The Big Picture: Jose Villarrubia, I

Talking to Jose Villarrubia, I

Who is José Villarrubia?

Before I met him at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2006 I already knew that he was one of the top-tier colorists in modern comics today. Comic artists tend to keep good colorists with them, and the caliber of artists Villarrubia worked with showed just how valuable he was to them. And Villarrubia was a strong artist in his own right, doing mixed media work with writer Alan Moore on two critically-acclaimed books.

After I was introduced to him by Christopher Butcher of the comic store the Beguiling, I'd also say that he's probably one of the warmest, friendliest and personable people in comics. And a great artist.

Born in Madrid, José Villarrubia has made a name for himself in comics both as an artist and a colorist. As a colorist, he's a frequent collaborator with Jae Lee, Bill Sienkiewicz, J.H. Williams III, Paul Pope and others. He's garnered two Eisner nominations for he's an in-demand colorist for clients such Marvel, DC and Top Shelf.

As a cartoonist, his collaborations have primary been with Alan Moore. They've worked on two books, Voice of the Fire and The Mirror of Love, with a third on the way. His artwork has been included in the prestigious Society of Illustrators Annual Exhibition.

When he's not working on comics, he works as a professor in the Illustration Department of the Maryland Institute College of Art. He's taught in the past at the Baltimore School for the Arts, Walters Art Museum and Towson University.

His expansive work and live leave a lot to discuss, and we dig in with the first of two interviews with José Villarrubia.

Newsarama: Thanks for talking with us, José.

You have a long history of working with Alan Moore, as an illustrator and a colorist. You've illustrated two books based on his pre-published prose work – but tell us about the new one, The Book of Copulations.

José Villarrubia: After I finished The Mirror of Love, I began to think about any other “lost” Alan Moore text that I found supremely touching, and The Book of Copulations was a clear choice. Written as the climax of his first magic performance, it has never been printed as a text. It is a beautiful introduction to the magic that we sense, yet never think about, in everyday life… It has a looser and more organic feel that The Mirror of Love, since it was written to be spoken and not illustrated. I had been taking hundreds of images for it from which I am distilling a selection and the book may include some drawing element as well. I have been working on it on and off for the past two years… I hope to complete it in the next few months…

NRAMA: Like I said, you've done two books adapting prose and poetry that Alan has done. How do you find that different than in work that was specifically created by Alan with you in mind to illustrate it?

JV: Well, Alan tends to work in two modes with artists: most of the times he writes one of his famously detailed scripts, but sometimes, as he has done with Eddie Campbell on occasion, he provides the text and supervises the imagery, giving carte blanche to the artist to interpret his words. Promethea was done in the first way, as was all the coloring I did for Promethea and Tom Strong. The books published by Top Shelf were done in the second… In working in Promethea, I still added a good number of details that I wanted to include on top of all the things that Alan wanted… In the case of The Mirror of Love, I also used as a reference the script that he wrote for the original comic book version of the story that Bisette and Totleben illustrated. In some cases I followed Alan’s description pretty closely, like in the Spartans image, while in others I completely reinterpreted the visuals of the text.

NRAMA: You're also working on a Tarot Deck with Alan Moore. Tell us about that.

JV: This is also an idea that we have been talking about ever since I did the sequence in issue seven of Promethea, where I illustrated a revised version of the card “The Universe” from the Toth deck. After doing this, I talked to Alan about if he wanted to do his own Tarot, like Crowley did with Lady Frieda Harris. He said he did, but he was too busy at the time with all his ABC commitments. A few years later I received a call from Alan formally asking me if I would like to do it, and, of course, I enthusiastically agreed. The way that Alan sees these cards, each would have a narrative, an image from a sequence that will incorporate the essential imagery for each card, like the Rider-Waite deck. So basically we are talking about seventy-eight narratives, vignettes of scenes that I will be illustrating. I am sure it will be a great and exciting challenge…

NRAMA: Another exciting project on the horizon is you re-teaming with Paul Pope, on a book called La Chica Bionica. Can you tell us about that?

JV: I met Paul years ago, I believe through Allan Spiegel and over the years we talked about working together… At the time I was not coloring much, and my main work was in photography. At some point we discussed doing a fashion-sequential-fumetti sequence for Details Magazine (at the time Details was commissioning original material in comics, such as Julian Allen’s Wild Palms). Eventually Paul decided to pursue his own next major graphic novel. Still years later, I showed Paul a printout of the images I did for Mirror of Love, when we were in SPX in Bethesda and that’s when he approached me to color Batman Year 100. Even though Paul’s work had been in black and white up to that point, he has a clear idea of the type of color he wanted for the story. After that I have been doing most of the coloring for Paul for different projects, including an album cover and an erotic comic for Europe.

