Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: First and foremost, congratulations on the recent Eisner Award win for Puerto Rico Strong! In light of the shared creative journey of bringing this collection to life, as a team, what can you share with us about your experience of taking home the esteemed award?
Marco Lopez: Unfortunately, I wasn’t at SDCC for the award show, but being on social media and reading each live update through Fanbase Press and ComiXology and talking with Derek and Neil about it made me feel like I was there. I never thought we’d win just because the competition was fantastic and there were a lot of seasoned names nominated. But when I saw that we won, it had to have been one of the greatest feelings of my life. So much so that I didn’t get to sleep till like four in the morning. The sheer adrenaline rush just kept me going as we celebrated with friends and the other incredible creatives that contributed stories.
Neil Schwartz: Similar to Marco, I unfortunately wasn’t at SDCC, but before I get into my experience of winning the Eisner Award, I want to take a step back. Comics have been a major part of my life since 1994, and I’ve been in and out of the comic book industry since 2007 in various roles. Even when I wasn’t full immersed in the industry, I always kept one foot in the door, because I loved it and wanted it to be my future. Long story short, being part of this anthology was truly an amazing experience that I will always be grateful for. I’m not going to lie, the night of the Eisner Awards was nerve-wracking. As I said, I wasn’t at SDCC, but I was with my family for dinner and starting at 11 p.m. I was checking Twitter constantly. Derek, Marco, and I were in constant contact, which helped because we were all trying to keep each other calm. I’ll never forget it was around 1:45 a.m., my phone was dying, and I was standing and charging it, while starting at it very intently. My wife Delilah yelled, “OMG, you won!” I honestly didn’t believe her, mainly because I didn’t see it on my Twitter feed yet. Once I did, it all became real. I was, and still am, beyond grateful, but I was actually afraid to go to sleep that night, because I thought it was going to be a dream and I’m so happy that it wasn’t.
Desiree Rodriguez: I was able to go to SDCC, first time on the west coast let alone in San Diego. The Eisner experience was really interesting, when it came to the anthology category, I honestly didn’t expect a win. There were a lot of great anthologies nominated, and I honestly thought Twisted Romance or Where We Live was going to take the prize; they’re both such good books. To my complete surprise, they announced our book; it was a true shock. I remember even asking my boss who was there, “Do I go up there?” Glad I did. I wore a fancy dress for a reason after all.
I remember giving Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez a hug on the way to the podium. He gave a truly amazing speech when he accepted the Eisner Humanitarian award, and I was walking right past him I was like, I gotta give a hug to the other Borinquen in the room! I was shaking like a scared bunny on stage though, and I just had to take a moment to even collect my thoughts. I didn’t have a speech prepared. You daydream, sure, about these things happening, but you don’t really expect them to. At least not in my experience, so I just tried to be as honest and sincere as possible. I just wanted to get across that the goal of Puerto Rico Strong has always been to be a positive representation of our community and a resource for those outside it. David Walker and Paul Levitz said I did a good job, so I’m counting it as a win.
Derek Ruiz: Thanks! It’s been a little bit of time, and I am still in shock. I was supposed to go to SDCC, but things changed last minute, so I wasn’t able to attend. It all worked out though, we won. Funny enough, I spent the night the same way I spent the time working on Puerto Rico Strong: talking with Neil and Marco. I know for sure we all were getting sleepy as the ceremony went on, and then after we won, the adrenaline kicked in and none of us could sleep. I remember dropping my phone as I saw we won cause my hands stopped working due to shock and then waking up my dogs because I was loudly cheering.
BD: How would you describe the genesis of this anthology, and what remained the driving force and theme of the collected stories and artwork?
Marco Lopez: It came about as a result of wanting to help the island I was born on. I was sitting at home on my computer when I saw that there was going to be a second hurricane hitting the island, and I wanted to do something, anything. I’ve said this before, but all I know how to do is tell stories and I love comics. So, I figured why not? The first person I contacted was Derek and he was in. Then, I contacted Desiree and she was in. Derek suggested Neil, and I was down with that. I started reaching out to talent and at the same time Carl Reed (co-founder and CCO of Lion Forge) whom I worked for before and he really liked the idea. Desiree championed it from within Lion Forge if I’m not mistaken, and then we were off to the races. Hazel joined us, as they were an editor at Lion Forge at the time and so finally, we had our Voltron team.
