José Villarrubia was born in Madrid, Spain into a very artistic family. His most well known work in comics to date include coloring the work of artist Jae Lee (HELLSHOCK, THE SENTRY) and the digital art of VEILS and PROMETHEA. Villarrubia is currently working on two projects with Alan Moore which he is particularly excited about: THE MIRROR OF LOVE and VOICE OF THE FIRE. José very graciously took time from his schedule to answer some questions.
GL: You were born and raised in Spain, and it seems everyone in your family is involved in some form of art. What was growing up in that kind of environment like?
JV: Wonderful. Spain is a country that takes its artists very seriously, especially painters. Spaniards pride themselves in having the best painters in history: Velazquez, Goya, El Greco, Picasso, Dali, Miro, etc…So I was exposed to a lot of art from an early age and given the idea that art was something important, that affected people’s lives and was not just for entertainment.
I come from a large family full of artists and art lovers. My parents were very influential in my interest in the arts. I was always encouraged to draw and paint and when I was twelve, they enrolled me in private academic art lessons after school. My mother was a professional ceramist before she met my father. Over the years she has been a painter, an award winning advertising photographer and the director of an art gallery, Galeria Momediano. My father owned an advertising agency for many years and his best friend was a fabulous painter and illustrator who was the art director for the business. His name is Ezequiel and he is very well known in Europe, especially in Austria. Ezequiel never separates fine art from illustration. This was a great influence to me since I would watch him paint enormous expressionist canvases and do a painted adaptation of the Divine Comedy in comics simultaneously. I have two brothers that are professional photographers: Alvaro studied advertisement, was a stylist briefly and then became a serious photographer, specializing in fashion and celebrity portraits. His first coffee table book, CRASH, just came out, and it is doing very well in Europe… Alejandro, the youngest in the family also has been doing fashion and portraits, but in a very different style than the rest of us. He is much more photojournalistic. I have another brother, Arturo, who is a writer and a professional translator and a sister, Luz, who studied anthropology and lives in London. The rest of the family is all in Madrid, and I visit them once or twice a year. We are all very close.
GL: How did you become interested in comics?
JV: When I was little, everyone read comics. First the Spanish humor titles: TBO, MORTADELO Y FILEMON (which has just been turned into a phenomenally successful film!), ZIPI Y ZAPE and many more that, to my knowledge, have not been translated to English. These were “gag” cartoon style stories for children, some of them very well done, but with very broad humor. The storylines were a direct product of Franco’s Spain: “Carpanta” was a character that was always hungry, “Sacarino” was a bell boy in a hotel, “Rue 13” was an apartment building full of working class tenants… These were aimed at little kids, 5 to 10 or so and older kids did not read them. I then started reading Bark’s Duck stories, and the French and Belgian classics AXTERIX and TINTIN, as well as some lesser-known one such as LUCKY LUKE, ALIX, and other adventure strips. These are really well known all over the world except, for some reason, the US. Around twelve I picked up a reprint of X-MEN in Spanish and became a Marvel zombie… My brothers and I would go to the kiosk every week and buy all the Marvel titles we could afford… we loved them. DC was reprinted sporadically as Mexican imports, so we would only buy them once in a while. About three years later, I found out about a comic book club in Madrid “El Club Din” and went to one of their meetings.
This was shortly after Franco’s death and Spain was in a state of upheaval. I remember that the first time I went to a meeting there were demonstrations on the streets with the army and confrontations and all, not a super safe time to go, but, hey, I was a geek with a mission, so a few potential Molotov cocktails and rubber bullets were not going to stop me… When I arrived, the address was that of a bar, half empty. I asked the bartender and he told me to go all the way to the room in the back. In a smoky lounge room, a colorful cast of characters were chatting and drinking. All guys, as far as I remember, and I was most certainly, at fifteen, the youngest person there. I met several very interesting people there. Including Miguel Angel Arenas, who went on to be a very important music impresario and writer later on. He was going through a glam rock phase then and I remember a splendid pearl necklace that he was wearing the evening I first encountered him. He, like me, loved Neal Adams above all the rest. I traded him something I don’t remember for one of the issues of Conan by Barry Windsor Smith featuring Elric. The androgynous albino, as rendered by Smith, really reminded me of Miguel Angel in his glam incarnation.
