|Artist Lea Hernandez works on a comic in her studio. Photo by Mark Greenberg|
Indie comics artist Lea Hernandez wants to bring female-friendly comics to the Web - and make it pay.
The inside of Lea Hernandez' mind probably looks a lot like her in-home studio: cluttered, charming, and chock-full of strange and interesting stuff.
Hernandez refers to it in geological terms: entire strata of art books, action figures, and Japanese comic collections, piled onto shelves and stacked in corners. Throw in a pet or two - Angel the rat and Sprocket the cat greeted one recent visitor - and one begins to wonder how she can possibly concentrate in there, much less find anything.
"It's organized chaos," Hernandez explains cheerfully. "I know where everything is, more or less."
Over the past 20 years, Hernandez has paid the bills with jobs as an awning seamstress, security guard, and animation studio vice-president. Now she shares a colorful Leon Valley bungalow with her husband, two children, and a menagerie of pets, being Mom by day and Acclaimed Comics Creator by night. She is also the newly minted editor of Girlamatic.com, a Web site launched last March to showcase girl-friendly comics from mostly female creators.
Teenage-boy power fantasies like the X-Men and the Hulk may get the publicity and the big movie deals, but in bookstores and libraries across the country, their superhero comics are losing ground to foreign competition aimed at boys and girls alike. Sales figures from Diamond Comics Distribution show that 16 of last May's top-selling graphic novels were translated Japanese comics. Manga, as it is collectively known, offers readers sports, horror, politics, romance, and even cooking. Since manga emphasizes character development and emotion more than most American comics, teenage girls are helping to power its sales. In a Publisher's Weekly interview last January, Michael Martens of Dark Horse Comics reported strong sales of girl-oriented manga titles in bookstores and comic shops, and a 400 percent increase in sales to libraries.
Hernandez is no Jane-come-lately to the manga phenomenon. She makes part of her living writing English dialogue for some of Dark Horse's manga reprints. Her own work uses a Japanese-inspired style, and her stories capture the interests of both genders.
Her current stories are rooted in the Japanese-made cartoons that hooked her as a kid. Growing up in Garland, Texas, in the 1970s, Hernandez noticed that shows like Speed Racer and Star Blazers layered their storylines with soap-opera twists that American cartoons never touched. "It was compelling stuff," she recalls. "When characters died, they stayed dead."
She first encountered manga in college, from a book her future husband brought her. "Here's a whole country `Japan` where you can do comics for girls, and it's a real job," Hernandez says. Her friends told her she couldn't create comics with female protagonists, but she refused to listen. "I was already imprinted like a little goose on that manga style."
After struggling for more than a decade, Hernandez published her first graphic novel in 1997. Cathedral Child, a sci-fi romance set in 1890s Texas, won praise from critics, readers and fellow creators. She followed Cathedral with Clockwork Angels in 1998, and a mass-media satire, Rumble Girls, in 2000.
Although Hernandez produced Cathedral in California, the details of its frontier setting sprung from memories of her Texas childhood. "There's certainly no shortage of things to write about `in Texas`," Hernandez says. Interviews, reading, and online research help her unearth the true-life weirdness that enriches her work. For example, a mysterious airship sighted in Denton, Texas, in 1897 became transportation for a Clockwork villain. (See www.whatwasthen.com/airships.html for more information.)
Cathedral made Hernandez feel unexpectedly homesick, and soon after its publication, she returned to Texas. "Being here in San Antonio made me reappreciate how much friendlier people are here than anywhere else in the country." Her Clockwork sequel, Ironclad Petal, will unfold in an alternate 1890s version of the Alamo City.
Petal's heroine is autistic: a young girl building a giant robot suit to help filter a world that overwhelms her senses. Hernandez knows the subject well. Her young son and grown brother are autistic, although the latter went undiagnosed until adulthood. "I was mad for a year after `my son` was diagnosed," Hernandez recalls. "I realized I'd already been through it before." Hernandez' son, a friendly and rambunctious second-grader, is one of several family members with different perspectives on life. "All this weird wiring sort of runs in the family, " Hernandez says. Both she and her daughter have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which is manifested in Hernandez' helter-skelter conversations. Her mind jumps from one idea to the next, only to snap suddenly back on topic. Hernandez has capitalized on this trait in her work: ADHD added character to a Clockwork
| "I was shocked ... to discover just how unfriendly the industry is, generally, not just to the female creator, but to the female reader, even." |
— Lea Hernandez
Hernandez' wide-ranging attentions also include the Internet. She is testing a new business model with her old Rumble Girls series, reprinting existing stories online and drawing new ones for an audience of paying subscribers. She plans to do likewise with each chapter of Ironclad Petal, printing the story in full when it is finished.
Online comics first interested Hernandez in 1995, but she resisted participating until now. First, she says, "somebody had to come up with a coherent plan to make money."
Today, artists with dedication, a home computer, and a $10 monthly Web hosting account can publish their own online comics. The lucky have enough readers to make a living selling ad space and merchandise. But few have figured out how to make readers pay for the comics themselves.
In April 2002, entrepreneur Joey Manley launched the first of several subscription-funded comics sites. For $3 a month, subscribers can read every installment of every comic on the site, with a selection of new strips posted daily. Artists own their creations, splitting site revenues with Manley based on how many paying visitors read their work.
When Manley decided to launch a site for girl-positive comics, he tapped Hernandez to edit it. "`She` opened my eyes to the current female-hostile situation in the comics retail community," Manley wrote in an e-mail interview. "I was shocked ... to discover just how unfriendly the industry is, generally, not just to the female creator, but to the female reader, even."
