The Big Picture: Jose Villarrubia, II

Talking to Jose Villarrubia, II

Earlier this week, we spoke with artist José Villarrubia about his comics work, both coloring and creating his own work in collaborations with writer Alan Moore on books such as The Mirror of Love. Today we dig deeper and get more personal, talking about his friendships, his teaching and his own life and early appreciation for comics.

Newsarama: You were born and raised in Spain, as part of a very artistic family. Can you tell us of what your childhood was like, in relation to art?

José Villarrubia: My family was very receptive to art. My mother has always been an artist, and working in advertising, my father’s best friend while I was growing up was also an artist. My childhood was pretty happy. I am the oldest of five, in a progressive family. My father always supported whatever we were interested in, my mother always encouraged us towards artistic and cultural interests. None of us were interested in sports, bullfights, or other forms of entertainment that other families were into. On weekends we went to the countryside, since we lived in Madrid, usually for day excursions when the weather was good. In the long summer vacations we traveled all around Spain, and we got to see a lot of art from all different regions: a lot of great cathedrals, palaces and castles. Most of the paintings I saw were in El Prado Museum in Madrid, as well as other great smaller museums such as the Sorolla Museum. At twelve my art teacher told me to tell my parents that I should start taking lessons after class, to prepare for eventually applying to the fine art academy. So I began by doing a full size copy of Spanish Impressionist Joaquin Sorolla (whose museum I mentioned earlier), and charcoal drawings from plaster casts of Greek, Roman and Renaissance statues. I also learned traditional watercolor techniques from life. This early training really influenced me, and it was complemented by the “How To” encyclopedias that my mother had at home. She had painted in oils for a while and bought several books on technique, which I consumed avidly and did a lot of the suggested exercises. My family moved around a lot when I was growing up and I remember in the moving we used to loose a lot of things that were somehow misplaced. In part because of that I gave my paternal grandmother, whom I was very close to, a lot of my work, and then after she passed away a couple years ago, I got the work back…. I have to tell you, it was not bad at all. They were some pin ups of Conan and the other Robert E Howard characters that really caught my eye, since I am currently working on those books, which I guess is what I was hoping to one day do, anyway. It is funny how things in life come around…

NRAMA: Can you tell us of all the artists in your family?

JV: My mother who is mostly a portrait photographer and my brothers Alvaro and Alejandro are both photographers. My mother worked as a professional ceramist and was an amateur painter for a while, but then began doing advertising photography, did some fashion and now concentrates in portraits. Alvaro studied advertising and then became a fashion and celebrity photographer. Alejandro does mostly portraits of boxers, and celebrity portraits for Spanish magazines. My other brother Arturo is mostly a writer but can also draw very well and has done some illustration and comics. The whole family, in part because of my father’s job in advertising, has always been very aware of visual media. I remember all of us discussing ideas for commercials and slogans when I was growing up.

NRAMA: What was the first comic book you ever read?

JV: When I was little I read many children comics in Spain. Everybody did… Usually comics published by Editorial Brugera and reprints of French and Belgian comics. Like everyone I knew I read all of the Tintin’s and Asterix’s, but also Lucky Lucke, the Vizier Iznogoud, Alix and many others. We also read Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge, Sugar and Spice, The Fox and the Crow, and other American comics. The first superhero American comics I remember reading was an issue of Fantastic Four, a Spanish black and white (and badly retouched) reprint of an early Lee/Kirby issue. I might have seen some Superman or Batman comics before, but the reprints, although in color, butchered the text since they reduced the number of words. The Vértice black and white reprints remounted the panels (pretty horribly) but also allowed for greater amount of text in the captions, making the stories easier to follow.

NRAMA: I've read that you fell into superhero comics around the age of twelve with a reprint of X-Men. What was that issue, and what do you think drew you to it?

JV: I am not sure if it was Fantastic Four or X-Men… I know the art was kind of crude Kirby… I remember what drew me in was not the art or even the story, it was the continuity… I had never seen characters appearing in each other series, in a consistent universe, and that was highly addictive! My brothers and I started to spent our weekly allowance in comics every week and my grandmother would go to El Rastro (the legendary Madrid flea market) every Sunday to get us the back issues that we needed to complete the runs of all the Marvel series.

NRAMA: In your teenage years, you took part in a comic book club in Madrid called 'El Club Dhin'. Can you tell us about that?

JV: El Club Dhin was a possibly clandestine group of comics professionals and aficionados that would get together to discuss artistic and professional issues. Everyone there seemed to be a lot older than me, but then I was kind of a precocious child and was used to hanging out older people. It was very hard to meet at that time in Spain, it was the end of Franco’s dictatorship and I remember the street being dangerous with revolts and police beating people in the street, one had to be very careful… If you have seen the movie Goodbye Lenin that gives you a sense of what the streets were like. The meetings took place in the back room of a bar, it may have been a seedy bar, I am not sure since it was mostly empty, kind of like the bar in the movie A Confederacy of Dunces… But the meetings were really friendly and a lot of people brought great stuff to share… I discovered Moebius’ work there, when somebody showed me a copy of The Long Tomorrow and I also discovered Bernie Wrightson through a reprint of the amazing story The Last Hunters”… I traded some comics as well, I got one of the original Elric crossover issues that Barry Windsor Smith did of Conan….