When I was asked which other artists I like, I mentioned John Buscema, and someone in the group responded by showing me “The Last Hunters”, a magnificent story by Bernie Wrightson from his independent period. Needless to say I was completely blown away.
I was also shown Moebius’ “The Long Tomorrow” a story written by Dan O’Bannon that later went to work in Bladerunner… It was the scene where the detective is having sex with the girl and she turns into a horrifying alien… which I thought was scary, cool and kinda sexy all at the same time…
I went to a few more meeting of “El Club Din”. After a while I realized the place where we met was kind of a gay bar (it could not be an official one at the time, since homosexuality, or even cross dressing, were crimes). These meetings really opened my mind to the potential of the medium… All kinds of comics were discussed and shared and some wonderful fanzines were published at the time like “Fan de Fantasia”, “Terminal” and especial “El Golem”. My first published works were in these books and it was a thrilling experience… I also met Lorenzo Diaz, one of the most important people in Spanish comics, a writer, editor and translator who loves the medium as much as I…
GL: What circumstances led you to originally become a fine art painter, and how did you become involved in digital art?
JV: I did not set out to become a fine art painter. As I said before I had had a lot of formal training since I was twelve. But around sixteen I definitely wanted to draw comics… After I moved to the US, I applied at Marvel and DC and got rejected… So I continued my studies in art, went on to pursue a Masters Degree in painting and started exhibiting and doing commissions after that. Painting was my second choice, but I grew to love it very much….
Digital art came much, much later… After I was exhibiting paintings for a couple of years I switched to fine art photography. This really launched my professional career, I got gallery representation in Baltimore, Los Angeles and New York and my work was very widely seen and reproduced. In ten years I participated in over two hundred exhibitions.
After a few years, I was manipulating the negatives, painting on them, scratching, etc… and I was really digging the work that Dave McKean was doing, specially his Vertigo Tarot. So with my friend Stephen John Phillips, I enrolled in a Photoshop class, and a few months later I had my first digital show, which was very well received…
GL: Did you ever consider not being an artist even if just in a momentary fit of teenage rebellion?
JV: No, not really. But I did take a year off between painting and starting the photography thing seriously. I announced to my parents that I was not going to paint any more and it was a great disappointment for them, since they had supported me emotionally and financially throughout my education. I was twenty-six or so at the time, so maybe it was belated teen rebellion. Being the oldest of five, I was always very responsible and at that time I felt that I had to find out who I was artistically, regardless of what was expected of me. Now, of course, my parents are very proud of me… as I am of them!
To tell you the truth, it took me a long time to consider myself an artist. I could always draw and paint better than my peers when I was growing up, and I enjoyed doing it. But when I enrolled in the University of Madrid, I found out that most students there were at least as talented as I was! This was like a bucket of cold water, but a very important lesson. The University system in Spain requires an entry exam where the potential student of Fine Arts has to demonstrate excellent realistic drawing and painting skills, something that in schools in the US is not necessary. When I came to the US, my ego went back up… a lot of the art students that I met were not “naturally” gifted. Still, many of them had a passion for painting and drawing that I did not share, and it made me feel a little guilty. They would go away for the summer and paint all summer, or talk about how much they missed doing it… I didn’t. I liked making art and loved looking at it, but did not need to make in any visceral way… So I thought that maybe I was not an artist after all, just someone talented in the visual arts. It was discovering David Hockney's work that made a difference. Hockney began as a painter, but rapidly moved into photography, printmaking, set design, paper making, etc… I loved that! This was an artist I could identify with, and not just because he is gay. I thought to myself, if I can change mediums, I do have an aesthetic that I like to create, so that was my solution… I also think that in my early twenties, I just did not have a lot to say in my art, since I just had not lived enough. I remember my teachers asking me what my artistic goals were while doing my arts, and I told them that I wanted my artwork to be a reflection of my taste… an answer that drove them mad, since they thought of it as shallow, and “taste’ was not a matter that was discussed in that school.<pGL: If my dates are correct you were 14 when Franco died. What kinds of cultural changes did you notice start to happen after his death? How did it affect you and your coming out?
