The Mirror of Love

By Alan Moore & José Villarrubia

Top Shelf Productions, 2004, ISBN 1-891830-45-7; 136 Pages, Hardcover $24.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Review & Interview by Ismo Santala

The Mirror of Love, Alan Moore’s poem in prose with illustrations by José Villarrubia, can be seen as many things, but above all, this unique picture book must be read as a love poem. The poet and his or her lover, whose identities and circumstances are left open, approach their love for each other in a roundabout manner by relating an account of the history of homosexuality. In the early stages of the poetic narrative, the ever-silent addressee listens as the speaker pillories the mechanisms of hatred:

Leviticus condemned
most sexual practice
as unclean,
including that
between two men.

This was designed
to snub the Canaanites,
whose male priests
practiced sodomy.

Had they been
cannibals instead,
how different
might things be.

The last stanza underlines, not without soreness or irony, the sway that concepts have on individual lives in the continuum of history, and this brings out another way to read The Mirror of Love; namely, as an approach to the writing of history. Since historiography is an exercise in selection and emphasis, the poem itself sketches a broad historical outline that gathers together details from sources ranging from dusty annals (e.g. it was one K. M. Benkert who coined the term “homosexuality” in 1869) to delicious anecdotes (Oscar Wilde’s glib recollection about “feasting with panthers”), and grants greater prominence to the lives of artistic figures such as Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and Colette.
The first version of The Mirror of Love, published in 1988 as an eight-page comic book, was a reaction to the Thatcher government’s notorious “Clause 28,” the now-repealed law that prohibited public authorities from “promoting” homosexuality. The speaker recapitulates the core of the issue near the poem’s end:

She let a clause
pass into law
that her chief minister
for local government
described as
being aimed
at banishing
all trace
of homosexuality:
the act itself,
all gay relationships,
even the abstract concept
would be gone,
a word torn
from the dictionary.

When removed from comic form and laid out in this fashion, the prose does not become stilted or unreadably affected; on the contrary, many of the line breaks help stress the full implications behind Moore’s words. For instance, the isolation of the words “all trace” gives more than enough ground to refuse the idea endorsed by Thatcher, even before the Clause’s homophobic idiocy is revealed. It is not important to know that the banishment refers specifically to gays since the underlying foolish logic is noteworthy in itself. For what would be so dangerous, so destructive, that an effective course of action would be to allow all trace of its existence to be abolished?
Even though this new edition of The Mirror of Love represents the coming together of Alan Moore’s words and José Villarrubia’s illustrations, it is not a comic book. If in the recent Top Shelf edition of the novel Voice of the Fire Moore’s prose predominated while Villarrubia’s images played a supporting part, The Mirror of Love sees a reversal of roles. Working from a palette of whites, blacks, and reds, Villarrubia’s forty illustrations are cued from various lines in accompanying sections of the poem, creating a correspondence between word and image, and sustaining a mood that embraces both melancholy and joy. Although for the most part, each two-page spread is relatively self-contained, a brief (and for that, all the more striking) use of sequentiality can be found in what is perhaps the darkest section of the poem. After a description of the gas showers of the Holocaust, the speaker asks “Can you imagine?,” to which Villarrubia responds with an image of total blackness. In the next spread, the speaker reassures his or her lover: “Darling, do not weep.” Here, Villarrubia presents a stern-looking figure who has just enkindled a small light, bringing illumination to the darkness.

Due to the high standing Moore enjoys as a comics writer (and especially after he announced his withdrawal from mainstream comics in 2003), all sorts of early bits and pieces of his writing have recently been republished. What sets The Mirror of Love sharply apart from those other works is its insurgent tone – because here, Moore is not conducting amusing genre experiments, but rather creating something that has its roots in his anarchist worldview. Following a trail similar to V for Vendetta (with artist David Lloyd), Moore allies himself with the close communities of individuals united by love, art, and personal freedom who are being threatened by the aggression of hateful and irrational outside forces. The new Villarrubia version of The Mirror of Love is a welcome addition to Alan Moore’s roll of impressive works.

Making Love
Ismo Santala Interviews José Villarrubia

Ismo Santala: You create images using photographs and computer manipulation. This seems to place your work under the large (and at times opaque) umbrella of “digital art.” How would you label your work?

José Villarrubia: I have worn many hats in the art world. I began as a fine art painter (although I did a number of portrait commissions and worked in illustration and graphic design in my father’s advertising agency). I later moved to fine art photography, specializing in nudes. Later still I learned how to use the computer and after doing some fine art work, began my career in comics. I guess it sounds a bit pretentious, but I would have to describe myself as a multi-media artist. But I am truly not concerned with labels…

Who are your influences as far as photography and digital art are concerned? Or, if not influences, then those who act as continuing inspirations. Whose work do you rate highly?

