Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

January 7, 2014

CR Holiday Interview #17—Gilbert Hernandez



imageGilbert Hernandez is a future greatest living cartoonist. The only question is whether he's already there. His work is routinely vital, groundbreaking and propulsive. In 2013, Hernandez had one of the greatest publishing years since Osamu Tezuka and Jack Kirby at the respective heights of their Rushmore-level careers. In Marble Season, Hernandez explored the everyday rhythms of a mostly pleasant, positive, nerd-culture cognizant upbringing. In Julio's Day, he explored the exceptional qualities of an ordinary life. His work in this year's Love And Rockets: New Stories tugged at notions of memory and family and lives as templates, while his portrayal of members of that same community in The Children Of Palomar provided comics with some of its best-looking moments of the entire year. Finally, in Maria M Vol. 1, Hernandez found a way to tell pulp stories that inform the personal, where the positioning of bodies and the eyes that look out from different faces demand equal attention. It was a restless, exciting year Gilbert Hernandez shared with us, and I can't imagine ending this interview series with any other cartoonist. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: What is your work day like? What is a standard work day? I don't even know if you're a five-day-a-week guy or a six- or seven-day-a-week guy.

GILBERT HERNANDEZ: I pretty much break it up. I would say I'm a seven day a week guy, but it's broken up. One or two days in the middle I won't get much done, like a Tuesday or a Wednesday or something. Normally, it's seven days a week. It's too much, but right now I'm pumping out these graphic novels. I gotta double up.

SPURGEON: You talked about this at an SPX a couple of years ago, that it was a conscious choice on your part to work more quickly. Is that fair?

HERNANDEZ: More quickly, but not any less productiive as far as the story or art goes. Simply drawing smaller. It's a lot quicker.

SPURGEON: How small do you draw now, Gilbert?

HERNANDEZ: It depends! Looking at a page here... For Love and Rockets, my standard size would be, the image art would be about eight inches across and 11 inches tall. So that's my standard size. But when I work with Dark Horse or DC I've got to use their paper and that's around 15 tall ten wide.

SPURGEON: I didn't know companies like that still had people use their paper.

HERNANDEZ: Well, it's cheaper. [Spurgeon laughs] Those little Fritz books, the standard page size is around five and a half inches wide and then tall about eight inches.

SPURGEON: You're drawing to size on the Fritz books?

HERNANDEZ: It's still a little bigger. Originally, the plan was to make them paperback sized. But knowing that hardcovers sell better [laughs] or that you can get better returns on them, Fantagraphics decided to go with hardcovers that are slightly bigger than paperbacks. I can live with that.

SPURGEON: You've spent the last 18 months doing a lot of talking, Gilbert. You've done a lot of interviews, a lot of panel appearances. Some of the settings were kind of unique. We talked earlier this year to open TCAF; you spoke in Columbus, Ohio at a larger theater. Those two were career-spanning type interviews. I wondered... and maybe this is a good time to ask you this. There's a conventional wisdom about you and Jaime that you're unique to comics because you don't fit into any of the standard generations. You pay attention to old-school mainstream values concerning craft, but at the same time you're forward looking in terms of the stories you want to do? Do you have a sense of yourself as being in this unique position?

HERNANDEZ: I think we're in the middle. Like you were saying, I think we use our mainstream background to our advantage. We also... we can only write the stories we can write, so that's why we look outside of our influences. Sure, we have our influences in terms of comics and movies and such, but when it comes to creating new characters or stories, we've always just kind of pulled it out of the world [laughs]. Our observations, that kind of thing. We do feel like we're in the middle sometimes. Sometimes we'll lean towards a mainstream way of doing things, sometimes we'll lean towards an underground. Sometimes we'll lean towards European style. Whatever works for us. Sometimes we'll mix it all up.

Yeah. We do always feel like we're in the middle.

