Boricua Panel on Comics Books, Diversity and Superheroes

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles illustrations by Emilio Lopez

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles illustrations by Emilio Lopez

One might have been excused for expecting that a conference by comic book illustrators of Puerto Rican heritage in East Harlem would be a rather intimate affair for nerdy types in the vein of Junot Díaz’s Oscar Wao. Instead, “Café con Comics: Boricuas in the Comic Book Industry” attracted more than 150 people of all ages who packed an entire conference room Wednesday night at Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work.

The event was hosted by Edgardo Miranda-Rodríguez, a writer for Marvel known for creating the Puerto Rican female superhero La Borinqueña, and launched an exhibition that chronicles the work of Puerto Rican comic books artists dating back to the 1940s.

The panelists, three seasoned yet youthful-looking illustrators and colorists, delved into the nuts and bolts of a demanding industry driven by insane deadlines and work hours, looked back fondly on the analog, pre-Internet days – only one of them still works on paper (the others say they draw “digitally”) – and shared tips on how to save time (drawing fewer bricks on a wall or doing lots of close-ups seem to be the go-to shortcuts). However, the audience’s biggest responses came when the subject of diversity in the industry was raised.

There was an audible gasp in the room at Third Ave and 119th Street when illustrator Chris Batista relayed his frustration years ago when he drew Storm for Marvel’s “X-Men” – a strong female Black character who was played by Halle Berry in the film series – and was asked: “Can you make her look a little less black?”

However, when asked by Miranda-Rodríguez if he had incorporated any Puerto Rican sazón (seasoning) into his comic book artwork, Batista responded sheepishly: “Not really. We have to draw the story we’re given.” His colleague Will Rosado gave a similar response, but he added that he once drew Renee Montoya, part of a Batman book published by DC Comics. “It was probably the only time I’ve drawn a Latino character. At one point there was the story of her life and her parents showed up, so I drew my parents,” he said, prompting some cheers.

From left to right, Edgardo Miranda-Rodríguez, Will Rosado, Chris Batista and Félix Serrano. (Photo ©2016 Bolivar Arellano)

From left to right, Edgardo Miranda-Rodríguez, Will Rosado, Chris Batista and Félix Serrano. (Photo ©2016 Bolivar Arellano)

But the most celebrated response to the sazón question was from colorist Félix Serrano, who gently berated his friends for failing to realize how big a contribution they have made by having their names on the cover. “When I started, we [colorists] were considered production, and our names did not appear at all; then we were put on the artistic team but we still had to push to have our names on the cover,” he said, adding that it had been an inspiration for him to see his fellow panelists’ Hispanic names printed on the comic books he admired. “Now my name is on the cover! That means a lot and you didn’t know it.”

During the event, Miranda-Rodríguez showed some pages of the first graphic novel of La Borinqueña, which will be published in December after the character was unveiled in the past National Puerto Rican Day Parade. The room at Silberman School of Social Work also got a sneak peek at the Borinqueña action figure that they plan to put on sale next Christmas, whose full-figured body type drove a member of the audience to exclaim “She’s got a booty!” Miranda-Rodríguez said that they thought Latino comic book fans might want action figures “who look like them.”

Miranda-Rodriguez, who is editor-in-chief of Darryl Makes Comics! – the comic book imprint of rapper Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of Run-DMC – was clearly the most socially-conscious person speaking on the panel. He related his background as a community activist at Brooklyn’s El Puente organization, and mentioned Richie Perez and Iris Morales – members of the 1970s Puerto Rican rights group Young Lords – as his mentors. He is now developing the La Borinqueña project in his own studio in Brooklyn, Somos Arte, in which he has enrolled a host of artists of Puerto Rican heritage, including the panelists.

“I didn’t say we need diversity, I said we need a hero,” he said about La Borinqueña, recalling that he was influenced by the fiscal crisis on the island to create a character to raise awareness, “but also to create community and to do something for my brothers, an opportunity that the industry won’t give us.” Miranda-Rodríguez also made a point of seeking women artists, and proudly said he was mentoring a young female illustrator who was in the audience, Sabrina Cintrón.

“It’s amazing,” said Cintrón about La Borinqueña after the conference, adding that she’d never seen a character like that representing her heritage. “She’s a Nuyorican and my whole family is Puerto Rican from New York; my mom’s from Brooklyn and she lives in Williamsburg, so there’s a lot of personal connections I can make,” said Cintrón, 23, who lives in Connecticut. “I thought it was really cool to have someone you can relate to.”

Cintrón, who says she is not a professional and is working on the project as a penciller, explained that she was contacted by Miranda-Rodríguez via Twitter after she tweeted on the hashtag #visiblewomen, “where artists were tweeting to let [people] know that there were women in the comic book industry.”

The issue of job prospects for women in the industry was also brought up by a young girl during the Q&A segment, and the panelists warmly encouraged her. “Right now is a good time for women, they want you, they want women readers, artists,” said Rosado of the graphic novel companies. “Don’t assume that you’ll have to work harder, it’s going to be a plus. If you had asked 20 years ago, you could count women working there with one hand, and even less for writers, but now it’s changed.”

Edgardo Miranda Rodríguez signing posters of La Borinqueña. (Photo ©2016 Bolivar Arellano)

Edgardo Miranda-Rodríguez signing posters of La Borinqueña. (Photo ©2016 Bolivar Arellano)

The panelists’ artwork will be on display at the Library and Archives section of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College until Jan. 27. The small exhibition also introduces a little-known list of predecessors starting with Alex Schomburg, who started working for such classic characters as Captain America and the Green Hornet after moving to New York from his native Aguadilla in 1940. There is also original artwork from White Tiger, the first Boricua super-hero and Marvel’s first Hispanic superhero, which was created in 1975 by Jorge Pérez.

As Miranda-Rodríguez closed the event, he highlighted how New York was a common link for those artists, and pointed out that La Borinqueña, just like the Puerto Rican flag, was made in the city. As it happens, all of the panelists were also New Yorkers, and afterwards Félix Serrano further reflected on how being born and raised here had influenced his career.

“It was definitely a unique experience. I used to play on rooftops,” said Serrano, 43, who grew up on the West Side and now lives in Inwood. “The water towers were huge and we would start thinking that we’re in these [graphic] novels, because you see Spiderman and Daredevil jumping around the rooftops… The other thing is the huge buildings, and they just keep getting bigger and bigger. My office is on 57th Street and I’m in awe at Hell’s Kitchen and just midtown… I still imagine Spiderman flying through all that stuff.”

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