An Interview with José Villarrubia, Part 1(2)

by SidSid Keränen
Copyright © 2004 Heart-Attack-Series, Ink!
Interview was made in mid-Aug. 2004.
Color photos by courtesy of José Villarrubia.


I have had a change to meet interesting person, a digital colorist José Villarrubia. In this first session we talk about his past, projects, and his work with Mr. Corben in Max Comics "Cage", and "Punisher", and shortly in the end about Tom of Finland.

In the second session we will go deeper into his fumettis, "Veils", and "Promethea", and maybe reveal some productional tasks Mr. Corben had to face with his own fumettis, "Ogre", and "Doomscult". We'll also pass to animation and the movies, and Mr. Corben's Neverwhere [the Movie] (1968), and long time project The Fall of the House of Usher animation! [The second part of the Interview]

On a third page I linked all the other main interviews with José Villarrubia found from the Internet at the moment.


SidSid Keränen: You were born in Madrid, Spain. Are you city guy or suburb?

José Villarrubia: I am most definitely a city person. I don’t drive, so I like to walk to work, the store, clubs, etc... I grew up in Madrid, which of course is a big city, so I am used to city life. When I was little I was a well behaved kid. I kinda minded my own business. I am the oldest of five, so I have always been very responsible.

Did you draw comics as a kid? When I was a kid, I was interested of ants. I was born next to the nature, in the very Northern Finland, in a tiny hamlet of 300 inhabitants. We’ve got in Finnish television an animation of an ant character. It was a still pict animation, kind of a illustrated fairy tail. She was called as “Caru”, after one of Northern ant, “Formica Rufa”. I liked it a lot and I made my own rip-off comic version of my own ant character. I never completed it, and believe me, it was not worth.

That’s a wonderful story... I did do some of my own comics, but nothing as eleborate as you did. I made up my own characters, but never developed storylines for them...

Did you have got in your childhood any miniature film cameras in use? Did your family have moving image recordings when you were a kid? My best friend of those times used to have one, but at my childhood it was expensive, and that's why a rare hobby, and we never have any at my place. I was going to make an animation film with my friend, but we never found a good story to do it, and unfortunately we'd never done anything with that camera.

I am afraid that I was not so inventive as a child. I drew and painted constantly, but that was it...

My childhood most wanted hobbies were drawing and writing. I left home at the age of 17 and I dropped drawing and became a writer. Now I’m a graphic designer and a little bit sorry I skipped so many years with my drawing.

I left home when I was 18. My mother, who is an artist, always encouraged us to draw and read and do creative things.

You moved to the States in 1980. Why? You thought they’ve got better art schools, or was it because bigger opportunities than in Spain? Why did you leave Spain? I’ve been in Spain and I like the country. Much more than the States.

I moved to the States to start my own life and become independent from my background. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I don’t like the States more than Spain, but I know that I have been able to achieve most things I have done professionally if I had stayed there.

You studied in Baltimore and became a professional painter. You did exhibitions. Photography runs in your family. Were you interested of photography early in your childhood?

I became interested in photography as a teen, because of the work of David Hamilton, who in the seventies was everywhere. I bought his books, post cards, magazines, went to see his movies, everything. I still consider him one of the greatest photographers ever. After him I discored, Sarah Moon, Richard Avedon, Guy Bourdin and many others that are my favorites to this day.

How long time you were a painter, before you were drawn to comics? Were you in comics before Jae Lee made a proposal for you to color his work?

I was a painter all my life, since I did it both on my own and at school. I was around thirty when Jae asked me to color for him. I always read comics, but with one single exception, Jae’s comics were my first published work.

Do you feel better yourself as an computer artist or painter? Or are they just a different names for the same thing?

At this point, I feel equaly confortable at both mediums. They are not the same thing, they have specific techniques, and they both require a lot of practice...

Did you left old fashion painting for good or do you still paint?

I still paint, but very little. I teach painting, so I do demonstrations for my students.

When and how did you find computers for your art?

I learned to use the computer almost ten years ago. I enrolled in school and took classes. I use a Mac.

Which programs you use? Do you use tablet and pen?

I work in Photoshop. Yes, I have a Wacom tablet.