SPURGEON: I don't even know if this is a fair construction to use, but do you ever feel like other cartoonists might be better off taking some lessons from you in terms of where you look for inspiration, how you solve problems on the page. Do you ever wish for younger cartoonists to maybe value some of the things you value? Do you ever think of your specific background as an advantage?

HERNANDEZ: Personally, I do think we have an advantage in that we do have a strong, core reading of mainstream comics to present stories in the most engaging way possible. Instead of the most indulgent. What I mean by indulgent is very close to the chest... that's hard to explain. When somebody reads Love And Rockets, we just want them to read a comic book, not a kind of comic book. [laughs] You know? Just to read stories done in a comic book language. We never considered, "Well, we're going to do it this way because it's going to be to our advantage to be different from these people." Being different has held us back a little bit, but that's the only way we know how to do it. I don't think Love And Rockets is as... there's this image of Love And Rockets being this huge, spanning-global comic, and it really isn't. It's a small deal. It just gets to certain people. I don't know.

SPURGEON: That's a discussion that friends of mine and I have had about you in the last year or so, Gilbert. We wonder after why you aren't bigger in that general-culture sense. Do you think that has to do with the kind of comics you've been doing? Is it that you've kind of outpaced the infrastructure that might have been developed to serve comics like yours? Is it just that things that are as good as Love And Rockets generally don't do as well as they should? Why isn't it a spanning-global comic. Because the people that react to it react very strongly. But there don't seem to be as many people reacting to it as maybe could.

HERNANDEZ: When I look at mainstream comic books, and I take a good look at them every now and again, and I take a look at mainstream television shows, mostly crime dramas and stuff, I notice that they're completely told differently. They are going for a completely different thing. I think that what the rest of the world adapts to. They follow stories that way. I'm not saying it's anything simpler or anything like that -- it's sometimes more complicated, actually. I think it's just the way people absorb stories, and the way stories are told; the people that absorb stories that way are legion. There's just more of them. [laughs]

imageSPURGEON: Is there a quality you can describe, a specific quality you see in some of these other expressions that's not one you have in your work?

HERNANDEZ: Part of it -- I've been thinking about this lately with rock music -- part of it is that it's very serious. Whether or not there's a lot of goofy stuff going on, there's a serious tone. I guess that's what it is. A tone. I guess it connects to... I don't know. It's sort of hard to explain. I can watch an episode of some CSI show or something and after the show I'm like, "Did I just see something?" Everybody else that saw it thought it was the greatest show they ever saw. [laughs] It's the way it's told, it's how it's told... I think of lot of it with Love And Rockets it's the psychology, unconscious stuff. When they see violence from me it's too ugly and weird. But if they see something more violent but in a different context, that's fine with them.

It's just weird. I think it works on an unconscious level. You read a little of Love And Rockets and it doesn't connect with... it repels certain people. I'm not saying... that could be a dumb person or an intelligent person. It's basically not not getting it anymore, it's not wanting it. That's what I've noticed about people's tastes now. They just don't want it.

SPURGEON: They don't want the way you depict violence, the way you depict sex...

HERNANDEZ: Right. They just don't want it. They can find what they want somewhere else. That's my guess. I'm not even saying that they're picking this consciously. "Oh, I don't want to read this. I want to read this." It's more like, "Eh." And then they go on to something else. That's my guess.

SPURGEON: You kind of feel like you're in your... you have your milieu. There's no desire to go chasing an audience at this point. I would guess, anyway, particularly how good your comics are right now. Or do you? Do you ever go after an audience in that way?

HERNANDEZ: Well... what I want -- what I want, which hasn't happened in 30 years [laughter] what I want is to get our comics to the people out there that we know would like it. Sometimes it just doesn't get to those people. Go back to the old days, painters died and then 100 years later their paintings are considered brilliant. It just didn't get to the right people's eyes. I think -- for any comic, for any comic! -- there's more people that might like it but it just doesn't get to them.

