The Mirror of Love: Reflections with Jose Villarrubia
Interview Conducted by Ed Mathews & Jonathan Ellis
This past year saw the release of the long awaited adaptation of Alan Moore's epic poem in hardcover format featuring the artwork of Jose Villarrubia. MIRROR OF LOVE was, above all else, a love poem but not just, as the story also detailed a history of homosexuality, prominently featuring famous figures in art and literature. Published by Top Shelf Comix the story originally began as a part of the AARGH! Anthology in 1988. AARGH! [Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia] was a comic book protest against Britain's proposed anti-Gay Clause 28.
The poem struck a particularly strong cord with artist Jose Villarrubia who first adapted the poem into a theatrical presentation before beginning his work on the recent hardcover collection. Jose is well known for his colouring work with artists such as Jae Lee and J.H. Williams, having been featured in such series as Hellshock and Promethea. Jose has been featured in various anthologies and exhibitions as both a painter and photographer.
On top of everything else Jose is also a professor, but to us at PopImage, he's quite simply one of the best people you could hope to meet in this industry. We recently spoke with Jose to reflect on his time crafting the Mirror Of Love collection as well as a few things which lie ahead.
As some people know, before the book you did a theatrical version of Mirror Of Love, how did you approach the project to adapt it for the theatre and how did plans change from your original vision to that which appeared on stage?
I enlisted the help of my friend David Drake, the author and actor, who at that time was starting to direct stage performances, and he is the one who shaped the text into a theatrical piece. I did not have an original vision of the play, just the text of the original comic. It was David's vision that informed the theatrical adaptation.
Considering Alan's knack for performing, have you thought about doing a production together?
No, I have not thought about it, but of course I would if he asked.
Whose idea was it to revive this particular project? Many of Alan's past works have been returning in one form or another but Mirror Of Love is essentially an all-new and original adaptation.
It was actually Francois Penaud's idea. He is a French friend that suggested me illustrating the text when I was at the Angouleme Festival, and asked Chris Staros from Top Shelf if he would be interested in publishing it.
In regards to your photography, have you gone digital or do you prefer working with film?
The Mirror of Love and Voice of the Fire contain both film and digital images, but now that I finally got a digital camera I like, I find it unlikely to return to film.
For this project, have you been applying Photoshop to the images or are they pretty much straight from the camera to the page?
They are all at least cropped and colour adjusted with Photoshop, but
some have also extensive digital work.
As for lighting, do you do a lot of set-up? One impression I got from the artwork in Mirror Of Love was that they all had a very natural feel to them.
I do not use a lot of set up. If possible I prefer to work with natural, available light. If I need to I use tungsten lighting, and very rarely, strobe.
What was it about this poem that meant so much to you as to inspire you to work so hard in creating this book as well as creating a theatrical adaptation?
I think it contains a very valuable message that should not be lost in the pages of an out of print benefit book. I found the text truly "empowering" (even though I don't really like that word).
Alan has a reputation for his rather hefty scripts, but working from the poem must be quite different. Did he guide you in the creation of this book or was it merely a matter of you creating from inspiration?
Alan gave me complete freedom in visualizing the project, but I did use his original script (kindly loaned to me by Greg Strohecker) for reference.
You've got another project coming up with Alan, is this the rumored History Of Magic project?
Alan has talked to me about being involved in this, but until he finishes his ABC work, nothing specific has been decided.
How does it feel to essentially be 'chosen' by Alan to work on what very well be one of his last sequential works?
Flattered, of course. Alan is not only the preeminent author in the medium, but has collaborated with some stellar artists in his career.
What were your impressions of Alan the first time you meet him? How about when taking his photo? That lithograph portrait may be the first time an actual comic book creator has been offered as a piece of art as opposed to a character.
As I am sure you have heard many times, Alan is very warm and polite in real life. A perfect gentleman, really. Despite his "legend" he is extremely personable. Likewise, he was very easy to photograph. He has a very specific persona, and he poses very well. It is not the first time that a creator has been offered as a piece of art; I remember the self portrait posters of John Buscema, Herb Trimple, Steranko, Kirby and Gene Colan that Marvel used to sell in the seventies. The Steranko one did not feature any characters, only a high contrast photo of his face, so I guess that was the first.
How do you approach a model when soliciting them to appear in one of your pieces? Do you prefer to work with models, or do you mainly have friends help out instead?
I work with friends and friends of friends or friends of my family
almost exclusively. It saves a lot of time! They usually know my work
and the project is explained in advance so there are no surprises.
Do you have a particular favourite image from The Mirror Of Love?
I have several. I really like the more theatrical ones like the Sappho, the Spartans and the Michelangelo ones, but I also love the ones where I had to do something new for me, like the image with the policeman.
Right now you're busy with teaching but were there any signing tours planned for this book?
Not tours, but I just returned from France, where I did several signings, one in Paris and three in the Angouleme International Comics Festival. I will be doing signings in Toronto, Barcelona, San Diego, New York and other places this year, mostly at conventions.
Despite your schedule you still continue to colour for comics, has there ever been a project you had to turn down because you felt the quality of story or art was poor?
No. I had to turn down one job once because I was doing too many projects at the time. But it was by an artist that I actually adore... so I was sorry to say no. Right now the artists that seek me out are all people whose work I adore. Currently I am working with Paul Pope, John Cassaday, J. H. Williams, Scott Hampton, Olivier Coipel and Ryan Sook!
Recently you've talked with such talents as Clive Barker and Alejandro Jodorowsky, could you tell us about your planned projects with them?
