Of the two Oxnard-born brothers who created "Love and Rockets," the punk-era comic series that's arguably the genre's most influential work of its day, Gilbert Hernandez is widely considered the John Lennon figure -- the driven, "serious artist," allergic to superficiality and attracted by ugliness as well as beauty.
But digging into dinner and joking about his childhood on a recent evening at a Valley bistro, he comes across as a well-adjusted, down-to-earth guy. It's hard to imagine him producing the kinds of characters and situations his three decades as a comics artist have led him to: the child who disappears during a solar eclipse, the father who's killed in prison fighting for a cigarette lighter, the lives full of hurt and sudden loss.
"I'm not a brooder," said the bearded and bespectacled Hernandez, 50, in town for a recent appearance at Book Soup.
"But those dark thoughts come out when I'm drawing. Sometimes I'm criticized for sitting around and thinking of the worst things that happen to people. But that's only partly true."
His goal, he said, is always to create a compelling narrative, not just a catalog of horrors. "I do want it to be a story."
That talent has earned him a legion of fans, including the novelist Junot Diaz. "In a real world, not the screwed-up world we have now, he would be considered one of the greatest American storytellers," Diaz said.
"It's so hard to do funny, tragic, local and epic, and he does all simultaneously, and with great aplomb."
Hernandez's latest work is "Chance in Hell," the violent and perverse graphic novel about a vulnerable young girl found wandering in a city dump. When co-creators break up -- Gilbert and his brother, Jaime, are still producing one "Love and Rockets" a year but have basically "gone solo" -- their tendencies typically emerge full-blown.
At the risk of forcing the Lennon analogy, "Chance in Hell" is more Plastic Ono Band than "Imagine": It's raw and, at 120 pages uncut by Jaime's more hopeful worldview and more graceful style, seems like a lot of pain and peril in one place.
For Gilbert himself, who hopes to produce a one-off each year, the process was liberating.
"There's nothing harder than doing new stories with old characters," he said of his multi-generational cast, headed by the fiery and large-bosomed Luba, who mostly reside in the vaguely magic-realist Central American town of Palomar. "Even though these characters are part of me. But I can't do it anymore, after 25 years. While with 'Chance in Hell,' I took the chance to deal with a character, all in one place, and say goodbye to her. It wasn't always easy, but it was freeing."
He's the kind of storyteller who's not afraid to overreach or miss completely. Douglas Wolk, whose new book, "Reading Comics," considers the Hernandez brothers alongside other key figures, writes that Gilbert's comics "look like the work of an iconoclast -- he's got the rough, wobbly line and a pervasive interest in grotesqueries, he highlights the wrinkles and flaws in everything he draws, and he's fond of one-off experiments in which he lets his id run wild on paper."
"Growing up with him, he was a normal kid," said Jaime Hernandez, 47, who lives in Pasadena. "And he grew up to be a normal adult. But he's got certain demons. Gilbert's one of these artists who has to do what he does, or he'd die."
'On the high end of poor'
When Gilbert and his brothers were growing up in Oxnard in the '60s and '70s, comics were everywhere. They seemed to have the only mother in the nation's history who encouraged them to collect, and even revere, comic books rather than throwing them out. They developed a special fondness for adventure comics, Milton Caniff, "Dennis the Menace" and the superhero auteur Jack Kirby.
"We were poor, but just on the high end of poor," Hernandez recalled. "Poor enough to know it, and poor enough not to have things, but not enough for it to ruin our future selves."
The budding Bros. Hernandez -- including Mario, 54, who contributed to a few issues and brought an issue of Zap comics into the house -- were ravenous in their pursuit of visuals in all forms. "It got to the point where we'd look at a magazine, and if one of the pages was an advertisement for Uniroyal Tires, we'd try to figure out who the artist was."
