Jaime Hernandez, an illustrator from Los Angeles, is best known for his comic book series Love and Rockets. The series, which Hernandez writes and illustrates with his brothers Gilbert and Mario, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary and continues to be a mainstay in the alternative comic movement. Last fall Hernandez teamed up with Riverhead Books to illustrate Junot Diaz’s book This Is How You Lose Her, a heartbreaking and tender collection of stories from Diaz that celebrates and laments his character Yunior’s relationships with the women in his life. We were lucky enough to talk to Hernandez from his home in Los Angeles about illustrating and writing female characters.
Interview by Maitri Mehta. Illustrations c/o Riverhead Books.
First of all, thank you for illustrating this book. It’s one of my favorites, and I just got a copy of the illustrated version. It’s beautiful!
Thank you! But I owe it all to the publisher [Riverhead Books]; they did all of the design work.
Did you know Junot Diaz before you illustrated his work for The New Yorker?
Yeah, I was emailing him back when I did one of his first stories, but my computer crashed and I lost all the contact information until this time around! I was first introduced to his work through part of the Oscar Wao story [The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao].
Many people—myself included—find a lot of similarities in yours and Diaz’s work.
Sure, sure. A lot of the character development is similar. Maybe it’s just Latino culture.
Is there a reason you’re drawn to creating female characters? Do you feel like it’s more important?
There’s a million reasons. I basically… like women! You know, all around. For the right reasons and sometimes for the wrong reasons [laughs]. I think it all started when I was 13 and learning to draw women. I was a little scared to before that. Growing up Catholic, my mom was uptight about stuff and uptight about sex and I was a kid, you know? It was always, “Don’t draw girls, you’ll go to hell," or worse, "Mom’s gonna get mad." And when I was 12 or 13 my older brother Gilbert was already drawing women and doing comics with women, and he was like “You should draw girls, it’s fun.” From then on, it was like if I wanted to do stories about women I had to... should I say, back it up? It didn't feel right JUST to draw curvy women. I had to put something else in there to bring them to life. I think that's where it started. I just started to like writing women. I don't know if I was doing it right, but I was trying, and by the time we did Love and Rockets, a woman came up to me and said, “I like your women characters and I like the way you do women.” And I said bam, okay, I'm here. I've got nothing to apologize for.
I think it's hard for male artists to write a good woman which is really why I love Junot Diaz. Did you have a favorite of the girls in This Is How You Lose Her?
Yes, the one that read comics, Nilda, because she had 50 million things going on in her head. I liked the craziness and the sweetness and the intelligence, all of that put together in one character. She spoke to me more than the others.
Was it difficult to illustrate someone else's writing?
Yeah, especially because in prose you don't have to describe people in detail so I was looking at every detail in the writing, thinking, "Okay, I'm getting an idea about this woman," and then three pages later I find out she's not Latina, she's white! I guess I could have asked Junot himself but I figured it was my job that I was hired for, to figure it out myself, to put my two cents in there. You know, to help create his world. Luckily he agreed with 99.9 percent of what I did.
Did you have a lot of freedom in how you interpreted his characters?
Yes, a lot, but there were a few things that came back to me in his notes. You know, make this character bigger, or make this character more this and that. But not too much, and I’m happy that he trusted me because this is his world, and I know how personal that can be.
Diaz’s stories are really autobiographical. Are yours too?
Yeah, of course, but I take liberties and change things because my life is pretty boring and my characters need a more interesting life for my readers to follow them. I romanticize sometimes but within reality.
It seems like you ended up doing exactly what you wanted to do in life—any advice for young illustrators or artists in general?
Ooh! Tell the truth. Or I guess, be truthful to what you're drawing; don't fake it because you'll be found out later. It's hard to explain... but that's why I'm an artist and not a teacher.
Did you ever teach anywhere?
Nope. I sat in on a graphic novel class once; I didn't know I was being primed to maybe teach a class. I just sat there kind of like a doofus. I could never express myself the way these teachers do; that’s why I let it come out in my art.