Cómix Latinx Interview: Luke Martinez on THE ASCENDANT

As a community Latinx have always had strong relationships with their elders and the people that we look up to. As we grow older, and our elders as well, that relationship changes. The people that we once respected start to become “mortal” and we have to figure out a new way to interact with them while taking their place at for the next generation. This transition often is difficult  especially if there are medical issues affecting our once unstoppable idols. What happens, though, when that person is a much larger than life superhero? They are suppose to be immortal and impenetrable. No evil force could stop them as they protected their fictional world and give readers ideals to strive for. Instead of an evil force attacking it turns out to be nature that slowly takes them away from us a piece at a time.

Latinx writer Luke Martinez, a high school teacher in California, has written a new graphic novel that he isnow  crowdfunding. The Ascendant deals with the issue of generational superheroes and how they and the people around them handle the changing relationships brought about by age. The story revolves around the superhero The Ascendant and the men that take up his mantle after he has retired. It’s a fun superhero graphic novel that deals with sometimes difficult themes that we are facing now in our society. I took some time to discuss with Luke why he created The Ascendant and what are some of the ideas that he hopes to convey both to the Latinx community and comic book readers everywhere.

Chris Campbell: Can you tell us a little about yourself apart from being a comic book lover and now writer?

Luke Martinez: Talk about myself? That’s my favorite subject, so yes, but I don’t know how interesting others might find it. I grew up in Central California, and on account of my ADHD and daydreaming was an unfocused kid who did alright in school but underachieved. After wandering into adulthood I got into college, earned two degrees in History, then went to a PhD program. I got to the last step, my dissertation, and discovered that the kind of work and research didn’t really work for me. I had positive experiences teaching at the college level while in school, so I became a high school teacher. I now teach and coach while writing, gaming, and chasing the comics dream.

CC: What was your relationship with comic books growing up?

LM: As far back as I can remember, I was entranced. I recall being glued to the TV when the Superman movies came to cable as a young kid, and loved cartoons like Super Friends, so I was always after comic books whenever I could get them. I would beg my mom to use a safety pin to make a towel into a cape for me so I could run around the house as Superman. I loved action figures and comics toys, although those were a little more scarce during some hard financial times. I was addicted to the spinner racks at stores, and I would trade comics back and forth with neighborhood kids whenever we got the chance.

A critical moment was when I was 8 or so and my neighbor’s older brother let me read his X-Men comics. Even though I couldn’t grasp a lot of it at first, I loved them right away, and I stayed devoted. I was rewarded when the X-Men cartoon came out in the early 90s and further entrenched me. As a nerdy kid with a hard time fitting in, they were the perfect friends for me; it was an escape, but also a place of safety.

More importantly, I followed them into a local comic store where I ended up feeling truly accepted. To make things even cooler, my dad got into comics at the time too and was probably a more avid collector than me. That bonding time with him cemented comics as a part of my life; we would read them together and talk about them, and my room was covered in posters and pull outs from magazines like Wizard. My comic store experience led to me forging friendships that last to this day and which helped me through high school.

CC: Though Ascendant is about classic super heroes it is not your typical superhero story. What gave birth to the idea to take this story the way that you did?

LM: I am always thinking about stories; no matter where I am or what I am doing, I am probably meditating on some story idea. This is especially true in regards to comics; I can recount many occasions when my wife snaps me back to reality by asking, “what are you thinking about?” and I cut loose with some long-winded thought about a tiny aspect of a comic or hero I love. On reflection, I am very lucky to have her.

I feel that the best stories in comics relate to us in life; they connect to us in a real, genuine way because they reflect things about us. Astro City, which I cite as an inspiration on the kickstarter, showed me that through a comic story you could address even deeper topics if you were mature, thoughtful, and really understood what superheroes were all about – and you genuinely loved them. So in my many thoughts on superheroes I was open to inspiration from all parts of life.

On the anniversary of my maternal grandfather’s passing I was thinking about him; at the end of his life cancer had spread to his brain and a man I had always seen as brilliant and powerful was brought low. He lost coherence and sunk into a sort of distant quiet that has always lingered with me. Watching a person you idolize robbed of their gifts like that was horrifying. At the same time, I had been thinking about how we looked at superheroes, and the way our view of them changes as we get older. It wasn’t dissimilar to an experience I had with my dad, where we had to learn to relate to one another differently as we aged. In the mix of superhero thoughts, thoughts about mortality and loss, and thoughts about how relationships change, the story came to life.

CC: The current Ascendant, Jaime Garcia, is a Latinx character. Why was it important for you to have him be Latinx?

LM: I have joked that when I was a kid reading comics, the only time I saw a latinx person is if I looked up from the comic and saw my dad. Of course that is slightly exaggerating, but as a kid while I noticed I didn’t question it. When I got older and reflected on it, it felt like most of the latinx characters were very ethnically thematic, with names like El Muerto or they would be very stereotypical. I wondered why they couldn’t just be like the Falcon, who was black and a superhero, but not turned into a stereotype. Mainstream comics have gotten better about it, although sometimes it still falls into a very generic latinx thing. Other times, when I see many superheroes it seems like they are Puerto Rican, or Dominican, which is great (and makes sense in the New York-centric mainstream comics world) but there still never felt like many were Mexican. I mean, my dad is my hero and he’s Mexican, so I always wanted to see a hero in comics that mirrored my hero in real life.

When I wrote the Ascendant, Grant and Ted leaped into my head fully formed. The way they look is how they appeared the minute I conceived them. With the third Ascendant, I knew I had a chance to do something cool so I immediately decided he would be Mexican-American. I live in an area with a large latinx population, and many of the students I teach are of Mexican ancestry, so I thought that if they ever read my comic I really wanted to make sure they saw someone that they could recognize. Unai designed him and it worked out really well.

