Latinx, Mexican-American’s especially, are a complex combination of bloodlines, cultures, and history that both ornates and ostracizes us at the same time. It’s who we proudly are. The perfect illustration of this tostilocos mix can be found in the pages of El Muerto, a long running comic book created by author and illustrator Javier Hernandez. El Muerto recounts the story of Diego de la Muerte a young man who dies and is brought back to life by the Aztec gods of death and destiny. Over the past 20 years Hernandez has created a number of books following the adventures of El Muerto and was even an Associate Producer for the 2007 film version starring Wilmer Valderrama. This year, to celebrate the 20th anniversary, Hernandez is releasing a special edition of his graphic novel Daze of the Dead which recounts the origin story of his popular hero. Hernandez took the time to discuss with me his creation and the importance of tackling the complexities of our culture.
Chris C. Hernandez: First of all, congratulations on celebrating 20 years of El Muerto! How does it feel? Did you ever imagine you would still be doing El Muerto for so long?
Javier Hernandez: Thank you. It’s a great feeling, if only because it reminds me how much I love making comics. But I do get satisfaction in being the caretaker of this character all these years. It’s good that people are interested in following along!
CH: What was your relationship with comic books when you were young?
JH: I fell in love with comics as a kid, as soon as my older brother Albert gave me his collection. I think he was probably entering High School when he outgrew his interest in them. I must have been about 8 or so. I loved the characters, but also would start latching onto the names of the people who created the stories. A big part of this was Stan Lee over in the Marvel books highlighting the artists with fanciful nicknames and such. Actually, Stan’s editorial writings in the Bullpen Bulletins and his Soapbox really made me feel part of something special. Marvel was just more than a comics publisher, it was some type of clubhouse I could hang out in for a few hours at a time.
CH: What inspired you to create El Muerto?
JH: I had wanted to make comics, but interestingly enough, I didn’t want to work on those fabled Marvel, or DC, characters. I really wanted to create something of my own. At that time I was looking around the comics landscape and figuring out the self-publishing route. The Ninja Turtles were of course the gold standard in terms of owning something that was monstrously successful, even more so outside comics!
CH: Besides giving readers a character that they can relate to situationally, as well as in appearance, do you feel that the fact that El Muerto was raised Catholic but is empowered by Aztec gods mirrors the Mexican-American experience overall.
JH: That’s a great question that surprisingly I don’t think anyone’s asked me over the last 20 years! The Catholic/Aztec dichotomy of the character was for me deliberate, and frankly, something I personally felt would be more interesting character and story wise than to not touch upon it. The issues surrounding the Conquest of Mexico have always plagued me. How does one reconcile a faith, especially the particularities of being Mexican Catholic, with what happened to the millions of Aztec people, their culture and religion? Conversely, or paradoxically, Mexico and Mexican culture would not be how we know it today. And so in the context of my story of a young Catholic getting sacrificed and resurrected with supernatural powers by the Aztec gods of death and destiny… well, how does that not give a writer a ton of stuff to work with?
CH: How has El Muerto changed over the years as the political and social landscape has changed as well?
JH: The direct answer is that he hasn’t. The reason being my character wasn’t created to address a particular political position. His creation was an act of me wanting to become a cartoonist, and with El Muerto I clearly wanted to create something derived from Mexican culture (Dia de Los Muertos and Aztec mythology). While my worldview is influenced by the totality of who I am (blue collar middle class upbringing, bilingual First Generation Mexican American) I had always considered myself as wanting to be a cartoonist first and foremost. A storyteller using his words and pictures to bring his ideas to life. It happens that my signature character is Diego de La Muerte, El Muerto.
CH: What led to the creation of the film version of El Muerto?
JH: An interview I did with a reporter from NPR one year at San Diego Comic Con in 2001. When it aired it was heard by an independent filmmaker, Brian Cox, who eventually contacted me to purchase my comics, then this eventually led to a meeting at his office on Sunset Blvd, in Hollywood. He was clearly interested in the idea of El Muerto. Eventually he got in contact with a producer partner of his, who, luckily had met some investors who were contemplating the idea of getting into the film business. So, I had a director who liked the comic, a producer who saw merit in the idea, and a group of people (a father and his two sons) who had the funding on hand to finance a film! Add my lawyer to the mix and eventually we have a movie deal. In almost 4 years from that initial interview with NPR, I’m on location as Associate Producer for the first day of shooting with an entire film crew and star Wilmer Valderrama!
