An Interview with J. Gonzo
Earlier this week I spoke with creator, writer, and artist J. Gonzo about his upcoming graphic novel, La Mano Del Destino. The indie Lucha Libre comic is nearly a decade in the making, having toured in-person conventions and shattering the original Kickstarter goal. Top Cow Productions and Image Comics will be publishing the collected edition, set to drop in late May 2021.
The all-new illustrated novel LA MANO DEL DESTINO is the story of a once-champion Luchador who is betrayed by his friends, unmasked in the ring, and determined for vengeance. With artwork perfectly portraying the setting of 1960s Mexico, we follow this warrior on his path to redemption and self-discovery.
Head to the Top Cow website for more information.
Please introduce yourself with anything you would like our readers to know about you.
J. Gonzo: My name is J. Gonzo and I am a Chicano artist originally from Southern California – though I now live in Phoenix, AZ. I have been a professional creative (Graphic Designer, Illustrator, and Tattoo Artist) for the better part of three decades. I am a lifelong Comic book fan and have always wanted to produce my own title.
After many years of circling the Comicbook industry’s periphery looking for entry, I finally utilized my Ad and Design Agency experience to earn a position as a Senior Art Director at a Comicbook and Toy company – it was here that idea for what would later become my Indie title would begin to take shape.
The rough idea and some initial pages were created while at that company and, when I left that job, those pages were amongst my portfolio sample pages as I sought work at other Comicbook companies. These pages were invariably the work that garnered the most attention and praise and, ultimately, I was encouraged by many an editor to produce this title on my own. That is how I began writing, drawing, and self-publishing La Mano del Destino.
How did the experience of working on La Mano del Destino as a triple threat-creator, illustrator and writer-differ from collaborative projects such as La Voz de M.A.Y.O.: Tata Rambo. Do you like having complete creative control or is it more pressure?
J. Gonzo: Though they are ostensibly similar tasks, my approach to both projects are vastly different – in tactics, that is; my strategy for both (and every) project(s) are always the same. My strategy for all my creative endeavors is that of finding the emotional truth of what each moment is trying to convey and ensuring that every element (from panel size, to camera angle, to color choice) supports that truth.
Nobody is going to remember any of the lines you’ve drawn, nor will they remember any of the words you’ve written; what they WILL remember is how they FEEL about what you drew and wrote – and that’s what I am trying to elicit and direct; the reader’s emotional response and resonance. With a collaborative project, I have to suss out the emotional truth of the text and read and re-read the script to ensure that the emotional through-line and intent of the script is honored. This is more a process of discovery, since I am not the one who wrote the script.
Also, with La Voz de M.A.Y.O.: Tata Rambo, there was a historical component (both social and familial) to contend with and my paramount concern was to be respectful to this important story and the actual people in it. With my own project, La Mano del Destino, I work Marvel Style (without a full script) with myself. I make loose outlines then do most of my scripting in my thumbnails. Since I am the creator, I know the ethos of the book and needn’t spend time delineating through-lines; I have an intrinsic sense of who everyone is and what their motivations are.
This internal shorthand allows for me to solely focus on the attempted dynamism of the action and the quiet solemnity of pensive scenes and how the two might interplay. I wouldn’t say I like one process over the other; they are two different processes to me – one is a mystery to solve and the other a game to play.
How important was it to you to create a strong, relatable LatinX character? Was that your original goal or did that evolve through the idea for the story and great writing?
J. Gonzo: My goal was not only to have a strong, confident, and (most importantly) COMPETENT LatinX hero, but also to create a hero and world that was representative of my bright and vibrant culture. Far too often LatinX characters are portrayed in American Pop Culture as dim-witted comic relief. And, even more often, Mexico is portrayed as a lawless and dusty wasteland of poverty and violence; and I sought to undo this mono-narrative, or, at least, offer a counter-point to it.
The purveyors of US Pop Culture have curried a patronizing sympathy toward Mexico under the guise of “gritty realism” that is both lazy and condescending and I am actively trying to dismantle these misguided notions. I was well past tired of seeing the paragon of Mexican heroism, the Luchador, being treated like a winking punchline in American movies, so I created a story that treated my heroes and my culture with respect.