As far as photography and digital art, I have many, many influences. I have always admired fashion photographers (and have done a bit of it myself). Richard Avedon, Sarah Moon, Guy Bourdin, Javier Vallhonrat, Nick Knight, Jean Baptiste Mondino, Herb Ritts, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean Paul Goude, and many, many others… I am also very influenced by illustrators that use digital media like Dave McKean and Matt Mahurin. There are amazing people from fine art like Robert Parke-Harrison, Bernard Fauçon and Anthony Goicolea and Loretta Lux. I guess I am an enormous art lover… there’s nothing that thrills me more that to discover new artists that are doing incredible work.

In previous interviews, you’ve spoken about how in your art school days, the faculty was less than encouraging when you showed an interest in naturalistic fantasy. P. Craig Russell has also talked about this bias, that most art schools seem to shun (or used to, in any case) anything to do with mythology or fantasy; at least if the student wishes to approach them with a bit more realistic style.

It depends on the school and it depends on the department. When I was in school I was a Fine Arts major, and it is true that I did not get a lot of encouragement to explore the type of imagery I was interested in (with the exception of my printmaking teacher Allegra Marquart, who recognized a fin de siècle influence in my work). In graduate school, studying painting, I had the great fortune to study with Margarida Hull, a Symbolist painter, that completely supported my interest in Fantasy art and Mythology.

As an art teacher, do you think this kind of regulation of taste and topic is still going on?

Nowadays I teach in the Illustration department of the Maryland Institute College of Art, and as you can imagine, I fully support, as does the entire department, students interested in this type of art. Generally speaking, I think a lot of fine art departments across the country still have prejudices against a lot of what they call “illustrative” art, and Fantasy Art falls definitely in that area. However, I would say that most illustration departments don’t look down on it.

When planning an image, how detailed are your sketches?

It depends on the image. Some are fairly detailed compositional sketches, others very simple ones. I draw very fast, so even if it is a very specific compositional study for an image, it never takes that long to draw it. It is the thinking part that takes time… figuring out what to do in each page. I like to give myself several choices, but many times I end up using the first idea I had, while others is something that happens almost by accident…

Let’s take a concrete example. For instance, how did you arrive at this image:

Alan quoted one of Michelangelo’s poems, which I never had read before. But after reading all of them, the general thrust in them is in how Michelangelo worshiped a perfect ideal of young male beauty, a pure and untainted soul that he felt he did not deserve. I pictured his hand caressing the face of one of his statues to represent his sensual but unattainable desires. I had previously done a series similar to that but with real people (some of my ex-lovers, that I titled “Old Flames”). I asked a friend whose features are very classical to be in the picture and after doing his makeup, I realized that I had cut my finger the day before, and it was bleeding a bit. Instead of disguising this, I exaggerated it by adding theatrical blood, so the image had a bit of an androgynous kabuki theatre feel to it, as well as connecting to other images in the book that are basically red on white. Blood in this picture works great symbolically since it represents giving life, romantic passion, but also pain and suffering.

When planning the many statue images of The Mirror of Love, did you make notes already in the concept stage about what sort of characteristics a particular statue should have?

For the most part, I knew I wanted angels and funerary statues, but could not plan in advance exactly what these would look like. This led to nice surprises, like the image of the angel with broken hands. I could not have planned anything quite so perfect as this statue I found in the Victorian Greenmount Cemetery here in Baltimore. The only exception is the photo of the Greek torso with the hand touching it. I had done a sketch that looked exactly like that. I even had the models lined up for the photo shoot. And then I went across the street from my home to the Walters Art Museum, and there it was! Exactly what I needed, only better, since the genitalia had been knocked off… which gave the image more pathos.

It must be great to encounter interesting or spot-on material totally by chance... Is it true that Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Paris really was covered with lipstick kisses? It sounds so apt!

Yes that was a nice surprise...what looked like graffiti turned out to be found art! In the back of the tomb I found a little piece of paper stuck in one of the crevices between the marble blocks that read:

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
–Oscar Wilde.

How lovely is that? And how Mirror of Love!

Do you collect props or borrow them from somewhere?

No, I don’t. I do have some left over stuff from years of shooting, but not all that much; I mostly have a lot of fabrics. I did have to buy the helmet that the Spartan warrior is sporting in his image. I had it sent from Texas, go figure!

I guess I’m asking if you have some wonderful dagger or scarf just lying around the house waiting for that one perfect image...

No, I get the majority of my costumes and props from George Gobel who has the marvelous A. T. Jones & Sons costume store a couple blocks from my place. They have all sorts of costumes from all eras as well as armors, weapons, etc. George even posed for me as the Templar Knight in Voice of the Fire.

How much leeway do you give yourself in the actual photograph sessions?

It depends. If I can shoot the image straight, without digital manipulation, then I do that. If I need to do a little or a lot, I allow for that. In other words, the image comes first, and the execution varies depending on the image.

So when you’re working with a model, you don’t enter the studio only after you’ve reached a fixed design for the pose, the lighting and so on?

Oh, no, no. I set up the shoot myself: do or adjust the make up and accessories, place the lights, direct the pose (very specifically), etc. I work very closely with my models; most of them are friends or members of my family.

Does the knowledge that you’ll be able to alter the color and light of each image on the computer give you a wider margin of error as you are taking the initial photos?

