Lots of kids want to create comic strips. When he was 12, Hector Cantú even gave it a try. But it wasn't until he was an adult that he had the opportunity to launch "Baldo," a comic about a typical happy-go-lucky Latino teen and his somewhat atypical family. The strip will appear daily in Variety.
We talked to Cantú about celebrating Latino culture, cultivating empathy and the complexity of creating a mom-less family.
Q: You and illustrator Carlos Castellanos have been creating "Baldo" since 2000. How did the comic come about?
A: At the time, I was working at a magazine in Santa Barbara, Calif., and the idea just came to me: "Why not do a comic strip?" I called Carlos Castellanos, and he agreed to sign on.
Q: You already had a successful career as a journalist, and you wanted to be a comic creator, too? Isn't that a niche market?
A: Not if you're a 10-year-old boy! It was a childhood goal of mine to write comics. I grew up reading Mad magazine and Spider-Man. When I was 12 years old — I guess I was a pretty confident 12-year-old — I submitted some drawings and gags to Mad.
Q: And you heard nothing?
A: No, that was in the old days, in the '70s when they sent out letters. I got a rejection letter saying thanks for the submission and about it not being quite what they wanted. But it also said, "Maybe someday you'll join the usual gang of idiots at Mad magazine." I remembered those words: "Maybe someday ..."
Q: Your main character is Baldomero "Baldo" Bermudez. Why did you focus on a teen?
A: I knew I wanted to do a young teenager because that was the most turmoil-filled years of both of our lives.
Q: Is the strip turmoil-filled?
A: No, no. Baldo is a lighthearted, happy-go-lucky guy who happens to be living this typical American life.
Q: Does the strip delve into some deeper issues?
A: Yes, but we deal with them the way Baldo would if he were real.
A few years back, there were immigrant walkouts. My wife and I were taking the train downtown to go to one, and I realized that if Baldo were real he'd be on that train. So I sketched out a story line where we had Baldo cover the walkout for his school paper.
More recently, we dealt with the Dreamers. I figure the real Baldo would have a friend who was a Dreamer, so we crafted a story line for Cruz, Baldo's best friend.
When we deal with serious issues, it's always from the perspective of a kid like Baldo.
Q: Is Baldo you as a kid? Carlos as a kid? Your third cousins?
A: Baldo is an amalgam — of the things in my life, in Carlos' life, what's happening with kids today. I'm constantly reading about what kids are going through, what they're talking about, especially kids of color.
Q: What from your life did you give Baldo?
A: Carlos and I grew up with divorce, single-parent homes. Both of us lived with our moms. Baldo stayed with his dad. But we wanted to depict a family, including a sister and a grandmother, who ended up becoming a great-aunt.
Q: Can you introduce us to a few other main characters?
A: Gracie [Baldo's younger sister] and Tia Carmen [Baldo's great-aunt] have broken out into strong characters. Gracie is focused on education and doing well in school, but not in a preachy way. Tia Carmen is this lovable, goofy character.
Q: You must have fun writing for them.
A: I have fun writing for all of the characters, including Dad [Sergio "Papi" Bermudez].
Q: What is Papi's role?
A: He tries to keep traditions alive with his kids, who are out there with this huge juggernaut of American pop culture breathing down their necks.
Q: Does your strip celebrate Latino culture?
A: It celebrates Latino culture so much that Hispanic Heritage Month is hardly mentioned in the comic because we celebrate it every day. It can be done in the language characters use, in the food they eat, the lessons that Dad is always trying to keep alive.
I don't do hard sell of Latino culture. We tell the story of this family and try to capture the character of our characters, how they speak, what they do.
Q: Is there anything new readers should know? Any back story?
A: The big back story is "Where is Mom?"
She passed away in a car accident, but that's something we decided at the last minute [before the comic launched]. We'd developed these four main characters and didn't have a mom, but we didn't want to crowd the strip.
Every now and then we do a strip about her. I have a couple of drafts for Mother's Day. It does get sad, but we try to keep it on the lighter side. And you can do good with a story line like that.
Q: How do you and Carlos work?
A: I have a running list of story lines and drafts, and I'll cobble ideas together, then I send them to Carlos. He sends his sketches back to me. We hammer out the strip by e-mail.
Q: How long do you want to keep doing the strip?
A: As long as I'm having fun and readers are having fun. As long as this strip lets me say what I want to say.
Q: What does this strip let you say?
A: We're trying to present this family and have people identify with them. I want people to see that this family is similar to every family out there.
We need to realize, especially now, that we have a lot more in common with each other than we think we do.
Connie Nelson • @StribCNelson