A Q&A With El Peso Hero Comic Creator Hector Rodriguez

A Q&A With El Peso Hero Comic Creator Hector RodriguezEXPAND
Courtesy of Rio Bravo Comics
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Hector Rodriguez didn't want to just create a comic book starring a Latino superhero. The artist, who was born in Eagle Pass and grew up in El Paso, wanted a superhero who stood for something real and cared about the humanitarian issues facing people on the Texas-Mexico border.

El Peso Hero features a Mexican-American superhero who defends refugees trying to cross the border to escape violence caused by the rise of drug cartels and government corruption. He's supremely skilled at hand-to-hand combat. He has Superman-like strength. He can even withstand barrages of bullets.

The character is really just a superhuman extension of Rodriguez, an elementary bilingual reading teacher in the McKinney Independent School District. Rodriguez may not be able to stop a bullet in its tracks with the palm of his hand or lift trucks over his head, but he's dedicated his teaching career and his artistry to his students, many of whom came from low-income homes and have suffered because of immigration policies.

Rodriguez talked to the Dallas Observer about his inspirations for his comic creation, the success of the first Texas Latino Comic Con in July in Dallas, the response to his special Donald Trump cover featuring the superhero clocking the future 45th president in the face and the power that comics have to tell real, human stories.

Dallas Observer: How long was the Texas Latino Comic Con in the works?
Rodriguez: I have some friends in California, Javier Hernandez and Ricardo Padillo. Javier Hernandez has always been a mentor of mine. He created this independent comic book called El Muerto based on Aztec mythology in the early 2000s. He makes one book, and he was in the right place at the right time and got picked up. Wilmer Valderrama, who played Fez on That '70s Show, starred in a movie about it that went direct to video. It was like the near end of Blockbuster’s direct to video.

I met him through MySpace when I was in school in Denton at [Texas Women’s University] and I was doing art, and I came across this dude who did comic books. I touched base with him and asked him questions about the independent scene, and we kept in contact through social media. So in 2011, he and Ricardo established the first Latino Comics Expo in Long Beach. El Peso Hero was created in summer of 2005 as a web comic. So between 2001 and 2014, they would invite me, but always something would come along with the convention scene here in Texas, and it wasn’t until fall of 2014 that I had a conversation with Javier and said, "It would be a great idea if you had something over here. There’s a great community with a lot of talent and there’s a need," and he said, "Don’t wait for us. Create your own. You’ve got our blessing."

They established themselves with a grassroots, community-based approach, so we kind of already had the model. So between 2014 and 2016, I tried to contact places like the mall in Fort Worth, La Gran Plaza, because they do stuff every weekend, and they kind of got cold feet and I was busy with life and El Peso Hero. It wasn’t until November of 2016 when a good friend of mine, David Daub, the creator of the Texas Creative Women’s Conference and the coordinator for AKON, had the logistical know-how to create a convention and figure out the partnerships involved and all the leg work. He said, "Let’s partner and work together."

With my vision and his expertise, we started planning and reaching out to different community centers, and before this, I already had a lot of connections in Latino communities and Latino press like Univision. So just because of the huge, positive Latino reaction to El Peso Hero, I had already had the network in place for something like the Texas Latino Comic Con to happen. So in November of 2016, we approached the Latino Cultural Arts Center with this idea that needs to happen.

Why do you say it needs to happen?
Just because of lack of representation and access to the convention scene. Myself being an artist and being a guest or as a visitor, you have to have between $25 to $55 or $60 just to get in, and with El Peso Hero, I’m also a teacher and an educator, and it literally pained me and hurt me trying to see some of my students trying to come see me at Dallas Comic Con and pay $50 bucks and knowing their background and what they sacrificed just to have this enjoyment, I thought it was a crime. They need to be more accessible to the community. That’s one of the visions I had, and that’s why we made it free.

So we partnered with the Latino Cultural Arts Center, and the city of Dallas of gave us a small grant. They believed in it. It needed to happen, especially right now, giving the community a safe place from all the negativity and the negative rhetoric. It was a very positive event. It showcased a lot of talent that people hadn’t heard, as well as some professionals and what they had gone through. We had a lot of positive feedback on Facebook and Twitter from people saying it was amazing seeing my kid buying a book with somebody who looked like them and spoke their own language. It was a very uplifting experience for a lot of folks who went to the Texas Latino Comic Con.

Were you always reading comic books?
I got a lot of my geek fandom from my dad, Hector Rodriguez Jr. My dad grew up reading Captain America and watching Star Trek. It was accessible. He would take me to the comic book store every Friday in College Station because on the border, it was a lot harder to get access to comic books. That border was a multicultural crossroads between Texas and north Mexico, so you would always have a foot on each side. So I grew up watching a lot of Mexican movies. I loved watching the luchador genre, the El Santo movies. These guys were larger than life and always had their mask on and were always fighting monsters. They had a cult following. It wasn’t until I moved to central Texas when I had access to that.

