This book began the moment I decided as a kid to read and reread one comic book and not another. It began when I decided to cross-dress as a Mexican luchador (wrestler) and as some sort of Superman-Batman mix.
It began the moment that comic book storyworlds allowed me to imagine myself battling foes, indulging in superhuman feats, surmounting gigantesque obstacles, and overcoming looming fears; it began the moment I could step into other worlds and feel another's pain and pleasure; it began the moment I experienced a certain delight in putting together storylines, character attributes, and scenic detail.
This books contains interviews with a number of comic book author-artists, and most of them are not garden-variety enthusiasts, ComiCon aficionados, suburban hipsters, or Marvel fetishist types; they are Latinos who in one way or another were exposed to and enthralled by comic books and comic strips at an early age; some, like Los Bros Hernandez, had ready access to their mother's stacks, and others, like Rafael Navarro, had tíos (uncles) with comic book treasure troves.
Studies on comic books seem always to begin in the confessional mode. As the author of a book on Latino comics, then, let me continue to indulge this impulse. Years before developing a hunger for novels and a taste in authors—as a teenager I would return again and again to García Márquez and Salman Rushdie—I had already begun to develop a discerning taste for comics. I was not drawn to the daily or Sunday funny strips, nor to Archie, Casper, and Richie Rich—some favorites among my friends. No, I unabashedly liked the hypermasculine Anglo characters as well as the quick lines of movement and color splashes of the superhero comic. More specifically, I was into those superheroes whose muscles were self-sculpted, whose talents were self-engineered, and who kicked ass outside the law: Batman and the super-hunk Captain Marvel. I also preferred those that were set in a recognizable everyday earthscape—not in some never-never land. This is to say, at an early age I knew I was more a Marvel than a DC guy. At this point I have to confess that ethnic and gendered representational distortions—superhero as Anglo versus supervillain as dark, disfigured, effeminate, "alien" Other—hadn't yet become part of my evaluative vocabulary.
An attraction to those adventuring and self-chiseled superheroes makes up only part of my comic book confessional. Along with U.S. superheroes, I was drawn to Mexican luchadors, especially wrestlers like El Santo and Blue Demon. After various border crossings to visit relatives in Mexico, as well as weekend trips to the local flea market, I would transform into some type of hybrid superhero: blue tights, red shorts, cape, and luchador mask. Superpower battles, rescues, and romances were the order of the day.
While the superhero-luchador sartorial wear was eventually socked away in a bottom drawer (my superpowers were deflated the day I was called a sissy) and the comic books were boxed, this world never fully disappeared. As an adult, I continue to reserve viewings of film adaptations of comic books (no matter how cheesy) as occasions to bond with my father. Generational divides fall by the wayside (he grew up in Mexico City in the '50s) when we share stories of originals versus newly interpreted versions of Batman, The Phantom, Flash Gordon, The Hulk, and many others.
In college, word-of-mouth enthusiasm sent me back to the comic books themselves. Three titles visually caught my eye and piqued my intellectual interest: Los Bros Hernandez's Love and Rockets, Pat Mills and Carlos Ezquerra's Third World War, and Ivan Velez Jr.'s Blood Syndicate. One way or another, they were all visually dynamic and textually raw, presenting sophisticated narratives of everyday and epic-dimensioned struggles of characters of all colors, sexual orientations, and walks of life. I knew impressionistically then what I practice now: the study and teaching of comic books.
Even as preverbal children, we notice the interplay between vibrant visuals and word markings on a page. Whether or not we understand the words, we infer and interpret, creating meaning. We have little control over those black markings; their interpretation is left to big people. Then arrives that wondrous moment when we can decipher meaning from those black marks; when we are dazzled by how the visuals and the verbal elements create magnificent narrative choreographs. For many of those interviewed in this book—and for me—this verbal-visual bedazzlement occurred in a first encounter with the comic book or comic strip. It also marked an awakening and sharpening of taste—a rudimentary liking for a certain graphic and lettering style as well as for character and plot. In my day, such a taste led to pocket money being saved for those family outings to the flea market; it meant hours of relishing readings and rereadings of stories I chose to keep, trade, or lend. For the many Latino and Latina comic book and comic strip author-artists heard here, this was a first step in determining which worlds they wanted to imagine and inhabit—which selves they might want to try on for a spell.
