“It’s an Ideal Moment”: An Interview with Frederick Aldama

Frederick Aldama is an Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor at Ohio State University where he is the founder and director of LASER, the Latino and Latin American Space for Enrichment Research, and the founder and co-director of Humanities and Cognitive Sciences High School Summer Institute at The Ohio State University. Since receiving his doctorate from Stanford, he’s written or edited more than thirty books.

Some of those books have been about comics and Aldama won an Eisner Award this year for his book Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics. He’s been writing about the medium for more than a decade in between writing books like Postethnic Narrative Criticism, Dancing with Ghosts: A Critical Biography of Arturo Islas, Formal Matters in Contemporary Latino Poetry, The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez, and the recent Long Stories Cut Short, Aldama’s first book of fiction. He was a founding member of The Comics Studies Society and is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the journal INKS. Aldama is the cofounder of SOL-CON: The Brown and Black Comics Expo and last year he launched Latinographix, a publishing imprint from Ohio State University Press.

This fall the imprint is publishing two books, Eric J. Garcia’s Drawing on Anger , a collection of political cartoons, and the anthology Tales From La Vida, which collects short work from more than eighty Latinx creators. I spoke with Aldama about his book, comics in academia, and how Tales From La Vida fits into the space he’s trying to create and nurture with Latinographix. - Alex Dueben

First of all, congratulations on just winning the Eisner for Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics. This isn’t your first academic book on comics, though.

Right. I published Your Brain on Latino Comics back in 2009. After that I co-edited Graphic Borders: Latino Comics Books Past Present and Future with Christopher González followed by my book Latinx Comic Book Storytelling: An Odyssey by Interview (2016). But the research started years before any of these books. I knew even when I wrote Your Brain on Latino Comics, which includes a section about going back into the archives of Latinx representation in mainstream comics, that there was a bigger story there. It would be several years until I had the time to go back and dig into the DC and Marvel archives. It took me a good two years of digging and rereading and researching to put together what became Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics.

Reading the book you kept citing so many things, you clearly spent a lot of time reading and rereading and researching this.

[laughs] Absolutely. Gosh, I don’t know how much money I ended up spending on ebay, building the collection that let me create this story of Latinxs in mainstream comics to tell the story that hadn’t been told.

But even before Your Brain on Latino Comics, you were thinking about a book like this that would examine Latinx representation in comics over time.

Exactly. What can I say? It started when I first started reading comic books and realized that one, Latinx folks weren’t very prevalent, and as I grew older, scratching my head when we were represented: bandidos, buffoons, exotic, and disposable. Of course, there were moments when certain characters did appear that were really exciting. Like White Tiger. I loved this character—and I know it generated a lot of enthusiasm among many other readers. So, yes, we can trace back to my childhood the genealogy of my “research” on comics by and about Latinxs.

You do a good job of tracing all these stories over the years. I’m not sure I ever read Hulk #265 where Firebird and Red Wolf save the day and two white heroes show up and get all the credit, but that’s just so perfect.

[laughs] Right? There was a time in the eighties when more superheroes of color began to appear. However, we seemed to function like janitors doing all the hard work and cleaning up messes, only to have white superheroes like Texas Twister claim the credit and the day.

I was glad to see you spent time in the book writing about Milestone’s Blood Syndicate. Ivan Velez, Jr. who wrote the series does not get enough credit for what he did there.

I agree. There’s so much sophisticated comic book storytelling here that needs to be talked about. Someone like Ivan Velez, Jr. was brought in to help co-create the series, wring these amazing intersectional (race, gender, sexuality, class) characters with complex backstories. He brought to the characters all the different ways that we can be Latinx: straight and queer as well as Afrolatinx and ancestrally connected to pre-conquest indigenous Caribbean, and more. That was super significant and important because of course we’re not one homogenous group. We share similar ancestry in terms of our long deep time, but the history of Puerto Rican Latinxs in this country are very different from Mexican ancestried Latinxs. All of the complex ways that we are Latinx in this country needed to be fleshed out, told, shown, and talked about.

