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Snuggle up, 'cause here comes part two in our new column Under the Covers, where we chat with the great Gilbert Hernandez of Love & Rockets about his experience working with musician Kristin Hersh on the cover to the 1996 Throwing Muses album Limbo, and most recently, the cover to Kristin's memoir Rat Girl, out now from Penguin.
Inside folded-out CD art for Limbo
Janice: Can you remember all the way back to the first time Kristin approached you to do the album cover for Throwing Muses' Limbo?
Gilbert: I don't remember who contacted me first, or how it actually began. I just go as far back as me in her rented apartment with her husband and her son Ryder, who was just a toddler. And we had Thai food. And I just remember it was a really pleasant experience. I thought she was really down-to-earth, and fun to talk to. It was a really nice, laid-back time.
Janice: Kristin says she was completely prepared to talk you into it, and you were game from the get-go?
Gilbert: Oh, sure. I try to do work like that with people who already have a good reputation, and she already had a strong reputation as a serious artist. I just kinda thought it might be fun. I was also flattered that someone asked me to do an album cover.
Janice: I'm sure it wasn't the first time, right?
Gilbert: It may have been. I'm just not a designer. People always think of me as a writer. Of course, it was grueling. Once I start doing something for somebody else, no matter how simple it is, self-doubt mounts. It turned out fine.
Janice: What was the process like? Did you have any input from the band or the label? Were you just given free reign?
Gilbert: It was pretty much free reign. Kristin just said she liked my Palomar work, so, she wanted something Palomar-esque. I thought, this is great since this is something that I already do! So, I worked something out on that. Of course, once I sent it, I thought, “Oh, this is something they're not going to like,” but she seemed to be okay with it.
CD single from Limbo
Janice: She mentioned you sent a couple of different sketches. The one of the tour bus, which is on the inside of the CD booklet, the girl jumping rope, which was used for the “Ruthie's Knocking” single... [ Ed. note: as I mentioned yesterday, I was wrong -- it was used for the "Freeloader" single. ] Were you surprised that they chose the portrait of the man's face for the cover?
Gilbert: I think that was meant to be the cover. I think she said, the record company wants a bold image. I thought, “Yeah, they're really gonna want this old farmer guy on the cover.” Sure enough, they did!
Janice: So, who is that man? He's an old farmer to you?
Gilbert: He's one of the old folks from the town. Where I grew up, and what I've done in my Palomar stories, is I've always involved older people. They still have a presence in the town and in the characters' lives, because that's how it was for me growing up. It was very integrated. I just decided, y'know, people might be expecting cheesecake from me, so I'll go the opposite.
Janice: So, the expression on his face... How would you describe his emotional state?
Gilbert: Oh jeez, boy. Y'know, I never considered that. I just drew a guy who's seen a lot of life. That's pretty much it.
Janice: When I first bought the album, I was just a teenager, and so I thought he was kinda scary and creepy-looking. And now that I'm older and I look at the album, it's like he actually looks more sad.
Gilbert: What happens to a lot of young people, especially in this country, is they dismiss or goof on old people, because there's only two alternatives to getting old: you get old, just like them, or you die before that. And a lot of people don't want to have to deal with that, so they just kinda categorize old people as frightening or foolish, because they're afraid that's what they're going to become. The alternative is death. I think it's in the back of young people's minds. It's not a daily concern.
Janice: That's interesting. It kind-of lends itself to alternative music or alternative comics. People don't give it the respect that it deserves.
Gilbert: There's so much freedom in it. That's why I've always kind-of stuck to it, and defended doing comics, from a point-of-view of self-expression, 'cause there's so much freedom in that. If you really want to be honest, you have a place for it. If you really want to tell something that has deeper meaning, you can do it.
Janice: That's part of what makes you and Kristin such a perfect fit!
Gilbert: Yeah, I thought it was!
Janice: So, later down the road, when she came to you to do the cover for Rat Girl, there was probably no hesitation.
Gilbert: At first I was a little hesitant, because she was going through a publisher, and... you gotta deal with Art Directors. Let's put it this way, Art Directors at Fantagraphics are a breeze. It's tough, even at small publishing companies, you tend to jump through hoops a lot. And I'm not a very good hoop jumper. I don't take direction very easily. So, I was hesitant at first because of that reason. But for the fact Kristin asked me, and it was her story, I thought, I can't pass that up. Like I said, it's something with meaning. I was happy to jump aboard.