JV: When Franco died there was a big sigh of relief in Spain, but also a lot of fear… Nobody knew what was going to happen, but when democracy was established, everyone felt a lot better and the country began to modernize itself. With Franco any sexual “deviance” was punishable by law, so at first I had no concept at all of what that was… But in the seventies, the really cool kids were neo-hippies. My friends and I all had long hair and we questioned everything: religion, government, family, drugs and, of course, sexuality. Influenced by Bowie and Glam rock, all my friends decided that we were all bisexual, and just repressed… even though most of them were straight… so coming out to them was a breeze. I got total support and love from them and I will always be thankful for that…
GL: What were your reactions after you'd learned about Frederic Wertham and the 1955 Congressional hearings which led to comics publishers agreeing to "self-regulation" through the Comics Code Authority?
JV: Reading them in Spain as a young teen, Spain was under such strict censorship that American comics seemed just fine, since nothing controversial was discussed in the arts or the media. I found out about Wertham book much later… in my early twenties, and it explained a lot what had happened to American comics in terms of content.
GL: Do you think the Comics Code has any relevance in today's society and comics readership?
JV: Absolutely not. Nobody knows about the code outside of the industry, and companies still censure their comics in the US, regardless of whether the carry the code or not. Compared to European and Japanese comics, American comics are still very puritanical, especially about sexual content. I think this puritanical attitude, obviously out of step with mainstream entertainment, has made comics a marginalized medium.
GL: How does being gay affect your work?
JV: Um, that is a big question. First I guess that the bulk of my older fine art work consisted of male nudes, so clearly I have been very interested for a long time in homoerotic art. Less now, though. I think I finally got over it. In a more broad way, I do believe that there’s such a thing as a gay aesthetic…and I feel that my work fits quite squarely within it. It is hard to describe, but it has to do with a certain awareness of Camp, Kitsch and certain art styles, such as Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and a certain kind of Surrealism. Also, the perception of men and women is a little different. The gay aesthetic celebrates glamour and style, and can be very experimental. This doesn’t mean that straight people cannot produce this kind of work. I can think of quite a few: Vallhonrat, Nick Knight, Mondino, Matthew Barney, Jeff Koons… But this also has to do with the assimilation into mainstream culture of marginal aesthetics…<pGL: Your credentials include fine art painting and digital photography as well as teaching at several art schools. What about the medium draws you to work in comics?
JV: From what I told you before, as you can see I am a long time devotee to the medium. I have enjoyed it and enjoy it in its many facets and I feel that in many ways, even after a hundred years, the mediums is still in its infancy, or maybe, more appropriately, it adolescence. I cannot wait to see what future comics will be like…
GL: How would you describe your artistic sensibilities?
JV: Well, like I said before, I feel that my work is very influenced by gay aesthetics. In particular I consider myself a fin de siecle type of artist, influenced by Symbolism and Decadent art… My work had a definite Romantic bend, but Romantic in the artistic meaning of conveying emotions, not the Hallmark one. Because I have worked in many different medias, and because of my general interest in the arts, I have been influenced by a lot of styles. I have close friends who are musicians, actors, filmmakers and writers… and working in an art college I am constantly exposed to all kinds of art and the people who create it.
GL: Do you adapt your style to the project?