There were no comic book stores, no comic book conventions or any of the other things we take for granted. At sixteen I met Moebius, who was my idol by then, and brought all his graphic novels to sign. He was the guest of a bookstore for Madrid’s “Day of the Book” fair, an open-air festival that took place every year. Very few people came to see him, and I must admit I provably was an insufferable fan, I just went there on three consecutive days and just stood there and talk to him… trying to speak in my very basic French at first, until he spoke to me in perfect Spanish! Moebius was the first professional I ever met and he was kind, patient a very generous to me… I will never forget that since he really taught me to always be nice to fans, even the ones who are a little awkward like I was…

NRAMA: You're a very traveled man, and know much in the realm of comics, art and the marketplace. As a European, a Spaniard, why do you think European comics haven't worked as well in America as imported Asian comics?

JV: That is a two part question. One why have European comics never caught on, and then why is Manga making an impact.

Comics in Europe are perceived very differently than comics in America. As long as I can remember there were a lot of chidren comics. And they were sold in bookstores next to the children's books; both markets are very closely linked in Europe. Here, children comics practically don’t exist. Parents don’t buy them for their kids ‘cause there are almost none available. There are efforts to change that, but as of right now, this is the current state of affairs.

The genres that dominate the comics industry are different: in the US it is clearly superheroes. Once in a while, particular independent books do well, but it is not a common thing or a market trend. Likewise European comics are dominated by escapist fantasy series, but not superheroes. They create Science Fiction and Sword and Sorcery and Westerns and Historical Adventures, but no superheroes per se. The Superhero comics that are published there are reprints of American comics. They do well, but don’t have the cost associated with commissioning them.

I think that the majority of American Comics readers are males that have been reading comics for a while and have specific characters and storylines that they follow. They do not read other genres and that is what the Europeans have to offer. I think it almost easier to get someone who does not read comics at all to try a European comic than it is to get a regular comic reader… Years ago I was getting ready to work on the Fantastic Four series FF1234 when I ran into an acquaintance that loves comics. He asked me what I was up to and I told him, I was very excited to be working in the book. Then he asked me:

-“Who is in the book?”

I answered with pride:

-“Grant Morrison, Jae Lee and I”

to which he responded

”I don’t give a f*ck who’s doing it! Which members of the Fantastic Four are in the book?”

To which I told him I simply had no idea…

I think he put bluntly what a majority of buyers think, and the market reflects it. Look at the sales numbers and compare the sales by the same creators when they are doing established characters versus other creations. I have been coloring Mike Carey’s Crossing Midnight, in my opinion one of the best books in the market, but it did not sell and is being cancelled. However, when Carey writes X-Men, it sells very well…. One notable exception is the Dark Tower comics, which I hope will pave the way for other non-superhero mainstream books with great success.

Manga is a totally different market and culture. Manga readers generally don’t read comics. They are young, they are largely female, they watch Anime and tend to be interested in Japanese culture. They like Cosplay, Visual Kei, Tokusatsu and video games and share these hobbies with their friends. I think superhero comics addressed largely male power fantasies that clicked with many young men (including myself at the time)… some of them still read them… but I think that the Superhero comics scene, other that the periodic chat in the comic book store, was never a group activity. Using the title of my friend Mikita Brottman’s book about reading, they were "The Solitary Vice”. Something to be enjoyed in your bedroom or bathroom by yourself, and not as part of a social network. The kids that read Manga are not like that, they flaunt their taste in a way we never did and have what to me seems like much more fun social culture: they dress up in outlandish costumes, tend to playact, ad get completely submersed in their hobby. Also because the lack of censorship in Manga, they are exposed to all kinds of things that would make their parents’ heads spin like the Exorcist, but that they will more likely never know about, which is provably for the better…

NRAMA: At the age of 16, you moved to America as an exchange student with the intent of getting a job in comics. How did that go?

JV: I was actually 18.

NRAMA: Sorry about that. Eighteen then… how did that go?

JV: I did a portfolio of sample pages, in pencils, and sent photocopies of them in two envelopes, one to Marvel and one to DC. They were both unceremoniously returned with rejection cover letters and I gave up on the idea of working in comics on the spot… With the years I come to realize that I doubt that anyone paid much attention to these photocopies, maybe the submission editors at the time, maybe not even them… In any case, I did not insist. I felt that if they did not want me, there were plenty of other things I could do, so I finished my degree in Fine Arts and then got a Master of Fine Arts Degree in painting and I became a fine art painter and began to teach college courses…

NRAMA: Who are some the major touchstones of inspiration that you've had over the course of your artistic career?

