One of my favourite comic book painters agreed to do an interview with me at the Thought Bubble Festival in Leeds this year. Paolo Rivera – despite his European-sounding name – is an American comic book artist who broke into the industry by fully painted art on various Marvel books like the Marvel Mythos series. He is a very funny and constant positive guy who has a great talent for his job.
Milán Kovács (Comic Conventions): So first question: who’s your favourite contemporary fine artist or painter?
Paolo Rivera: Fine artist? I don’t know. When I think of as my favourite painters all of them are comic book artists or illustrators.
Alright so who are those?
I don’t know it changes as I grow up. When I was in high school I’d say my top four were Jim Lee, Joe Madureira, Alex Ross and Adam Hughes. And I still like all those guys but what happened is as I went to school I discovered a lot of guys from the past that the other students were looking at. So it got to a point I found out who they were looking at and just studied them up. So now I can list a few of them who are long gone but I like. A lot of Alex Toth, a lot of [Jack] Kirby. It’s really hard to narrow it down. When I was in school I got really into painting and when I was learning to do that I looked at a lot of Phil Hale and Jon Foster and that time I was only going to do painted stuff so that’s what I looked at.
You wanted to do painted comics.
Yeah I mean that’s how I originally broke in so it just made sense to look at those and see what I wanted my work to look like.
It’s better to break in with an unusual style or fully painted pages I guess.
Yeah it made breaking in for me much easier than it would’ve been otherwise for sure.
Do you do paintings of other things than comics? Or more like did you?
I did a lot in school and haven’t done so much lately. When I’ve got a little bit extra time I did go to some life drawing events at the Society of Illustrators. I mean I love drawing from life but I never have the time to do it so as soon as I find a little more time in my schedule… I live close to the Society of Illustrators but I hadn’t been there in like 8 years. In the past I went there like two weeks in a row and I’ve got busy again.
I forgot to ask, what school did you attend to?
Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. I went there four years but one year was in Rome, that was my junior year.
So you studied in Europe.
Well I mean, yeah for one year [laughs]. But it was a damn good year.
What kind of scripts do you like? Do you like them detailed or if you have more freedom?
One of the nice things about working with [Mark] Waid is we had never worked before Daredevil. And as we did over the course of six issues he gave less details because we trusted each other and that goes back and forth.
So you’ve got to know each other’s working methods.
Yeah it’s a level of being comfortable with whoever you’re working with so I like both but if it’s a more spare script I like to know the person and talk about what they’re going for. So it kind of depends on what kind of story it is.
[A fan interrupts us asking for a Daredevil sketch. Paolo kindly tells him to come back later when he’ll be doing quick head sketches.]
No it’s been great [laughs].
Do you have some Spanish roots (because of your name)?
Yeah my Dad is Mexican but I’m a third generation [American]. My grandfater was born in the [United] States but his older siblings were born in Mexico. So he was born in like 1922, anyway quite a while back. And then my Mom is just who knows Irish, Dutch, English, German.
So you’re pretty mixed.
I’m a mud [laughs]. What it comes down to it. People always ask because I have an Italian first name but I’m not Italian and a Mexican last name but I look more Italian than Mexican. But the funny thing is I look more like my Mom but I have coloring more like my Dad. So my Mom’s got black hair and blue eyes [laughs]. It’s a craps – you never know what you’re gonna get.
What about your new project you’re working on? Can you tell something about it? When will it see the light in the future?
I’m giving myself like 2 or 3 years for the 200-page graphic novel because I will be doing other things in the meantime like covers and stuff. The basic story is about five robots and their creator on a desperate search for fuel. So things are going pretty well, they’re living life, they’re doing fine until they run out one day unexpectedly. They thought they had enough to last for a very long time and they find out that somebody’s been using the energy that they thought they had. You know all the good science fiction parameters are in there.
But now you’re writing it as well.
Yeah I’m writing as well and I’m about 25% of the way through the script. I have the basic story figured out but I gotta go through there and write the whole thing.
In a traditional comic way I guess…
Because I’ve never done it before I want to make sure I have a structure to it.
And do you have assistance from Mark [Waid]?
Once I finish the script I’ll definitely get him to read it. No doubt. He said I could so I’m gonna use him.
You’ll have a free lesson on how to write comics then.
Exactly, we’ll see. We haven’t worked out terms yet [laughs].