Gone are the dull sepia-toned ramshackle pueblos of American movie portrayals of Mexico; and, instead, is the boldly-hued, sleekly-modern metropolis of a mid-60s Mexico City – with all its innovation and optimism intact. I wanted a hero and a setting that was reflective of my culture’s richness.
This original dissatisfaction with shallow and ham-fisted attempts at representation were the chief impetus for the creation of La Mano del Destino and at the heart of almost every decision I mad about the book. The alternate-reality that I created puts Lucha Libre (a quintessentially Mexican sport) at the very center of this world’s social structure.
The color palette I employ is distinctly LatinX. Even the title of my book (which I could have easily called “El Revenge-O” or some other accessible approximation of Spanish) is just in Spanish – this is an intentionally LatinX comic, about a LatinX subject, by a LatinX creator and, if you can’t get past the four Spanish words of the title, this book is not for you. It was more than important to me to uncompromisingly maintain that cultural authenticity, it was my mission statement.
Describe La Mano del Destino’s journey from the indie circuit and successful Kickstarter campaign to being picked up in entirety by Top Cow and Image. What was the emotional journey like in addition to how the practical aspects came about?
J. Gonzo: Like I mentioned before, a lot of Comicbook editors that I admired were quite complementary about the initial pitch and several actively encouraged me to self-publish it – I think they all knew that the book would do well on the indie circuit.
Larry Marder is a close friend of mine and he has been independently producing Beanworld since 1985 (seriously, if you haven’t ever checked this comic out, stop what you’re doing and go check some out!) and he was very instrumental in me having the courage to dive head first into self-publishing; he was, and has continues to be, a tremendous source of indie-publishing knowledge that I could call upon from time to time.
Larry gave some great initial advice and got me to head out into conventions and take my project to market. The convention scene turned out to be great for me – I think my type of passion project is best delivered in-person and cons allow for that. I steadily built a fan-base and really enjoyed every person that I have met through tabling at shows. My fan-base was what I most unsure about – I just had no idea of what type of support would attract – It turns out, people a lot like me.
I was also fortunate to be a part of some demographically-targeted shows like The Latino Comics Expo (founded by Ricardo Padilla and Javier Hernandez), The LatinX Comic Arts Festival (founded by Theresa Rojas), SOL Con the Black and Brown Comix Expo (founded by John Jennings and Professor Frederick Aldama) and I have even been a part of BCAF and these shows and their attendees are are wonderful! – To see LantinX fans discover work that was created just for them is always a joy.
As I got closer wrapping-up the series, I began to think about the fans and what they would want to see in a collected edition and I came upon the idea of a bilingual flipbook. I had many requests and even my own intention to create a Spanish-Language version of the book, but, since I self-finance the initial printing of each issue and recoup my costs over much time, the cost of 400-page bilingual flipbook was beyond my means; so I decided to Kickstart the project and see if there was indeed the support there for that version.
The size and complexity of the book meant that my break-even point to cover all the production costs was a pretty high number, but my fans got me to that goal! – It was down to the last few moments, but it funded. The logistics in past year became a bit unraveled despite my best efforts to streamline the process before launching the campaign, but they seem to lining back up now.
The stress of coordinating all those moving parts of the campaign and all the people that I contracted to contribute (translators, artists for pinups, etc) is probably not something I will attempt again anytime soon – this is probably the REAL number one reason that I enjoy being the sole creator on my book.
For me the real emotional journey was getting the Kickstarter version done – after it funded, I wanted to bring an English-only version to the direct market and I had such a great experience with Top Cow working on La Voz de M.A.Y.O.: Tata Rambo that I asked them first about adding it to their slate and that whole process was just a few phone calls and a “yes”. The work for that version was already done and the Image machine is well-oiled – my efforts weren’t required to be nearly as Herculean as when I did my own Trade Paperback.
I was a little concerned that the people who backed the Kickstarter version might take umbrage with a Direct Market version coming out right after their version, but I was upfront and honest about the Direct Market version being different than the one they supported and literally no one was upset. In fact, every response I heard from my support was one of “congratulations” once the Top Cow version was announced – that I hadn’t anticipated and I was truly overwhelmed by that kind of loving support. I know that a lot of creators like to say their fans are the best, but I quantifiable proof that my fans are the coolest – I can produce receipts!
What reactions have you seen from fans and your supporters that have inspired you? What do you hope readers will get from this comic, besides an enjoyable read?