The driving force for me was to have a large group of Latinx talent telling Latinx stories. I mean that was everyone’s goal, but I was just so focused on outreach to talent, get talent. Desiree’s goal was a little bigger. The idea that this could be an educational tool, as well. We all got behind that.
Neil Schwartz: As Marco said, I came into the project through Derek. Derek and I have been friends since we worked for Dabel Brothers together back in 2007. When he told me about this project, I was thrilled to be part of something that had so much love and thought behind it. In situations like this, it’s always hard to know what to do or how to help, but this was the perfect way for us tap into our skills to help Puerto Rico in our own special way. Every person involved gave so much time and energy to create something so beautiful. The driving force to me was how everyone involved gave their all - blood, sweat, and tears - to tell amazing stories. Some fact, some fiction, but all channeling their roots to celebrate Puerto Rico.
Desiree Rodriguez: Like Marco said, he was really the inception of everything, and then we all put out heads together and worked out the details. I used to work in childcare and education as a preschool teacher, then an afterschool teacher, and finally a literacy teacher for girls. I originally planned on becoming an English teacher, but I loathe the current American education system, so after three years I decided to pursue other options. But that educational foundation has never left me, and when Marco and the crew were brainstorming themes for the anthology, I saw an opportunity for something more. All charity anthologies – and how amazing it is that there’s so many in the industry nowadays? – are great but I always felt like after the incident or initial fundraising push was over, that was it. I wanted this anthology to have longevity beyond the Hurricane Maria news cycle. One thing I noticed from a lot of non-Latinx people was they didn’t really know anything about Puerto Rico. This goes back to the public-school system; they don’t teach much about Puerto Rico if anything at all. A paragraph maybe about how the island is a territory of the US. Here, we had a chance to not just raise money for the island, but to teach others about our people. Luckily, the crew was really receptive to that idea and helped cultivate it far beyond what I initially suggested. We had a great team that pulled together to help focus all that passion and energy into the book.
Derek Ruiz: From what I remember, it was from a place of anger and hopelessness. I remember talking with Marco about it seeming no one was doing anything to help Puerto Rico and it made me upset. I remember us talking about ways to help, but none of them seemed right. Then, Marco suggested doing an anthology like had been done for other tragedies. After that, I guess we just kind of lit a fire that wouldn’t go out. We started to suggest who we should bring in on the project. I suggested Neil and he suggested Desire which lead us to thinking about getting Lion Forge involved. Desiree added in Hazel who had done anthologies. Desiree and Hazel were the ones who kept everything running smoothly on the Lion Forge side of things while Marco, Neil, and Myself would talk every day to get a coherent idea of what would be done that day, and then Marco would take charge and get it done. It was crazy how we were able to get so much done and not step on each other’s toes as we went about completing the book. I got to give the book its name, so I’m very proud of that particular thing.
I know for me the driving force and theme I most wanted to get across was, as Latinx people, we need some heroes and stories of our own in all styles and voices, so we can show how amazing we are as a people.
BD: What can you tell us about your approach to managing the various creative teams associated with the book and editing the work in order to ensure a cohesive narrative?
Marco Lopez: I’ll tell you what I wish could remember. It was a crazy experience. I had never been on the side of editor before. Unless you count the web comics and self-published stuff I did, but that was me overseeing me and working with the talent I was collaborating with. This was a totally different experience (but I guess a tiny bit the same), especially in the small amount of time we had, because we wanted this out as soon as possible to have the maximum effect in helping the island. I think we did this in 3 months. Maybe less, maybe more. That’s how crazy it was. It all went by in a blur but in a good way. All I remember is reading stories, contacting talent, seeing where talent was on the projects they were working on. Sending off pages to my fellow editors. Heck, with the story I wrote with Derek, I sometimes can’t believe we wrote that. I mean, at the time, Derek and Neil were working day jobs and doing this, and Desiree and Hazel were doing their workload at Lion Forge and this. That’s how insane it was.