Manley isn't just talking subject matter. Too many comic shops are dim, cramped, and designed to lure only teenage boys: "guy holes," Hernandez calls them. Even the most customer-friendly comic shops remain at the market's mercy. Superheroes are proven sellers, and many retailers have been reluctant to take a chance on new and different books like Hernandez'. "Lots of stores just didn't order `my` comics at all," she says.
But while Hernandez struggles to connect with her audience in comic shops, on the Web, readers come right to her: "I can put up a strip and get feedback in a couple of days." Internet message boards allow Hernandez and her readers to discuss themes, the feasibility of her costume designs, or the reasons why people haven't chosen to subscribe.
Web comics provide other rewards. The average graphic novel takes months to finish, with no advance money for the creator. "It's a long time to sustain your interest with no monetary or feedback carrots to dangle in front of yourself," Hernandez says. Posting chapters online as they are completed gives her a small but significant source of income, and lets her gauge the potential audience for her printed work.
Hernandez hopes to extend the same advantage to the artists that she and Manley decided to feature on Girlamatic. "I looked for people who'd done comics for a while, " she says, "who had been giving them away, and who would want to be paid for it." The resulting site offers character-driven stories from science fiction to romantic comedy.
Hernandez hopes that, like manga, Girlamatic will exert a positive influence on the comics market: providing extra freedom for creators, expanding comics' public image beyond capes and tights, and further proving that girls enjoy reading comics and are willing to pay for them.
Or, as Hernandez puts it more succinctly: "I want it to be a huge honkin' success." •
TEXAS STEAMPUNK, ROBOT WRESTLING AND KILLER PRINCESSES
A quick guide to Lea Hernandez's work
Cathedral Child (1997), $10.95, Cyberosia Publishing. A sci-fi romance set in 1897 Texas, Cathedral Child involves two young sweethearts, a church that doubles as a computer, and the electronic spirit that lives inside. While working on Cathedral Child, Hernandez got so little sleep that she often hallucinated as she drew: "One night I was actually convinced that I was dead and had gone to hell and would be doing this forever."
Clockwork Angels (1998), $10.95, Cyberosia Publishing. A semi-sequel to Cathedral Child, Clockwork Angels stars a pair of uniquely talented women and a murderous doctor. According to Hernandez, Clockwork Angels was the first comic with lesbian characters created by a woman and published by a mainstream company. "Good grief," she said. "It took this long?"
Rumble Girls (2000), $1.95 for a monthly subscription, www.rumblegirls.com. Ingenue Raven Tansania Ransom must survive superstardom in a future where wrestlers in robotic suits rule the airwaves. "I can't write this fucking book fast enough," Hernandez said. Real events - like the death of a pro wrestler during a televised match - keep catching up with her storylines. "It's made me go, wow, what do I have to top?"
Killer Princesses (2001-03), $2.95 per issue, Oni Press. Drawn by Hernandez and written by Gail Simone, Killer Princesses is a black comedy about three mean, dimwitted sorority girls who moonlight as professional assassins.
Near-Life Experience (2002-present), part of www.moderntales.com. Hernandez's first online comic fancifully retells stories from her life. Access to archived stories requires a $2.95 monthly subscription, but a sample story is available free. "I'll never run out of Near Life Experience stories as long as my kids are alive," Hernandez said.
THE GIRLS (AND GUYS) OF GIRLAMATIC
Series featured on the site Lea Hernandez edits
"People are going to shit themselves when we say "all-girl," Hernandez remembers thinking when she was first offered the editor's job at Girlamatic.com. When news of the site hit the Web, many established creators of both genders attacked the notion of an all-female comics site as a "ghetto" for women cartoonists. Ironically enough, once Hernandez and publisher Joey Manley announced that a few male creators would join the lineup, the furor quickly died down.
Girlamatic features include:
Arcana Jayne, by Lisa Jonte. Tales of a paranormal adventuress in the 1930s.
Chasing Rainbows by Svetlana Chmkova. A supernaturally tinged romance, drawn in a Japanese style by a Russian artist now living in Canada.
L'il Mell and Sergio, by Shaenon Garrity and Vera Brosgol. A pint-sized firebrand and her studious, terrified sidekick wreak elementary school havoc.
Encounter Her, by Kris Dresen. A wordless love story involving two women.
Oddly Normal by Otis Frampton. Middle schooler Oddly Normal tries to fit in, despite having a real live witch for a mother.
Kismet: Hunter's Moon, by Layla Lawlor. A file clerk attempts to be a spy in a far-flung future.
Dicebox, by Jenn Manley Lee. Blue-collar heroines Griffin and Molly wander the galaxy as hired hands on interstellar freighters.
Bite Me, by Dylan Meconis. A farcical comedy involving hapless, good-natured vampires and the French Revolution.
Jeepers, by Andre Richard. Surreally cute funny animal comics.
Inferno: Prayer, by Harley Sparx. The tale of pretty-boy demon Dante and the Underworld's hottest goth-rock band.
Lucas and Odessa, by Spike. The unconventional story of a smart-aleck teenage rebel and the twentysomething slacker she idolizes.
The Stiff, by Jason Thompson. George Romero meets John Hughes in a creepy-funny mix of zombie apocalypse and high school romance.
Ancient Stinz and Rotten Pot, by Donna Barr. New and old stories from a 20-year veteran of independent comics. •