Book Review: Lowriders Blast from the Past, written by Cathy Camper, Illustrated by Raúl the Third

Reviewed by David Bowles

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When new friends Lupe, Flapjack, and Elirio are each bullied by Los Matamoscas, they know they’re going to like one another. When they find out they all love lowrider cars, they know they’ll be friends for life. But the bullies won’t leave the Lowriders alone—and they don’t let any girls or babies into car clubs. Can these three determined outcasts prove they deserve to be in the car show? Humor, Spanish words, and lowrider culture come together in this heartwarming graphic novel of three friends navigating the bumpy terrain of friendship, bullying, and standing up for what you believe in.

MY TWO CENTS: The third book in Cathy Camper and Raúl the Third’s wonderful Lowriders graphic novel series may seem at first to break with the genre of the previous installments by giving us an origin story, but the series has already established itself as genre-bending, going from sci-fi to mythological adventure. A bit of historical fiction seems to fit nicely in the creators’ wide-ranging work. It’s lots of fun and uplifting to see young versions of our heroes push back against the sexism of Los Matamoscas, a group of bullies who have been making the kids’ lives difficult. It happens that these overly macho men also dictate the ad-hoc rules of a popular car show so they can bar women from competing. As the women in question are furthermore queer (Mamá Impala and Mamá Gazelle, Lupe’s two mothers), the affirmation and representation of marginalized, intersectional identity is particularly poignant.

Just as in life, the hurdles male bullies set for the women are ridiculous (cross speed bumps without scraping the bottom of car, make sure a 5-gallon jar of agua fresca doesn’t spill during a full lap, paint car with no visible brush strokes). But the three new friends (united as allies of the women and victims of Los Matamoscas’ bullying) use their individual skill sets to beat the gang at their own game. Along the way, they earn the respect (and possibly friendship) of some of the macho dudes.

Along with Raúl’s amazing ball-point art (he brings green in this time!) and the linguistic exploration of Spanish and indigenous languages, Lowriders Blast from the Past takes advantage of its historical setting to introduce young readers (and old) to Chicano art of the 70s and 80s, specifically the work of ASCO (great name, heh), an East Los Angeles art collective that was active between 1972 and 1987. Raúl’s recreations of some of their signature pieces was a highlight for me, showcasing just how diverse his talents are. (Full disclosure: he and I have been working on a graphic novel together.)

Camper deftly defies the stylistic patterns that a middle-grade book might normally default to, and if the storyline itself is comfortably predictable, the execution (with its edifying digressions and code-switching) is one-of-a-kind and culturally spot-on.

I loved this volume, and can’t wait to see what adventures Lupe, Flapjack, and Elirio go on next!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Cathy Camper is the author of Lowriders in Space, Lowriders to the Center of the Earth and Lowriders Blast from the Past, with a fourth volume in the works, all from Chronicle Books. She has a forthcoming picture book, Ten Ways to Hear Snow (Dial/Penguin), and also wrote Bugs Before Time: Prehistoric Insects and Their Relatives (Simon & Schuster). Her zines include Sugar Needle and The Lou Reeder, and she’s a founding member of the Portland Women of Color zine collective. A graduate of VONA/Voices writing workshops for people of color in Berkeley, California, Cathy works as a librarian in Portland, Oregon, where she does outreach to schools and kids in grades K-12. Cathy is represented by Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. For insights on the creative originas of the Lowriders series, read Cathy’s Camper’s guest post.

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Raúl the Third is an award-winning illustrator, author, and artist living in Boston. His work centers on the contemporary Mexican-American experience and his memories of growing up in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Lowriders in Space was nominated for a Texas BlueBonnet award in 2016-2017 and Raúl was awarded the prestigious Pura Belpré Award for Illustration by the American Library Association for Lowriders to the Center of the Earth. He was also a contributor to the SpongeBob Comics series. Raúl wrote and illustrated the picture book ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to The Market!, which Versify will publish on April 2. For a fun and lively conversation about art, comics, growing up in El Paso and more, check out this one-of-a-kind audio interview with Raúl, conducted by illustrator Roberto Trujillo.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: A Mexican-American author from deep South Texas, David Bowles is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, he has written a dozen or so books, including Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry, the critically acclaimed Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Mexican Myths, and They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems. In 2019, Penguin will publish The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande, co-written with Adam Gidwitz, and Tu Books will release his steampunk graphic novel Clockwork Curandera. His work has also appeared in multiple venues such as Journal of Children’s Literature, Rattle, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Nightmare, Asymptote, Translation Review, Metamorphoses, Huizache, Eye to the Telescope, and Southwestern American Literature. In April 2017, David was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters for his literary work.

