Edinburg comics specialist releases new collection partly based on Valley experiences

There are no limits when it comes to creating comics for Jose Alaniz, a professor in the department of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Washington.

The Edinburg native features his comic strips written back in college and his newest material in his collection “The Phantom Zone and Other Stories: Comics and Prose.”

The book was published in late June and is now listed on Amazon.

Alaniz wrote the “The Phantom Zone” comic strip for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas newspaper as an undergraduate student back in the 90s. It became a trilogy when he wrote “Going Home” during graduate school and “The Death of Chip” in 2018, which was first published in this collection.

Alaniz said he dropped cartooning for a long time, but herealized he always wanted to continue the story of Chip from “The Phantom Zone.”

His work reflects his life growing up in the Rio Grande Valley.

“I grew up in the Valley,” Alaniz said. “I grew up in Edinburg and I left. I did my (undergraduate degree) at UT in Austin, and it was there that I started doing some of these more autobiographical comic strips.”

He said that the best example from those autobiographical strips would be “Going Home,” the second part of the trilogy. In the comic, the character of Chip goes back to the Valley and talks to the people that live there.

“I never call it the Valley, but it looks like the Valley,” Alaniz said. “I drew the palm trees and I drew the highway. I use the house where Chip goes to see his father and his stepmother. That’s my house, that’s the house where we grew up.”

Digging deeper into the characters, he said the most “Valley person” from the comic is Chip’s father, who is partly based on Alaniz’s father and other people from the area.

He also said Chip’s stepmother only speaks Spanish and doesn’t know English.

“That gives you a little bit of a sense of the life and the culture in the Valley,” Alaniz said. “They’re Mexicanos.”

He said he didn’t necessarily think of Chip as a Mexican-American character, but Chip’s identity organically developed and became more defined.

“In the final story, ‘The Death of Chip,’ the last thing he sees before he is killed is an image of Coatlicue … also on the cover,” Alaniz said. “It’s that monstruos figure which is part of Aztec mythology. So that is another way in which he kind of reconnects back to his roots in Mexico.”

In his other featured work, “Tales of Barrio …” Alaniz tries to bring the voices of people that are not often seen in comics. There are maldiciones and mashups between English and Spanish words.

“I’m actually very curious to see how people respond to that story in the Valley,” he said. “It will probably offend some people who don’t like that kind of language, but other people might be surprised that a comic book can actually have characters that talk like that.”

The last story from the collection, “Old Edinburg,” is about the places in Edinburg that no longer exist, businesses that were destroyed and closed down. Alaniz describes them as places that he grew up with, such as Spotburger and The Citrus movie theater.

“My last story in the book is about that … the feelings that it brought up and now it’s nostalgia,” he said. “But it’s also something that’s a kind of tribute to Edinburg and growing up there. These comics are kind of about loss, but also … trying to remember these places fondly.”

Experimenting with the form of comics is important to Alaniz. The “Planet of the Zooters” is a photo comic in which he uses photographs, demonstrating that comics aren’t necessarily drawn.

“I think it’s important to know that for me, comics have been a part of my life… as long as I can remember,” Alaniz said. “I partly learned to read with comics, partly learned English with comics. I think that comics are a very rich and complex means of expression in an art form. Comics are not just for kids, comics don’t have to be funny. Comics can be about serious and complicated themes.”

Alaniz added he is currently working in another comic book that deals with the cultural and environmental impact of the border wall in the Valley, from Roma to the Gulf.