At San Francisco’s Latino Comics Expo, Artists Create Their Own Heroes

Confessionals about family and tattoos? A Mesoamerican answer to Game of Thrones? E.T. in a sombrero? These comic artists are doing it all, and doing it for themselves.

By Channing Kennedy May 15, 2012

"Sorry if I’m a little out of it," says Liz Mayorga, apologizing to me as she fills in some gaps on her display table. "I was up all night doing the illustrations for this."

Mayorga must be a wonderfully organized procrastinator, because the ‘this’ she’s talking about is her newest zine, Inked, and it’s great. Ostensibly a personal essay about her conservative Mexican family’s reactions to her Quetzal tattoo, Inked manages to pull in more than its spare 24 pages should be able to hold — religion, history, colorism, multiple directions of racism, gender dynamics, even the impact of global warming on drug cartel activity. It’s a deeply personal work made more intimate by its handmade medium; photocopied shadows of irregularly scissored edges circle her paragraphs and sketches. Somewhere between this morning and this late-morning, Mayorga stapled on the colored-cardstock covers and had a stack of finished products to sell.

Here at the second-annual Latino Comics Expo in downtown San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum, Mayorga’s zines are outnumbered by more traditional comics, and they’re a world apart from the museum’s current gallery of Latino newspaper comic strips from the last several decades. But her DIY-punk aesthetic philosophy is right at home. There’s a variety of stuff for sale in the three exhibition rooms: lush full-color comic books with proper ISBNs, lovingly overphotocopied mini-zines, mildly obscene t-shirts, DVDs of animated music videos in which adorable Día de los Muertos skeletons meet grisly deaths, screenprinted posters of E.T. in a sombrero. And nearly all of it is self-funded or small-printer published. In the void left by Marvel and DC’s ongoing financial bet against readers of color, the hot new publisher is Kickstarter and your fifty best friends.

The event’s diverse, egalitarian vibe is intentional. Mayorga attended last year as a fan, and brought a bag of her wares in case anyone wanted to trade. The event organizers gave her the encouragement she needed to go legit and get table space for next year. "It’s not about how good your stuff is going to make them look," she says. "It’s about, ‘you need to be doing this.’" Though Mayorga says she didn’t see a proper zine until she fell in with the right crowd in 2005, the message of ‘you need to be doing this’ is one she heard as a teen from riot-grrl punk bands; she got her start making band flyers and fanzines before moving into more personal work. Now, she’s exhibiting her work alongside some of her heroes.

In the next room, San Francisco veteran comic artist Gabrielle Gamboa also credits punk rock. "The first comic I ever really read was Love and Rockets," she says, referring to the punk-influenced seminal alternative-comic series by brothers Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario Hernandez; Mario is here at the expo, usually obscured by fans. Los Bros Hernandez have arguably been the most visible Latino artists in indie comics for the last three decades, and their work pulls in equal parts from late-night sci-fi movies, magic realism, and the Los Angeles punk scene. It’s also pretty damn third-wave feminist. Not only do the series’ women have both sex and personalities, a power granted to few mainstream superheroines, but their relationships with each other drive story after story. Every woman artist I talk to at the expo — and there are a lot of them! — names the Hernandez brothers as an influence. Mayorga wrote a thesis on them at Berkeley.

The expo’s gender ratio seems exceptional for a reason. "When I first started, I knew every woman comic artist," says Gamboa. "I mean, across the nation! But as time went by, I noticed I’d be one of two women in the room, and then one of four women, and so on. Same for being a Latino artist. And then, you know, here we are," she says, gesturing around.

