“I Don’t Think About It. I Just Do It.”: Catching up with Gilbert Hernandez

Gilbert_imgThe most recent comics from Gilbert Hernandez read like the products of a restless imagination: familiar and surreal, confrontational and good-natured, sometimes all at once. And, of course, there’s a lot of them to choose from. While many of Gilbert’s contemporaries release a new book every year or two, he crafts stories at a rate that outpaces nearly everybody. If ‘Los Bros Hernandez’ didn’t already include Jaime and Mario, the term would still be a suitable nickname for Gilbert, who sometimes appears to be doing the work of multiple cartoonists.

There’s Blubber, a staple-bound series of bizarre and obscene humor vignettes, the second issue of which appeared earlier this year. Love and Rockets: New Stories #8 likewise arrived near the start of 2016, the final volume of the iconic series’ most recent incarnation. A few months after that came Comics Dementia, a collection of curiosities and one-off stories from throughout Gilbert’s career (effectively a Gilbert-only companion piece to the earlier Amor y Cohetes collection). His most recent 2016 release, Garden of Flesh, is perhaps his most provocative: ninety-six pages of comics erotica based on the stories of the Old Testament. Before the year ends, Gilbert also plans to debut Psychodrama Illustrated, another series in the Blubber format, this one featuring stories of his character Fritz (based both in her world and the world of her films).

What hopefully comes through in this interview is the obvious joy with which Gilbert discussed this run of comics. Producing work at such a prolific rate would have to be its own reward. Even so, it’s reassuring, and a little amazing, that one of the form’s greatest living cartoonists is having so much fun.


Greg Hunter: How was San Diego Comic Con for you this year?

Gilbert Hernandez: The usual. I go because I take my family, and we have a pretty good time. We see certain people once a year, so that’s nice. But as far as business goes, it’s just so crazy there. It’s all about Hollywood.

Are you still able to see new things there within the realm of comics?

What’s good is that new cartoonists come up, unwavered. Nobody’s discouraged about making new comics; people are still doing it, which is great. Hollywood and the mainstream haven’t destroyed that yet. [laughs] Which is great. Seems to me people who are into comics continue to thrive, keep going.

In terms of your own comics, I wanted to as a couple questions about Blubber first.

[Hernandez laughs]

Blubber2-coverBlubber takes certain aspects of your work—the physicality of animals, unusual shapes, lots of playing with bodily functions—and gives them their own specific venue. And the release of Comics Dementia is interesting next to that, since it shows how similar things have appeared in your work for years. So I’m wondering what motivated the creation of Blubber as its own space for these sorts of comics.

I just didn’t see a lot of comic books like that around. Because I was looking at old underground comics, and I was surprised again at how free and completely nuts they were. We’re talking fifty years ago now. So I just felt that a lot of comic books, at least from my peers, have become pretty conservative, pretty safe. You know what to expect from certain cartoonists who are New York Times bestsellers. [laughs] There’s nothing wrong with that. I just saw a void. I just thought, "Where’s the nutty stuff? Where’s the stuff that S. Clay Wilson and Robert Williams used to do?" There’s not really a lot of that. You see it with cartoonists that don’t have such a big name, but you don’t see it with big-name cartoonists.

I don’t know what really pushed me over the edge. I re-read some of the material in Comics Dementia, because I had to edit part of it, and I realized how much I was already doing that. But I went over the top with the X-rated stuff [in Blubber]. And I like to confuse people. Make ’em feel uncomfortable once in a while.

Between Blubber and now Garden of Flesh, how much did you think in terms of provoking people, or how much do you think about outside reception of those stories in general? A comic like Blubber is just filled with penises, which is maybe not an uncommon sight in the alternative canon, but the larger culture’s less open to it, and some of the more mainstream literary cartooning may not feature so much of it.

I just realized a long time ago—and I used to keep fighting this—that I have to separate different aspects of my comics. There’s the Blubber-type comic that I can do, there’s the graphic novel-type story—it’s just a different audience. Different people looking for different things in comics. And since I’m all over the place, I’m able to do a little bit of all of it. I can do a straight-ahead, serious-minded graphic novel without the Blubber stuff, and then I can do something in between. Love and Rockets, with [a focus on] relationships. I can emphasize the characters. Whereas Blubber’s just complete id.

