Academic journal article MELUS

Palomar and Beyond: An Interview with Gilbert Hernandez

Academic journal article MELUS

Palomar and Beyond: An Interview with Gilbert Hernandez

Article excerpt

Perhaps no one has done more to energize the field of alternative comics--graphic narrative and cartoons that do not follow a superhero or traditional genre formula--than Gilbert Hernandez. In 1981 he, along with his brothers Jaime and Mario, self-published a highly eclectic and off-beat comic book, Love and Rockets, a work that quickly caught the attention of the Seattle-based publisher of comic art, Fantagraphics Books. A year later, the publisher began putting out what was to be the first volume of Love and Rockets in a magazine-sized format, a series that ran until 1996, when Los Bros Hernandez--as the brothers had become known--decided to end the title and pursue their own individual projects. Over its fourteen-year run, Love and Rockets exemplified what alternative comics, and comic books in general, could actually achieve. Their work betrayed an unlikely mix of influences--including the 1970s punk rock movement, South American magic realism, Hollywood filmmaking, and their own southern Californian Chicano experiences--making Beto (as Gilbert Hernandez is known) and Jaime Hernandez heirs to the underground comix scene made famous, and notorious, by such figures as Robert Crumb, Bill Griffith, Gilbert Shelton, and Jack Jackson. The brothers revived the Love and Rockets title in 2001, this time in standard comic book-sized issues, and the series continues to this day.

From its self-published debut, Love and Rockets has comprised a variety of ongoing narrative arcs as well as one-shot strips. One of the most significant of these is Gilbert Hernandez's novelistic series of tales that revolve around a mythic Latin American town, Palomar. These narratives have been collected in the monumental Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories (2003), a work that has garnered more than its share of critical praise and a small but growing body of scholarly attention.

Hernandez has spent the better part of his career fleshing out the personal histories that populate Palomar, most notably those of Chelo, the town's aggressive female sheriff; Pipo, a striking and confident entrepreneur who creates her own line of clothing and eventually her own media empire; and Heralcio, a school teacher with a flair for philosophy and a passion for Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka. But perhaps Palomar's most prominent resident is Luba, a sexually promiscuous and hard-edged member of the community who constantly wields a hammer (as a symbol of her power) and who eventually becomes the town's mayor. Her stories make up the bulk of Hernandez's work to date, and he has just recently concluded her and her family's adventures after moving to the United States. The world of Luba and her half sisters, Fritz and Petra (which also includes Petra's daughter Venus, and Luba's own daughters, including Maricela, Guadalupe, Doralis, and Casimira) functions as an empowering matriarchy that has been lauded by a variety of critics as revolutionary in the field of comics. Through these female figures, Hernandez gives voice not only to ethnic American concerns, but to women's issues, gender politics, and even gay rights, topics that rarely come to the fore in American graphic narrative.

In fall 2006 I talked with Gilbert Hernandez about his work as well as about issues of race and ethnicity within the field of comics. What follows is the result of a phone conversation, along with a series of email-based correspondences in early 2007, in which we discussed his Palomar stories, the significance of Love and Rockets, the influence of popular culture on his writing, and the social function of graphic artists who take on the issues of ethnicity, class, and gender in their work.

Derek Parker Royal: You and your brothers were the first writers to give a real voice to the Hispanic community in comics. What do you think, in your view, is the current state of ethnic or racial representation within this medium?

Gilbert Hernandez: I see more of it in the mainstream comics. …

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