JH: I’ve always drawn my greatest influence from two of the all time great comic book creators, artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Sad to think that Ditko just recently passed away this past June, the man was still creating comics at age 90. There are so many other artists and writers and filmmakers I can cite, but I always think back to how as a kid I would just pour over Kirby and Ditko comics. Their individual styles… character designs, the way they each drew figures, compositions, storytelling narrative choices, etc. It’s amazing how as a kid, even if you can’t articulate it at the time, you key into so much of how the story is drawn and how it moves and how the artists portray the emotional lives of their characters. And to this day that type of intense study and scrutiny follows me as I look at their work.
CH: Tell me about your lecture Culture and Comics? What is your hope that attendees will learn from it?
JH: It’s a one hour slideshow where I give a brief history of Latinos in the American comics market. From Gus Arriola and his GORDO newspaper strip in the late 40s to the Hernandez Bros of LOVE AND ROCKETS fame, to others as well. Then I dovetail that into how I was inspired to create my own character El Muerto, for which I provide a lot of background material. I’m particularly glad when non-comic folks attend the lecture, because for them all the info I present is completely new and revealing.
CH: What have been some of your experiences with people that discover your comic for the first time?
JH: Well, just thinking back to the most recent conventions I’ve done, some of the comments are along the lines of “I really love how you draw” and “I didn’t know there were Latinos making their own comics”. Sometimes I hear from younger artists, particularly Latino creators, and they mention how inspiring it is to see the type of work I’m doing, one that has a cultural basis. I mean, any positive comment is always appreciated and I always express my gratitude to the person. I’m not one of those who say they don’t know how to take compliments! Sure, don’t let it go to your head, but when someone offers you a ‘gift’ like that, it’s only polite to show a little appreciation.
CH: Over the years what is the most important thing that you have learned that you wish you would have known when you started? How have you grown as a creator over the years?
JH: Probably that I would have pushed myself to be faster with producing an actual issue, and in turn to have produced more work. I mean, I see some creators, self-published people, knocking out strong work at a very fast clip. I don’t kick myself in the head with regrets, but just something I ponder once in a while. Course I can only control today and tomorrow, so I know I’m much more productive than I was in the first half of my career.
CH:What changes have you seen in Latinx comic books over the past 20 years?
JH: I think the great thing is there is just much more work being produced. Way more work, and done by a much wider field of Latino creators: women, men, LGBTQ, every age bracket. On the web, in print…. And every type of subject matter, whether it’s fiction, autobio, historical, political and social justice. Like anything that’s evolved, it’s only going to get even wider and deeper. It’s wonderful to be able to have a front row seat to this, and to continue to be an active participant as a creator. In fact, as the co-founder of the Latino Comics Expo, which my friend Ricardo Padilla and I started in 2011, I’m blessed to be able to provide a space and venue for many of these creators with our annual shows. And in the last couple of years, other Latinocentric comic conventions have started popping up across the country. I even attended one of the them, the Texas Latino Comic Con, a month ago in Dallas.
CH: What do you feel is most important for aspiring Latinx creators to focus on when trying to break in to comics?
JH: Let me answer that by addressing how I formulate my artistic identity for myself. A younger creator can plug this into their process if they want…. I’m a cartoonist, first and foremost. I want to tell stories that I’d like for people to discover and read and hopefully enjoy. But I tell them for me first. I represent Javier Hernandez, the person who comes up with these ideas. I don’t want the burden of trying to represent a whole class of people, of trying to (impossibly) speak for all Mexicans or Latinos or whoever. Now, I am always appreciative of when my work resonates with Latinos in particular, and I know the reason for that. Same way I was influenced by the example of others who came before me. So I respect that side of my work and am grateful for the support of the people, and that relationship we have. But everyday I wake up and have a new idea or some page to get done, it’s about the craft of making comics.
Be sure to look for El Muerto and Javier’s other comic book creations on his website: http://loscomex.storenvy.com/