ED. NOTE: Through the end of the year, Comic Riffs will take a closer look at our favorite comic/graphic-novel reads of 2013. Today we talk with the writer and artist behind a newly illustrated deluxe edition of a story collection that’s already garnered shortlisting for the National Book Award.
This is how you woo him.
Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer-winning writer and MIT educator, released his latest book, “This Is How You Lose Her,” last fall — the same year he was awarded the MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship. The story collection quickly won acclaim and was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Now, his publisher had an idea for a deluxe edition:
What if the bestseller were reissued with full-page illustrations by one of Diaz’s favorite cartoonists — a man whose comics had downright influenced the 45-year-old author decades earlier?
What if the editors put in the call to Jaime Hernandez?
Helen Yentus, art director at Riverhead Books, approached Hernandez with her brainchild; then Diaz’s editor, Rebecca Saletan, approached her writer with the idea.
Turns out, the executives birthed not only a fertile creative collaboration. They also fostered a mutual humility society, because each man is a fan of the other.
“Honestly, I am over-the-moon giddy,” Diaz tells Comic Riffs this week, ahead of the Oct. 31 release of the deluxe edition. “I’ve got to tell you, I have never been the kind of person who [marvels] at his own work. I’m never over-the-top happy [about it]. I don’t even have parties ... or go out for drinks with friends [when a new book of mine comes out].
“But,” continues Diaz, who began reading “Love and Rockets” in the ‘80s, “this is one publication that I’m so elated over because I’m such an enormous fan of Jaime’s. ... To have someone of his caliber — I think everybody knew I was a huge fan.”
And what was the artist’s reaction?
“I like his stories ... so I was a little nervous,” the Harvey Award-winning Hernandez tells us with understatement. “I wanted to get the characters to his liking.”
Hernandez needn’t be concerned: Diaz, as a longtime follower, knew the Southern California-based illustrator would deliver. “I’ve never met someone who is less interested in bothering the artist” than myself, Diaz says of such a collaboration. “I didn’t want to trouble Jaime in any way. I wanted to just let him be and do.”
Diaz also approached the project with a deep well of appreciation for Hernandez’s accomplishments.
“I discovered ‘Love and Rockets’ in 1987, while I was living in Jersey, during my first year of university [Rutgers],” Diaz says of the long-running comic by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez (sibling Mario sometimes contributes). “What’s sort of important to me is that Jaime and his brother Gilberto have been at the forefront of representing the U.S.-Latino and the Latino experience in a profound and human and complicated way. Back when everyone else was creating shows, these guys were talking about young, bisexual punk-rock girls from Oxnard. That’s the universe I [recognized].”
“Maggie and Hopey,” Diaz says of the lead “L&R” characters, “were an inspiration. I just modified their artistic vernacular to the fit the world I wanted to write about.” (”Lola,” notes Diaz, referencing a character from his Pulitzer-winning “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” “becomes an extension of Hopey and Maggie’s world.”)
“The debt I owe them is so insanely enormous,” Diaz says of Los Bros Hernandez, “I can’t imagine repaying it.”
The pairing, of course, seems a natural: Both men — born about a decade apart — are highly gifted at creating powerful female characters. They deftly draw from their surroundings and have precise ears for the dialogue of conflict. And, so often, they revel in the sensual.
That’s not to say Hernandez didn’t face some interpretive challenges.
“The easy part is, Junot writes his characters so well,” the cartoonist says. “I get a feeling of who the people are. I know what they do, how they think ... how they distribute their bodies. The hard part was just [pulling images] with the words.”
“How You Lose Her” depicts Diaz’s quasi-autobiographical character, Yunior — called upon for a third time in Diaz’s books — going through a series of romantic relationships in the succession of stories. Magdalena, Nilda, Alma, Flaca ... each woman has a very distinct personality, and each displays different relationship peccadilloes. But Hernandez had to interpret them visually.
“It was a little frustrating because this was his book,” says Hernandez, as opposed to illustrating his own story. “When doing something for someone else, I babysit it for a while.” As he read, he made mental sketches; sometimes, he even made physical ones in the margins, “so I wouldn’t forget a certain detail.” (Sometimes, he even had to backtrack; he envisioned Flaca as Latina till Diaz’s reveal that she’s white.)
“Mostly, the visuals start to creep into my head,” Hernandez says. “I start to get [a sense of] their body language.” He worked to beautifully capture Nilda’s luxuriant curves, and Alma’s cool, tense stare.
As Hernandez sent along sketches, he heard back from Diaz, via the publisher.
“I was getting feedback,” the cartoonist says. Brief notes that said things like, “works out more” or, is a “pretty slim guy.”
“One thing I was told” about a character sketch, the artist recounts, was: “Make her less Mexican.”
“I totally understand that,” Hernandez says. “Basically, the [Mexican and Dominican] cultures can be night and day. They’re [largely] on different coasts. It’s a big difference [living] in New York. As far as growing up in certain places, it has its own flavor, and I totally understood that.”
“Most of what I know of Dominican [looks] comes from baseball players,” Hernandez half-jokes. “To capture Dominican, I did my best. It came out pretty positive, [because] I knew it unconsciously.”
Of the “less Mexican” note, Diaz tells us: “This is more of a shorthand in trying to do something with characters. … No one looks Dominican, of course. ... But he just needed to Dominicanize [the overall look]. I was so overwhelmingly happy.”
And does one of the deluxe illustrations make Diaz more happy than the rest?
“I’m particularly fond of the Alma illustration,” Diaz says. “It has such an element of clarity and force. It is a gift beyond whatever the project is.”
So, would Diaz want that original illustration as a literal gift?
“Oh,” he replies reassuringly, “it’s in transit.”
Let’s take this rewarding collaboration one step further, then. Would Diaz — whose comic tastes range from indie books to Marvel titles like X-Men and Fantastic Four — ever want to work with Hernandez on a graphic novel?
“My dream would be that one of the most creative and … original artists [around] would, for some strange reason, want to collaborate with me,” says Diaz, before pivoting to qualify: “But that unlikely eventuality is, of course, a dream. It’s the last thing Jaime needs.”
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