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A Comic-Con of sorts for a neglected audience

by Marcos Najera | The Frame

Artist Javier Hernandez co-founded the Latino Comics Expo with Ricardo Padilla. Both men say the goal was simply to get all Latino/a comic-book artists together under one roof to talk, share and support the field. Marcos Nájera

Comic-book fans recently got a glimpse of the upcoming Netflix series, “Luke Cage."  It’s based on the 1972 Marvel comics superhero and show creators describe Cage as a “bulletproof black man.”  

There have been other black superheroes on TV. Back in the '70s and '80s there was the Black Vulcan and Cyborg — both from the classic “Superfriends” cartoon series.  More recently, you might remember the live action show "Blade," which was based on the comic-book-turned-film-franchise.

But Latinos — the nation's largest ethnic minority — have yet to see Hollywood get behind a prominent brown crime-fighting character.  

That void has inspired several Latino artists to create their own hero stories and cultivate a whole new community of content creators.  Their annual gathering recently took place in Long Beach at the Museum of Latino American Art.  It’s officially called the Latino Comics Expo.  This year marks the 5th anniversary of the event, which is very unofficially dubbed the “Latino Comic-Con.”

Walking around the convention hall, it was clear that this gathering matters a lot to the artists and fans. As it stands, it’s very difficult to come up with names of Latino superheroes or comic book characters. Perhaps John Leguizamo’s star-turn in the '90s film, “The Spawn,” might come to mind.  But his clown character turned out be more super-villain than a headlining brown superhero.
One could argue that the character Antonio Banderas plays in "Puss & Boots" is a kind of Latino superhero. But perhaps superhero-ish is a better description, given that he plays a cat, not a person.

Many Latino artists were inspired to create their work after growing up watching a steady stream of Lucha Libre, or Mexican wrestling. To pay homage, the Expo set up an area featuring all Lucha-themed merchandise. Pictured is Lucha Libre expert, Keith Ranville.
Many Latino artists were inspired to create their work after growing up watching a steady stream of Lucha Libre, or Mexican wrestling. To pay homage, the Expo set up an area featuring all Lucha-themed merchandise. Pictured is Lucha Libre expert, Keith Ranville. Marcos Nájera

Back in the day, the "Fat Albert" cartoons regularly featured a superhero named The Brown Hornet.  It turns out, however, that The Brown Hornet was actually black and voiced by Bill Cosby. 
Are we leaving anybody out?  Probably not.

That said, if you were able to read people’s minds inside the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, you’d definitely note this subtext. But that’s why these folks came to the Expo to begin with — to battle what some describe as the injustice of underrepresentation. Hundreds of Latino comic-book creators traveled here to talk shop and sell stories in which brown characters are placed unapologetically front and center.  

One such character who fans met at the Expo is named “El Verde.”  Outside on a sun-filled outdoor stage, people watched a comic-book style theatre show about this new brown superhero named after the infamous green card sought by immigrant workers. Anthony Aguilar is the writer and star.

AGUILAR: He’s a factory worker. He came from Mexico. Raised in America.  He doesn’t have super powers, but that doesn’t stop him from becoming a superhero.

Anthony Aguilar (left) and “El Verde” co-creater Alejandra Cisneros (center) have publicized their brown story about a green-loving superhero for the past three Latino Comics Expos.
Anthony Aguilar (left) and “El Verde” co-creater Alejandra Cisneros (center) have publicized their brown story about a green-loving superhero for the past three Latino Comics Expos. Marcos Najera/KPCC

Aguilar based the story on his real family, which crossed the Mexican border years ago. 

AGUILAR: My mom’s side actually came through the Bracero program. My other grandparents came here as tortilla factory workers. Which is why El Verde himself is a factory worker. I think with El Verde, I did want to see a Latino superhero, but I think it was more like I just wanted to see a Latino superhero that was more just like me, a representation of who I am — this dorky, nerdish kind of guy. It just happens that he is Latino.