SPURGEON: You've been meeting your readers for years and years now, too, Gilbert. We sometimes forget that about cartoonists, that over time you do meet a cross section of your readership. Do you get any sense from them that they're reacting to the same things? Are they the same in certain ways? I know when I talk to other fans of yours, there's no great distance I have to travel to have those discussion. We share a space concerning your comics. Do you feel like those that get it -- that want it -- are they picking up on the same things, the right things? And if true, does that make it a case of it just not getting into enough hands, a basic supply issue?

HERNANDEZ: I think that's the problem. I think that's the problem with all art. To toot my own horn here, better comics. We know cartoonists who started and were really good but then just faded away. There was no support to them. Maybe they only had a couple of stories in them. I don't know... it's hard to grasp. Sometimes in a more cynical mood someone will tell me, "Well, maybe just 6000 people get it." I don't think that's true.


SPURGEON: You had a lot of work out this year, and a lot of work of different qualities. I was really taken with Marble Season. I thought that was a fine book. I wondered how you approached the writing of that one. That milieu you present, of course it draws from reality, but it's also very well-considered. It feels very tight. At the same time, this crafting of it doesn't drain the story of any of its energy; there's still a bounce to the narrative. How do you approach doing a single book like that, presenting a world that complete in that kind of short hand.

HERNANDEZ: I just looked at it, and I knew before I started it that "Okay. I'm doing graphic novels now. People like some of them. Some of them they like, some they don't like so much. I want one that -- part of that is what we were just talking about, people wanting it and not wanting it. I wanted to make a book that people wanted to read. In my head. I'm not mind reading. I'm guessing. I'm feeling it out. If I'm writing a story that doesn't have sex, which turns some people off for whatever reason, unconsciously or not, and violence is another thing that turns people off, and the depressing side of childhood... the reality of child abuse and molestation, the dark stuff, the poverty -- I wanted to leave that out. I wanted write a book from a 10-year-old's point of view that's having a good life. The worst problem he has is avoiding bullies. That sort of thing. For so many kids, there's a point where you aren't worried about shit. [laughter] It's all about, "What are you going to do the next day? Where will my next step take me?"

I just wanted to be pals. [laughs] "Hey, let's be pals here." Let's all experience something... the details are my own experiences but everyone can project their own TV shows or music they liked or comic books of whatever. It was about being pals and hanging out. Literally hanging out with the reader and saying, "Remember when we were kids?" As simple as that.

imageSPURGEON: It's psychologically astute, though, Gilbert. You don't shy away from the nuances of certain relationships, the casual cruelties and the disappointments that kids feel. There's not the presence of evil. But even just watching those kids negotiate their social milieu, how one kid will act towards another because of the presence of a third... that felt very real. It seems like you had a nuanced view of how kids interact. Was that reflective of your own experiences -- watching other kids interact? How did you construct that reality?

HERNANDEZ: I wanted to have those real things happen without it becoming overwhelming. It was sort of like how a day was. I pictured a good day, a normal day when I was 10 years old. I went to school. I dealt with listening to the boring school work. You hung out with friends, and there was someone to avoid. That was how your day went. With kids it's not about long-term effects. If there's a real dark period in your life, you move from it, you get over it. It's just a part of life. One second you can be miserable from a bully and the next second you can be hanging out with your friends and forget about the bully -- unless you're really being tormented; that's a different thing. But the usual bullying/harassment... it's just sort of a fact of life. [laughs] I wanted to present that.

Peanuts has always been a great model for me because Schulz went pretty dark and depressing in some of those Peanuts, but it was also a beloved, nationally syndicated strip. So if he could do that for a broad audience, I could do that for a graphic novel audience.

SPURGEON: It did seem like there was a universality to the setting, particularly the outdoor backgrounds; they reminded me of Peanuts. It seems like a lot of what you depicted had equivalents to things in neighborhoods where I grew up. I don't know how intentional that was.

HERNANDEZ: Yeah, yeah. I wanted to have a different version of Palomar. A make-believe place that we all lived in. We all lived there.