He and his Milestone co-creators like ChrisCross also swept to the side the all-pervasive white savior narrative that permeated mainstream comics – and pop culture generally. They celebrated Latinxs in all our messy, textured complexity – and as the superheroes of the world. Latinx and creators of color generally today continue this necessary corrective narrative work; society continues to be numb to the all pervasive white savior myth. Do we really need to see Matt Damon save the world, again? We need to forcefully shine a light back on this and other denigrative narratives to precisely uncover how race and ethnicity continue to be constructed in simplistic and negative ways.

You also mention a more recent example I’d forgotten about, Aztek, and I remember back in the nineties thinking that it was odd because it’s a white character with a Meso-American mythology and backstory.

In mainstream comics, there’s been a strong primitivism and white character in Brownface; where whiteness slums it in a primitive depiction of Latinx for greater victory. We see this even today in animation where you have white voice actors playing Latinx characters. It gets into that whole politics of representation.

It’s important to call all of this appropriation and misrepresentation out, of course. However, it’s also important to put front and center the significance how a story is given shape – and in comics, I call this the geometrizing of the narrative. We get excited and we want to go back again and again to a White Tiger superhero not only because of the complex representation of Latinx identity, but also just as importantly because George Pérez’s dynamic artwork creates this kinesis of action and consciousness.  Yes, a willfulness in the representation matters and so too does the visual shaping or geometrizing of the story.

You spend a lot of time in the book writing about the character Echo for that reason, because she was well thought out and well written but also artistically distinctive and significant.

Absolutely. With Joe Quesada and David Mack here’s a coming together of a Latinx and Anglo creator to make something that actually works because they give a darn. They do their homework. They create a complex mestiza superhero and they dynically geometrize the story. They do all the things we expect of really excellent comic book storytelling.

And as you point out, so many characters are often in supporting roles, but they’re often hypersexualized, quick to anger, and portrayed as primitive.

I love it that when Orson Scott Card rebirths Stark as the Latinx superhero, Antoñio Stark [in Ultimate Iron Man], he recreates the entire epidermal surface as his brain. That does all sorts of really cool things with stereotypes of Latinxs as only laboring bodies – braceros working the fields – and no brain. Here we see a creator take a stereotype and turn it inside out, saying, no, we’re all brain and it’s the entire surface of the body.

You’re a tenured professor and you have a lot of scholarly credentials; what has it been like watching comics studies be embraced by academia over the course of your career?

In 2000, I was hired by the University of Colorado, Boulder, as my first job. I knew for a fact that the books that were going to get me where I needed to go – associate and then full professor – would have to be pretty recognizable by senior scholars. That is, they would have to be on literature for the most part. So that’s what I did. I wrote those books. But I knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to write books on comics. That’s something that I’d always wanted to do, even as a graduate student. Once I was a full professor, I started writing these books. There are many other of my colleagues – usually senior scholars – across the country who are building comics studies into the robust discipline it is today.

As a result of all this work, we’re starting to see our PhD students and more junior colleagues writing dissertations as well as publishing articles and books on comics. While it’s a very different scene than the early 2000s, I still advise my PhD students to write a chapter on straight alphabetic literature to present when they give their job talk. Why? There will still people in the room who don’t think comics are worthy of study – and they will be voting on whether or not to give my student the job.

We’re in a transition moment. On the one hand, in our scholarship we have arrived. I just published an edited volume that I titled, Comics Studies Here and Now, to celebrate this arrival in terms of scholarship. At the same time that we’ve “arrived” there’s still some old guard scholars out there gatekeeping this scholarship. There’s a lot of anxiety among colleagues about our arrival, so our younger colleagues and students still need to tread carefully.

There are older scholars like Donald Ault, who’s a William Blake expert, and I can’t help but think that his interest in Carl Barks was treated more like an odd hobby than serious scholarship by some people.

Donald is much more senior of a scholar than me but like me, it would seem, he, published more recognizably traditional scholarship first – for him this was on William Blake. Later, he publishes on Donald Duck and creates one of the preeminent journals in the comics studies field, ImageTexT. If you notice, those books on Carl Barks don’t come out until the 2000‘s. He started publishing those as an already senior scholar who was established.

