Gilbert Hernandez Steps Out "From the Shadows"

After concluding his lengthy "Palomar" saga with "Luba: Three Daughters" and following the sad and troubled history of Luba's half-sister and B-movie actress/psychiatrist Fritz in "The High, Soft Lisp," "Love and Rockets" co-creator Gilbert Hernandez wanted to go in a different direction, away from lengthy, serialized stories and towards more focused, shorter graphic novels.

This change in artistic direction led to what is dubbed the "Fritz" series; a collection of stand-alone stories that are seemingly unrelated to each other except for the regular appearance of Fritz. Hernandez's explanation is that these stories are "adaptations" of films she appeared in over the years.

Hernandez's latest entry in this series is the Fantagraphics published "Love from the Shadows," a surreal, off-kilter drama that sees Fritz "playing" three roles -- the lead female as well as her brother and father. It's a twisty, winding narrative that involves odd cults, con artists, a wealthy inheritance and a potentially haunted cave.

CBR News spoke with Hernandez at length, both about the new book and past Fritz graphic novels like "Chance in Hell" and "Speak of the Devil." It was a pleasure to interact such a unique and influential artist and we hope the discussion sheds some light these comics.

CBR News: "Love From the Shadows," as well as most of your other recent graphic novels, are adapted (if that's the correct term) from the films your "Palomar" character, actress/therapist Fritz, stars in. Why use Fritz as the central defining character as opposed to just cutting them completely free from the L&R universe, as you did with "Sloth" or "Julio's Day?" What does that connecting thread give you as a storyteller? 

Gilbert Hernandez: During the run of L&R vol. 2, I was preparing to start doing graphic novels, and at the same time I thought it would be fun to actually do the movies Fritz was starring in. I threw together both ideas, as when I was preparing the Fritz movie stories, they became too involved and lengthy to present in L&R. I only had 14 pages an issue, then. I didn't plan on the Fritz books to be much more than quick-read thrillers and such, but as the market dictated, "serious" hard covers were the way to go; with me, at least. I had planned to do serious graphic novels as well, when I could, without recurring characters, but comics are a slow process and hard to make a living at, so I'm still trying to get there.

Do the individual Fritz books give you an opportunity to work through various genres or cinematic styles? In other words, are you riffing on different directors or themes with each story?

I'm not thinking of movies in particular with the Fritz books, just an off-kilter world with violence and a very sexy star involved. Exploitation allows for madness and obsession to be explored more deeply. I'm still surprised at how many adults are intimidated by sex in comics. Many L&R readers and critics don't know what to make of that kind of material from me, and I tried not to emphasize the movie connection at first. But it seems many readers are interested in the tenuous link to the "Palomar" world. I'm one of the few left making crazy comics, it seems.

Fritz is a B-movie actress, so most of the graphic novels she's starring in are reminiscent of a certain type of low-rent, Grindhouse cinema. Do you have a particular affinity towards that kind of material? Are the Fritz books trying to simply be a homage or parody of those kinds of comics or are you trying for something a broader or more penetrating than that? 

It's funny, but I don't think anybody would think of the books that way if I hadn't mentioned it in the first place. If I never said the Fritz books were low-budget films, nobody would have been the wiser. "Chance In Hell" was as serious as anything I've ever done. The only thing that says "Fritz movies" is that one of the characters looks like Fritz. The Grindhouse aspect won't start until the next book, or books, with "Maria M." books 1 and 2. Fritz plays her mother in what might be my most exploitive book yet. And it only gets more and more nasty with each subsequent book.

The Fritz series frees me of any obligation to be a do-gooder cartoonist, something most regular L&R readers probably don't want to hear. I felt straight jacketed with "Palomar" and the like after a while, really. I have a lot more going on in my imagination than I'm expected to utilize. I do enjoy B-movies and comics, from their beginnings in the 1930s to the mid-1970s. Comics I like after that are few and far between. Non-superhero mainstream comics have become so conservative and dull to me; you can see the same thing on TV these days. And indy comics are so PC and precious, I have little interest in them as well. Comics used to be a place where you could only find what they were about in comics, now comics have to keep up with movies and TV, where it used to be the other way around. 

