Café Con Comics: Boricuas in the Comic Book Industry

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Freddy Martínez

Last week, Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez, a graphic designer, curator, and community activist, was speaking about the anxieties that come with Puerto Rican diaspora to one of the last remaining visitors to his newest exhibition, Café con Comics, now on view at Centro Library & Archives in East Harlem. Nearly an hour and a half had passed since that night’s panel discussion ended. Most of the fans and autograph-seekers were gone, yet Miranda-Rodriguez was still going strong. He spoke with his fellow Puertorriqueño as though debating at a family party, ignoring press, friends, and even a still-shooting camera crew. The lengths he went to show that one fan was just as important as any of the rest revealed a background in community activism: when trying to sell a point, there’s no such thing as small talk. If you want to make a best friend, you’ve got to treat them like one first.

Born in the South Bronx, Miranda-Rodriguez has been working his entire adult life on issues important to the people of Puerto Rico, first as a community organizer at El Puente and now as a comic book writer, artist, and activist. He was visiting Centro, alongside the illustrators Chris Batista and Will Rosado and colorist Félix Serrano, to celebrate the opening night of his exhibition as well as to introduce never-before-seen illustrations of his newest comic book creation, La Borinqueña.

Made in collaboration with the organizers of National Puerto Rican Day Parade, La Borinqueña is a superhero inspired by the culture and people of Puerto Rico. Draped in the red, white, and blue of her nation’s flag, she also takes her name from Puerto Rico’s national anthem and gathers her powers from a goddess of Puerto Rico’s indigenous Taíno culture. Miranda-Rodriguez wanted to create a superhero that Puertorriqueños could rally behind, one that looked just like them and was specific to their culture while also fighting problems — like the debt crisis — that are familiar to all Puerto Ricans and couldn’t be solved with her powers alone.

Entering the comic book industry late in life, Miranda decided to self-publish La Borinqueña after lukewarm response from the industry. How somebody like Miranda-Rodriguez, who, earlier this year, wrote a story with Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniels for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy series, could scrape together only modest support brought home the point of the panel discussion: how do you make space for yourself in an industry that doesn’t understand you and won’t hire you?

It’s a question that has been asked before. And although there have been efforts in recent years to diversify, companies like Marvel and DC are still more likely to hire a man who is young, white, and straight to write for them than one who is Latino, black, Asian or queer. As a way to persuade the industry to expand its outreach to people of color, writers like Gene Luen Yang, creator of the graphic novels American Born Chinese and Boxers and Saints, have argued that hiring people of color will only help the business of selling comic books. One way to avoid a crash like one experienced in the 1990s is to hire originality, not rehash what’s old.

Chris Batista, an illustrator who has worked with Marvel and DC, told me that part of the reason why the industry nearly collapsed in the 1990s was an over-reliance on mimicking a style made famous by illustrators like Jim Lee, known for his work on The Uncanny X-men. In Batista’s mind, a good illustrator should work substantively — fleshing out memory with a nod to research. If a writer asks for a firetruck, a good illustrator should research what one truly looks like. It’s not enough to rely on what you know: truth is, can you really say how many stripes run across a standard fire truck in New York? If so, what color are they? In the days before the Internet, researching meant hours in the library looking for “referents,” or images, of what’s supposed to be sketched. A good illustrator’s desk would then end up cramped with books of referents to guide and substantiate his or her work: imagination would turn to history and then back again, each informing the other. So if you were to imagine, then, that these books of referents were the wealth of experience a person carries with them, it’s not hard to see what exactly the industry loses when they don’t hire a person of color to tell their own story. A good illustrator, like a good storyteller, always aims for specificity.

Another part of the exhibition and panel discussion was to recognize the work of Puerto Rican artists who have already made an impact in the industry. Illustrators like George Pérez and Alex Schomburg, who became one of the most important cover artists in the industry, after starting his career in the 1940s, drawing for Captain America and the Green Hornet, are included alongside that night’s invited panelists Félix Serrano, Chris Batista, and Will Rosado as well as the colorist Emilio J. López. On the walls, their uncolored sketches of battle scenes and dialogue panels and fully inked close-ups of demons, zombies, and superheroes share space with newspaper clips, coffee mugs, t-shirts, and computer renderings of La Borinqueña.

Living through the industry’s transition to digital, the invited panelists, all in their 40s, are part of a generation that registers just how easier technology has made their jobs. During the discussion, Serrano, a colorist, remembered times when he meticulously laid down layers of paint by hand, while foregoing any protective mask, only to end up coughing up specks of color he just laid. Beyond making the job less physically demanding, access to the Internet and programs like Photoshop have also given newcomers even more ways to enter the industry. There are more ways to publish than ever before. Which has made the question of diversity more stark. If there is so much opportunity, why has progress been so slow?

The night’s exhibition and discussion was itself a case in point. No woman was invited to speak or was exhibited. Once the panel discussion opened up to questions, it didn’t take long for the audience to ask about the contributions of women in the industry. Has technology really made it any easier for women? Each panelist took a turn answering that, in most cases, it was indeed easier for both women and people of color to gain access. But the industry was only willing to try new talent if you showed the grit and gift to work in an industry pressured by deadlines. “It’s a dog eat dog environment,” Batista said. It’s not only how good you are at drawing, coloring, or writing—if you can’t work in time, you’re out.

But there’s also an added pressure to write with a movie in mind. Now that comic books are in the mainstream, and the highest-grossing blockbusters are sourced from their pages, there’s a common understanding that comic books are where movies are made. “When people come up to me, they always ask me when the movie is coming out,” Miranda-Rodriguez said toward the end of the discussion. But if it were made into a movie, La Borinqueña would offer a story different from every superhero out there and look like nobody else. “I made her a black Puerto Rican intentionally. The diaspora of being Latino isn’t strictly limited to the telenovela representations of blonde and blue eyed. No, we are mestizo, we are negro. We are everything. And we have to celebrate it.” Hollywood could still screw it up and cast a blonde and blue-eyed. But this time there's going to be tons of material to make sure you know who La Borinqueña really is.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.