Book Review: The Dragon Slayer: Folktales from Latin America by Jaime Hernandez

 

Review by Marcela Peres

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: How would a kitchen maid fare against a seven-headed dragon? What happens when a woman marries a mouse? And what can a young man learn from a thousand leaf cutter ants? Famed Love and Rockets creator Jaime Hernandez asks these questions and more as he transforms beloved myths into bold, stunning, and utterly contemporary comics. Guided by the classic works of F. Isabel Campoy and Alma Flor Ada, Hernandez’s first book for young readers brings the sights and stories of Latin America to a new generation of graphic novel fans around the world.

MY TWO CENTS: I need to get one thing out of the way early on: when I saw the title of this book, I was excited at the possibility of seeing a myth told from my own native country, Brazil. After all, Latin America is an enormous catchall term covering the nations of Central and South America. But The Dragon Slayer, as a book for children, understandably has limited space and only tells three tales. Also understandably, these tales all originate from Hispanic countries, which comprise the majority—though not the entirety—of Latin America. The book includes a forward by author F. Isabel Campoy, and closes with a Notes, Glossary, & Bibliography section. In all of these, it is acknowledged that Latin America is a widely diverse region, with influences from Native American cultures and all of those that had interacted with its European forbears, the Spaniards. However, the omission of any mention of Portuguese, French, or African influence was a disappointment. This is erasure of a large swatch of Latin American peoples that is altogether common, but always unfortunate. Hispanic and Latinx are not synonymous terms.

The tales themselves are absolutely delightful. We begin with the eponymous The Dragon Slayer, which tells the story of a family’s youngest daughter, exiled from her family and forced to find alternate means to support herself. What follows is a fantastical twist on the “typical” slay-the-dragon-marry-the-princess tale. The hero, the dragon slayer, is a poor young woman, and we watch her vanquish each and every difficulty set before her with a combination of magic, courage, and more than a small amount of cleverness. Hernandez illustrates the story in a simple 6-panel per page format, making the story easy to follow for even the newest graphic novel readers. The cast of characters are simply drawn but easy to differentiate and recognize, and the colors used are very effective in communicating changes in lighting or mood. Young readers are treated to a strong narrative, but will also learn quite a bit of visual literacy from these subtle cues throughout.

The second story, Martina Martinez and Pérez the Mouse, is penned by Alma Flor Ada, from the book Tales Our Abuelitas Told. The end notes explain that this is one version of a popular folktale, giving a nod to oral storytelling tradition in explaining that the story’s details can vary widely. This telling involves the marriage of human Martina and her mouse husband Pérez, who one day suffers a tragic accident. Various themes are featured, from the rallying of community support and grief, to the wisdom and practicality of elders. As in the first tale, the hero of the tale is a woman—the only one who knows how to save Pérez. Though this version has a happy ending and there is quite a bit of silliness to charm any child, the end notes do discuss sadder endings and the role of this tale in a traditional velorio, or wake.

The final tale, Tup and the Ants, also shares themes with the first two, specifically, the value of cleverness and common sense. The trope of the lazy son (or son-in-law here) is turned on its head as Tup devises a way to pass his fieldwork on to a colony of ants, and emerges the most successful of the family. Along the way, we see that Tup isn’t only exploiting his ant friends; he pays for their efforts and expertise by giving the colony his own daily lunch portion in exchange. The characters, from the family members to the many tiny ants, are drawn in a very expressive style and adds to the overall silliness of the story. Kid readers are sure to delight in Tup’s mischievousness and success in getting out of actually doing his chores.

Overall, The Dragon Slayer: Folktales from Latin America, is a fun collection and a very accessible sampler of Latin American folktales. It succeeds especially at being a graphic novel that can be read at storytime or bedtime, all at once or in parts, and is an easy introduction for even the newest graphic novel readers. My only hope is that, should any continuations of this series be in the works (and I really hope they are!), that more effort is taken to include and explain the wider breadth of Latin American diversity.

TEACHING TIPS: 

  • Oral Storytelling. The end notes spend time discussing Latin American oral tradition and the tendency of storytellers to adapt stories in their own tellings. Some “once upon a time/habia una vez” story starters are given. Have children retell popular stories using these various starters. Encourage them to change details or embellish the story where they wish.
  • Exploring Latin American folktales. Hernandez provides a bibliography of further reading (books and websites), and teachers could make these or others like them available to students to read and explore. Write about common themes or character archetypes. Is there a historical reason for these recurring themes? How have stories been used in day-to-day life (e.g. in velorios)? How do similar stories vary among people of different cultures, native languages, ways of living?
  • Adapting stories into visual form. One important way Hernandez makes these old stories come to life is by adapting them into comic form. Ask students to select a folk tale of interest to them and illustrate it. Use The Dragon Slayer’s 6-panel format as a starting guide. Or, select a few folktales for students to draw from, and compare and contrast everyone’s different versions. Allow students to explain why they chose certain visual elements, from character design to which plot points to illustrate.

