At first glance, the online comic book El Peso Hero looks sloppy.
The characters are covered with splotchy ink blots, their outlines scratched in jagged lines; the pages look grimy and weathered. Even the comic’s superhuman namesake, El Peso Hero, appears bathed in shadow.
That’s how the comic book’s creator and illustrator, Hector Rodriguez, sees the borderlands that make up the setting for the fantasy series: a place with blurred boundaries and competing values, where families crossing into the U.S. meet narco traffickers and border agents.
“Part of the artistic process is to have clean lines,” he told Fusion. “I go against the grain and I feel that uniqueness translates to the uniqueness of the border culture.”
The comic book is as much an act of advocacy as art for Rodriguez, who grew up in the border town of Eagle Pass, Texas. He wants to call attention to the issues that people are facing on both sides of the border, like immigration, drugs and government corruption.
“El Peso Hero is just a superhero put in a situation where some people are fed up with corruption, with lack of immigration reform,” he said. “El Peso Hero speaks to them as a force for change.”
This might be a good time for a hero on the border. Efforts to pass an immigration reform bill last year fell flat, and Congress isn’t hurrying to tackle immigration in 2014.
While the record rate of deportations under President Obama eased a bit in the 2013 fiscal year, his administration is still intensely focused on deporting recent border crossers, a group the federal government has prioritized for removal.
The outlook for the drug war isn’t much better. States in the U.S. have grown more liberal with marijuana laws, but pot still accounts for 99 percent of the drugs seized by Border Patrol, judging by weight. And security in Mexico continues to be a major problem.
All of this helped motivate the 31-year-old Rodriguez to create El Peso Hero. Although he now lives in Dallas, where he’s a dual-language teacher for second graders, he still has family on both sides of the border and has seen profound changes over the past decade.
“Within my family history, Texas and Mexico have always been one, it wasn’t until lately that line has been drawn,” he said.
His grandfather crossed illegally into Texas when he was 18 years old, for example. But he didn’t attract much attention, perhaps because of his light complexion. He eventually started a car dealership in Eagle Pass.
“He believed in the American Dream and he accomplished it with a sixth grade education,” Rodriguez said.
El Peso Hero is intended for people on both sides of the border, and dialogue in the comic book shifts between English and Spanish. The hero only speaks in the latter, his native tongue. Readers who don’t speak Spanish can find translations in the back of each comic book.
The bilingualism makes sense for telling a border story, according to Sam de la Rosa, a San Antonio-based comic book artist with more than 30 years in the business.
“A lot of people do that here in Texas, they mix it up,” he said. “Even on radio stations here they mix it up because it’s a culture that speaks both languages. I like it because it helps you identify.”
De la Rosa, who has worked on Spiderman, Superman, The Incredible Hulk, and lots of blockbuster-level heroes, illustrated a cover for the third installment of El Peso Hero (see the feature image at the top of this story). Like Rodriguez, he has family in the U.S. and Mexico, but that wasn’t the main reason he was drawn to the comic.
“It’s good because it deals with issues currently in the news that affect a lot of people on both sides of the border,” he said. “But it’s also an exciting comic book…it’s entertainment.”
The goal for Rodriguez is clear, though. He wants his work to connect with people living on the border, particularly those caught in the middle.
“My biggest goal is having El Peso Hero looked at as a superhero that speaks to those that are disenfranchised,” he said. “Either the Border Patrol agent that has to work overtime, or the family crossing, or people that have to deal with corrupt components of the government institutions on both sides, it’s a reflection of today’s cultural, political environment.”