Yes and no. You can fix some things in the computers, but not others. You can crop and change the composition, change the colors and collage elements. You can also do subtle distortion. But the better your image is to begin with the better it would look at the end. And there’s always at least one aspect of the image that has to be just right: maybe it is the expression, or the general mood or something else.

You also have a cameo appearance in the book, don’t you?

Yes, the close up of my eyes crying… I was going to shoot a friend doing this, and…he could not…he tried and tried and nothing, and I kept showing him what I wanted. So he turned the camera on me and told me that I should be in the picture myself, which I said, sure… Some people see that it is me right away and some don’t.

What hardware and software do you use?

My computer is a Mac G4 desktop; I use a Wacom tablet and Adobe Photoshop for manipulating the images.

In the original 1988 comics version of The Mirror of Love, the text was presented in normal comics captions. How did you arrive at the picture book’s new layout?

Presenting the text in lines that follow poetic structures was something that was decided by Chris [Staros] and Brett [Warnock; the publishers at Top Shelf Productions], with Alan’s approval of course. But it was left to me, when I was laying out the book, to format each paragraph in the book in this fashion.

It was a daunting task, since I have never written poetry, but fortunately I had David Drake’s extraordinary theatrical direction on how to read the text to fall back into. David had directed me on how to read every sentence, how to maneuver around the most complex spots to clarify them, how to separate segments of sentences for emphasis and which word to bring out in each paragraph.

With that in mind and using my best judgment, I proceeded to format the text. It took quite a while, and I did the best I could. At the end, everyone seemed happy: Chris and Brett approved and Alan thought it was “perfect,” which gave me a great deal of satisfaction.

You’ve now finished work on two Alan Moore books, and both of them are certainly giving you a great boost as far as your profile as an artist is concerned. Now that you have gained a new level of visibility, what are your future plans?

Well, I want to continue working with Alan in any capacity. I just contributed to the artwork by J. H. Williams in the last issues of Promethea, and I will be doing a couple other collaborative pieces for the ABC [Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics imprint] universe before it ends.

In the larger picture, I have some ideas of things I want to do, but I am not sure what will be possible. The thing about publishing (and illustrating) books is that they have to be a commercially viable product. I have lots of great ideas for projects, but they would not be viable in the current market.

And you’re more looking forward to doing illustrated texts than clear-cut comics?

I would be open to other photo-comics, but they would have to be a text that I felt strongly about. My regular work in comics, as a colorist/painter, is a lot of fun, and not very time consuming, compared to full digital art. I can get my fix of working in comics this way...not to mention work with my favorite artists!

I love doing illustrated books, and feel there’s great potential to illustrated books for adults that remains untapped. Basically I want to approach my favorite authors, show them the books I have done, and see if they like them and have any ideas for projects with me.

For example, I talked to some people from a website that wanted me to illustrate an online comic by Michael Moorcock. He contacted me and asked me what kind of thing I would be interested in. I was not sure what to say then, but now I am most interested in his short stories, such as the ones in the book London Bone. He is a brilliant author and it would be an honor to work with him in any capacity.

José Villarrubia’s Recommendations

Here are some of Villarrubia’s recent favorites in the fields of literature, comics, film, music and fine art.

Kelly Link: Stranger Things Happen
Run, don’t walk to the store and get this book. Link is an amazing writer of short stories, combining genres in a mixture all of her own, her stories are thrilling, surprising, funny and sometimes insane. She is considered the best short story writer in English right now by authors I respect.

Jeffrey Brown: Unlikely
I just love this book. Its modest size and simple drawing style has perhaps kept it out of your radar. Well, no more excuses. Go ahead and get a copy. Jeffrey’s story of a “romantic” relationship, from beginning to end, is so well observed and so simply, yet brilliantly told that will amuse you, shock you, and move you in turns.

Fangoria: Arquitectura Efimera (Ephemeral Architecture)
The Spanish duo, headed by pop-diva Alaska, have released this, their new album and it is a beaut! Jam-packed with 12 mostly techno-dancy themes and a DVD with six arty, low budget music videos, this is a great collection contained in a beautifully designed book. The single “Retorciendo Palabras” (Twisting Words) is infectious!

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort)
The campiest, funniest, silliest and most charming musical I have ever seen. With a fantastic score, incredible direction and outrageous wardrobe… A romantic comedy of errors that has it all, including a serial killer on the loose. Do yourself a favor and rent this one.

Anthony Goicolea
His photographs are amazing: absurd recreations of childhood fantasies, perfectly executed with the artist himself playing all the roles. His stuff is simultaneously hysterical and creepy. The wonderful Twin Palms book on him features a DVD of extras, which has all of his outrageous short art films collected.

Ismo Santala
2 August 2004

Additional Information

Top Shelf Productions – The publisher’s comprehensive and engaging site introduces their roster of talented artists.

glbtq – A good all-around “encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, & queer culture.” Includes biographies of most of the artists mentioned in The Mirror of Love.

Win a signed copy of Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire, with illustrations by José Villarrubia!