Punk may have been Gamboa’s gateway into comics, but artistically, her roots dig further. Many of her heroes are on the walls around us in the museum. "Ernie Bushmiller (creator of Nancy) is the biggest influence on me," she says. "His economy of line is just incredible. And Harold Gray (creator of Little Orphan Annie) — his politics are terrible, all about rich people rescuing the helpless poor, but his storytelling! It’s so good!" Somewhat unusually for the room, Gamboa’s newest comic isn’t visibly Latino, at least to my eyes. Instead, it’s a grisly love letter to the funny pages of the Great Depression: an intellectual property-eschewing reimagining of Nathanael West’s 1933 short story ‘Miss Lonely Hearts,’ in which an unwilling advice columnist fields solicitations from a suicidal Olive Oyl, an abused Nancy, a noseless Orphan Annie. It’s pitch-black humor, and it’s a glowing example of what the medium can do. Presumably to balance things out, she’s also brought a mini-comic about a ’50s rocker that’s full of chupacabra cameos.

I catch a panel discussion on Latin American mythology and history. Like any good comics expo, the crowd’s t-shirts are an exhibit unto themselves; my personal favorites are a faux-Mayan depiction of a warrior killing Mickey Mouse, underlined with ‘DECOLONIZE’ with a loopy Walt Disney capital D, and ‘ESTAR GUARS’ (written in the Star Wars font).

On the panel, Rodolfo Mendoza, who drove from Salt Lake City to San Francisco just for this event, speaks through a volunteer translator about his new superhero series El Caballero Aguila. Much like Naif al-Mutawa’s The 99, Mendoza’s goal is to create a franchise of characters that Latino kids will want to dress up as for Halloween, to fight internalized negative self-perceptions with positive images; his hero’s slogan is ‘We, too, can save the world.’ Daniel Parada, the youngest person on the panel, talks about the two solid years of research he did before starting on Zotz: Serpent and Shield, an alternate-history comic in which the Spaniards get their asses kicked. Zotz is wholly enjoyable, full of sex, disembowelings, and meticulously detailed maps — something like a Mesoamerican Game Of Thrones. I ask the panel if they’re acting to take back their history from another party. "Well, in a lot of cases, it’s not that someone else has control of the history," says Parada, "it’s that it’s been totally lost."

"When I started El Muerto: Aztec Zombie, our myths weren’t anywhere. It was all Greek myths, Hercules, over and over again," says Javier Hernandez, the panel moderator and one of the expo’s organizers. "And it’ll be like that until Disney gets interested. Wait! Didn’t Disney do something — that David Spade movie? Yeah, just ignore The Emperor’s New Groove."

Back at the tables, Mayorga tells me about how growing an audience has changed her approach as a storyteller. "I used to be very, you know, I’m writing this for myself," she says. "But as I realized who was reading my stuff, I couldn’t help but put myself in their position. Being a teenager, living in your room at home surrounded by your family who doesn’t get you — I remember that that can be such a lonely place. And I’ve noticed that while I’ve kept writing about the things I wanted to write about, I put myself in this mindset to a degree, to write a story that’ll resonate with that person. To help me talk to that person." Mayorga, like a lot of artists and fans here, used to be that person.

A woman steps up to by a copy of Inked and asks for it to be signed; just a flat signature, no dedication. I ask, jokingly, if she’s going to sell it on eBay. Not quite, she says — she’s buying it for the Chicano Studies collection at San Jose State University’s Cultural Heritage Center. As curator, she says, she makes a special effort to give comics and zines a space in the collection, to legitimize them as cultural and artistic expression. "I’ve been here both years, and it’s been such a great resource," she says. "I make it out to the other comics conventions, but it’s not easy to find what I’m looking for. For Chicano comics, other than the Hernandez brothers, this is it."

The curator moves on to the next room; Mayorga, a few feet away in the crowded hall, couldn’t hear a word of our conversation. I recap for her: she just autographed a three-dollar zine for a state university’s permanent collection.

"Oh," she says. "Whoa, wait! Really?" She processes this for a moment, and I wonder how an artist deals with Creating For The Legacy Of Their Culture. And then she gets back to asking the new queue of fans what they’ve been working on. She’s concerned, at present, with doing good by the readers and stories in front of her.