SPURGEON: That last scene with the two kids walking and talking... it's very different than the structure of what comes before. The bulk of the book is short bursts of scenes, and scenes that pivot on different players or different activities that are introduced halfway through. That conversation scene was one of the favorites I've read in a couple of years, and in your work, period. I wondered how you came to end the book with an extended conversation.

HERNANDEZ: I was coming to the end of writing the story, and I felt that any more I put into it would become repetitious. I had quite a few pages to go. I didn't want to do that, so I played around with stopping what I was doing, and smoothing it out, and having two kids reflect. Not anything heavy -- they talk about monster movies and stuff. I had those conversations when I was a kid. You had your busy days, and your boring life, whatever it is, and then one day you hook up with a kid and you just walk. You'd walk for what seemed like forever and you'd just talk like that. I thought that would be a good place to end it, rather than having the busy-ness, or some huge climax. Just have a nice walk and talk. [Spurgeon laughs] It notes encroaching teenhood.

SPURGEON: The comics that play a role in this one, and you've talked at length in the past about the comics you read when you were a kid. One thing I was struck by when I caught your presentation at TCAF on the comics you valued from your childhood was that you guys had really good taste. Your mom had natural taste when she was reading comics as a kid, too. Where do you think taste like that comes from? Is it natural-born? Is it that you respond to something differently if you're looking for something that others might not need to find? Is the repetition of reading, as you've talked about you re-read a lot of comics? Was it making comics of your own -- do you read differently for that action? How did you develop an eye for what was good?

HERNANDEZ: I think that watching movies had something to do with that. There are certain qualities to watching movie. My mom would watch 1940s movies, and even if it's a screwball comedy the quality is pretty sophisticated compared to comics. Whenever we read comics that was closer to that feel, they stood out. I loved junky comics. I loved the worst, lurid... crude [laughter] comics of the early '50s. The EC knock-offs. I loved those. But as far as being close to the chest. On one hand my mother was different because she liked The Spirit and Captain Marvel and Donald Duck. But still those seem to be respecting the audience. Those seem to respect the audience. When we were growing up, certain kinds of comics we gravitated towards -- the Marvel Comics of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, the Archie comics, the Dennis The Menace comics we always talk about -- they seemed closer to the chest. They seemed more honest.

We could recognize the gifts of those particular creators. Somehow we could see their gifts. I don't know how we did that. It could have just been repetition, because we did read those comics over and over and over and over, until they were tissue paper. Drawing our own comics was a lot different experience because they were so crude. We were just kids. Why we gravitated to... boy, I want to say Archie Comics and Dennis The Menace comics we gravitated to the most because they felt like part of the neighborhood. They felt like family.

SPURGEON: You've talked about comics like the Fitzgerald comics in terms of the values of family they projected, whereas we tend to process a lot of work like that in terms of its cold craft. Were these value that you felt you shared? Could they have even been compensating values?

HERNANDEZ: I could see that even as a kid that it was idealized... that it was somebody else's life. I felt like I was there, though. They didn't condescend to me, they didn't reject me in any way . I always felt like a party of those comics. I don't know. I don't know where this interest came from. [laughs] But it was natural. We really liked what they were about. We were in Archie's neighborhood. We were in Dennis The Menace's house.

Of all the Marvel comics, Ditko captures that as well. He was very kind to old people and average people in his stories. Even as stylized as he drew, they were important to him in his drawings and the way he told his stories. The way Stan Lee told his as well! That's surprising when I think about it. That's why I get a little irritated when people start talking, "Well, when Don Heck took over the Avengers got better." I'm like, "Okay. Whatever you say." [laughter] Kirby had that too. I saw him first in the monster stories. We saw them so scattered. We never saw them in order, the order they came out. They were in stacks of old comics at the barber or a stack that a cousin might give us. So we were reading comics from 1959 ten years later not caring when they came out. They were comics. Kirby in those days whenever he drew a family or he drew a couple or he drew a man and a woman living on a farm, they were very humanistic. There wasn't this cynical attitude that's completely taken over our modern pop culture. It was a different time. We absorbed that so much into our way of thinking that it comes out naturally in our stories.