You seem quite funny and relaxed. At yesterday’s Sketching Spotlight you almost seemed like a buddhist monk, a zen-type of creature.
Do I? In what way, am I relaxed or…?
I don’t know. Part of it is you seem quite relaxed and the other is you seem like you’re at peace with yourself.
Yeah that’s a good way to describe, I’m at peace with myself. I don’t worry about a lot of things because so far things have gone very very well for me and I hope that continues but if it doesn’t it’s been a great ride. So I don’t know what the future holds but you know I’m pretty optimistic I can get cynical sometimes but I never get angry and I’m not like a ball of rager really.
And the other question was where do you get your energy?
That’s something else, I don’t know. It’s tough. It’s a drive that I can’t quite explain. When you want something from the time when you were very very young you can try and explain where that comes from. But really, I don’t know it’s just when I woke up on this Earth I loved superheroes and I wanted to be one. And when I found out that I couldn’t be one I wanted to actually draw them. It was the next best thing and it was the only thing I felt I was meant to do. And I wanted to do it really well so I practiced and practiced and I don’t know if you can instill that in anyone. I always thought that you can always learn how to draw but you can’t make people want to draw. So it’s tough. I definitely practiced very very hard all my life but at the same time I wouldn’t be able to put in those hours had I not wanted to achieve a certain level.
How much time did it take you to complete a fully painted issue of Mythos for example?
Each issue is different so my first fully painted book was the Spectacular Spider-Man #14 and that took me 3 and a half months which was very very fast but I did not go outside for that 3 and a half months.
Like you said it yesterday on the [Sketching] Spotlight that you didn’t have a real life that time.
Well that time it was much much worse I mean I literally had myself on a schedule where I slept like 5 or 6 hours a night. Which is not that bad I’ve done worse but I would shower every other day to save time which was disgusting. But when I look back on it I could’ve showered every day and when I think of what I did at that time I used every waking moment to do that one issue. Because at that time I used oil [painting] so it took a lot more time to draw I was also preparing all my own boards so I was cutting down masonite and priming each board. If I did a double page spread sometimes I had to build a frame for it.
And you work at home, right?
Yeah, I work at home so I was breathing these fumes [of oil painting] the entire time. So I actually got sick at the end. I never want to work that hard again but I’m glad I did. Unfortunately that’s what’s necessary to get a leg up in this industry. That’s what it takes and if you don’t love it enough you won’t be willing to do that. But getting back to the question: Mythos, the first issue, X-Men I painted in oil so it took 10 months and the last month was just cleaning up files in Photoshop. Because I couldn’t figure out a way to scan or photograph them to have a look as good on the computer screen.
I can imagine that. So you had to adjust the colors and stuff like that?
Yeah and really just taking out all the imperfections because oil attracts dust and if you glaze on top of that you get all these reflections. It was very bad. After that I knew I had to make a change I went to The Hulk and I painted it in black and white and colored it digitally and that took 6 months. And then the whole time I was getting paid the same amount of money so I made a little bit more because I was a little bit faster. Mythos: Spider-Man took 3 and a half months. Again that one I did very very quickly but again I didn’t go outside.
One of the staff members in Travelling Man said that he read that issue of Mythos: Spider-Man like 10 times and that’s his favourite comic book. He even had the cover as his wallpaper on the staff computer.
Well, that’s awesome. That was definitely the fastest of the Mythos books. My favourite one is by far Captain America and that one took a solid 6 months of constant work.
Man, that’s half a year of your life… And that’s only for a single comic issue.
Oh yeah, I mean I did the first cover in December, 2004 and I did not finish until May, 2008. So for 6 issues it took a little over 3 years of my life. I know it’s pretty insane, it was originally going to be 8 issues and when I got Captain America they [Marvel] were going to cut it off and making it 6 issues altogether. And I’m glad they did because we made a nice book and it allowed me to make the jump to black and white art. Otherwise I don’t know what I would’ve done.
Yeah, you just can’t do this in your whole life. I mean painting these comics in full color.
Well I like painting still I just want to limit it to just covers and commissions and that kind of stuff because it takes way too long. When I do my own thing it’s still going to be black and white plus [digital] color.
OK I think that’s all and I don’t want to disturb you any more and make your fans angry. Thank you very much for the interview. It was a pleasure.
Well, my pleasure too.