It was a culture shock. My dad was an Aggie, and my great uncle was an Aggie. The cool thing about College Station was there were comic book stores and going to the comic book stores, that was a great experience. I was always drawn to the gritty, dark stories because I thought about the grindhouse movies I used to watch as a kid, the Mexican grindhouse movies with cops fighting cartel members. One of my favorite ones was Mario Almada, who was like a Charles Bronson-type character. My godmother had owned a video store, so I would love going to her video store and look at the different covers that would draw me to the horror movies or the grindhouse movies. Sometimes, she’d have the Godzilla movies that were never released in the states and Santa Claus vs. the Martians. My parents didn’t really care what I watched as long as there wasn’t any graphic nudity. I remember watching RoboCop when I was a kid. So I was drawn to that gritty stuff.

So did that transfer over to your comics?
Yeah, so I was drawn to things like Spawn, and seeing an African-American guy was cool, but there were no Hispanics or Latinos on the covers.

Were you conscious of that as a kid?
It never connected to me. So I just kind of regulated myself to trying to find that sort of comic book, and once in a while, I’d pick up a Batman book or Death of Superman or stuff like that. No, it never really connected to me. It wasn’t until later on when I loved drawing and I was always involved in art classes in high school and graphic design. I still had that love for the comic book culture, but I was never committed to any books or a specific hero.

It wasn’t until 2003 when I was visiting my grandfather in the border in Eagle Pass and my grandpa has this immigration story, and my family’s been in Texas for 400 years, so the border has always come and moved and crossed. My mom’s side is a newer, from Spain. They came here around the 1800s. My family’s been here for a while, so immigration, it’s a funny story with us since we’ve lived here that long. My grandfather was born in Pedras Negas, the sister city, and he would cross to Eagle Pass, and back then, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, you were able to go back and forth. If you wanted to go farther, my grandpa was light skinned, and he worked in Houston and would tell us stories about Jim Crow laws and seeing the signs “No Spanish or Mexicans,” but my grandpa looked Italian more than anything else, so nobody really questioned him. He went into a coffee place and could order a hamburger. He could get by.

So it was 2003 when he was telling me about rumors of these military guys who broke away from the Mexican military and created their own criminal organization, and I started thinking, wow, there’s not a lot of Mexican superheroes in a contemporary setting. There were and there are Latino superheroes, but they were just D-class or on the sidelines and always playing to the stereotypes. My gears started turning over about having a superhero fighting these criminal organizations. So my creative gears started turning, and I thought it would be kind of awesome to have someone who represented this type of North Mexican culture, a superhero who represented this type of Norteño culture.

So I started writing a script and I always had in the back of my mind and would just write notes, and I was always involved in art and doing different art projects, but I had this personal project in the back. The funny thing is that I’m learning about the comic book industry and starting to take it more seriously — what does it take for books to be created and who has come before me? So now I’m reading Robert Kirkland’s Walking Dead and IDW and a lot of Image comics and some independent comics.

What were you looking for?
I was just learning how to sell a story and taking these art classes, and what drew me to TWU was the art program. I was studying sociology, and at the time, I was really into these social issues and I was always involved that stuff in high school in debate club. It wasn’t until I started forming El Peso Hero that they started blending together with art.

Then in 2010, I decided I was working in the private sector as a retail manager for Gamestop and trying to get into law school. I had the teacher bug already, and with my dad being a big influence, I was drawn into teaching. My dad was a high school counselor in Dallas ISD and told me there was a great need for male bilingual teachers.

I started to teach low-income students who were at the forefront of this immigration reform. They were all Latino. It was hard for me. I had one student who came in and tells me, "My dad got deported. I don’t have my dad. He’s gone," and he’s crying and that kind of hit me. What do you say? "Well, whatever you need, I’ll be here for you," and try to comfort him. Schools are a lot more than just reading, education and teaching. We’re there for comfort or just to make sure they’re fed or whatever emotional and social needs need to be taken care of. Public schools are huge in doing that and bringing a sort of structure for them where outside, they have no structure where all these issues are happening. Seeing their struggles firsthand and being in the forefront, I just told myself El Peso Hero needs to happen. I need to do this. I need to do it now. Seeing what the students go through their own trials and tribulations and picking up books in the library and how they weren’t represented, that gave me the catalyst to get up and do it.

It was summer of 2011, and I just started drawing. I took on myself to just draw it. I started posting it as a web comic. One of the great things about comic books is that the format puts the reader in somebody else’s shoes. They put you in a different perspective. It’s a strong format that it creates the narrative and visuals to really tell a story. So with the popularity of web comics and the accessibility, I started posting a new page from August to spring of 2012 every two weeks, and it got to the point where I had 30 pages, which became the first issue of El Peso Hero, and the fall of 2011, I started trying to network in DFW at conventions and gatherings like Drink and Draw, a group of artists who get together at the Flying Saucer in Addison, and they just get together and draw. I would go there and talk shop, draw and learn what everybody else was doing. I started going to local comic conventions and I started to notice my followers, and they would say it would be cool if you could print it out as a comic. I printed out the first issue of El Peso Hero, which was about 30 pages, in 2012.

