- Alternative Press Expo - Concourse Pavilion - San Francisco, CA - March 11, 2006
- Javier Hernandez is the All-American Mexican. With his solid build, hearty laugh, and firm handshake, Javier is the guy you want to bring to the bar with you. But watch out for his solemn sarcasm. The switch from deadpan to smiles can be missed if you looked away for a moment. Javier recently has proven that success (depending on how you measure it) can come at any time. In five years time, he has done only two issues of his creation El Muerto, and yet garnered the interest in having a film made of it - starring Wilmer Valderrama of That 70s Show. Most people wait for years and many stories later to get anything even looked at. For Javier, this was a blessing that will hopefully bring more returns. We met up with him recently at the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco to discuss his comic book, the film adaptation currently in post-production, and his Mexican heritage and its influence into his works. Somewhere along the chat, we also get a bit of Spanish language lessons, and some history and current events opinions about Mexican culture and heritage. As we began chatting, the A.P.E. show was already closing and the booths were being torn down, bringing the chat to more of a shuffle and heavy breathing between questions and answers, along with some snippier comments thrown here and there.
K2K: How did you get started in comics?
JH: Thats a good question. (laughs) Youre going to edit all the dumb stuff out, I hope. How did I get started in comics? Do you mean reading them or drawing them?
JH: I started reading them when I was a kid. My brother had given me a box of Silver Age comics - Batman, Spiderman. So I got hooked on them. I loved the storytelling, the colorful spandexed superheroes kicking butt. Eventually when I got older, I was into art. The Oh, I want to be an artist when I grow up. So I was trying to learn fine art and such, but was more drawn to drawing comics. I was inspired also by friends of mine who were doing their own self-published books. I figured, Hey, if theyve done it, then I can do it too.
K2K: Yeah, a lot of people think that way.
JH: A lot of people think that way, but a lot of people dont do anything about it.
K2K: Touché! So whats your background as far as art?
JH: I went to college and took some art classes, but I was never really disciplined enough to pursue the degree, the Fine Arts degree. I just wanted to get more training in drawing and such. I was influenced by my brother at an early age. Basically, because of my brother, I got into comics, and I think I started drawing because of him. I figured, Well big brother is drawing, so I might as well try to draw too. From an early age, I was always drawing.
K2K: What about writing?
JH: Writing? That just came because I wanted to draw my own comic, but I also wanted to write my own comic. I never considered working with someone else as a writer. I basically had to will myself into being a writer.
K2K: Who are some of your favorite artists and writers while growing up?
JH: Ah, my favorite questions. My favorite artists in comics have always been Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and a lot of the other early Marvel comic book artists from the Silver Age. Stan Lee would have to be one of the biggest influences as a writer. Those were the early books that I grew up with. And theyre so damned good. I still love the same books to this day.
K2K: What do you currently do as a day job?
JH: Im a production artist. Which basically means I do separations for a screen printer.
K2K: Major company?
JH: No. A small local company near where Im from.
K2K: How many different comic book titles have you done?
JH: Actually El Muerto is the only comic book title that Im doing right now. Its the only thing that Im focusing on so far as a comic.
K2K: When did you start doing it?
JH: I started El Muerto in 1998. I actually debuted it at an A.P.E. Con when it was still held in San Jose [California].
K2K: Why is the title El Muerto as opposed to El Muerte?
JH: Thats correct because the o is masculine for the dead man.
K2K: If a is the feminine, then what would the e at the end make it?
JH: Uh, OK. You got me on that. E would be the female.
K2K: I thought that a would be the female.
JH: Im not sure. I think it depends on the word. Theres not a muerta word. Thats not a word. On some words, the e would be feminine, and on other words it would be the a.
K2K: So the full title of the comic book is El Muerto: The Aztec Zombie, right?
JH: Yes sir.
K2K: Where did you come up with the idea?
JH: Gee. Ive never been asked that before. (laughs) I wanted to do something specific with Aztec mythology, and I also wanted to do something specific with the Dia de los Muerto [Mexican holiday, Day Of The Dead] folklore. So thats basically what was my starting point. How I got the idea of this guy getting his heart ripped out by the Aztec god, just happened.
