While waiting for Los Bros Hernandez to arrive for the panel celebrating their groundbreaking "Love and Rockets" series at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the room quickly filled with a quiet hum of expectant excitement. Mario arrived first, closely followed by Gilbert, who waved warmly to familiar faces in the audience. "We can't start without Jaime!" they exclaimed as their brother sprinted across the room to join them.
Fantagraphics editor and panel moderator Kristy Valenti introduced Gilbert, Jaime and Mario Hernandez to the audience, inviting the family of creators to answer questions about their seminal, 30-year ongoing comic book, "Love and Rockets."
Valenti began by asking Mario and Gilbert Hernandez about the relationship between their recent collaborative book, "Citizen Rex," and the "Errata Stigmata" storyline in "Love and Rockets."
Gilberto replied, answering from an artist's point of view, "The look, really, that is the only way I know how to draw the future." Mario elaborated, saying that it has more to do with the Dean Motter book "Mister X", where he and Gilbert did the back up stories. "I just like writing about robots, flying cars, that kind of thing. Dark Horse [Comics] asked us to do a book, and because Gilbert didn't want to think about it, I wrote it. Of course, because I wrote it, it has a lot more politics and stuff."
Valenti then asked the brothers about their relationship with science fiction. "You don't have to do any research, because you make it all up. It's a lot of fun," joked Mario.
Continuing to focus on Mario, Valenti asked, "Your work seems more metropolitan than your brothers' -- why is that? The shape of your cities is more urban."
Mario explained that when he moved to a bigger city, he was all about "discovering a different scope. You have to survive in the big city. They have hidden places and there are fascinating things to find about them. It seems very fertile."
Gilbert joined in on the conversation, discussing his own visual approach to science fiction storytelling. "The way I draw that type of story -- when I was a kid, I would look through old science fiction drawings of 'Metropolis' [the Fritz Lang movie], and that is the perfect embodiment of the future. Blimps, biplanes -- whenever I saw lower budget movies, I thought, 'This isn't it!' 'Metropolis' stuck in my mind, that half-retro/half-futuristic look sticks in my mind. So whenever I draw the future, it looks like 'Metropolis.' Nothing to do with Superman, though!"
Valenti then asked about the place of monuments in the Hernandez brothers' work, to which Mario answered, "People have lost contact with them. Nobody talks about big statues anymore, and when they do, nobody goes to them anymore. I just wanted to have something larger than the community. That is supposed to be community, but no one goes to them anymore."
The next topic was for Gilbert, to whom Valenti stated, "Critics have been describing your universe as a cruel, non-humanistic universe." Gilbert appeared taken aback and asked, "Who said that? I don't know, I don't read this stuff," before jokingly adding, "Just remember folks; I'm meaner than you."
Gilbert then proceeded to share his own feelings about his work, stating, "People always compare my stuff to the 'Palomar' stuff, but lately, my stories have been just a little colder edged because I'm more interested in that. How that vision overlaps with Mario's -- we simply work in an organic way. It gels because we grew up reading each other's comics. I do my best to just make it mesh so you can't tell who did what.
"Of course I disagree [that my comics are cruel]," Gilbert continued. "It's just a different angle. I read different things, I'm interested in different things. If you read 'Palomar,, you saw that it got pretty crazy because I was putting everything in, which didn't always fit. Now, I just want it to be separate from 'Palomar.' In the next issue of 'Love and Rockets' (# 5), I'll return to 'Palomar.'"
Valenti noted that the "Love and Rockets Annual" "begins with you both going back to your roots with 'Ti-girls.' After years, it seems you're moving away from genre trappings."
Gilbert explained, "I have the room for it now. 'Love and Rockets' started out as a magazine, and we had a lot more space. Then it became a comic book, so we only had 14 pages. You leave out a lot of stuff. It doesn't fit. Now, with the larger comic book/annual, we get 50 pages each. So if I want to do something serious, I can throw that in. A lot of stuff I do is out of impulse, but by the time the reader finishes the story, it has to be something. It can't just be a goof."