Are you frustrated at all with how your post-Palomar work has been received? Do you feel like your readers or critics are trying to pigeonhole you? 

The only thing I'm really frustrated with about making comics is that a good response never adds up to making a good living at it. I suppose the Palomar-type stories are what most of my readers want from me, even though while I was doing them, I was constantly asked when was I going to do something different.

Speaking of Julio's Day, when are we going to see it collected? Any chance of that happening soon? 

There are no immediate plans for it to be collected, with quite a few added pages, because there's an assumption that I have too many comics out there already. 

I do want to talk about "Love From the Shadows," but, if you're willing, I'd like to briefly touch on some of your other books in this series, starting with "Chance in Hell," mainly because I don't think there's been much adequate discussion about these books.

You've described in past interviews how "Chance" was your "art film" and an opportunity to discuss social issues. Can you expound a bit further on that? What were your influences on this particular book? What were the social issues (child poverty? abuse?) you were looking to address?

Heh, not so highbrow as that. I worked out Fritz's film career from beginning to end, and her first speaking role in a film would be her only "serious" film, whereas she only made B-features after that. I wanted "Chance" to approximate a neo-realist social commentary. It's a little like actress Barbara Steele's career, where she was featured in Fellini's "8½" and then became a horror film star afterwards. In Fritz's case, it was her choice to go into exploitation, as she prefers to aggressively flaunt her body on film than to win awards or get good reviews. We used to call such people exhibitionists.

I have a theory about "Chance" that I'll hope you'll indulge me on for a moment. In many ways, the book reads like a horror movie for parents -- it contains the sort of unnerving scenes about abandonment, death and abuse that certainly keep me awake late at night, worrying about the things that go bump. Was the book in any way an attempt for you to expurgate your own parental fears and worries onto the page? 

Nothing on a conscious level, really. After seeing so many horrible stories on the news about what's happening to girls these days, I was reminded that it's a random universe and so many horrors in life are out of our hands, no matter how much we don't want to think about this. It's true, I am an overprotective daddy.

Let's move on to "Speak of the Devil." Of all the Fritz books so far, this is possibly the pulpiest, speediest and most freewheeling. Was that intentional? Do you go into each story with a deliberate attempt to make it different in tone and style from the previous work or is it a more organic process than that? 

All my stories are organic, except when working closely with an editor, as with "Sloth." The tone usually sets itself right away and I try to maintain it throughout the production. That, and I don't like to repeat the same feel of a story I did previously. I'm planning a serious, long graphic novel in the near future of a semi-autobiographical nature. I'm going to do my best in making "Marble Season" my last word on the subject.

I don't think I've heard much about "Marble Season" yet. Can you talk about it a little bit more? How is it going to be semi-autobiographical? 

"Marble Season" will feature kids growing up in the 1960s and [illustrate] how pop culture informs their interests, like comic books, movies, TV and sports. The different kids are rarely on the same page with their interests: the jock kids dismiss the comic book kids and vice versa, etc. The '60s setting is where it's semi-autobiographical, I guess.

One of the striking things about "Speak of the Devil" is how it features some rather savage violence but is rather coy and even restrained when it comes to portraying the sexuality of the characters, which isn't something you usually shy away from. Was that a deliberate choice on your part or something handed down to you by the publisher? 

All my decision. I decided the kids were going to be kids except where the violence comes in. "Speak of the Devil" is the flip side to "Sloth; "Sloth" depicted what I see as what's good in kids and "Speak of the Devil" was about cold, removed evil, unchecked. "Sloth": good kids. "Speak of the Devil": bad kids. That book got my most extreme reviews on both ends.

For a project like "Speak of the Devil," do you adopt a different writing style or layout style when putting the book together? The dialogue seems to have a different cadence and feel than some of your more "realistic" (for want of a better word) books.

I've never been about realistic dialogue, even though that's what I'm known for, I guess. My scripts sound really off kilter when read out loud, so I write for the reader's mind. I want it to read as real, not actually sound like it. Some critic noted that the dialogue in "Sloth" was the weakest point, as usual with my work, she said. Idiot.