SPURGEON: Re-reading Julio's Day I was struck by how pretty some of the pages were. I think you're consistently underrated as a visual artist, the handsomeness of stand-alone images in a lot of your work. You're such a story guy, you're very story-oriented, do you ever have a problem finding ways to make use of a single, striking image given the demands of a story to keep the eye moving, to keep a narrative flowing that way? You use a bunch of different rhythms, too, Gilbert, so I wondered how much of that was even conscious. When you have a beautiful pages, how conscious of a decision is that for you?

HERNANDEZ: I'm more conscious of that decision now. In the old days I just winged it. In the old days there was a lot of repairing, a lot of cutting up and reusing panels. Re-doing pages, cutting them in half and moving panels around. There was a lot of that in the early days. So learning from that, it's a lot easier for me now. So if I have a dialogue, two people talking, depending on what they're talking about I have to decide, "Is this going to be one page or two pages?" Then we have to open the scene with a large panel, a forest or something, because it's inviting -- a big panel in a new scene has always brought me into a story. Just pulled me in. That's something I'm conscious of. So I"m more conscious of doing a relatively pretty picture in the course of a story, I will open it up that way. That's something I've learned from mainstream comics, because those stories are told that way.

SPURGEON: Are you comfortable with your style? Do you ever still wish you could draw like someone else? Your work is distinctive in the way of a great strip artist in that I can look at a building or a tree or a chair and I know it's one of yours. Are you aware that your style is that palpable, that specific?

HERNANDEZ: Yeah, yeah. But I know I'm in the middle. I don't go either real simplistic or hyper-detailed -- I'm just not that skilled an artist to go hyper-detailed. I'm in the middle -- I want to tell a story, and my favorite cartoonists like Bob Bolling, the backgrounds were very much a participant in the story, setting a tone. I've never read another cartoonist that set a tone the way Bob Bolling did. I think that's why I've gravitated to him so much. His tone was absolutely perfect for me as a kid. So... I'm aware of my limits. Of course I want to draw better! But the trouble is, if I drew as well as Jaime, you'd probably see a lot more indulgence from me. So it's probably good I don't. [laughter] If I could draw like that guy I'd be the biggest pornaholic in the world. [laughs]

SPURGEON: How do you see Love And Rockets now? Given how prolific you are, is that a place you put a specific type of story? One thing I've noticed is that a lot of your recent stories have focused on conversation on many of the pages, very much about the figures in the foreground interacting in a specific space, through specific language. In general, though, what does that avenue supply you? Is that were shorter works go? Do you feel obligated to do a Palomar story? How do you approach that?

HERNANDEZ: Yeah, Love And Rockets is different than the other books. There's three different kinds of books I do. Love And Rockets is one. I just let myself be myself in Love And Rockets. Today is going to be about a bunch of women talking -- that's basically every story. [laughter] With Love And Rockets, it seems to be scrutinized to me.

I am looking at a larger audience for it. I'm looking at browsers. I'm thinking of browsers. I'm pulling back on a lot of the sexy girl stuff in Love And Rockets. There's still a lot of it, but I'm pulling back in recent issues because I do want the browser not to be turned away from it. They're jumping on Jaime's stuff, which is great, but if they happen to get stuck on some of my pages [laughs] they might not want to look at it. That's my guess, anyway.

So I'm looking at Love And Rockets with a wider scope. It's more about interconnecting relationships, people talking to each other about their relationships and their feelings, that kind of thing. I think about that in Love And Rockets. With books like the failed commercial attempts like Fatima The Blood Spinners. Grip, books like that. Girl Crazy. Those are just meant to be fun mainstream comics. They just never connected to these people. That's why they disappeared. I think Fatima was my last one. That's my last attempt to make a fun comic for a general audience. [laughs]

SPURGEON: As I understand it, that's a more difficult market in which to place work as well. It's not solely your desires, you run into what the publishers want to do now which is very different than 10 years ago.

