Love and Rockets gets a documentary after 40 years of being the best comic book ever made

Carla and I have been enjoying Love and Rockets (the comic book, not the band that swiped the name) since the 1980s, when Carla bought a copy at a comic book store in Sacramento. For those of you unfamiliar with the comic books series, it was created in 1981 by the Hernandez Brothers — Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario — from Oxnard, California, and it focuses on the lives of people living in Hoppers (a stand-in for Oxnard) and the fictional South American town of Palomar.

Love and Rockets was one of the first alternative comic books. It's not a superhero comic book. The characters are, for the most part, normal people, and they have been aging for the last forty years.

As artists and writers, Gilbert and Jaime are masters of the comic book art form. I can't think of any other comic book artists who have worked on the same title (and for the same publisher, Fantagraphics) for that long!

Last week, Carla and I attended the premiere of Love & Rockets: The Great American Comic Book, a fantastic hour-long documentary produced by KCET in Los Angeles as part of its superb Artbound series, now in its 13th season. It screened in North Hollywood, and the Hernandez Brother attended, along with the filmmakers Omar Foglio and Jose Luis Figueroa of Dignicraft. It was great to hear the origin story of Love and Rockets and learn about Gilbert and Jaime's upbringing in the agricultural town of Oxnard, about an hour north of Los Angeles.

You can watch Love & Rockets: The Great American Comic Book for free on the KCET website.

From the KCET companion article, "How a 40-Year Old Comic Series Grew Out of a Punk Mentality":

The brothers' mom collected comic books in the '40s and often copied drawings of characters. Mario, the older brother, started collecting comics like Robert Crumb's "Zap Comix."As part of the tapestry of their cultural influences, Mexican music and rock 'n roll played in their home. Gilbert watched "so many hours of crappy movies" that informed his sci-fi sensibilities. The brothers soon started going to live shows every weekend, seeing bands like the Germs and X. Punk taught them to follow their instincts.

"We just wanted to do what we wanted to do, and there was no one to tell us no," says Jaime. "And if they did say no, we weren't going to listen… it was very liberating to do it this way, because we had nothing to lose."

Rather than aiming for a job at Marvel or DC, the brothers forged their own path. They sent the first issue of "Love & Rockets" to The Comics Journalfor review consideration. Instead of a write-up, they received an offer for publication from Fantagraphics.

Gilbert (l) and Jaime Hernandez, creators of Love and Rockets. Photo by Mark Frauenfelder

As a bonus, here's an interview I did with Jaime in late 2003. It was for a website that is long since gone, and never got saved to the Internet Archive:

Jaime Hernandez Interview

You could make a good argument that Jaime Hernandez is the greatest living comic book artist in the world. For the last 23 years, Hernandez has written and drawn a series of naturalistic stories for Love & Rockets, a comic book he founded with his brothers, Gilbert and Mario in 1981. Hernandez' stories, about two Mexican American women named Maggie and Hopey — who were punks in the early 80s and are now dealing with life as 40-somethings – has made an indelible mark in popular culture, and caused a ripple effect on people who aren't even aware of the comic book.

Aside from his outstanding artistic talent for page and panel composition, and for rendering the human form, Hernandez has a tremendous ability to tell an engaging story. His ability to weave the small events of life into larger issues of culture and race puts him way ahead of most graphic novelists working today.

This month, Fantagraphics, the publisher of the Love & Rockets comic series, is releasing Locas, a 700-page graphic novel featuring almost every story Hernandez has created for Love & Rockets from 1981 to 1996.

I interviewed Hernandez at his house in Pasadena in September 2004 – Mark Frauenfelder

Mark: So Locas is kind of like a summation of a career. How does that feel?

Jaime: Half of me is very excited and the other half is, "Haven't we seen this stuff before?" But I'm very impressed. I almost couldn't picture it when it was being put together. I couldn't picture it being in my hand, what it would look like.

