Javier Hernandez is a Latino comic author. He has created a comic book series based on the character El Muerto. Apart from writing other comics, he and Ricardo Padilla cofounded Latino Comics Expo. He will be presenting his work and moderating a panel at Long Beach Comic Con 2018 on September 8th and 9th.
Please tell us about yourself and where you are from. Where are your parents from?
I was born in East LA and grew up in nearby Whittier, which I refer to as Eastern East LA. My Dad was born in Redlands, but at an early age moved with his Mom to Mexicali. He made his way to Sinaloa where he met the woman he would eventually marry. Once married, my parents moved to East LA where my Dad's sisters lived.
Do you identify as Chicano? If so, what values or characteristics are components of that identity?
To be honest, I haven't really used that term to identify myself. The only reason being is that growing up, I recall Chicanos being the more politically active Latinos. And I respect that. There's a rich history of Chicanismo from the Los Angeles area and that is a source of pride for many of us. It continues today. But for myself, particularly with my identity as an artist, I feel that calling myself 'Chicano' would be co-opting something I might not have earned. My decision comes out of respect for Chicanos. Others might categorize me like that (Chicano), and I don't judge others who use that name for themselves. I'm certainly politically aware (and in this current Trump era, there's never been a more stirring call to be vigilant as Latinos/Chicanos) but I don't think as an artist it's a label I would claim for myself.
What is El Muerto and what was the inspiration behind it? Where can we purchase a copy of it?
El Muerto is my comic book character originally published in 1998. El Muerto continues today in a series of graphic novels. I wanted to create my own comic; and I definitely wanted to create a character from Latino culture, specifically Mexican. Growing up as a kid I loved all the Marvel & DC superheroes in comics, cartoons, and TV. But once I was out of college and working in the graphic design world, the yearning to create my own comics with my own characters was too strong to resist.
The idea I came up with was a fusion of Dia de Los Muertos folklore and Aztec mythology (which you rarely saw in comics and the greater pop cultural landscape). This was way back in the day before COCO and THE BOOK OF LIFE brought the Dia de Los Muertos festival to the pop cultural forefront.
Folks can order any of my books directly from me through my website: http://loscomex.storenvy.com/ I sign all the books and also draw a quick sketch in the book.
Would you describe the process behind writing El Muerto?
So when I create a comic book, my approach isn't the usual process. At least it seems to me, in talking to so many other creators. I formulate the ideas in my head, often drawing lots of designs to find the character. I may take months, or even years, playing with the plot in my head. But I never write an actual script, or jot down many notes, for that matter.
Once I have a rough idea of the story, I'll literally start drawing it out, loosely and quickly, on sheets of white, blank 8.5" x 11" paper. I'll draw the whole story (20, 40, 60 or 100 plus pages) till the very end. I sometimes write rough dialogue in some of the word balloons, but really my concern at this stage is the visual pacing and rhythm, the staging of each scene panel by panel. As I'm drawing I'll run the dialogue in my head, but for me it's key to get a narrative flow to the visual story. I'll look over all the pages and edit the manuscript: omit pages, redraw others, etc.
Once I'm satisfied with my draft, I'll bring in the larger Bristol paper (11" x 17") then redraw the whole story with much more detailed art in pencil. Then I'll go back and ink the entire comic (with a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen and ink). Next, is scanning all the pages, and coloring it digitally if it's a color book. Once all that is done, I then begin the writing. Or 'scripting' might be the more proper term. Starting at the beginning, I'll create the word balloons then write the characters’ dialogue.
It's pretty much how I've done every single comics story I've ever done. Mind you, I write and draw my own stories, so this process works for a singular creator quite well. At least it does for me.
In El Muerto you incorporate Spanish but very minimally. Would you tell us about your decision on that?
I'm writing for an English audience. Granted, many of them will be bilingual in Spanish to varying degrees. But just being practical, I'm choosing to not alienate readers to the point they can't follow along. Plus, honestly, I think in English. English is the most direct line of expression from my mind to my art. There is definitely a Spanish readership out there, even in my own audiences, but my long term plan is to have Spanish editions of my graphic novels.
How did you research Aztec culture, especially in relation to religion and spirituality?
I remember going to the Whittier Public Library and checking out books on Aztec culture, then scouring the used bookstores for more. I was curious primarily about the pantheon of gods, as two of my main characters, the gods Mictlantecuhtli and Tezcatlipoca, would figure prominently into the story (they're the ones who take Diego de La Muerte and transform him into the supernatural being El Muerto). As comics are a visual medium, I also looked at lots of Aztec art, such as the codices and sculptures and what they wore.
There is a lot of symbolism in El Muerto, for example the protagonist named Juan Diego de la Muerte. Would you explain some of the symbols you incorporated?
The name Diego de La Muerte... I was thinking of the phrase "Dia de Los Muertos" and wondered what name I could come up with that followed that visually and phonetically. Then, I recalled Juan Diego from the story of La Virgen de Guadalupe and realized that was another gift, storytelling wise. Symbolism, visual metaphors, etc., have been used in art for centuries. As an artist, they're such a powerful tool to use as a way to say so much without having to write about it. They connect to people on a primal level through this shared field of experience and knowledge we all have. As a comics creator, an artist, I love drawing them. Placing an owl above a character in the street can foreshadow the next events. Having a scorpion scuttle across a scene in the foreground, as when Diego awakens in the temple of the god of death, has a similar effect.
