Andrés Vera Martínez
By Kathryn Weinstein
Illustrations by Andrés Vera Martínez
Interview first appeared in UCDA’s Designer magazine (Vol. 39, Issue 3, Fall 2014)
Andrés Vera Martínez is a graphic novelist, illustrator, and teacher.
In this interview, Professor Martínez shares a little bit about his life, projects, and his passion for comics. Professor Martínez teaches Graphic Novel 1, 2 and 3 and Illustration 1, 2 and 3 at Queens College, CUNY.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your background.
A: I was born in a small west Texas oil boomtown that has since gone by the wayside. My family moved to the capitol, Austin, when I was a baby and I grew up there with my older sister. My grandparents lived next to us. We made our home in some beat up rental houses on the outskirts of a middle class neighborhood. We were very poor and had been for many generations. Our family has roots in old Texas, a mix of European Spanish and Native American ancestry. We are distinctly Texans or as the history books call us, “Tejanos.”
I grew up speaking Spanglish with my devout Catholic Native American grandma. My favorite food was refried bean tacos with a healthy dose of American cheese. What I looked forward to most after school was drawing and watching Super-Friends and Warner Brothers cartoons.
Q: Why comics?
A: When I was a kid, comics were an inexpensive form of entertainment. My youngest uncle, who lived next door with my grandparents, collected comics, particularly Marvel Super Hero Comics. He also liked to draw. He was pretty good at copying art from his favorite Marvel illustrators. I was mesmerized at a very early age by his talent. He would often give me his drawings of Spider-Man, Thor, and other characters. I really got into drawing because of him—and of course the encouragement of my mom, who would praise my drawings at every opportunity.
I continued to draw superheroes and started collecting comics. I soon became just as interested in the stories as the art. In the mid 80s to early 90s, superhero comics were at an all-time high in quality and popularity with classics like Daredevil and The Dark Night Returns, The Watchmen, as well as the Uncanny X-men. These stories are now very influential in the making of today’s popular super-hero movies.
I stopped reading and drawing super-heroes when I reached my teens. It just wasn’t “cool” at that point and other things became more interesting. However, I continued to draw. Eventually this practice led me to college and then much later graduate school where I re-discovered my love for the comics’ art form. I would occasionally buy a comic here and there during my 20s just to check in on my old hobby and I began to find other genres in comics that spoke to me more than my childhood superheroes. As a graduate student (MFA, Illustration as Visual Essay, School of Visual Arts), I began to think about a career in Illustration and realized that making comics was not only possible, but held the greatest appeal for me. It’s as if I had been programmed from an early age to see art sequentially. I spent my time in school learning everything I could about making comics and was fortunate to have had some very good teachers.
Q: How were you able to turn your passion into a career?
A: There was a boom in the comic market around 2006. Traditional book publishers were jumping on the bandwagon to produce graphic novels. So the volume of funded projects was pretty high at the time. I was finishing graduate school and one of the first jobs I landed was to illustrate a graphic novel for Simon & Schuster. It was an attempt by the publisher to reach a certain demographic of young readers. I had little interest in the character and story, nor did I understand how an eight-year-old boy would either—however, I loved doing the job and making comics for money. I especially liked the research and process of completing a very long project. After the book was complete I decided that comics were the best way I could express myself and I started to look for projects that would use comics to share stories that were meaningful for me.
It was a good start to a career but I soon realized being a freelance cartoonist was not going to sustain a stable career, so I sought out other illustration work from magazine and newspaper publishers as well as doing storyboards for ad agencies. After all I had a family at this point and we needed a steady flow of income. Learning how to tell a story properly through comics really prepared me for all kinds of work as an illustrator.
Q: Little White Duck is collaboration between you and your wife, Na Liu, and has been highly praised by National Public Radio (NPR) and The New York Times. How did this collaboration start and do you envision future collaborations?
A: It had been a year since I had finished my first book and I had taken many other commercial illustration jobs for magazines and even a TV show. I thought it was a good time to propose my own project to publishers for another graphic novel. I thought about what meant most to me, and what I wanted to talk about. I came to the idea about getting my wife’s childhood stories out into the world. Na grew up in a very interesting time in China that not many people in western countries know about and making Little White Duck was an attempt to share all the great stories she had been telling me since we met. Na was reluctant at first but after some convincing she warmed up to the idea. Initially, my intention was not to make a children’s book—but since all the stories where of Na’s childhood memories it was easy to approach the book from her point of view as a four- to nine-year-old child. The publisher liked the idea and realized there was a potential audience for the project in schools and libraries. Well, librarians liked it so much they began to blog about it and soon The New York Times reviewed it their Book Review and NPR featured the book in their program, All Things Considered.