Which hardware you’re using? What do you think about Macintosh G5? I moved to OSX almost two years ago when I bought my new Mac G4 (867MHz). My primary programs are Indesign, Freehand and Photoshop. For the web site I use Dreamweaver.

I have a G4 with system 9. I am in no hurry to change. I teach Illustrator, Quark and Dreamweaver, so I am familiar with those programs.

Do you have a certain individual camera when you are making photography?

I love my Cannon EOS, I have two of them and I am going to buy a digital one soon. I also have a Nikon Coolpix (which just broken!), and I also shoot with a Bronika sometimes.

You have made fumettis, photo-comics. Can you tell more about them.

I did two. Veils, which was a colaboration with Stephen John Phillips and a short story within a story for Promthea. They are a lot of work!!!

We'll discuss more about them later. (See the second session of this interview.)

I know that Spain has got the largest coverage for Mr. Corben’s art outside the United States. In which magazine and when you met his art first time? What was the first story that “blowed your mind”?

I first found his work in the Spanish reprints of Creepy and Eerie. I was totally struck by his color work, but the first story by him that I thought was sinply brilliant was "In Deep" which I still think is a masterpiece...

The Finnish comics society made an article about Heavy Metal in 1980, and in next issue (1981) about Mr. Corben. I ordered Heavy Metal and my first toutch in it was in December 1981. It was the beginning of “Den II” and my comic book collecting life wasn’t the same anymore.

Yeah, I know what you mean. I got the first chapter of the continuation "Den" when it was printed in the magazine Ariel and I have never seen anyting like it.

You’ve been working in several projects with talented persons like Alan Moore (among others, an epic poem in prose, The Mirror of Love), and Bill Sienkiewicz. How did you get into Mr. Corben's "Cage"?

I have done several stories with Sienkiewics ("Sentry", "Racknarok", "Captain America", "New Mutants"...) as well as covers...
I aske (begged!) Axel Alonso to work with Corben, when he started to do work for Vertigo. Once at Marvel. I almost got to do the "Hulk" series [i.e. "Startling Stories: Banner"] by him, and I finally was assigned "Cage".

Usually I do not prefer “Cage” kind of stories, but Mr. Corben did it pretty interesting. His Cover Arts describe all sides of Cage character: violence, bulletproof, broad, convict, and coolness. “Cage’s Smile” is my absolute favourite, three other are superb, but I never understand why he chose “Cage Knuckle-Duster” as the opening cover. I found it least interesting of five. Sure, I can read the point of it: knuckle-duster for his profession, sparkles form fench (or jail bars) for his past, darkness for his working environment (a backyard alley), teeth, smile and his name on knuckle-duster (like a bad sign in Phantom’s ring) for his coolness, etc. But why such a dark beginning pict? Is it because he recreated the whole new formula from the old blaxploitation Luke Cage figure? Don’t get me wrong, I found that Cage much more better and interesting than the older one.

The covers had a lot of input from Axel. The one with the smile is based on a rap album cover… I am not surprised you liked the first one the least… He was still coming up with the right concept.

The dark, grainy, graffiti color world you made for “Cage” is very realistic and suitable for the story. Mr. Corben’s art is B&W line art without any screens. You did not left as it was, but you varied it by dimming (according light source, or like on the opening page of part 1, according car and city pollutions in the distance), giving pages more depth. And in a case of mirrors, your color version looks as it supposed to be, a looking glass. You can almost touch the surface. Again “flat” B&W line art was transformed into more deeper dimensional looking, and much better than anybody else in Mr. Corben’s new Super Hero Period.

Thank you. I put a lot of care in those pages.

I’m always been impressed Mr. Corben’s ability to find the best and most outstanding ways to use the medium he is in, no matter if it was B&W underground with zipatones, full color epic stories with his overlay technique, computer painted colors for slick paper, or B&W line art for bigger companies, like Marvel, DC, Dark Horse.

Now that I compare “The Punisher” (Front Cover Art) and “Cage” the similarities are evident. I’ve seen a B&W original scan. I paid attention of the additional “Jose” under his signature, but did not find connection with you. Did you design logo and everything? The logo is ingenious. The dimmed city silhuetto breaks letters nicely, as a destroyed New York City.