JV: Certainly. It is part of being a good commercial artist, and is also part of finding the right tone for the right project. When I did VEILS, the tone of the story was very much like a nineteen century novel of a western woman seduced by the mysteries of the harem, so I came up with a very ornate, decadent kind of look for the images, and I tried to make them sumptuous and lush. PROMETHEA called for a Surreal landscape for Immateria, full of oniric details and symbols, much in the way that J. H. [Williams III] draws it. THE MIRROR OF LOVE is an epic tale that changes tone as it develops, so I tried to adjust the style of my images for it, from very theatrical and dramatic to photojournalistic at the end. And VOICE OF THE FIRE describes the landscape of a land haunted by its ghosts, with mythic creatures roaming the land in the background, so I made the images much moodier, shadowy and generally colder.
GL: With backgrounds in both fine art and comics, where do you look for inspiration? Which artists' or photographers' work do you admire most?
JV: Oh, there are so many… Lets see. In comics I like a lot of people, but Richard Corben, Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean have actually influenced me. I love a lot of Fine Art and Fashion photographers; Sarah Moon, Matt Mahurin and Javier Vallhonrat immediately come to mind. Pierre and Gilles are phenomenal also. I can’t get enough of their work. There are so, so many great artists out there in all mediums; it is hard to narrow it down.
GL: When you worked mostly in fine art your pieces tended to have themes derived or inspired by mythology or religious iconography. Was that because you were drawn to such narrative heavy devices or for other reasons?
JV: Yes, I loved the stories. It was mostly because I wanted to work with the human figure, to do nudes, and working with religious and mythological iconography gave me a context in which to work from, so the nudes would not be simple nudes, but allude to well known stories that artists have interpreted through art history and trying to come up with my new version. In a way, even though I was making these images for a fine art context, they were illustrations of stories that are part of the western tradition.
GL: Creating digital art is very different from creating drawings or paintings. Would you describe the process a typical piece of your digital art goes through?
JV: It is actually not that different. I always begin with sketching, doodling ideas, as I brainstorm for a good idea. Then is a matter of getting the best model and props for the idea, or if it a landscape the best place to take it. I then shoot it either digitally or in film, and depending on the result, I manipulate the images digitally, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot…
GL: Where do you find your models?
JV: Ah, the famous question! The answer is everywhere. They are mostly friends of my family or mine. But they can come from anywhere. I have asked a girl who drove a van for school to pose for me, and another one who was a cashier in the supermarket. I have also worked with professional models; it all depends of the image. It is not too hard, as long as people know that you are a serious and reputable artist and you tell them clearly what the image would be about and how it will be used. Most people are actually very flattered…
GL: How do you make the image compelling and sensual? Do you put some part of yourself into the work?
JV: Yes, I always put part of me in the work. Many times I act out what I want the model to do, sort of like a film director. In terms of how to make an image compelling, I think the two most important aspects are lighting and composition. If you do this right, you can make almost anything look interesting… Sensuality is a much more intuitive quality…I trust my instinct when it comes to that.
GL: Do you lose awareness of the boundaries between yourself and a piece while you're working on it?
JV: No. I think that I am too cerebral and controlling to ever loose myself in the work. I simply cannot turn off the analytical part of my brain. I can be spontaneous, but in a controlled form… I know it sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t for me. I am the same way in real life.
GL: Do you believe in Muses? Is there one that guides you?
JV: No. To paraphrase Picasso, when the Muse arrives, she should catch you working. Inspiration, as they say, is mostly perspiration. My “Muses” are being around creative individuals and constantly looking at artwork. That’s where I derive my inspiration. I do not believe in the cliché of the artist that can only work when inspired… if you are serious about what you do, you would do it all the time, and yes, sometimes there will be breakthroughs, but these can only happen if you’re active.
GL: You're collaborating on two projects with Alan Moore, VOICE OF THE FIRE and THE MIRROR OF LOVE. What are they about?