Do you feel a certain responsibility to do that, given your ... I don’t want to say ‘job security,’ but you’re in a position to take risks.

You know, if there were other books like Blubber coming from other people, I’d probably just do a few issues and then back off. But since nobody’s going to go where I’m going there, I’ll keep doing it for a while.

I don’t know. I just know that I have to separate it, because it’s a different audience. There’s a large audience for comics, but I’ve discovered there’s just groups of people who like different things. They like their comics to be certain things. If I go too far in Love and Rockets with fantasy, or crazy violence-type stories, people will be asking, ‘When are you going to stop doing that? [I want] Palomar. When are you doing to do this?’ They always want me to do what I’m not doing.

But—that’s not entirely crazy. I can see where they’re coming from. ‘I read Palomar stories and felt really connected to the characters. This other stuff is something else.’ And since all those something-else’s are different aspects of my personality, I have to find different places for them. You’ll notice the sex in Garden of Flesh is different from the sex in Blubber, say. ... Yet it’s still sex, and most people see it as the same thing, but of course, it isn’t.

I was curious about the difference—and the similarities—between those books. Like you say, they’re both extremely sexual in different ways. In Garden of Flesh, for instance, Adam is something of a clown. He tells Eve, ‘Your birth interrupted a nice dream I was having.’ I did wonder, between that and the slapstick in Blubber, do you tend to think of the sexuality of your male characters as more comedic than the sexuality of your other characters?

Sometimes. Yeah, I tend to do that, make the guys kind of buffoonish. They still get what they want, but they’re kind of clowns afterward. I basically made Adam and Eve airheads. [laughs] They have no back-story. They’re just sort of, ‘duhhh,’ enjoying each other.

I guess I never thought about that. I do make the guys kind of out of it, when it comes to the sex or the characters in the stories. And with Blubber, I just like to make fun of people.

Gilbert_img2What drew you at first to those early Bible stories?

Well, when you’re a kid—I was raised Catholic, so they teach you about Adam and Eve. And a crazy imagination like mine goes into, ‘Well, they were naked back then. What a world! You’re out in this nature ...’ All this stuff that would titillate my child mind. You don’t really understand it ... but this is supposed to be about God and goodness, and you’ve got naked beautiful people running around.

And there have been different versions of it. Movies and comics and such. Ultimately with Crumb’s version of it, you can tell he’s really enamored with that story of Adam and Eve, because he’s done it several times. He likes something about it. And I remember just reading [R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis] and thinking, ‘There’s no real love here, no real passion for living and living amongst people. They’re really mad at each other, trying to use each other, kill each other.’ And that’s in the Bible. But what was left out was a passion in faith and a passion in loving. I just wanted to focus on that in Garden of Flesh. The people who have sex have families, they do love each other. That’s part of what the fantasy is in my version.

I wasn’t going to bring up Crumb’s version, because I worried it’d be rude to draw a comparison, but since you mentioned it, how much were you thinking about Crumb’s Genesis as you were doing Garden of Flesh?

Just one afternoon I was looking at Crumb’s book again—I’ve looked at it several times—and I just kept thinking over and over, ‘Where’s the love in this?’ The spiritual passion, this and that. It’s not there, and that’s how Crumb saw the Bible: without it. And I think it’s in there, as far as I know.

But I didn’t want to go to the Bible. I looked at Crumb’s and started thinking about it: ‘I have time, I can draw an Adam and Eve story. Why am I thinking about it? I can just do it.’ That’s how I make comics now. I don’t think about it. I just do it. Put your thoughts on paper, draw them. That’s why I create a variety of comics: different kinds of outlets.

Gilbert_lucyI’m a lapsed Catholic myself, and I think that every former Catholic carries with them a different thing from their experience in the Church. That upbringing in the Church, do you see it reflected in your storytelling in particular ways?

I guess I do normally, in my regular stuff, because another interviewer asked me, why do I stop at Noah? Why don’t I go on to Sodom and Gomorrah? [laughs] What I wanted to show was the airhead, beautiful love of Adam and Eve, other characters.

