In Other Words
Graphic Borders: Latino Comic Books Past, Present, and Future,
Reading this new survey of Latino comics and graphic novels made me realize my lapsed status as an “alternatino.” My last experience with the genre was Love and Rockets by the Hernandez brothers (Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario), an almost universally beloved long-form comic-strip novel that reveled in collapsing distinctions between Chicano family life, pulpy noir films, and what was then the underground punk culture of the 1980s and ’90s.
In the two decades since, a throng of Latino artists and writers have flocked to the genre to tackle serious social issues and flesh out visual biographies of Hispanic icons, all while couching their comic strips and graphic novels inside plotlines and characters more outrageous than anything dreamed up ina telenovela. Here’s a sampling of some of the past decade’s offerings: In Richard Dominguez’s El Gato
Negro, a troubled young man dons a muscular feline suit to battle against police who mistakenly think he is in league with same narcos whose South Texas drug syndicates he actually infiltrates and destroys. Then there’s Erik Rodriguez’s Hispanic Batman, a Spanglishspeaking, bisexual Batman who makes passes at Erik Estrada and flirts with “a sexed-up Condoleeza Rice costumed as Cat Woman.” In Tales of the Closet, Ivan Velez Jr. draws strips to illuminate the coming-out stories of teens from an array of cultures, races, and genders. With El Muerto: The Aztec Zombie, Javier Hernandez borrows freely from Haitian and Chicano folklore to illustrate his tale of a supernatural young man trapped between earthly Southern California and the Aztec underworld of Mictlan.
The boom in Latino comic publishing is a match of style and form, says one of the academic types in the critical think pieces that make up this anthology. Ralph Rodriguez, an American studies professor at Brown University, writes that the tales of justice-seeking supernatural outsiders who dominate the comic-book genre resonate “especially well with Chicana/os, who though subjects of the nation are often represented as alien to it.” Perhaps it also helps that comics translate well to the web and to e-readers, while being considerably less time-consuming to translate.
Comic panel strips have also been adapted as a strong medium for history and biography, such as Wilfred Santiago’s 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente. An unconventional biography of the breakthrough baseball legend, Santiago’s graphic novel veers away from the diamond to examine the development of Clemente’s character. Some panels describe his strange racial odyssey, as a Puerto Rican of African descent forced to dine separately from his teammates when they played games in the Jim Crow South. Other panels take full visual advantage of the comic superhero trope. Santiago’s illustrations of Clemente’s record-breaking 3,000th hit feature the slugger’s arm transformed into a freshly fired cannon, his powerful hands flexing as human eyeballs protrude from his fingertips.
Ilan Stavans, the lexicographer and Latino popculture essayist, reveals his own personal history with the comic form, growing up as a Jewish immigrant in 1960s Mexico City. As a teen, he poured through historietas — comic pamphlets, frequently philosophical or ideological in nature, that use Mexican characters and hero-vs.-villain plots to entertain, educate, and unsettle their readers. Historietas have long been derided by Mexico’s intellectual class as crass and unrefined. Stavans’ essay rehabilitates the genre and describes how modern-day cartoonists might benefit from studying how the genre effortlessly candy-coated demanding discussions about Mexican identity and culture in a sweet sheen of dime-novel drama.
In particular, he reflects on the historietas of Eduardo del Río García, otherwise known by his pen name, Rius. While Rius’ plots are pure pulp — a mestizo family known as Los Supermachos battle enemies undermining Mexico — he had deep popular appeal. According to Stavans, nearly a quarter-million Mexicans bought his work on a monthly basis in the 1960s and ’70s. “I ... see him [Rius] as my Virgil in my understanding of a number of thorny issues connected to Mexican culture,” Stavans writes. “What Rius intended to do, in my view, was teach his readers to be unsettled by Mexico’s political landscape.”
For readers unaccustomed to the academic language of the professor-authored think pieces in here, the book can be a slow experience. Those looking for a “more pop, less scholar” approach to the genre might still go with 2009’s Your Brain on Latino Comics (University of Texas Press), authored by Frederick Luis Aldama, who co-edited this anthology. But for those wanting a deeper look at the wells of artistic styles, cultural trends, and historical pressures that influence our current crop of Latino artist-authors, this anthology digs deep and wide.