The brothers got drawn into punk rock, playing in a few now-forgotten bands and designing fliers and album jackets for bands such as Dr. Know and Black Flag. They were also serious film fans: Gilbert today loves the visual storytelling of silent films, as well as directors including Fellini, Howard Hawks and Kurosawa, and he runs Turner Classic Movies in the background while he draws.
About the same time, the brothers started "Love and Rockets," which was, early on, a mix of science-fiction stories and tales of the SoCal punk scene. While their work appeared in the same issues, the brothers soon found their own directions, with Jaime developing stories of two punkettes and a female wrestler and Gilbert creating an extended family in Central America that's been compared to the works of García Márquez.
It was also clear that while Jaime had the smoother, more effortless drawing style -- "he'll draw in his sleep," his older brother said -- that Gilbert was the more sophisticated storyteller of the duo.
Perhaps because their father had died when they were young, the main characters are almost all women,
The comic came from what Gilbert describes as "a mixture of things we heard happening to people, overhearing conversations of adults talking -- when the adults don't think you're listening -- things we saw in the paper and on the news, and a lot from films." His literary influences, which he said include "The Great Gatsby" and some novels of Carson McCullers, are more limited.
Gilbert's work, Wolk writes, captured the tensions of post-punk Los Angeles, where the strains "of race and class and sex and language and culture were insupportable and about to erupt into flames."
It's not hard to track the influence of the series, which served as a bridge between the '60s underground and the world of today, inside the comics subculture. Probably the most respected comics artist under 40, Adrian Tomine of the "Optic Nerve" series, is lavish in his praise of Los Bros Hernandez.
The current reissues of the books in oversized trade-paperback form on Fantagraphics is only likely to increase the exposure. But the stories resonated outside the comics ghetto as well: When three former members of the gloomy English band Bauhaus started a new group in 1985 they took the name Love and Rockets. And Diaz, the author of "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," began reading the series in the '80s and never stopped. Diaz praises his ability to write about Latin America without cliché, sentimentality and folkloric overdose.
"For those of us who are writing across or on borders, I honestly think he was, for me, more important than anyone else. The stories he was writing on Palomar were recognizable to me, who grew up in the Third World, in a way that made everything else seem shabby and familiar. And his eye is stupendous."
Hernandez appreciates the acclaim "Love and Rockets" has drawn and the growing respectability of comics. But this hasn't made it any easier to make a living as an independent comics artist, and he lives in Las Vegas with his wife and daughter largely, he said, because he couldn't afford to buy a house here.
In harm's way
Soon after starting "Love and Rockets," while still living in Oxnard, Hernandez and a friend met a boy of 9 or so who insisted they give him a ride. The kid sat in the back seat, playing with an army tank and talking a mile a minute.
At the time, they thought it was funny. But looking back, Hernandez realized how vulnerable kids are. "He was lucky he picked the right guys; we were the last ones to give him trouble." The new book, "Chance in Hell," takes an innocent and puts her in what he calls "a more harrowing setting."
Walking around for years with ideas that only gradually develop into full-blown stories is typical for Hernandez's way of working. But some things have changed since the days of "Love and Rockets."
"In the old days, it was like I was writing the Great American Novel: I only worked when the muse came; I couldn't force it. Now I know you can do a lot of boring, technical stuff while you're not inspired . . . so I don't waste time."
And these days, he said, he's not afraid to be indulgent and admits that much of his recent work is "near ragged. These days I make the mistakes. Because there's an energy to the way a filmmaker or artist or writer works at the beginning.."
As for Vegas, he still seems baffled by the Strip: "Once in a while I'll take a trip there with friends and go, 'Oh, yeah, this is where I live.' "
But his attraction to larger-than-life-characters in his comics may explain it in part.
"The professional fraud -- the blowhard -- has always fascinated me. As a storyteller, I've always liked the good lie." He's always been interested in professional wrestlers, as well as outrageous characters such as Liberace and the schmaltzy hosts of old horror films.
"People say, 'That's not true.' But I don't care -- I'm in this world where the story is enough for me."