K2K: How much influence did you have from The Crow, or even The Punisher, as far as the look of the character? Or even Desperado.
JH: Actually I never thought about The Punisher at all.
K2K: I mention that because of the film poster for El Muerto.
JH: Right, right. Well, its a skull logo that hes got. The Crow, yeah I read that when it came out. Actually, when the movie came out, I bought the graphic novel. I really liked it. I wouldnt say that my comic is based on The Crow, only because The Crow is a tale of vengeance...
K2K: And theyre both dead guys.
JH: Yeah, theyre both dead. A lot of dead guys in comics. The Spectre. The Spirit. Anyway, visually its got the white face and the black suit. But if you look at the Day Of The Dead folklore, people paint the skull-face on them[selves], and then the black Mariachi was just a stylish element.
K2K: With the Day Of The Dead in L.A. is [film scorer / musician] Danny Elfman.
JH: Yeah, yeah. I was a big fan of Oingo Boingo, and I listened to a lot of their music when I was working on the comic.
K2K: Have you ever worked with him or hung out with him?
JH: No, Ive never met Danny Elfman.
K2K: (Sarcastically) Yeah, he doesnt do much these days. Maybe looking for a job. Him and that Tim Burton guy.
JH: Yeah, hes a big film composer now.
K2K: More often than not, do you find that you have to explain the titles meaning?
JH: Actually, the term El Muerto, when people see it, Ill sometimes ask them if they know what it means. They kind of have an idea that hes dead. So it might be hard to pronounce, but they have an idea of what it means.
K2K: Whats the basic premise of the story?
JH: The basic premise is that Diego de la Muerte gets dressed up to go to the Day Of The Dead festival. So hes dressed up in costume. On his way to the festival, hes abducted by the Aztec god of death, Mictlantecuhtli. We call him Mick around the office to keep it simple. So he gets abducted.
K2K: Ive read two different versions of the story. One was that he died and was the resurrected by the god of death. The other was that he was abducted and killed.
JH: Well, the god abducted him. But to do that, hes got to snatch him out of our Earthly plane. So to the people on the Earth its, Oh, hes dead.
K2K: Why was he abducted?
JH: The god took him to basically make him [Diego] an emissary for him.
K2K: And the reason?
JH: That will be revealed in future issues.
K2K: Was the whole idea of doing this comic as a hobby or moneymaking endeavor?
JH: Thats funny. Moneymaking endeavor in indie comics.
K2K: Thats why I ask the funny questions.
JH: Youre a funny guy. Im a funny guy. The reason I did it, because I wanted to get the story out. Obviously Im not going to play the fact that I wasnt hoping for money for it. But I was going to do this regardless. Its more than a hobby. Its a passion. Its my art.
K2K: That will translate well into text. (laughs) (breathy) It was MORE than a hobby. Its a passion. The Passion Of El Muerto.
JH: Yeah, thats right. (sings out a heavenly) Aaah!
K2K: Did you ever visualize this as being a movie?
JH: Honestly? I always thought... Im sure there was a time when I thought, sure, this would be great as a movie, or a cartoon, or action figures. But I didnt sit there and do it as, Alright, lets knock this story out and get that big Hollywood deal. Thats a pipe dream. Most people seem to follow it.
K2K: How did El Muerto get picked up to be made into a film?
JH: Aah! The story behind the story. Let me get my smoking jacket, my ascot, and... (in a faux British aristocratic gruff tone) Oh, well Ive had a rather interesting life, as you know... I did an interview on NPR some years back, on the floor of the San Diego Comic Con. They were interviewing some Latino artists, and I was one of the ones being interviewed.
K2K: Because... you are... Latino, in fact.
JH: Thats right. They aired the episode a week or two later. As it turns out, Brian Cox, who is a writer/director/producer, heard the interview and was interested in the idea of El Muerto. He contacted me through the radio station, bought one of my comics and read it, and then set up a meeting with me. He wanted me to meet him. I figured, Well, why would a director want to meet me? So I met him. He had a lot of questions about the storyline, and some points he brought up. He was picking my brain and getting a feel for me. At the end of the conversation, he asked if Id be interested in turning it into a film. I kind of paused for a second, tried to be cool. Sure, lets explore that. Inside, I was jumping up and down. I told him, Yeah, Id definitely like to explore the possibilities. So he got a hold of his friend Larry Rattner, a producer he was working with. Larry, by the way, produced Dahmer, which was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards two years ago. So he told Larry, Id like to do this as a film. It has potential. Larry looked at it and agreed. Hes an independent producer, so he needed money to start production. He was lucky that he had some investors. The Leones. Bruno Leone, and his sons, Dan and Rich. They were interested in doing a film with him. So he sold them on the idea of El Muerto at that time. No script at the time. He just sold them on the idea of financing the film.
K2K: Had any of them seen the comic book?
JH: Yeah. He showed them the comic. They all saw the potentiality of making the film. So we eventually made a deal and Brian got to working on the script. He got the script done, through several drafts. He would always show me a copy of the current draft. We ended up getting our actors and film made.
K2K: Is this your first foray into films?
JH: This is actually my first foray into films. I was an extra in Spiderman, in the wrestling scene. In the wrestling arena. Im up there in the rafters, in the seats, with my friend [comic book artist] Rafael Navarro. So that might have been my first foray into film, but now theyre actually making a film from my comic.
K2K: Does the film play straight along your ideas and visions?
JH: Yeah, the film is based on the first issue. The first issue is basically what happened, how he got abducted and sent back to Earth. So they needed to come out with a full story for a film. So he said, Your comic is only the first act. So he came up with a storyline of when he gets back, and what he does, and new characters. Its definitely based on the comic and the origin.
K2K: Will your comic continue along the films storyline, or your own ideas?
JH: My producers have asked me that. I told them, No. Because the storyline you guys came up with is the movie. I have my own storyline set in my mind. Im finally getting that out.
K2K: Will the film possibly have a sequel? Does it have an open end?
JH: Let me say, the movie was made and theres a potential for a sequel. It definitely doesnt have an OK. Thats it. No more El Muerto.
K2K: How much input did you have in the filmmaking aspect?
JH: I was very fortunate with that. I mean, by now everybody agrees that [Sin City creator] Frank Miller has raised the bar as far as getting his own movie made. I was involved with the film from the beginning. Obviously I created the source material. The contractual arrangements on the film, Im the Associate Producer on the film. I was hired to work on the film for six weeks. Two weeks pre-production and four weeks on set. So my director, every time he write a new draft, would send me a copy for my opinion. I sent notes back with what I thought. He would listen, but he had his idea of what he wanted to do. But he was always concerned that I was happy with what he was doing. Although I was very involved so far as being at the film every day. I had a cameo in the movie. Hopefully theyll have an Academy Award category for Creator Cameos. Me, Stan Lee, and a couple of other guys will be up for that.
K2K: How did you like the cast and crew?
JH: Very happy with the casting, and the crew was great to work with. The main actor, Wilmer [Valderrama, of That 70s Show] was... Were lucky we got him. He brings a lot of attention to the project, by having him in the role.
K2K: And I heard he was concerned that you liked his performance.
JH: Yeah, there was one time... It was his birthday. I went in his trailer to give him a birthday card that I had drawn up. I was leaving the trailer and he calls to me. He said, Hey, Javier. Are you happy with how Im playing the role. I thought that was really cool that he was concerned.
K2K: The film has quite a cast collected. How did you manage to get them?
JH: Our director Brian, when it came down to casting, he had a list of people he wanted for each role. It turned out to be very lucky to get Michael Parks, Tony Plano...
K2K: Give me a quick thought on the following actors... Maria Conchita Alonso.
JH: When I found out she was on the film, I was blown away. I got to meet her. She plays a nun in the film, Sister Rosa.
K2K: Is she as cute in person as she is in pictures?
JH: Shes actually cuter in person, and it was just great meeting her.
K2K: Angie Cepeda.
JH: Angie Cepeda was really good. There were a lot of girls who came in to try out for that role. She hit it off best with Wilmer. Shes very hot, and a very good actress. The role calls for a lot of depth on that character. Shes not just screaming and being saved by the hero all the time.
K2K: Billy Drago.
JH: When I found out Billy Drago was in, my first thought was, Whoa! Frank Nitti.
K2K: Wilmer Valderrama.
JH: I met him actually several months before we started filming. I had a gallery showing in West Los Angeles. He came in, and had just signed on for the character. He came with his girlfriend at the time, Lindsey Lohan. So Im in the gallery with family and friends. I see him walk in with his girlfriend and think, Oh my God! Wilmer, and Lindsey? So I told my producer to introduce us. I thanked him for jumping on board the project. He said, Yeah. Its great to be on board. He actually bought a couple of my pieces that night.
K2K: Did Lindsey back into anyones car when she brought Wilmer? (laughs)
JH: Nothing happened.
K2K: Brandon Molale.
JH: He was really good. He played a state trooper. When I saw him, I thought, Whoa! Theres Captain Marvel. Shazam. Have you seen him? He would make a great Shazam. You know, this being my first time [making a film], I was surprised. All the actors were very gracious. When they find out that youre the creator of the source material, it amazes me how gracious they are, and how respectful they are. To me, that was a big deal.
K2K: What about Nathan Mussell. He plays the god of death. This is his first film role.
JH: Yeah, I saw that on IMDB too. Hes the puppeteer. The god of death is a puppet. He wore the harness. Hes not speaking. We have a voice for that, but I cant discuss who that is at the moment.
K2K: Tony Plana.
JH: Oh my. That guy brought so much class to the role, and depth to the character. For me personally, I wouldnt say that he steals the picture, but he gives the most profound performance in the film.
K2K: Michael Parks. I just saw him listed on a Where are they now website. The guy is always busy, so I dont see how hes on there.
JH: When I found out he was in it, I though how lucky we were. I actually picked him up on the first day of filming. We were short a P.A., so they asked me and I said, Sure. He got in the car. I said, Hi. Im Javier Hernandez. I dont know if they told you, but Im the creator of the comic. He started looking at the script, Oh, yeah. He was great.
K2K: Whats the plan now? You mentioned that you were going to bring this film to film festivals first? Are you hoping for a major release at some point? Are you expecting it or hoping more for art house release?
JH: Thats an honest question. Were looking for a release. I dont know exactly what my producer was looking for. Actually, I think we are looking for major distribution. I used to think on my own that it would be cool to be art house. It gives it this cool badge of honor. But major distribution is great. We all want that.
K2K: Who would you like to pick it up?
JH: Lions Gate is someone Id think about in picking the film up and doing good promotion.
K2K: Any plans on doing an animated version?
JH: Nothing set right now. But were definitely looking at exploring getting into animation, video games...
K2K: Action figures. McFarlane Toys.
JH: I personally would love that. Wilmers actually a big Spawn fan. Hes got a lot of figures at the house. I told him to let Todd know that we have an El Muerto fan here.
K2K: Ive seen some really cool posters of the film when looking online. Can anyone get those?
JH: Thank you, sir. Currently we dont have any merchandise available, like images or posters. Nothing available for the movie yet. There are comic book images that are available to buy.
K2K: Ah yes. Those are available at...
JH: El Muerto.com
K2K: (looking through questions) This gets better.
JH: You have opinions of your own work. I like that. It gets better. Thats awesome.
K2K: The original idea of the story of El Muerto, do you see it as an ongoing story, or does he have a planned ultimate demise, like Spawn?
JH: Ooh, I couldnt answer that last part of the question. (wink, wink) The comic? Oh yeah, it does have an end. And I dont mean like just the last issue. But Id have to kill you if I told you.
K2K: So to point this out, youve only done two issues of El Muerto.
JH: Well, you dont want to point that out, but yeah... (laughs) The Sistine Chapel, you know, was made over several decades, I understand.
K2K: So you could become famous after youre dead.
JH: (in reference to having to walk quite a distance to his car) The way were going now, it could happen in another 20 yards.
K2K: So you did two issues of El Muerto and then had it made into a film. Thats almost unheard of. How is the jealousy backlash from your peers?
JH: Heres the unheard of part. There was actually only one issue of El Muerto, and it was actually a photocopied zine. So the backlash is probably going to get worse as we go on... for the next 20 yards.
K2K: You did two comic issues in five years. Thats worse than [Rocketeer creator] Dave Stevens track record. Will you be speeding up the process now on creating your comics?
JH: Oooohhh... Yes, Im half way through the third one.
K2K: Tell me about Manga Muerto and Skeletron.
JH: Oh. The Manga Muerto was just a thing I wanted to do to exersize my Gonagai Mazinger...
K2K: Your gonad what? (laughs)
JH: Manga Muerto was something that I did for fun, in the spirit of Japanese comics and TV shows that I grew up with. Giant Robot and such. Manga Muerto wasnt meant to save the world nor win the Pulitzer Prize.
K2K: What is Weapon Tex Mex?
JH: That was just a fun idea. I did a story for Hot Mexican Love Comics. They asked me if I wanted to contribute. I was still working on El Muerto at the time, so I said, Let me do this three page story with Weapon Tex Mex dude. It was just a fun romp on [Marvel Comics] Weapon X.
K2K: Is this a mutant hero who makes good salsa?
JH: No. He was just a big, burly man-bull.
K2K: You have mentioned before that there are interested parties asking about other ideas that you have. Shed some light on those.
JH: Yeah. I have another comic idea that Ill be developing when I get through the latest El Muerto. The Eclectics. People can read about that on my message board.
K2K: Which is available at...
JH: El Muerto.com
K2K: On to your culture. How or why is it important to maintain your own cultural legacy in your stories, as opposed to having a nondescript character?
JH: When I set to do the comic. I wanted to do my own comic book story, and create my own character. It wasnt even a question of what cultural background he would be. For me, it was that he would be Mexican-American. Its what I am. I didnt want to write about something that Im not, if that makes any sense.
K2K: As Mexican culture provides so much color and folklore, how important is it to bring more of that to a forefront in America?
JH: I think its very important. I think its important that Mexican-American creators do stuff that reflects who they are.
K2K: Do you personally think that bringing - not just Mexican, but - different cultural ideas and medias to America will help add to the soup?
JH: Thats a really good question, expressly like at this very minute. I think its absolutely important that our society, America, sees different cultures and people and things, in popular entertainment - in pop culture. It should be a reflection of whats out there in reality.
K2K: Or do you think that America still has more of an us and them mentality regarding cultures, even within their own neighborhoods?
JH: I think America does. These are really good issues, because people discuss these subjects on my board a lot. To me, its important that were different. For example, you and I. Were different for other reasons, but even the differences doesnt mean that you and I are better than one another. Some people want people to be generic or... unified. Blended. Everyones gotta be blended. OK, youre Mexican, or Black, whatever, but youre an American. But in the same body, I think I am an American, but Im a Mexican-American or whatever I want to call myself. So I think we have a lot of issues in this country. Us vs. them. Are you American? Are you not? Do you act like a real American?
K2K: Then again, whats a real American?
JH: Yeah, theres questions after that. Were you born here? Does that make you American? Or did you come here from another country, but youre a productive citizen or whatever. Those are a lot of great questions.
K2K: What do you think about the whole current immigration issue?
JH: The whole immigration thing... In regards to your question of us vs. them. Theyre here for a reason. The reason being... Like for me, I dont want to do a lot of that work. I try not to say its a White or Brown issue, but I dont want to do that work. I want to do my silly comic and... So theyre here, and we want to deal with them by throwing them out now. Yet, who let them in here? They snuck in, but who hired them? I think Americans who like running businesses and making money, and theres nothing wrong with that, hired them because they can make more money that way. So I find it more complicated than Oh they snuck in, and now throw them out.
K2K: As you travel to different conventions, do you find that there are particular areas that are more open to your comic book being Mexican in culture?
JH: Most of the places that Ive exhibited at, whether theyre signings, book fairs, comic conventions, have coincidentally been in areas where populations have been 30, 40, 50% Latino. Although my audience for my book is all groups. Its just people who are interested in Independent comics, in Latino culture, the Day Of The Dead culture, or the Aztec culture. I wouldnt call my book a Latino book only for Latino audiences, because its not.
K2K: Everyone has folklore. This just happens to be that one.
JH: Yeah. And theres something about the Day Of The Dead folklore. Its very particular, very unique. It has a lot of...
K2K: Its colorful. Its not evil.
JH: Thats whole other ongoing battle when I discuss Day Of The Dead with people. Oh, that thing. Its offensive when people say its Satanic.
K2K: Ive never really seen anyone calling it that. To me, it shows a sense of Mexican culture being friendly, nicer, and respectful to each other. There is no sadness in the Day Of The Dead. Mexicans, culturally, respect and appreciate people in memory differently than some White cultures. Some White cultures frown on death. Its sad, youre gone. Its more of a selfish attitude. Day Of The Dead celebrates people.
JH: It is a celebration. I use this line for my character in my new book. He says, I hate when people think that Dia de los Muertos is the Mexican Halloween. Its more like the Mexican Valentines Day if I have to give someone an analysis. The persons gone, but I still love them.
K2K: All the costumes, the skeletons are cartoonish.
JH: Thats the thing. When you think of skeletons, people think, Oh, thats Satanic. Ive had people, where I live in Whittier [California], civic leadership... If you mention, Lets have a Day Of The Dead Festival, because of the people who live there. Some guy actually said, Ooh, thats Satanic.
K2K: The Devil is mentioned in the Bible. Does that make Christianity Satanic?
JH: Thats a good point. These are all really good issues. Well have to talk about this further.
K2K: How old are you now?
K2K: Now that youre about to hit superstardom - are you married or single?
JH: Single. Depends on what you read on MySpace.
K2K: MySpace lists you as being a Swinger. True, or tease?
JH: Um, Im going to have to email Tom of MySpace about that. It must be a glitch.
K2K: Hows MySpace working for you?
JH: Fine. Its a great supplement. Ive had old friends look me up because they read about me in a local paper. On MySpace is meet people Ive never met before?
K2K: Met any hotties?
JH: I havent found out if theyre real yet.
K2K: How is it for business?
JH: For business its good. A word I just learned recently - Branding - my icon is always showing on MySpace. People see it and theyre interested and look at my site. They learn about my comic and work. If I dont actually sell a book from it, its in their heads. So when the movie comes out, Oh, thats that guys comic. And its free, so for me its a no-brainer to have a MySpace page. And I dedicate my MySpace page to promoting my comic and art.
K2K: What is your primary audience - male or female?
JH: Thats a really good question. I thought about this answer. I would say about 40% of my audience is female. Now, if you know anything about comic book statistics, audiences are usually like the movies - 35 year old white males. So on that note, Im glad that I have a diverse audience.
K2K: What was it like growing up in East L.A.?
JH: I grew up there only for about 3 years. They I moved to Whittier. Its been great there. I guess it was heavily Latino, so I never really encountered any outsider status, like being the only brown guy in the neighborhood.
K2K: Tell me about the classes you teach.
JH: I teach a comic book workshop at the Pico Rivera Center For The Arts. Ive been teaching there for about two years. Basically Im teaching the 13, 14, 15 year olds who take the class. Its a five week class. I just show a basic comic book layout. Its not a drawing class, where I teach them how to draw. Im not interested if theyre good drawers or not. Im just showing them how to do a comic book story. Im showing them the panel layout, sequential story time techniques...
K2K: Is it rewarding for you?
JH: Yes. Its very rewarding for me, just learning about storytelling and how young people are very heavily tuned into... particularly the Manga storytelling. For them its a total language. I dont know if youre familiar with Manga but, if a character gets aroused, theres a drop of blood on his nose, or if they get mad they get certain marks. And they know every step. Its very expressive with emotions.
K2K: How can anyone sign up for classes?
JH: Oh, they can just sign up by calling the Center For The Arts. Theyre five-week classes, every Tuesday from 5:30 pm to 7 pm.
K2K: Any age or just kids?
JH: Right now we have it set up for kids. There are issues about having adults, with kids in the class. But if we get enough adults, then we could have an adult class. Right now its just 13 - 18.
K2K: Any last words before we go?
JH: None that I can think of. Weve covered a lot of good stuff.
It was long past the closing time of the A.P.E. Con, and with that, we all got in our respective cars and took off. My trip being a bit closer than Javiers travel home. Look for El Muerto the film later in 2006.
- Written by Philip Anderson
- Philip Anderson is a musician, in addition to being a writer/photographer. He has performed as a guitarist/vocalist, as well as songwriter, in several bands over the past 20 years. As a writer and photographer, he has been published by several magazines and in several books, and had his works appear on television.