This interview was conducted by Fantagraphics intern Rolando A. López and proofread and formatted by Janice Headley. Thanks to all! – Ed.
In his 1989 The Comics Journal interview (#126), Jaime Hernandez said: “I hope [Love and Rockets is] still fresh 20-50 years from now. I hope it doesn’t lose anything in the long run. Even if I’m writing about contemporary things . . . I hope people can look back at it as a piece of history instead of a gimmick.”
Readers have followed the lives of Maggie, Hopey, and the gang for almost 30 years now, and Love and Rockets is still going strong. Today, Jaime Hernandez is one of the most revered names in the world of comic books and beyond; cartoonists Alison Bechdel, Zak Sally, Simpsons creator Matt Groening, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky and writer Junot Díaz have all cited his influence. Hernandez’s work, simply put, is part of the comics canon.
Esperanza, the fifth volume in the Complete Love and Rockets, collects the stories from Love and Rockets Vol. II. Here, readers see Maggie struggle with the ghosts of her past, find Hopey settling down, and meet some new faces, which cause trouble in the already troublesome lives of the Locas. In this Q&A, Jaime Hernandez talks about growing along with his characters, his storytelling techniques and his elusive muse.
Rolando A. López: Esperanza, Hopey’s full first name, means “Hope” in Spanish. Why did you choose this as the collection’s title?
Jaime Hernandez: Actually, Kim Thompson came up with it. I couldn’t think of a better title so I happily agreed to it.
López: It seems to me these stories would be really rewarding to someone who’s read the Locas saga since it began. How do you take into account readers who have been following the series when you’re crafting your comics? Conversely, what storytelling techniques do you use to help acclimate new readers to new Locas stories?
Hernandez: I try to tell these stories in a way that a new reader can jump in and not feel overwhelmed and intimidated by the continuity that has built up for 30 years. It’s not always easy. [As for the fans,] I can only hope they’ll stay with me even if we’ve been at it this long.
López: Elliptical storytelling — how did you develop it and why did you develop it and what does it allow you to do?
Hernandez: It happened naturally. The storytelling was more of a learning process for me than the art was in the early L&Rs. I was trying whatever worked. Soon I started to visualize the story like a movie, with cinematic jump cuts and things like that, and came to realize I could cut a lot of corners and fit in more story. That also taught me how to let the character’s body language and expressions tell the story instead of letting the words do it. Finally, it taught me that leaving out actual “story” involves the reader more by letting them fill it in themselves.
López: How do you structure your stories?
Hernandez: It’s different most of the time. If the characters write the story, which they most often do, it’s sort of waiting to see what will turn out. If an idea writes the story, it’s more tightly structured: making sure there’s a beginning, middle and end.
López: You have a very intuitive approach to storytelling — you listen for your muse and almost “transcribe” what she says. Do you ever have “fights” with your muse?
Hernandez: Every time. That way it will flow naturally but still connect with the reader. Muse doesn’t always translate on its own.
López: How do you calibrate your artistic process?
Hernandez: I trust my instincts. I have to.
López: How did this process play out in the writing of the first half of the book (the “Maggie” stories)?
Hernandez: I don’t remember. It was quite a few years ago. The usual, I suppose. If I’m doing Maggie, she’s always gonna tell me where to go. Yeesh! Listen to me! “And then a UFO came down and …”
López: One new character is Vivian, a femme fatale: she destroys everything she touches, and in turn, everyone that touches her either lives to regret it, or dies. How did you come to create her?
Hernandez: I wanted to create a character with no boundaries: someone who basically has nothing to lose. A character like that is the funnest and easiest to write because they can be put into any situation and it works. Making her very sexy only lets her character get deeper into trouble.
López: Why did you decide to put her in Maggie’s life?
Hernandez: It wasn’t planned, but I discovered they worked really well together because Maggie is the opposite of Viv. With Maggie’s nagging conscience, I can only take her so far. Dragging her into Viv’s world gives her (and me) a lot more to work with.
López: Sometimes I think of Vivian as being a darker counterpart to Penny Century; they’re both desirable and somewhat volatile. Is this an apt comparison?
Hernandez: In a way, but I understand Viv’s demons more than I do Penny’s and hopefully that makes them feel a little different from each other. I know why Viv is crazy but I don’t know why Penny is crazy and I prefer it that way. Both give me a lot to work with in different ways.
López: Throughout the book, Maggie seems to be in a midlife crisis. Why did you decide to explore these questions through her?
Hernandez: Probably because I was asking myself those same questions at that time. A lot of my characters are growing old alongside me, so I can understand and write them better.
López: In ancient Mesoamerican folklore, dogs are often associated with death. One tradition has dogs guiding the dead through the underworld, which actually somewhat parallels the climactic sequence in Ghost of Hoppers. Did you consciously draw from these stories?
Hernandez: No, since childhood I always heard stories about the devil sometimes coming to people as a black dog, sometimes as a baby and other times a red vision. I thought the dogs were a good dramatic device.
López: I feel like you’re doing something different with the “Angel of Tarzana” vignettes — they’re almost visual poems. Why do you write them?
Hernandez: To take a break from the dialogue driven stories I usually do. These also gave me more opportunity to draw more action and movement without it having to be a fantasy superhero comic.
López: I really like the story where she plays catch with her father. It struck me suddenly: This is the only functioning relationship in the entire book. Why did you do this?
Hernandez: I did actually want to portray a happier family life. It was something I hadn’t done much with some of the other characters.
Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez, at the Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery, 2007
López: You and Gilbert have talked before about how you play off of each other. Do you still influence each other, and if so, how?
Hernandez: Gilbert does and always has got me off my ass to try to do better work every time by simply doing the work he does. I like the height he raises his bar.
López: In the ’80s, you painted the “punk” landscape — the grungy buildings, the hobos, the graffiti…. There was a conscious effort to evoke that place and time. What landscape are you trying to paint in these stories?
Hernandez: The aftermath. The fallout. Life goes on with or without my characters and some of them can deal with it and others can’t.
López: You’ve been working on these characters for almost 30 years. At this point, is it difficult or easy to write about them?
Hernandez: Writing the characters is very easy because I know them so well. Writing stories for them is the difficult part.
López: I noticed that depending on the collection, stories come in a different order. Do you revise the structure of your stories or even modify them when you assemble the larger collections?
Hernandez: When we’re putting together a single collection made up of a few issues of L&R, I mess with the order of stories so it will read more like one long connected story. When the material goes into the Complete L&R series, I usually let it play out like it did in the original comic. It just seems right that way.
López: There are definitely storytellers who write to convey ideas through characters (moral, philosophical, etc.) — and there’s others who are more naturalistic, who just want to get down the interactions between people. Where would you put yourself in this spectrum?
Hernandez: A little in between the two. I like to get moral and philosophical sometimes, but I always try to handle it naturally through the characters, instead of preaching through captions, like it came out of a textbook.
López: What advantages do comics offer you to accomplish this goal?
Hernandez: In comics, I can use as many or as little words as I want. In prose, all you have is words. Of course, you can reverse the argument, but that doesn’t concern me.
Jaime Hernandez, at the Emerald City Comicon, 2009