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Trailblazing comic book trio trace their long careers during two talks at Stanford

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From left to right, sitting at a table: Stanford professors Bissera Pentcheva and Ramon Saldivar, Gilbert Hernandez, Mario Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, and Stanford professor Scott Bukatman.
From left to right: Angela Becerra Vidergar and Stanford professor Ramón Saldívar, Gilbert Hernandez, Mario Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, and Stanford professor Scott Bukatman. Above them are two cells from "Love and Rockets."
Photo Credit: 
Veronica Marian
Mario, Gilbert, and Jaime Hernandez grew up obsessed with comic books. They read, drew, and talked comics since before they can remember, influenced by a mother who kept stacks and stacks of comics piled up around their childhood home.
 
But the brothers quickly realized the comics on the market lacked some important elements – namely, realistic portrayals of teenagers and women.
 
In a two-day symposium at Stanford on October 9 and 10, the brothers spoke about how their now iconic comic book series Love and Rockets addressed this disparity.
 
During the packed panel discussion on October 9, the youngest of the Hernandez Brothers, Jaime, noted, “We started [putting] women in our comics because we didn’t see any good women in the other comics that were out there.”
 
The series originated in 1982, when the brothers self-published Love and Rockets. Since then, Chicana characters Maggie and Hopey, who combined the feel of the Latino community in southern California with the punk rock culture of the 1980s, became the series’ backbone. As Maggie, Hopey, and their friends have aged in real time over thirty years, their story lines have evolved to touch on topics like divorce, abuse, bisexuality, suicide, and mental illness.
 
Known as “Las Locas,” these female characters looked and spoke like the real Latinas the brothers grew up with. Raised in southern California surrounded by Mexican American family, Spanish was spoken nearly all the time in the Hernandrez brothers’ house, while Mexican music, movies, and sports played on in the background. “Going to tía’s [his aunt’s] house was like going to the old country,” said Jaime.
 
Stanford’s Graphic Narrative Project, which originated as a Stanford Humanities Center Geballe Research Workshop, was the symposium’s main sponsor. Vanessa Chang, the graduate student coordinator for the previous two years, stressed the reasons that artists like the Hernandez brothers, and comics as a genre, are worthy of serious study.
 

The Hernandez Brothers Talk Alternative Comics with Stanford Audience October 9, 2014

“Comics are a unique art form, with their own vocabulary and vast possibilities for expression,” Chang said. “Studying them from an academic perspective helps us expand our understanding of a popular medium that grants us access to a range of human expressive possibility.”
 
In the comics landscape, she added, the Hernandez brothers are trailblazers. “They have inspired countless artists to pursue and develop their work. So many artists have cited them as influences, and they are important to understanding the contemporary landscape of comics.”
 
The brothers were joined on stage by Stanford professors Scott Bukatman and Ramón Saldívar, as well as Angela Becerra Vidergar (Comparative Literature PhD 2013), who moderated the conversation about the creative process and the influences that have shaped such long lasting careers.
 
Becerra Vidergar, a co-founder of the Graphic Narrative Project, remarked that the Hernandez brothers’ comics “evoke realism, science fiction, complex characters, representations of punk rock, and Latino culture.” As a Latina, she added, she especially enjoys the variety of strong, multi-faceted and extremely relatable Latina female characters.
 
Middle brother Gilbert told the captive audience that ever since he started drawing comics at five years old, he has focused on creating characters with individual, believable voices. To capture realistic dialogue, he developed the fictional town of Palomar and its Chicano inhabitants based on conversations he heard in his home and community. “I put down what I heard in real life,” he said.
 
The ability for comics to portray minority communities in new ways is among the reasons why scholars and students of literature, art history, media studies, and ethnic studies are increasingly paying attention to what comics have to offer. Bukatman told the brothers “We [at Stanford] are trying to get comics to be taken seriously.”
 
Bukatman, who teaches undergraduate and graduate level courses dedicated to comics, currently leads the Graphic Narrative Project. For four years, the Project has brought artists and scholars together to “engender an ongoing conversation that strikes a balance between comics theory and practice.”
 
But having people take comic books and graphic novels seriously can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. “Comics have long been vilified as a less serious field of study than many other arts, seen as neither literature nor high art,” said Chang. By giving artists like the Hernandez brothers the opportunity to speak about their craft and share their experiences as artists with an academic community, Stanford is shedding light on the versatility of the comics medium.

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Sitting at a table from left to right: Gilbert Hernandez, Mario Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, talking to a group of Stanford students
Vanessa Chang (far left) moderated the Hernandez brothers' talk with Stanford students about the craft of comics artistry. Sitting at the table from left to right: Gilbert Hernandez, Mario Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez.
Photo Credit: 
Veronica Marian
The next generation of comic book artists
Twenty-five aspiring student artists representing a variety of majors, including English, Art, Computer Science, Product Design, Geology, and American Studies met with the brothers the day after the public lecture. The students, currently enrolled in either Bukatman’s comics class or the Creative Writing Program’s Graphic Novel Project, had the opportunity to ask specific questions about the tools the brothers use and their sources for inspiration.
 
The trio spoke frankly about the most important elements behind a successful career in comic books – passion for the art form and an individual style.
 
“If you want to make comics, you have to want to make comics. We have been doing Love and Rockets for thirty years because we like it,” Gilbert said. This means that even when the creative process gets painful – Mario described it as your internal organs being wrenched out of your body – you stick with it, focus on determining your own style, and explore the flexibility of the comics medium.
 
The comics artist has a unique freedom “to think outside the box,” Mario said. “What you can do in comics that you can’t do in other media is be visually dynamic – you can use different panel sizes to set different moods, stretch the picture or shrink it, have a blank page with just one little meek guy at the end, use negative space, do word puns mixed with the picture.”
 
To illustrate Mario’s point, Gilbert used the example of a comic book page about a space mission. “You can have one long panel showing the space ship and the stars, and have a lot of empty space, to imply the lack of sound in space.”
 
The students were eager to hear advice from successful comic makers. Freshman Chloe Wiggins said the talk helped her understand more about the process of comic-making and various ways to approach story-telling through the medium, noting that hearing the brothers share their experiences “was encouraging for prospective comics artists.”
 
As for all the comic book-based superhero movies that have recently come out, the brothers are all enthusiastic fans. 
 
“I wish they’d done it when I was a kid!” said Jaime, and Gilbert pointed out that movies like Spiderman and Captain America pull from characters that have been around for decades. “Nostalgia is fun. I wish the original creators of those comics could have seen this,” Gilbert said.
 
Mario recalled the excitement he felt when the first Spiderman movie came out. “I told everyone in the theater, ‘I’ve been waiting for this for 40 years!’” 
 
All that being said, the brothers agreed that the plethora of comics-based movies have yet to address the frustrations they felt with the roles and depictions of women in the mainstream comics industry.
 
“I don’t know that they have figured out Wonder Woman,” Jaime said, and Gilbert lamented that even though Wonder Woman has been in print since the 1940s, “she still doesn’t have a movie! The problem is the little boys club in Hollywood. How have they not figured out that you can have a cool woman superhero?”
 
The two-day symposium was co-sponsored by the Graphic Narrative Project, the Stanford Arts Institute, the Graphic Novel Project and the Creative Writing Program, the Program in Modern Thought and Literature, the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages, American Studies, the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and the Stanford Humanities Center.