In 1954, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency recommended that comic-book publishers censor their amoral and violent storylines — thanks largely to the findings of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who believed Batman and Robin’s relationship was suspicious and Wonder Woman’s lifestyle was anti-masculine — lest they corrupt the children.
If Wertham interpreted Wonder Woman’s rescue missions, which often interrupted her secretarial duties, as a threat to male authority, I wonder how he would have responded to Laura Molina’s 1996 comic book Cihualyaomiquiz, the Jaguar, in which law student by day/superhero warrior by night Linda Rivera fights California’s militarized police and corporate capitalists. And he probably would have been alarmed by Ivan Velez’s Tales of the Closet, which illustrates the closeted life of Tony, Scotty, Ben and other LGBT teenagers who experience alienation and violent hate crimes in and out of their school in Queens.
In Your Brain on Latino Comics: From Gus Arriola to Los Bros Hernandez, Frederick Luis Aldama examines the ways in which Latino author-artists contributed to the reemergence of the comic-book industry following the restrictive 1950s, when it was rare for Latinos to be represented by anyone other than a heavily accented caricature. Latino comic-book auteurs, many of whom started their careers in the alternative and underground comics of the 1980s, have developed psychologically complex characters who have smashed Latino and other stereotypes, “radically extended`ing` the alternative-comic-book storytelling mode in various ways while they detail the everyday firmly located within a larger society.”
Aldama profiles several comics populated with highly complex characters who suffer alienation in societies plagued by equally complex problems: crime, violence, rampant consumerism, racism. Wilfred Santiago’s ultra-morbid In My Darkest Hour, published by Fantagraphics, illustrates the life of anti-hero Omar Guerrero, who self-medicates to endure the psychic trauma of living in a violent society: “We all rot. Soon I’ll be nothing. Why bother with the triviality of ethics that are nothing more than man’s invention?” His musings are followed by a morose contemplation of each cigarette he smokes: “It will take me seven minutes to finish this cigarette. Each cigarette snuffs eleven minutes out of you.”
Citing Los Bros Hernandez’s Love and Rockets, Molina’s Cihualyaomiquiz, the Luna Bros’ Ultra, Anthony Oropeza’s Amigoman, and Rafael Navarro’s Sonambulo, among others, Aldama argues that each author-artist’s innovative techniques developed the visual and verbal narrative available to characters of color. In part one of three, Aldama offers a history of Latino and African-American characters — often short-lived and stereotyped — such as DC’s El Dorado in Super Friends and Marvel’s Sam “Snap” Wilson, the Falcon in Captain America. Crediting the influence of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Culture Wars of the 1980s, Aldama tracks the rise of realistic, multidimensional characters of color in the 1990s in Milestone’s Blood Syndicate, Azteca Productions’ El Gato Negro, and Jose Martinez’s Chosen Comic’s The Chosen, which first appeared at ComiCon in 1995.
Twenty-one interviews with the author-artists comprise the book’s third section, and what a gem it is. Gus Arriola, author-artist of the 40-year-old strip Gordo, shares his beginnings as a Columbia Screen Gems illustrator for the series Krazy Kat and other minor cartoons during the Great Depression. El Gato Negro creator Richard Dominguez discusses Marvel’s and DC’s buyout of distributors and its effect on his work. Roberta Gregory, currently working on her novel Mother Mountain, admits that writing and illustrating a graphic novel would take too long. El Muerto creator Javier Hernandez relates the story of the one-and-a-half minute NPR interview that led to the film adaptation featuring Wilmer Valderrama in the title role.
Aldama focuses largely on comic books and devotes very few pages to comic strips, seemingly because Latino-produced comic books outnumber strips, but he does include Dupie: The Life and Times of a College Student as Seen through the Pen of Campus Cartoonist, Gil Morales, which ran in the Stanford Daily for four years, Lalo Alcaraz’s politically charged La Cucaracha, and David Gonzales’s comic-strip-turned-plastic-figurines Homies. Still, the book is a storehouse of information for any would-be comic aficionado, and like Aldama, urges the reader to further his or her own study of Latino comics.
Your Brain on Latino Comics:
From Gus Arriola to Los Bros Hernandez
By Frederick Luis Aldama
University of Texas Press
$24.95, 331 pages