Cartoonist Jaime Hernandez is happy to talk about Love & Rockets, the seminal indie comic series he's been writing with his brothers Gilbert and Mario for more than 30 years. Just don't ask to photograph him posing as a superhero.
“It's a comic book about real people,” says Hernandez, who admits he occasionally gets the superhero request anyway.
Distinct from the Marvel and DC stories he grew up reading, the comic features people Hernandez knew from his childhood in Oxnard and girls he met in the early days of the L.A. punk scene. It's an entire community of characters, each with a distinct history that has grown in depth and definition every year since the first issue was published in 1981, when Hernandez was just 18 years old.
Which is not to say that Hernandez's characters reflect his figurative growth as an artist, though they do that, too. It's more that the residents of the fictional town Hoppers, his stand-in for Oxnard, age in real time.
They get wrinkles. They change clothes and hairstyles. They gain weight. They lose weight, then gain it back again, plus a few pounds. They get real jobs, and glasses. Their friends get married and divorced. Some die, while some just sort of drift away, as friends sometimes do.
While that's not entirely unprecedented in comics (the Gasoline Alley comic strip, for example, has aged its characters in real time since 1921), Hernandez's stories also have garnered attention for the bevy of female characters at the heart of the narrative – his heroine, Maggie, in particular.
Even more so than conventional literature, graphic fiction is dominated by handsome, heterosexual, white male faces, be they masked or un-. So when a male cartoonist elects to devote his life's work to the stories of a female heroine – let alone one who's Mexican-American, fat, and occasionally exhibits lesbian tendencies – more than a few people are going to ask why.
“Because I wanted to,” Hernandez says. “Because I could.”
When Hernandez invented Maggie, he was a high school student and she was a space adventurer, a kid five years his junior. “I just wanted her to do weird things,” he says. “Fight dinosaurs.” But then he graduated. “I discovered punk, changed the way I look, and she started to change, too.”
The artist and his hero have continued to change together. Hernandez uses his five-year lead on Maggie to figure out what she's up to. Asking “What did I do when I was 30, when I was 40, when I was 50?” has led Maggie to get married, divorced, leave her hometown and find love again, among other things.
Now 55 and a father to a high school student, Hernandez looks at the pages of Maggie's life as a secondary timeline for his own. He says, “When I look at a panel of Maggie at 17, I think, 'Oh you were so young!'?” Clarifying, “All of us were.”
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