It’s a fabulously sunny spring day, and I’m standing on Lexington Avenue with the graphic novelist Jaime Hernandez. He’s teetering on one leg in an imitation of Deadman, a cheesy superhero known for abruptly taking possession of people’s bodies. Hernandez has struck this wobbly pose in response to my asking his opinion of comic-book artist Neal Adams’s supremely realistic drawings. “If you see Neal doing a strip about people standing there talking in an office, that’s just beautiful shit,” Hernandez explains. “But when you see him drawing Deadman going, ‘Whooo–oooh–ooooh’—it’s not my exciting thing. As a kid, I thought it was, but it just didn’t last.”
Hernandez, who lives in Pasadena, California, is in town for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art Festival, where he’s been signing copies of the new Abrams coffee-table book The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death. Since 1981, when he and two of his brothers self-published the first issue of the black-and-white comic book Love & Rockets, Hernandez has scripted and drawn more than 1,500 pages of a formally complex graphic novel that features a bevy of utterly absorbing female characters. The lavish Abrams volume includes original artwork from various issues of L & R, sketchbook pages, flyers for SoCal punk bands such as the Circle Jerks and Suicidal Tendencies, and lively text from art historian Todd Hignite.
While Hernandez’s L & R women have often been lookers, over the past 29 years he has aged them beyond youthful pulchritude into emotionally believable adults, starting with the booty-ful Margarita Luisa Chascarrillo and that lithest of live wires, Esperanza Leticia Glass. More commonly known as Maggie and Hopey, these on-again, off-again lovers form the core of an ever-evolving, magic-realist universe, which includes the baroquely unstable Isabel Maria Ortiz Ruebens (Izzy) and the ridiculously gorgeous Beatriz Garcia (a/k/a Penny Century). Not wanting to be the hundredth journalist to simply query Hernandez on what his wife has called his “uncanny knack for female patter and pattern,” I’ve instead offered to take him and Hignite on a jaunt to the Museum of Modern Art.
During our cab ride uptown, I bring up two quotes from Baudelaire’s famous 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” which Hignite uses in the Abrams book to illuminate Hernandez’s exquisitely bold black-and-white ink drawings. One passage concludes that it’s the artist’s job to “express at once the attitude and the gesture of living beings, whether solemn or grotesque, and their luminous explosion in space.”
Georges Seurat exemplified that vivid phrase, so I ask Hernandez if he’s familiar with the French painter’s powerful conte-crayon drawings, which share with his own a profound understanding of bodies in space — Seurat through infinite tonal gradations, Hernandez through dead-on contours, both artists masters of abstractly powerful compositions. He demurs that he barely recalls Seurat’s pointillist paintings from a long-ago art class, then adds with typically self-deprecating humor, “I warn you, this is going to be all day — I’m going to be going, ‘No, I never heard of that.’ ”
When I press Hernandez on how he achieves such convincing heft in his figures, he mentions a life-drawing class he took when he was 19, taught by a classically trained “real crab-ass” instructor who helped him understand “how the skeleton works, the weight of the body.” When I ask if he still sketches from life, the 50-year-old artist says simply, “It’s all my head now.”
He gazes out the window of the taxi. “I like the city ’cause there’s so much to look at, so just walkin’ down the street my eyes are goin’ ‘dit-dit-dit-dah'” — he points a finger, rapidly changing directions — “I’m looking at the perspective of where the buildings are goin’. I’m watching how the people relate to the size of the building. I’m watchin’ how this guy is walking, how he keeps his shoulders. You know, just shit like that.”
Hernandez’s conversation is peppered with reminders of what he refers to as his “lower-class upbringing” in Oxnard, California, as the fourth of six siblings in a Mexican-American family. A self-described “terrible” student who was raised Catholic, his formative influences were decidedly lowbrow: Archie and cut-rate superhero comics, Mexican wrestlers, and movies such as Samson vs. the Vampire Women.
These influences are prominent in the first installments of L & R, in which Maggie sends home letters that describe her job fixing spaceships in a Land of the Lost–type jungle overrun with dinosaurs. The missives travel between genres, from slam-bang sci-fi to the real-life drama where Hopey staples up flyers for her band and argues with promoters over club dates. These quotidian chores in and around Hoppers, the fictional stand-in for Hernandez’s hometown, take place amid an ensemble cast of musicians, strippers, wrestlers, low-riding gang-bangers, and blue-collar families, all of whom provide the background for what came to be known as the “Locas” (crazy girls) tales.
But Hernandez has always kept the fantasy levers within easy reach, smoothly merging the otherworldly with crisp realism, combining panels in overall compositions that achieve an impact beyond verbal narrative or the linear progression of cinema. In a two-page spread from 2005’s astonishingly moving Ghost of Hoppers, the image of a shrunken jack o’ lantern segues to a panel of a young, drunken Maggie, who trips over a pumpkin and lands on the lawn near a sleeping dog. As she giddily tries to get up, the dog rises on its hind legs, a chilling personification of the devil.