 

Jaime HernandezABOUT THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR: Jaime Hernandez is the co-creator, along with his brothers Gilbert and Mario, of the comic book series Love and Rockets. Since publishing the first issue of Love and Rockets in 1981, Jaime has won an Eisner Award, 12 Harvey Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The New York Times Book Review calls him “one of the most talented artists our polyglot culture has ever produced.” Jaime decided to create The Dragon Slayer, his first book for young readers, because “I thought it would be a nice change of pace from my usual grown-up comics.” He read through tons of folktales to choose these three. What made them stand out? Maybe he saw himself in their characters. Jaime says, “I’m not as brave as the dragon slayer, but I can be as caring. I’m as lazy as Tup without being as resourceful. I am not as vain as Martina, but I can be as foolish.”

Isabel Campoy HeadshotAlma Flor AdaIsabel Campoy (left, Introduction, “Imagination and Tradition”) and Alma Flor Ada (right, Martina Martinez and Pérez the Mouse) are authors of many award-winning children’s books, including Tales Our Abuelitas Told, a collection of Hispanic folktales that includes Martina Martinez and Pérez the Mouse. Alma Flor says, “My favorite moment in the story is when Ratón Pérez is pulled out of the pot of soup!” As scholars devoted to the study of language and literacy, Alma Flor and Isabel love to share Hispanic and Latino culture with young readers. “Folktales are a valuable heritage we have received from the past, and we must treasure them and pass them along,” Isabel says. “If you do not have roots, you will not have fruits.”

 

MarcelaABOUT THE REVIEWER: Marcela was born in Brazil and moved to the U.S. at the age of three, growing up in South Florida. She is now the Library Director at Lewiston Public Library in Maine. Marcela holds a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she Concentrated on community informatics and library services to teens. She is a copy editor for NoFlyingNoTights.com, has served on the Will Eisner Graphic Novel Grants for Libraries jury, and speaks about comics in libraries at library conferences and comic conventions. She can be found on Twitter @marcelaphane, and Goodreads .

Doodling as Activism: How I Produced My Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer

Earlier this week, we published a review of Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life. Today we are pleased to present a guest post by the author-illustrator.

By Alberto Ledesma

From 1989 to 1996 I attended graduate school at UC Berkeley. During my last four years in the Ethnic Studies doctoral program, I spent almost every day studying the ways that undocumented immigrants had been represented in Mexican American novels and short stories. I read hundreds of pieces, dozens of novels and many, many short stories—the works themselves and the literary criticism that had been written about them—all in an effort to understand what role undocumented immigrant characters and stories played in the larger world imagined by Mexican American authors. I had pursued this project because of my own experience as a previously undocumented student. It’s funny how our own biographies sometimes compel us to seek answers to questions about ourselves, right?

Being undocumented had had such a profound impact on the shaping of my and my family’s cultural identities that I was eager to understand the many ways that that experience had also been represented in the collection of books and stories contained by Chicano literature. But, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was in graduate school, there seemed to be few works that placed undocumented characters as the protagonists of their stories. This confused me, because I knew that there were millions of undocumented people living in the same neighborhoods like the one where I grew up. And I knew that several million undocumented immigrants had just gone through the federal amnesty process that my family and I had just gone through. Surely, I thought, some Mexican American authors must have written stories that focused on experiences like mine.

For the most part, my interest in exploring undocumented stories remained undaunted during the mid 1990s. And though the days that I spent working on my dissertation were long, often starting at the crack of dawn and ending only once the library at UC Berkeley closed, I was driven by a strong desire to show that undocumentedness was another kind of Mexican “American” experience and that it deserved to be told within the corpus of books we now called Chicano literature. In the end, however, after I finished my dissertation and published a number of articles connected to it, that scholarly dialogue that I was hoping to initiate about the role of undocumented immigrant experience within Chicano literature did not seem to want to take off. Still, I taught classes focusing on immigrant subjects, attended many literary conferences where I made impassioned presentations about the importance of incorporating undocumentedness as an important interpretive lens within the field of Chicano letters, and while I was heartened by the emergence of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands theory and analytical focus, it seemed that undocumented ways of knowing would remain largely absent from Chicano literary studies. So it was that after attending a major conference in Zacatecas, Mexico, in the late 1990s, and after noticing that once again I seemed to be the lonely voice in the wilderness, that I decided to take a break from my research while I raised my infant daughter.

