An interview with Erick Pepper Rivera

1. What first inspired the creation of The Hat Boyz. Can you talk about your inspiration in terms of both American society and your love of the medium?

I always knew I wanted to tell a personal story through comics inspired by the “hood” movies I watched growing up with in the 90’s like, “Boyz N the Hood” or “Blood in Blood Out.” I had such a fascination with these movies because they reflected our realties growing up in the neighborhood at that time. The stories were always filled with morality tales about innocent people being caught in uncompromising situations or about the beauty that grows from the tragedy of living on the margins.

With The Hat Boyz I lend bits and pieces from my life growing up in the small, rough-and-tumble Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts to frame a story about the youth in underserved “hoods” across America. I think the medium of comics lends itself perfectly to tell stories like these because the panels of a comic function as beautiful windows into the lives of the people in those communities. The Hat Boyz transports you to South Central, Los Angeles and forces you to reckon with the realties faced by the people living there.

2. Growing up in Watts, what was your childhood like? Were there any similarities to the characters in the book?

The book is similar to my life in many ways. Most obviously in its setting of both place and time. It was so important to me to represent the neighborhood by depicting the kind of people that lived there when I was coming of age. I borrowed lots from photographs I had of the time or memories my friends shared with me during the writing process. In the book, the main characters walk the same path to school as I did, live in the same housing projects I did, and are concerned with similar things my friends and I were when I was their age. I also drew many of the locally famous landmarks any Watts native would recognize, like the local burger joint or the Watts Towers.

I think more importantly, however, the book reflects the feeling of what it’s like to grow up in Watts. When you read The Hat Boyz, you get a sense that there is no other place in the world other than Watts, because that’s what it was like for us growing up there.

3. What does "Hat Boyz" mean anyway? Can you talk about the term and how that relates to the book itself?

Hat Boyz is a super localized phrase for young street hustlers in South Central, LA, mostly associated with people that are involved in the underground skacore/ punk scene. I’ve come to understand that it may come from the phrase “Hot Boys” which has a similar meaning. I love the title because it rewards you for knowing what that phrase means and frames the story for you as you read it, but it is also inconsequential if you don’t. To most people the title is like the title for Quintin Tarantino’s movie “Reservoir Dogs.” They don’t know what it means, but it sounds cool and one can assume the dogs are probably the guys in black suits. Similarly, with The Hat Boyz you can deduce the boys in the title are the boys displayed on the cover.

4. You include a letter in the back as an afterword. Can you talk about what you hope to accomplish with the publication of this book? Do you hope that it will help bring awareness or change within and for communities like Watts?

I think the most important role of art is to function as a commentary on its time and hold up a mirror to the current state of affairs to expose the nature of society as it is. First and foremost this book is my heart and I really tried my best to explore these touchy subjects in a reflective way rather than exploitative. Without giving too much away, the letter found at the latter part of the book was written to give some context to the ending of the story. I didn’t want to leave much for interpretation, because in my head the message of the book is concrete. I mentioned this once before, but I really do believe that comic book panels function as windows into other worlds. Sometimes fantastical and other times grounded in the hard reality of everyday life. With The Hat Boyz, I force the reader to be a fly on the wall and consider the point of view of someone who actually lives in one of the many neighborhoods made famous by scandalous headlines.

I hope my story can begin a dialogue with individuals who never considered that things aren’t as codified and clear-cut as they appear to be as framed by the media.