Injecting Influences And Heritage Into Comics: Ramon Villalobos’ Journey As An Artist

by Gary Catig

Ramon Villalobos is a comic book artist who’s worked on such titles as E is For Extinction: Warzones, Nighthawk, and America. Recently there have been a handful of artists associated with Marvel that have made the jump over to DC including Jim Cheung and Mike Perkins. Villalobos also teased on social media that he will be working on a still unannounced DC project. This year at WonderCon he was hanging out and was gracious enough to grant an interview for Comicon.com. He discussed his journey as an artist and developing his unique style. Though he was tight-lipped about his future plans, he did talk about what he’s most excited about in working for his new employer.

Gary Catig: We spoke a little at Emerald City Comic Con. You had mentioned when you were younger, you would participate in informal drawing sessions headed by Filipino artist Tony DeZuniga, co-creator of Jonah Hex. How were these get togethers and what role did it play in developing your style and skills? Were there other artists that were involved that are now in the industry as well?

Ramon Villalobos: When I first started, basically what happened was that Tony had an art gallery right next to the comic shop that I went to. I had heard about it and I’d known he had it there, but I was always very intimidated to go into it, you know. One day I went there because I was very, very, curious and I had some free time. I went in and I met his wife, Tina DeZuniga, who I still see once a year. She told me, “You should come by”.  I told her I was a comic artist or I was aspiring to do that. She said, “Come by tonight because we get together every Wednesday. Tony will do live model drawing and he has other artists come by.”

I immediately rushed home because they said it started at 7. It was 6:30 and I lived 15 minutes away. I rushed home. Grabbed my stuff. Went back. Was out of breath because I thought it was going to be real serious and he would close the doors. But he was like, “No, come in, come in.”  He took me under his wing a little bit and would look at my sketch book. He would be very positive and complimentary, even when maybe I thought it didn’t deserve it. At the time, when I look at my art then, he must have just seen raw potential. I don’t think I was there yet, but he would always say, “You’re ready.  You should be sending samples.”  We would get lumpia from next door. It was very cool. His wife Tina owns a Filipino restaurant, so they knew all the best places to get stuff and they would bring it in. We would all just hang out and draw.

And there was a bar next door to that shop, so people would come in drunk and model for us.  “Hey are you busy?  Can you come inside? Want to get drawn by some artists?” We would do drawings of people and they would take some or usually they would just take Tony’s. Because Tony would draw people, the most beautiful versions of them ever, or the most handsome versions of them ever. He would look at my sketchbook. Give me notes about what I could fix.  He would tell me the old school Marvel techniques he had learned doing the Jack Kirby method. When you would draw, these were little tips he would teach Filipino artists. He brought a lot of the Filipino guys. He got them get a lot of work for Marvel back when there was a big infusion of Filipino artists in the industry.

The other artists that were in the industry, there was only one guy who drew comics. A lot of them were just local artists that did whatever.  There was only one guy who really drew comics, my buddy Mike Dimayuga, who was also Filipino. He passed away, unfortunately. He had M.S., I believe it was. He had a disease but we didn’t know about it. It was something he dealt with but we didn’t know about. Then one day, he just passed. We realized he had something, but we didn’t know what it was so it came as a shock. He had done some stuff for Image and some stuff with Tim Seely.

He did some Hack/Slash work and a book called Colt Noble. He was working on other projects, and unfortunately he never was able to finish them. He had been making a buzz the same way that I had. He was a published artist that I looked up to because he was published.  [It was like] “Oh my god, this is the only guy I know where you can go to a comic shop and see his product on the shelf”. That really inspired me, too. I was very close to him. It was a bummer when I got my first Marvel job, since it was a month after he passed. I couldn’t even tell him, “Oh my god, I got this!” I couldn’t share the excitement with him. I still talk with his family, so there’s a little bit of that, but it was very difficult.

GC: You said DeZuniga served as mentor for you. Are there any other artists out there who have taken you under their wing or who’s work that influenced your style?

RV: Definitely my buddy who’s an artist. He’s been focusing more on writing lately. My buddy Dennis Culver. He cowrote the E is for Extinction book that I did at Marvel. He had seen my stuff online and he was like “Oh, we need to work together.” He saw a lot of the same potential. He wanted to help me get to the next level. He’s very talented too. We would do cons together early on and I would have the worst habits because I didn’t know what I was doing. He would say “You have to do this, this, and this” and to build my name up, basically.  He still teaches me the business side of comics in a big way. He was very important to me to get somebody to teach me how to do that stuff.

