Fine Arts, Meet Pop Culture: the Art of José Villarrubia

An image from The Mirror of Love.
José Villarrubia

Plenty of people make their own rules in the medium of comics and graphic novels (present company guilty as charged)-it’s one of the joys of working in a very elastic medium.

But one thing is quite rare: a combination of mainstream comics success, superheroes and all; indie cred, working with the likes of comics grand mage Alan Moore; and stature within formal and classical art forms like photography, illustration, and curation. Add to this mix status as a respected art and art history educator, and you’re down to one: José Villarrubia.

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I first encountered Villarrubia’s work when I read his graphic novel Veils, written by Pat McGreal. The book stood out because, rather than conventional hand illustration, it used digitally manipulated photographs-composites of scenes shot with actors and props, digitally rendered environments, and painterly effects.

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Veils tells the story of a Victorian Englishwoman, Vivian, who is brought by her husband to an unnamed Middle Eastern sultanate. The book toys with Victorian conceptions of exotic Arabia, juxtaposing Western fantasies with harshly realistic elements taken from actual history. I found it enchanting, all the more so because it was so visually experimental. It helped that the writing was (dare I say it) many-layered and richly textured, and measured up to Villarrubia’s beautiful and entrancing images. There is far too much work done even in indie comics that resorts to exotic tropes, with no sense of awareness of the implications of doing so. I was delighted to find one that used them ingeniously as a narrative device, both visually and verbally.

Years later, I had the pleasure of meeting Villarrubia in person, and of being on a panel with him at ComicCon. We bonded as intellectuals obsessed with the literary potential and rich history of visual narrative, and on our love of the medium and its wonderful flexibility for experimentation. I’ve followed his work closely ever since, all the more so because Villarrubia, a native of Madrid, draws upon a wealth of visual material, and his modes of storytelling and favored themes are inherently cross-cultural, a specific fascination of mine.

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One of many haunting images from Voice of the Fire, José Villarrubia’s collaboration with Alan Moore.

Much more recently than Veils, Villarrubia has worked on a number of intriguing projects. His collaborations with Alan Moore include Voice of the Fire, an illustrated narrative that takes place over the course of 6,000 years in Moore’s native Northampton, and The Mirror of Love, a book of illustrated poems that celebrates the history of homosexual love through the ages. Few get to work with the notoriously reclusive Moore even once, much less twice, to say nothing of visiting him in his home. But Villarrubia is an artist’s artist, his range of technique and interpretation suitable for one of the most demanding, controversial, and gifted writers currently working in visual storytelling.

Also noteworthy is Villarrubia’s work in mainstream comics titles. Superheroes are generally an all-or-nothing genre: if you’re working in that field, you’re not usually also doing things like The Mirror of Love. Villarrubia has worked on everything from X-Men to The Fantstic Four to Spider Man, most often as a colorist. He’s also recently illustrated an interesting commercial crossover: celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s foray into the comics medium, Get Jiro, a story set in a dystopian future L.A. ruled by-you guessed it-master chefs, who also serve as crime lords.

All this, and Villarrubia also finds time to be an educator. He’s the chair of the illustration department of the Maryland Institute College of Art, having previously taught at Towson University, the Baltimore School for the Arts, and the Walters Art Museum, and has lectured at institutions around the world.

Some (both insiders and outsiders) consider comics to be a somewhat anti-intellectual medium. You’re someone who crosses freely between award-winning work in mainstream comics, as well as indie projects of a more literary sort. What’s it like to do this? And what’s your view of comics as literature as well as entertainment?

I do not think that anyone would say that a comic like Asterios Polyp is anti-intellectual, but yeah, comics have a bad rep among people that don’t know them. I like all different genres of comics, I always have. When I was very young I started by reading superheroes, children’s comics, comic strips and soon Robert Crumb and Metal Hurlant! And I thought they were all great. I still do, so it is logical I am involved with all kinds.