That break ended up lasting eighteen years as I moved from teaching and research to doing college administrative work. As the years passed I thought that I had left my project behind; however, in 2012, while I was teaching a Summer Bridge class as part of my responsibility of being an administrator at Berkeley’s Student Learning Center, something magical happened—the Undocumented Student Movement emerged and it placed the concern over undocumented immigrants at the heart of Latinx studies. Throughout the country, undocumented students were participating in marches and protests, all in an effort to get the US Congress to pass the Dream Act. Some students had gone to protest President Barack Obama during the Democratic National Convention. Some initiated sit-ins at senator offices. And eventually, as a result of all their efforts, the Obama Administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA), a policy that permitted undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the US as children to attend college and work.

The creation of the DACA policy inspired me to return to the questions I had about what being undocumented meant in the United States. But, instead of writing more essays about this issue, I decided to draw cartoons instead. It all happened because of that Summer Bridge class I was teaching when the undocumented student movement exploded across the United States. Though I was excited about doing a lecture about the undocumented student movement, my students had expressed a frustration with the amount of work that I had already assigned them. So, in order to pique their interest, I tapped into and old and neglected talent and drew a quick sketch of “A Day in the Life of an Undocumented Student.” Though my students had complained about all the work that they had had to do, I noticed that many of them began doing research on the movement on their own. So, I sketched other cartoons and shared them via Facebook. All of the sudden, I began getting hundreds of friend requests and they began asking me to draw more cartoons, to share my experience though art. After several years of doing so, of drawing vignettes based on my undocumented life, I had the makings of a book.

You might wonder why I, as a trained literary scholar in this field, decided to do something for which I had no training at all? Interestingly, it was only after I started doing cartoon sketches about my undocumented heritage that that the conversation that I wanted to get started actually occurred. What changed? Why did it my cartoons elicit a reaction that my scholarship did not? I think that the main reason my cartoons hit the nerve that my essays and stories could not do had everything to do with the form. As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Here, I was creating visual essays, communicating the same ideas I had been researching, with the cartoons I was crafting. I realized that the young people who responded to my cartoons were also more accustomed to consuming visual text. Snapchat, Facebook, emojis, all of these had developed in them literacy skills for quickly digesting ideas in images.

It did not take me long to understand that my cartoon memoir was also effective because of its flexible narrative form. I did not have to assume a stuffy authorial voice to maintain my credibility. In my cartoons the fourth narrative wall was pliable; I could as easily be an overeducated omniscient narrator as I could be a vulnerable first-person witness to the same story without jarring the viewer. And yet, because my assumption was so strong that the only way my undocumented story could be accepted was if it came from an overly academic point of view, I had not even considered cartoons as a serious tool for inquiry. All those years of academic training that I had received in graduate school had led me to believe that the only option I had for sharing my undocumented experience was through dense textual analysis.

Today, when I attend important lectures and I am really into what the speaker is saying, I don’t take traditional notes. Rather, I take out my sketchbook, my favorite fountain pen, and I start doodling. I judge the quality of a talk by the complexity of the sketches I produce. Indeed, now that I have done a bit more research on it, I have learned that cartooning is an effective form of communication: it allows for better mental digestion of complex ideas; engages multiple intelligences; and, it allows viewers of an image to understand a story from multiple lenses. It is because of this that cartooning has allowed me to communicate the fears I felt when I was undocumented much more effectively than my writing ever could. This is the reason why I created my illustrated memoir, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer.

And yet, there is only so much my little book can do. The xenophobic program that is now aiming to persecute undocumented immigrants is all too real. This program, however, is not just aimed at undocumented immigrants. The attack on undocumented immigrants is just but the most obvious aspect of what seems to be a larger policy that has taken aim at the heart of what used to be an American progressive democracy—the social infrastructure that, as a result of the labor organizing and social activism of the ‘30s to ‘60s, increased access to education, health care, and legal protections for all working class and poor people. My belief is that working class and poor people of all ethnic backgrounds now need each other more than ever and that we cannot let false debates based on false moralisms distract us from our common humanity. To view undocumented immigrant experience in the US as a totally unredeemable experience that needs to be excised without mercy is to buy into a false equivalency that has already stopped us from discerning what is lawful versus what is just.