GC: Yeah, some people think its just commissions and meeting fans at conventions.

RV: My goal was that it could be that. But before you could get there, you have to put in work so people know who you are. When I would first go to cons, I would expect that I’m talented enough that people should want something from me. I wasn’t, but I had that in my head. He said, “You need to focus on this, this, and this. Do this. Build a brand for yourself. Find something that you can do that distinguishes you from everyone else.” Once I figured that out, that’s how I got my Marvel work. That’s how I still get work to this day. When somebody hires me for something, it’s usually something where in their head, “Who would be cool for this?”  I’ve left an impression on them enough that they’re, “Oh of course, Ramon.”

So, Dennis was huge. [Also] Nick Dragotta, who’s one of my best friends in comics. He does East of West. He’s amazing. He’s so talented. We get together once every couple weeks to just hang out and talk. He really motivates me and encourages me to do the things that I’m either doing or need to focus on. He gives me a lot of direction. He’s also a guy who for a long time people thought of as an old school guy. Once he did East of West, he realized, you just have to do what you’re passionate about and the audience will find you. So, he’s always encouraging me and that kind of stuff. He’s an amazing person, so definitely him.

Just as far as pure inspiration, I don’t think there’s an artist that inspires me more than Frank Quitely. Before I developed the style I have now, I would bounce around to a bunch of different kind of things. I would see Chris Samnee; what he’s doing is fantastic. I want to draw like that, which is the polar opposite of the way I draw now. Art Adams: I love the way he does that thing. I would try to figure that out. When I saw Frank Quitely’s art, I thought it was a cool style so I tried it. Once I tried it, I realized how hard it was to try and mimic that. I had to break down the things I liked about it, and I liked everything. I became very scientific, “He’s my favorite artist and this is why.” I could write a dissertation about it. I feel like I have with my buddy Nick Pitarra, who does Manhattan Projects. We’ll have these long conversations that go on for hours about how he’s the best. We’ll do it all the time. Every time we talk, if we bring up Frank Quitely, it’ll be about what a genius he is. But yeah, that was a big one too.

GC:  What would you say was your big break into comics?  You’ve said how DeZuniga wanted sketch work to show to his people. You also talked about Nick Dragotta’s influence on you. What comic was your big break? 

RV:  I had been doing ashcan comics for a few years with friends. They were really rough and we were flying by the seat of our pants. We would sell them for a dollar. We would print them out at my friend’s mom’s church. We just wanted to make something. My first comic that I did was a book called LP with a writer named Curt Pires. It was the first real comic that I did.  Once I did that, I realized “It may take me a long time, but I can do this”.

After that, Marvel hit me up to do a book. They didn’t even know I had done comics. They asked me to do a book and I said “Yes.  Yes, obviously, I will draw a comic for you”.  Then I realized after that, I need to send samples and “Oh no, what if they say I’m not ready?”  Luckily, they did, and I did a book with Joe Keatinge there called What If: Age of Ultron Iron Man. It was about the new Fantastic Four. Ultron and Iron man weren’t even in it. It was the new Fantastic Four which was Wolverine, Ghost Rider, Spider-Man, and the Hulk, but it was our own versions of that. It was the least Marvel book that you could do at Marvel. It was awesome for me because I got to design my own Spider-Man and Hulk. It was a hell of a first comic.

It wasn’t until E is For Extinction, where people got to see me in a different context, “Oh, I like weird comics, then I’ll like this guy’s art”.  Before that, I would do Young Avengers, and I love Young Avengers, but my style is so different from McKelvie’s style who just left the book, that people were like, “I don’t get it.”  They didn’t understand why it would be me. I draw kind of ugly people and he draws very pretty people. Now, I feel E is for Extinction is where people were like, “Oh ok, he’s doing his own thing.  It’s cool, but it’s different.”

GC:  One thing I enjoy about superhero art is the fashion design. Outfits can be more than capes and cowls. You put your own slant on popular characters, especially on your prints and commissions. Sometimes you incorporate a pro wrestling element, you’ve even done a Day of the Dead Punisher, and my favorite is your Robbie Reyes Ghost Rider. Your attention to detail gives it a certain level of authenticity. From the pattern on his shirt, the socks he’s got, and even his kicks. Minus the flaming skull head, I went to high school with this guy. I was curious how did you first come up with these mash ups and where do you draw your inspiration? 

