No Joke: Comics for Grownups

By J. Stephen Bolhafner
Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Sunday, January 3, 1993

`LOVE AND ROCKETS" is not what you think of when you think of a comic book.

It is a comic book for adults, and it emphasizes relationships instead of gimmicks such as superheroes and exploding buildings. It is written by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, and since they started 10 years ago, they have grown into accomplished storytellers. The characters' lives are explored through realistic action rather than thrilling adventures. Indeed, they are among the new practitioners of the medium whose work is often defined as "comic books for people who don't like comic books."

So how did the Hernandez brothers come to choose comic books as the medium for their stories in the first place?

"It was a natural form of expression for us," said Gilbert during a recent visit to St. Louis. We thought everybody read comics. We didn't know we were weird. We didn't know people that collected comics were strange. It was as normal as listening to rock music on the radio."

Actually, listening to rock music on the radio wasn't "normal" in their cultural milieu. "We were Mexicans who happened to like rock 'n' roll," said Jaime. "That's kind of rare where we come from. And we got into the LA punk scene in the late '70s and formed a band. And we just wanted to draw from our experiences, and we noticed that what we wanted to see wasn't being done in comics, or done right, anyway. And we took it from there."

They began drawing as children, and it seemed natural to imitate the comics they were reading. As they grew older, the comics they were doing for themselves began to reflect their new interests.

"We grew out of the superhero comics, but we still liked comics," said Gilbert. "So we started putting our own experiences in the stories we were doing for our own amusement."

"We didn't know what we were going to do with them," Jaime added, "because we never thought we were professional enough . . . I mean, I didn't know how to draw New York City and you had to if you wanted to work for Marvel (the largest comic book company, home to Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk, among others). And then our brother Mario said, `Hey, with all this stuff you're doing, why don't we publish our own comic? So we published our own cheap version."

The first issue was all black and white - not even the glossy color cover most black-and-white comics have. It looked as if it had been done on a Xerox machine. With no money for advertising or knowledge of distribution, they sent a copy to a magazine that covered comics, hoping a favorable review would lead to some orders.

"Gilbert happened to send a copy of it to `The Comics Journal,' " said Jaime, "and a week later we got a letter saying, `We like this. Can we publish it?' "

The magazine's editor, Gary Groth, has for years championed alternatives to the superheroes that have dominated the comic-book medium for decades. The Hernandez Brothers' "Love and Rockets" - basically a "fanzine" or amateur publication in that first issue - came out just as Groth was looking for something to publish that would further these goals.

That was in 1982. Today, the Hernandez Brothers are touring America celebrating the 10th anniversary of "Love & Rockets" and the soon-to-be-published 40th issue.

They are successful enough to live off of their comics work - something few comics artists outside the mainstream can do. Art Spiegelman, for instance, has maintained a relationship with Topps bubble gum that goes back to his high school days, and many comics artists do commercial art to pay bills in between comics projects.

The Hernandez Brothers' success is remarkable in a medium that generally rewards stories with lots of action. The stories in "Love and Rockets" revolve around the characters.

"The response to the characterizations in the book was immediate," said Gilbert. "People would say, `We love these characters. How long have you been doing them?' And we would say, `Well, one issue.' And we got inspired immediately to deal more with characters than with action themes."

Each of the brothers writes and draws his own stories, and they share space in the book. Again, this goes against the grain of typical comic book creation, in which one person usually writes and another draws.

Gilbert's characters include the inhabitants of the mythical Latin American village of Palomar, which is "pretty much a microcosm of `small town,' " according to its creator. "There is no such place, but it reflects what living in a small town is like."

His initial reason for creating Palomar was to contrast what his brother was doing. "Jaime is doing the Hispanics living in the United States and dealing with life that way, and I'm doing stories about back home, basically."

Gilbert deals with the everyday reality of his character's lives, with a perspective that is a little bit different than the one found in much of the fiction about Latin America.

"I try to avoid a lot of the cliches, like the machismo in men, the heavy religious imagery that's in a lot of Hispanic culture. Not that it's not there, but that's basically just what people think about when they think of that. And I've sort of sidestepped that, and I dealt with the characters' lives more. Particularly the women characters."

Jaime, too, concentrates on his female characters.

"My half of the book pretty much handles Southern California Mexican-American culture. Teen-age - well, they started out teen-age - girls who happen to be into punk music. Alternative lifestyles in Southern California."

Jaime's two main characters are Maggie and Hopey, who are roommates and sometimes lovers. Hopey seems definitely a lesbian, while Maggie seems more ambivalent about her sexuality and has had at least two serious male love interests in the 10 years the book has been in existence.

When asked how they are able to get inside a woman's intellect to create such characters, Gilbert said, "Well, I'm not sure we have. I think we've just fooled people this long." But the fact that "Love and Rockets" is one of the few comic books with a large and loyal female readership belies this.

A little more seriously, Gilbert points out that that the best way to do something, sometimes, is by not trying.

"I think we would make a mistake if we were trying to write women, but we're not. We're just trying to write people, and they happen to be women. Of course, that's simplifying things . . . we just basically do our best to be sensitive, to say, `Well, if I were a woman, how would I feel about this situation?' "

One reason why the book concentrates so much on female characters may be the influence their mother had on the Hernandez's lives.

"Our father died when we were very young," said Gilbert, "so our mother raised six kids. And we saw the world filtered through her eyes, being a minority woman raising six kids. So we were very sensitive to how she felt about things. That's my guess, anyway. We've been asked this question for 10 years, and we could never have an answer. That's the closest answer I can think of."

The book's depiction of sex is frank and sometimes even graphic - a raid on a comic book shop in Toronto recently included "Love and Rockets" in the "obscene" material confiscated. But the book is not pornographic, nor does every issue include sexual content.

"We were very happy," said Gilbert, "when a South African court, which had previously ruled against us, took another look and decided that, no, this material was not obscene and allowed it into the country."

The problem is that most people regard comics as children's literature, and regard things that are commonplace in movies or best-selling novels as too risque for presentation in comics. But "Love and Rockets" is not for children. Its stories and themes would be over the heads of most children, and the book is sold only to adults in most stores.

Since he is one-half of a creative team producing a forthrightly adult comic book, it may seem odd that Jaime Hernandez cites as his strongest influences not superhero comics, but ones most comics fans consider more juvenile: "My two biggest influences are `Archie' comics and `Dennis the Menace' comics. People say, `Oh, that's funny, those are silly kids comics.' Yes, but what were they about? Teen-agers and a little boy and his parents. You know, `Dennis the Menace' was probably the most realistic comic book ever done."

"No space aliens ever invaded," noted Gilbert.

"As silly as those stories were," continued Jaime, "they basically stuck to reality. If he met Santa Claus, it was in his dreams. And every year they had these travel annuals, where they would travel to Mexico, things like that. And they would send the writer and artist to Mexico, to research. And they would say, `OK, Dennis climbs up on that statue,' and they would take notes. It was that accurate. And when I visited Washington, D.C., once, I knew everything. I knew all about that place, because of the comic book."