Thursday, September 3, 2009

Frederick Luis Aldama: Latino comics explored

At some point in childhood a kid makes a choice about his comics: Is he a fan of Superman? Or does he prefer Amigoman, the Latin Avenger?

Or does he read both?

The preference is a central question asked by Frederick Luis Aldama, an English professor and author of "Your Brain on Latino Comics: From Gus Arriola to Los Bros Hernandez," a book that analyzes Latino artists and their work, yet also explores why younger readers like the stories they like.

Aldama calls the early "cultivation of taste" - whether from reading children's books or comics - among one's first introductions to art and storytelling. The kids who later reach for the DC-superhero genre may neurologically seek out the thrill of escapism in leaping buildings and avoiding bullets; others, like Aldama, may be attracted to the latest issue of Gilbert Hernandez's "Love and Rockets" for its day-to-day narrative and complicated characters.

Drawing out a character's complexity and nuanced backstory has become a hallmark among Latino comic artists, Aldama said. "Even though the characters are still fighting social injustices," Aldama said, "there's a bigger range of character types and more background on each character. There's a real sense of responsibility to the cultural particulars."

When a large comic book publisher attempts to tackle those cultural particulars, it can make for clumsy handling, Aldama said. One wince-inducing flub occurred in 1981 when Marvel introduced the Latina character Firebird. The female superhero (born Bonita Juarez) from New Mexico showed up in an Incredible Hulk series and saved the day for a group of Anglo characters, Aldama noted. Firebird was accompanied by Red Wolf, the first American Indian superhero in mainstream books.

"They're asked to stand aside while the team finishes the business," Aldama said.

Since then, mainstream publishers have developed more thoughtful Latino characters, and to their credit, Aldama said, they're characters of depth and moral complexity.

AraƱa, a half-Puerto Rican, half-Mexican teenager, fights crime for Marvel at night but is also beset by the troubles of young adulthood. DC revived the Blue Beetle (born Jaime Reyes) who lives along the Texas-Mexico crossing and tackles the moral troubles of the border.

"You get a real sense that it's not enough to create Latino characters anymore, but there's an attempt to also make it interesting," Aldama said. "Because the younger generation today who's reading it won't settle for it."

5:30 tonight. University Press Books, 2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. (510) 548-0585.

- Justin Berton,

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