Mark: Fantagraphics is more visible now than ever before. I think they've taken comic book publishing to a new level. And if you've seen their catalog, they've got great books. They're getting to be one of the best book publishers in the country. So I think that this book is going to expose you to a completely new audience for the first time.

Jaime: Yeah, I was thinking of that, too. And also, every day I run into people who don't know what I do. And even after I explain it they still don't know what I do. So now I can just say, "Pick up the Locas book!" And that tells them all.

Mark: And it'll be available everywhere.

Jaime: Yeah, just walk into a bookstore, and there it is. Maybe just one copy but, still.

Mark: After looking at Locas, I see this remarkable continuity in the stories, and characters. How fully fleshed-out were your character designs and back-stories?

Jaime: Basically, the only thing that was etched in stone was Maggie being a mechanic. And I remember I was toying with different names for Hopey, and at the last minute, my brothers asked me to do this work, and I just had to spill it out. She was Hopey. I remember after that thinking, "Oh yeah — I was going to change her name." I don't know why I was going to change her name. But I'm glad it ended up that way because, for some people, it's still such an odd name, that I kind of like that it only belongs to her. I haven't known too many Hopeys. There's been Hopes. A lot of people can't even say her name. They call her "Hoppy." And I'm like, "Is that name that odd?"

Mark: How did you come up with it?

Jaime: There was a little girl that lived down the street. About three houses down where I grew up, and my childhood buddy, he lived next door to her, and he used to tease her when she'd come out to play He'd shout, "Hopey!" And she'd go, "Shut up!" And I just thought that was the cutest name.

Mark: When you introduced a new character, like Rena, or Tiger Rosa, did you have an idea of how they'd fit in the larger framework, or was it kind of an organic thing?

Jaime: It was kind of organic. Rena filled in a type of character that I'd been creating since I was a kid. So it was easy – "She's kind of this legendary person, so I will create a legend around her." It was kind of like that. Pretty simple stuff. And at first I'd start off pretty vague, and then details would start to drop in when I began to feel safe enough to go with the character. And I still leave enough open where even if I want to, lets say, " Rena went through an alcoholic period," there's still room enough to put that in and it doesn't mess up the continuity. I just try to think of how they are in real life. Someone like Amelia Earhart, how her life was told – I just try to do it like that.

Mark: So you have this whole universe in your head.

Jaime: Yes, but I leave a lot open so I can fill it in later. If I don't have any ideas right away I can fill it in later.

Mark: Do you keep a notebook when you come up with ideas for stories?

Jaime: Sometimes I have to but a lot of its stored in my head, so if I get pelted by a brick and lose it all then it's gone! I've been at times lying up in the middle of the night and I'd think, "Hey, I'm going to do a story about that," and then it's gone. But sometimes when I'm doing a story I go, "Haven't I seen this before? Am I repeating myself? And I'll go back to older issues, and go, "I never did this." So it must have been something I tracked from the back of my head.

Mark: When was the last time you read your complete works from start to finish?

Jaime: I used to do that, years ago. I used to always read my stuff. And I could never understand why artists would say, "Oh, I can't read my older stuff."  I'd go, "Are you crazy? I could read my stuff forever!" Now it's a little harder.

Mark: How so?

Jaime: You see the mistakes. You just see, like, "Oh, I can't believe I had him say this," or, "I can't believe I went in this direction." But as far as reading the old stuff, it's kind of hard because there's so much of it and if I need a bit of information I don't know where to find it a lot.

Mark: Well, there are people on the Internet who have created these timelines

Jaime: Yeah.

Mark: Have you ever referred to those?

Jaime: I kept one because he was pretty close. I wrote him and told him he was pretty much dead-on. He thought "pretty much dead-on" meant "dead-on." There are still a couple of years that he's off with some stuff. But he was pretty close. And I was kind of proud of myself that I kept the continuity together that someone else could follow it the way I meant it.

Mark: That's the part that I think is amazing. How it all just kind of worked out even though it sounds like you didn't do a ton of advanced planning. Like in a movie they have back-stories for all the characters.

