There’s part of me that felt a bit strange discussing the merits of superhero books with Jaime Hernandez. Sure the subject has come up with plenty of indie creators, and certainly artists like Jack Kirby are obligatorily rattled off when discussing Hernandez’s artwork, but the artist, who, along with his brother and longtime co-conspirator, Gilbert (and to a lesser extent, the eldest Hernandez sibling, Mario), is credited perhaps more so than any of his contemporaries as being one of the primary catalysts in indie comics’ divergence from the medium’s dominant caped paradigm.
The first issue of Love & Rockets’ most recent run (now an annual), however, bears the image of a caped Penny Century on its cover, a subject reflected in Jaime’s contributions to the book, which whole-heartedly embrace the superhero genre. Thankfully, however, they do so in a manner that fits comfortably into the world that Jaime has worked so hard to construct, thanks in large part to appearances by characters like Century and perennial loca, Maggie.
In this first part of our interview, we discuss caped crusaders, the fate of those early sci-fi stories, and the weird and wonderful world of Pogs.
You’ve gone pretty full bore into the world of superheroes, with the new book. Is that something you’ve been interested in pursuing for a while?
Yeah, for a while. It started out with Gilbert and I wanting to do a superhero comic separate from Love & Rockets. We wanted it in color and wanted to do a superhero comic, our way. As it got more involved, my story started to get longer and kept going. Gilbert was working on other stuff, and one day he goes, “why don’t you just do that yourself, and we’ll maybe do something together later?” It just got longer and longer, and I thought, “well, I’m really into this—it’s really exciting, so maybe I should just do it as Love & Rockets. I didn’t know how I was going to split up the chapters or anything, and shortly after that is when we came up with the idea of doing this 100-page annual. It just worked perfectly. I just fell into it. It was the right time and the right amount of work. I don’t know how it happened to work out like that, but that’s how it started.
When you say “do it our way,” how would you define that? What’s the Hernandez brothers’ way of doing a superhero book?
The thing is that Gilbert and I have always been superhero fans, it’s just that, at the time when we were starting our with our comic, we didn’t really like the way the mainstream was handling it. They were living off of a 60s Marvel formula. While we were fans of that way, the way the big two took superheroes was just not the way we would have done it. We were more fans of the 40s- and 50s-style, where superheroes still lived in the fantasy world. They weren’t trying to put them in the real world.
As a teenager, I had always drawn my own comics with my own superheroes as characters. I thought that I would put it in real life, and I would just have them do stuff in my hometown. I lived in a small town outside of LA called Oxnard. The more I did it, the more I was like, “that’s dumb!” [laughs] It just didn’t work for me, so I just started to like having superheroes in more of a fantasy world, because a lot more can happen than in the real life stuff.
It’s interesting, because a lot of kids who are starting out with their own art tend to work with established characters—Batman and Spider-men, etc.—did you do that too, early on, or were you always working with your own heroes?
It became my own characters when I was in my early teens—actually maybe even earlier. When I was a little kid, I would draw Batman comics. I think I drew Batman’s origin like a dozen times. I would just do it over and over again [laughs]. I remember doing a lot of Batman—I’m trying to remember other characters I did. I think I did one or two Hulk comics, but the one I most remember is Batman, because the TV show came out, when I was about five or six. The Batman craze was all of the place. You couldn’t avoid it. And being that age it was just “give me more.”
Over the years, you must have been solicited by Marvel or DC to work on some of those established characters. Was that something that was ever on the table for you?
Um, actually, it was more like, “hey, one of these days, we’d like you to work for us,” and I’d say, “okay!” And then I’d never hear from them. DC came through a couple of times. “We’d like you to do a pinup or something in a Who’s Who.” But it was really small stuff. So, whenever they’d ask me to take over a character, I’d say, “we’ll see.” And then they’d never call me back [laughs]. And Marvel, the only time they ever approached me was early on to do—what are those things called?—Pogs. Those little discs. It was during the Pog craze. They asked me to draw a Pog, and I was like…”hello?” [laughs] “who are you calling again?” “Well, we were just wondering if you wanted to draw a Pog.” I don’t know, at that time,I was just like, “I’m not going to draw a Pog!” Maybe if they asked me a year before or after, I would have said, “sure it would be fun.”
Depending on how broke you were…
Yeah. But that was the only thing that Marvel asked me to do—I think later on they would call Gilbert and ask, “would your brother be into that?” And he would say, “I don’t know, ask him,” and they would never ask me.
They would call Gilbert to ask about you?
Well, they would call him to ask about a project and then he would say “yes” or “no” and then they would say, “do you think your brother would be into it?” and then he would say, “I don’t know ask him.” It really all depended on who the editor was and what it involved. Did they really want to work with us, or was it, “we need an artist, who can we get?” It was hard to tell.
In the case of Pogs, it sounds like maybe it was the latter.
Yeah, “we need a Pog artist. Who do we get?” Because sometimes I could figure out that they like the way I drew this one character in a certain issue—it looked like Supergirl or resembled Lex Luthor. That was usually why they asked. But sometimes, like the whole Pog thing, it was a big mystery.
You mentioned before that when you were creating superhero comics in your teens that you set them in your hometown. Was one of the things that initially turned you off from these books the fact that they weren’t enough like people you really knew?
I guess so, yeah. That’s a good point. It didn’t feel right because here I grew up in a Mexican-American world, and comics weren’t that. This is before they started adding a Latin character, here and there. So, as a teenager, I decided that I would have this character running down Oxnard Boulevard, next to a Mexican man in a cowboy hat [laughs]. It just didn’t feel right. Now when I think of that stuff, I go, “wow, that’s perfect!” you know, but at the time, the superhero world and Marvel just didn’t click, so I kept it separate. That evolved into the work I did. In the early stuff, I had more sci-fi in the background, and it dropped out, because I got more excited about real life. It was just more interesting to me, my life at the time, and realizing that I could do comics about all this stuff and most comic readers were not exposed to it, so it was kind of new. It was rarely shown in comics at the time.
In the case of the early sci-fi stuff, were you ever afraid of pigeonholing yourself as a genre artist?
It might have had something to do with that. I had a lot of that early sci-fi stuff, but it kept going back home, where the kids were punk and real. That stuff was more interesting to me. The sci-fi stuff started getting in the way, but Gilbert and I just never really talked about it. I remember later, Gilbert did an interview or was on a panel and he said, “you know, if we would have stayed a science-fiction comic, we would have been just another science-fiction comic.” We actually challenged ourselves to do something that was harder, which was normal life. I think it was more unconscious why it turned out that way. I don’t usually have a big game plan. I was just doing what entertained me and hopefully that cuts across to the reader. So, it’s a hard question to answer.
[Concluded in Part Two]