Monday, January 15, 2018

An interview with Frederick Luis Aldama regarding his new book, “Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics”

To call Frederick Luis Aldama one of the hardest working people in academia, the arts, and literature would not be hyperbole. Aldama not only is the Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor of English and University Distinguished Scholar at the Ohio State University, he is also the author, co-author, and editor of about 30 books (I have to hedge here on the number because he keeps on publishing books at a terrific rate…it’s hard to keep up).

Aldama is an acclaimed expert on Latinx popular culture, and his books include Long Stories Cut Short: Fictions from the Borderlands, Your Brain on Latino Comics: From Gus Arriola to Los Bros Hernandez, and The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez. Aldama is also the creator of a website on all things Latinx, and another website where he curates hundreds of original pieces on comics and comic authors from all over the world.

In short, Aldama is everywhere.

I had the opportunity to read one of his latest books, Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics (University of Arizona Press). Aldama does it again with this entertaining, thoughtful, and thought-provoking study of how, since the 1940s, the comic book industry has presented the Latinx superhero. Aldama took time out of his busy schedule to chat with La Bloga about this delightfully engaging book.

Frederick Luis Aldama

Daniel Olivas: What is it about the Latinx superhero that fascinates/inspires/moves you?

Frederick Luis Aldama: I love my comic book superheroes—and this since time immemorial. As a mixed Irish-Guatemalan-Mexican kid raised on a single mamá’s income while surviving in and around Sacramento in the ‘70s, they were my magic ticket to the Beyond. It wasn’t just the Anglo A-listers that populated the spin-racks at our corner store that caught my imagination. It was also the strong gravitational pull of fotonovela storyworlds filled with muscled, masked Mex-luchadores like Blue Demon and El Santo or slick cosmopolitan adventures of Egypto-Mex Kalimán and the swashbuckling Zorro that offered superheroic identity molds that I could pour myself into. And I left no stone unturned here. Long before I knew about the Rasquachismo Chicanx art movement, I was recycling discarded clothes and sheets into costumes that hybridized the luchador getup with those of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man…you name it.  Costumed up, I ran faster, jumped higher, threw farther, heard more attentively.

As a crumbsnatcher with limited access to the full range of mainstream comics, I didn’t know about Nuyorican Hector Ayala as White Tiger. I did know a lot about Batman. There was something deeply relatable about how he had to work hard for his muscles and smarts; they weren’t a, say, Krypton-right of birth. As that hybrid luchador/Batman not even the sky was the limit.

I’m not alone here. Many of us Latinxs share in these kinds of formative experiences with comic books. Javier Hernandez’s (El Muerto) felt less odd (linguistically) after discovering that a badass superhero like White Tiger could glide powerfully between English and Spanish. In Cuba then Washington Heights, the quiet Frank Espinosa (Rocketo) could use his silence, the stealth superpowers of The Phantom. In East LA Laura Molina (Cihualyaomiquiz, the Jaguar) binged on DC and Marvel, especially keying into their social justice messages. Superman allowed José Cabrera (Crying Macho Man) to fly up, up, and away from his Wash Heights enclave. The discovery of a paper-recycling warehouse in San Jose led Fernando Rodriguez (Aztec of the City) to Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, Spider-Man, The Silver Surfer, and Hulk. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men and Sailor Moon became fertile grounds for Serenity Sersecion (Ghoul Time) to begin to explore her queer Latinx identity.

For cofounder of Latino Comics Expo, Ricardo Padilla, superhero comics allowed him to escape the gun violence and dysfunctional family life growing up in South Central LA in the 1970s. And, I recently learned from my copilot in the writing of the forthcoming, #brownTV, that William Nericcio found himself deeply identifying with Latinx Lynda Carter’s televisualized Wonder Woman. And, in the many testimonies that make up a documentary on Latinx superheroes, we see this with African American creators, too. For another co-pilot of mine (SÕLCON: The Brown & Black Expo), John Jennings, Daredevil spoke to him as a bullied kid who grew up poor in the South: the relatable poverty of Hell’s Kitchen along with Matt Murdoch’s reeducating of his sense of sound, touch, smell to kick-ass over bullies. (For more testimonies on this score, you might check out Latinx Comic Book Storytelling.)