I just felt that, growing up, there was so much grimness to being Catholic, so much weird, creepy stuff you had to go through. But there was also some kindness and love. The nuns that I had for catechism—the school that I went to had catechism on weekends—the nuns were the kindest teachers I’ve ever had. It was a good feeling a lot of the time, to be a Catholic boy. And then you get too old, get to a point where you go, ‘Man, this is creepy.’ [laughs]

And I like the creepiness, but I wanted to show the love now and again. It’s genuine. I found genuine love from my grandmother, who’s very religious. So I think it’s kind of bogus to just look at it one way. ‘Oh, the Catholics are horrible monsters!’ Yeah, sure. The Inquisition? Of course. I agree. But the thing is, there’s other people: poor farmers, poor people, who have a beautiful faith and live their lives. That’s a true thing. I think people might not want to know about that, or think it might not be cool.

Garden of Flesh has a range of tones. You know, there are moments of humor, with the airhead Adam and Eve; with the creation of Eve or the marking of Cain, some big, bold, Jack Kirby-type moments. So I was wondering, were you ever constrained by those stories? Or did their being so familiar give you the room to do whatever you wanted?

I just wanted to tell it straightforward, in the sense of emphasizing, of course, the sex and beautiful people. But those things happened: The darkening of Eden, Cain and Abel. That’s part of the story, so I couldn’t avoid that. But I didn’t want it to be sensational. My violence is usually pretty sensational. But I just put [Cain’s slaying of his brother] in because it’s part of the story and I didn’t want it to be ignored. ... But I got to those things, then got back to the naked people.

And no real big message. I just wanted to do the light, loving version of that part of the Bible.

I want to loop back to something you said earlier about jumping right into comics making. Because one thing that struck me in Garden of Flesh was the two-panels-per-page layouts you had. Which contribute to the humor, and which also probably help distinguish it from other comics about the Bible and other comics about sex. So I was wondering how much you played around with layouts or with pacing before you arrived at that two-tier setup.

I had thought about doing the Adam and Eve story in different books—in Love and Rockets, in one of the Fritz books, the movie books. And I just couldn’t make it fit.

And growing up, I didn’t only see magazines of comics and comic books. My brother Mario would come home with little packagings from Mexico, which would have little digest-sized books, and they would have two panels on the page. They were usually soap operas or crime dramas, and every once in a while, he’d pull out this one called Mini Color. It was done with two panels a page, in color, drawn really nice. A man and a woman are stranded on an island, because this giant octopus wouldn’t let them leave. [laughs] And then there’s this whole crime element ... I couldn’t read it. I don’t read Spanish. But I made up my own story in my head, and I always loved this little book. I’d always wanted to do something with that, that format. So I did what I often do—put two ideas together. ‘If I do a Bible story, I have a reason to do a book like this [with two panels a page].’ It just fit perfectly.

I want to make sure we talk about the upcoming format change to Love and Rockets. Was there anything you weren’t getting from the New Stories format?

Just too many pages at one time for each of us. About fifty pages each. So it became a burden. Because you spent a lot of time with the pages—a lot longer than you would with a magazine or a comic book. For us, that becomes a burden because we just over-think things. You go slower rather than faster with a project that’s too long. And just physically, we’re getting older. [laughs]

And, you know, we grew up reading comic books. There were no graphic novels when we were kids, so that’s in us—to have a book coming out all the time. We liked doing Love and Rockets as a comic book for years. The New Stories—it did help a lot, at first. I could do really long stories in one issue, which was great. But it got tiresome. So we tried to go back—we didn’t know what format we were going to go after. Tried different sizes, different ways, and just couldn’t figure it out. I guess we just came to the conclusion that returning to the magazine size was the best thing.

Given how many comics you draw in a year, and the different venues for cartooning you have, what helps you determine whether something’s the best fit for Love and Rockets in particular?

I’m always reminded that it’s about the characterization and the characters that readers are familiar with. It doesn’t have to stay there, but that’s usually what we hear the most. Love and Rockets has become, at its strongest, comics about relationships and characters. So when I do go off into a fantasy world or abstract drawing and stuff, there’s a group of people who like that, but the others are still waiting for the characters and the stories about connections between characters.

