Javier Hernandez isn’t Stan Lee. He doesn’t work for Marvel, Dark Horse or even Image Comics. He’s an independent in the truest sense of the word. Since the late 1990s, he’s self-published a comic book titled El Muerto, which follows the adventures of Diego, a young man who, on the way to a Dia De Los Muertos celebration, dies and is resurrected as an Aztec zombie gaining mysterious superpowers. Though the dark plot and imagery brings to mind complex heroes like The Crow, themes from Hernandez’s deep Catholic faith and Latin American heritage are often at the core of the fantasy storylines.
The comic has gained a cult following that has been growing exponentially since El Muerto was optioned and made into a movie starring Wilmer Valderaama (from That 70s Show). All Fez jokes aside, the trailer promises a thrilling comic adaptation that stands toe-to-toe with its big-budget comic counterparts. Hernandez was kind enough to sit down for a phone conversation recently to discuss the status of the film, his favorite comics and how his personal beliefs influence his work.
Could you give me a brief synopsis of how you created the character?
I wanted to create a comic that combined Aztec mythology with the folklore behind the Mexican holiday, Dia de Los Muertos. Aztec mythology is as rich as any of the world’s other mythologies but at the time didn’t seem to be as used as much. And the Day of the Dead is one of the unique customs of the world. Also, I wanted to create one with a varied cast of supporting characters and starring a protagonist that hasn’t been created in the mold of today’s version of a lead character. So this guy, Diego de La Muerte is innocent and spiritual and noble, but with a heartache at the beginning of the story due to his recent break-up with his girlfriend Maria. The character is actually based on a composite of people I know (except for the dead part!) with a maybe a little nod to classic 1960s Spider-Man and Speed Racer. He’s a zombie, for all intents and purposes, but not the decomposed, carnivorous type everyone else does.
Do you have story ideas already planned if the movie sequels ever come to fruition?
I’m working on the new issue right now based on the story I had in mind before we made the movie. Without giving the movie’s plot away, I can say that the cinematic El Muerto takes an alternate path in regards to the character’s storyline than what I have planned in the comic’s continuity.
However, the origin of the character in the film takes its cue directly from my comic. If we have an opportunity to make a sequel, there’s the possibility of having a hand in charting a course for the cinematic continuation El Muerto’s story may take.
What’s the status of distribution?
My producer’s currently working on that, I don’t stay on top of that day-to-day. He gets back to me if there’s any new information. Some interesting things come up, but of course “I’m not at liberty to discuss!”
What would be the pinnacle of success, in your eyes, for the film?
Honestly, just seeing it already on the big screen at this year’s American Film Market was the biggest highlight for me to this point. But the truth of the matter is we all wanted to make a great film, based on my comic, that everyone can see and hopefully enjoy. I could get greedy and say it’d be great to do a sequel, El Muerto Dos, or an animated series. We’ve even talked about possibly one day adapting it as a stage play or theater production with folkloric music and dancing.
What are your all-time, top five comics?
Well, there’d have to be at least one volume of Stan Lee/Ditko Spider-Man
Marvel Masterworks and one volume of Jack Kirby/Stan Lee Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks. And definitely I have to mention the 1976 DC/Marvel crossover Superman Vs. Spider-man! Dang it, these questions always put me on the spot.
On your website bio, you say you had some “indie comic gods.” Who were those people?
Well, there’s a lot of indie comic guys I admire, and I think I added the “gods” part meaning the mainstream guys like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. But several of my friends had actually been creating their own comics before I got started—like my friend Michael Aushenker. He does a comic called El Gato Crime Mangler. Rafael Navarro, who does Sonambulo and also Rhode Montijo who created Pablo’s Inferno. They were all inspirations.
But it was my friends who were creating their own books, they really were key in providing an example. We’re just regular guys who go through the Taco Bell drive-thru and stand in line at Target like everyone else. But we do comics!
In one of the essays from your zine El Muerto on My Mind, you had a dream where you were being strangled into your bed by El Muerto. Do you believe in the supernatural?
I definitely believe in God, so yeah, I believe in the supernatural. Whenever I hear the word supernatural, though, since I come from comics and B-movies, I always think of Zombies, werewolves, stuff like that. But obviously the supernatural could have a broader meaning. I can’t say I believe in zombies and vampires, but in a theological meaning, yes, I believe in God, in that supernatural.
RELEVANT is a Christian, but we don’t only focus on Christian culture, and we like to focus on the personal beliefs of subjects. It’s kind of scary to bring these topics up in interview…
Oh yeah, I know what you mean. But sometimes people do react very oddly when you claim a religious background. At times I feel their reaction borders on paranoia. My own paranoia leads me to think that one day they’ll start organizing themselves and goosestep all over the town trying to deprive one of the right to believe. I used talk about [spiritual subjects] on my message board all the time, and it’s not like I’m trying to convert people, but I happen to be Catholic, just like I happen to be Mexican or have black hair.
So you were raised Catholic?
And you still go to Mass every week, that type of thing?
Well, don’t tell my mother, but I can’t claim I go every week. But I’ve received four of the seven Sacraments. And for me, too, it’s being Mexican Catholic. That’s a very defining trait to have, especially as an artist. Obviously you can see it in El Muerto, my work. I regard my Catholicism as being an indispensable cultural element of my overall being.
How much of your Catholicism is personal, seeing God in the day-to-day, as opposed to being cultural?
I definitely see God in my day-to-day living, whether it’s good or rough times. For a lot of people, at the first sign of hardship, or even tragedy—they close the door in God’s face. So yeah, it’s not just a cultural thing, as far as my personal life. On the other hand, I do consider it personal at times.
Do you think that there are certain modes of thinking that are looked down upon while being an artist?
Absolutely! No question about that, especially if it’s religious, and let’s keep the focus on Christianity here. If it comes up as a viewpoint, all of a sudden previously self-professed “tolerant and progressive” people become intolerant. And I don’t just mean they disagree with my faith. That I can accept. The world is way too big to think that everyone will agree with you. As an artist, it’s not something I want to have in contention with people, I mean, I am trying to sell comics. So, unless you’ve gotten to know me on a personal basis, look at my comic, the character, and over time you can learn what I believe and why.
I had a section on my message board set up for religious and political topics. I deleted that section about a month ago because I was starting to realize it often led to very heated, divisive discussions. Normally I’m someone who hates it when people say “don’t discuss religion and politics,” like we can’t be rational, respectful adults. But then again, you end up realizing that you get in heated conversations and start to hear yourself and the others make comments that surprise you.
I started thinking about the people who might find the website and message board because they were interested in my comic book character or the movie. And I don’t want to repel a potential fan because they wandered into a political or religious debate and maybe get a limited perception of me as a person, based on a few posts.