RV:  When I first got into comics, I didn’t grow up reading comics. I grew up liking the idea of comics, but through cartoons and movies and stuff like that. When I got into high school, I finally started reading them and I wanted to draw that stuff. Because I didn’t grow up in it, I always felt like an outsider. I felt, if I’m going to draw Spider-Man, it has to be accurate. If I’m going to draw Green Lantern, it has to be accurate. Everything has to be the exact way that I had seen it because I didn’t want people to say “Rhis guy doesn’t belong here”.  I wanted to be respectful of the culture and the stuff that came before me. If I was going to enter this space, if I’m going to be a guest, I have to be respectful.

Then once I did that, I’m here now. I’m in here, I can do whatever I want now. I realized the reason why that stuff looked the way it did was because everyone that came before me, put in their influences. Usually by the time I came in, everybody that was influencing the next generation, were influenced by the last generation. It became a loop.

I started injecting what I grew up around. What I liked other than comics. When I meet young artists, I always say, “This is cool, but what else are you into? You have to have a personality outside of this. It can’t just be Superman. What else gets your blood going?”  I love pro wrestling, so when I first started drawing wrestling stuff, I knew there was a lot of cross over.  People were fans of both. I didn’t see that at cons so I started doing that. I’ll draw these wrestlers and wear wrestling shirts and I’ll be that guy. Then I was that guy, but I became pigeonholed every time someone wanted to do a wrestling comic, let’s get Ramon.

The other thing, I grew up in southside Tracy, California, which is a very small town, but it is a very Mexican town. Mexican-American. Everybody there were those characters, the cholos and that kind of stuff. I love fashion. Now I love drawing shoes, because I like looking at shoes. When I’m out in the world, I look at people’s shoes and see what their wearing. Because everything that somebody does and everything they wear, tells a story about themselves. It’s all story telling. If somebody buys a pair of shoes, what was going through their head when they bought them. When I look at people and they’re driving somewhere, in my head in the back of my mind, where is that person going? Why are they going there? What’s in their head right now? That builds up who they are as a person.

If I’m doing a single illustration and I want to tell a story, every detail of what that person’s wearing, the way they slouch, everything builds up who they are. If they are a tough guy, they might have knee pads because they might be getting banged up a bunch. I like to draw Batman with a knee brace because he’s a regular guy who I’m sure twists his knee every once in a while. He has to have things on him that show he’s been through it.

It’s about story telling. It’s also about injecting my influences. That way, maybe somebody else who sees my stuff may be into whatever else, and that’s what makes them tell their story through their drawings. Even if its just a drawing of Ghost Rider. Ghost Rider if he’s a Mexican Ghost Rider, let’s make him very Mexican. Let’s make him like my uncles.

GC: Going back to the wrestling thing, a couple years back, Cody Rhodes gave you a shout out and showed some ring attire you designed for him. Was that something he approached you with and how cool was it to work on such a project?

RV: He had put out a general message on twitter, “Hey, I’m looking at getting new gear. Is anybody out there who is an artist, who’s not a wrestling gear designer interested?” I’m interested. I had a bunch of friends who knew him. I had done a drawing of Chris Hero/Kassius Ohno, and I’ve drawn stuff of wrestlers that they liked. I think I built my name up by that point, and I knew a mutual friend of his that hit him up on the side and said, “Get that guy. He’s good.”

He messaged me privately and asked if I wanted to do it. It was really shockingly easy to do. I said, “Hey man, here’s a concept.  Let me know what you think?” He’s like, “I love it.  Can we fine tune this and this?” I’m like, “Yeah.” It was literally a first pass. Basically, what I did was I knew he liked Star Wars a lot. I knew he liked Zelda a lot. He gave me a general idea of what boots he wanted, and he wanted tights. He wanted tights that haven’t been seen before. I took the color scheme from a Zelda character because I noticed those colors that he used in WWE. [I thought] “I’ll take the Star Wars thing from a mixture of Boba Fett and Han Solo”.  There are elements of it. It’s pretty simple: just a codpiece, shin guards and a strap, and on the other side, his logo that we designed. At first, it was a Mandalorian skull thing from Boba Fett, and that might be too far. He had this idea of doing a shout out to his dad and we mixed that in.

It was amazing. It was super neat. Initially, the plan was for him to do that in WWE, but some things happened where it didn’t work out. When he didn’t, I was kind of bummed. Now he’s doing all this amazing stuff. I’ll be watching Wrestle Kingdom in Japan, the biggest show of the year, and he’s wearing those pants. I’m like, “Holy Shit! I made those pants!” It’s surreal.  That guy is amazing and I designed that stuff. It’s the only time that I ever designed stuff that people have worn in real life.

