Blue Beetle #26 comes out on April 30 and its a special, all-Spanish issue with the English translation of the script in the back matter. There’s a story reason for presenting the issue that way and since it has to do with differences in culture – a subject I’m kind of fascinated by – I asked writer Jai Nitz some questions about the issue, what he hoped to achieve with it, and his own experiences with mixing cultures.
Michael May: First, some housekeeping. How do you pronounce your first name?
Jai Nitz: My first name is pronounced with a hard “J” sound and a long “I” sound. Like “eye” with a J in front of it. It is not “hi,” nor is it “jay”.
MM: For those who aren’t aware of it, can you briefly describe the story in Blue Beetle #26?
JN: Blue Beetle takes Traci 13 to his family reunion where his family only speaks Spanish. Traci doesn’t speak Spanish, so you have the fish-out-of-water angle. During the reunion, Blue Beetle has to battle the Parasite who has drained members of the Posse (local Mexican anti-heroes in the BB comic)—so Parasite knows all about Jaime’s secret identity.
MM: You grew up in South Texas right on the Mexican border, right? I read in another interview where you all spoke English in your house, but that South Texas/Mexican culture was a big part of your family. Was that the way it was in the rest of your community too?
What I’m wondering is, culturally and linguistically, was your family fairly representative of the rest of your community or did you grow up feeling like an outsider to the community the way Traci does in your Blue Beetle story?
JN: Great question, but I should clear something up. I primarily grew up in Kansas, but my mom’s family is from South Texas. For holidays and summer vacations we’d pack up the car and head south. So I spent a lot of time in South Texas, but I didn’t live there. But yes, South Texas/Mexican culture was a huge part of my family growing up.
I’m pretty sure I was the only kid on the block with a real longhorn skull over the mantle. I never felt like an outsider until I got older and realized that not everybody grew up with two cultures under their roof. Growing up it felt like we were normal suburbanites, but now I realize that I had a different upbringing than most kids in the neighborhood.
MM: So you grew up in a multi-cultural family. What culture did you get from your dad’s side? Have you ever talked to him about what that was like for him?
JN: We didn’t get a lot of “culture” from my dad’s side of the family. [Laughs] My dad is a college-graduate good-old-boy from northern Oklahoma, and the most open-minded person I’ve met (from his generation) about race and ethnicity. My dad grew up in a fairly intolerant time and place in America, but came out open-minded. He’s told me about when, in the early 1950s, the Supreme Court heard Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education and Kansas schools were desegregated soon after. Intolerant/ignorant people from southern Kansas moved to northern Oklahoma so their kids wouldn’t have to go to school with black kids. Crazy!
Also, there is a huge Native American population in Oklahoma, so racism and intolerance weren’t just a white/black thing. The point is: my dad had no problem with other races and cultures, so we were taught that value. Again, I didn’t know that everybody in America didn’t feel the same way until later in life.
MM: Part of your story was influenced by a harrowing experience you and your wife had where she was the only person who didn’t speak Spanish. Can you tell me about that? I’m also curious about how you and your wife met.
JN: Dan Didio asked me if I could imagine a situation where you didn’t speak the language and you didn’t know what was going on. I just laughed when he asked. The harrowing experience you mentioned was a roll-over car crash between the towns of Bruni and Hebbronville. In other words, in the middle of nowhere, South Texas. My wife and I got taken to the nearest hospital, which was 50+ miles away in Laredo. We both lost our glasses and everybody spoke Spanish. It was like we were in a movie—a Coen brothers movie.
My wife and I got set up on a date by mutual friends. Nothing harrowing about that.
MM: Do you have kids?
JN: Yes, we have two boys.
MM: How does the mixture of cultures work in your home today? How do you and your wife stay connected to your individual cultural heritages? And how do you help your boys connect to both sides of their heritage? Or is that a concern?
JN: Heritage is a funny thing. I’d like to believe that we all blaze our own paths while honoring our ancestors and adapting to our modern environment.
For instance, my grandfather, Nicolas Lopez was a real life cowboy. He was a ranch hand that didn’t speak English, but was an American citizen because his family settled north of the Rio Grande a few decades earlier. My grandmother was descended from Spanish aristocracy that was sent to rule Mexico/New Spain. My mom is who she is today because she blazed her own path while remembering her family’s past.
I want to go on a different path than my parents but still honor what they chose for themselves. I want my sons to do the same thing. All that rambling answer said, we’re teaching them Spanish and it’s our hope that they embrace that piece of their heritage. But my wife has Scandinavian roots, so our boys will end up eating menudo (Mexican cow stomach soup) and ostkaka (Swedish curd cake) during the holidays.
MM: Anyone who’s been in a situation where they were the only people who didn’t speak the local language knows how frustrating and stressful that can be. What do you hope to achieve by helping readers put themselves in that situation through your story?
JN: It’s my hope that this comic shows people that different cultures, while sometimes frustrating and stressful, aren’t evil or to be feared. While customs and color can be different, we’re all still human beings. But I don’t want to imply that is the moral of this issue of Blue Beetle; it isn’t. I want the physical object of Spanish words and pictures to make people think as much as the story I wrote.
Superhero comic books include fantastical elements, but they’ve always been about ourselves. This comic has no political agenda, but as soon as it was announced, it started the debates (amongst comic readers, anyway) about English as a national language and immigration. Please note, there’s not a word about either in the book, but the fact that it’s in Spanish sparked those issues in peoples’ minds. Debate is good. Thinking about other points of view is good. And if it gets people to check out regular issues of Blue Beetle—which is a damn fine comic—then so be it.
MM: Do you have any other goals for the story outside of that?
JN: [Laughs] That’s a lot of goals to begin with! Ultimately I’d like people to judge Blue Beetle #26 on the strength of the story and art. Spanish, English, or Kryptonian, I’d like the readers to judge the merit of the story on the artistic scale (my writing and Mike Norton’s pencils). I think if readers do that, they’ll walk away happy.