JV: VOICE OF THE FIRE is Alan’s first novel, which has never been released in the States. It is twelve interconnected stories of different characters that lived in Northampton. I think that it is probably his finest piece of writing, an amazing journey through history, in stories that never fail to surprise and amaze the reader. THE MIRROR OF LOVE is a poem in prose narrating the history of homosexuality as a love letter that is also a political manifesto. It is one of the most touching pieces that Alan has written and it has been an honor to turn it into an illustrated book. It was written originally as an eight-page strip for AARGH! a publication that Alan produced to raise funds to fight a homophobic law in England, the infamous "Clause 28". It was then reprinted as a text piece and Alan did some readings of it as well. Finally I adapted it for the stage and performed it, directed by my friend David Drake. So this is its newest incarnation: as a fully illustrated hardcover, with lots of additional goodies, by Alan, others and myself.
GL: What was there about MIRROR that inspired you to adapt it for the stage and to perform it?
JV: Well, I wanted to try something to perform, and I knew it would be a lot of work, since I had never done it, so I chose something that I found substantial, to make it worth my while. It was not written to be performed, even though I found that Alan reads aloud everything he writes, so it sounds great! So the task of adapting it for the stage was phenomenal, and it fell completely on David’s shoulders. I told him to do whatever he thought was best, since I trust him completely, and he came up with an arresting and surprising mise en scene. We contacted a brilliant electronic music composer, Chris Mandra, who produced a startling sound treatment and Michael Willis, an enormously talented singer and performer, who did the piece with me… Their support, advice and contribution was invaluable.<pGL: Why are these projects, especially MIRROR, important to you?
JV: They are both important because they are giving me an opportunity to marry the aesthetics of my fine art pieces to texts that I really, really love, and in the process it is pushing my artwork by leaps and bonds, since I am being challenged to come up with all sorts of imagery that I have never tried before. They are also a great opportunity to expose my work to great audience. When I was doing exclusively fine arts, the only way that most people got to see my work wasn’t from coming to my shows, but from seeing it reproduced in postcards, magazines and books. These books will be completely illustrated by me and I think they contain my best work, so that makes me very happy.
In addition, I feel that there’s an untapped market for illustrated books. The only books that get illustrated nowadays are children’s books, but for centuries, all kinds of books were illustrated, from missals to histories to novels. I believe that there is a big segment of the population that enjoys both pictures and words, and they would like this sort of thing if it was done with stories that they cared for.
GL: What impact do you hope MIRROR will have both on readers and the industry?
JV: It is very hard to tell, but it is certainly a book that I, as a gay man, would love to have, since there’s never been anything like it. If you look at gay and lesbian art books… well, they are mostly collections of black and white erotic photographs. That is fine, but is really, really narrow. For being here and being queer we are not being fabulous, that’s for sure. MIRROR doesn’t have any nudes, but it is very sensual, and addresses something very rarely addressed in visual art: the survival of our love through out the ages. I hope that a lot of people will find out about it and maybe connect with it’s message, since it is a little bold, but ultimately optimistic.
GL: If you could adapt one piece of literature into comics format what would you choose?
JV: That’s very hard. I can think of UNDINE by the Baron de la Motte Fouque, Which is one of my favorite fairy tales. Also, I would love to do THE HAPPY PRINCE or THE FISHERMAN AND HIS SOUL by Oscar Wilde; both of whch are exquisite and moving. If had the time and help I would absolutely love to see an illustrated version of THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, a fantastic visionary novel…
GL: Aside from the Moore projects, what other work can readers look forward to from you?
JV: Too early to tell… I am doing and will continue doing a lot of coloring, for Jae Lee and Danjel Zezelj. In terms of fully illustrating, I have to pick my next project carefully. I might do something with Michael Moorcock, which would be an absolute honor, but I don’t know yet.
Click here if you would like to see more examples of José's digital artwork.
Jae Lee is drawing a five part CAPTAIN AMERICA story starting with #12. Daniel Zezelj is working on SUPERMAN: METROPOLIS, a 12 issue series. José is coloring the work for both artists.
Visit Alvaro Villarrubia's website.
TOP SHELF is the publisher of THE MIRROR OF LOVE and VOICE OF THE FIRE
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