Of the two Oxnard-born brothers who created "Love and Rockets," the punk-era comic series that's arguably the genre's most influential work of its day, Gilbert Hernandez is widely considered the John Lennon figure -- the driven, "serious artist," allergic to superficiality and attracted by ugliness as well as beauty.
But digging into dinner and joking about his childhood on a recent evening at a Valley bistro, he comes across as a well-adjusted, down-to-earth guy. It's hard to imagine him producing the kinds of characters and situations his three decades as a comics artist have led him to: the child who disappears during a solar eclipse, the father who's killed in prison fighting for a cigarette lighter, the lives full of hurt and sudden loss.
"I'm not a brooder," said the bearded and bespectacled Hernandez, 50, in town for a recent appearance at Book Soup.
"But those dark thoughts come out when I'm drawing. Sometimes I'm criticized for sitting around and thinking of the worst things that happen to people. But that's only partly true."
His goal, he said, is always to create a compelling narrative, not just a catalog of horrors. "I do want it to be a story."
That talent has earned him a legion of fans, including the novelist Junot Diaz. "In a real world, not the screwed-up world we have now, he would be considered one of the greatest American storytellers," Diaz said.
"It's so hard to do funny, tragic, local and epic, and he does all simultaneously, and with great aplomb."
Hernandez's latest work is "Chance in Hell," the violent and perverse graphic novel about a vulnerable young girl found wandering in a city dump. When co-creators break up -- Gilbert and his brother, Jaime, are still producing one "Love and Rockets" a year but have basically "gone solo" -- their tendencies typically emerge full-blown.
At the risk of forcing the Lennon analogy, "Chance in Hell" is more Plastic Ono Band than "Imagine": It's raw and, at 120 pages uncut by Jaime's more hopeful worldview and more graceful style, seems like a lot of pain and peril in one place.
For Gilbert himself, who hopes to produce a one-off each year, the process was liberating.
"There's nothing harder than doing new stories with old characters," he said of his multi-generational cast, headed by the fiery and large-bosomed Luba, who mostly reside in the vaguely magic-realist Central American town of Palomar. "Even though these characters are part of me. But I can't do it anymore, after 25 years. While with 'Chance in Hell,' I took the chance to deal with a character, all in one place, and say goodbye to her. It wasn't always easy, but it was freeing."
He's the kind of storyteller who's not afraid to overreach or miss completely. Douglas Wolk, whose new book, "Reading Comics," considers the Hernandez brothers alongside other key figures, writes that Gilbert's comics "look like the work of an iconoclast -- he's got the rough, wobbly line and a pervasive interest in grotesqueries, he highlights the wrinkles and flaws in everything he draws, and he's fond of one-off experiments in which he lets his id run wild on paper."
"Growing up with him, he was a normal kid," said Jaime Hernandez, 47, who lives in Pasadena. "And he grew up to be a normal adult. But he's got certain demons. Gilbert's one of these artists who has to do what he does, or he'd die."
'On the high end of poor'
When Gilbert and his brothers were growing up in Oxnard in the '60s and '70s, comics were everywhere. They seemed to have the only mother in the nation's history who encouraged them to collect, and even revere, comic books rather than throwing them out. They developed a special fondness for adventure comics, Milton Caniff, "Dennis the Menace" and the superhero auteur Jack Kirby.
"We were poor, but just on the high end of poor," Hernandez recalled. "Poor enough to know it, and poor enough not to have things, but not enough for it to ruin our future selves."
The budding Bros. Hernandez -- including Mario, 54, who contributed to a few issues and brought an issue of Zap comics into the house -- were ravenous in their pursuit of visuals in all forms. "It got to the point where we'd look at a magazine, and if one of the pages was an advertisement for Uniroyal Tires, we'd try to figure out who the artist was."
The brothers got drawn into punk rock, playing in a few now-forgotten bands and designing fliers and album jackets for bands such as Dr. Know and Black Flag. They were also serious film fans: Gilbert today loves the visual storytelling of silent films, as well as directors including Fellini, Howard Hawks and Kurosawa, and he runs Turner Classic Movies in the background while he draws.