Anatomy of a Panel: Murrieta and Schrader’s Ethnoracial Pause in RAFAEL GARCIA: HENCHMAN

Collaborative creation in the realm of comics is par for the course—especially superhero comics.  Some household famed collaborations include, for instance: Kane and Finger;   Siegel and Shuster; Ennis and Dillon; Lee and Ditko; Lee and Kirby; Wolfman and Pérez; Claremont and Byrne; Miller and Varley; Bendis and Sara Pichelli; Adams and O’Neil; Moore and Gibbons. These famed dynamic duos are writer with artist. Rarely do we hear of powerhouse writer duos.

Peter Murrieta and David Schrader’s Rafael Garcia: Henchman changes this—and forever. Perhaps this comes with little surprise. After all, both Peter and David work in TV and film where writer-collaborations (often on a mass scale) are the norm. Within these creative spaces, both Peter and David represent remarkable creative talents in their own right. To name but a few of their many accomplishments and accolades: Peter’s picking up multiple Emmy’s for Wizards of Waverly Place and recently an Imagen Award for Mr. Iglesias. David’s work as writer and director of Bloodline and Being Ozzy Osborne, among many others, as well as publishing of the cult-classic comic Baby Badass and the novel, Exile in Hawaii.

Peter and David do join some great writer-collaborator company in the world of novels. I think readily of that group ten Italian Futurists who created the speculative spy novel, Lo zar non è morto (1929); Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s cocreating of the wildly raucous rollercoaster ride, Candy (1958); and veteran comic book writer Neil Gaiman’s teaming up with Terry Pratchett to create the fantastic (and fantastical) novel, Good Omens (1990).

Together, Peter and David along with artist Ben Herrera create a remarkable new comic book adventure that allows the Latinx superhero and his compadres a chance to breathe a little and with this to drop readers into those oft-untold lives that matter. With Rafael Garcia: Henchman Peter and David announce to the world that the melding of two writer minds in the comic-book creating process can and does result in brilliance.

Frederick Luis Aldama:  Why comics for you, David?

David Schrader:  I liked comics a lot when I was a kid. Me and my brother had the first three issues of the Marvel series of Star Wars comics. They were my first entry into superhero comics.  Before that it was reading as many Charlie Brown books and viewing as many Bugs Bunny cartoons as possible.

After this early period there was a long stretch when I didn’t pay attention to comics. It wasn’t till later, after I started making films in my 20s when I had the idea for Baby Badass with Kristian Horn. I didn’t even know about the two LA comics stores, Meltdown Comics and Golden Apple during that later period in my life.  Then I started going to Comic-Con and WonderCon only recently.

So my comics story is more as an adult coming back to it, starting over, reading Dark Knight and Watchman and everything else. I know what I don’t know. I’m not a true comic book aficionado or nerd, like Peter.  I do try to be respectful about what came before and what I’m trying to do now.

Peter Murrieta: Professor, you and I often talk and do these shows about Latinx pop culture, I’m going to jump in and follow up with a question for David.

What made you want to do Baby Badass?

DS:  The idea for Baby Badass came in 2006 when me and Kristian Horn were at Big Bear hanging out and this commercial about a baby came up. We wondered, what if that baby was kicking that guy’s ass? We thought the visual of this baby badass was pretty funny. Kristian sent me a birthday card to me the following year. It had like a drawing of Baby Badass speaking a Clint Eastwood line.  After a few years went by, we decided to develop it into a story. It seemed natural for a comic book—not as a spoof, but as a kind an over-the-top story in homage to Grindhouse cinema. Kristian turned it into a web comic—but then had a real baby badass in his life—so he had to pull back.  It took years from the idea in 2006 to getting the comic published in 2018.

I learned a lot about comic book storytelling during this period. That it’s a fun medium, moving your story forward as you jump from panel to panel. That it’s a crazy business.  I give kudos to people that stay in it and work in this business. It is not easy. And, it costs a lot of money to make comics.

FLA:  David, you mentioned Baby Badass as a kind of Grindhouse comic. It also works within a comics tradition seen with Mad (1952- ) and the 1960s Underground Comix that took readers to places that other narrative forms didn’t dare to go. Can talk a little more here about Baby Badass?

DS:  He’s 33-year-old super soldier trapped in the body of a baby.  He was a secret government experiment that went wrong.  He escapes the lab, and this sweet waitress finds him in the middle of a desert.  She works in some dive strip bar run by these asshole bikers. She finds Baby Badass and takes him in. It’s revealed eventually that he’s this super weapon and the year is 2043.  It’s just a crazy Grindhouse action comedy.  It’s been described as Mad Maxmeets Idiocracy.  So it’s funny.  It was – there was a lot of action, a lot of over-the-top violence.  But there’s a progression too with, I think, Issue 1 through 3, which made up the first volume.  I tried to do something different.  Even though Tim was doing the art on each one, he gave it a different tone, a different look.  The second one feels much more like classic Marvel meets R. Crumb. The third one has a little more of a graphic novel feel.  I’m taking my time with volume 2. It’ll come out in early 2021.

FLA:  Your nutshell comics origin story, Peter?

