LEA HERNANDEZ is a San Antonio-based comic artist and writer who works in a Japanese Manga-influenced style. She is creator of RUMBLE GIRLS and co-creator, along with GAIL SIMONE, of KILLER PRINCESSES. She has also worked for MARVEL and DC COMICS and was the original editor of GIRLAMATIC.COM. In addition, Lea’s penned short stories for sf and fantasy anthologies and briefly led the U.S. marketing arm of Japanese anime studio GAINAX. She’s suffered through setbacks, including a house fire that destroyed much of her original artwork and lousy treatment from some publishers. But she’s soldiered on and racked up some impressive credits, among those, a story in the recent Eisner Award-winning anthology COMIC BOOK TATTOO: TALES INSPIRED BY TORI AMOS. After taking some time off to deal with family matters, Lea’s back to work on Rumble Girls, and she’s working on another mystery project for an employer she’s “not at liberty to mention.” This interview was edited from two lengthy phone conversations where Lea covered highs, lows and in-betweens of a fascinating career.
So, tell us about Rumble Girls, your current web comic.
It’s a comic I did for a while and resumed again in May. I didn’t do any work on it for a long time because of personal issues — oh, a divorce, for one thing. When I finally served my ex with the papers, I just kind of said, “It’s time to get back to work on it and start earning money.” The Rumble Girls series follows the various stars — and victims — of EnTeCo, or Entertainment Co. EnTeCo is kind of like Disney meets the World Wrestling Federation. The Rumble Girls fight with these robot suits called Hardskins, and they become celebrities. It’s incredibly demanding on them, and the pressures take an incredible toll. Interestingly, as fast as I would incorporate things into the story, it seemed like they would be replicated in real life. For example, the exploitation and the way females are presented in the media. I mean, I actually had an editor tell me once that good comic covers had “a hint of rape.” That was the actual phrase he used. The Rumble Girls series started before reality programming got big, but it deals with some of the things we’ve seen unfold in reality TV. You started seeing the lengths people will go to be seen on television and the way the producers cut up and manipulate footage so it tells the story they want to tell, whether it actually bears any resemblance to “reality.”
How long ago did you start doing Rumble Girls? And how did it go from being a paper comic to becoming a web comic?
It goes back to 1993. I shelved it for a long time after my first two graphic novels came out. I’d done the first six through IMAGE COMICS, and after that experience I made the decision to make it a web comic. The person at Image when I came in was a really good marketing guy, but he left not long after I got there, and I started to have problems. I was doing these stories that dealt with gender struggles and gender flipping, and the new marketing guy just didn’t get them. I’d been working with him for three months, give or take, when he said, “I don’t understand what you’re trying to do. I’m not sure you’re telling a story I can market. Does your husband write? I think he should help you write it.” I mean, he didn’t even know my husband. He just made this assumption that somehow having my husband involved – because he was male – would make it better. I had finished two graphic novels and been nominated for an Eisner Award at that point. I thought, “Uh, OK. I think I’m pretty sure I know how to write and capture an audience.” So, it just kind of went downhill from there. I’ve got to emphasize that this was Image around 2001, not the Image of right now, which is actually a fine company. But, basically, the comic wasn’t making money, and the marketing guy was impossible to deal with. I kept reading these articles about how the Smashing Pumpkins couldn’t reach an agreement with their record company on the CD they’d been recording at the time, so they decided to put it out themselves on the web. And that’s basically what I did. I put it out on the web and did it my way. I set up my own site and released the seventh issue online. I charged a modest subscription and was able to write about what I wanted to write about.
Sounds like sexism is alive and well in the business.
The whole gender issue in the publishing industry is still a very valid concern. It’s something I think you can still mine for material. It’s still something worthy of satire. I like to think of myself as a court jester. I make the people laugh, but also show them the problems our society is facing.
In addition to writing and drawing comics, you’ve penned short stories, mostly for anthologies put together by writer MIKE RESNICK. How did that come about?
This was back in the early ‘90s, and I was on Genie, the online service that was basically GE trying to monetize their Internet investment. It was sort of like AOL but less expensive, and they had expanded their forums to include science fiction and fantasy roundtables. Anybody who was anybody in sf, fantasy, comics and anime seemed like they were on there — all these people who were either geographically or socially isolated or isolated because of their work. You sort of take the faces away and meet people in a forum, and all of a sudden anyone has the chance to be a loudmouth and broadcast their point of view. So, Mike Resnick and Damon Knight were bagging on comics one night, and I’d already been working as a pro for about six years, so I naturally started to argue with them. It turned out that Mike hadn’t read comics in years, so I recommended some for him to pick up. I suggested some that I thought would change his mind. He was impressed that I was able to argue with him on the subject, so we stayed in touch, and the next five or so anthologies he edited, he asked me to submit stories. One of the first was “Al Einstein – Nazi Smasher!” It was this sort of pulp-fiction parody that had some of the most purple prose in it. I was grinning as I wrote this stuff because the prose was so over-the-top, but Mike really liked the idea. He added a few ideas that actually made it a better story, and he ended up using it. I got a lot of confidence in my writing after that. It helped me work on my first graphic novel. The short stories were good practice. They taught me how to finish something, how to tell a good story and how to pitch my work.
You’ve got two kids. How do you balance family life with the creative life?
Yes, I have a daughter who’s 16 and a son who’s almost 14. How do you juggle? With a lot of difficulty. J.K. Rowling addressed that once, and I have to agree with her. She said, “squalor is the only answer” – or something close to that. Something’s got to give. You can create your work, you can raise your kids right and you can have a clean house, but you can only have two of those things, not all three. I’ve been functionally a single parent since I’ve had the children, and I’m not going to give up my work or give up on raising my kids, so I just let the housework suffer. It’s what you’ve got to do.
You’ve obviously covered a lot of ground during your career. What work are you proudest of?
Oh, I’m proud of all of them for different reasons. CATHEDRAL CHILD was my first. It was really difficult. It was a real test of my will. I felt this sense of accomplishment for actually finishing it. I’d gotten fired from jobs before that because I had problems meeting deadlines and stressing myself out. So, it was really a test to see if I could deliver, and I did. CLOCKWORK ANGELS is a favorite too because I was able to do a sequel in the same amount of time it took me to do the first one. It was also my first Eisner nomination, so that was something special too. It was also – at least to my knowledge – the first comic about a lesbian couple done by a woman. There had been some before that, but they’d all been done by men. Of course, Rumble girls came out after that and I’m extremely proud of it.
In a lot of ways, it sounds like Rumble Girls is your most autobiographical work.
Absolutely. The rejection, the getting judged by your looks, having to give up your career because you have kids. It’s all in there. But it’s also about not missing what’s right in front of you, not overlooking the happiness that you find where you can. It’s also about making the right friends, the ones who will stick with you no matter what. You really need to stick with the people who are going to be good to you, not necessarily the people who you look good with.
1. You Suck: A Love Story – Christopher Moore
2. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal – Christopher Moore
3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows – J.K. Rowling
4. The Snow Queen – Joan D. Vinge
1. Laputa: Castle in the Sky
2. My Neighbor Totoro
3. The Incredibles
5. Rear Window
1. Thriller – Trevor Von Eeden
2. Mars – Marc Hempel and Mark Wheatley
3. American Flagg! – Howard Chaykin
4. American Gothic (Swamp Thing) – Alan Moore
5. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, First Series – Alan Moore