I'd love too. I do not have anything planned with Clive and spoke to Mr. Jodorowsky about an idea I have, but it is too soon to speak of it.
When meeting such talents as Clive or Alejandro, despite being an accomplished artist yourself, do you still sometimes feel as though you're a fan?
Of course! These are some of my idols! I am a total fan of many artists and authors...
Having done the play and the book are there any further plans for the project, perhaps a DVD presentation?
If there's demand, we will deliver!
How do you feel about using computers in your art? At what point does a piece go from being a piece of traditional art to a piece of digital art?
Like Dave McKean says for himself, computers have helped me more fully realize my ideas. At what point one piece becomes digital is arguable, but most people consider that even minor digital manipulation make the piece "digital"
What comics have been grabbing you lately? I was interested to see you enjoyed Jeffrey Brown's work; usually an art professor would be the first person to criticize his style of art.
Jeffrey is an awesome draughtsman; his style is a choice, not a limitation. You would be surprised the range of art that is studied/appreciated/produced in a progressive art school like the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Lately and in no particular order, I have been enjoying Ander Nilsen's Dogs and Water, Wild Girl, Micheluzzi's Afghanistan, Aventure en Manchourie and Shangai, Fabrice Neaud's Journal, Gipi's Les Innocents and Notes Pour Une Histoire De Guerre, Ludovic Debeurme's Cefalus and Mes Ailes D'Homme, Jiro Asada's Poppoya, Carlos Nine's Prints of the West, Duba's A Kyoto, Bipolar, Human Target and, oh yes, Astonishing X-Men.
You have, or so I am told, a very talented family. Without prying too far, can you tell us of their influence on your work? What was it like living with a household filled with photographers and artists?
Well, we did not all grow up as artists... For a long time I was the only one of the children who was consistently interested in art, in both making it and enjoying it... My mother of course was a great influence, since she had worked as a professional ceramist before meeting my dad and she painted portraits and did some commercial photography as well... My father's best friend while I was growing up was a fantastic painter named Ezequiel, who still exhibits regularly and who did a full length oil painting of me when I was seven or so. He was very interested in comics and starting a painted adaptation of Dante's Divine Comedy for a Spanish comics anthology that unfortunately went belly up.
My brothers decided to become photographers many years after I moved out... I talk to them about art and admire their work greatly, but we did not all grow up producing artwork... I was the only child in my family who did...
You recently returned from the Angouleme festival. How does that festival differ from the North American shows you've visited and are there any shows similar to it? What were some of the more interesting works at the festival that caught your eye?
It is everything that everybody says. The two main differences are that Angouleme is not dominated by superheroes (or Indy comics) like American conventions and that there are lots of art exhibits and events...
The whole town becomes comics for four days and hundreds of thousands of people attend. All kinds: kids, families, teenagers, and in general a much larger cross section of society than American comics...
The most similar North American convention, because of its magnitude, would be San Diego, but San Diego is mostly films, collectibles, games, animation, and other non-comics... Angouleme was ONLY comics...
I had to buy a suitcase to bring all the comics and graphic novels that I bought while I was there. The highlights for me were hanging out with my good friends at Panini (who publish Marvel in Europe) and with my artists friends: Olivier Coipel, Humbeto Ramos, Gabrielle Del'Otto, Giuseppe "Cammo" Camuncoli, Leandro Fernandez, Eddie Campbell, Jeffrey Brown, and seeing Joe Quesada with his wife Nancy and their daughter Carly, with whom I had a great time colouring drawings...
I also met one of my favourite new artists totally by accident: Ludovic Debeurme who did an amazing book called, Mes Ailes D'Homme (My Wings of a Man) and had done a previous fantastic illustrated adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde...
I also saw a lot of European fans that follow my work, some that had not seen me in a couple years and it was nice to see them again.
As Promethea has come to a close, what was your favourite contribution to the book? Did you get to do any work on the final end book?
Well, my favourite contribution has to be the photo sequence I did for issue 7. That was a real treat for me to do, the first chance I got to do sequential art solo, and I am very flattered that it was included in such a fantastic series... I did not work in the final book: that was just Alan, J. H. and Todd. Even Mick Grey, the inker, and Jeromy Cox, the colourist, had nothing to do with it...
But I did get to work in the issues leading to the end of the world, which was fun, and right now I am working with J. H. in the new Warren Ellis series, Desolation Jones...
Interesting, I thought JH was tackling the full art chores on this series like with the final Promethea issue. How does working with JH now compare with when you originally began collaborating?
J. H. is doing pencils AND inks... that's what is different. He would probably colour it if he had time, but it is a bimonthly series! Every job I have done with J. H. has been different; he always has very specific ideas of the look and colour families he wants, and he tells you very specifically.
For that matter, how does it compare going from a Alan Moore Penned series to a Warren Ellis series?
As you know, they both are very different authors, but they both have specific colour ideas; not for every panel or every page, but once in a while they ask for a special look...
Aside from your colouring work, what can fans expect from you in the future? Another book of photography?
I have a couple ideas, one for another "Mirror of Love" type book with Alan Moore (this time an introduction to Magic [mentioned earlier]), and a book of illustrated lyrics by a well know singer-songwriter... I am also going to write a book while I am on sabbatical in Paris on Painted Comics. Finally, I am looking forward to getting involved in European comics while I am there... We'll see... I always plan a lot of things and only some come to fruition.
The Mirror Of Love and Voice Of The Fire, written by Alan Moore and featuring artwork by Jose can still be purchased from Top Shelf Comix. Thanks to Jose for taking the time for this interview.
Ed Mathews & Jonathan Ellis are the Co-Editors in Chief of PopImage
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