Janice: So, sort of similar, were you given direction, or were you given free-reign?
Gilbert: I think I asked both the Art Director and Kristin what they want on the cover. They said, basically her face on the cover, but as a cartoon. We went through a few stages. A lot of the ones I did were of her smiling, looking at the reader smiling, but it doesn't reflect how she's feeling in a lot parts of the book. So, I did a slapdash of her looking to the side, with a wary look in her eyes. And both the Art Director and Kristin said that's the one, that's the one. And I refined it over and over until it finally came out.
Janice: Kristin mentioned there's a version where she had great luscious lips...
Gilbert: Oh, that's right! I tend to do that when I draw somebody for real. I tend to idealize them a little bit. It's just a habit. A little bit more pert to the nose, a little bit more fullness to the lips, large eyes, y'know. It's just cartooning. And it tends to please people, so I just automatically went that way. And she thought, “Oh, nice drawing, but it's not me!”
Janice: Were you allowed to read the book before you began the art?
Gilbert: I read parts of it. I don't like to read a book, or listen to the music, when I'm working on the thing I'm doing. I just like to have free reign, and have the person describe to me what they like, and come up with something that way. 'Cause I tend to get clogged. If I read the book, then I'm like, “Well, now there's too many ideas.” I can't have too many ideas. If you read the book ahead of time, if you listen to the music ahead of time, then you're like, now I have a bounty of ideas. I have an overactive imagination, so when it's tapped... [ laughing ]. So, I try to close the faucet with that kind-of job, because I tend to complicate things.
Janice: Kristin mentioned one the reasons she wanted a “comic book”-style cover is because the book has lots of imagery in it. So, maybe it's a good thing you didn't read it first. She would've filled your head with all these images!
Gilbert: Exactly. I would've walked away and been like, “Ohh boy...”
Janice: What about the color choices? Was it your idea to have the blue halo effect around her?
Gilbert: No, I think the Art Director came up with that to make it pop. I would've done that anyway, but I didn't know they were doing a black cover.
Janice: It's interesting knowing that the period in her life that she was writing about was such a dark time, so I was wondering, is that reflected in the art?
Gilbert: I think so. You want to grab your audience, and people who might not have looked at it before. They see the words “Rat Girl” and they see this cover and they think, “Oh, what's this?”
Janice: “This is something I could relate to.”
Gilbert: So, that's a good thing. I know from an artist's point-of-view, it's a little awkward, but really it's very important.
Janice: It's so tricky, isn't it, because on one hand, you gotta think about marketing, but on the other hand, you have to take into consideration the artistic integrity of the product. Did you experience that with Limbo?
Gilbert: How so?
Janice: Well, I don't mean this to sound disparaging at all, but did the record label say, “You can't have an elderly person on the cover! That'll never sell!”
Gilbert: I didn't get that, but Kristin might have. You know, I'm trying to think back to it, and I can't remember why I did an old farmer guy. I guess I was just so deeply emerged in Palomar, and I think Kristin really wanted that. Let's make Palomar what it is, and that was one of the things, and she was pleased with that.
Janice: I like the idea of maybe Limbo being a place, like Palomar, where all these characters are residing.
Gilbert: That could work. Another thing is, as much as we want to define what's on the cover, we also wanted to leave it up to projection. For the readers to project. That's so important, especially for young readers. They love to read about themselves. So, if you can grab them with a cover, they see this young woman and think, “That's me!” And then they read it, and say, “Yeah, that's me alright.” So, it's all good.
Janice: Do you feel that's true for your books as well?
Gilbert: I think, yeah, in the early days. Especially with Jaime's work because it's a direct bullet to young people living this lifestyle, and we grabbed on to it right away. It was still relatively new back then in the 80's, starting in the late 70's. We thought it was already over. We were old men doing this. Jaime was all of 21 years old. I was 25 when Palomar came out, whoa. [ laughing ] “I'm gettin' too old for this!” But luckily, we found an audience. Somehow, people wanted to read it.