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JOSE VILLARRUBIA: FINE ARTIST WORKING IN THE COMIC FIELD
An Interview with Jose Villarrubia by Scott Grunewald.

The comic industry got its first serious look at Jose Villarrubia when he teamed up with photographer Stephen John Phillips to create the computer enhanced VEILS for Vertigo. Veils took comics to another level, and shone desperately needed mainstream attention on the industry. But if you think that was a career making event for Jose youre mistaken. Jose has had more than one career in fact. Hes an internationally renowned photographer with exhibits in the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Tom of Finland Foundation. Hes an art reviewer for the Lambda Book Report. Hes given art lectures at places like Johns Hopkins University and the College Art Association. And hes had his work discussed or reproduced in books like The Homoerotic Photograph by Allen Ellenzwaig, and The Male Nude, published by Taschen.

Whew. Thats not the resume of someone dying to break into the comics biz. Jose was nice enough to be very patient with me as I asked him loads of questions. He was also nice enough to provide PopImages March Cover.

PopImage: What is the first comic you remember reading?

Jose: Growing up in Spain, the first comics I read were Spanish children comics, in magazines like "TBO", the notorious publication from which the word in Spanish for comics, "tebeo", comes from. The first specific issue that I remember reading was a Spanish reprint of a Lee-Kirby X-MEN story. I was twelve and I thought it was the most bizarre and fascinating story I had ever read. I remember thinking that the art was very crude, but there was something in the story very compelling. Soon after I realized that other Marvel characters were connected and that was it! My brothers and I became total Marvelites But I have to say that by that time I had read a whole lot of European Comics, like TINTIN, AXTERIX, LUCKY LUKE, as well as American children's comics like the BARKS DUCKS, SUGAR AND SPIKE, LITTLE LULU, etc

So what had the greater impact on your art style, growing up in a family of artists, or those early encounters with comics?

"Growing up in an artistic family however, provided me with an incredible support system"

Stylistically I have to say comics, since they were the artwork that I chose to look at, and they contained, and still do, an aspect of fantasy and emotion that is very close to my heart. They even influenced the bulk of my fine art work. Growing up in an artistic family however, provided me with an incredible support system. I started taking private academic art lessons at twelve. My father's best friend was a painter who also did comics (he planned to adapt the Divine Comedy as a painted comic). My brothers read and liked the same comics I did. It was a very encouraging and nurturing environment.

Comics influence your fine art work? In what ways?

My fine art work has reflected a kind of "fantasy" that is influenced by the aesthetic of comics, as well as fantasy illustration. The images I have created of male nudes are based on a classical understanding beauty, which is the same point of departure for a lot of comic art, specially of the past : Foster, Raymond, Hogarth, Fine, Frazetta, etc

What was your first published work in comics?

It was the pencils for a pin-up of White Witch in "WHO'S WHO in the LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES" #7. Karl Kesel inked it, and when it came out it was one of the biggest thrills of my life.

Is your first published work a source of embarrassment, or pride?

Pride, definitely. It just makes me think of how happy I was when I saw it in print! And it is not outstanding, but I don't think it looks bad.

Are comics how you always intended to use your artistic abilities?

Yes and no. Comics have been my preferred artistic medium all my life. As a teenager my dream was to become a comic book artist. But when that didn't happen in the early eighties (I got rejection letters from both Marvel and DC), then I decided to become a painter. Later I took on fine art photography and after ten years of that digital art. After the pin-up of White Witch came out, I got a call from a DC editor asking me if I'd like to illustrate a story from them, and to my surprise, I turned him down. I did not want to be a comic book artist any more. I was happy doing gallery work. The way I really got into comics professionally is through friends. Jae Lee and I became friend when I curated his work for an exhibition here in Baltimore. About a year later he began "HELLSHOCK" and wanted a more "artistic" look for it. Being familiar with my paintings and fine art photographs he asked me to color it. A few years later, my friend, photographer Stephen John Phillips asked me to work with him in the graphic novel "VEILS". In addition to the digital effects I ended up doing the layouts, backgrounds and coloring. It was a great learning experience and I very proud of that work. I have done several covers for HELLSHOCK, Wheel of the Worlds and Harpy, but PROMETHEA is the first interior artwork that I have done completely by myself. At this point yes, I feel it is the way always wanted to use my artistic abilities. Especially since it is a story that Moore wrote having my fine art imagery in mind. But I plan to do more gallery art, and I'd like to illustrate books and eventually do videos.