La Chica Biónica will be an album, as the Europeans call oversized graphic novels, or series of albums about a Science Fiction heroine, part Barbarella part Mean Machine (from Judge Dredd). Paul told me that the protagonist of this story will be a woman and not a girl… I am very much looking forward to this project…

NRAMA: Let's talk now about your coloring. I have a lot of questions as to your approach at coloring comics – first off, how do you choose the projects you work on?

JV:For many years I worked mostly for my friend Jae. In addition I always wanted to work with my idols like Bill Sienkiewicz, Bernie Wrightson and Richard Corben. I also enjoyed working with new super talented artists that I keep discovering.. So, most of the time I take on projects because of the artist involved, although for my own artwork I have been very choosy with the writers…

In terms of styles, I like a range: sometimes, like in Jim Fern’s case on Crossing Midnight, I get very clean outlines with practically no shading and it is up to me to make up the light sources. Others, like in In Thy Name, everything is very rendered and I have to balance what is there. And most projects fall somewhere in between. Other times, like working with Kaare Andrews on Spider-Man: Reign, the approach is different in each project.

NRAMA: Are there certain artists whose work you enjoy coloring more than your own?

JV: Well, I do not really color my own work since it is mostly photographic or at least photo-collage, but yes when I do my own work, I have of course complete control of my color and can do just about anything with it. Working in mainstream comics there are parameters and limitations to what I can do. The genres have certain restrictions and all companies abide by them. That is why when choosing personal projects, I have chosen themes and formats where I could flex my muscles aesthetically and sympathetic publishers that would trust my experimentation. Top Shelf, and in particular my friend Chris Staros, have been tremendous supporters and believers in my work….

NRAMA: As a colorist, are there any other colorists work out there who you particularly love more than others?

JV: Of course! I always like what Dave Stewart does. Chris Chuckry and Laura Martin are also great. I just read Logan, painted in watercolors by Dean White and I like what he did a lot. In terms of digital coloring, I particularly love some artists that color themselves: James Jean, Josh Middleton, Kaare Andrews, Adam Hughes and José Ladronn come to mind. They are all incredible. I just discovered Alina Urusov and I think her work is amazing. And especially in Europe there are some fantastic artists that color, mostly in watercolor, their own work. My current favorite is Das Pastoras, who is sensational in every respect, including color.

NRAMA:Another one of your recent works that I've enjoyed immensely is on Desolation Jones, with Warren Ellis, J.H. Williams and Daniel Zezelj. Can you tell us any unique stories about that collaboration?

JV: Well, after working with Jim [J.H. Williams III] in Promethea, he asked me to color his follow up project, and I was very flattered, specially considering it was to be written by the mega talented Warren Ellis. Desolation Jones is a character unlike any other out there and, the fact that he is a bit psychotic and regularly has hallucinations and the freedom that Scott Dunbier at Wildstorm provided the creative team, allowed us to create a truly unique comic. I cannot take credit for the great range of color ideas displayed in the series. Jim came up with all kinds of challenges for me, and I did my best in living up to those ideas. I was very honored to be nominated for an Eisner for this series. I was the thrilled to find out that Danjiel Zezelj would continue the series, but after two issues the series went on extended hiatus and I do not know if there are plans to continue it one day…

NRAMA: Looking back at your coloring work, there's a lot to be excited about. Let's talk about the recent Silver Surfer; In Thy Name series just came out with artist Tan Eng Haut. How was that process, thinking up the palettes, working with the artist, and working on a character you read as a child?

JV: The Silver Surfer was indeed my favorite character as a child, mostly because of the Lee/Buscema issues of his own series, especially those inked by Sal Buscema and Dan Adkins (issues 4-15). To this day I still feel they are the pinnacle of the art of Silver Age Marvel Comics and their philosophical stories, although naïve, were engaging to a young reader like me. I liked how Buscema, starting in issue six, drew the Surfer with the believable physique of a swimmer or athlete, not that of a 1960’s bodybuilder (like most of his Avengers). I also liked the pacifist attitude of the character. Buscema was always a very glamorous artist, so he handled the romance part of the series superbly. The eight issues of the series that he did in 1969 represent, in my opinion, the peak of his career. It is amazing to think that he drew about twenty other comics that year! I may be in the minority, but I did not care for the Kirby version of the character, even though he created the character. His return to the character in issue 17 was an unmitigated disaster. To me it was Buscema’s sensitive renderings and Lee’s pseudo-philosophical speech that made the series interesting.