Jaime: I knew creating a series it was on my side. I thought the continuity would come as it went along. I've made a few mistakes – getting dates wrong, or getting a person wrong – when they did something or what they said. Stuff like that. Every once in a while I make a mistake, and then sometimes I have to do a whole story that clears that up. Kind of, "Yes, that's what they said, but this is what actually happened.

Mark: It kind of creates an opportunity then, for you to come up with a way to…

Jaime: And sometimes it's created really good stories from that. I go, "Hey! There's going to be a whole story from that!"

Mark: When you started out doing these stories, I'm sure that you weren't expecting them to be compiled in a big anthology. Do you think you would have done this differently if you would have done it as one big book?

Jaime: I can't work that far ahead in the future. My brother Gilbert can. He has stories going years down the road. I can't think that far. I think more in hundred-page increments instead of 700 pages. Of course I always dreamed that, "One day these will all be put together in one big book. One big novel." But I can't make myself do it like that, like, say, an artist like Seth who's got his whole big book planned so it all has the same flow. And that's fine for someone like him because that's his style. But I'd just bore myself to death if it was one length of 500 pages.

Mark: I'm interested in hearing about your process of writing and drawing and how you prepare a new story. Can you describe that to me?

Jaime: It's rare that I actually have a story in my head. I have events or "what's the next move?" Like, Maggie, where's she going to go in this story, where's she going to end up? Then the story has to fill in the in-between, and that comes as I'm starting it. Usually when I actually start, I'll have four pages written. While I'm doing it, the gears are turning — "Oh! I can send her this way!" And then sometimes by the end of the story, I've forgotten what the original idea was. It keeps me from getting bored. If I knew what a story was from the first panel to the last panel, by the second page, I'd be so bored. So I'm constantly surprising myself.

Mark: Kind of discovering it as you're doing it.

Jaime: Yeah, and it keeps my interested all the times.

Mark: Do you do little roughs of the pages or do you just go straight to the Bristol board?

Jaime: I never did thumbnails, I used to write a script, more like the dialog. And then chop it up and take it from there. Lately I'll write dialog on the paper and go directly to the Bristol board and rewrite on the Bristol board. I get out a blank page and have notes written on the side.

Mark: One thing I think you do really well is panels that have no dialog at all. And you usually use those in scenes that have a strong emotional impact. How did you come up with that?

Jaime: Pretty much using old tricks from comics, how they got emotion across. Some character going somewhere and then they stop and go, "huh." It's a panel that sets the mood for what's coming after.

There were really talented kids' artists who did stuff like that; who kind of storyboarded it so that it perfectly moved. And then I learned from my own brothers. Gilbert – I learned a lot from Gilbert about storytelling; just watching him as a kid. And he got the same comics we were reading. There was a writer who did Little Archie comics and he just wrote the best sentimental little kid stories. He just had a great feel for them. He was basically one guy that we patterned our way of storytelling. His name is Bob Bolling. He's old now and he's finally getting back all the praise from people who he influenced or who read his work as kids and thought "this is just kid stuff." It's really terrific storytelling. The pacing and he was able to make the world as seen through kids' eyes. I would say as far as storytelling he was the biggest influence.

Mark: I was also going to say that other cartoonists who remind me a little bit of your work and might have been an influence were Hank Ketchum and John Stanley, who did Little Lulu. Certainly compared to superhero comics and underground comics, yours have much more of a link to those guys, and Carl Barks a little bit too.

Jaime: Sure. All those guys just knew how to take simple kids' stories and just draw you in; make you part of it. Hank Ketchum was just such a superb artist that his pictures alone carried it. Even his ghost artist who did his comic books. A guy named Owen Fitzgerald, who was an old animator who drew in the Ketchum style, and he was such a superb cartoonist that his mood and the way he drew bodies standing; the posturing of the characters, was just amazing. And he was fast; it was really fast work. He had it down. He was just amazing.

