Celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of their comic book, "Love and Rockets," legendary creators Gilbert, Jamie, and Mario Hernandez took the stage at the Alternative Press Expo for their spotlight panel amidst much laughter about the unfortunately lackluster sound system. The panel's moderator was hands-off, providing topics and letting Los Bros Hernandez riff amongst each other. They opened with a reminder that a retrospective of the Hernandez brothers' art had just opened at San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum before introducing themselves by descending age, joking that their brother Richard was the white sheep of the family because he didn't go into comics.
The presentation began with a look back at their childhood, growing up in a comic book-friendly environment. "It was a lot of fun in those days," Mario recalled. "As a kid, five years old, seeing comics just grabbed me. Mom was a big comics fan from the 40s -- Captain Marvel."
"That was half the story," Gilbert added. "Dad played a role, too. He encouraged us because it kept us quiet!"
Like many kids, the brothers began their own artistic endeavors by copying the comics they were reading. "Mario started to draw a Superman comic," Gilbert said. "I guess he was ordered to do it to keep us occupied. And I created Spaceman. I only did three panels. I've been doing comics for 50 years."
"And by the time I was old enough, they were already doing it," Jamie chimed in. "I must have drawn Batman's origin three or four times."
"I didn't draw Spider-Man 'cause I couldn't do the webs," Mario admitted.
By their own admission, the siblings didn't take their work seriously until they began submitting it to fanzines. "They'd ask for comics and we'd send 'em in. Not every one was seen," Gilbert said. And then came "Love and Rockets."
The first issue was self-produced and cost four hundred dollars to print. "We didn't know what we were doing," Mario admitted. "We just handed it out to people.
"I sent it to 'Comics Journal' to review it," Mario continued. "We were too cheap to get an ad. And then two weeks later, [Fantagraphics publisher] Gary Groth called and said he wanted to publish it."
Fantagraphics was still an relatively small publisher at this time, known primarily by mainstream fans for for getting into feuds with comics professionals in the pages of its comics industry news publication, "The Comics Journal." "Fantagraphics was really small. 'Comics Journal' [writers] were the nastiest bastards you could read," Gilbert recalled. "In punk magazines you saw it, but in comics it was unheard of. We always liked punk. The punk attitude permeated culture. But nothing in comics. We put it in the comics because that was what we knew. We had the freedom to do what we wanted to."
"One of the things [Fatagraphics] did to be rebellious was, they wanted ['Love and Rockets'] magazine-sized. It wouldn't go with the superhero comics," Jamie said.
It didn't take long for the mainstream to notice the talent behind Fantagraphics' hit series. "Jamie's long Maggie story [in issue #2] caught Marvel and DC Comics' eyes," Gilbert said. The big two wanted to poach them to work on typical superhero fare, but the brothers would have none of it. "We were scratching our heads. We have our comic. At the time, they were treating authors and artists so badly. They still are. People are leaving DC [now] in droves, but that's another story."
While superhero comics may not have been something which appealed to the brothers, the money offered by the big two certainly did, if only briefly. "Gary said, 'If you go with us, you'd make more comic than you would with Marvel and DC.' And I didn't get it," Jamie said. "[Then I learned] I get paid again when they get reprinted. I wouldn't at Marvel. And that's when I got it!"
"We're still getting paid for the first issue," added Gilbert. "Thirty years later, we're still reprinting it."
There was no set plan in those early days, no grand storyline or over-arcing plot; the Hernandez brothers simply told the stories they felt like telling, none of them counting on the eventual longevity of "Love and Rockets." "I didn't know it was going to last," Jamie recalled, "but I didn't want to do anything else."
"The models for me were the old newspaper strips," said Gilbert. "For a young person, it seems like forever. A comic strip around in the '30s is still going? That impressed me. Longevity meant success. It was earned."
"Most of the time we don't see each other's work 'til we're finished," Jamie said, describing the work process. "We talk on the phone, to keep each other motivated. We don't even talk about the comics really. It's a brother thing."
In 1996, Gilbert and Jamie wrapped up the first volume of "Love and Rockets" with the release of issue #50. "The plan was to do 20 years of 'Love and Rockets' and do something else. And then 15 was coming up, so we did that instead," Jamie explained. "I was still doing the same thing, but in my own comic." The hiatus lasted only a few years before the series was resurrected. "It was easier to do our own thing under the name 'Love and Rockets,'" Gilbert said. "There's nothing wrong with that -- the readers came back."
Since 2008, "Love and Rockets" has been released as a single, annual volume. Explaining the reasoning behind the new format, Gilbert told the audience, "The bookstore owners were complaining they were only getting reprints. But [the format change] worked out OK for us. For me, the format is better. It's harder, but I like it more."