Over the years I greatly enjoyed what Lee and Moebius did with the character as well as the other graphic novel Lee and Buscema did, Judgment Day. When [Marvel Editor] Aubrey Sitterson offered me the new miniseries I was thrilled! I had admired Tan Eng Huat before in his Doom Patrol issues, but what he has done in In Thy Name, is truly remarkable! I only wish the pages could be printed larger, so readers could see the beauty of the originals. His pages are so fully realized that they practically color themselves… I cannot explain it too much, but after reading the script and looking at the art, I pretty much see the color right away for each scene. The challenge is to color this series without overwhelming the lovely art, but also no make the color seem like an unnecessary afterthought. I am excited to continuing working with Tan and we will be doing two issues of Ghost Rider this summer…

NRAMA: This might seem like an odd question, but I have to ask how you color comics. Most people do it all on the computer, but I read that you first paint them?

JV: When I first started in the industry I would color each page by hand, mostly in watercolor, scan it and touch it up in Photoshop. I wrote an article about it in the first issue of the second Hellshock series “How to Color Comics the Villarrubia Way”. As time went by, I figured out other methods of working so at some point, around the time I was doing Captain America with Jae Lee, the process was about half by hand and half computer. Nowadays the majority of assignments are done mostly digitally, with scanned painted textures added and homemade digital brushes… The last mostly painted story I did was the concentration camp issue of Wolverine that Kaare Andrews illustrated almost in silhouettes.

NRAMA: What's been your favorite work you've done in comics?

JV: I have done a lot of things I like, but I do not think about them often. I am proud in general of most of the things I have done, but my favorite, honestly, is whatever I am working in at the moment. So right this minute it has to be Conan the Cimmerian # 0, Crossing Midnight #19, Ghost Rider #24 and Manhunter #31. They are all great fun in different ways and the variety makes them remain enjoyable for me! I am not a tortured type of artist who beats himself down about his own work. I take my work very seriously and I am pretty disciplined to get it done on time, but I do not “suffer” for my work, my work largely gives me pleasure, and I enjoy it when it is completed and specially when I see it in print and it prints well… I have always been that way and I think that I may not fit the stereotypes of “a typical artist”.

NRAMA: Your first published comics work was a pin-up of the White Witch in DC's Who's Who in the Legion of Super-Heroes #7. What was that like at the time?

JV: It was the biggest thrill of my life at the time! To see my name in print in a DC comic was an incredible high! I had all but given up on drawing comics at the time, and instead I became a painter and college professor. Well, one of my early students turned out to be Greg LaRocque. He was already an accomplished comics artist, but took a painting class with me. He asked me if I wanted to draw for Who's Who in the Legion of Super-Heroes and I said yes! I did two drawings and one was published, I tried to make White Witch a little more glamorous that I had seen her before… After that I got a call from an editor who offered me to draw a short story, I think it was a Green Arrow one… and this based just on two pin ups I had done! I was incredibly flattered, my dream had finally come true… and I turned down the offer! At that moment I realized that even though years before I thought that’s all I ever wanted to do, I did no longer want to be a comic book penciller… This happened a few years before I met Jae Lee, so little did I know I would end up working in comics after all…

NRAMA: Although you didn't want to be a penciller, you did eventually do actual comics pages. The first interior comics work you ever did was Promethea #7. How do you look back on that experience now?

JV: That was my first complete interior work in comics. I had previously collaborated with Stephen John Phillips in Veils, a Vertigo graphic novel done in a digital photo-collage style. When Alan Moore saw it, he told me he wanted to write something about magic for me to illustrate, that my work was psychedelic in the etymological sense of the word: from the Greek psukhē ‘soul’ and dēlos ‘manifest’, meaning something that reveals the soul of things. He wanted to include this in his upcoming book about magic, but since this was still years away, he wrote the sequence in Promethea, his most magical ABC book, so I could illustrate it in this fashion. For the sake of time, instead of providing me with a finished script, he called me a told me a synopsis of the story and what he wanted to see in every page… Since I had to find models and props, I needed some extra time. He was very kind and asked me what kind of images I would like to do in the context of the story and I told him that I wanted to do a “Prometheus Bound”, since that was the heroine’s namesake… I had already painted the subject, one of the most popular in art history, and I thought I could me make my own version. Alan not only obliged but made this image the climax of my sequence. Needless to say I was thrilled!

Tomorrow we continue our conversation with José Villarrubia and discuss his teaching and himself as an artist.

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