Next, Jaime explained his own approach to the annual and the 'Ti-Girls' storyline, saying, "I had all this stuff since the first issue about superheroes, and when we had the opportunity to have 50 pages, I thought, 'Hey, I'll do this big story!' But you know, I kind of like this thing where Maggie was the weird one in the superhero world. She couldn't do what they did, so she was the odd one out. Somewhere in their world, there's another Maggie that's a different age, so all this stuff turned into this bigger story. For the Ti-Girls collection, I even added a fifth chapter. Sorry, to the readers who bought them in 'Love and Rockets' and now have to buy the collection to read that," he apologized to a response of wry laughter form the audience. "It just kept growing, and I had to let it breathe."
Jaime described the ongoing attraction of creating his own genre of superhero comics by saying, "We have the room, and it's just fun to draw things that you don't have to draw from real life. I want to go back to it, because I look at the racks of comics in the comic store and I think, 'You aren't doing it right!' I want to do it how I think it should be. I think, 'This is the way I would have done the Marvel Universe.'"
Valenti said she has noticed longterm readers from the last three decades seem to enjoy "Love and Rockets" as much as new readers, asking, "What goes into writing for long time readers, and how do you create comics for people who can jump in at any time or people who have been reading for years?
Jaime answered first, saying, "For me, it's a lot more conscious now than it was at the beginning. I used to think that people would know and understand everything. But I used to get complaints from readers who didn't know where to start. I don't want to tell them to start from the beginning, so I try to write so that people who know the characters will know their story, but new readers will still find their current story interesting."
Gilbert spoke next, telling the audience, "We were conscious that a lot of collections had to be read to get the whole picture. We never finished a story; the seeds would seep into the next collection. To do a new 'Palomar' story, I have to consider the new readers, but also write considering the history of the characters. None of the 'Palomar' stories have a plot. It is just about the characters bouncing off each other. Some of those older characters will just need to walk down the street because their story is done. They are older now, they don't have anything to do but walk around. That's where new characters help, to come up with new ideas. With 'Palomar,' I have to deal with 56 characters, all of whom have had their own story at some point. Is this the start of something new, or continuing the story? I won't know until I finish it."
Valenti commented, "You had these universes before the comics came out. There's no model for this; they were meant to run for 30 years. It astounds me."
Mario responded, telling Valenti, "I can remember when we were both underage, sitting around drinking, and Gilbert was talking about how comics should be about real people that live in Mexico. I realized that he was right -- no one is actually doing that. No one was doing something where people age and develop."
Gilbert joked, "Hey, I just didn't want to get a job, so I wanted to create characters who I could tread water with for 30 years."
Valenti noted an ongoing motif in "Love and Rockets," of mother's passing things down to their daughters, asking Los Bros about the thought behind this recurring theme. Jaime said that while he hadn't thought about it in any kind of grand symbolic way, it was deliberate in that he wanted to illustrate "how people live," though he was hesitant to call it an actual theme. Gilbert added, "That is a literal thing that's happening in the next issue of 'Palomar.'"
The conversation then moved on to movies, with Valenti asking, "Movies are important to you as individuals and to all of your stories. Would you talk about your characters' obsession with creating films?"
Gilbert explained that, from his point of view, "They had to be rooted in some kind of world, and I didn't have time to create a whole new reality. Working on a TV show enabled me to draw fantastical thing within their existing world. I created the Fritz stories to create a link to the 'Palomar' stories and still have the freedom to write something impossible, to explore different kinds of stories without beating up the 'Palomar' universe. The movie books that I'm doing have become their own thing, now, in that they stand alone. The only thing that stays the same is that one character.
Jaime laughed, adding that when it comes to his "Love and Rockets" work, "Fritz's movie career has helped my career. When I write Hollywood directors at a party watching an obscure movie, I can make them watch one of Fritz's movies without having to know what's happening in real movies!"
Shifting from the use of movies in his comics to the setting of the city of Los Angeles in response to the next question from Valenti, Jaime initially discussed his visual approach to portraying the city, but quickly moved on to his feelings about it. "You get to draw more sky than buildings -- it's just my love for LA. I moved because Oxnard wasn't going to do it for me. I never planned it that the city was part of the whole thing. It just worked out that way. I really hate drawing cars and people driving, but they're always in the stories and I realized that this is an LA comic.
"I picked Maggie's place of residence in the San Fernando Valley, because who likes the Valley?" he continued, to laughter from the audience. "I even had her say, 'If I hadn't been born in Hoppers, I'd have been born here."