How do you understand the relationship the Aztecs had with the Catholic Church? And why do you think Chicanos are more fascinated by Aztec culture in contrast to other indigenous Mexican cultures?
Man, that's a whole historical and philosophical discussion there! In short, and not being frivolous about it, the ancient Aztecs never asked for the Catholic Church, or the Spaniards, to invade their country. Anytime that happens in history, every time actually, it results in death and destruction and changes the course of history forever. It's one of the many tragedies of our world history. What I can say though, speaking solely from my perspective some 500 years later is this: I was born from Mexican parents and had a Spanish speaking, Catholic upbringing. I'm part of that thread of people and events that "change the course of history forever". We all have different opinions on how to deal with the aftermath, on how we can look at religion and countries and politics and history. Everyone can have a valid opinion. I just live my life with my own decisions and move forward. Always know your history, how things came about the way they did. But walk your path and speak truth to power. In the case of us artists, let your thoughts make their way into your work.
As for why Chicanos identify with the Aztecs primarily? Again, looking at my own perspective, from my earliest years I learned first of the Aztecs, visually at least, through the artwork seen in the calendars my Dad would bring home from carnicerias (butcher shops) and panaderias (bakeries). And when you start hearing the stories of the conquest of Mexico, you immediately learn of the Aztec Empire. There's also a bit, speaking for myself again, somewhat of identifying with the victimization of what happened to that mighty culture and its people. Maybe it’s Catholic guilt? I don't know. Of course, as I got older I learned of the other great cultures of Mesoamerica, but that initial entry point to Aztec culture and history is pretty primal, to the Mexican soul, I believe.
Octavio Paz’s book appears in the novel. Who is he and has his writing influenced you?
He is The Poet Laureate of Mexico. His keen insight and reading of the Mexican psyche resonates with me. He writes of how that sense of fatalism, yet also frivolity to get through it, permeates the culture. His writing on how the Mexican works hard, but also parties and celebrates with gusto, really speaks to a dichotomy that fascinates me endlessly.
And as an author of fiction, I will take things in my life such as interests, passions, foibles, loves, fears, etc. and ascribe them to my characters. So, Diego De La Muerte reads Paz but also has a signed photograph of Macho Man Randy Savage among his possessions!
We started this company because we feel Chicanos and Latinos should be better represented in American media. What are your thoughts on the topic?
There are two reasons why I published my first El Muerto comic in 1998. One was to give myself a vehicle for creative expression. Second, I needed and wanted to see more representation of Mexican culture and characters in the American comic market. Consequently, I thought it important to pursue the movie offer I was given in 2001 to turn El Muerto into a film. The film was finally released in 2007. Following that, in 2011 I co-founded, with my friend Ricardo Padilla, the first ever comic convention spotlighting Latino creators in comics and related arts: the Latino Comics Expo.
There were other Latinos in comics before me working hard to punch into the art form and the marketplace. And I'm so glad to see, 20 years after my first comic, the field has continued to grow with so many Latinos of every stripe working in mainstream comics and flourishing in the independent fields of comics, zines, animation and more. There are still more barriers to overcome in all the media, but everyone needs to focus and find their way through the gates, with or without permission.
Who are some Chicanos or Latinos in the comic book industry we should know more about?
Well, I think there are so many to mention and I wouldn't want to exclude any. I hope readers out there are actively searching and discovering these talents. Websites like yours are good resources in getting a spotlight on such creators. Many of them show up at our Latino Comics Expo year after year! I should mention that Professor Frederick Aldama has written and edited several books on Latino comic creators. His works are enlightening and resourceful books to find today's top Latino talents.
What are your five favorite comics? And what are your five favorite comics from Latino authors?
I can answer the first part by saying I enjoy a great deal of work from such creators as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Frank Miller, Mike Allred and others. Steve Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man run is probably my favorite comic book superhero series; I love so many other titles he's worked on.
As far as five favorite works from Latino authors? When I started out in the mid-1990s planning my first El Muerto comic, I was greatly influenced by a pair of pioneering Mexican-American self-published cartoonists: Carlos Saldaña (BURRITO) and Richard Dominguez (EL GATO NEGRO). I have a very sentimental spot for those authors and titles. And there are two creators who started out just as I was getting into self-publishing. They have produced comics that I really love: Rafael Navarro (SONAMBULO) and Rhode Montijo (PABLO'S INFERNO). And of course the Hernandez Bros., Jaime and Gilbert, continue to produce stellar work after 35 years.
What other projects are you working on?
I've just wrapped up production on a special Dia de Los Muertos edition of my graphic novel DAZE OF THE DEAD. The new edition features new background material on the creation of El Muerto. And I'm currently working on another comic, EL MUERTO REQUIEM, which is a special 20th anniversary issue featuring a brand new, full color El Muerto story. The 20th anniversary issue also includes a series of pinups by guest artists.
Please list any upcoming events where your fans may meet you.
I will be at Long Beach Comic Con on September 8th and 9th. I'll be moderating a panel there titled NEW LATINX VOICES IN COMICS on Saturday the 8th at noon. You can find me in Artist Alley at booth D-22.
On September 15th I'll be down in Oceanside, California at MiraCosta College for the Latino Book & Family Festival. I'll be conducting my visual lecture CULTURE & COMICS, where I discuss a brief history of Latinos in the American comics industry as well as my creation of El Muerto.
Thank you Javier Hernandez!