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Al Madrigal on Comic Book Superheroes and the Power of Latino Representation

Al Madrigal features in the movie "Morbius," which is one more chapter in a long career for a class clown who continues to make them laugh.

Al Madrigal is a fan of art. From the meticulous and priceless pieces his father has created to the vivid comic-book panels that bring his new “Primos” series to life, art is pretty important to a man who is as easy as anyone out there to talk to.

The 50-year-old comedian features as Agent Rodriguez in Daniel Espinoza’s “Morbius,” an emo romp through a lesser-known Marvel character played by Jared Leto.

Amid the blood and shape-shifting is Madrigal’s Rodriguez, kind of ambling from one crime scene to another doling out the kind of reactions one might when they happen upon a body drained of blood.

And he’s hilarious.

Whatever levity the movie needed is provided by Madrigal’s presence. While you might exit the theater having your fill of bat men who are not Batman, you most definitely will want to see a spinoff of Detective Rodriguez going up against other sinister baddies.

Madrigal’s character is equally at home in this universe and yet comically taken aback by its absurdities. A lot of the dialogue was improvised. That freedom paid off because the comedian’s strength has always been exuding confidence amid uncertainty.

Finding Comedy 

He grew up in San Francisco and attended parochial schools Ecole Notre Dame Des Victoires and St. Ignatius College Preparatory High School before attending the University of San Francisco.

It’s living on these eclectic streets that he discovered not only that he had a knack for making people laugh but that he was quite adept at immersing himself in comedic circles.

He lived near Margaret Cho, Bay Area comic Michael Meehan and Michael Pritchard, whom Madrigal credits as Robin Williams’ idol.

“This gets back to like representation because I'm able to see firsthand people be a success and then make it to TV,” he tells En Fuego. “I'm listening on the radio in San Francisco. This guy on my block is on the radio. It's crazy. That leads me to want to do it, to know the job exists.”

The realization is a profound one. You can indeed make the leap from what you’ve been told is possible to become what was previously unthinkable.

Madrigal worked for about a decade in the 90s for his family’s business, a San Mateo human resources company.

Being a family gig, it wasn’t unheard of for Madrigal to work from eight to seven, hit a comedy club or two after and then head home to do it all over again the next day. But the drive to wrestle free from what he considered a depressing job was palpable.

So, when it came time to let his family know what he was up to, the reaction wasn’t exactly amorous.

“I got yelled at,” Madrigal remembered of the time he told his dad he wasn’t going to be at work because he was on his way to do this comedy guff.

He told an incredulous dad that he was on his way to Sacramento to open for Louis C.K., a behemoth in the comedy world who at the time was commanding a room of 38 people.

Al Madrigal stars alongside Jared Leto and Adria Arjona in "Morbius."

Al Madrigal stars alongside Jared Leto and Adria Arjona in "Morbius."

Dad was gobsmacked that his son would trek out for $25, which at the time wouldn’t have even covered the gas for the trip.

Madrigal kept pressing on and eventually took the leap and decided to make stand-up comedy his full-time gig, leaving the family business and betting on himself.

“I finally get on TV, and he's got my headshot at the bank showing the tellers,” he said of his father’s eventual coming around to his son’s career choice.

This begged the question. Where did this self-confidence come from? Where did he find the strength to see comedy not as an audacious move but a sensible thing he was born to do.

Well, he got it from those same parents. Parents who sacrificed for their children but also proved that taking chances can pay off in myriad ways.

“My dad was an artist who sold art to put us through those parochial schools and then had to get a job as a teamster,” Madrigal tells En Fuego. “A guy sacrificing his art for the sake of his family and then stopped painting.”

And then I see my mom, who is the secretary at a business making $6 an hour rise through the ranks of that company. People told her not to buy it, but she bought the company and ended up quadrupling it in size. So, I see this guy sacrifice his dream. Then I see this woman take this huge chance without a college education and run this company and build it in size. And it's like, Oh, you did this, you sacrifice this. I'm going for it.”