This is the reason why I have chosen to confront my fears about what it meant for me to be undocumented, because I cannot ask that people show empathy for the undocumented community, unless I first show empathy for the totality my own undocumented experience. And that is why, in spite of my fears, I will continue to illustrate my undocumented American life.

Book Review: Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life, Written & Illustrated by Alberto Ledesma

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: In this hybrid memoir, Alberto Ledesma wonders, At what point does a long-time undocumented immigrant become an American in the making? From undocumented little boy to “hyper documented” university professor, Ledesma recounts how even now, he sometimes finds himself reverting to the child he was, recalling his father’s words: “Mijo, it doesn’t matter how good you think your English is, la migra will still get you.”

Exploring Ledesma’s experiences from immigrant to student to academic, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer presents a humorous, gritty, and multilayered portrait of undocumented immigrant life in urban America. Ledesma’s vignettes about life in the midst of ongoing social trauma give voice to a generation that has long been silent about its struggles. Delving into the key moments of cultural transition throughout his childhood and adulthood—police at the back door waiting to deport his family, the ex-girlfriend who threatens to call INS and report him, and the interactions with law enforcement even after he is no longer undocumented—Ledesma, through his art and his words, provides a glimpse into the psychological and philosophical concerns of undocumented immigrant youth who struggle to pinpoint their identity and community.

MY TWO CENTS: Powerful and timely, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life is the stunning, hand-illustrated chronicle of Alberto Ledesma’s twelve years in undocumented limbo and the psychological toll those years exacted. Drawing—or doodling, as he often calls it— became of one Ledesma’s most reliable coping mechanisms for the stresses of living in the U.S. without documentation. He began the doodling practice as a quiet act of defiance, since even privately acknowledging one‘s lack of papers broke a cultural taboo held by many insiders in Ledesma’s undocumented community. This taboo reached inside the very walls of his family home, where the fear of detection and deportation hung like a black cloud over their daily existence.

In this work, Alberto Ledesma offers a perspective of the American experience that few have written about, plumbing its layers of complexity through richly observed episodes, supplemented by striking text-and-image panels. His personal stories reveal troubling family dynamics, from the pain of feeling misunderstood to his father’s emotional unavailability and bouts of drinking. They also explore Alberto’s adolescent years, when the ache to free himself from the constant secrecy demanded by the family’s status was at its height. Stories of close calls render the fear palpable. In one vivid example, Alberto, his siblings, and their mother sit in a parked car next to a field while their father wanders into the undergrowth to pick wild cactus leaves. As cars occupied by white people pass by, some drivers cast suspicious glances at the Mexican family. When one of the sisters spots a no-trespassing sign, tension turns to panic and eventually to anger at their father for placing them in such a vulnerable position.

In 1986, the Ledesma family achieved legal status through provisions outlined in the Immigration Reform and Control Act, a law passed during the Reagan administration. But as Alberto explains, “though we were now ‘legal,’ those twelve years of conditioning did not disappear.” Long after his status is resolved, the fear of being hunted persists. He demonstrates the extent of that struggle through contemporary exchanges with his young daughter, Sofia, who peppers him with such questions as, “What does it mean that you were once illegal?”

Ledesma ultimately transitioned into academic life, earning a Ph.D. and landing a teaching and administrative position at the University of California at Berkley. He connects his academic drive to the phenomena of “hyper-documentation.” Originated by Dr. Aurora Chang, this term “describes the effort by Dreamers to accrue awards, accolades, and eventually academic degrees to compensate for having been undocumented.” The burdensome effect of this impulse comes through in one of Ledesma’s most potent drawings, which shows a brown-skinned person dressed in cap and gown, pulling a file cabinet tethered by rope and bursting with award certificates.

In addition to its memoir sections, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer includes dozens of serial and stand-alone text-and-image panels, which reflect on multiple aspects of undocumented life. An entire chapter, “The Undocumented Alphabet,” illuminates twenty-six poignant realities experienced by the community. They include:

        “A” is for the ABUELITOS left back in Mexico and the knowledge that until you fix your status you can’t go visit them no matter how much you miss them.

        “E” is for the EDUCATION your mother asked you to get so that you wouldn’t end up working at the same garment factory she did.

Crossing the southern border without papers is an act fraught with peril, but as Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer makes clear, it’s only the start of a long, precarious journey that plays out in the daily existence of millions of undocumented Americans. At this writing, the future of many DACA recipients and other undocumented youth remains in limbo. Their fate is in the hands of elected officials all too willing to play political football with human lives. Alberto Ledesma’s account offers a strong and essential counterpoint to the xenophobia infecting public discourse about U.S. immigration. It brings penetrating light into the liminal spaces occupied not only by Dreamers, but all undocumented immigrants, and makes a convincing case that their stories deserve a chapter in our national narrative.