Gilbert spoke up, adding, "LA was rarely depicted as someplace people live, it was always where movies are made and specifically LA lifestyles are depicted. It wasn't until the early '70s that people began making movies about basic life in LA. Tarantino was someone who really showed people talking and acting like they were from LA. Until then, I don't think everyone knew that people just live there."
Jaime responded, "I didn't plan it to be Chandler-eque, but I was on a kick. I love when movies or comics talk about actual places. In 'Double Indemnity' [the '40's thriller], where he drops her off on the corner of Franklin and Vermont, you stop and say, 'I know where that is!' It was really exciting to me, so I thought that instead of making it imaginary Hoppers, I'm going to make them be in LA. I figured that one day someone could be visiting LA and see a street sign and say, 'That's where Maggie did whatever!' I wanted to pass that on."
At this point, the floor was opened for an audience Q&A session, with the first participant asking if the brother's efficient use of the comic book medium would be a factor in any future movie adaptation of "Love and Rockets." "It could hurt us," Jaimie answered, "but we're pretty careful about it. We have the responsibility to relate to the readers. Gilbert and I are grown up enough to take on that responsibility."
Gilbert elaborated, adding, "I think it is just the way we think. Our stuff would be very easy to transfer onto a film. We've talked to so many people about it, but there was just so much getting away from how we tell stories, just wanting to take bits of the stories without the way we tell them. It never gelled. I think just taking one complete story from Jaime, (it only works if they don't just take little bits), it would work fine as a film."
Jaime agreed, saying it has been the same problem every time they enter discussions with someone in Hollywood. "It is always 'Love and Rockets' Greatest Hits' [that film makers want], and it doesn't hold up."
The next audience member asked, "How do you see your own work as a legacy? How much of your work might be seen as a cultural or family legacy?"
Mario was clear in stating, "this is how we like comics to look. A lot of popular comics I read are like reading a dull monologue or stand-up comedy with pictures. That isn't comics. Comics are a special kind of medium. You need to be able to look at the pictures and follow the story. Things you can only do in comics, you can't do in movies and you can't do in prose."
Gilbert modestly explained he doesn't see his work as a legacy. "I'm just making a good comic that people like for years. Robert Crumb and Jack Kirby -- these are the classic comics that people come back to. Apart from Wolverine, none of the superhero movies that are coming out now are about characters created since 1968, and that says something. We want to make comics that do to young people what comics did to us growing up. As much as I loved the comics I read, I want to do more. Hopefully, 10 or 15 years down the line we can read new comics and go, 'Dammit! They stole from us!'" he exclaimed in mock indignation.
Next, an audience member shared an observation about Gilbert's "Poison River" storyline. "I thought, 'That is a great crime novel,' and I often find that you come back to that form. Do you think of these as crime stories? Do you read any crime fiction?"
Answering quickly, Gilbert said, "The Fritz [movie] comics are crime stories. Even though I've done stories with Luba that are crime comics, it doesn't really fit. Still, I'm doing it my way, I'm not a crime fiction person, although I'm a big fan of '50s noir. I've been filing my head with B-movies. I like the freedom that they had. They were able to let loose."
In answer to specific questions about which films he watches, Gilbert spoke about his favorites. "I watch lesser-known ones, so I can't remember the titles. I like Ida Lupino stuff. They're done for TV, so they're kind of pulled back, but they're still good. Nasty films, too, because when a woman director is allowed to do it, she just gets nasty! The B, C, Z-movie landscape, I like the forgotten movies, and it has filtered through to the way we do comics."
The final audience question followed up on one of Valenti's earlier inquiries. "You were talking about how some of your characters don't have anything to do. When I moved to LA, I kind of felt like I knew something about the city from reading L&R. I feel like I had a snapshot of the city through your characters. Is it challenging to translate your characters in 2011?"
"I remember asking Jaime what happened to Hopey and he said 'I don't know her anymore. I don't know what she's doing now,'" Mario responded, to which Jaime replied, "And then I discovered her again, and now she's a teacher. A lot of the time, when the characters have nothing to do (like with Maggie right now), that kind of opens things up."
"Maggie is like an anchor and all this stuff happens around her," added Mario.
Wrapping the panel, Jaime added to his brothers' comments, "She lives out in the valley, I took her out of the world. She kind of likes or invites trouble, so she can bounce off the people around her. It gives me so much to write!"