J. Gonzo: Over the years, it has been a lot of small moments of fan support and interaction that have been the most inspiring. I had a teenage fan in San Diego who spoke Spanish primarily tell me in his best English how happy he was to see a Luchador proudly represented. My Spanish is very bad, but we were able to meet in the middle and communicate about how important Lucha Libre was to each of us and, in the end, we both teared-up a little.
In Long Beach, an Abuelita (Mexican grandmother) saw my booth and stopped in her tracks to wistfully recall her time seeing a Lucha Libre match as a little girl in Mexico. She then bought a copy of each issue and I tried to give her my elevator pitch about the story, but she shushed me and said that the artwork had already sold her. I have many a professional and amateur wrestler or Luchador tell me how much they enjoyed that I got the wrestling right.
To be honest, most of my interactions with fans go far beyond a simple business transaction – I love talking to and getting to know my fans. I made this comic as a love letter to Lucha Libre, and to Silver-age Comics, and especially to my culture – and I think that most people who enjoy the book feel that love.
I made deliberate decisions about how I curated the reality represented in my story; from the Silver-Age and UPA art styles, to the limited, LatinX color palette, to the paper I selected – i wanted the entire package to feel like an artifact from a time that didn’t exist. More than I want to just tell a story, I want to give the reader an experience; and I hope they one once they pick up the book.
Talk about your love for all wrestling, and lucha libre specifically, as the inspiration for this story. Was the wrestling world something you always knew you would write about?
J. Gonzo: I have loved Lucha Libre my entire life. American wrestling I have checked in and out of over the years. I have always kept the two separate in my mind. Lucha Libre lived on the Spanish-language station that only seemed to get reception at my Nana’s house in Montebello – and the Lucha Libre action figures and Colorforms only lived in the bodega we would walk to in her neighborhood.
To me, Lucha Libre was a part of the LatinX neighborhood she lived in; a part of the world just on the other side of the San Gabriel River from my home. I would watch old El Santo, Blue Demon, and Mil Mascaras movies that made them more real than any WWF wrestler (when Roddy Piper was a movie he was a completely different character; but when El Santo was in a movie, he was still El Santo). I internalized this performance art extension of Kayfabe as just a natural part, and a key difference, between Lucha Libre and American Pro Wrestling.
Later in life I would be able to articulate the difference in emotional resonance that is the ethos of each version of the sport, but, as a kid, I just had an intrinsic sense of it. American Wrestling is very much about ego – it’s about being big enough, strong enough, or tricky enough to impose your will onto your opponent. Lucha Libre is more about speed, agility, and leverage.
American wresting is about who you are, Lucha Libre is about what you do. In Lucha Libre, the Luchador obscures his face – their anonymity allows them to define who they are completely by deed; and, they carry the anonymity with them beyond the ring. There is no alter ego, only the Luchador. This resonates with me and perhaps many mestizo (mixed) people as our relationship with any kind of inherent identity is tenuous (being both part Conquistador and conquered).
Many heroes of my culture are masked and anonymous – some even forsaking the privilege of their birth to champion the unfortunate. Culturally, and out of necessity, we place more important on action than on any idea of birthright status (perhaps in reaction to the centuries where birthright was of paramount importance in this land). Because of my cultural interaction with the manner in which identity can be crafted, I have always been keenly fascinated by it; how one can reconcile their own sense of identity with how one is perceived – and what, if any, role a theory like destiny can do to inform either proposition.
All of my favorite movies, books, and other entertainment all explore these themes. When I decided to make a Comicbook, I knew it would explore notions of identity versus destiny and I had an “a-ha” moment when I realized that Lucha Libre was a perfect distillation and lens through which to do it.
Give our readers an “elevator pitch” why they should read La Mano del Destino, and also please let us know about anything else you’re working on that we should check out!
J. Gonzo: Meso-American myth, Silver-Age storytelling, and high-flying MEXICAN WRESTLING ACTION converge to tell this epic story of Revenge, Destiny, and LUCHA LIBRE!
La Mano del Destino is comic for anyone who loves Silver-Age storytelling, or for anyone who is a fan of Lucha Lucha, and for anyone who ho loves COMICS!
Right now La Mano de Destino is my primary focus, but so much more than just the Trade Paperback is coming soon! – follow me on Instagram for all the latest news – @jgonzoart
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