Why is the hero’s dialogue in Spanish?
To keep it true to the character and to the diversity. I was in a comic book writing workshop, and this guy who worked for Marvel and probably still works there, he advised me to do El Peso Hero in English. He said, "El Peso Hero should speak English if you want to make it big.” Well, that’s why I’m independent. [laughs]

Why is it important that he speaks Spanish?
He’s proud of who he is and where he comes from, just like these students who lose their identity. They have somebody they’re proud of, someone they can look up to who speaks their mother tongue and dresses like their dad and looks like they look. One of the reasons I named him El Peso Hero is because he’s Spanglish. Within the story, it’s a putdown, so he owns it and takes it even though he has a real name and other names that they call him. As this myth of this guy battling corrupt officials and cartels, he becomes a legend almost like a modern-day Robin Hood where he’s protecting the innocent and fighting for the humble people on the border.

One of the things that make El Peso Hero stand out is we don’t take a political stance. Just at the Texas Latino Comic Con, I had a border patrol agent approach my table and thank me and say, "I appreciate what you’re doing; this is what’s really going on. You’re not taking a stance, but you’re telling the story."

[El Peso Hero’s] a humanitarian. He’s helping people in need even though people might look down at him helping cross people from the dangers, but he’s a humanitarian helping people through their journey and protecting them from drug traffickers and making sure they’re safe. In a sense, we all have our own immigration story where our families came here 100 years ago or 400 years ago, and I’m not trying to sound corny, but El Peso Hero speaks to us in that sense.

What has the response to the comic been like?
A lot of emails and a lot of fans thanking me. I was teaching in Dallas and there was somebody who sent me a card with a paper clipping about a Mexican World War II veteran. It was an older lady and I believe it was her brother, and she wrote a note saying thank you for telling the story. It’s very important to tell our story. In my family, I have two great-uncles who fought in World War II in the Pacific theater, so it was great just seeing that and how it connected to people.

A Q&A With El Peso Hero Comic Creator Hector Rodriguez
Courtesy of Rio Bravo Comics

Has there been any negative responses to the comic?
Yes, I have fans who are Republican, conservative, liberal and independent. It’s a story about a humanitarian crisis. It was the summer of 2015 when Donald Trump made that famous campaign speech about Mexican rapists, and I was talking to one of my artists, Chema Cuellar, about this idea for a cover for one of the border stories. It wasn’t necessarily a political stance. It was a stance against the rhetoric and the negativity. We took a stance against the rhetoric, and we made a cover of El Peso punching Donald Trump and unfortunately, that still speaks volumes today (laughs). That was just a special cover we did, not on a book, and people spoke to that. Public Radio International did a story, and at the same time, some people were offended. We got some hate mail.

Were there any negative responses before that cover just because you have a Latino superhero?
Of course, you always had comments on social media and a lot of haters who just hate the fact that he speaks Spanish. Also from Mexico, too, just hating that they notice he’s Mexican-American or Chicano. It’s one of those things, if you’re Mexican-American, then you’re not part of here or there.

We actually got an amazing email that was supporting that cover from a friend of Jack Kirby, the old-school [comics] artist, supporting us because Kirby hated fascism and he created the DC villain Darkseid as Richard Nixon. Darkseid was Richard Nixon. And he was supportive and said keep doing what you’re doing:

“Good for you guys. Your Trump cover is wonderful, and a great tribute to Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Having known and worked with both, I think they would have enjoyed this a lot. If you didn't know, Jack actually based Darkseid on Richard Nixon! Best of luck with your publishing efforts. It's a rough road, but your work is important. Take care. Mike Gold” – email forwarded by HR

We did what we could artistically. We said what we needed to say artistically.

So that’s the line; you don’t need to say more than that.
Right, and it also gave us a force and an energy to keep on doing what we’re doing, and especially right now, there are a lot of disenfranchised folks and students. They need something positive. They need a positive hero in their lives. They need a positive role model. We’re a positive force and it connects to everybody, and it’s propelling us going forward to be a voice for the voiceless in a sea of negativity and rhetoric.

Why are comics the best medium to express these ideas and stories?
It’s a dynamic narrative of storytelling that captivates readers and puts them in somebody else’s shoes — in this specific way, the shoes of a refugee immigrant crossing the border. In this case, at times El Peso Hero will be the deus ex machina and come in and rescue them, which in reality doesn’t exist, but in this case, we feel connected to the hero because we’re trying to do the best we can in our circumstances. In this case, El Peso Hero is trying to do the best he can under the circumstances of helping the crisis.

The issues are heavy, but it’s also a fun story. Like I said, I love the storytelling aspects. The hooks and the cliffhangers are there.

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