These are but a few examples. There are millions more of us brown and black folks who share similar experiences with comics. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Traditionally locked out from access to so-called high-brow culture, comics (pop culture generally) have proved especially important for folks of color in the U.S.

DO: As far as Latinx representation in comics goes, the times have changed.

FLA: Certainly, and so too have my lucha/Bat cross-dressing habits, Daniel. Today we have a veritable panoply of Latinx superheroes in comics; less so in animation, TV, and film. So much so that I decided to spend a couple of years excavating the history of US Latinx superheroes in mainstream comics storyworlds. In many ways, this was a formal retracing of a history I’d experienced intuitively and randomly since childhood. The fruits of this labor: Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics. I account for and study over 80 or so Latinx superheroes (and supervillains) created since the 1940s; of course, this is a drop in the bucket when compared to the huge galaxy of A-list Anglo superheroes that dominate the comic book, silver-screen, and televisual image repertoire.

Certainly, we’re not living the days when we were almost exclusively recreated as a malapropistic bandido raton on speed or as slovenly and lackadaisical (Speedy’s cousin, Slowpoke Rodriguez). Yet, given how comics continue to underrepresent Latinx experiences and identities, we’re still largely not seen and heard.

DO: Can you give a little more detail about the evolution of the Latinx superhero from the 1940s (The Whip, Bat-Hombre) to the present (Miles Morales as Spider-Man, Ava Ayala as White Tiger) as well as the representations of LGBTQ Latinx characters?

FLA: When I first launched into the research that went into Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics, I thought I’d find, say, a natural progression of improvement from the 1940s to today. And this not only in terms of the content but also the form; after all, technologies of comic book creation (in print, film, animation, and television) have become increasingly nuanced and diverse over time. 

Yet, I found many instances in recent comics history where basics like shading and color (or casting in film and TV) seem to willfully ignore the many colors of brown; or where geometric design of facial features willfully sidestepped any connection to our mestizo, indigenous heritage. I found plenty of instances where teams of creators still imagined us Latinxs as speaking never-before-heard tonally and rhythmically truncated English. I found plenty of recent creations that continue to envision Latinx superheroes as the janitors of the multiverse: here to do all the work, clean up the mess, and swept aside for the Anglo A-lister to relish in the save-the-day glory.

This said, there are more interesting Latinx superheroes than not. These include Miles Morales and Ava Ayala, as you mention, along with many others like Roberto Reyes as Ghost Rider and America Chavez. The creators bring a great will to style in the way they geometrize these Latinx characters: from color pallets and facial and body shapes to page layouts and panel designs. The creators also do their due diligence; if they aren’t Latinx, there’s the sense that they are doing the work to find out what it means to be Latinx—and not using the racist and maligned representational repertoire as their basis for understanding Latinx histories, experiences, and identities. I love that Miles Morales is given a full backstory and character support (parents and abuelitas) to fill out his Afrolatinx identity; I love that DC finally seems to get it right with a gay Latinx superhero with Miguel José “Bunker” Barragon. Just as Bunker kicks culo with his psionic powers, he’s also gay—and both without much ado. This is a big step forward if you consider some of DC’s other queer Latinx superheroes like Gregorio de la Vega as Extraño: always geometrized with flamboyant gestures and exaggerated declarations (“Puh-lease!”) and who is killed off by contracting HIV from the supervillain, Hemo-Goblin.

DO: Though Latinx superheroes more often than not appear first in comics, you explore their appearance in TV and film. How has this leap from the comic page to the small and big screens affected the evolution of the Latinx superhero?

FLA: The more money involved in the creation of a Latinx superhero in the mainstream, the less likely they will appear at all in comic book storyworlds. To put it simply, there are nearly no Latinx superheroes in TV and film. This is the case even when the film or TV show recreates from a comic that actually has Latinx superheroes. In this cross-media re-creative process, we’re obliterated. The most egregious is arguably Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises. For all of Nolan’s mastery at superhero storytelling, he falls more than short with the casting of Tom Hardy as Bane. Bane, after all, is one of DC’s greatest (smartest and strongest) supervillains. He’s also Latinx. In the X-Men flicks, those that clearly appeared in the in-print comic book storyworld as Latinx are either white-washed (played by Spaniards) or black-faced, as with the casting of Kenyon-born Edi Gathegi as the Latinx Armando Muñoz (Darwin).