HERNANDEZ: Yeah, the high-concept Hollywood thing has entered the publishers, creators and readers minds now. What is the high concept? Why should I read this? Instead of just enjoying a comic the way we did as a kid. You picked up a bunch of comics, and you read them. Now it's how does this work into my schedule. [laughter] That's what it seems like to me. It seems more high concept. It has to be in terms people understand right away.


SPURGEON: The Fritz books are high concept: they're pulp books that represent movies made by the character from the Palomar stories. This first volume of Maria M was my favorite of them so far, but I have to admit: I struggle with the Fritz aspect of the series. I feel bad asking you this, because I almost feel like I'm asking a stage magician to explain in 1-2-3 fashion a trick, but here's the thing: I like the stories, the pulp-story aspects to these books. But Maria M is the first one where I felt the dissonance of the reality you're presenting... this character playing a fictionalized version of her own mother, it seemed haunting for the first time -- maybe for that family connection.

So that masking effect, how central has that been to what you've attempted with these books? Or was it perhaps just a hook to do these pulpy stories?

HERNANDEZ: I've learned the hard way that if we connect our stories to our main stories -- if Jaime connects something to Locas, to the Hoppers world, they're more interested. Fatima, Grip, they weren't connected to Palomar and they didn't do as well. So I kind of jumped into the Fritz stuff knowing that. On one hand, I didn't want it to be connected to the Palomar stuff. I wanted it to be pulp novels. At the same time, when I was developing them, I knew I wanted to be doing graphic novels as well. This was before I started doing like ten graphic novels a year -- these were early. So I put two ideas together. My problem with Fritz is not having her own character -- there's something to that. I didn't know the character, but I was compelled to show her story. I've said this in several interviews. People in the post-modern world love those kinds of links. I needed that link to bring attention to it. I bit the bullet on that one. I didn't want to do a book series linked to phony movies -- that wasn't my big goal. But as comics, and getting attention for them, I thought I should go with this and see how it works. Nobody's ever done this. The gimmick aspect of them.

Personally, they're two things. They are pulp stories I like doing. Crime stories. Secondly, I get to explore Fritz's character through her acting. She doesn't have much of a personality in Love And Rockets, but once she's in a film she completely adapts to a character. You see her playing herself out through these characters.

SPURGEON: You have been working at such a high level for so long, but as we discussed earlier the context for your work has changed right out from underneath you, and maybe several times. Do you think that you could have the same career if you started now. How would your career, how would Jaime's career, be different if you started now? How much are you creatures of your very specific time?

HERNANDEZ: I think there was a bit of timing: the way it's been for so many artists and musicians, where it was the moment to strike. I think it would be hard for us now.

I think we would do okay, maybe... well, there's two ways to look at it. One is that we'd be cult-y indy guys... we might enjoy what we have now but on a smaller level. But at the same time I wonder if we did our stuff now and there was no prejudice against Love And Rockets -- because that's a problem -- if there was no prejudice against a comic for being around 30 years, it might take off in a whole new way. It's still different from other comics.

It's hard to say. In a better world, I guess, if we started tomorrow maybe everyone would be like, "Wow, this is great." But that's not likely. More likely we'd be an even smaller cult than we are now.


* Gilbert Hernandez
* Gilbert Hernandez At Fantagraphics
* Gilbert Hernandez At Drawn And Quarterly
* Marble Season
* Julio's Day
* Love And Rockets: New Stories
* The Children Of Palomar
* Maria M Vol. 1


* from The Children Of Palomar
* photo of Hernandez at TCAF 2013 by me
* cover image from L&RNS Vol. 6
* panel from Marble Season
* part of a full-page illustration used in Marble Season
* from Julio's Day
* from Maria M Vol. 1
* from Julio's Day (below)



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