Little White Duck connected with more people than we expected and we are very happy about that.
My wife and co-author, Na, has been training for the past five years to be a physician and just recently completed a three-year residency in Staten Island. We’ve talked about collaborating on another book about her experience as a resident and the healthcare system in this country.
Q: What projects are you working on now?
A: My family goes way back in Texas, longer than most people in the state, at least six generations. A lot has changed in that time and I am very interested in the history. I’ve been working on a graphic novel idea for a few years to tell this story. I finally got it together and pitched it to publishers. Abrams Comicart will publish my book in the fall of 2016. I will start working on it this month. The working title is Espiritu, Texas 1887-2015.
Espirtitu, Texas will not only explore my cultural heritage and history, it will talk about the strength in family, overcoming poverty, and how knowledge can help someone survive when all odds are against them and also protect them going forward. The story will be told as mythology with its share of devils, demons, ghosts, and heroes and will draw to a close more in reality, mirroring a generational struggle of fighting to escape the shadows and downtrodden fringes of society.
Q: Do you have any desire to create animations?
A: I have no desire to animate my drawings myself; making comics is already a very laborious challenge. To animate a story properly, I feel you would need a team of people. I would like it if someday a group of animators were interested enough in my work to make a film, and I’d love to contribute with the design and direction, but animating frames would be a bit too much for me considering that my focus is on making comics right now.
Q: What’s currently on your reading list?
A: I’m currently reading: The Son, a novel by Phillip Meyer.
I’ve purchased or borrowed these books and plan on reading them soon:
The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius
Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century, Michio Kaku
I’m reading these books with my daughter:
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers
Q: If you were to create a summer reading list for a novice to comics, what would make the top ten choices of the list?
A: Just ten?! How about 13?
Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud
Maus, Art Spieglmen
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Batman Year One, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware
Hellboy: Seed of Destruction, Mike Mignola
Bone, Jeff Smith
Smile, Raina Telgemeier
Criminal, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson
Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli
Love and Rockets, Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez
Q: What was the best exhibit you’ve seen in the last year?
A: I don’t get out as much as I used to but I liked Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Q: What skills are needed to become successful in the field? What advice do you have for students on how to break into the field?
A: I think talent can only get you so far and doesn’t necessarily translate to a sustained career in the arts. Skills can be learned and practiced by anyone but what sets someone apart is falling in love with the process of getting better at your craft day-by-day, year-by-year. This leads you to seek out friendships with like-minded people who are just as passionate about art as you are. This network of friends, with time, will eventually gain positions to help you find work and vice-versa. To put it simply—be passionate about what you do; it becomes infectious to others around you. Be friendly and easy to work with. Eventually, if you stay persistent and stubborn, you will earn a living making art–without considering other options. It will happen. Last but not least, find a partner who believes in you and loves what you do. They may not be artists themselves but if they appreciate what you do they can help you on your journey to stay productive and happy.
Q: What was the most valuable advice you ever received?
A: My wife and I left stable jobs and a very comfortable city for me to attend grad school in New York. My wife saw that I was happiest when I made art and shared it with others. We gambled that the illustration graduate program at SVA was going to give me the best chance to have a career in illustration. It was a major gamble; basically only four out of 20 students from each graduating class went on to have a sustainable career. I’d have to be one of the four to make it worth the time and money we would spend on our move and tuition. On top of those odds, in my second year, we decided to have a baby because we wanted children in our future and time was not on our side.
So I went looking for advice from artists/teachers who made a living with children in tow. In David Sandlin, my thesis coordinator, I found a versatile artist/teacher who was also a family man. He gave insightful guidance. He strongly advised against obtaining full-time employment after graduation in a position that was not related to art. He said if I could not make ends meet with freelance work then to supplement it with a part-time job that was related to the field of illustration, even if it was a bookstore or art supply shop. David said that I needed at least five years to get my freelance business going and then things would stabilize. I took his advice and it held true. I was inspired so much by David that I decided to become a college teacher myself. I’ve worked very hard to get this point in my career and now have the opportunity to play a part in guiding my own students in pursuing their dreams.