D2D Interview: Jaime Hernandez

When we think of high art—as in the type of stuff that hangs in museums—we think of paintings, or sculptures, or maybe even craftsmanship. Few people I know would think about comics in that same light. The same goes for high literature. When we think of the world's great novels, we think of Dickens, Hemingway, or Joyce, but we rarely put comics into the canon of great writing and character development. For those who know the work of the Hernandez brothers, however, comics might be one of the first mediums they think of. The comics drawn by Jaime, Gilbert, and Mario are far beyond the occasional Sunday chuckle; they're among some of the great artistic works of the last three decades. Jaime's Hopper world in particular depicts the realities of youth—based around two female characters: Maggie and Hopey—centered in Southern California's emerging punk scene of the late 70s/early 80s. The brothers' collaborative work, Love & Rockets, isn't merely a collection of stories about superheroes or talking dogs, it's something entirely more cutting edge. Their ability to draw intriguing images and simultaneously script engaging and layered stories of complex and relatable characters, was something that completely took the medium by storm upon its initial launch and continues to impact new artists today.

The Times of London once wrote: "The rough-edged Latin American minimalist, stylized black and white comic strips have been widely described as the graphic equivalent to the fabulism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel laureate.”

The LA Weekly once printed: “Jaime’s Maggie and Gilbert’s Luba are two of the great characters in contemporary American fiction.”

It was in the early 1980s that the three brothers first banded together to create their own original series of drawings and helped spawn a new renaissance of underground comics. First published in 1982, the Love & Rockets series is today heralded as one of the finest of the genre, influencing a whole new generation of artists and illustrators to pick up the gauntlet the brothers had reluctantly laid down. Jaime and his brother Gilbert are so good at what they do, they've been called the Lennon and McCartney of comics—both artists with incredbile solo potential, but who work even more brilliantly together. Yet, because they draw comics rather than write novels, their names might not have been added to your book club's required reading list. But that hasn't stopped critics from lauding their incredible work along the same literary standard.

Rolling Stone called Love & Rockets: "American fiction’s best-kept secret.”

Salon named it: "A national treasure."

The Washington Post once wrote: “Love and Rockets is a high point in the comics form, conventional in idiom, but not comparable to any strips before it.”

Still don't know who the Hernandez brothers are? Well, if this wasn't enough of an introduction, our 2015 edition of Faultline Gin (along with a couple of other special Faultline releases) will showcase the work of Jaime Hernandez later on this summer and give you an even better idea of his talents. We've commissioned three labels from the acclaimed artist to adorn our bottles of St. George-distilled spirits; making the project easily the coolest thing we've ever done as a company. But before all that action goes down this year, I figured it might be nice to learn a bit more about one of the most dynamic figures in comic history (and about his drinking habits).

In this edition of Drinking to Drink, we talk about how the Hernandez brothers got started on their comic journey, how Jaime's love of beer and punk rock inspired his work, and what happens at the end of Comic-Con when all the artists end up together at the hotel bar. Previous editions of the D2D series can be found by clicking here, or by visiting the archive in the right hand margin of this page.

David: Can you tell me a bit about how you and your brothers started drawing comics?

Jaime: It started that we were drawing comics for ourselves. By the time we got out of high school and needed to think of our future, all we wanted to do was comics. We just tried to see where we could get published and then one day we said, “Fuck it, let’s do our own comic.” We printed up our own version of Love & Rockets and then we got picked up pretty quick by our publisher Fantographics. It’s been that way since.

David: How did you come up with the name Love & Rockets? Everyone thinks the boys from Bauhaus came up with that name for their rock band, but really they took it from you and your brothers.

Jaime: My brother Gilbert came up with that. He was just putting titles together when we were putting the comic together. He gave us the choice of two or three. He said, “What do you think of this one, or this one?” My other brother Mario and I said, “We like Love & Rockets,” and he said, “OK.” He said that he wanted to mix emotion with technology, so that was basically where it came from.

David: How difficult was it to get picked up with your own original artwork? This was all pre-internet, without so many of the communication and marketing methods we now take for granted.

Jaime: There was no alternative market, and there was no DIY thing going. I think undergrounds were still around, but there wasn’t really an alternative comic scene at the time. We were naïve to just do the comic the way we wanted to—partly because we were just cocky and young. We had no idea how the market worked. In those days, you were either Marvel or DC. We weren’t looking that far into the future, hoping that something would come about; not really putting our lives on the line or anything, just thinking, “God, I just want to be published.” I never thought about it being my job or anything. Fantographics at the time were just starting to publish their own comics, so they were kinda in the same boat. It was like, “Here we go, let’s see what we can do.” We just wanted to do comics that weren’t Marvel or DC.