PM:  I’ve loved them since I was a kid.  Deeply! I know the Star Wars comics Dave’s talking about.  I remember Marvel Special Edition Treasury comic book versions.  But for me the first comic book that I bought was All-Star Comics #58.  I think I bought it at a Rexall Drugs in Tucson.  I was ten or eleven. I fell in love with it. It was the first issue of the continuing adventures of the Justice Society of America; the first team-up was the ‘40s All Star Comics.  DC decided to start it up again with the numbering: issue 57 was in 1955, and then the next one was in 1977.  It happened to be the one I picked up. It had these older versions of characters that I’d seen on Saturday morning.  It had a really deep narrative about young people trying to break into the Justice Society.  And from there it just grew.

Comics taught me how to tell stories. Comics taught me sequential narrative. Comics also taught me storyboarding.  They taught me how to be an episodic TV writer, where you’re doing different stories every week, and you want to advance the story just a little bit.

FLA:  Given that you both write for TV and film, let me flip this over and ask: How might story writing for these other formats inform your comic book storytelling? 

PM:  As we’ve just discussed, I’ve had a deep love of the genre. And, I’ve always wanted to write a comic. At one point, I bought Dennis O’Neil’s The DC Comics Guide to Writing, Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. I just needed the template. As a TV screenwriter I was used to using the program Final Draft but for some reason writing in the comic format was too hard to penetrate. So I wrote it in a TV script form. I sent it to Dave. In addition to his writing for TV he also had the experience writing Baby Badass. He was flexible writing for both and was able to start adapting it, adding little bits of his own into it and then getting it back to me to review. This process really accelerated my learning.

I just finished my first solo effort for a horror comic anthology that’s coming out. It’s about Joaquin Murrieta’s head.  I’ve tried to keep my learning curve at a steep trajectory because I want to do more.

FLA:  David?

DS:   I’ve written some feature films as well as TV shows and pilots. This was the format that I was used to. With Baby Badass I had a steep, comics-writing learning curve.  The artist, Tim Larsen, provided notes that helped me get better at the writing. Then, after a while, we hit a rhythm together.

Peter mentioned Rafael Garcia to me at one of the Cons. He was gracious enough to invite me on.  I’ve always looked up to him as a writer and producer. Peter’s a great collaborator.  And I love collaborating with good, funny people to make something unique.

FLA:  Can you share your co-creative journey from idea to the materialization on the page in the making of Rafael Garcia: Henchman?

PM:  It was inspired by the lack of representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe. Before the big DC implosion number 2 that just happened, I used to go meet with their TV team a couple times a year to see what’s up.  We would talk about the various characters.  And, every time we talked the 1 or 2 Latin characters they had were always locked up in film development.  I realized I had to do something on my own. To add to this, when I’d take my boys to see the Marvel movies, I always made jokes there and on the way home about the Avengers’ lawn: who cuts the lawns.  When Dr. Strange gets in his cool classic car, and it breaks down: who fixes that his car?  Were all the invisible jobs done in that Marvel world done by Latinos?

That was the genesis of wanting to create a character in a universe as a henchman:  to watch him struggle and comedically rise to middle management in an organization and where it might take him.  At the same time, I wanted to make him really human—he has relationship problems, for instance—and within the humor comic book form. So I wrote it and reached out to Dave. He was a great partner to bring on.

FLA:  David, can you share your side of the co-creating process?

DS:  Often, these type of conversations where you go back and forth over an idea to create a story can take years. With Peter, it was pretty quick. We first had our conversation at Comicon 2019. Peter got pretty busy so I did a lot of the legwork pulling the artist team together that could do superhero type stuff. Even though it’s a comedy book, we wanted it to have the feel and look of a Marvel superhero universe. We could have gone super Indy. But we wanted to evoke a superhero universe. We found, Ben Herrera; he’d done a bunch of superhero comics including X-Men Adventures and some other big books. He had that flair and feel.  He could straddle the line between nuanced facial expressions and the big explosions. Clay Adams does a great job lettering. I’ve been able to sprinkle in some of my ideas, bringing in a character or introducing a flashback. So, even though it’s Peter’s creation, I felt co-ownership of the story. And that’s been a lot of fun.

FLA:  Was it a back-and-forth co-creative process also with Ben? 

DS:   Sure, for instance we would go back and forth on who speaks first and work with Clay to find a workaround that would place the speech bubble in a certain place.

PM:  I remember commenting on facial expression; the feeling that a character might be rolling their eyes when you really wanted them to have a smirk. We really wanted characters to have natural reactions that matched what I saw in my head.

DS: Overall, it was a healthy process. There wasn’t any contention.  It was just the normal things you go through when collaborating on a story.

FLA:  From these first pages, can you share some of your ideas about character design? 

PM:  As David alluded to, we wanted it to look like it could exist in a superhero universe.  And, we wanted it to feel organic to our everyday life. So we thought to ourselves, what does a henchman in the real world look like?  Does he look like a ‘60s Batman villain henchman, or a more contemporary henchmen?  What kind of outfit would he wear? Because it’s real in our minds, we wanted to make his outfit real. So, unlike costumes that are dominated by their design being logos of the villains they work for, our henchmen would have body armor with subtle logos and insignias—a juiced up version of a security team.

