November 2003

Karin L. Kross


An Interview with Lea Hernandez

Lea Hernandez is the wonderfully talented artist behind Clockwork Angels and Cathedral Child (reviewed this issue; see the Comicbookslut column) and Rumble Girls (trade paperback of Rumble Girls: Silky Warrior Tansie available from NBM in October). Her Japanese-inspired style and unique voice are a breath of fresh air on the comics shelves, especially for women comics readers looking for something outside the usual male-dominated fare. She took some time from her busy schedule to answer questions for Bookslut, and here's the result.

Lots of people involved in comics have a "how I learned to stop worrying and love comics" story. What's yours?

Loving comics for years means falling in love over and over. It's like a long-time relationship. (I can say this, having been married for as long as I've been a pro, which is about twenty years.) You always love what you love, and learn to accept what won't change--then route around it. As with any long-term thing, if you want it to last, you have to keep it fresh. That's why I'm telling stories in more than one "universe", and why I do things like Killer Princesses (Oni) with Gail Simone or The Punisher (Marvel) with Peter David.

But the last time I remember saying to myself, "I HAVE to do this, I CAN do this," was right after I saw the Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In that, a storyteller named Clopin helps bring about the fall of Judge Frollo by telling people stories about his misdeeds and weaknesses. Maybe because I was raised Catholic, I always had this feeling that my life's work needed to help people, be of some service. I thought, "That's IT." I finally found a way to combine passion and a calling.

Scott McCloud writes about some of the characteristics of Japanese comics that distinguish them from the Western kind. What's your take on that?

I have friends who don't agree with it, and I remind them Scott didn't come down from a mountain with two stone tablets. I thought it was insightful, myself.

What do you feel that Western comics creators can learn from the Japanese?

Let me answer by saying I wish they'd get past the big eyes and speedlines crap, and filching from Shirow Masamune (or whoever their favorite is), and delve into genres besides thinly-disguised faux porn that they call "stories about strong women." This is not to say Japanese comics aren't loaded with crap, because they certainly are. But it's certainly easier to name, say, ten female creators, and twenty comics that aren't superheroes.

What are some creators and titles you'd recommend to those of us who are less familiar with Japanese comics than we'd like to be?

My best advice would be for someone who wants to get familiar to go to a Borders or Barnes and Noble and look in the graphic novel section. There's so many translated manga out right now. While most of them are still pretty much fantasy or sci-fi, we're are rapidly approaching the something for anyone (I do mean something for anyone not something for everyone) event horizon. Pull books off the shelves and look at them!

My second-best advice would be to ignore labels like "authentic" in choosing titles. Truly "authentic" manga would be, simply, the books imported straight from Japan. Anything else is just marketing and hype. All the big players in manga translations right now have their strengths and weaknesses, and I applaud anyone who can make cheap production values seem like an asset, but that doesn't make their books better.

What drew you to Japanese comics?

I think part of it must have been that as a kid I found the art styles in Rankin Bass cartoons (which had Japanese designers) FAR more attractive than American ones. I'm not just talking about the Christmas and Easter specials like Rudolph and "Here Comes Peter Cottontail," but also "Mad Monster Party," "The Reluctant Dragon" and "The Last Unicorn." As I said in another interview, I imprinted on that general style like a gosling, and have been quacking along behind it ever since. I don't doubt part of the reason, too, is that there was nothing much that interested me in American comics and animation when I was a kid and teenager because they (the animation especially), was so crap, so ugly, and the writing so wooden and formulaic and so geared towards boys (or seemingly the product of production meetings soaked on cocaine and booze). Bleh. In my formative art years Disney wasn't putting out much animation. I was drooling over things made around and before the time I was born, like Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians. Young comic artists now have 13 years of good-looking Disney films drawn by artists like Glen Keane, Philo Barnhart and Ruben Aquino for influence. Not to mention lots of interesting stuff from the U.S. and Japan on Cartoon Network.

Who are some of the artists (in any medium -- prose, film, music, etc) from whom you've drawn inspiration?

Sarah Brightman, Tori Amos (There! I said it! TORI!), Ani Di Franco, Bjork, Dale Messick, Rumiko Takahashi, CLAMP, Mutsumi Inomata, Chuck Palahniuk, Carl Hiassen, Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, Carla Speed McNeil, Sean Bieri, my daughter (who is absolutely fearless in her expression), Joanna Russ, Anthony Bourdain, Jane Campion, JK Rowling, Emma Thompson, Roberto Rodriguez, Johnny Depp, Tim Burton, Janeane Garafolo, Veronica Franco.

What were some of the ideas and influences that helped shape Cathedral Child and Clockwork Angels?