At MOMA, Hernandez and I stand before Warhol’s huge 1963 diptych Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times, which features multiple silkscreen prints of the same gruesome auto accident on one canvas next to the blank orange expanse of another. Although Hernandez finds the piece too impersonal for his taste, both he and Hignite are appalled when I mention that the work has sometimes been reproduced with the blank panel cropped out, thus negating the sense of Catholic limbo conjured by the orange void. “Warhol was doing his own kind of punk,” Hernandez remarks. “He was going, ‘I’m gonna do this and I don’t care what you think.’ ”
Which rather sums up Hernandez’s own attitude. He has produced comics his own way from day one. As we wander into another gallery, I ask him how much longer he plans on portraying his characters’ lives.
“I’m gonna do it as long as I think it’s worth doing. And as long as everybody else does,” he replies, laughing.
“I love this,” Hernandez says as we peruse Jacob Lawrence’s starkly designed, Depression-era tempera paintings depicting, through bold chunks of color, the depredations endured by Southern blacks who headed north for work. When I mention to Hernandez that I’d be interested in seeing how he would draw a crowded 7 train, he replies that the subway reminds him of the DMV or jury duty: “Those kinds of places where the rich have to be with the poor, with the people who don’t speak English—where you guys are all trapped here and we’re all the same, fucker. You can be wearing your diamond earrings, but I get to sit here, too.”
As we check out the abstract expressionists, I ask for his take on Jackson Pollock’s paintings, such as the 17-foot-wide drip canvas One: Number 31, 1950 and the densely packed Full Fathom Five, from 1947.
After considerable thought, he says he’s impressed by “their intention. . . . I bet a lot of the best artists went in for something and ended up with something they didn’t know they had in ’em.” He looks around at the Pollocks. “This stuff is impossible to picture before he does it.”
As impossible as it would have been to imagine a comic book featuring a pair of Mexican-American punkettes in combat boots ever managing to expand beyond the indie-comics sector—that first issue of L & R three decades ago had a press run of only 800 copies. Now the Locas stories are available in deluxe hardcover editions and in stacks of paperback collections. Fans have told Hernandez, “I love Maggie and Hopey and if I met them, they would be my best friends.” Hernandez, however, has a warning for those admirers. “These are two punk kids with good hearts,” he relates in the Abrams book, “but to outsiders they might be pretty snotty and make you feel alienated. So don’t get too comfortable with them.”
Which probably explains Hopey’s tangy wit — that’s her flashing the “L.A.” symbol on the cover of this issue — and Maggie’s emotional dithering: Hernandez sees his Locas as simply real, and as the gang matures out of their punk-drunk youthful passions and into the existential muddles of on-rushing middle age, their creator may be as helpless as any reader to comfort Maggie about her weight troubles or Hopey over her need for glasses and a real job.
I’m trying to find one of MOMA’s Francis Bacon paintings. Wandering through the crowded galleries, I can’t locate the canvas I want, but I explain that Bacon would sometimes fling gobs of paint at a portrait he was working on to break out of formal complacency. Hernandez laughs and says, “Sometimes I do that—I’ll throw in somebody to fuck things up.”
Indeed, Hernandez regularly punctuates his narratives with multi-dimensional shifts of time, space, and genre, often employing Penny Century as his go-to girl to disturb the peace. In his most recent tales, drawn in an exuberantly cartoony fashion, Penny has gained superpowers and is running amok as various teams of superwomen muster to stop her—one retired crime-fighter points out that women are born with super-heroic attributes, but men “gotta go out an’ have lab accidents and other stuff to get their cojones.”
Although he occasionally falls into flat passages of exposition, for the most part, Hernandez’s prose brings the goods as sharply as his drawings. While visiting Maggie’s childhood home, one of her friends—a jiggling train-wreck of a stripper—succinctly sums up the neighborhood: “Fuck, ghetto.” After rambunctious sex with Penny, Maggie’s onetime boyfriend Ray poetically free-associates: “The animals talked. I was speaking in tongues. My dad up in Heaven glanced up from his paper. The angels went on strike.”
Somewhere near the impressionists, I ask Hernandez what Maggie is currently up to. He describes some trouble he’s having with a scene between her and Ray. But, he adds, “the more I started to draw it and get comfortable with it, I started going, ‘God, I love Maggie.’ ”
It’s said that everyone has at least one novel in them. But very few have the discipline to ever write that book, much less the talent to communicate more than half of their story through the powerful, wide-ranging drawings catalogued in The Secrets of Life and Death. Jaime Hernandez is taking a lifetime to create The Great American Graphic Novel, and if you’re lucky, you’ll outlive him. That way, you get to see how it ends.