Do you prefer the collaborative effort of something like VEILS, or something like your issue of PROMETHEA, where you call the shots artistically?

Clearly, I prefer to do it all myself. However this is not very practical in a lengthy piece like "VEILS". Stephen (John Phillips) is a dear friend and we see eye to eye artistically, so working with him is very enjoyable. And I can say the same thing about Jae (Lee). But the experience of having complete control over the art is exhilarating. It is like combining the satisfaction of doing my fine art work with the broad reach of my commercial work.

What kind of art software do you use?

Mostly Adobe Photoshop. In PROMETHEA I also used Bryce. PROMETHEA also has elements designed and rendered by my friend Aleksey Zolotaryov, a computer animator, in 3-D Studio Max. Aleksey also created digital sets and props. for VEILS in SoftImage.

Do you think artwork created on a computer is the future of comics?

No. It is too labor intensive. To be done successfully it requires a rather ample combination of talent: the artist has to be able to draw, paint, do photography, and know digital art as well as storytelling. Computers have changed the look of American comics: the colouring today barely resembles that of ten years ago. But the line artwork continues to be produced by hand on paper.

But you have to admit, people are doing things on computers today that just five years ago was impossible. Doesnt it stand to reason that in five more years, computers could be how comics are done?

Computers will undoubtedly continue to play a growing role in how comics are put together, in addition to the coloring a lot of the lettering today is done in the computer. But I doubt that they will take over how comics are drawn. I believe that they will make the same kind of contribution than "MARVELS" did to American comics: after it was published and became a success it opened the way for other painted mainstream comics. However most comics are not painted nowadays, even though if you ask a non comic book reader what is better art, something painted and something of comparable quality done in pen and ink, their answer will be almost without exception the painted work. But most comics' artists don't have the painting skill or interest to produce this kind of work. I believe the same can be said for computer art.

What projects do you have coming up in the future?

Illustrating a couple more stories by Alan Moore. I am doing the painted colors for Jae Lee's new series for Marvel Knights. And a follow-up graphic novel for Vertigo with Stephen John Phillips.

Some more projects with Alan Moore? Anything that you can talk about yet?

More work for ABC, similar in length to the one I did for PROMETHEA, but until it is announced I can't say any more about it. There are other potential projects, but they are not to happen for the time being.

What was it like working with Alan Moore?

"I told him that I wanted to do a Prometheus bound, and he not only included this image, but he turned into the climax of the story!"

A dream come true! I am still high from the whole experience. Two years ago, I came up with the idea of doing a stage adaptation of a story by Moore text I had read in the magazine "Rapid Eye". It is titled "The Mirror of Love" and is one of those pieces by Moore like "Brought to Light" that works like a prose poem. My friend David Drake agreed to direct it and adapt it, and that's when I contacted Moore to ask him for permission. From the first conversation Moore could not have been more charming and supportive. He does performances himself, so this was a project that was close to his heart. He also told em that he considers "The Mirror of Love" to be one of his five favorite pieces of writing, so his was glad I was giving it a new life. I performed the piece in the Baltimore Theatre Project that summer. I had never worked harder in a project since it was my first time in the stage. But fortunately everything turned out well. After "VEILS" came out I told Moore that if he ever had any ideas for me to illustrate I would love to do so, and to my surprise and delight he came up with the story in PROMETHEA 7. The first thing he asked me is what did I want to illustrate, what images was I thinking about. After some thinking I told him that I wanted to do a Prometheus bound, and he not only included this image, but he turned into the climax of the story!

If you could change one thing about the comic industry today, what would it be?

In America, the distribution system. Comics are so isolated from other media, that no wonder sales are going down. When we did "VEILS", a book specifically geared toward bookstores, it took several months before it was for sale anywhere but in comic-book stores. By then all the rave reviews in mainstream press that would have made someone interested in picking up a copy, had come and gone. The direct market is too limited. Most people not into comics would not set foot in a comic-book store. Why would they? If comics where sold like in Europe, in bookstores, kiosks, magazine racks, etc they would capture new readers

Has a comic ever made you cry?

