Women Making Comics: Melina Chavarria and Jean Marie Pilario talk Creating Positive Latinx Representation in Comics

Comics have long been (incorrectly) seen as the realm of homogeneous white male creators. It’s not that marginalized creators haven’t always been making incredible comics, but that they have been exactly that: marginalized. Whether it’s the lack of representation in Big Two comics—Marvel infamously didn’t hire a black woman to write a single comic until 2016—or lack of representation in publishing overall, women of color have long been written out of comics history despite being some of its most incredible contributors. During the recent Latino Comics Expo in Long Beach, CA, I met Melina Chavarria and Jean Marie Pilario, co-creators of The Magic Glasses. I was so enamored with their radical work that I asked them to talk about making great comics and creating positive representation in an industry that actively tries to dismantle it.

Originally from Las Vegas, Melina Chavarria describes herself as a “Xicana Autism Warrior Mom,” and for Chavarria her sons are a constant source of creativity. “I have two small boys, ages eight and ten. A lot of my inspiration comes from my daily life with them,” Chavarria shared. After a 15 year career in retail management, the last two years have seen Chavarria focus on honing her skills as a writer. Jean Marie Pilario is a Filipino American Feminist Activist Cartoonist who was born and raised on the island of Guam. After relocating to Vegas, she ended up in her own words as “a burned out student overachiever.” Faced with the question of what she wanted to do with her life, she chose to pursue making comics.

The pair have both created comics for a while now but it was their newest collaboration, The Magic Glasses, which I was lucky enough to pick up.

“About two years ago a friend of mine was going through a difficult time. She said to me ‘I feel like I’ve been playing a video game and I lost.’ I explained to her that life was much like a video game and reminded her that the game has a reset button. I told her she had the power to try again and do it better today,” Chavarria explained. “After this incident, I started to think about how I could help young women like her. I feel like we frequently see and hear stories about young women like her who are growing up in single family homes, many times with no role models, and are in need of some guidance. Hell, life is confusing enough even when you grow up with two parents! So I decided to write a story that incorporated the idea of playing a video game and losing, and searching for glasses. And that’s how The Magic Glasses was born. It’s a story about a young Latina gamer/raver that’s growing up in South Central, trying to figure out the Game of Life,” Chavarria expanded.

Melina Chavarria and Jean Marie Pilario

Pilario was also driven by the need to tell a story that she was rarely seeing told in mainstream media. “As a young woman of color wanting to do comics in 2009,” Pilario said, “I felt it was very hard to get past being a token representation of diversity and learning. Who could I seek as a mentor if I was a threat or not taken seriously by male counterparts? So I signed up to do The Magic Glasses with Melina in hopes we can cause a ripple effect of interest, friendship, and allyship telling this story of the young people of color, most especially a woman’s point of view.”

When Chavarria came up with the initial story, she had a clear vision for what The Magic Glasses would be. “My aims or goals with this story is to help young women ‘See’ their capabilities, and all of the opportunities that are out there for them when they learn to develop their talents. As the story of The Magic Glasses continues to develop in the upcoming issues, you will see our character Heidy go through a significant transformation. She will grow from an insecure and unsure 18 year old to a more spiritually and socially conscious individual. Once she finds the Magic Glasses, she will become more confident in who she is as a person and all that she has to offer to help her friends and her community,” Chavarria said, opening up about the future of the story.

Crafting the world of The Magic Glasses saw Pilario working on how to balance her own lived experiences with that of the character, a challenge which led to more collaboration between the two creators. “It was difficult because I wanted to be authentic about how I portrayed Heidy’s home life. I grew up as a Filipino American, and while there are many similarities, I know that I don’t have my whole life mirrored to our main character. I come from a privileged home with both parents that are white collar workers. I did a lot of research about what South Central looks like, what the interior of Mexican homes look like, considered the rooms of gamers, and had to directly consult what was okay with Melina. I think that’s important when we consider diversity in comics,” Pilario pondered.

Magic Glasses #1 by Melina Chavarria and Jean Marie Pilario

The main protagonist is a gamer, and crafting a visual landscape that represented both that and her femininity was an interesting task for Pilario. “Heidy’s body language as a stubborn gamer has been fueled by the many years of growing up with my brother. Sleeping in a gamer chair with nerdy paraphernalia everywhere was something I processed for the visual world. But my pride and joy in the character design is Heidy’s thick body type. As a cartoonist, it is a huge proponent to my creative agenda in portraying bodies that are realistic and relatable to women readers and exposing this to male readers,” Pilario said.

With The Magic Glasses, both the Chavarria and Pilario were driven by the need to create the representation that they’d always been lacking. “Growing up, raised by Mexican immigrants, I never heard or saw characters that looked like me from the community I grew up in. It wasn’t until I was in college that I was even introduced to Xicano/Latino writers. With The Magic Glasses we wanted to tell stories about real women from our communities that look like us and that young women can relate to,” Chavarria shared.

Pilario is happy to see a change in the face of the comics community, one that she and Chavarria are a proud part of. “I like to think of myself as part of a wave in this whole movement of representation. I grew up reading Archie comics, newspaper comic strips, and fantasizing about how I could be a girl just like in Japanese manga. Even while reading these I never saw me, and I’d been hard on myself for not being a certain way. I’d like to think that The Magic Glasses and other comics being created in the same vein can move another wave to expand this storytelling. Comics can be a mechanism that humanizes people considered as ‘other,'” Pilario stated.

The pair both believe that comics’ future lies in young and diverse creators, and have some great advice for any marginalized creators trying to get into the industry. “Your story needs to be told, and you’re the only one that can tell it. When you start to get out there, promote your work, and meet people, you will build a community of people who’re going to support you and help you succeed. As they say, your vibe attracts your tribe. And when you have figured out the path, and which doors have worked for you, leave them open so that we can help others do the same,” Chavarria positively exclaimed.

Magic Glasses #1 by Melina Chavarria and Jean Marie Pilario

Pilario agrees. “Your narrative and voice is important. Three things to succeed at comics: Practice, Read Often, and Get Edited. The story that makes sense in your head may not always make sense to everyone else. We are in the business and power of bridging gaps, but we just need to seek the resources and tools out there for this medium. In Las Vegas where my small comics press company Plot Twist Publishing exists, we try to be an educational resource teaching comics, and so often our classroom is filled with eager young girls,” Pilario explained, giving an insight into her process as a creator and teacher.

The future of The Magic Glasses includes a second issue in March 2018, a Spanish language version of issue one, and hopefully a trade paperback collection too. Chavarria is currently working on some bilingual graphic novels and stories that her collaborator is very excited about. “I predict Melina will go on to make meaningful novels while succeeding as a comics writer too,” Pilario excitedly cheered on her friend and co-creator. “She’s got a lot to say and she’s such a visionary. I will continue to produce indie comics under my indie comic label Plot Twist Publishing that welcomes women readers, writers, and collaborators. It’s important for me as a creator to also be an educational resource through and through,” Pilario happily finished.

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Rosie Knight

Rosie Knight

writer. fake geek girl. makes comics, occasionally sells some.