Now that we’re going to be having sixteen pages each, that reduces it back to, ‘What’s the most important thing that must go in this book?’ The simplest answer is that I’m going directly into characterization again, really just focus on character stories.

Do you feel the weight of other people’s expectations with Love and Rockets comics more so than the rest of your stuff?

Love and Rockets is almost its own entity [laughs], and I just fill it up. Love and Rockets has a life of its own, and its strength—readers, and reviewers and critics tend to find the strength in the connections between characters. Some of it’s nostalgic, I have to say. ‘I read Love and Rockets when I was thirteen. I want it to be the same.’ Well, we can’t make it the same for you. [laughs] But we can work hard to make the characters interesting to read.

And I have outlets. For Jaime, it’s different, he only has one place. He’s only doing Love and Rockets. For him, he’s going to try different things [within Love and Rockets]. I’m going to stick with the characterization because I have other comics, I have the Fritz books, I have Blubber. I’m actually going to have a companion book to Blubber after a few months.

Is it possible we’ll see a [Blubber #2 character] T.A.C. Man ongoing somewhere in there?

[laughs] Oh, he may return. Who knows.

Some of those characters are ones that I literally created as a small boy, and I just fooled around with them in my head for a while, and thought, ‘Oh, I’ll stick them in this Blubber story.’

COMICS-DEMENTIAYou’d mentioned earlier helping edit Comics Dementia and going through those older stories. I was curious if there are any other major surprises that you’d found looking back through those comics.

When I do look back through my older comics, sometimes I cringe. Sometimes I’m surprised at how much effort I put into it. Because I ease up a bit now, because I’m doing so many comics. I don’t make them as dense as I once did. That’s interesting to see—how much thought and effort I put into them. I guess it is different when you’re younger. [laughs]

In terms of the cringing, how common are regrets for you?

Regrets ... Ah, there are just a few storylines that went in a certain way because I didn’t focus on keeping it going the way I should have. I made it go a different way, I changed the plotline because of some other reason, some other story that I had done. There are certain regrets—‘Oh, if I’d just kept going this way, the story would’ve turned out the way I wanted it to.’ So, you know, mistakes, I make them along the way.

As we wrap up, let me ask you about [Psychodrama Illustrated], the companion book to Blubber. You’re diving into the actual comics-making as quickly as possible, following your impulses there. At what point did you decide this upcoming work was a companion book and not something for the pages of Blubber itself?

Well, Blubber is just a crazy hoot. It’s just jackass-type humor. I don’t want to get serious with it because not everybody who wants to read a serious story from me is going to look at that book. A lot of people just don’t want to look at those kinds of comics. I know that.

So I need comics that are a little more experimental, a little more out there, but aren’t necessarily X-rated. Like I said, there are things different readers want from me that just don’t always belong in the same place. Not anymore.

The only trouble with having separate books like that is, a lot of the time, readers never know they exist. That’s the only problem. Love and Rockets is where people find our stuff, mostly. That’s good, and again, that’s why I have to choose the most important things to put in it. But I understand that in some comics stores, Love and Rockets is still in the back of the room, with other ‘X-rated’ comics.

I was surprised when people started to say, ‘Love and Rockets is this big deal. There’s Superman comics, and then there’s Love and Rockets next to it.’ Not necessarily.

Having the other books doesn’t always help. Blubber probably gets noticed because it is so outrageous. I know retailers show people—‘You’ve got to see this. It’s so outrageous.’ But the companion books ... I’m not sure they’re going to be noticed until they’re in collections. A lot of people wait for collections.

Have you met people or heard from people, maybe younger comics readers, who encountered your work for the first time through something like Blubber?

Yeah. They don’t mention if they’ve crossed over to Love and Rockets, but they will say that Blubber’s a really funny comic book. That’s as much as I know. I just met this guy recently at a comic book store. He was only there because his girlfriend works there. He wasn’t a comics guy. But she showed him Blubber and he thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever read. That made me feel good. ... Nice kid. He wasn’t like a weirdo or anything.