David: What was the reaction when you first got published from the general marketplace?

Jaime: It was very supportive, in a small way. They said, “This is an interesting comic.” We were supported a lot by the mainstream—the Marvel and DC—artists because, like I said, there was no real alternative market to back us up. They thought, “Hey, these guys are good. Maybe they’ll work for us one day” (laughs). But we had to plan to do that. The minute we were published, I thought, “I’ve made it. I get to do the comics I want to.” I never thought of it as a stepping stone to the next thing, like maybe one day I’ll draw Spiderman.

David: When you look back at the people who have been successful at anything, it’s always to people who stuck to what they knew and what they loved, rather than those who tried to be something they weren’t. Was there never any doubt in your mind?

Jaime: By that time there wasn’t. If I would have done it five years before, who knows where I’d be? It was the right timing. I was cocky, young, and a punk rocker! It was like I had nothing to lose, really.

David: When I was younger, cockier, and into music, I would sit around drinking beer all day while listening to albums. Did you and your brothers sit around and drink beer while drawing comics?

Jaime: Yeah, in the beginning we would say, “Hey, let’s go to Mario’s house and take a twelve pack.” Then we would just sit around and say, “Hey, don’t forget about the comic. We’re doing the comic,” (laughs). We were all influenced by movies and music, it all belonged. It was all part of what we did. It’s weird, but even the stuff I didn’t like—the bands I hated, or the movies I didn’t like—it all still kinda belonged in this big plan I had to tell stories.

David: Was drinking part of the ritual, or did it distract you from drawing?

Jaime: It depended. A lot of times I would go out with friends, go see a band, drink, then come home and go, “Argghh…..I’m gonna go draw!” Then I would start inking, but I’d be shitfaced!

David: Were you able to work under those conditions? (laughs)

Jaime: Sometimes, but I don’t remember a lot of it actually. But that was the fun part. I went to see a band. I got drunk. I came home. I drew. It was very simple and a lot of fun. Beer had a lot to do with my whole life at the time. Even when I was in bands, we always had the six-pack while we were practicing. We’d play a two minute song, then when it ended we would take a drink, then we would start the next song.

David: And that ended up being part of what you drew, right? You were depicting the world around you—the punks, the music—that became a part of the world in your comics.

Jaime: Sure, my Hoppers world is basically my Oxnard world, where I grew up.

David: I read an interview that you did recently where you talked about the difficulties in aging your characters over the years. Did you find it harder to relate to them as you yourself got older?

Jaime: I kept a lot of it separate on purpose. I was doing women mostly. I’m not a woman (laughs), so I had to constantly observe what was going on. My life was boring compared to my comic. The things around me were exciting, but if were to draw an autobiographical comic…boy…it would just sit there. I would run out of ideas in the first issue.

David: Who were you observing to get ideas? What did you do for inspiration?

Jaime: Friends, going to shows and watching the punks hang out, and watching how the punks interacted with the real world. Also just hanging out with my friends in Oxnard, or in LA. Just watching how we related to the rest of the world, which was pretty interesting at times, and sometimes very normal. I still had my old buddies I grew up with, and none of them became punks, but we stayed friends. We’d still get drunk together and stuff like that.

David: Did that change as your comic became more successful?

Jaime: Only that success allowed me to do the thing that I loved. It was pretty simple. I wanted to draw comics. They were going to let me draw comics. OK, cool.

David: When did you know that you had made it as an artist? When you started getting fan mail? When a group of post-punk rockers in England named their band after your comic?

Jaime: As far as I was concerned, I made it after we did the first issue because that was exactly what I had wanted to do. As far as attention, I remember Fantographics calling and saying, “Channel 4 News wants to interview you.” And we all said, “Wow, that’s kinda cool. What are we going to say?” Then I remember later that day, there was a show called Two on the Town—it was a local show at the time that would say, “Today let’s visit this part of LA”, and that kind of thing. We heard that they wanted to do an interview as well, and we all said, “Two in one day!” Later that night, one of my other publishers called me up and said, “Hey, Exene (Cervenka) from X likes your comic, man. She just sent a postcard.” And that’s when I started saying, “OK, what’s going on here?” It had all happened in one day, so I remember thinking, “I don’t know if I can handle this!” Looking back I think it was cool, but I remember being floored—almost like, “Leave me alone! I just want to draw my comics!” It was the attention trickling in here and there, it made me think, “These people like me. I’m accepted.”

David: Did you ever go out and grab drinks with these people after you became more successful? Were you more social because of that success?