JV: There are so many and in several different mediums, not just comics. I think the first art that I was crazy about, the first art books that I purchased for myself, were of the Golden Age of Book Illustration: Edmund Dulac, was the first, but also Arthur Rackham, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle and others… The first fine art photography books that I bought were by David Hamilton, whom I adored as an adolescent. When I was a teen, the room I shared with my two brothers was decorated with some key images that formed my taste: posters by Alphonse Mucha, Neal Adams (the three painted Marvel Posters), H. R. Giger (the amazing Debbie Harry portrait from Koo-koo)…. also the great poster to 2001 A Space Odyssey (Kubrik being my all time favorite director) with the giant glowing embryo… I also had all the Frazetta books, a large Italian reprint of Little Nemo and just about everything I could get by Richard Corben, (with a very special place for Bloodstar….)

I would also clip photos from ads that I liked and went to the movies all the time. This was just in my adolescence… it never stopped abut I think it will be too boring to continue…

NRAMA: The first time I remember seeing your coloring work was in the pages of Jae Lee's Hellshock series. Can you tell us how your friendship and collaboration with Jae came about?

JV: I first met Jae when I curated a show of local comic book artists for an art center called Maryland Art Place. The people that worked in the shop where I used to buy comics told me that he lived in Virginia, so I called him and asked to participate. After that we quickly became good friends and talked a lot about comics. When he decided to do his own series, computer coloring was being introduced as a better way to color comics. Since he knew I was a painter, he asked me if I could color his art, more in a painted style than a digital one. We both loved illustrators like Bill Sienkiewicz, Kent Williams and Jon J Muth and we thought it would be feasible to digitally integrate hand painted art with ink linework. By the time the second Hellshock series came about, I had learned Photoshop and was able to create the look we were both looking for.

NRAMA: Your two works with Alan Moore have been in the field of illustrated books, not comics. You're quoted as saying you love doing these types of books, and feel there's a great potential for more. Why do you think it's been relatively untapped so far?

JV: The illustrated book for adults (as opposed to children’s books) practically disappeared after World War One. In a sense, at the end of the twentieth century, graphic novels took up their place. I know that the Gift Book market was killed by the war for several reasons: the trend dies out, the price of paper rose, other mediums of entertainment became available, etc… Now that I think of it is similar to what happened in this country with comics since their inception… But despite the fact that it has not been a mass market, there have been books produced periodically illustrated beautifully. I think in a way it is something that most illustrators would like to do one day if there was a market. And I actually think that if they existed, many readers that like both art and literature would buy them.

NRAMA: In researching this interview, I've read that you're in talks to possibly do work with two major European writers – Michael Moorcock and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Is this just a fan's wet dream, or is there a possibility for this to happen?

JV: Well, it is more wishful thinking that anything. I met both Michael Moorcock and Alejandro Jodorowsky and had ideas for a possible collaborations but nothing came of them, mostly because I did not pursue them. At some point, though, I would love to do something with them; since they are both geniuses and it would be an honor.

NRAMA: You're also a professor in the Illustration Department of the Maryland Institute College of Art. Tell us what an average day is like for you?

JV: I arrive to class a little before nine a.m. and generally we start the day with a group critique of the new work that the students did over the week. At MICA studio classes last five hours and because of that we have time to do group and individual critiques, demonstrations and also work in class. After work I usually have a couple of office hours and then I go home and have dinner and work on comics… I do this three days a week, the rest of the time I am in my studio at home…

NRAMA: For a long time, comics have been treated by the academic establishment as a lesser art, at least in America. As a teacher, professor and comics creator – how do you see it changing over time?

JV: It is definitely changing. When I was a student there were no comics classes offered in my school. While I have been a teacher at MICA, the chair of my department, Whitney Sherman, has hired other comics artists like Brian Ralph, Daniel Krall, Alain Corbel and John Malloy, as well as brought in Peter Kuper, Ben Katchor and others… We also hosted an exhibition of Paul Pope and James Jean last year that I curated… So I think that the lines between fine art and illustration are blurring and the same thing is happening between illustration and sequential art.

NRAMA:Before we go, one last question…. As a teacher and professor, have you noticed more students in the art field aiming for work in the comics field recently?

JV: Yes and I also noticed a different kind of student. More female students are interested now… Many years the rare student that would be interested in comics were always boys that had their own vigilante characters that they wanted to develop and make a fortune from (I guess directly or directly influenced by the success of Image Comics and Todd McFarlane in particular, who made a mint with his high-school conceived character) These students tended to be extremely closed minded, even about usage of materials, leave alone learning to draw… For the most part they fit the “misunderstood artist” kind of stereotype. They were hard to teach, but they were really very few of them… one or two a year at the most…

Nowadays the typical student interested in comics is more curious about the possibilities of the medium that a fan of the characters. Since I teach in an illustration department I see student now that want to make comics part of their career, but not the end all be all… they idolize James Jean and Geoff Darrow and Paul Pope… they love their crossover success…. That is what they would like for themselves… to be more multi-media artists than traditional comics artists… I think that this is the trend right now.

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