Javier Cruz Winnik pushes a stroller, with his five-month old daughter Maya in tow, into a coffee shop on Delancy and Allen streets in the Lower East Side where the elder Winnik was raised. He walks in grinning ear to ear at his child but also because he’s written a second volume to his graphic novel A Reason to Smile and is now embarking on writing a longer novel of his alter ego, the precocious city traveler Boricua Luiza Brilliante.
A Reason to Smile is inspired by my time working with elementary school kids,” Winnik said while fixing his daughter a bottle of baby formula. “I had a job as a teaching assistant and working as an after-school art teacher. Students were anywhere from five to eleven.”
Winnik, who grew up as an air force brat moving from town to town, had always wanted a career in comics. With the help of the Boys Club, he attended boarding school in Berkshire, Massachusetts then went on to Lynchburg College, Virginia and the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. As a school teacher, he noticed his students liked comic characters with a “supernatural connection or with superpowers to fight the bad guy and win the day.”
Winnik wanted to give his students a story that showed that children could be their own super hero without having super powers. He came up with a female character because he said there are very few stories with women and almost no comics with Puerto Ricans.
“I wanted to write a story to help empower everybody,” Winnik explained. “To be able to fill a void in the market. There is a plethora of male characters; even when I was a kid I read Popeye who ate his vegetables and that made him stronger to be successful. There’s no Popeye for females.”
Using the gender-neutral colors of orange and green with the superhero coqui symbol, Luiza Brillante goes on adventures, and her creator wants readers to identify with her.
“Javier takes the visual simplicity of children’s books and gives them life with a sort of hybrid narrative that speaks to me as well as audiences young and old,” writes cartoonist and Afro-Futurist, Tim Fielder. “Plus that gray-orange-black book color scheme is to die for: all a beautiful balancing act. Not an easy feat.”
Fielder added that Winnik’s design and concept were freer because they were self-published and not constrained by a commercial market. Winnik is free of consumer constraints because as the author of A Reason to Smile he is only beholden to himself as author and publisher.
As Winnik’s story-telling skills appeal to children of all ages, animator and colleague, Ray Felix, creator of Bronx Heroes said, “I think Javier’s work reaches the inner child of the everyday man and woman. A Reason to Smile is a work that transports readers back to a simpler time of innocence.”
One of Winnik’s visual metaphors involves people carrying boulders representing the weight of problems and hardships that they carry push or drag around with them every day, he said.
Another visual symbol, the coqui: “Spider-Man or Superman has big symbols on their chest that’s very recognizable when people see it,” said Winnik. “Since Puerto Ricans already identify with the coqui when they see that on the character’s chest they can feel a sense of pride. At the same time, I teach other people around the world about Puerto Rican iconography to bring some positivity to our culture in pop culture.”
Taking over two years to complete, the first volume of A Reason to Smile was completed in 2014 and the second volume was again self-published in 2016. Winnik now studies J.K. Rowling to get ideas for a longer chapter book as his books are also geared to young readers.
Regine Sawyer, owner and writer of Lockett Down Productions and coordinator and founder of Women in Comics Collective International, says Javier’s work is “thoughtful, fun and imaginative. A Reason to Smile is full to the brim of hope and happiness; things that (the) world truly needs right now.”
When Winnik announced he was going to be a father, friends had asked if he was going to name his daughter Luiza after his character. He answered “no” because he wants his daughter to grow to be her own independent individual and like his literary child. He wants his daughter to have a strong sense of self and empowerment.
“When I’m at comic book conventions and street fairs, I’m engaging with the customers. I tell them Luiza is a walking silver lining,” Winnik said. “She’s always trying to find the bright side of life and help other people do the same. The book is very much a positive and uplifting type of story. Its foundation building and reinforcing things parents are teaching their children are reflected in the book.”