PRIMOS

Madrigal is indulging another passion at the moment. His “Primos” comic book is like a visual embodiment of a steaming hot bowl of pozole. By the end of one bowl you’ve had just enough to know that you need more.

The series follows Ricky Pascal as he discovers not only Mayan culture but the powers bestowed upon him over generations of magic.

It has family, and fighting, and aliens, and all the good stuff that keeps you coming back for each installation.

In conjunction with artist Carlo Barberi, “Primos” is a love letter to family roots, sure. But it’s also the sort of good time written by someone who adores the nuances of such a bombastic artform. For Madrigal, comics came calling when the coaches didn’t.

“I got cut from every single sports team you could,” he said. “I was devastated and then found myself wandering, taking the city bus. Both my parents worked. So, I was sort of wandering, wandered into a comic bookstore and have been there ever since.”

He credits his friendship with the former Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Comics, Axel Alonso, for helping cultivate an idea that would later become this four-part series.

With “Primos,” the writer has created something that has been lacking in comic-book circles and largely across the American pop culture landscape.

So, it’s with beaming pride that he takes a second to show off a picture he immediately brings up on his phone. It’s a dad holding his daughter, smiling the greatest smile, as he also holds Madrigal’s “Primos.”

“That just almost made me cry,” he said. “So, you have this dad holding my book (with his daughter), and it really did bring tears to my eyes.”

Dad not only saw himself in the work’s characters, but he beamed with pride that his daughter would live in a world with one more Latino writer shaping these magnificent stories.

Represent: Scholarships for Class Clowns

The problem with scholarships is that they too often rely on that pesky scholar aspect of the educational process.

Madrigal is a reformed class clown, someone who was, as he says, horrible in school. Yet, he’s not only made a name for himself but has helped pave the way for others.

The comedian, actor, and writer has a couple of scholarships that are dedicated to pulling some of the funniest people matriculating from his former high school and spotlighting them for their humor and creativity.

His scholarships, which will soon expand to include work being done by his good friend George Lopez, reward the funniest students regardless of grades.

“I just give them a little bit of money so the parents can see that this kid being funny is OK and is going to pay off,” he explained.

Madrigal undoubtedly recalls what it’s like to wake up exhausted and work a full day at a job draining you of your lifeblood, only to be questioned on the very nature and sustainability of your heart’s greatest desire.

There is a dearth of Latinos in pop culture, a subject we get a moment to chat about over Zoom just before the Friday premiere of “Morbius.”

Madrigal recently posted a study I myself included in a recent article. It’s a UCLA study that shows the astonishing chasm between the proportion of Latinos that consume pop culture and the lack of representation they enjoy on whatever screen they consume it.

Asking for a solution, it’s easy to feel exasperated. Sometimes, though, it’s best to rely on humor than sigh.

“There's nowhere to go but up because it is, the numbers are so low,” Madrigal jokes. “So, it can't get worse. But hopefully, it doesn’t inch forward.”

What it will take is more storytellers willing to tell their stories. It will take patrons like Madrigal to show steadfast parents that the arts are an avenue for their children too. It’s not a dead-end to make people laugh but an altogether empowering alternative.

And when these stories get told, it has a way of making a trickle turn into a torrential downpour of representation.

From seeing themselves represented on the electric pages of “Primos” to seeing people that look like them get roles like Agent Rodriguez (Madrigal) or “Morbius’” Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona), roles that don’t rely on stereotypes, work is being done to diversify the call sheet.

It starts with the storytellers. It takes producers willing to see how Latino culture resonates with the movie-going public.

But it really begins with wide-eyed young Latinos who may not think they have what it takes to see their dreams through.

Madrigal would caution you to scratch your itch. Because something like that can become something of a lifetime regret if ignored.

“If you've got that little thing nagging at you in the back of your head, that won't go away, you gotta listen to that,” he said.

“Morbius” is now available to enjoy at theaters nationwide.