you want. But I don’t want to spoil the relative purity of the Palomar work, you know.

So you published it under a different label, different name.

Yeah, this is the character and then again it’s not. Did it happen, did it not, is it part of continuity? (laughs) Luba started out in the first issue of Love and Rockets in a complete science fiction story.

What about other characters, like Venus and Petra and Luba? Are they going to be coming back at some point?

They’re saying goodbye to Love and Rockets in issue 20, which I’m working on right now. It’s an official “we’ll see you guys later, bye-bye.” Venus is a teenager, and she visits what’s left of the cast, and that’s it. But they’re just saying goodbye to Love and Rockets in the serialized format. The serialized format is just killing me. It’s just killing comics. Because, you know, Love and Rockets and books like that, they just take a long time to come out and you just can’t have continued stories any more. The market has changed completely, with graphic novels things like that. The mainstream can do that because the comic books come out monthly, and they change artists every three months, and writers every three issues. But for alternative comics it just doesn’t work work that way.

Your fans will lose their minds if that’s the end of these characters.

Oh it’s not the end, it’s just the end of the format, really. I am going to continue their stories, but they’re going to be in self-contained short graphic novels, where I can have complete stories in one place, not serialized. That’s the best way to go now. Love and Rockets will have self-contained stories, not serialized, and not so much character driven.

Like the Roy stuff you’ve been doing lately?

Yes, because I actually have a large audience for that kind of stuff, and I hardly ever do it.

Like Fear of Comics, and books like that.

Right. That’s the kind of stuff I’m going to emphasize for now.

Where does
Roy come from?

(Laughs) I just wanted to do a friendly fat-boy idiot.

Julio’s Day is ending, Me for the Future ended, Mark and Fritz just ended, and it seems like you just killed Roy again. I couldn’t help wondering as I was reading, is there something going on with Gilbert that we don’t know about?

(Laughs) No, don’t worry; Roy dies every few issues. No, for now, I’m just going to deemphasize the continuity, at least in certain areas. For the next several issues of Love and Rockets, I want to do whatever I wake up in the morning and feel like doing.

–Sean Carroll

14 Comments to “Interview: Gilbert Hernandez Part 1”

  1. Amy K. | April 2nd, 2007 at 9:12 am

    He read your review. That’s cool. I love everything Los Bros do.

  2. Amy K. | April 2nd, 2007 at 9:13 am

    That sounded really dorky but it’s true. When Gilbert talks about his work so matter of factly and honestly it really makes me respect and admire that work that much more. I only wish it were more available way over here in Nihon!

  3. Virginia | April 2nd, 2007 at 11:37 am

    This is great…it actually answered a lot of the questions I had concerning many of the stories, and I am enjoying the New Tales of Old Palomar.

  4. Michael Schmitz | April 5th, 2007 at 5:41 am

    Wow, that is a great interview! Thanks so much for it! I can’t await the second part. Gilbert is a genius and in my opinion one of the most talented creators the comics medium has ever seen. I’m eagerly awaiting his “Fritz” movie novels and the New Palomar stuff.

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