CC: It seems that we are currently seeing a trend in pop culture to try and humanize more our heroes. It’s not necessarily knocking them off their pedestal but maybe lowering the pedestal. Why do you think this is? Why did you focus on the relationship of mentor and mentee?

LM: The reality of the 24-hour news cycle and internet culture is that we don’t have many illusions about people. The sort of gritty takes of the 90s were very cynical and dismissive and saw things as being all terrible, and this could have been a place where we got worse. However, the increased exposure revealed that our celebrities and famous people are, instead, human. They are great and beautiful, but they are flawed and imperfect. Instead of iconoclasm I think we’ve embraced nuance, and nuanced looks at people accept them as the sum of their greatness and flaws.

Art imitates life, so of course that worked its ways into all forms of art. In comics and genre fiction, we have humanized heroes – we recognize that they can be wonderful and imperfect together. They aren’t usually yoked to hamartia like the Greeks, but we recognize that any wholly perfect portrait of a person isn’t true insight, it’s hagiography. Naturally, current trends in storytelling are reflecting this.

In light of this more complicated perception of people, I think the mentor/mentee relationship is a place where everyone sees this writ large. You might not know famous people, but you know someone important in your life – a teacher, parent, coach, something – who looms large. And if you have such a person, you almost certainly have a moment of disappointment in them. For me, in the long term, we usually end up understanding those flaws in our mentors as we get older. The person you are most likely to be disappointed by is someone you revere, but in learning to understand their shortcomings you get a better picture of them. And The Ascendant is all about that, about the fact that we have to recognize our mentors as human, and let ourselves off the hook if we don’t meet their standards – because they have failed too.

CC: You start the comic (in the preview at least) with a quote from Robert Frost. Why did you choose this particular quote to start the book with?

LM: I love literature and poetry, and see comic as an art of equal bearing, so to my mind it is only natural for them to intermingle. All art is intertextual; Derrida said there was no “outside-text” and he was right, because we all carry so many influences into the writing we do, and I wanted to be explicit in acknowledging those influences. Frost is a poet I love and was reading at the time I started the script, and his ability to capture wistfulness and evoke a sense of longing were perfectly consonant with what I was writing. I wanted to acknowledge the impact of his writing in my writing, so I looked for a quote from his work that captured that. I couldn’t opt for “nothing gold can stay” because that line basically belongs to The Outsiders now. So I settled for “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected” which really captures the situation at the opening of the comic.

It ended up creating an interesting dynamic, because when I got to the second “act” of the story I needed a sort of marker to signal to myself and the reader the transition into a new phase. Since I started Act 1 with a quote, I did it in the second act as well, and kept it going. The end of the story also has a quote, and they made for nice markers for me to think about the story, especially during revision. I also thought, perhaps naively and in a self-congratulating way, that maybe someone would see the quote and read those authors too, and I would have given them a good comic story AND introduced them to great literature or poetry.

CC: What made you decide to crowdfund this graphic novel instead of submitting it to publishers?

LM: I’ve always liked the crowdfunding model because it lets you bring people into the project with you; you get sales, yes, but people are investing and joining in with you and it is a much more personal and intimate experience. If I can get the book to print knowing that it already has an invested audience I feel like everyone will have a better experience. It is also very liberating because you are beholden only to yourself and those people who believe in you, and that is great. Finally, I’m a bit of a realist and recognize I may have to go it alone a few times first so I accepted that my first releases would be solo, and crowdfunding is a great way to reach out and establish a name for myself.

My very wise friend Stephanie Cannon, who also writes comics, made the true observation that there was no harm in pitching it to publishers, because even if they did not accept it I could practice pitching. So I went looking at submission rules and discovered that by making a superhero comic that most independent publishers were not interested, because the Big companies owned that market so wholly and they prefer to work in other genres. And they are not wrong. But it locked me out of a lot of places. I only ended up submitting to a few, and most of them I knew would not be a great fit, so when it didn’t work out I wasn’t too upset because I was more than glad to crowdfund it.

CC: How did you get connected with the artists that you are working with for the book?

LM: The magic of the internet! I wrote the script, revised it, and almost talked myself out of it – then I read Brian Michael Bendis’s Words for Pictures. It more or less said that if you wanted to make comics you have to, you know, make comics. So I took that in hand and started looking for artists. I found a Facebook group that connects writers and artists, and the first thing I discovered is that many, many aspiring writers treat artists poorly, do not value their work, and try to get stuff for free. It worried me that it the environment might be turning artists away, but I persevered and decided to make myself a good and professional partner. I looked through samples on the group. Eventually I found my art team, Unai and DC, as Earth-2 Studio. Their samples were so great, so I reached out to ask them to do a few test pieces. It turns out that they are even better guys than they are artists, so I was in luck.

CC: What do you hope that readers take away from The Ascendant? Your students and their age group?

LM: I want all of my readers to take away a feeling of both warmth and nostalgia. I want them to think back to the great comics they’ve loved, but also the great relationships they’ve had with mentors, and recognize that despite all their imperfections, both of those things have probably been pretty great, and a net good in your life. For students of my age group, I want to help them build empathy for older people, and help them recognize that the adults in their lives might not be perfect, but they act out of genuine love and support. It is acceptable to question them, but they should do so in the spirit of dialogue and reflection. I also hope that kids that age don’t give up on the medium!

Be sure to visit The Acendant’s Kickstarter page to learn more about the project.