GC:  In this day and age, comics subject matter can cover anything from a lesbian grandma love story to other stuff. It’s not just super heroes anymore. One can see if they follow you on social media and in your art, that your heritage is very important to you. Do you ever think of teaming up with another Latinx writer for a creator-owned series that implemented or focused partly on your Mexican culture? Would you have someone in mind to partner with? A lot of artists are doing writing themselves.  Is that something you would consider? 

RV: I would love to. The truth is, I have some projects in the pipeline that are that. I can’t talk about them, but that’s what they are. It is important to me because like I said you want to bring in your influence and heritage like the people that came before you did. You want to make the space better for the people who are coming in. Sometimes its hard to attract new comics audiences because what they see of comics is the same kind of thing. It limits their possibilities of what they can be. When I draw the cholo Ghost Rider, Day of the Dead Punisher, luchador whatever, if I was younger I would have seen that and said, “That’s like me.”

In fact, I did do that. When you are young, the distinctions of race are not always so clear.  When I saw Batman in the cartoon, [I thought] “That guy is Mexican because he’s dark haired and dark eyes”. When I saw Wolverine, I thought the same thing. “That’s a short, hairy angry guy. I know tons of people like that”. There were so many media figures that I adopted. I think it would be great if you didn’t have to go out of your way to do that. If that stuff was available for you. I think Black Panther has shown there is an audience for that. Real quick, Mexicans, I think, don’t always ask for that, but when that is available to them, they’ll go out in droves.  Coco was the number one movie in Mexico of all time, and it happens to be one of the few mainstream Mexican movies that was ever made.

GC: Recently, there have been artists who have been at Marvel making the switch to DC. Jim Cheung was formally announced for Justice League and Mike Perkins teased his move by posting a picture of a DC sketch pad. You tweeted out a similar reveal. How did that come about? Did they want you for a particular project or did they like your work and thought, “This guy would be good to add to our stable”?   

RV: The distinction of Marvel and DC, they are two separate companies. There is a lot of cross-over of people that you know. My editor from Marvel is now at DC. An editor that I worked with at Marvel, used to be from DC and tried to get me for DC stuff before he got me for Marvel stuff. It is about individual people and their preferences of who they like to work with. My editor that I’m working with now, is an editor who had been asking me to do stuff for DC for years. I was busy, but now I get the chance to do it, which is great.

When I started reading comics, it was DC comics. I like Marvel stuff a lot, but it’s very exciting to me to get to work with DC stuff. I can’t say what, but it’s very exciting. It’s cool because it’s a West Coast company. The big distinction was I used to work all night and get stuff in in the morning because I knew I only had until two o’clock to get things in before the end of the day, and now I have until five. That’s the biggest difference. Those three hours are crucial because that means either I’m going to work all night and turn something in in the very morning or I’m going to work all morning and turn something in the afternoon, and then work a little bit at night. I’m excited to work with someone on the West Coast that I can hit up at 5, it’s not 8 o’clock their time and they’re gone. They’ve been gone.

GC: Working for DC opens up a new world to play in. Let’s talk hypotheticals. What writer would you want to work with and what character would you most want to draw?  They don’t have to be connected.

RV: Writers? I don’t know. There’s tons of good writers. That’s hard to say because I know so many of them, too. The main character I would love to do is Kyle Rayner. That was my first favorite comic book character. He’s the only action figure I have at my house. It’s that kind of thing. There’s a bunch. Me and my friends were so into DC comics for a while that I literally had an idea for every DC comic character no matter how obscure. I know what that character should be, he should be this. Mainly because Grant Morrison was my favorite writer and he worked at DC for so long. He had the understanding that he lived in that universe and he knew all those people. I always thought that would be cool. His comics are my favorite so dream- hypothetical, Grant Morrison. Anything Grant Morrison. But for character, Kyle Rayner or Blue Beetle. I like the idea of doing a Mexican character and both of those guys are Mexican.

——————–

Before ending the interview, Villalobos also chatted about his favorite wrestlers including Rey Mysterio Junior, Mick Foley, and Daniel Bryan. He was especially stoked since Bryan had just announced his return to the ring. If you dig his artwork or want to see more, you can check out his Instagram. Also, he’ll be tabling this weekend during C2E2, April 6 – 8, at table V-12Sketch lists will be open so come early.

Gary Catig

Gary Catig is west coast raised, east coast educated, and has a touch of southern charm. He has spent most of his adult life making science fiction a reality as an engineer conducting research in the military, microprocessor, and biotechnology fields. While currently living in San Diego, he enjoys all facets of pop culture including but not limited to comics, TV, movies, and music.