Jaime: I stayed mainly within my own circles, but every once and a while someone who was a fan would want to have lunch or have a drink. It mainly happened at comic conventions, when we started doing that. After the show was over, you’d go out, have dinner, and have drinks. We’d be approached that way. I remember at the San Diego Con, there were two guys with backstage passes who approached us. They came back and shook our hands and said, “We’re with The Flaming Lips.”

David: No way! They’re one of my all-time favorite groups.

Jaime: I remember thinking, “Oh, they’re with the band. These must be their roadies,” (laughs). I hung out for about an hour with these guys, and I never knew they were actually the guys in the band. A week later, I figured it out. I slapped my head and said, “Fuck!”

David: Did it make you uncomfortable that all of these artists liked your work?

Jaime: No, it was flattering. Someone who also does art in their own way, a lot of them way more famous than me, appreciating what I do—it was very comforting. I thought it was cool feeling we like were all part of the same goal.

David: That’s how I feel working on this project with you. Not just the interview, but the thing we’re doing together with St. George and Frontier Records. Doing interesting concepts with alcohol that involve pop culture has been exhilarating for me. Even though everyone drinks at all these rock shows, or art exhibits, or movie screenings, no one considers the art of the alcohol as part of the scene. What did you think when Lisa from Frontier asked if you would do the labels for us?

Jaime: I thought it was very cool! I liked the twist. I thought, “I’ve never designed a booze label before.” I didn’t know if I could pull it off. Years ago I finally convinced myself that instead of getting nervous or feeling out of place when people ask me for things, I need to think, “Hey, they want me. They want what I do.” That makes me feel a lot more comfortable and less intimidated when I can work on something outside of my comics.

David: I hope you enjoy the liquid that eventually goes into these bottles. Are you still primarily a beer guy?

Jaime: Yeah, mostly. Every once and a while a Margarita, or some shots if we’re celebrating. I don’t drink as much as I did when I was younger. The most I probably drink these days is when I’m invited to a convention. When the show’s over, after dinner when we’re looking for the bar to hangout. A lot of times when you’re trapped in this little convention world, it’s just you and the people who are there. Your friends have been decided for you, and you kind of mix at the end of the day. You drink pints until you can’t stand anymore because the bar is in the hotel, and all you have to do is take an elevator (laughs).

David: Who are your heroes in the industry? Who are the people you wished you could have met at a convention and had a drink with?

Jaime: All the old guys. Jack Kirby, for example. They were all old men by the time I got into comics and now they’re gone. But at the same time, hanging with my contemporaries like Dan Clowes, or Charles Burns, or Peter Bagge, and allthese guys who started at the same time we did. I only really get to see them at conventions because we live so far apart. It was funny because a lot of times the comic conventions were really sad or unattended, but just having my buddies there was enough—which I guess was even more of a reason to go to the bar afterward!

David: Do you ever get to have drinks with the people you don’t know?

Jaime: Not always, and I wish I could because sometimes I just go and say hi, and I wish I could get a drink with them so that I could be more relaxed around these people.

David: Do you find that drinking relaxes you and allows you to open up?

Jaime: Yeah, I was raised on social drinking. When I was a teenager, I would go with my little brother and my friend and get a six pack. We would have two cans each (laughs). We would do it to get drunk because it was cool. Then it was going to parties and punk gigs. It was rare that I had a drink by myself. It was always a social thing. When I did drink by myself, when I couldn’t find any friends to hang out with, I would get a six-pack and watch TV and get so depressed! Now I could handle it, but back then it was depressing. That’s when I realized that drinking went along with socializing for me, and I guess for most people.

David: What do you say to people who still ask: “Oh, you named your comic after that famous English band?”

Jaime: They stopped asking after a while. It’s our name, man! I know the guy who came up with it!

David: When it comes to the real Love & Rockets legacy, what are you most proud of as an artist?

Jaime: That to the best of my ability, I was able to tell it like it is. I was able to show Southern California culture—and Southern California punk culture—in a true light. Part of the reason we did this comic was to correct all the stereotypes you would see on TV from people who didn’t actually live the stuff. We would see punks on CHIPS or on Quincy, and we would think, “Man, you still got it wrong.” In comics, it was even worse. There were a lot of old cartoonists who knew nothing about rock and roll. They would draw bands and I would think, “That’s not what a band looks like. The way that guy’s playing the guitar—what the hell is that?” We tried to correct that stuff. We tried to do it the way that it actually was. Bringing more truth to comics is what I’m most proud of.

David: Did other people ever contest your interpretation?

Jaime: Yeah, I remember when I started to get my detractors. They would say, “Love & Rockets isn’t realistic,” and I would say, “No, it isn’t realistic, but it’s truthful.”

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll