Con Gran Poder: Dallas Is an Epicenter of Latino Indie Comic Artists
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 5, 2017 AT 4 A.M.
Comic book artist Hector Rodriguez talks with UT Dallas students at welcome week book signing.
Hector Rodriguez says he finally heard his calling to become a superhero comic artist and publish a superhero story that he created in college when a student came to him in tears. His father, the student said, had been deported. "He’s crying and that kind of hit me,” Rodriguez says. “What do you say? ‘Well, whatever you need, I’ll be here for you,’ and I tried to comfort him.”
Rodriguez, then a teacher of fourth-grade bilingual math and science teacher at the Dallas Independent School District's Anne Frank Elementary School, became a teacher on the advice and in the footsteps of his father. Rodriguez attended Texas Woman's University as a sociology student but found himself frequenting the campus’ art department. He always loved comics and wrote the script for his most famous superhero comic, El Peso Hero, when he was an undergraduate.
El Peso Hero is a big belt-buckled, bulletproof freedom fighter who uses his superhuman powers to protect Mexican laborers and families from extortion and violence caused by deadly drug cartels, human traffickers and an endless cycle of government corruption. Rodriguez didn’t fully illustrate and publish this creation until at least a decade later, when he faced that distressed student. He wanted to give kids and other people like that student a superhero.
“Seeing their struggles firsthand, I told myself that El Peso Hero needs to happen,” Rodriguez says. “I need to do it now. ... Picking up [comic] books in the library and seeing how they weren’t represented, that gave me that catalyst to get up and do it.
El Peso Hero started as a web comic in the summer of 2011. Rodriguez released a new hand-drawn page every two weeks, and by the following spring he had enough material to release a 30-page comic book. So far, he's released and sold thousands of digital and print copies of his comic through his Rio Bravo Comics publishing house based in McKinney. He now works there as a fifth-grade bilingual reading teacher at Burks Elementary.
“I was in a comic book writing workshop, and this guy who worked for Marvel and probably still works there, he advised me to do El Peso Hero in English,” Rodriguez says. “He said, ‘El Peso Hero should speak English if you want to make it big.’ Well, that’s why I’m independent."
The story of Rodriguez’s comic book creation is a being repeated in the Dallas comic book community and is a reflection of a national trend. Latino artists and writers are using the medium to tell stories that range from serious to silly about superhuman characters who can deliver a sense of humanity to real issues like immigration, ethnic identity and violence inside the community.
This comic book community has grown so large that Rodriguez was able to help found the first Texas Latino Comic Con in July in Dallas. It featured a number of budding and influential Latino voices from across the state and the country.
“In the cast of Spider-Man when he was created in the early '60s, he was a young kid in high school, and he had issues that a lot of kids identified with in high school, and I think the same goes with El Peso Hero and Hector’s character,” says Sam de la Rosa, a longtime Marvel and DC Comics artist from San Antonio who was one of the keynote speakers at the Texas Latino Comic Con. “There’s an opportunity for Hispanics and Latinos to enjoy it, and here’s a character who’s similar to them and to us. He’s righting some wrongs and getting involved in some of these situations to make things better. Almost anybody can identify with that."
Casting realistic characters of various ethnicities as heroes in comics is a relatively new concept among mainstream publishers such as DC and Marvel. The industry dates back to the early 1930s, but Weldon Adams, a comic book art specialist for Heritage Auctions of Dallas, says nonwhite characters were a rarity in the golden age of American comics.
When they were introduced, they relied on ethnic stereotypes and became second- and third-tier heroes. “One of the things that made me crazy was if someone was Hispanic, every word balloon they had would say it in Spanish and they’d repeat it in English,” Adams says. “And what’s worse is the thought balloons. These were characters who were thinking things in Spanish and then again in English. That made no sense whatsoever.”
A new crop of artists is still breaking that mold, and North Texas is an epicenter. Richard Dominguez is a comic artist and writer behind the long-running El Gato Negro: Nocturnal Warrior series, which he publishes through his Azteca Productions publishing company, headquartered in Dallas.
"Some people ask why does he not have an ‘EG’ on his chest. Because he’s not a cheerleader." – Richard Dominguez, writer of the comic El Gato Negro: Nocturnal Warrior
Dominguez grew up reading all the comic staples like Batman, The Incredible Hulkand Capt. America, and created El Gato Negro in 1993 while working as an artist for an ad agency in Mesquite. He says he wanted to create his own comic because there weren’t any characters he could identify with that weren’t blatant Latino stereotypes who “came from the other side of the railroad tracks and had to redeem themselves to do good."
“I wanted to come up with one who had a decent upbringing and didn’t join gangs,” Dominguez says.
Dominguez says he decided to publish his comic independently when he saw that works like Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtlescould find an audience without relying on either of the two big comics publishers. El Gato Negro is inspired by the urban crime-fighter model; he doesn’t use supernatural powers to save the day.
“I can’t stand brightly colored superheroes,” Dominguez says. “They look like circus performers. Some people ask why does he not have an ‘EG’ on his chest. Because he’s not a cheerleader. I think the master that represents the cat is his emblem.”
El Gato Negro’s alter ego is Francisco Guerrero, a social worker living in the McAllen and Rio Grande Valley area of Texas, whose grandfather hands him the mantle of his luchador persona to fight crime. His chief nemeses are drug kingpin El Graduado and his bar-brawling henchmen, Pitbull and Rockwaller.
Dominguez based the grandfather on his grandfather, Jesus Molina, a Mexican native who worked as a West Dallas community leader in the '60s. He “would speak nothing but Spanish because he was proud of where he was from," Dominguez says. “[Guerrero] was raised by his grandfather and started off as a crimefighter, and he was practically brought up by the community. So he’s giving back what the community gave him: protection.”
Dominguez published four issues of his comic in the mid-1990s, and they sold quickly, but he put his comic on hold when he saw the comic book slump that crippled sales across the board in the following years. He decided to relaunch El Gato Negro, Nocturnal Warrior in 2005 when fans kept asking when they’d get another issue.
The internet also gives comic creators a new way to publish their work and fund their creations through crowdfunding. Dominguez says he’s close to launching a Kickstarter to publish a full-length graphic novel of his superhero’s newest adventure. An Austin filmmaker also made a short film based on his comic, and he says he’s working on turning his creation into a television series.
In 2013, Jose Garcia and Jose Ramirez envisioned a comic about a “big, wacky, hairy luchador character” named El Cinto. The pair came up with the idea in a comic book art course at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
The result of this is El Cinto: King of the Ring,an indie comic from the Dallas-based publisher Unearthly Comics, which also uses heavy doses of Latino culture and flavor to decorate its panels and stories, but offers a sillier take on the superhero genre.
Mike Wolfman, a consultant for the school who heads the class and also co-founded Unearthly Comics, was so impressed with the idea that he commissioned Garcia and Ramirez to do a four-book series of the character. El Cinto uses a belt as his weapon of choice and teams up with a sidekick named La Chancla who beats his enemies with sandals.
“The name El Cinto is kind of an inside joke with him because in the Latin community, when you’re raised and disciplined, you’re hit by the belt,” Garcia says. “So I chose the name El Cinto because he disciplines the bad guys with justice.”
El Cinto started as a web comic, but the creators built a fan base at comic book conventions. They made a print version, and El Cinto quickly became one of Unearthly’s top three highest-selling comics. “It all comes together,” Wolfman says. “It’s the fact that they have these similar dynamics like Batman and Robin, but I think it’s a little more dynamic.”
Garcia was born in Dallas but split his childhood between Texas and Mexico. His exposure to WWE wrestling, Japanese anime and Lucha Libre wrestling, in which some of the sport’s biggest stars starred in cheesy horror and adventure movies, helped lay the mental foundation for his comic book’s stories and sensibilities.
His love for iconic comic artist Robert Crumb also shines through in some of the comic’s more cartoonish panels. El Cinto makes his enemies’ eyes bulge out of their sockets and their limbs defy the basic laws of human anatomy and gravity.
“I just want to tell a universal story that everyone can enjoy and it just happens to have all of these cultural influences,” Garcia says. “Dragon Ball Z is a very mainstream anime and manga series that have a lot of cultural stuff from China and Japan. But it’s liked universally. That’s something I’d like to achieve with El Cinto. Even though El Cinto is pulling from Latino, Japanese and Chinese influences, I want to create something that everyone will like.”
El Cinto will fight again this February in four new issues that Garcia is currently working on in between other jobs. Ramirez moved on to his another comic after El Cinto’s initial run, and Garcia says it takes “a lot of grinding” to write and ink a comic book from scratch.
“I just feel a lot of satisfaction from people who look at my stuff,” Garcia says. “The artist side of me wants to show them everything I do and maybe inspire them to do their own thing. I also want to show people you can bring cultures together and create this completely new thing that’s bigger than our own collective.”
Whether they are called comics or graphic novels, comic books have a huge audience with a very wide age range. Many people read them as children and became adults who propelled Hollywood to release an endless stream of big-budget action movies based on Marvel and DC Comics’ properties. Others like Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning Maus books found audiences mature enough to deal with heavy themes like the Holocaust.
"Hispanic culture has always produced their own comics, and there are some long-running comic companies that publish books that are still available in the U.S., primarily from immigrants who bring them to the U.S. with them," Adams says. "The Lone Ranger started publishing here in the U.S. by Del Comics before they stopped making them and Mexico picked them and made some gorgeous covers. In Mexico, The Lone Ranger is still so popular that they keep publishing them.”
“One of the great things about comic books is that the format puts the reader in somebody else’s shoes,” Rodriguez says. “They put you in a different perspective. It’s a strong format that creates the narrative and visuals to really help tell a story.”
Adams says comic books and graphic novels have a unique opportunity to inform and enlighten by the nature of the medium. “Comic books are an art form and a very unique art form in that they are a combination of words and pictures,” he says. “It’s a mixture of the two, and just like any other art form, the purpose of art is to enlighten, entertain and educate. Having more cultural awareness in comic books makes comics better for people and more entertaining, enlightening and educational for people.”
Although some comics tell superhuman stories about unbelievable struggles, Dominguez says superheroes such as El Gato Negro can be relatable characters who talk to their readers in powerful and meaningful ways. “I get letters from fans who says that my story hits home because of a scene in there where the grandfather’s giving advice to his grandson, and the room where they are communicating is a kitchen, and they’re discussing current events over a little hot chocolate with sweetbread,” Dominguez says. “That’s a typical Latino upbringing right there. A reader with that kind of background will look at it and go, ‘Man, that’s me and my grandfather talking,’ and that hits home.”
Comics and graphic novels can also give the creators opportunities to express themselves in ways that are fun and accessible. “El Cintohas a lot of themes about family and taking care of your family and working together as a family,” Garcia says. “One of the important story points of El Cinto is that he wants to better himself so he can protect the people he loves.”
These stories can reach people in ways that debates, lectures or rallies fail to because they inflame opinions or harden hearts instead of showing how real people are affected.
“One of the things that make El Peso Hero stand out is we don’t take a political stance,” Rodriguez says. “Just at the Texas Latino Comic Con, I had a border patrol agent approach my table and thank me and say, ‘I appreciate what you’re doing’ and ‘This is what’s really going on.’ You’re not taking a stance, but you’re telling the story.”