It gets worse. With respect to Joss Whedon (Avengers and his taking over of the helming of Justice League), Latinxs don’t even make it into the background of a given cityscape. The same of Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. Well, actually, with Snyder we do appear: as a gas station attendant, an infantry soldier, and as calavera-face painted adoring folks who literally worship at the feet of Superman. My last dig: Kenneth Brannagh’s Thor. Okay, here’s a director who chooses to set the action in a visibly recognizable New Mexico, with the town itself called Puente Antigua. Yet, there are no Latinxs—anywhere. Somehow, I got hold of some footage shot but excised in post-production: a scene with café owner, Isabela Alvarez (played by well-known Latinx actor, Adriana Barraza) serving Thor coffee; and a scene with visibly identifiable Latinx niños playing in the street. With these scenes shot but left on the postproduction room floor, Brannagh must have thought it was okay to literally erase our presence—even though New Mexico’s a majority Latinx.

DO: What do you think is the next step for Latinx superheroes?

FLA: Generally, what I see happening in the mainstream is something like this. DC tends to churn out conveyer-belt style anything and everything with the hopes that it’ll grab readers and therefore generate profits. Sometimes they hit the mark, as with the bringing on of lesbian Latinx Gabby Rivera to write the America Chavez storyline. Marvel has a longer track record of really trying to get Latinx superheroes right. This was really visible when Latinx Joe Quesada was in the Edior-in-Chief seat. Generally, however, what I see is an inching along with one step forward and two steps back.

Let’s not forget that with Disney as the conglomerate over-lording Marvel with its ownership of Marvel Studios, there’s a deep conservatism that runs through its superhero productions. The kind of fear of Latinxs (writers, producers, directors) that ends up erasing us from silver-screen existence.

Let’s also not forget that we’re talking about corporations that seek dollar profit. So, perhaps we might begin to see more Latinx superheroes on the silver screen. Disney seemed to wake (Coco) to the fact that we fill seats at the movies more than any other demographic and so it might be worth their while to get it right. It’s likely the motivation behind casting Diego Luna as the smart, fierce Cassian Andor who speaks loud and proud with his Mexican Spanish accent; it’s maybe why for the first time we have a Guatemalan Latinx (Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron) in space. In the end, the silver-screen might begin to get it right simply because, in this instance, dollars matter.

Honestly, though, the next steps in Latinx superhero making have already been happening among our fellow Latinx creators. They are the ones at the vanguard of comic book creation. In content and form, they are the ones radically diversifying our superhero repertoire. It could be a Javier Hernandez’s El Muerto whose superheroic acts resonate with social justice themes—and present-day iterations of our pre-Colombian heritage; it could Molina’s the Jaguar who studies civil law to fight deportations and who kicks culo over alt-right, neo-Nazi racists; it could be Jaime Hernandez’s older and elderly Ti-Girls like Espectra (Maggie’s pro wrestler cousin, Xochitl Navas, grown old), the Weeper, the robot Cheetah Torpeda from the planet Blotos, and Space Queen. It could be Edgardo Miranda-Rodríguez’s Nuyorican La Borinqueña, undocumented Joaquín Torres as the new Latinx Falcon, or his identifying of Groot’s ancestry as linked to that of the Caribbean ceiba—a symbol of Afrolatinx anti-colonial resistance. There are many others, of course.

We’ve made great strides forward, but it’s still difficult for many of these creators to get their work published and distributed in a massive way: from publishing gate-keepers to distribution monopolies that crush any possibility of making a modicum of money. As you know, this is why I decided to create, curate, and edit the Latinographix series with OSU Press. Working hard with the amazing team of folks at the press, we recently published Alberto Ledesma’s Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer. It’s these stories of our everyday survival and victories that are the real superheroes.


Anonymous said...

Why no mention of "El Toro Rojo"? Groundbreaking Super-villain that has fought toe to toe (or rather, horns to hammer) against Thor in the 1980's?

MG-M said...

Gracias, Daniel! And thanks to Aldama as well!

And thanks for nightmares, too...your claim that "Aldama is everywhere" is frighteningly true! He's the intellectual El Cucuy hiding under the worn cot in my campus office, an erudite omnipresent phantom haunting all bookshelf’s.

He's out to get us to think, read and see—and all the garlic, wolfsbane, tarnished crosses, or Buffy-type talismen won't help!