Hazel Newlevant: I tried to use the lessons from editing previous anthologies to keep everything on track. We maintained spreadsheets and file trees showing how far along each comic was and tried to pair up writers who'd submitted pitches but didn't have an artist with artists who wanted to volunteer their talents but didn't have a pitch. We approached creators to write about certain topics we'd be remiss not to include, like the abuse of Puerto Ricans' reproductive freedom by the United States. Aside from making sure each individual story is readable, there isn't a cohesive narrative throughout the book. I approached ordering the comics like creating a mixtape—choosing what I instinctively felt flowed from one comic to the next, or putting certain comics before others because I thought they helped the reader understand the subsequent ones.
Neil Schwartz: This was my first editor experience, and I just hit the ground running, jumping in wherever I could. I have a day job, so when I wasn’t there, I was reading through stories, making notes, doing this and doing that. It’s really a blur when I think back. I know we had more time, but I feel like we had about a month to get everything in order before going to print and it was intense, but so rewarding. Everyone we worked with was amazing and accommodating, from my co-editors, writers, artists, colorists, letters, etc. I learned a lot through this whole process and was also able to cross off a bunch of firsts as both an editor and a contributing writer. Before “Hope,” I had written a few things here or there, but nothing made it to the point where I worked with an artist to bring a story to life. I’ve seen it happen, but never first hand, and Ramón was awesome. He made it so easy and really captured the heart and soul of the story I wanted to tell.
Desiree Rodriguez: As Marco said, it was bonkers really. It was a really intense project due to time. We had to work with marketing and sales to coordinate when the best time to release the anthology was. When that was figured out, it didn’t leave us a lot of time to work on the book, but we pulled it off. It’s probably one of the most time-intensive projects I’ve worked on to date, and I’m the group editor of an entire superhero line. It wouldn’t have been possible without the team; Hazel’s experience on anthologies was especially invaluable. I remember I was in St. Louis for a work conference with other editors; it was a work-intensive three-day trip. But Hazel and I were still going over final proofs for Puerto Rico Strong to make sure we hit our print deadline. It was really important to everyone that this book be the best it could be.
Derek Ruiz: I’ve been doing comics for close to 15-16 years at this point, and I have to say this one was a blur of warp-speed-style production. If I remember correctly at first, we made sure the people we each personally involved in the books were working on the individual stories, and then most people were working it turned into a follow up of making sure they got done. We did what was probably 8-12 months’ worth of work in 3 or so months. Thank the gods for Desire and Hazel, as they both took care of the heavy lifting at Lion Forge. I was working two jobs at the time we were working on the book, so having Marco and Neil as a sounding board as we went along helped keep the book on track. I think we all needed to be there to make this thing happen as fast as it did. I will always be proud to have been a part.
BD: What do you hope that readers will take away from Puerto Rico Strong, and what has been your experience in connecting with readers regarding the impact that it has already had?
Marco Lopez: I hope the readers take away the cultural experience, especially if it’s something new to them. Puerto Rico’s history in relation to the U.S and what colonialism has done to the island. I’m also most proud of the genre stories. We proved with this large group of brilliant talent that our stories matter, that genre stories with minority leads matter, and that people care about the work coming out of everyone that was involved. My experience with readers? It’s been amazing. My people couldn’t be prouder and happier, and, at the end of the day, that was and will always be the most important bit. This wasn’t done for awards. This was done to help the island and shine a light on Puerto Ricans.
Neil Schwartz: While working on this book and reading all the stories about the Puerto Rican culture, I learned so much. It made me sad to realize how in the “mainland” schools we really learn nothing about Puerto Rico. There is some amazing history, but also so much tragedy and it really makes you think, especially if you look at the state of the world today and what we turn a blind eye to. My hope is that the readers of the book learn something about Puerto Rico and feel a new sense of love and understanding for our brothers and sisters.
Desiree Rodriguez: Mi Mami is proud of this book which means the world to me on a strictly personal level. She called me after reading it and told me, “Chepa, this book made me cry!” and I was like, “Yes! Goal accomplished!” While I was in San Diego, the day after the Eisners, I was at the Lion Forge booth and a young woman there congratulated me on our win and told me how important Puerto Rico Strong was to her, because she hadn’t really read anything that represented our community in such a way, that she felt seen. I thought I was gonna cry right that at the booth and mess up my makeup she had me so touched.
I hope what readers can take away is either that sense of feeling seen or can learn something they hadn’t known before about our community, especially with the struggles the island is going through now. If you look at Puerto Rico’s history, the recent protests aren’t something that people just decided to do; this has been a long time coming.