Mark: Do you have the old Dennis the Menaces that you used to read?

Jaime: Oh yeah. Over the years going to the comic conventions I just peruse the old boxes. I ended up with a whole collection of stuff I wanted. And then there's Hank Ketchum himself. I collect his pocket books.

Mark: The single panel gags?

Jaime: Amazing art. And a lot of people didn't get where we were coming from when we'd say, "Nobody draws like Hank Ketchum!" They say, "That silly Dennis the Menace comic?" We'd go "Yeah, but you're not looking at what's really beyond that. He was a master!"

Mark: Talking about Hank Ketchum's posing and the characters body placement – that's something that's really one of your strong points to and I'm interested in hearing how you developed that ability. Did you spend a lot of time in life drawing classes?

Jaime: Long enough. I had a really good life drawing class in junior college. Really old cranky guy, I had him for three semesters and he was a really cool teacher. People say "Well, what did he do?" and I'll think back and say "I don't know – I don't remember!" I just remember I went in there and came out this whole other artist.

Mark: Do you remember any rules he told you? Like some people say "Squint."

Jaime: One thing he'd do was exercises where a model would get into a position and he'd say "Go!" And we'd just scribble what their body would look like. And then the next time it would be a slower drawing – it would be thirty seconds. I guess it was just getting you in the movement and to be fluid. I just remember his main piece of advice was, "The only way to learn to draw is to draw."  And that makes sense. Just draw.

Mark: Since you started the first Love & Rockets, has comics been your only job?

Jaime: My main job. I've done illustration on the side. But other than that comics have been my main things.

Mark:  Do you do much commercial art now?

Jaime: For money. When I need money.

Mark: And what kind of clients are they?

Jaime: I've done stuff for the New Yorker. I've done record covers occasionally. I used to work for Hustler. It's a lot different, though, from what I do. You've got editors, so… My [Love and Rocket] editors are just like, "When's a new comic coming up?" – "Uh, you'll get it soon!" [Laughs]

Mark: How does your relationship work with the Fantagraphics guys?

Jaime: Pretty easy. When we first started, they picked up our self-published copy we did, and they said, "can we publish this?" We said OK, and from then on, the editor and publisher, Gary Groth, he kind of knew that we knew what we wanted. Early on he'd try to put in his two cents once in a while, but he eventually found that he was kind of getting in the way. We just had this vision of where we wanted to go and he didn't want to get in the way of that. I'm glad he gave us that freedom and he handled the other part, the publishing. And it's been that way ever since. Once in a while they'll talk to us and say, "How long are you going with this story?" And I'll start to think, "Well, if I do this one too long, sales may drop because it's continued and it's confusing people," things like that.

Mark:  Do you think that your sales are affected because you don't have it coming out once every month or every two months?

Jaime: I don't know because we've never been that fast. I don't know if it would pick up right away. When we decided to end it at fifty issues, we said, "We're going to quit. We're done." People woke up and said "Why? Why?" and these were people who were not buying it. But they want Love & Rockets to always be there. "Why are you quitting?" "Well, for one thing, you guys aren't reading it any more!"

Mark: Now that you are in your 40s and your characters have aged along with you, have the things that have happened to you as you've grown older played a large part in the way you look at the world.

Jaime: I do really pay attention how life is in the mid-40s and how it affects them. Even if we try not to live life by this timeline, we do.  You're at a certain age where you say, "Where do I go from here? Do I want a family? By the time I'm this old, do I want a house?" Things like that. When you're younger, you don't think about that stuff, and some people are forced to think about it. It doesn't work out that well for some people. And so, so that's what I think about a lot. I think about which of my characters are going to slide into old age gracefully and which ones are going to go in kicking and screaming. That's an important point in my work right now. That's one of the things I think about a lot. "Ok, I'm doing a character here, where are they going? They're this age, they should be at this point, or maybe not, why aren't they? Why aren't they married and have kids?"

