El Muerto. The Aztec Zombie Rises Again.
Hispanic creators in comic books have a long and fruitful legacy, from Antonio Prohías’ Spy vs Spy to underground classic Love and Rockets by the Hernández brothers and Michel Fiffe’s Copra series. However, very few of these works have transcended sequential art and made their way to film, due to several reasons (money, contracts, producers, comicsgate. You know, the usual). The Latinx community is still hoping for their great hero to hit the screen, speaking Spanish and sharing their culture.
Pero hay esperanza! The prayers of Hispanic geeks were answered all the way back in 2007, when an independent producer adapted an underground comic about a Chicano superhero fighting against Aztec gods in a story that combines telenovela drama with high-concept mythology and culture.
El Muerto: The Aztec Zombie is a graphic novel series created by Javier Hernández, which premiered in 1998 as a black and white comic, and was adapted to an independent film in 2007, directed by Brian Cox and featuring Wilmer Valderrama (Grey’s Anatomy, NCIS) as the protagonist. It tells the story of Diego de la Muerte, a 21-year-old Chicano artist from California who gets involved against his will with an ancient conflict involving the Aztec gods, being transformed into a zombie with the power to survive any kind of injury and bring the dead back to life.
The first graphic novel, Daze of the Dead, presents us Diego’s origin story, from his childhood to the perils he faces when he is dragged by divine forces into a conflict he does not understand, dealing with Mexican drug lords and supernatural foes on his journey. Javier Hernández’ art is different from anything on the stands right now. His work is closer to 1950s comics, with a unique sensitivity for inking and a cartoony style that fits the story perfectly. His splash pages have nothing to envy classic Marvel psychedelic comics, having sort of a tattoo quality to their design. His character designs, especially those of the Aztec gods, remind me of Jack Kirby’s work with the Asgardians in his original work with Marvel. The story reads like the love child of Robert Rodríguez and Steve Ditko, being its own unique work of art.
The movie, even if it was produced in 2007, seems like a typical supernatural action film from the early 80s. There are some funny exchanges between characters, but the film is mostly treated as a drama. Action scenes are few and unimpressive, due most likely to a lack of budget and the director’s desire to portray the more emotional side of El Muerto’s story: a dead man who returns to life only to see his family and friends have moved on, as it always happens. The graphic novel portrays grief and the different ways people cope with loss in a more realistic way, but the movie does a great job at introducing the character to the big screen.
If a reboot was to be released today, in a world that is hungry for representation and good, interesting stories, it would be an absolute hit. El Muerto would be an amazing fit for director Robert Rodríguez, being similar in tone to the From Dusk Till Dawn franchise. Actors like Danny Trejo, John Leguizamo and Rosario Dawson would make an amazing cast. Make it happen Hollywood! We need this win. Don’t put a wall between us and El Muerto.
I got in touch with Javier Hernández to discuss his origins, career, some behind-the-scenes stories from El Muerto and his future projects.
1- Where do you come from and how did that influence you as an artist?
I was born in East LA, to parents who married in Mexico and moved to the U.S. to raise their family. My Dad was actually born in Redlands, CA and some of his siblings lived in East LA. So from the beginning my siblings and I had a bi-cultural home environment, raised learning both Spanish and English. My early cultural educations in both languages shaped my worldview and creative perspectives immensely. I’d easily switch from watching Spanish TV shows, and especially lucha libre broadcasts, to watching Speed Racer cartoons, the Adam West Batman show, and reading comics in English.
2- What lead to the creation of El Muerto?
It was a desire to create my own comics. Having loved the medium and art form since childhood and having a love of drawing instilled in me from my older brother Albert, it seemed like creating comics was inevitable! Although I have to say that in my 20s, having read so much about the actual industry through magazine articles and books, I didn’t have a lot of love for the business itself, the publishers and their treatment of the actual creative talent. The stories of Jack Kirby, Siegel & Shuster and Steve Ditko, among others, proved to be a cautionary tale to me. Plus the idea of independent creators, self-publishers like Eastman & Laird (Ninja Turtles), Dave Sim (Cerebus), Wendy & Richard Pini (Elfquest) and so many others, showed me that owning your own work and controlling your own path was a viable way to go.
The other reason for El Muerto was that I had wanted to create something culturally specific to my Mexican background. I had grown up enjoying so many comics and cartoons and movies, but always with the realization that virtually none of the characters were Latino themselves. Which for me growing up in a Latino neighborhood and community always stood out as a weird thing.
By this point, in the mid 1990s, I became aware of several Latino independent creators, DIY publishers, who were creating their own comics featuring Latino characters and world building. Carlos Saldaña (Burrito), Richard Dominguez (El Gato Negro), Laura Molina (Jaguar), Lalo Alcaraz (La Cucaracha), and of course the Hernandez Bros, Jaime and Beto, with Love and Rockets. These examples empowered me to pursue my own creation of a character and a world drawn from the Mexican Dia de Los Muertos folklore and Aztec mythology. Two topics you very rarely saw in American entertainment back then, especially in comics.
3- Aztec mythology plays a major role on the series. Was there a lot of research involved in the conception of this world?
