Comic book illustrator Jaime Hernandez, with his new book 'God and… (Tim Berger / Staff Photographer )
Jaime Hernandez grew up on superheroes. Years before he and his brother created their groundbreaking “Love & Rockets” comic, he was reading and collecting Spider-Man, Superman, the Fantastic Four and their colorful stories of costumed icons battling evil in Marvel and DC Comics. Then something changed.
“Reading a lot them, I went, ‘Something's wrong with this. I'm not seeing what I want to see,'” Hernandez says now of his waning interest as a teen. “‘Oh man, I'm just tired of this stuff.'”
That disenchantment with mainstream comics ultimately led Hernandez and his older brother, Gilbert, to self-publish their own black-and-white “Love & Rockets” comic in 1981. That first issue was a first step toward Los Bros Hernandez, creating work that dealt with sexuality, drinking, drugs, violence, poverty, dementia, disease, death and the more mundane hurdles of grown-up life.
And in one early story, Hernandez drew a young punk rocker spray-painting “Super heroes suck” on a wall, signifying a coming wave of brash alternative comic-book artists that emerged in the 1980s, building on the revolutionary work of such '60s and '70s creators as Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman. By 1982, independent publisher Fantagraphics began publishing “Love & Rockets” for a national audience.
“That was a little jab,” Hernandez says of the anti-superhero graffiti. “We were like, ‘There are comics artists out there doing their own thing, and you guys still think X-Men is hot stuff? Well guess what, you're not the only game in town.'”
In “Love & Rockets,” Hernandez, who lives in Altadena with his wife and teenage daughter, created a group of vivid female characters that have hooked fans for three decades, usually centered on the lives of his two central characters, friends (and occasional lovers) Maggie and Hopey.
But it turns out he wasn't finished with the superhero genre he left behind. Hernandez has returned to that world with a new book, “God and Science: Return of the Ti-Girls” (Fantagraphics), an offshoot from “Love & Rockets” that is a personal take on the superhero genre.
“I never disliked superheroes. I just hated the way they were being done,” Hernandez explains, sitting with an order of huevos rancheros at a Glendale diner. “And I thought, one day I'm going to do mine and I'm going to say ‘these are the kind I want to see.' It was kind of a goof because I'd just come off a major story line [in “Love & Rockets”], and I had no big plans. It's my love letter to superheroes.”
Elements of fantasy have always existed along the edges of “Love & Rockets.” In the earliest stories, there were vivid elements of science fiction mingling with punk and Chicano culture, though the reality-based material soon dominated. In his “Ti-Girls” stories, the fantastic takes center stage, with masks and capes and special powers, and Maggie is a supporting character.
“I just had the best fun with that story,” he says, and explains he aimed for the sense of fun he remembers as a young comics reader. “The fun part of superheroes before they got taken seriously. When Marvel started getting taken seriously, superheroes started to be seen as serious stuff. Wait a minute, this is kid's stuff. It's OK for a grown person to have fun with it, but don't tell me it's something intellectual.”
Hernandez grew up in Oxnard, and by his late teens, he and Gilbert were driving to witness the Los Angeles punk scene firsthand. While there, he not only discovered such bands as X and the Weirdos, but also artists who were just as much a part of the culture. Among them were Gary Panter (known for “Jimbo” comics) and Raymond Pettibon, whose disturbing drawings appeared on Black Flag fliers and albums, and who is now an acclaimed fine artist.
“We would go as often as we could to the shows. Whoever had the car, if we could afford gas,” he remembers. “Comics and punk, man, it's cool.”
His own comics have centered on Latinas loosely based on people he's known, like the bristling Hopey, the type of spiky-haired young woman he'd always see at the punk clubs. Over the years, Maggie has slowly put on weight as she's grown older, much to the outrage of some fans, but Hernandez was much more interested in telling real stories about life than he was in drawing sexy pictures for male readers.
“I was hoping that Maggie growing old would make her seem fresh all the time. Even if I put her in the same predicament when she's 40, she'll act differently from when she was 17. Just her reactions and behavior would stir the story into fresh waters,” he says. “I put a lot of my discoveries in her stories. I just reached 50. Boy, when my characters reach 50 are they in for it,” he adds with a laugh.
Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez (and sometime contributor Mario, the eldest) put “Love & Rockets” on hiatus as a title after issue 50 in 1996. That break lasted five years, but the comic is now here to stay, he says. “I want to still do it until I can't anymore … as long as I'm able to continue their lives and do the stories how I've always done them. I plan to do this stuff until I drop. I want the characters to grow old with me.”
At the same time, Hernandez still finds himself drawn to superheroes. He can't get his wife to go with him to the new superhero movies, and only managed to get his 13-year-old daughter out to see “The Avengers,” so he sometimes goes alone.
“I go with an open mind. I'm still a little kid with that stuff — if I see Iron Man pull out his repulser ray, I go, ‘Ooh! He's pulling out his repulser ray!'” Hernandez says with a laugh. “Of course, that stuff brings the little kid out of you.”