So, we’ve talked about this, because I couldn’t resist asking you when I last saw you a few years ago. What was it like to work with Alan Moore, and on those two projects specifically, Voice of the Fire and The Mirror of Love?

It was great! I love Alan, and I loved working on these. For Voice of the Fire he marked off Northampton and told me where he imagined each chapter taking place. I drove around in a taxi with Melinda Gebbie and photographed the sites. Later, back home in Baltimore, I did portraits of some of the characters.

An image from The Mirror of Love.

The Mirror of Love was a very personal project. I designed the book as well as illustrated and, with Alan’s blessing, had complete freedom to visualize it as best I knew how. I am thrilled it has been translated to Spanish, French and Italian.

You’re known for your work as a photographer-your fine art photography has been widely exhibited. Tell me a little about how you integrate photography into your work, and how you pair it with illustration.

At first I did this in Veils, Promethea and even a pin up I did of “The Sentry” that was widely used, but I am no longer interested in using photographs directly in comics. I like looking at what other people do, and it was fun to do when it was new, but I am not so much into doing it any more.

The way I integrate my photography work into my comics is the same way I integrated my painting experience into photography: through the application of a learned aesthetic. Specifically, composition, light, color, and other formal values, as well as other image making aspects.

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You were one of the first pioneers, as far as I know, of digital illustration and coloring, and certainly you’ve pushed the medium very far using digital tools in works like Veils. More and more comics work is being done digitally these days. What’s your take on this?

It makes sense, since the computer expedites the coloring process tremendously and allows for the timely production of what is mostly a periodically published medium. Also as computers and Photoshop have gotten better, the tools to color comics are very accessible. After twenty years or so, there is a “method” to coloring comics and digital illustration that did not exist at first. Plus drawing on the tablet directly is becoming a better method of image making every day.

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We’ve bonded on the subject of book craft. My copy of Veils has artwork printed on acetate, and I am sure you’ve experimented with other techniques.

When I first began in comics, I did not know Photoshop. I did “color guides” that were then interpreted by another artist, who knew Photoshop. I know that instead of copying, my colors could be scanned and incorporated directly and this artist said that that was not possible, so I took a class, learned Photoshop and figured out a way to do it myself.

It was hard, but I do love a challenge and working with my friend Jae Lee, I had tremendous freedom. Then working with my friend Stephen John Philips, I did Veils. I did tight layouts for that book, he photographed the models in costume, and I combined them with bits and pieces to make the finished pages. It was complicated, but, again I had a lot of freedom. Later on I figured out other styles that made sense for individual projects and some artists, like Paul Pope, asked me to develop new ways to color their work with unique color palettes.

Is there a specific challenge you’ve faced working in this medium, something you’d do differently in hindsight?

I have no complaints. I actually had a great mentor in my friend Jae Lee, who, although younger, was very much knowledgeable about the comics industry-which I found at first shockingly different from the fine art world I was accustomed to. I have no regrets; I have worked hard, tried to be creative and professional and pursued my dreams… I still do!

Whose work do you find interesting these days, and who would you recommend to our readers?

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Jaime Hernandez is to me the master of American comics. His last two issues of Love and Rockets are perhaps the best comic stories I have ever read. “Browntown” and “The Love Bunglers” should be mandatory reading to anyone interested in comics as art.

Adrian Tomine is just incredible. The most recent issue of Optic Nerve has two great, unique stories, not to be missed.

Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, and Chris Ware never disappoint. Their work, when it comes out, is always a gem and becomes indispensable to me.

There are also European comics, mainstream comics, even some manga that I read and enjoy…too many to mention.

What are you working on the moment, and what’s coming up in the near future?

At the moment I am wrapping up two DC series: Captain Atom, which is part of The New 52, and Sweet Tooth, a Vertigo series I have been doing for three years. I am also coloring Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. Next year I will do King Conan again and launch a new series with Jeff Lemire.