Graphic Lit -- An interview with Gilbert Hernandez
Last week I had the opportunity to interview the great Gilbert Hernandez and talk to him about his new book, "Sloth," as well as his "Love and Rockets" work and other upcoming projects. The official version of the interview, as it ran in today's edition of the Patriot-News, can be found here.
However, I hated having to cut so much good stuff out of our talk (plus, PennLive doesn't archive) so I decided to post the whole, unedited interview here.
A few items of note: I pared my questions down a bit for simplicity's sake, as I sounded like a tounge-tied, gibbering idiot on the tape. The tape also stopped towards the end of our talk without my realizing it, but hopefully you won't notice where.
As the co-creator (along with his brother Jamie) of the much beloved series "Love and Rockets," Gilbert Hernandez is one of the pioneers of the alternative comics scene.
His stories involving the small Mexican town of Palomar and its mayor, Luba, have garnered critical acclaim and are justly recognized as a high watermark in comics.
Now Hernandez has attempted something he's never done before: an original, self-contained graphic novel, "Sloth."
The story involves a teenage boy who wills himself into a coma and then wills himself out exactly one year later. Not much seems to have changed during that time, though he is now taking life at a slower pace.
Behind the scenes, however, mysteries abound. About his mother, about his relationship with his best friend and girlfriend. And particularly about an eerie lemon orchard that may or may not house a dangerous goat creature. And then ... well, I don't want to spoil anything.
I talked with Gilbert Hernandez, speaking from his home in Las Vegas, about "Sloth," the challenges of doing a stand-alone story versus a serialized one and being compared to David Lynch.Q: How did “Sloth” come to be?
A: Well, besides needing a job? I had serialized my work before that to be collected later and that’s how my work was normally enjoyed by readers, seither in serialized version or the collections. I just wanted to do an original piece, to use the characters once and that was it, just like a novel. In this case, a relatively long comic book story.
So it was just something I wanted to do. It was different for me, I had never done anything like that before. Normally, I’m used to using a lot of characters in a story and I’ve noticed over the years that some readers get kind of lost with so many characters, so I decided to stick it down to three and just develop them as much as I can.
All this stuff was a new experience for me so it was a little rough-going in some parts just because I hadn’t done it before.
I wanted it to be youth-friendly, for two reasons. That’s partly where most of the readers are at. And secondly, I just like stories about young people because so many things are just new to young people. I have a six-year-old daughter and everything’s new. You just show her a movie you’ve seen forever as a kid. For them it’s the first time. You have to remind yourself sometimes that they don’t know what you’re talking about. They’ve never seen this. And in a way, once you get that in your head it’s pretty cool to relive that.
Q: You were talking about some of the challenges of doing this book. Could you be a bit more specific? What, for example, did you find difficult to do in terms of having a small cast of characters and a self-contained narrative?
A: Normally since I did serialize I never had the whole story plotted out. It was usually just part of a story. I usually tell stories through charactization. Plot is character as they say. I rarely had a definite ending for stories. I never had a definite arc. I would work that out later, as I was serializing.
With this, since it was a proposal first, before I even got started on it, it had to have a beginning, middle and end. So that part was difficult just to come up with those ideas, as much as I could, all at one time. That was difficult. I had to create an arc and a satisfying ending. So between you and me I had to bluff a little because that’s just not how I work normally.
But I managed to get through it and the story made a lot of changes along the way. I discovered that a lot of times those proposals are basically something they need hardcopy to have in their files. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to follow them if you have better ideas.
So that’s a good thing, but you still gotta come up with ideas.
Q: What were some of the changes?
A: I should explain the story a little bit. The story is about a teenage boy who wills himself into a coma. He’s a depressed teenager and then he wakes up a year later.
What was originally in the book was I go into flashbacks to what it was like for him to be in the coma. There were actually three separate stories of him being in the coma.
But the more I worked on it, the more I pushed that back, the less I wanted to do that. The more I wanted it to be about the character reacting to his coma and that he was actually forgetting what happened in his coma. He just remembers he liked it a lot. So that’s what I started to emphasize and there were whole sections of the book I removed halfway through which left me with less material. So that was difficult and I had to rebuild from the middle with the characters but still make it part of a whole.
Anyway, that’s the difficult stuff for me, to get that ending, that arc thought out pretty quickly as you begin working, because it always changes.
Q: One of the things that’s so striking about the book is the way that it shifts halfway through from the characters’ point of view. What was the inspiration for doing that?
A: Just that for me, as we got to that point, and for my editor I think, the story had run its course as it was. And that’s the point where he was supposed to go into his coma and I just didn’t feel that at that point that that was right.
And my editor suggested, “Well, you really get to know the main character, but you don’t know the girl as well,” and she just preferred that the girl had her own story somewhere along the line in there. And I just felt that was the best advice to use. We were able to get into her head and use her thoughts and captions to develop her character more.
I made her character a different type of character slightly which was a little bumpy for the editor. I made her a little less sympathetic than the original guy in the coma. But in the end, we worked it out.
So that was a big change. It was really just to give her side of the story. To put her in the position of being in the coma.
