Gilbert Hernandez is a national treasure. Although he’s lived here for nearly a decade, the average Las Vegan wouldn’t recognize this gem.
Hernandez is the co-creator of Love and Rockets, one of the most acclaimed and influential independent comic book series of the last 30 years. Along with his brothers Jaime and Mario, Hernandez brought a unique perspective to underground comics, melding early-1980s punk rock sensibilities with Latin American themes.
More of a storyteller than a pure artist, Hernandez has created intricate worlds populated with rich characters and fully realized settings, both through long-form serials running through the pages of Love and Rockets and in standalone graphic novels such as Palomar (Fantagraphics Books, 2003). Through simple but effective brush strokes paired with complex, interwoven plotting, Hernandez has brought to life the corruption and drama of a Central American town as thoroughly as he has the cross-cultural tensions of urban America.
“The art is so beautiful, but even without words it says so much about our shared humanity,” says Amada Cruz, program director for United States Artists, the grant-making, nonprofit organization that awarded Hernandez a $50,000 fellowship in December. That Hernandez won the award for literature is no fluke. Although three other comic book artists have also been named USA Fellows, he is the first to do so in a category filled with best-selling authors, award-winning poets and renowned monologists.
“What we’re looking for is unique artistic vision,” Cruz says. “The panel—made up of writers—chose him enthusiastically.” For Hernandez, that vision is a unique interplay between words and pictures. While his brother Jaime is generally regarded as the more gifted artist of the two, Hernandez—who turned 53 this month—has been considered the better writer, his stories presenting a more challenging read as they weave between times, locations and characters. But that doesn’t mean his art is lacking. His solid, cartoonish style emphasizes expression over realism and yet immerses the reader in his created worlds.
“My comics are more about the storytelling than the drawing,” Hernandez says. “Of course, in comics, one complements the other if you’re doing it right.”
Hernandez plans to use the USA Fellows grant to pursue comics projects allowing him more self-expression than his typical comics done to pay the bills, which he says “can burn me out a bit.” That’s somewhat ironic, given he once admitted to first getting into comics to avoid getting a real job. However, the need to pay the bills isn’t stopping Hernandez from experimenting with his regular 50-page contribution to the next issue of Love and Rockets, a story he calls “straight science-fiction romance.”
“This could be a slight risk, because oftentimes people check out Love and Rockets to see why people talk about it, and they might expect something more down to earth,” Hernandez says. “I like doing whatever I want to in comics and that isn’t always what people are looking for.”