Moving on to "The Troublemakers," which is probably the most straightforward of the "Fritz" books so far, in that it's very much in the "con man/crime" genre a la "The Grifters." Did you have any particular influences for this book? What made you want to do something so thoroughly steeped in the crime genre?

The crime thriller gives the characters a simple goal: get the money without having to get a regular job. Kill the person in your way to gain some kind of personal freedom. Steal what belongs to someone else because it's fun. Grifters are basically immoral creeps to be looked down on. In films and books, that type of character is often the anti-hero, but a hero nonetheless. Not in my stories. There's some idiotic rule in writing that if the bad guy gets away, that it's more "real." Bull.  

When working in a "Palomar"-type scenario, crime has to be dealt with in a more realistic way, as in the way we know about crime in our day-to-day lives. I have put a lot of pulpy type crime in the "Palomar" universe, but I never thought it fit well. Another reason where exploitation frees you from those restrictions.

I'm trying not to repeat too much with particular genres in the Fritz books except for maybe crime stories. "Maria M." is about gangsters, the next book "Black Cat Moon" will be a horror anthology, "The Earthians" will be straight science fiction and so on. By the way, all the books shown in the endpapers of the "Fritz" books will get done come hell or high water.

How far in advance do you plot out these stories? I know you said you tend to let them develop organically, but I'm assuming that since you say you're going to try to publish every book shown on those endpapers that you have at least a bare bones idea of the basic story for each one, or at least a general direction you want to take. How much preliminary planning do you do? Do you have reams of notes on all these books lying around your studio?

These days, I simply start with a minimum of a plot idea or just a title. Or if I feel like putting Fritz in a specific setting or even just an interesting outfit. The goal is always to make a new, completely original story for my readers, but the beginnings are always from the simplest of indulgences. I used to have tons of detailed notes in ye olde days, but now it's mostly in my head. My only thread is that we see Fritz age a little more along the way. Fritz works best for me in the series because she had very little in the way of a unique personality, but when on "film," her inner self shows and shows. She can be her "real" self when acting.

While we're talking about "Speak of the Devil" and "Troublemakers," I wanted to ask you about your depiction of violence in your books. It's rarely thrilling in the way your average cop show or action film is. It's often messy and brutal and rather sudden and shocking. Even in "Love From the Shadows," which is relatively gore-free (though filled with menace nonetheless), there's that nasty scene with the lamp. What does it mean to you to depict violence in this fashion? What are you hoping, if anything, to get across to the reader? What does it mean for you as a creator to be able to make these sorts of "crazy comics," as you described them?

Most readers are affected by violence one way or another, but depending on the story, I'll make it realistic or over-the-top cartoony, whichever works best at the time. I do the sex and/or violence in my comics because I can. Again, I'm not crazy about the safeness of modern comics and I simply want them to be fun again, however mad.

Let's move on to "Hypnotwist" and "Scarlet by Starlight," which I'm grouping together since you've said you're going to be collecting the two stories in one volume. What led to that decision? Do you see the two stories as connected and if so, how,apart from their tie-in with "Love and Rockets" character Killer?

I didn't feel either story warranted its own book, so I put them together as a double feature. The Killer connection is only for the L&R readers; the stories themselves aren't. The only connection is that Fritz doesn't speak but a couple of words. I've planned other double features that will be first shown in L&R, and then collected with new material.

I also read that you're going to be adding in a lot more explicit sex scenes to the collection that you removed from the L&R books. Why did you initially remove them and why are you putting them back in?

I don't want to scare away browsers with sex in L&R. For the first time, L&R is being sold to regular book stores with all new stories, and if somebody wants to check it out because they heard there's female empowerment in there by Jaime, the sex I usually show doesn't reflect that. I'll put the sex back in the collected version because it's a different version for a separate audience. It will be promoted as such. 

"Hypnotwist" and "Scarlet by Starlight" seem to be the most challenging of the Fritz stories so far, the former because it so resists a straightforward narrative so strongly and the latter because it gets so violent and brutal at the end. Can you talk a bit about the impetus behind those two stories? Am I right in reading "Scarlet" at last partly as a political allegory about how Western/American interests treat the third world?

I guess that does show up in some of my stories from time to time, I'm told. Again, if something I've written reads like a political allegory, it's not something I'm aware of. I do like to present two diverse cultures mingling for contrasting dramatic effect. 