Thank you but I did not design the cover. I just did the coloring...

It's really shame that Mr. Corben, who is the most famous for his color work, is now doing B&W art for other colorists. I don’t mean he’s not good in B&W, on the contrary. He’s a perfectionist and you can read it from his every page, every panel. What he is doing, he’s putting his best. But still we all are missing his full color works he can do so gracely.

I agree! He is, without question, the best colorist in comics ever! I asked him why he doesn’t color any more. And he said it was not worth the long time it took him to do it... Pity!

Besides comics, and photographic art, you’ve done a lot of gay art. You do not hide your homosexuality; you have been stepped out of the closet. That’s a good thing, because for example some twenty years ago I’d never thought that even here in Finland, where I live in, it is accepted that two people of same sex can legalize their relationship.

I know. Things are changing...

BTW, the term “same-sex love” is new for me and a hilarious invention (I found it from the pages of The Mirror of Love, by Alan Moore and you). There is no rudness or vulgarism in it. Though “gay” is a “happy” word, “same-sex love” is both erotic and tender; it’s on a same level with any straight-sex word. It’s a word for love, not for a some prohibited thing.

Yes, I like it too. It is very straightforward.

Are you aware of Kitchen Sink’s Gay Comix? I bought Gay Comix #2 in 1982 for a curiosity, but I found only Howard Cruse’s stuff interesting.

Yes, I am very aware of this series, since it first came out. I had the great pleasure of meeting Cruse a couple months ago. “Stuck Rubber Baby” is one of my favorite comics ever!

During 90's I was collecting generally underground comix I bought also some lesbian comix, but did not find any interesting one.

Finnish comics society gives annually an honourable comics artist award called “Puupäähattu” (Block-head Hat). Award was given for the first time in 1972, and the winner was Toto Fogelberg-Kaila, the artist behind the one of the oldest and most well-known Finnish comic book character “Pekka Puupää” (Bud the Block-head). In 1990 the award was handed to Tom of Finland (because of his comic stories “Kake”, and “Mike”). I’ve never read any of his comic stories, but as a rebellious kid I used to keep on my wall a poster by him (actually it was in a window glass (!), pointing outwards – I was living in the ground floor and EVERYBODY who passed in our block house have to see it).

That’s a funny story. Can you send me a link to see “Pekka Puupää”?

Click the pict aside. It is a sample page from "Pekka Puupää" comic story from 1925! The "Puupäähattu" award is a black, tall, felt hat with a grey band and a fake ox-eye daisy attatched on it (a guy in a funny hat).

Comic artist and illustrator Tom of Finland is the grand old man of homoerotic imagery. It is evident that his pictures have dictated the whole new outlook of gay society what is known at the present day. He brought men in uniform, leather, self-irony, even camp humour (see pict aside). Your works are included among others in the collections of the Tom of Finland Foundation. Tell us more about Tom of Finland and your relationship with his art. When did you met the art of Tom of Finland for the first time?

Oh, I think that was in Spain, I might have seen bits and pieces of artwork by him, but what made me pay attention to him was his influence on Robert Mapplethorpe. I loved Mapplethorpe work and because of it I took a serious look at Tom of Finland. At the time there were no big books on him, so I wrote to him asking him for recommendations and he sent me a hand written letter with his own recommendations!!! As you can imagine, I was amazed... I believe that Tom of Finland has depicted the ideal of homosexuality in the twentieth century.

Have you seen awarded, interesting Ilppo Pohjola document, Daddy and the Muscle Academy (1992), which has been published in 2003 in DVD format both in Finland and in the States?

No, I have not seen it yet, but I do have the big Taschen book!

The rare pieces of his work that I have seen I liked his photo-realistic style with some enlargements. In Ilppo's documents he said he did not want to rase with photos, and he developed more dream-fantasy kind of realism.

Does it affect anyhow outside of gay society that you are not “straight” in your art or behaviour of the other (straight) people?

No, not really. My work and social enviroments are not homophobic, so I am fine.

Part 2

Copyright © 2004 Heart-Attack-Series, Ink!,
Created: August 10, 2004. Modified: November 14, 2014.