The earliest germ of Cathedral was the idea that buildings become haunted by the passage of many people through them, making changes that make sense only to the people making them, and if a building was old enough, it might start to be alive. That, combined with a scientific romance retelling of The Little Mermaid (the HCA one, not the Disney): a girl creature who longs to be with humans.

What did you learn from creating Cathedral Child, and how did that shape your subsequent work?

Everything! I learned how to pace myself. I learned forcibly how much can be done in a day, as opposed to how much you HAVE to do, or CAN do. I learned how to be more clear in communicating my ideas. How much to leave out. How much I didn't know. It's a snake in a box: by making comics, you learn your shape.

I like that phrase; it reminds me of the maxim that art is not so much knowing what to add as when to stop taking away. Do you have a general working method for your day?

I'll describe a productive day as opposed to one where I screw off, procrastinate because I'm obsessed over something, or am interrupted by sick kids or a late husband.

Get up early (about 6 AM or so, a new thing for me), go for a walk. Help get kids to school. Work like mad on the highest priority jobs from 8AM until 3PM, which is when kids get home. Go back to work when husband gets home at 6PM-ish. Stagger to bed at 11 PM-midnight. Sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Do you feel you've known the "greater story" for the Texas Steampunk books all along, or do you find that you're following it where it leads you? For example, when you were working on Cathedral Child, did you already have some part of Milly's history in your head?

Yes, I'm following where it goes. I'm allergic to huge over-arcing stories, because those are horrid life-gobblers. I'm completely queer for many different stories in the same setting, though! And, yes, while I was working on Cathedral, I was thinking about Clockwork and Milly. I'm finishing Rumble Girls: Silky Warrior Tansie, and percolating Rumble Girls: Runaway Lightning Ohmry and the next Texas Steampunk, which is Ironclad Petal.

Any thoughts about the Cyberosia editions of the Texas Steampunk books as opposed to the Image editions? (Not meaning to imply anything about Image here; just wondering how you feel about the new versions.)

I love the new versions. The art is finally close to my original work. Someone I know professionally described the printing work of the company that did Cathedral Child and Clockwork Angels as "potato printing." I described it as being made by a bird from The Flintstones. I was glad to have an opportunity to go back and annotate the work, too. I wanted to do that the first go-round and chickened out, don't know why. I also love my publisher, Scott Brown. We're often uni-minded when we talk about packaging. Scott makes sure the books he publishes get individual attention.

Obligatory industry question: it's not pleasant, but it seems to be somewhat true that if you ask a non-aficionado comics reader the names of a few writers or artists, the first few named will be men. Who are some women comics creators that you'd tell people to seek out?

Linda Medley, Carla Speed McNeil, CLAMP (except for Chobits, it skeeves me out, and I think plays into this wrong but persistent idea of Japanese as a nation of perv-comics lovers), all the girls of Pants Press (Dylan Meconis, Jen Wang, Clio Chiang, Vera Brosgol, Erika Moen, every one of 'em stinkin' unfairly talented), Becky Cloonan, and Gail Simone (who is one of the most clever writers in comics, damn her).

What does living in Texas contribute to your work?

A sense that in spite of lousy government, people are still darn nice and humanity should be allowed to carry on. I like to say that it helps that a lot of Texas is so hot for enough of the year that it's too hot to be an asshole. Dallas, see, isn't hot enough.

That comment made me laugh a great deal.

One for everyone south of Waco.

It's affordable for an artist to live here, so a level of comfort helps. For me, personally, I'm simply very happy here. I have a house, friends, a church community, my kids have a good school. A sense of righteousness, too: I'm ready to punch the next person who blames Texas for producing a lousy president. Blame his brother, his coke habit, his sense of rich white boy entitlement, and the Supreme Court. Read Molly Ivins and Al Franken and work to get rid of him.

Apart from the setting for the Steampunk books; as a writer living in Texas myself, I'm curious as to what other artists get from this very distinctive state.

The state's history is so rich, so full of characters, so full of both good and bad. We had our own alien invasion (by which I mean spacemen, not immigrants). The Texas Rangers (the lawmen, not the baseball team). SXSW in Austin. Back in the late 1800's, there was a community of Native American living near San Antone, and people reaching out to them. We've got pageants, and we've got actual culture. There's a bottomless well to draw from!

Also, am I correct in thinking that the setting for the Steampunk books looks a lot like the countryside outside of San Antonio?

The next book takes place in San Antonio. Cathedral Child and (part of) Clockwork Angels took place in, er, somewhere north of SA.

Finally, where is the muse leading you next?

To finish Rumble Girls and start the new Rumble Girls series and the next Texas Steampunk book!