Sheriff Chelo the midwife, Luba the bathhouse manager and Tonantzin the cook who specializes in slugs all struggle against problems as daunting as any faced by super-heroes Spiderman or Superman.
With only their wits and fists, the characters of the comic book "Love & Rockets" confront prejudice and intolerance on every page.
Brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez of Oxnard created "Love and Rockets" nearly 10 years ago. While amassing awards, international recognition and a host of fans, they have evolved their out-of-the-mainstream characters, who often lead lives of quiet desperation in Oxnard-like towns.
"We're dealing with characters that people are prejudiced against. If there is anything I can't stand, it's racism or prejudice against sexual preference. So we emphasize that people can be anything they want," said Gilbert, creator of the 60 denizens of the fictional barrio Palomar.
Each brother develops his own stories and characters in the comic books, and they alternate doing the covers.
"Ninety-nine percent of our characters are second- or third-class citizens. There is always something about them that is not very popular," Jaime said. His two main characters, mechanics Maggie and Hopey, are a bisexual and a lesbian.
The $2.50 comic books are recommended for mature readers. The characters struggle through a maelstrom of child abuse, abandonment, loneliness, teen-age sex, heartbreak, drunkenness, abortion and suicide.
"We're dealing for the most part with people's everyday lives, not action or super-heroes or science fiction," Gilbert said. "It's a balance of fantasy and realism, and it's up to the reader to figure out which is which."
So who reads these comic books?
According to Ralph Holt, owner of Ralph's Comic Books in Ventura, "Love & Rockets" readers are a cross-section of adults ages 18 to 30.
"It sells well for what it is--black and white as opposed to color, not about super-heroes. It appeals to people who want stories told in comics," he said.
The Hernandez brothers estimated that half their readers are women, compared to 20% for other comics.
He says women's body language and clothes are more interesting to draw and he didn't want to do a cliched sexpot, so he created a female sheriff and his brother draws women mechanics.
"For the most part, comics are male adolescent power fantasies. There is not a lot there of interest to women. Most of our characters are women, and the stories are based around their lives. We apparently handle it well enough to have a strong female readership," Gilbert said.
About 10% of their fans are Latino. "We take advantage of being Latino. That's rare in pop culture," Jaime said. "Love & Rockets," is liberally spiced with Spanish names and words, although the brothers say they don't read or speak Spanish.
"But the culture is there because it's our culture," Gilbert said.
"Love & Rockets" has been published by Fantagraphics in Washington state since 1982, when it arrived with a request for criticism on publisher Gary Groth's desk. Groth adopted it as the chief title of his new comics publishing company.
"They do serious dramatic work using the comics idiom. No one comes close," Groth said.
The original book is now a collector's item that has sold for $150, Holt said.
The comic books, released three to six times a year, sell about 24,000 copies an issue in the United States, compared to 500,000 an issue for super-hero comic books.
But Groth said "Love & Rockets" is one of the best-selling adult comics. "Few others sell anywhere near there," he said.
The comic books also sell in translation in five European countries and are resold in collections.
The comic book industry has given the duo four Harvey Awards, named for Harvey Kurtzman, who created Mad magazine. In 1988 and '89, both brothers won for best continuing series and Gilbert won for writing.
They also have been awarded many prizes and plaques, so many that a couple are hung behind a bird cage in Jaime's Oxnard apartment and others are stashed in closets.
"Every few months our publisher calls and says 'Oh, by the way, you've won an award from Denmark or Switzerland.' It's flattering and we appreciate it, but it's not our goal," Gilbert said.
Despite their success, the brothers have at times considered tossing in their Rapidographs, the pens they use for inking-in pictures.
Raised on music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Jaime used to play bass guitar and drums and Gilbert played guitar. As members of a local band, Dr. Know, their hairstyles and hair colors vacillated between Mohawk and orange. But they dropped their dreams of music when their comic books took off.
"They say statistically whatever you're doing at age 33 you're going to be doing for the rest of your life, and I'm pretty satisfied," said Gilbert, 34.
Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez will sign lithographs of four "Love & Rockets" pages that will be sold, along with work by other Ventura County artists Saturday. The art show will be open from 7 to 8 p.m., followed by the Carlos Almaraz Memorial Concert and Tribute, featuring guitarists Strunz and Farah. The event, a benefit for Aids Care and the Latino Health Coalition, will be staged at the Dorill B. Wright Cultural Center, 575 E. Surfside Drive, Port Hueneme. For information, call 643-0446.
UP CLOSE JAIME AND GILBERT HERNANDEZ
Favorite reading: Old editions of "Archie," "Dennis the Menace" and "Peanuts."
Early start: Jaime, 31, began drawing at age 4; Gilbert, 34, started at 5.
Quote: "We're giving you our world. Anyone can read it. We're not trying to alienate anyone, but we give you what we know and give it to you with both barrels. You're welcome, but you may not like what you see."--Jaime.