Mark: Obviously you know from having a kid how it changes your life in a huge way. Does that change things for your characters?

Jaime: It does. That's part of what I think about when I think about characters getting older. I've shied away from kids a little bit, because I kind of need my characters free still. And judging from the past, you can take sitcoms. When the couple has a baby the show is over — they couldn't go anywhere. Even a show like I Love Lucy that was successful at having a kid — there were a lot of episodes where they'd say, "I'll ask Mrs. Strumble to take care of the baby." And you never see Little Ricky; and they run off to their adventure. I think about that a lot. I think, "Maybe Maggie will have a baby." Well if she has a baby this thing's going in a totally different direction, and am I ready for that? So I cheat and I make secondary characters have babies that I don't show that much. There's ways to make it work with a kid, but it's hard. Doing it in a way that interests readers is really tricky. I'm preparing myself for it, because eventually something has to give. I see what happens to old friends that never ended up having families and they're older and  they're still living alone and some of them pretend to like it and some of them admit they're miserable or they're still lost and they're like, "I've got gray hairs and I'm still a kid."

Mark: It's interesting to see how your lettering style has evolved. Your earlier lettering was slanted and scratchier. Was that a conscious decision?

Jaime: The only change I've ever made with my lettering was that I made it straight up because that's how comics were. When we had it slanted, someone, I think Gilbert, pointed out, "You know, they don't slant comic lettering." I went, "They don't? OK." and I just went straight up. And I've always kept it loose the way it is, because I was too impatient to try to make it neat. So I kind of try to develop my style so it's loose so when I letter it's almost like I'm doing it with a pencil.

Mark: Do you use the same pen nib for lettering as you do for drawing?

Jaime: No, I use a Rapidograph.

Mark: Are there still things that you're challenged with drawing?

Jaime: Everything is hard but people. To this day, everything is hard to draw. And cigarettes. Drawing a car is a total pain.

Mark: Do you use photo references for a car?

Jaime: No I think I should because every time I copy something I can draw it for the rest of my life. But research is so painful – I mean just opening up a magazine looking for a picture of a car or looking out the window looking for a car is just hard!

Mark: One other thing that I like is that your presentation is very clean and direct. And you don't have odd geometric panels and stuff like that. Was that a conscious decision to present your stories in a straightforward manner?

Jaime: Yeah, I always wanted the action and the characters to create the tension or whatever. And the borders were just like your movie screen or TV screen. I don't know what made me decide that but it might have been I didn't want to worry about layout that way, that the layouts were an afterthought because after I gad three panels on a page, after I already had art on the page, so the layout came at the end of the page instead of the beginning.

Mark: Can you appreciate people who do creative things with panels?

Jaime: Yeah,  I guess so but you know, I kind of like my stories straightforward. I prefer panel to panel to panel. If they stretch it I thought since I was a kid, "Oh, they're trying to be groovy." Maybe it's something in my personality; it just never impressed me. Like the late '60s when comics tried to catch up with "pop art." And they started doing weird things with the panels.  I think its fun sometimes, but it's never clear.

Mark: Do you read Chris Ware's work?

Jaime: Uh, sometimes. To tell you the truth, it's hard.

Mark: Yeah, it's hard for me, too.

Jaime: Yeah, it's work and I get lazy. It's like I don't want to read it anymore. This is not slighting his talent, the guy is very talented. The work is really hard and that's not the main thing I'm looking for when I'm reading something.

Mark: What cartoonists working today do you admire?

Jaime: All of them (laughs). I don't buy hardly anything. I don't know much. As a matter of fact, I have a cartoonist fried who is in town who fills me in on what's new. I don't know any of these people. They're a different generation because they're taking a different turn. I still come from a comics generation. And they're coming from an alternative comics generation. And I notice a lot, they're leaning more toward fine art. Comics as art. I do comics as comics, and my opportunity to tell stories. Simple. Basic. Let the characters have the excitement, not the package. That's where I come from.