I was asked in a recent interview if there were any Latino superheroes appearing in films. With the exception of Brian Cox’s film adaptation of El Muerto with Wilmer Valderrama playing the eponymous hero, none came to mind. That’s because there aren’t any. This is not for a lack of Latino superheroes appearing in comic books. Latino superheroes do appear in mainstream (DC and Marvel) and independent comics — and have done so for quite some time. Making visible the vast array of Latino superheroes — and regular Josés — in comics (books and strips) is one of the main goals of my book, Your Brain on Latino Comics: From Gus Arriola to Los Bros. Hernandez. In this article, I focus on the history of Latino representation in comic books, an important aspect of my book. In addition, I examine why we as readers (and viewers) are even interested in and moved by stories told in this uniquely visual and textual way.
For decades now, Latinos of all shades and types have appeared in comic books and comic strips. In the mainstream world, during the 1970s and 1980s Marvel Comics introduced the Aztec solar calendar wearing and Spanglish talking El Dorado, as well as the Catholic social worker by day Bonita Juarez as Firebird. Their main purpose: to round up and fight villains, but only until the white superheroes arrived on the scene to finish the business. DC Comics also created Latino superheroes, including the Puerto Rican break-dancing character Paco Ramone as "Vibe" as well as the gay Peruvian identified, Gregorio de la Vega. Recently, with Latino editor in chief at the helm of Marvel, we’ve seen the introduction of a Tejano Blue Beetle, the superhero team “The Santerians”, Araña, and Bronx born-and-raised, Angela Del Toro (niece to Hector Ayala) as the hot tempered "White Tiger." Mostly, Latino superheroes hit a revolving door with Marvel and DC, appearing for several issues (or at best a mini-series) and were then wiped from the face of the earth.
This is only part of the story, however. During this period Latino author-artists were creating their own Latino superheroes — and this notwithstanding the gate-keeping forces of Marvel and DC, as well as distributor giants like Diamond. Judge Garza invented the Latino superhero comic Relampago in 1977 that inspired many, including Richard Dominguez’s creating of the public defendant, youth-of-color mentor Francisco Guerrero as the martial arts expert El Gato Negro, who busts drug cartels along the U.S./Mexico border. Additionally, there was the rag-tag cast of Latino (Afro-Hispanic) superheroes that made up Ivan Velez’s Blood Syndicate; as well as Laura Molina’s politicized and kick-bigot-butt, The Jaguar; Carlos Saldaña's bulletproof serape-wearing, time-traveling, Burrito; Javier Hernandez’s goth-horror superhero El Muerto; Steve Ross’ anti-capitalist luchador Chesty Sanchez; Frank Espinosa’s futuristic mapper, Rocketo; and Rafael Navarro’s luchador-detective Sonambulo, to name but a few.
This is just to speak of the comic books. In regards to comic strips, the first Latino author-artist Gus Arriola creating his nationally syndicated, Gordo in the 1950s. During its thirty-plus year run, reader-viewers followed the satirical adventures of Gordo in his various professional incarnations (bandit, farmer, and tour guide) all while Arriola educated his reader-viewers of the nuances of Mexican culture and of deep social prejudice in the U.S. mainstream. The legacy of Gordo produced biting satires, such as those by Lalo Alcaraz that appear regularly in the LA Weekly, as well as those of Hector Cantú and Carlos Castellanos’ in Baldo, to name a few.
Readers can be moved by comic books for a variety of reasons; what’s important to keep in mind, like any cultural phenomena, is that Latino comics (books and strips) can be more (or less) interesting in their creating of story, theme, and character as well as in the way they tell their stories. I call this their “will to style” in the book. Basically, it’s how much work the author-artist does to create comic books (and strips) that are engaging at the level of the telling (genre, form, technique) and content (character, event, plot). This corresponds to the intensity of the “Aha” or “Wow” we feel as our brains process the visual and verbal stimuli of any given Latino comic book (strip) story. The feeling we get when we’re reading-viewing, then, is not just that supra-cortical response to the appearance of an over-sized, animal-like villain (or the close-up of a panicked face or tragic turn of events). It occurs when a given Latino comic book author-artist defies certain conventions: sometimes omitting gutters, using an elongated page (Rocketo), drawing the same character but with a different style. Such play with convention activates our social memory of how the rules of the comic book (strip) convention and how it works in relation to the author-artist’s current modification — all this also elicit an “Aha” or a “Wow” emotional response.
It was this impulse to simultaneously make visible the history of Latinos in comics, to illuminate the mechanics of this storytelling medium, and also how comics move us emotionally and cognitively that led to the research and writing of Your Brain on Latino Comics: From Gus Arriola to Los Bros. Hernandez. It also spins out of the fact that I teach comic books in the classroom more than novels these days. In a course on, say, U.S. ethnic fiction, the good comic books can tell us just as much about race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality as a good novel. So why not research and teach Latino comics? They too have the power to teach us much about ourselves, others, and the world we all live in.