Q: Because of that switch a lot of the reviews I’m reading compare it “Mulholland Drive” and I keep seeing David Lynch’s name brought into the review. Is that a comparison you like or does it annoy you at all?
A: No, I totally cop to that. Even as I was doing it I go, “This is a very Lynchian twist.” To myself you know. Because I understand the powers that be over at DC really hate David Lynch. So I kept that to myself.
But I was thinking of that. Then I was thinking “What if there was a Mulholland Drive that readers could understand?” I enjoyed "Mulholland Drive" but I understand the problems with people not liking it just because it’s so obscured by clouds. I enjoyed it but, you know, throw us a bone here once in awhile.
Q: I like the movie too, but there is a significant difference in that his characters can be enigmas or people you can project yourself onto. Whereas “Sloth” and your other work general has very sharply defined characters.
A: Yeah, that’s because my goal is always to communicate with the reader. Not only identify with the character but care about the story. That’s always important for me.
I did want to reach that kind of audience that likes weird stuff going on but there’s this anchor, this humanity in there.
Q: You mentioned your use of improvisiation. You mentioned having to do more plotting this one. But in a lot of your books, and in this one too, when you start reading it you really don’t know where it’s going to end up, where it’s going to go. I wonder if that’s really one of the exciting things about doing comics for you, doing stories like these. And how much improvisation you do, how essential that is.
A: I do work intuitively for the most part. I do feel it out. I’m using as much brain power as I can but it really is a gut feeling and a heart feeling. That doesn’t always work putting out a graphic novel, that’s why I say it was difficult first time I did that. You really want to have a complete piece. It ends up being an 85 percent piece. I still have things I left out. I wrack my brains how to fit those pieces in. It just didn’t happen. So, I’m 85 percent happy that it’s a solid read.
Q: Like "Mulholland Drive" or "Memento," this book bears a lot of rereading, trying to suss out all the different details and who exactly is the Goat Man and things like that. Was that your intention, to hint at things, to have people going back to the book in that sense?
A: Well, rereading is always a good thing. If you’ve got the readers to reread it, you’re doing your job. If people want to go back to it.
That’s what I’ve always liked about David Lynch movies, like when "Blue Velvet" came out, I could watch it over and over and still enjoy it. And not all movies can do that. Once you’ve watched it, you’re done with it. There are just some movies and some stories that always have something for you to go back to. That’s something I’ve always liked about storytelling.
I like the story to unfold. I don’t like the reader to know too much what’s going on. It’s not the Hollywood scene where you have to know the story’s about in ten minutes. I prefer a story to unfold. There’s so many good stories. I keep going back to movies as an easy handle, but when you see a movie, when it unfolds — and unfolds instead of tells you the same thing every ten minutes — when you have discovery and ...
Here’s a real bad example. I’m going to geek out right here. But the reason the first "Star Wars" movie works the best of all of them is the first one is about discovery. The audience did not know about "Flash Gordon" and that kind of thing. They did not know what was next. In the newer ones, you basically went over the same area over and over with just better special effects. There was no surprises. But in the first movie, I think the audiences made it such a big hit because every step of the way there was a new monster, new aliens, a new city, there was something new all the time going on.
So that’s the way for me to tell a long story is to have it unfold, that you get something every few pages, every step of the way. Hopefully.
Q: As one of the few cartoonists who’s doing both graphic novels and pamphets, having done this graphic novel, is it something you’d like to continue to do or do you prefer going back to things like "Love and Rockets," a regularly serialized story?
A: The only regular comics, or pamphets as they call them now, that I’m going to do from now on is "Love and Rockets." Because I think there’s still a need for the shorter book because there’s still people experimenting with comic books and they’re not going to spend 12 bucks on a graphic novel if they don’t really know what it is. But for a comic book they’ll suffer the $4 or whatever it is nowadays to get a comic book and maybe try it out.
I’m not going to serialize so much in "Love and Rockets" anymore like I used to. I’m going to do more single stories in each issue in a more experimental vein. Because I do want to be doing graphic novels as well, and that’s going to take care of the characterization-type things. So I won’t really need to be doing that in "Love and Rockets."
And besides, it’ll make "Love and Rockets" a little different. Whereas my brother [Jamie], he likes to do the serialization and the characters and we don’t need that for the whole book anymore. We’ve gotten past that and I just want to do more experimentation.
But I still have regular stories in me, so that will go in graphic novels.
Q: What was the drive to end the Luba storyline?
A: It had been going on too long. I was aiming for the collections and the comic books themselves suffered. They were slow. They were continued. It just took many, many years to complete that saga. That’s not how I want to do it anymore. That’s the old way. I was stuck with finishing it, I finished it and I’m happy and now I’m gonna have three big Luba collections that are very satisfying to me. I’m just really happy that most of the readers stuck in there with me.
Q: So is that it for Luba than? Are we going to see any of those characters ever again?
A: Yeah, along the way in doing graphic novels I might have the itch to do what’s up with Luba and her family type stories and I’ll just do a graphic novel about that. But it won’t be serialized in a pamphlet anymore.
