Smash Pages Q&A: Jaime Hernandez on ‘The Dragon Slayer’ and more

The legendary cartoonist discusses his latest work for Toon Books, ‘Love & Rockets’ and more.

Jaime Hernandez has long been one of the great cartoonists. Love and Rockets has been acclaimed for decades and remains beloved by generations of readers. The series continues to come out regularly, and late last year Fantagraphics published the collection Angels and Magpies in addition to a Studio Edition, which reproduces nearly 200 pages of Hernandez’s original artwork.

Toon Books is debuting a new book by Hernandez, The Dragon Slayer: Folktales from Latin America. The book is his first for younger readers and adapts stories from F. Isabel Campoy and Alma Flor Ada, and features an introduction by Campoy about imagination and tradition.

Hernandez will be appearing at the MoCCA Arts Festival this weekend in New York City, where he’ll be in conversation with Marc Sobel on Sunday. He will also appear at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival in May as part of Toon Books’ 1oth anniversary celebration.

Tell me about The Dragon Slayer. How did this book happen?

It’s not that exciting. Françoise pitched it to me years ago, and I said, “I’ll get back to you.” I didn’t for a couple years, and then I started thinking, “Maybe I’d like to do that kind of book.” She thought this was a good idea. I thought it would be fun. I had never heard of these folktales she sent me to chose from. I didn’t hear them as a kid. But I thought they were a lot of fun, as folktales from different lands are. That was basically it — she asked. [laughs]

Her initial idea was retelling Latin American folktales.

Yeah, and I guess since I was the Mexican cartoonist, I was the guy to go to. [laughs] I don’t know the reason. I guess she always wanted to work with me or something.

Which is understandable. So did she pick the stories or did you?

She sent me a book, and I thought it would be wise to pick Mexican stories because it’s closer to me and I would understand the culture more. I picked out a few and then she sent me different ones through email, and we talked about them, and those are the ones we picked. Like I said, not very exciting.

How did you end up with these three stories?

The first one, “The Dragon Slayer,” was the one I picked by myself and I wanted to do. It’s a princess story, kind of. She likes the prince and then gets him in the end. [laughs]

It’s a princess story, but she starts out poor and is this bad ass who saves the day and saves the prince.

The thing I liked about it is that she does everything. She handles everything in the story. You can still want the prince, but she’s in charge through the whole thing. That’s what I liked about it. It’s kind of like how I treat my comics. My character Maggie has no superpowers, she’s a pretty weak person most of the time, and yet she’s the one who has to take care of everything. I’ve always liked that kind of character, powerless yet they survive. That’s how I saw “The Dragon Slayer.”

The two other stories [Françoise] sent to me, and I could tell she really wanted me to do them. I said, “Sure.” They read well. Some of the ones I picked were like, the wife dies and the man buries her and then he dies and puts himself in the coffin with her and then they have mice living in their coffin. [laughs] It was wackiness that I guess didn’t translate to eight year olds. I would have loved that one as a kid.

“Martina Martinez and Perez the Mouse” is similar to “The Dragon Slayer” with a female character who takes care of things.

Yeah, and she’s a little wackier than “The Dragon Slayer,” but I liked that one for its goofiness. That was a good one.

“Tup and the Ants” was similar to stories I’ve read in other traditions and cultures, but those two really stand out.

I’ve got to admit that this book kind of scared me because I had a whole new audience that I was doing this for. I didn’t know this audience. I haven’t been a kid for a long time. I was really nervous when I finished it. I was happy with what I did, but I was like, “Kids are going to think I’m a dork.” [laughs] Why didn’t I make things blow up more? But it seems to be getting good response, and I’m happy about that.

You can’t think about it in the same way as Love and Rockets.

Right. In Love and Rockets I do the thing and then I say, “Whether you hate it or not, here it is.” [laughs] That’s the way I do it because I’m totally the boss on Love and Rockets. Or, one of the bosses. With this I’m in a classroom talking to little children and saying, “Was that a cuss word I just said? Should I be talking about this?” It makes me nervous. My wife works at a school, and one of the teachers said, “Would your husband come and talk to my class about the book? It’s perfect for them.” I was like, “Um, sure?” I got real scared.

You said you wanted a change of pace, and I can imagine that after The Love Bunglers and some other stories over the past decade, telling some folktales for kids sounds like a nice change of pace.

Yeah, but if I told my own in Love and Rockets I would have been: “Look at these folktales, this is what I do, have fun with it.” Here I’m like some kind of sideways representative of these folktales bringing them to a new audience. I’m speaking for my culture, and I don’t usually do that. So I don’t know. When it all comes down to it, it’s all the same thing – Love and Rockets and this – but this one made me a little nervous.

Making books for kids is a different experience and different skill set.

And of course I’m really speaking to their parents. [laughs] The kids are fine.

Since I have you, I have to ask about Love and Rockets and the upcoming issue and what you’re working on now.

The one I’m working on now – that should have been done at the beginning of the month but I’m backed up – I’m wrapping up a long story about Maggie and Hopey’s punk reunion. Another of those “Wow, I’m old” stories. [laughs] How do I relate to my past? I’m wrapping it up. It’s been going on for a few years now, and I’m finally ending it. I had to wrestle a lot with, “Have I done this ending before?” We’re old now, the past is gone, and you can only do that kind of thing so many ways. I’m trying to give it a different angle, and I’m hoping it comes out. That’s basically the new issue. We recently put out a collection of The Complete Love and Rockets, the little phonebooks. [laughs] We just put out that giant original art book.

I’m really trying to focus on Love and Rockets. I’m doing some other stuff that I guess I can’t talk about for the future on the side, but Love and Rockets basically. I’m just trying to keep it on a regular schedule. Like I said, I’m a little late right now, but I’m still trying to get this out so you can have a regularly coming out Love and Rockets.

I know that’s important to a lot of people.

And it’s important to me. When I was young I didn’t have to care about this stuff. Or I didn’t care about this. It’ll come up when I feel like it, and that kind of thing. I now understand how it’s got to keep me alive–and keep my readers alive. [laughs]

You’re going to be at MoCCA this weekend.

I haven’t done MoCCA in a while. I haven’t been to New York in some time.

I think the last time you did MoCCA, the show was still being held at the Armory.

Did they move it?

It’s now at Metropolitan West, which is a space on the west side literally feet from the river

I was hoping you were going to say it’s a 20-minute walk from the airport. That’s too much to hope for. [laughs]

I’m sorry, but it’s not even a 20-minute subway ride. [laughs]

[laughs] But yeah, that’s what I’m doing. I’m doing a few other shows. When people don’t call to come to a show, I get antsy, and I say yes to superhero shows, and that’s not always the best choice. But people are nice there. I’m caught between the types of comic shows. I go from MoCCA to San Diego Con, and they’re totally different experiences.

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