Last month, while Alberto Ledesma was at The Ohio State University for a panel on comics and immigration, he stopped for this photo opportunity with Liam Miguel and Ethan Andrés Pérez, sons of our fellow Latinxs in Kid Lit blogger, Ashley Hope Pérez.

Liam Miguel read Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer from cover to cover (even the parts in cursive, which were tricky for him at first), and he was thrilled to get his copy signed. For him, hearing Alberto’s stories was a way to better understand his father’s path to legal status as well as the realities for many young people who were not so fortunate to come at a time when that path was opened.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR: Alberto Ledesma, a Mexican-American scholar of literature, holds a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. His publications include poetry, academic articles, and short stories, which have appeared in Con/Safos: A Chicana/o Literary Magazine, and in Gary Soto’s Chicano Chapbook Series (#17). He has also published essays  in ColorLines and New America Media. Ledesma, who participated in Sandra Cisneros’s Macondo Workshop and in the VONA Writers Workshopserves as Graduate Diversity Director for the Outreach and Diversity Office of the Arts & Humanities Division in the College of Letters & Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Artist Jose Pimienta Gives Advice and Talks About Tools & Techniques

 

By Cecilia Cackley

Joe Pi’s almost full name is Jose Pimienta. He was born in the Imperial Valley and raised as a Cachanilla in Mexicali, BC. During his upbringing, he was heavily influenced by animation, music and short stories. He’s been drawing as long as he can remember and loved analyzing everything on the TV screen.

After high school, he left his garage band and ventured toward Savannah, Georgia, where he studied Sequential Art and discovered the wonders of Storyboarding. He also discovered a wider variety of music, traveled more and made friends. By the age of 24, he ran into a good suggestion, which was to move to SoCal and pursue a career in storyboarding. In 2009, he packed his belonging and drove to Los Angeles, with a friend. Nowadays, he resides in Tujunga where he takes walks every morning along with a big cup of coffee. He draws comics, storyboards, and sketches for visual development.

Joe’s latest book is the YA graphic novel Soupy Leaves Home, a historical fiction story by Cecil Castellucci set during the Great Depression. He was kind enough to talk to us about his background and work as an artist.

Did you read comics as a kid? What were your inspirations for becoming an artist? 

Unfortunately, I didn’t read many comics as a kid. I tried getting into superheroes several times, but they never really hit a chord with me. It wasn’t until my teens that I discovered other graphic novels, manga, and slice-of-life stories in comics that rocked my world. I did, however, read a lot of newspaper strips, but I also felt that wasn’t my fit for the type of stories I wanted to tell.

As a kid, my inspirations tended to come from animated movies, books with illustrations and music videos. As long as I can remember, I’ve always liked all those “making of-” featurettes and interviews with film makers and artists. They tended to reveal parts of the process and how a piece of art (whether it was a cartoon, a movie, or a song) was made. So, I guess I was inspired to be an artist by learning more about the arts I liked. The thought seemed logical: I like this Art and this is how they’ve done it and I want to do that because when I try it, I love it. Conclusion: learn more how to do it and keep going.

Please tell us a little bit about the tools you used to draw Soupy Leaves Home.

For Soupy Leaves Home, I drew it the way I prefer to draw comics, which is:

On regular type paper, 8.5 by 11 and a mechanical pencil (0.5, to be precise). I draw 1″ by 1.5″ rectangles and that is the thumbnail for a comic page. I draw my thumbnails small while reading the script, so it helps me to plan out the pace and what the beats of the story are. That way I know if I want to build up to a big scene or if I want to keep a steady pace for a few pages.

After that, I draw on 9×12 2-ply bristol board. Personally, I like the Smooth surface better than the Vellum, but sometimes, Vellum is all the store has, so… ANYWAYS, I draw the page with a blue-lead 0.5 mechanical pencil. I keep my pencils a bit loose, but knowing that I can tighten up later with the inks.

Once the pages are approved, I ink on top of the original pencils with micron pit pens, brush pens, India ink and brush, liquid paper white-out, and sometimes a few fountain pens. After that, I scan the pages and color them digitally with Photoshop. In this stage, I also do some more specific edits, such as deleting certain pencil marks that I couldn’t erase, or making sure the white out looks cohesive on the page. If the blacks look a bit too strokey, or if I just want a solid black instead of having visible brush marks, this is the stage to fix that. After that, my editor takes my files and has a letterer do that which I cannot: letter the book. Those are all my tools: papers, 0.5 mechanical pencils, brush pens, India ink and brush pens, AND Photoshop.