Originally, I was going to create a team of various characters revolving around aspects of Mexican culture. A luchador, an Aztec god, a Día de Los Muertos character and others. But then I realized I didn’t want my first comic book to feature such a large cast of characters to draw! I looked at the Muerto designs and figured he’d probably give me a good template to create stories from. After that, I came up with the idea of a guy, born on Day of the Dead, who also dies on Day of the Dead on his 21st birthday but gets resurrected by the Aztec God of Death. I definitely had to read about the ancient Aztec religion and familiarize myself with their gods and stories. But even back then I knew I wanted to base my versions on the original ideas, not slavishly attempt exact representations of the established identities. I thought of the stories from the Thor comics and used that as a roadmap: take the initial ideas but make them work in the stories you create. Recreate them.
4- El Muerto has gotten love from readers throughout the years. What is one of the best things a fan has ever said to you, or the wackiest?
Well, one of the wildest incidents that still stands out today was a fan who commissioned me to draw her and El Muerto together. She sent me the image of the 1939 movie poster for Gone With the Wind to show how much passion she wanted in the characters. I guess my first sketch I sent her wasn’t strong enough, so she wanted to make clear I understood what she was asking for!
5- As an independent cartoonist, you control every step of the creative process. From the script to art and lettering, and then to distribution. Do you have any advice for young creators entering the independent comic world?
Well after 22 years my answer has evolved. The best sound advice I can give, based on my experience but also on seeing what others have done in the past once I’ve shared advice, is this: The path of an independent creator is uphill all the way, all the time. Your desire to want to get your work out there and keep it out there has to be pure and constant. You really have to want it. Educate yourself on the business side, the dynamics of distribution and self-promotion, and remind yourself why you need to do this. Be resourceful and ambitious and learn to network but try to be self-aware enough to know when you’re being intrusive and obnoxious! But I applaud creators, especially younger ones, who stick to their guns and principles, and keep at it.
6- How did the production of the El Muerto film happen?
An interview I did with an NPR reporter from the 2001 San Diego Comic Con led to me being contacted by Brian Cox, who eventually would write and direct the film. There’s a whole year and a half long saga involved in that early contact and subsequent signing of the movie deal, but it was a fantastic odyssey. And outside of my lawyer looking over all drafts of the contract, I was always dealing directly with the director and the producer. You could only do that on a small independent production, but I’m glad I did. I gained a tremendous amount of experience in the filmmaking process that way, much like I have in directly handling my publishing career.
7- You had an awesome cameo in the movie, interacting with your character during a scene. What are some other cool stories you can share with us from your days on set?
I’ll tell you a quick one, because it’s a favorite but also speaks to how close my connection to the film was. (I was hired to work on entire production, meaning I was paid weekly in addition to the sale of the film rights. One of the things I had my lawyer write into the contract). I was in star Wilmer Valderrama’s trailer one day, giving him a print I had made for the entire crew. It was a drawing of Wilmer as El Muerto, in the movie costume. As I was leaving the trailer he called out to me: “Hey, Javier, are you happy with the way I’m portraying the character?”. I turned around and smiled and told him that I was really enjoying his performance of the character. He was appreciative of that comment. I felt like I was going to float out of the trailer instead of taking the steps down to the ground!
Wilmer Valderrama (left) and Javier Hernández (right) on the set of El Muerto.
8- Do you feel the franchise is due for a comeback?
Yes, for sure! Especially in this age of innumerable studios and streaming services and such. There’s a huge appetite from studios for content, and more importantly today there’s a very deep and wide desire from Latino audiences for content from their cultural backgrounds and featuring creators from their communities. Like most people in my position, there’s been contacts over the years, maybe a talk or two, but it’s very rare when something moves forward from day one. I was actually lucky my first time around, to be honest. Let’s see where El Muerto rises next!
9- In recent years you became one of the founders of the Latino Comics Expo, the first Comic convention to focus on Hispanic creators and culture. Do you feel you have received support from both the fandom and the creative community?
Yes, my Expo partner and co-founder Ricardo Padilla and I always speak about the tremendous support from the community. The artists and vendors were there with us from day one, having always looked for this very opportunity. And judging from the emergence of other shows that have followed in our wake, it was high time for such a convention.
10- So, what is next for El Muerto? What does the great Javier Hernández have in store for us?
Currently I’ve working on book two of the graphic novel series, following the first book, Daze of the Dead. The new adventure starts right where the other one ended. Diego is down in Baja California, making his way across the famed La Rumorosa highway to Tijuana. He’s soon involved with a woman whose infant son has been kidnapped, and they both proceed to rescue him from the claws of the malevolent demon spirit La Doña Maclovia La Dolente! In addition to that I finally launched my own Youtube channel: Los Comex TV. It’s a place where I can share an oral and visual history of my 22 years of publishing, do drawing demonstrations and even review books and comics from my collection. There’s no better time to create under a “stay at home” directive!
You can purchase the graphic novel of El Muerto: Daze of the Dead at http://loscomex.storenvy.com/
Follow Javier Hernández on Instagram at @javierloscomex and YouTube https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8yViVHkqwBxM8xl-GuJ-Dw
Daniel D. Calvo is a Cuban writer, editor, translator and comics journalist currently based in Pennsylvania, USA. He is a published author in both English and Spanish, having his work appear in anthologies, magazines and literary websites. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Konkret Comics, working on titles such as “Akolyte”, “Absolver” and “Odina”. His translation credits include books, comics and film. He is the head writer of Konkret Spotlight, featuring professional reviews and interviews with several figures from the indie comic world and other mediums. Among other ventures, his first creator-owned comic “Andy Starboy” is set to launch on 2020.