Today you have students who want to study comics or who want to pursue interdisciplinary study that includes comics?

Absolutely, and if I run a course on film and comics, I’m going to have a long wait list. I’m not saying that we need to modify our subjects and our teachings to demand, but we can do as much with comics in terms of deepening an understanding of how shaping of story can and does complicate our understanding of the world. All that I like to do when I teach literature in terms of opening minds to new ways of perceiving, thinking, and feeling about the world, I can do with comics – and the demand is there.

Humanities departments are being pushed to make decisions that are based on the survival of the arts and humanities as a whole. That’s exactly what our new generation of interdisciplinary scholars (literature, comics, film, TV, video games) are doing. They’re saving the arts and humanities.

I know that you’re a professor across a few departments. Comics studies and comics scholars often tend to be part of literature departments. Is it important that comics studies become its own thing?

It needs to be its own thing, of course. Bottom line. It’s not literature. It’s not art. It’s both – and more. It’s Joseph Conrad as much as it is German expressionist art. It’s all of these things in this great planetary cross-pollination that constantly creates new ways to vitally shape narrative fiction and nonfiction. Ideally, we would have comics studies as a properly designated discipline or field as we do with, say, literature. Of course, it would be defined as an interdisciplinary space of learning: art, art history, psychology, communication, media, film, literature, languages, philosophy, for instance.

Given how funding and resources are allocated in universities across the country, it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing any time soon the mushrooming of comics studies minors, majors, or even departments. For now, what we see in place like OSU with dense concentrations of comics studies scholars from literature, communications, visual design and art departments is the creating of Popular Culture studies writ large. This is more capacious, including faculty who study film, TV, children’s literature, and of course comics. This is an important institutional move. While we don’t have a department or a major per se, we have an infrastructure in place that allows students to find us. In the end, that’s really what it’s really about – students being able to find faculty to work with to study what they want to study.

You recently co-founded and edit the Latinographix fiction and nonfiction book series, which launched last year. For people who don’t know, what is the imprint?

 In 2015 I launched the Latinographix trade-press series with Ohio State University Press. I describe the books in the series as using text and visual narrative that explore and push at boundaries of Latinx identity, hybridity, experimentation, and creativity. This series has swiftly become a hit with the press – and readers across the country.  Following in the footsteps of Alberto Ledesma’s best-selling and award-winning Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer (2017), I published the New York Times lauded Angelitos (2018) by Ilan Stavans and Santiago Cohen.

Creating a space with a lot of possibilities is at the heart of what you’re trying to do with the Latinographix imprint.

Absolutely! The book Latinx Superheroes, the documentary based on it that I just made, Your Brain on Latino Comics, all of the things that I’m doing in my writing and scholarship are clearing these spaces. However, with Latinographix I wanted to open that space specifically for Latinx creators.

One of the difficulties for creators today – especially creators that have been historically underrepresented – is getting people to pay attention in a serious way to what they’re doing with the storytelling part of comic book making. All these creators out there are having difficulty getting their work into the hands of readers beyond those that they’ve found through social media and comics expos. I pitched Latinographix to OSU Press because, even though it’s a trade press series, I wanted the cultural capital and scholarly weight of an academic publisher behind it. I want these books adapted and taught in university classrooms. I want them to be taken seriously as objects of scholarly study just as you would a book coming out of an academic press generally. Getting them into the hands of college students and into university libraries will ensure their longevity on the shelf and in getting them into the hands of future generations of scholars.

There are all these incredible Latinx creators everywhere. They’re creating stories in all different genres and modes– autobiographical, superheroic, romance, memoir, everything and anything. Even things we don’t even recognize. They’re out there doing this great work, but it’s so hard for people to find them and their innovative visual-verbal narratives. I want students and layreaders all over the world to be reading and studying these works.

As part of this, the imprint has two books coming out this fall. One is Tales From La Vida. Why did you decide to assemble an anthology?

I asked each of the contributors if they could think about a hinge moment in their lives – either as a Latinx person and/or as a creator of comics – and if they could recreate that moment in a 2-to-4 page comic. Everybody was really excited They stepped up and before you know it, I had over eighty contributors in one single volume.