That was a common feeling for many Expo attendees: a sincere longing to discover people who look like you on screen, on stage and in print, and who might even have special powers — like timeless superheroes such as Superman or Wonder Woman. Ramona Pilar is an actress in Aguilar's play.

PILAR: What’s interesting about Wonder Woman, or Lynda Carter [who played her on TV], was that she reminded me of my mom! They had this same really awesome brown hair. So this idea of a female superhero kind of made sense to me. But in terms of a male superhero — that had never occurred to me. Because you think of superheroes as powerful. So if you don’t see a reflection of yourself being powerful anywhere in popular culture, you are not going to conceive of a superhero.

This is where the value of the Latino Comics Expo quickly becomes clear. It gives Latino content creators a place to learn about and share new work. Alejandra Cisneros started coming three years ago to direct her boyfriend’s “El Verde” stage play.

CISNEROS: There isn’t a central place to talk about Latino comics similar to ComicCon in San Diego. So our first year was also this incredible knowledge dump of [discovering], Oh my God, you're from Boyle Heights!, or You're from East L.A. and you’ve been doing this for 20 years or 30 years? It was so exciting for us because it felt like home.

Animator Candy Briones created the comic-book character “Taco El Gato,” which is about a cat who was raised by a dog. She was inspired to develop the character through her love for timeless cartoon characters like Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny.
Animator Candy Briones created the comic-book character “Taco El Gato,” which is about a cat who was raised by a dog. She was inspired to develop the character through her love for timeless cartoon characters like Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. Marcos Nájera

Back inside the Expo convention hall, animator Candy Briones has nearly sold out of her comic books. She created a character called Taco El Gato about a cat with special powers who was raised by a dog — all inspired by a famous Looney Tunes duck and bunny.

BRIONES: I didn’t see myself [represented in TV shows or cartoons], but it made me laugh so much. I loved the characters. Bugs Bunny was really smart. And he was such a butt! (Laughs) And Taco [El Gato] is loosely based on Daffy Duck. I grew up in South Central. There’s not a lot of comic book stores or art stores there so the reason I got into comics was because of TV shows that I would watch.

Most of the artists selling their work at the Expo said they discovered their love of comic book characters early on.  First they watched and then they’d sketch.

BRIONES: I started drawing inside my sister’s school books. I didn’t mean to [get her in trouble] but I enjoyed it! I would draw mermaids, so many good memories! There’s this one drawing I still have. It was me getting married to E.T. And in Spanish it said, Te Amo E-T. (Laughs)

Richard Dominguez is a veteran of the Latino Comic Book industry. He’s developed a solid fan base for his comic-character, “El Gato Negro.”
Richard Dominguez is a veteran of the Latino Comic Book industry. He’s developed a solid fan base for his comic-character, “El Gato Negro.” Marcos Nájera

Now, fueled by a combination of childhood memories matched with artistic abilities, new stories are surfacing.  Several artists, like comic-book veteran Richard Dominguez, have already developed a solid fan base. Dominguez created the popular El Gato Negro series. He says it’s a tip of the hat, of sorts, to the cartoon heroes he loved as a boy.

DOMINGUEZ: Francisco Guerrero — social worker by day, crime fighter by night. He’s the Latino superhero who fights crime in South Texas. And since Superman has Lois Lane and Spiderman has Mary Jane, El Gato Negro has Narcy Montoya. She’s a former Miss Colombia, Harvard grad lawyer, and she has her own law firm in South Texas and works with Francisco from time to time. Now, whenever they try to get together after hours, his nighttime activities always seem to get in the way.

These are the kind of Latino superhero stories we may not see on TV or the big screen anytime soon. But Latino Expo co-founder and artist Javier Hernandez said this convention celebrates all the beautiful brown superpower possibilities.

HERNANDEZ: The mainstream companies haven’t been providing them, really. Just look at the roster of characters. Marvel and DC — there’s a couple of characters. Okay, forget them.  Whatever! We’ll just do it ourselves. Right?

Right. Or perhaps a more appropriate response for this crowd is: Write.

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