Soupy Leaves Home joins a growing field of comics of all genres, aimed at a teen audience. Are there other titles you recommend to people looking to read more YA comics?

Oh, absolutely:

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

Surfside Girls by Kim Dwinell

Chiggers by Hope Larson

Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks

Year of the Beasts by Cecil Castelucci

The Leg by Van Jensen and… me, hehe.

.                                                  

While comics for kids and young adults has been exploding as a publishing field, there have been comparatively few Latinx authors and artists getting attention, with the exception of the Giants Beware and Lowriders series. What advice do you have for young Latinx artists looking to break into comics? 

Dear Latinx who want to break into comics: Be bold, fearless, humble, and optimistic. Bold, because it reflects confidence and strength. Fearless, not just because of the current atmosphere, but also because that’s how we fight fear mongering, which is used to keep us quiet and divided. Humble, because, it reminds us that there is a bigger picture in our society, and that which benefits our community, automatically helps us grow to be better individuals living together. And optimistic, because as artists, our spirit is essential, so it’s important to keep it bright.

About breaking into comics? We can post and share. Ask everyone for support, launch Kickstarters, look at companies that you’re interested in, and see their submission guidelines and follow directions, while showing why your stories matter and why they’d be a great fit for their company. Go to conventions near you, small or big (of course they can be expensive, but plan for that. See how many you can make it to), make minis to hand out to show what you’re interested in doing. Go to conventions of what you like (for example, if you like baking, wrestling, cars or music; go to those conventions) get a small vendor table and sell your comic (about baking, wrestling, cars or music.) Starting a Patreon account, I hear, is a popular avenue these days. Most importantly: KEEP GOING. Do not stop making art and telling others about it. I’ve heard several quotes, and the one that still fits best is: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Do not give up sharing your stories.

On a last note, see if I can end well here: When I first became interested in comics, I wished I had known more Latinx cartoonists (which there were, but I didn’t know about that many). To those who see my work, I hope I can make a positive impression, but furthermore, I hope that they go on to make art that inspires even more people.

 

 

 

Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington, DC, where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.

Book Review: Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: “I see reality in another way with a camera. Looking through the lens, I peer into another world…”

Born in Mexico City in 1942, Graciela Iturbide wants to be a writer, but her conservative family has a different idea. Although she initially follows their wishes, she soon grows restless. After tragedy strikes, she turns to photography to better understand the world. The photographic journey she embarks on takes her throughout Mexico and around the globe, introducing her to fascinating people and cultures, and eventually bringing her success and fame. With more than two dozen photographs by Iturbide herself, Photographic explores the question of what it means to become an artist.

MY TWO CENTS: Photographic is a lively and compelling celebration of the life and work of critically acclaimed Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide. Young readers and fans of nonfiction graphic novels will devour it. I certainly did. Written by poet-novelist Isabel Quintero and illustrated by Zeke Peña, this slender graphic novel from Getty Publications tells its stories through an arresting blend of text and photocomics. Not many graphic novels attempt Photographic‘s approach—that is, placing reproductions of Iturbide’s camerawork alongside Peña’s pen-and-ink drawings. Then again, Photographic is no routine examination of an artist’s life. Guided by Quintero’s lyrical narrative, it also offers a powerful and disarming time capsule of Mexico’s cultural and social glories, as encountered by Iturbide during her photographic journey.

Photographic‘s pictorial narrative crisscrosses decades, allowing readers to peer through Iturbide’s lens as she traverses the geographic spine of Mexico, ventures across the border into Latinx communities in the United States, and on to international settings. The story flows from present-day views of Iturbide to flashes of her youth, when her father buys her a Brownie camera. It resumes in young womanhood, as she studies under photography master Manuel Álvarez Bravo. From there, we witness the continuing evolution of the artist as she undertakes a series of photographic projects.

Courtesy of Getty Publications

 

Iturbide possesses a selective eye, one that ennobles the disregarded and humble. This is most evident in her deeply humanizing portraits of people found along the margins of society. Such subjects include young men in Tijuana whose tattooed bodies read like a codex, as well as Juchitán’s “muxes, who are both men and women at the same time,” as Quintero explains in the text.

Iturbide’s range of subjects is wide. She occasionally photographs mammals and reptiles, but birds dominate this area of interest. In her photos, they appear singly and in flocks, on perches and in flight, as living creatures and as dusty, feathered bodies. Echoing this passion, Quintero skillfully adopts avian motifs to express some of the most elusive aspects of Iturbide’s photographic instinct.

