Gilbert Hernandez is one of the biggest names in alternative comics. With his brother, Jaime, Beto (as he’s known) helped bring non-superhero books into, if not the mainstream, then awfully close. A new Gilbert Hernandez book gets thoughful reviews in a press that never would have treated comics so seriously before the brothers’ flagship book, Love and Rockets, and the revolution in comics that it helped to create.
Beto’s enormous Palomar work is now being reissued for a remarkable third time, in series of new collections designed to make an easy entry point for new readers, and a handier reading copy for those that already have the complete Love and Rockets collections (which include lots of other material) or the massive Palomar coffee table book, which is beautiful, if a bit unwieldy to carry on the subway.
Hernandez took the time to talk to us recently; in part one of the interview, he talked about his New Tales of Old Palomar title and the end of serialized Palomar storyline (in fact, all his serialized storylines) in Love and Rockets. In part two, he talks about Sloth, his recent graphic novel from Vertigo, a standalone tale of mystery, comas, urban legends and body-switching with no ties to Palomar or any of his other works; Julio’s Day, a generations-spanning standalone Latin-themed story that has been running in Love and Rockets for several years; and Chance in Hell, the novelization of one of Palomar regular Fritz’ B-movies. The commong thread here? All of three were conceived of as graphic novels, unlike his Palomar work serialized in Love and Rockets.
Let’s talk a little bit about the whole graphic novel thing you’re doing now. Sloth was the first one, right?
Yeah, you could consider that the first one.
What inspired that?
I just hadn’t done a graphic novel. I hadn’t done a self-contained, easy-read story for a different—a partly different—audience, you know?
You knew Sloth was going to be a certain length from the outset. Did you yourself saying, “My god, I have 120 pages to fill,” or “My god, I only have 120 pages for all this story.”
Well, the former…yeah, I ran into that, because I hadn’t done it before and I usually don’t have a complete story worked out as I get into it. I’ll have a good chunk of it, like a beginning, middle, and end, but not the rest of it, and I’ll work that out as I’m developing the story. I’ll emphasize things I need to make the story more clear, or deemphasizing things to not confuse the story, that kind of thing. So Sloth was a pretty difficult challenge to complete, because it went through so many changes, so many different routes, that I’m not 100% on it. It turned out okay.
It’s a great book, but it does feel like a new territory for you, for sure.
Yeah, and even for me it feels like, okay, this is a baby step. This is really the first one, not the last one. You’re supposed to go out there with every major project like this is going to be the last one, and you’re going to get hit by a truck the next day. But, well, I don’t think that any more. [laughs] I think about how this is a beginning, and how we’re going to unfold things and look to the future now.
Was this also a kind of a way to renew your craft after a couple decades of Love and Rocket?
Mmm-hmm. Yeah. I just wanted to do–similar to the New Tales of Old Palomar–I wanted to do stories and visuals that sort of opened up; pace it a certain way, you know, and emphasize fewer characters than the usual 56. [Laughs]. Yeah, it was basically challenging myself. What you have to do is trick yourself sometimes, you know; you have to trick your brain because it gets into ruts, gets into familiar patterns. You have to shock your talent by doing something different.
So story-wise it’s pretty different, how about technique-wise?
It wasn’t too different, because it’s pretty much a simpler version of my Palomar work. So it’s basically what I call my everyday style. You know, I wake up in the morning draw the characters, didn’t have to stylize too much.
Okay, but how about comparing the art in Julio’s Day versus Sloth, they’re both clearly your style, but they’re also quite different. Is it the level of polish you put on them that’s different?
Yeah, it might be that when I’m dealing with a small, Latin theme, I’ll make it a little more scruffy.
Is that on purpose?
Yeah, Sloth is a little more slick.
It’s a little more urban, too.
Yeah, so maybe I unconsciously work it out that way.
Without meaning this at all as a negative, Julio’s Day is the rough-and-readiest feeling stuff I can remember seeing from you.
Well, here’s what happened. I conceived Julio’s Day many years ago, and that was supposed to be my first graphic novel, but in serialized form. I was going to do it in ten page chapters in Love and Rockets for the first ten issues. Well, as I was working on it, it just had too much of the Palomar feel in it, and I really wanted to do something different. So I started shortening the chapters. Pretty soon I would end up with just one page in each issue. I thought, this is supposed to be a graphic novel, and this is not working. I started working on other things, and pretty much just tried to keep it going in there, knowing that it was a mistake to make it a serialized graphic novel.
It ends up feeling like little pieces of sudden fiction, almost.
And since they are little pieces of a graphic novel, there’s not a lot going on–probably the least going on of any of my work in those little chapters.
It is sort of tantalizing, yeah.
When it’s read as a graphic novel, it’ll make more sense. It’s written like a serious story where very little happens, like in a lot of the books we had to read for school, you know what I mean? [Laugh]. So serializing it in Love and Rockets taught me the lesson that I can’t spend six years serializing a hundred page story, it’s just ridiculous. So I’m just not doing that any more. So Julio’s Day began as a graphic novel, and will end up–I don’t know what it’ll be when it’s done, just a small, little book that took six, seven years to do. [Laughs.]
Are you planning to add back in some of the stuff you cut out?
Yeah, just because I wanted to end it, I didn’t want to continue anything in Love and Rockets. As far as continuity goes, I just said okay that it’s it, I’m going to cut it out so I can end it quicker.
You want to talk a little bit about your new book, Chance in Hell?
Chance in Hell: it’s funny, because that’s getting a lot of interest, even though it’s probably my lightest work I’m going to be doing. Originally, when I was doing the Fritz stories, and I made her a B-movie actress, I got inspired to show little bits of these little B-movies, you know? And then it got a little more ambitious to where I’d dedicate whole issues to these little stories. Pretty soon it started growing like, why don’t I just do a whole graphic novel based one of these little films? But I didn’t want to use this character in Love and Rockets any more…for the time being. And that was at the time the whole graphic novel thing happened. You know, Blankets did well, and different books, and there was just a feeding frenzy for graphic novels. This is what three, four years ago? So I thought, well, I better start doing graphic novels—that’s more what I want to do anyway.
So Chance in Hell is kind of a story within a story? A kind of meta-graphic novel?
Yeah, yeah! I just sort of thought, well, I’ve got these characters and these ideas! So I just sort of threw them together to see what might work. It worked out. It just turned out that it started writing itself, and Chance in Hell became sort of this little graphic novel or movie adaptation, whatever the reader wants. The reader doesn’t have to care about the [Palomar] characters, because it’s a self-contained little story.
Will the long-time fan recognize Fritz in it?
[Laughs] She’s uh…she’s easy to recognize. And she fits in it just right. Thing is, I don’t know, somehow it just worked out. Everything just came together, and it just worked out. She’s an odd choice for that, I know, because she’s not like my main character, like the early Palomar characters, but just for some reason…
Not to argue with you about your own work, but when I was prepping for this interview, I pretty much reread everything you’ve published…Fritz has become a really big character.
[Hesitates] Yeah. The trouble with her, is that…like, say, a character like Luba wears her anger on her sleeve…we don’t know anything about Luba, but we know to get out of her way.
Whereas with Fritz you kind of know everything about her?
Everything, but she doesn’t show it. Her face has such a fixed look. That was always a problem, all the things going on in her life happen around her and inside her, but you don’t see it on her face. That’s difficult for a cartoon character, for readers to accept that, so that’s why she’s a little problematic for me. And doing this movie thing actually works because she can be…she doesn’t have to be herself. She can be whatever her part requires. She can become that character, and I think it’ll make a lot of sense for long-time readers.
[Continued in Part Three]