Yes, several. Alan Moore's comics have done it to me several times: the "Valerie" chapter of "V FOR VENDETTA". "The Mirror of Love", even "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?", all come to mind. Also Gaiman's "Hold Me" story in HELLBLAZER, Morrison's "The Coyote Gospel" in ANIMAL MAN and "A Glass of Water" from FAST FORWARD, Milligan's Skin and "The Hollow Circus" from A1. And, of course, MAUS and STUCK RUBBER BABY.

Do you think that its harder for a comic to elicit that kind of emotion, or do you just think that not enough creators are attempting that kind of depth?

The latter. I see no limitations in content in the medium per se. I think that a lot of the creators are either uninterested or incapable of serious emotional content in their work. It has been, after all, a medium dominated by escapist themes.

What do you look for in a comic?

As a teen, I looked for good art, independently of the story, in my twenties that changed and I started to be more tolerant of art I didn't like if I liked the writer. Today I look for a reasonable combination of both. I still buy a few "great art/awful story" or "awful art/great story" comics, but for the most part they are more of a balance.

So what comics that youre reading currently fit those criteria?

I'll just name some of the ones I read 'cause I think that both story and art are great: ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY, BLACK HOLE,OPTIC NERVE, PENNY CENTURY, EIGHTBALL, EVIL EYE, HEAVY LIQUID, MADMAN, HEART OF EMPIRE, and the ABC titles.

What do you avoid in a comic?

Poor craftsmanship, drawing styles derived only from comics, rehashed plots, unconvincing dialog, bad pacing, etc

What was your reaction to the surprise revelation that Apollo and Midnighter (From THE AUTHORITY) are gay lovers?

I hadn't been reading the series, so I didn't know how surprising it was for the readers. I started following it after I found out that Warren Ellis said they were gay lovers. So far their relationship seems to be portrayed very subtly, but the entire series seems to be about action and not characterization. In terms of exploring the implicit homoerotic content in superhero comics, I feel that only Milligan's "ENIGMA" and the sadly aborted last story arc in MIRACLEMAN by Gaiman have seriously delved into the subject. Apollo and Midnighter seem to be gay in an anecdotal sort of way, more for inclusive purposes than for any other reason. This is well intentioned and I am glad that it is happening since it can do a lot of good, especially to younger readers. After all, I remember I started to drink coffee 'cause I saw the Silver Surfer do it, even though, he explained that he didn't need it for nutritional purposes

Considering the obvious homoerotic aspect to super heroes in general, why do you think it is that these kinds of themes aren't explored more often?

I think most writers are straight and not interested in examining this. Also, I think the vast majority of readers are also straight, and they don't particularly want to think about it either. I am sure it makes a lot of readers uncomfortable to admit that there's a blatant homoerotic component to worshiping men in tights. It's like Margaret Cho's explanation of why male porn stars are so attractive in gay porn and so trashy in straight porn. She says is because the main audience of straight porn, straight guys, don't want to see attractive guys in their porn, just in case they have that "homo moment". Well, I think that straight superhero readers don't want to have that "homo moment" either! I was just looking at the preliminary drawings of the costume design for the first Batman, and they used a Tom of Finland figure to draw the costume (Tom of Finland being the most influential artist of gay erotica). And it is no wonder: both mainstream Superhero comics and gay pornography feature these hyper-masculine characters. The difference is that superheroes never use their genitalia and porn stars "only" use their genitalia.

If one day you wake up, and youre forced to choose between your burgeoning career in comics, or your successful career as a fine artist/photographer, which do you chose, and why?

Well, I can't answer that. I have yet another career, as a college teacher, that I love doing. I could not choose to do just one thing, I think it would drive me nuts. They all feed into each other: I could not have done comics the way I do them without my fine art experience, and I already explained how my artwork was influenced by comics. And both of these, as well as other art activities that I have done inform my teaching and keep me excited about the different mediums And teaching, working with young artists that come up with creative solutions to issues all the time, well, it's thrilling.


Scott J Grunewald is Publisher of PopImage.

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