FLA:  Within these first couple of pages the story begins to unfold and the characters become more defined, and then, Boom! 

PM:  It’s the opening of a Bond movie when he skis off of a cliff into a parachute by explosion, but with a difference. It’s two guys standing around guarding stuff and arguing about what’s in the crates, then there’s an explosion. The explosion serves to tell us who guessed right about what was in the crates. After the explosion, they immediately have to scatter and meet up at a coffee shop, where they sit.

FLA:  We have Marvel storyworld universe in terms of art design and style. Then you immediately re-engineer this superhero action narratives.

PM:  This is our version of the Avengers Shawarma scene. The coffee shop scene launches our story: these guys bemoaning the fact that there’s been an explosion but also their workaday life; that maybe this guy that works at this coffee shop has a better gig because of benefits. It’s a scene that explores the core character values of Rafa who wants more in life and his pal who doesn’t want to test the waters. We get little bit of a backstory, what they’ve been doing and different places traveled gone.

It’s a deep dive and repositioning the narrative.  We haven’t seen the villain yet.  You may not see the villain.  We want the reader to get comfortable with the slice of life that we’re showing you.

FLA:  David?

DS:  I agree with everything Peter’s saying. There’s the explosion, and then the action is: the coffee shop. Instead of action as one expects, it is a talk fest—no, a character fest that begin to explore the relationships between the characters.  Ben did a really good job capturing the mundane aspect of what they do in an exciting way. It’s only after seeing the art from a distance actually breaking it down like we’re doing now and that I see clearly the progression.  When you’re in it, you’re working on it and you want to get it done, you can’t always see this.

PM:  There’s a lot that happens in this comic book, but it’s on an emotional trajectory.  There’s a lot that happens to Rafael from beginning to end.  He’s a changed man.  He’s a changed man by the end of the first issue, and he goes through a pretty tumultuous experience quickly.

FLA:  The reengineering of story and reader expectation with the with the coffee shop scene following the explosion has me thinking about the importance of the pause in superhero comics; those pauses where characters act and react, but largely in and through their emotions. I’d go so far as to say that those superhero comics that don’t work are the ones that obsessed too much with the action, and forget about the pauses.

PM:  You have to do what the medium you’re working in calls for. I think until CGI existed, the comic book was where you could see the Golden Gate Bridge destroyed, and where you could see Superman holding up a building. That was awesome.  I remember as a kid you’d see the Atom pull off fantastical feats.  But then along comes CGI, the birth of the Marvel machine, and now we have to think about comic books in a different way.

I agree with your theory, Professor. Yes, we have to think about superhero comics in a different way.  I’d say Invincible is the last superhero book to pop. This was all about the struggle with this kid who realized that his dad was an alien overlord who’s going to conquer the planet. It was all about that emotional relationship.

DS:  I’d throw The Boys in there too and how it plays around in these peripheral Rosencrantz-and-Guildensternstorytelling spaces. My Wonder Twins story has them on some bullshit mission that they’re complaining about, and you only see the Super Friends a few times in cameos. Henchmen is all about seeing the lives of people that normally only appear in the background to stories. I think of those deleted scenes from Austin Powers when they called the wife of a henchman that got run over by a steamroller, and you just see this little tiny peek into it—that they’re real people and these are their lives.

FLA:  You mentioned earlier Watchman and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. These are extraordinary comics. They’re extraordinary not only for the artfulness of the word-drawn design, but also because of the reinsertion of the power of the pause into superhero storytelling.

PM:  As we move into another shift in comics today, some of the better books released like DC’s Batman: The Three Jokers and those under the Black Label imprint that jettison the slavish idea of continuity and lean into creating great stories that take well-known characters into places we haven’t seen before. For instance, Wonder Womanposits the idea that she’s the one who can survive essentially nuclear winter.  So she wakes up in a future with very little humans, followed by a lot of backfill to figure out why she survived, the facing down of her mother, the betraying of the Justice League at some point. There are epic battles. But there are also these moments, these pauses. It’s an emotional reckoning for Wonder Woman.

FLA: Of course, the pauses in Rafael Garcia: Henchman are what I call elsewhere, ethnoracial pauses. That is, we Latinxs haven’t had the opportunity for the pause in comic book storytelling.

PM:  It’s us being us.  I mean this is our opportunity to sit around and shoot the breeze and let it fly. Let these guys figure out what’s the next move.  And that is often not our role, right?  When we even show up, we are working or we’re on our way to be sacrificed for some greater good.  But this is letting us have that voice.  And it goes on.  Like he has a relationship that needs repair.  He has decisions to make that he needs to talk to his friends about.  So, yeah. It is this ethnoracial pause and that means a lot to me.

FLA: Rafael Garcia: Henchman shouts from rooftops: we aren’t just the invisible workers manicuring lawns for the Anglo A-lister superheroes. We, too, are the active agents and transformers of the world.

Link to the Latinx Pop Lab Popcast of the Interview

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