Out of all the Fritz books, are there any that deviated wildly from your original plans as you started working on it? Were there any that surprised you while you were working on them for any reason?

Not really. "The Troublemakers" was the first of the books I started, but I put it aside because I didn't feel it was the right book to be first. Elements of it wound up in "Chance in Hell" and especially "Speak of the Devil," so I had to rework a lot of "Troublemakers" by the time I got to finishing it. "Love From the Shadows" was fun because there was less planning and I was able to stick in whatever dialogue I wanted to wherever I wanted to. 

Finally moving on to "Love From the Shadows," which I think is one of the most haunting books in the series so far. One of the major themes of the book seems to be identity, as Dolores seems to change from one person to another and her brother tries to change into another person as well. Was that something you wanted to explore in this book?

Simply a dramatic device. Fritz wanted to showcase her acting range by playing the daughter, the son and the dad! You'll notice the awkwardness of the son's clothing and the poorly padded belly of the dad to hide her figure. They used very little CGI because of the low budget. When the son sits up on the examining table in the doctor's office and is built like a boy, well, Fritz took a pay cut so that they could afford the special effect. The FX make-up to make her look like men wasn't so bad; the nose on the son and dad in particular. 

Dolores and her brother have a hostile relationship to their dad as well, which calls to mind Chance's abandonment, the stepmom in "Speak of the Devil" (and the boyfriend's bad relations with his parents), and, of course, Fritz's own relationship with her mom, not to mention the upcoming "Maria M." Why is this such a reoccurring theme and does it relate at all to my last question about exploration of identity? 

I've been criticized for the lack of conflict in my stories when I have people simply talking to each other, so having people that hate each other gives me something to talk about. 

Another thing that seems to tie the Fritz books together is the presence of a supernatural object or place. In "Chance" it's the quicksand pool, in the "Troublemakers" it's the locket and in "Love" it's the mysterious cave. These objects seem to almost manipulate the story's events behind the scenes, or at least have some magnetic power that draws the characters to them time and again. What is it about this idea that appeals to you? 

Alfred Hitchcock called it "The MacGuffin" in his films: the undefined object that the good guys and bad guys are looking for. In "North By Northwest" it was "atomic secrets." Same with me. The object gives the characters something to deal with. What also comes to mind is a method-acting device; an object the actor plays with while discussing a completely unrelated subject. Marlon Brando playing with a cat at the beginning of the "Godfather," Brando playing with Vivien Leigh's feather boa in "A Streetcar Named Desire," Brando playing with Eva Marie Saint's glove in "On the Waterfront," Brando eating as many MacDonald's hamburgers as he can before passing out -- ah, but I digress. This is about movies, after all, sort of.

You talked about Fritz's reasons for wanting to play three characters in "Love," but what about your reasons as a creator? What did you hope to discover from the experiment, however slight, and did it create any unique challenges for you?

Fritz's reasons are my reasons. Because she/I wanted to. No hidden philosophy.

I think I asked you this once before, but "Love" reminds me very much of the work of filmmaker David Lynch, and not on a "Ooo, that's weird," superficial level, either. You're a fan of his work, correct? Were you drawing upon his style when putting "Love" together? Are there particular filmmakers or artists you reference when working on these books?

I never openly draw an anyone's style, but I am influenced by them on some level. Lynch is a strong influence because he'll tell his story with a sense of dread and use pacing to help achieve it. Oddly enough, his films are like strange comics, but he dislikes any cartooning. He's more foggy than usual these days in his films and that's not what I'm trying to do. I always want to connect with the reader while at the same time presenting a "haunted" world.

You've mentioned a number of upcoming projects so far. Can you tell us what the release schedule/order is for some of these books? And what do you plan on including in the next volume of L&R?

I just finished a fill in issue for Vertigo's "iZombie #12," the first issue of my 4 part Dark Horse series "Fatima," which deals with a woman zombie killer and I'm finishing 2 stories for L&R: "King Vampire," about teens and vampires featuring Killer and a small roll for an older Fritz. Also Fritz stars in an untitled piece where she and an ex-beau simply talk to each other.

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