Derek Ruiz: I love every part of the book. I don’t think I’ve looked through and read over and over any of the other things I’ve worked on as much as Puerto Rico Strong. Growing up Puerto Rican makes you love Puerto Rico, and I hope people can see that love come through in all the talented folks that were part of the book. I want them to want to know more about that enchanted place called Puerto Rico. I want them to love it as much as we do. People seem to really like what we did and always ask if we are doing more. At this point, I feel we eventually have to.
BD: All of the proceeds from the sale of the book are being donated to UNIDOS Disaster Relief & Recovery Program to Support Puerto Rico. How would you describe your work with the nonprofit organization, and what can you tell us about their work to support disaster relief?
Desiree Rodriguez: I didn’t work with them personally. Syndee Barwick, who at the time was head of our marketing department at Lion Forge, handled a lot of that. There was an entire vetting process to figure out what non-profit the company would work with and how. If you go to the Puerto Rico Strong Donate site (https://puertoricostrongdonate.com/), you can see specifics on where all the profits for the book go to. It was a real team effort on behalf of Lion Forge to give this book the best chance as possible to succeed in the way it did. I do know we sold about 13K units and raised about $60K in proceeds.
BD: If Fanbase Press readers would like to learn more about UNIDOS Disaster Relief & Recovery Program to Support Puerto Rico or make a donation to the organization, what is the best way to do so?
Desiree Rodriguez: There’s an entire separate page to donate to UNIDOS that Lion Forge set up to make things quick and easy for folks who don’t want or already have bought the book. You can also check out the Hispanic Federations website for more information, as well.
I would also look into grassroots organizations on the island like the MariaFund. Together, Puerto Rico has an entire list of grassroots organizations you can donate to for specific causes, as well.
BD: Are there any other projects on which you are working that you would like to share with our readers?
Marco Lopez: Yes, there is. Thanks for asking. Most I can’t talk about right now. I will say though that one will be announced/premiere this year and will be about Latinx culture and the involvement of Latinx creators. The other is a project Neil, Derek, and I are working on that’s premiering on Kickstarter the week of August 4th. It’s our supernatural anthology, Strange Encounters. We’re working with some amazing prose authors and amazing creative talent like Brett Booth. He’s doing a Kickstarter exclusive variant cover. How cool is that? Sweeney Boo is involved; she’s illustrating a print for a stretch goal and the list goes on. You can follow us on Twitter @kingskullcomics, Instagram @kingskullcomics, and on Facebook as King Skull Comics. That’s the name of our publishing label, and you can follow me on Twitter @atomicrexent.
Hazel Newlevant: My first full-length graphic novel, No Ivy League, will be in bookstores on September 3rd! It's an autobiographical comic about growing up homeschooled in Portland, a summer job removing invasive species, and dealing with a messy intersection of race, class, sexual harassment, and teen hormones.
Neil Schwartz: In addition to our Kickstarter for our first book under our label, King Skull Comics, I have a few things that I’m working on, as well. You can follow me on Instagram @neilmschwartz, Twitter @neilmschwartz, and on Facebook as Neil M Schwartz to stay up to date.
Desiree Rodriguez: The big project coming up on my end is Gail Simone’s Seven Days event for Catalyst Prime which releases in October. It’s the first big Catalyst Prime event title, so we’re all really excited about it. After that is the relaunch of all the Catalyst Prime on-going titles, and we have some really exciting stuff for Noble, Kino, Superb, Summit, and a new book that Gail is writing.
On the personal side, I have a story coming up in an anthology that I’m really excited to share when I can. I wrote two stories for Edgardo’s Ricanstruction anthology, but this will be my first story since that. You can follow me on Twitter at @BoricuaDesiree for more information on that.
Derek Ruiz: This project brought Neil, Marco, and myself together to form King Skull Comics, where we hope to make our little corner of comics a special place where not only us, but creators of all walks of life can make some really cool comics. We are currently running a Kickstarter, and we’ve involved some pretty cool people that Marco has mentioned. You can mostly find me on Twitter @derekruiz where I hope to be able to talk about some of the other cool things I have going on, as well.
BD: Lastly, where can our readers find more information about Puerto Rico Strong?
Marco Lopez: For those interested, this page that Lion Forge set up is a great start, and you can check out another page they set up if you’re an educator.