Q: At the end of Luba you jump ahead six or seven years. Why?
A: In the past I jumped ahead five years every once in awhile. I was stuck in this period for 15 years or so.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now I’m working on issue 19 of Love and Rockets. I’m also working on something called “New Tales of Old Palomar.” “New Tales of Old Palomar” is sort of classic Palomar stories that I’ve never done before. The first issue of “New Tales of Old Palomar” takes place literally days after the first Palomar story that I did. And then the second issue will be stories before that story. So I’m going to be jumping back and forth doing classic Palomar stories that were never done before.
Q: This is for the Ignatz line, right?
A: Yeah, the Ignatz line.
Q: When is the first one coming out?
A: I believe in November.
Q: You have got to be one of the most if not the most prolific cartoonists I know of.
A: At least alternative cartoonists.
Q: That’s true. How do manage that? How are you able to do that?
A: It’s not always easy. I just learned over the years to trust my instincts. I’ve always told my stories intuitively. It was my basic instinct that gave me the strength to make a decision of what I wanted to tell in a story and what was most important.
And now having done it so long, it’s not necessarily that I’m coasting, it’s more like I know what I’m doing. Every time I do something. And I’m always thinking far enough ahead to think, “Well, I can’t do this because I’ve already done that” or “I don’t want to do this character again cause readers might be tired of him.” I’m thinking way far ahead before I get to this stuff so I’ve already got that in mind when I get to a story. So I just trust my instinct and go “Well this will come out the way I want it to.”
But I’m not afraid to rework things. Sometimes when you work intuitively you just go back to the same areas. So yeah, it’s a good place to start, but I have to be willing to rework stuff.
In particular, in “New Tales of Old Palomar,” the first issue, I had to just jump into new Palomar stories instantly. And the first story originally repeated a lot what I had already done. Just from different angles or different characters speaking. So I had to throw that out and try to give them something the reader hadn’t known or seen before. Even though it’s the same old characters. So that was hard at first because I had to make it a new story with the old characters.
That’s the hardest thing I think with using the Palomar characters is new stories for old characters.
Q: Do you feel you learn more about the characters when you do these new stories? Do you find new revelations about them?
A: You won’t really see that much in these new Palomar stories. You’re gonna see more action, more things that they’re doing. Instead of things that they’re feeling. It’s always been about the characters’ feeling about other characters’ feelings. This was more about them doing. Stories about well this person has to go here, because this is happening and then she meets this character but then she has to go back and do this. That kind of thing. It’s more story oriented because we know the characters inside and out. We don’t really need to know what the character is feeling when they’re walking down the street at that moment. We don’t need to know that all the time. Unless it’s very important for the plot, but if it’s not I’m not gonna [do it]. Because my work over time has been overwritten so I’m really pulling back on that. But at the same time just to recognize what’s important to me.
Q: What about “Julio’s Day?” Is that still going to be serialized in Love and Rockets?
A: That’s going to be serialized in Love and Rockets until issue 19. My plan was to do it for 100 pages but it didn’t quite make it because I kept pulling pages out because other stories were crowding it out. Basically I’m managing to finish it in issue 19 but when it’s collected I’m going to put those pages back that I originally took out and it’s still going to be a 100-page graphic novel.
Q: It struck me when I was reading "Sloth" that the idea of going in and out of a coma is a great metaphor for adolescence.
A: I was sort of looking at it that way. I don’t like to hammer that stuff down. I’m not psychologist. But yeah I like to fit that in and make that something for the reader to decide if that’s what it is or not.
But "Sloth" is my first really strong attempt to make a reader friendly story that wasn’t — cause I’ve done other reader friendly stuff but it usually has to do with a lot of goofy stuff. But this was the first time I tried to do a dramatic piece that was reader-friendly.
Q: Are you satisfied with it?
A: Like I said, 85 percent I am. 90 percent maybe.
Q: What would you change?
A: I wouldn’t change anything. I would just like to have a little bit more here and there. One of the complaints I’m getting is there’s no satisfaction with what happens. Cause there’s a mystery early on in the story where the boy is worring about what happened to his mother. Well that’s never resolved in the story and the fact that, what was the Goat Man, was the Goat man real? — there’s no concrete resolution.
I’m OK with that, but I can see where some readers might not be.
Q: I was actually scouring through the book to try to figure out who the Goat Man could possibly be.
A: Yeah, I kind of led it up to that where you think, “It’s gotta mean something you know?” That’s what people are always looking for. I blame that on television, that there has to be a resolution somewhere. And in films and poetry and real books you don’t always get that.
Q: Yeah, that didn’t bother me.
A: Oh, that’s cool. All of the reviews have been good except for the Library Journal. Somebody basically brought that up, “There’s no satisfaction with the Goat Man and if his mother was actually murdered.” But that wasn’t really the story.
Like I said, I understand when some readers get to have that frustration. You can’t please everybody.
Q: As long as you can make yourself happy.
A: Yeah. I can’t be 100 percent happy with anything I do because then I won’t do anything anymore. Then I’ll be done. The next project always has to be the better one.