As box office figures can attest, comic books are big business, with successful cinematic adaptations proving that superheroes have made the leap from pop cultural niche to mainstream entertainment. Despite their wide appeal, however, comic books, at least the established titles that usually become big screens franchises, are still predominantly filled with white, male characters, especially in leading roles. A new exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach, “Artists Assemble! Empowerment and Inspiration in Contemporary Comics,” aims to challenge that narrative by focusing on mainly Latino artists who are using the medium to explore cultural and political issues that have meaning for them.
The first mainstream Latino comic superhero was White Tiger -- the alter ego of a Puerto Rican character named Hector Ayala -- who first appeared in a December 1975 issue of Marvel’s “Deadly Hands of Kung Fu.” Created by writer Bill Mantlo and artist George Pérez, himself of Puerto Rican descent, White Tiger was a product of both the martial arts craze and increasing multicultural awareness of the 1970s. He fought for justice alongside Spider-Man and Daredevil before being gunned down while trying to flee a wrongful murder conviction. (His sister and niece would later pick up his mantle as later incarnations of the White Tiger).
It wasn’t until the independent and alternative comic boom of the ‘80s and ‘90s, however, that Latino creators and characters began to be seen on a wider scale. Some of the most influential artists from the period were three Mexican-American brothers from Oxnard, California -- Gilbert, Jaime and Mario Hernandez -- whose series “Love and Rockets” reflected their personal experiences, as opposed to the fantasy lives of superheroes. “It was wanting to tell personal stories, so it was basically our upbringing, and then also, ‘Hey, this stuff’s not in comics. Let’s show them our version,’” Jaime told the AV Club in 2012. “We’re from Southern California, and all they’re seeing is one side of it. They’re seeing the beach and stuff like that. ‘Well, let’s show them this side of it. Let’s show them how punk is from my personal stance. Let’s show them how being a Mexican in Southern California is.’”
Through multiple story lines, “Love and Rockets” explored the lives of everyday people -- including Latinos, punks, and queers -- in the fictional towns of Palomar in Mexico and Hoppers outside of Los Angeles. Two of the main characters, Margarita Luisa "Maggie" Chascarrillo and Esperanza "Hopey" Leticia Glass, were not only Latinas, but also occasional lovers, groundbreaking when the comic debuted in 1981.
“In the ‘90s, besides 'Love and Rockets,' I started seeing that there were other Mexican-American cartoonists self-publishing their own comics,” says artist Javier Hernandez (no relation to the Hernandez brothers). “That inspired me in ‘98 to put out my first book. Since you're creating your own character, working for yourself, you can do whatever you want. I wanted to make sure I did something with Mexican culture. That's how I came up with the concept of El Muerto.” “El Muerto: The Aztec Zombie” tells the story of Diego de la Muerte who is on his way to a Dia de los Muertos celebration when he is abducted, sacrificed, and granted supernatural powers by Aztec gods. The comic was adapted into a live-action film starring Wilmer Valderrama in 2007.
Hernandez credits the independent comic book boom with giving him and other Latino artists and writers the freedom to explore themes that had relevance for them. “I could own my own thing, without having to give into editorial or marketing concerns. By the ‘90s a lot of Latino creators were thinking of creating their own works, based on things they wanted to talk about and not so much just getting in line and trying to work on [a mainstream series].”
In addition to creating his own books, Hernandez is also the co-founder of the Latino Comics Expo, which will be celebrating its fifth anniversary at MOLAA on August 6-7. A number of years ago, Hernandez and fellow artist Ricardo Padilla were bemoaning delays surrounding the construction of the Mexican Museum in San Francisco. “I said, ‘I can't do anything about a museum, but why don't we put together a Latino comics expo?’” Hernandez says. “He said, ‘What's that?’ and I had to think about it. ‘Well I guess it'll be a comic convention where we showcase Latino/Latina creators.’ It was born almost out of a whim, but by then I had spent so many years in the comic biz and I had met so many other Latino creators, and I’d seen the fan base out there. To me it just seemed like a logical thing.”
The motivation for “Artists Assemble!” grew out of the Latino Comics Expo, as a way to explore in more depth many of the artists and themes featured in the fair, including not just sketches and completed comics, but sculptures, paintings, and video art. “We wanted to focus on artists that were just emerging, and on women as well, because there are a lot of males, and a lot of white males, but not enough females, and particularly Latinas, in the comic book world,” says Esperanza Sánchez, who co-curated the exhibition with Naiela Santana.
These include New York-based artist Stephanie Rodriguez, whose autobiographical mini-comic “No Te Hagas La Pendeja” (loosely translated as “Don’t be a Dumbass”), follows Rodriguez as she navigates life as an American teen with a strict Latino mother. The panels are at once hilarious and cringe-inducing, channeling universal adolescent anxieties with a specific Latina bent. Kat Fajardo’s “Gringa!” similarly chronicles her “personal struggle with cultural identity through assimilation, racism, and the fetishization of Latin culture as an American Latina.”
“A lot of these artists were very politically driven, so when they were given the opportunity to tell these stories, they were telling stories about immigration, about growing up undocumented, about being queer in Latino culture,” says Gabriela Martínez, curator of education at MOLAA. Take for instance, Eric J. Garcia from Chicago who expands on the strict comic format, creating murals, paintings, sculptures and biting political cartoons with his “El Machete Illustrated” series. “I try to visually examine the versions of ‘American’ history that have been overlooked, whitewashed or flat out deleted,” he says on his website.
In addition to Latino/a artists in the U.S., the show features artists from Latin America who have developed their own styles, often influenced by mainstream U.S. comics, but clearly independent. Miguel Det from Peru stylistically cites colonial illustrations in his “Newest Chronicle and Bad Government” to link recent political misconduct and violence in his country to historical precedents. It borrows aesthetically from Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala's early 17th century illustrated chronicle “The First New Chronicle and Good Government,” which documented the harsh treatment of natives from the Andes by the Spaniards. Det’s visually rich and often disturbing panels offer a scathing indictment of corruption and injustice.
Perhaps the most established “fine artists” in the exhibition are Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Enrique Chagoya, whose “Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol” also borrows from colonial-era documents, such as illustrations from Bartolomé de las Casa’s 16th century chronicle, “A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies.” The artists combine these sources with contemporary comic icons like Mickey Mouse and Superman, bookending the heterogeneous visual landscape from which they draw inspiration. Hernandez cites a similarly diverse cultural milieu when he describes his childhood experiences. “Dad's playing his Mexican mariachi records, mom's watching Spanish TV, but I'm watching ‘The Six Million Dollar Man,’ ‘The Incredible Hulk,’ and reading comics. My brother’s listening to the Beatles. It’s really bi-cultural.”
“Artists Assemble!” highlights a new generation of artists who weren’t satisfied with the narrow conception of heroes and heroines that they saw represented in the comics they read and loved. Instead of simply pure escapist fantasy (though there is a healthy dose of that), their titles confront issues of political satire, social justice, and challenges of growing up outside the mainstream.
“A lot of the artists told us they were trying to figure out why their culture wasn't being represented in Marvel and DC Comics,” Sanchéz says, “so instead they made their own.”
Exhibition "Artists Assemble! Empowerment and Inspiration in Contemporary Comics" runs July 17-September 18.
Top image: Courtesy of the Museum of Latin American Art.