When Tales From La Vida comes out this September people all over the country will be able to buy it or borrow it from libraries. They will encounter all of the resplendent pivotal moments in the lives of these Latinx comics creators. They will see how each creator uniquely shapes their journeys. From here, the readers will seek out more of these creators’ works. That’s what it’s all about.

As you said there’s over eighty creators and there’s a lot of great work. You have big names and you have a lot of people I never heard of.

Great. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.

So the plan for the anthology was from the start was to tell short, real life stories?

Through that visual-verbal narrative vignette, I wanted to introduce people like you to the style, the stamp, the form, the shape that each of these different creators gives to their work. So, it’s not just you finding out, wow, that happened to Ricardo Dominguez, but you going, wow, there’s something dazzling about his shaping of the story and I want to go read more of his stuff.

The other really important thing to keep in mind is that it shouts from the rooftops that it’s not just a boys-only club. We have Latinas and LGBTQ creators that are vitally creating and shaping stories. it shouts roofs that this is where the vitality of the creative arts is happening for Latinxs today.

The other fall book coming out from the imprint is Eric Garcia’s collection of political comics, Drawing on Anger. I’ve read his comics in the past but it really is a different experience reading them in a collection like this.

I love seeing them all in one place for a number of reasons. One, it gives us a fuller sense of the complexity of how politics shape our daily lives over big stretches of time. And, it’s beautifully crafted in its line work and nuanced detail. You get all of that by bringing these pieces together into one volume.

Reading a good collection of political cartoons, like this one, you come to understand not just what the cartoonist believes and not just how they work, but how they think.

Absolutely. It’s an ideal moment for us as readers who engage with this kind of work to get a fuller sense of what we might call the career artist. We do this when we return artists and authors that we love—and this already at an early age. As a teenager I was drawn more to Marvel comics than DC, sci-fi novels more than romances, Orozco more than Manet. With Eric’s Drawing on Anger you’re getting that chance to deeply invest in a Latinx artist and his worldview as shaped by his narrative artistry.

Besides the anthology, Drawing on Anger is the third book in the imprint, and they’re all very different from each other. For you, what are the connections between them?

You can’t get away from the social and political now. Each book does it differently and each one gives shape and art to different kinds of questions, but you can’t walk away from any of these and think they somehow exist out of time and out of place. They are very much made by creators in tune with the world at different moments and in very specific locations. That is unavoidable and maybe even inevitable with Latinx creators.

The books are all very engaged with the world. I hesitate to describe books as “political”. What’s the old Howard Zinn line, you can’t be neutral on a moving line?

Exactly. That’s another thing that I love about Tales From La Vida. Some of the Latinx creators give overt shape to the political while others choose to simply have this whisper in the background. I think it’s important for our readers to have a sense of the great variety of experiences and worldviews that inform Latinx comics storytelling.

I’ve read Tales From La Vida twice and the two things that stand out are that few of them have the same style and that while there’s overlap, they all come from very different lives and experiences.

Absolutely. The more we can put that out there for people the better. It can radically change the paradigm – the way the mainstream recreates Latinxs as a border crossing threatening hoard. The more people who see us for the great variety and richness that we are and that we add to the country, the better.

Especially coming now where there is this idea among a lot of white people that Latinx people are this monolithic group with a singular identity and culture, which  is nonsense.

Even within our families there’s a lot of variation and variety. It couldn’t come at a better moment, to be honest. If storytelling has a potential capacity to change the way people think and act – as I believe it does – then what better time than this for the publication of Tales From La VidaDiary of a Reluctant Dreamer, Angelitos, and Drawing on Anger. We need these more than ever right now.

I’m sure you have the next few years planned out in some detail, but do you want to say more broadly what do you want to do with the imprint and the space you want to create.

I’d like to bring in more women and LGBTQ creators. I’m working on actively to bring these voices and experiences into the Latinographix pipeline. Part of publishing Tales From La Vida was to identify new generations of Latinas and LGBTQ creators. To open this door. With any luck, you’ll be seeing books by these Latinx creators over the next couple of years.