Each time I look through the viewfinder I see myself…

I use my bird sight to see the fragments. The camera as mirror as bird eye.

And I with eyes to fly.  

Always midflight.

I look to the skies.

Birds like shifting stars and all of them speaking to one another—telling different stories. Wings spread and reverberate until silence.

Courtesy of Getty Publications

 

Although Iturbide resists being labeled magical or surrealist, her art unquestionably plays along the edges of reality. Even when photographing everyday objects, the images she captures teem with mystery and questions. A notable example is her work at Casa Azul, the house of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. There, in the bathroom, which was sealed after Kahlo’s death for fifty years, Iturbide’s camera brings our attention to porcelain fixtures, detached leg braces and corsets. Although composed of ordinary objects, these tableaus wordlessly communicate Kahlo’s physical suffering and bring into sharper relief the triumph of her immense contributions.

Iturbide’s portraits of uncelebrated women are among her greatest achievements. In one striking photograph, four young women from East Los Angeles pose in front of a mural devoted to Mexican revolutionary and political figures Zapata, Juárez, and Pancho Villa. In their defiant expressions and unapologetic stances, these women testify to the subversive spirit that lives on in their community. Even more startling is Iturbide’s documentation of Juchitán, a city in Oaxaca whose inhabitants are chiefly Zapotec, and where for generations, women have called the shots. “In Juchitán, women drive commerce, and men ask for an allowance.” Out of this matriarchal setting comes one of Iturbide’s most unforgettable photographs, a portrait of a market vendor wearing a crown of live iguanas. Zobeida, as she is identified, is rendered mythical, regal, an image for the ages, La Medusa Juchiteca. Yet Zobeida is a flesh-and-blood woman, making a living selling her wares and not anyone seeking immortality as a goddess. Iturbide’s camera lens frames these dual realities. She has learned how to see what many others miss— a reflex she cannot help but exercise in one after another iconic photograph.

And now, Photographic has brought Iturbide’s empathetic, ennobling, and powerful art to young readers and fans of the graphic novel. It’s no small order to synthesize a lifetime of artistic growth and achievement, but this book delivers, thanks to the wonderful collaborative work of Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña, who are impressive artists in their own right, with rich futures in their respective fields.

TEACHING TIPS: For middle school or high school, Photographic could be used as a supplementary text for the study of Latinx/Mexican culture and sociology, as well as in biographical examinations of artists and their working methods.

In addition to its broader classroom potential, Photographic suggests fresh approaches to the teaching of photography. Borrowing from themes found in its pages, here are some shooting assignments to consider: 1. Go on the hunt for a naturally occurring still life (not staged). 2. Locate a striking landscape or urban-scape that most people would pass by without noticing. 3. Scour your world for intriguing human faces—not necessarily pretty ones—and take care to photograph them with respect and dignity. 4. Include a self-portrait. For inspiration, examine Iturbide’s revelatory photos of herself, which offer strong and original counterpoints to the superficial selfie.

In addition, every frame of Iturbide’s work demonstrates principles of design and composition. Ask students to study her photos for their use of negative space, symmetry, asymmetry, minimalism, close ups, and judicious cropping—then have them pull out their cameras and emulate.

Finally, the wonderful teaching blog Vamos a Leer has published a preview of Photographic, which includes links to many resources, including interviews with Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña. Don’t miss it!

ABOUT THE SUBJECT: Graciela Iturbide lives and works in Mexico City, where she was born. Her photography enjoys worldwide acclaim and has received major international prizes. It is often the subject of solo exhibitions at heralded art centers, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Paul Getty Museum, and the Centre Pompidou. Learn more about Iturbide’s life and view galleries of her work by visiting her official website.  Photo by Christopher Sprinkle

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Isabel Quintero is a poet and novelist of Mexican heritage, born in California. She is best known for her trailblazing Gabi, a Girl in Pieces (Cinco Punto Press, 2014), winner of the 2015 William C. Morris Award for YA Debut Novel and many other distinctions. It was reviewed on Latinx in Kid Lit by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez. Follow Isabel’s writing journey on her blog.

 

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Zeke Peña is a comics artist and illustrator from El Paso, Texas. Among his many book covers, Zeke is the artist behind the powerful cover of Gabi, a Girl in Pieces. Explore his illustration and painting galleries at his website.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Lila Quintero Weaver (no relation to Isabel Quintero) is one of the founding bloggers of Latinxs in Kid Lit. She wrote and illustrated a graphic memoir, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White, and will release My Year in the Middle, her first children’s book, on July 10, 2018. Learn more about her work here.