Wandering the floor at a show like SPX, it’s easy to take the presence of talent for granted—even one on the level of Jaime Hernandez. Everywhere you turn, a different table in showcasing something wonderful—it can be downright overwhelming.
As I wait by the Fantagraphics table for Hernandez to tend to the final show goers in line before winding up his signing block, I just watch and wait. And for as long as he continues to draw, I am transfixed.
The cartoonist will draws for each and every fan in line. He offers two different sketch levels with two different price structures—a quick ink drawing, executed with the ease of a hall of famer signing a baseball card, and a pricier pencil sketch, a far more measured effort, precisely the product one expects from an artist like Hernandez, who seems to never draw a line where it does not belong.
It’s easy to miss out on such moments, amidst the spectacle of a comics convention. And it’s a shame. It’s a rare opportunity to watch a master of medium—a cartoonist still on top of his game after so many decades in the industry (and arguably more so than ever before)—practice his craft up close. How many other fields afford you that opportunity?
Still wrapped up in the moment, after descending the stairs and finding a quite corner on the lower level of the North Bethesda Marriott, I can’t help but begin my conversation with Hernandez by discussing precisely what I’ve just witnessed.
It’s fun to watch you sketch—particularly the “fast ones.” It’s a bit like watching a trapeze artist work without a net.
It’s almost like muscle memory on the quick ones with the Sharpie.
Yeah. I have to admit, it’s just the standard thing I do, just to get it done quickly [laughs]. Sometimes I wish that I drew characters without anatomy, or anatomy didn’t play a part in my stuff. When I do anatomy in the comic, I have to sketch it first, until it’s right, and then I throw the inks on it. But, at the conventions, a lot of people think I can grab the pencil and go to town.
Well, it needs a skeleton under it, for me [laughs].
But you do go to town on the “fast ones,” right?
Yeah, but those aren’t the most anatomically correct things. That’s why I do the slower pencil sketches in pencil. Because pencil hides mistakes [laughs]. I can’t just put ink down. I’m not that confident about making a straight face without at least penciling it first.
You draw a character for nearly 30 years and it’s still possible to make mistakes?
Sure! I don’t have the steadiest hand. I’ve never been able to just go to an easel and just start putting lines down on an anatomically correct figure. Sure, I can put lines down for stuff that doesn’t matter. But a human being, people recognize.
Especially if it’s one like Maggie, who people instantly recognize.
Yeah, so everything’s got to match up. The eyes have got to match up with the nose, the length of the nose to the mouth, to the chin. And that’s a guessing game, if I’m just sketching it for somebody [laughs]. I hope I don’t put the mouth too low or the eyes aren’t crooked.
There’s a thing about artists—and I’ve seen this in even the best artists. If you’re left-handed, the eyes can drop. The right eye will drop, and the cheek is fatter on that side. It’s just the way our eyes work. So, when I’m sketching a face, I’m holding it up to the light, backwards. That’s where you can see the mistakes, easily.
When you’re looking at it straight on, you can’t see it because your eyes aren’t trained.
You brain can’t process it.
Yeah. But you hold it up backwards, and you go, “oh man, that’s the most crooked thing in the world!” But I notice that right handed artists do the opposite. They slant the opposite way.
You haven’t gotten better at compensating for that?
Not without sketching it and making sure it’s straight before going ahead and finishing it. one thing I do to cut corners for, let’s say, sketches for fans, when I do the more detailed pencil sketches is, I will draw the left eye first. And then I’ll draw the nose. And the nose will help me center the right eye. It will end up straight.
If I drew two eyes, the drawing may, most of the time, the nose and the mouth start slanting the wrong way—it’s not directly under. Maybe it’s just my brain that works that way [laughs], but I have seen it with artists, from time to time.
I remember checking out a lot of those “learn to draw” books at the library, growing up, from places like Hannah-Barbara.
I think most children are just sort of inclined to trace, however. You guys had a lot of comics in the house, growing up—
Yeah, yeah. All kinds. Funny animal, kiddie comics, superhero comics, all kinds. It’s funny, for me, I couldn’t figure out why you have to give Yogi Bear a skeleton. You’re dealing with animation—you’re dealing with multiple drawings of that one thing, so he needs that skeleton. So, when you draw on picture of him, the next part of him moving has to be the exact same size.
When I get to do it in comics, when I draw a funny animal or something, it doesn’t matter how big their head’s gonna be in the next panel [laughs]. But for animation, it’s such an exact science. I don’t envy them [laughs].
Were you a big tracer, growing up? How did you start drawing?
Just somewhat. It was from copying. I guess I was pretty good at copying. When I got older, I thought it was bad to copy, because you weren’t a real artist. That’s bull, because I found that when I would copy something, I could draw it for the rest of my life.
Let’s say I copied a car or a cart or a certain kind of chair. If I copied it, I could say, “oh, hey, that turned out pretty good, and, oh hey, I know how to draw it for the next twenty years.”
I hate research. Copying can help, but I don’t do it. It’s something psychological, or something. Research and reference is like pulling teeth for me. I could have ten reference books in the same room, and I won’t go near them. It’s just something that I don’t do. It’s just hard.
Do you use your own earlier work as reference?
Well, if I need to, if I’m going to do a flashback, and I say, “this happened in the 80s, when Maggie was just getting heavy.” So I go back and see what she was wearing, what her hairstyle was. Things like that. But most of it is to just get information. Like, if I go, “okay, Maggie is talking about where she was, 20 years ago. Where was she 20 years ago, and do I have the right information? Does she have six brothers or five brothers?”
Stuff like that.
But most of it just exists in your brain?
Most of it, yeah. And I’ve made mistakes that luckily I’ve been able to turn into something better than what it was.
What’s an example of that happening?
This brand new story that just came out in Volume Three of all new stories [“Brown Town”], Maggie’s brother Calvin shows up. In the end you find that out. He was created out of an accident. As the characters were getting older, I wanted to show what Maggie’s family was like. She has brothers that I’ve never talked about. So I created this family of hers.
You have her sister Esther, who I’ve showed, a number of times. But she also had these brothers who I’ve never shown, who I always had in the back of my head.
You just never got around to it.
Yeah. So I gave her three brothers. There’s five in her family. Well, one day I was reading back in issue seven, and someone mentions that she has six in her family. I went, “oh!” So, in passing, I had one of her brothers mention the brother who had run away, who was kind of the bad seed, the troublemaker. He left early, and that’s why she only has five in the family [laughs].
I mentioned that in passing, just for my own peace of mind—I don’t know if anyone would have noticed.
Someone always notices.
[Laughs] Yeah! And so I created him, and so in the back of my head, she’s had this brother out there. So, I worked it into this story. It worked perfectly. It almost created this character that I had to fix from being non-existent.