As I suggest, and as the Latino author-artists interviewed here forcefully attest, comic books don't go away. They are with you always. They are not, as some suggest, part of a childhood phase; for adults, comic books can stimulate imagination and emotion as much as other storytelling forms. Of course, in the United States (but not in countries like Mexico, France, or Spain), there remains a straightjacket around comic books: they are strictly the domain of young people, and those adults who still gravitate toward their storytelling forms are presumed to suffer from some sort of arrested development. Typically, the novel is considered the domain of the adult, and the comic book that of the child or adolescent; accordingly, the "normal" formative trajectory would mean graduating from comic books to novels. (For an extended discussion of this topic, see Comic Book Nation by Bradford W. Wright.)
Many of us read comic books as adults—and not just out of nostalgia for bygone days. We pick up a comic book for the same reasons we might a novel, a short story, or a DVD film. Comic books and comic strips can be as aesthetically complex, self-aware, and emotively engaging as the next storytelling form; and, conversely, they can be as uninteresting, sophomorically self-absorbed, and flat as the next.
Comic books and comic strips are in the storytelling air we breathe. Just as authors can choose from a vast number of storytelling forms—telenovela to metafiction, newsstand Hola! to Internet short story, to you name it—so, too, can readers choose which form to interface with. And this is the case for all interested readers: Latino and non-Latino women and men, children, adults, and the elderly.
Certainly, one's options may be more or less limited depending on where and when one lives; historical time periods, geographic regions, and cultural contexts affect exposure and choice. If my father had been reading comic books in the United States during the dark era of censorship in the 1950s, instead of in Mexico, he would have had only a sliver of the storyworld experiences that he did have. And, while less so than in my father's day, still today in Mexico City people of all walks of life and in all parts of the city read all sorts of comic books.
This said, I don't ascribe here to the position that comic books are the shapers of history; that they are a discourse that constructs thought, action, and our sense of self; or that their value as an area of scholarly study lies in their uncovering of so-called discursive (historical, cultural, social) forces that intersect to shape the self and society (see Wright, Comic Book Nation, and William W. Savage Jr., Comic Books and America, 1945-1954).
Comic books don't float free in some ethereal platonic space. Like all cultural phenomena, they are produced and circulate within specific social and historical material conditions. They are not, in my opinion, agents of transformation of their material contexts, however. They can, of course, be manipulated in ways that restrict or unleash the imagination. In the 1960s, the U.S. comic book market struggled back to life after its near death at the hands of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency and the testimony of psychologist Fredric Wertham, who claimed that the lifestyle of Batman and his "young boy friend" Robin express "the wish dream of two homosexuals living together" (Seduction of the Innocent, 190).
Largely as a result of the continuing struggle to publish and to shake off the shackles of the Comics Code Authority—a self-regulating board established in 1954 to ensure that only comics that taught good values and morals would be published—by the early 1970s the comic book as an art form found strong expression in what we call the "underground" comic. Comic books could now tell any kind of story—from the most mundane and autobiographical to the most impressionistic and zany-wild—and in the most individualized styles; the comic book conveyer belt gave way to the comic book auteur. During the 1980s and 1990s, under the influence of the "alternative" comics, the Marvel and DC conveyor belts began to churn out revisioned worlds and newly conflicted and psychologically complex characters: racial, gender, ethnic, and sexual concerns entered into the mainstream fray. The format itself shape-shifted: book-length narratives (or "graphic novels") began elbowing the single-issue comic off the shelves.
With these twists and turns in the storytelling form in the '80s and '90s, the opening up of readerly canons, and the pounding on publishers' doors by the author-artists themselves, a path began to clear for the creation and production of Latino comic books and comic strips. As the twenty-one interviewees discuss, great strides have been made. That there is enough material for a book on Latino comics says a lot. Yet the Latino author-artists here also temper their enthusiasm with a sobering sense that the struggle is not over. While much representational turf has been won, there is still much work that needs to be done.
In the Latino graphic narratives, a whole field of artistic accomplishment is being built before our very eyes. Comic books appeared in the United States in the 1890s, and their so-called golden age—at least for those of the mainstream variety—took place between the 1930s and the 1950s. Now, in the twenty-first century, ethnic comics, and particularly their Latino components, are witnessing the arrival of their own golden age.
This is a book about storytelling by Latinos in comic books and comic strips. My exploration is divided into three sections. The first section offers a general view of the subject; the second details how Latino author-artists use and transcend the techniques of mainstream comics to reach the cognitive and emotional faculties of their reader-viewers. This second section looks at a variety of ways in which these author-artists use and fashion anew devices that allow reader-viewers to imagine in particular ways vibrant four-dimensional spaces from markings on a page. The third section prolongs this gesture by offering interviews that allow the artist-authors themselves to express their views on their trade, on their conceptions of the world and human life, on their working techniques, and on the ways they intend to engage their public. This is but the beginning in the texturing of a full and rich picture of Latino comic books—and their authors-artists and reader-viewers.