Whilce Portacio: I'm the Artist GuyA comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
Sometimes you just don't know what you're going to get from an interview. I had no idea what to expect when I talked to Whilce Portacio at Image Expo in February, since he's notoriously quiet and a bit shy. But the interview that we had was nothing short of spellbinding and ended up being one of the most interesting and intensely personal interviews I've ever done.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: How did you end up getting involved with these other Image guys?
Whilce Portacio: I was actually very lucky in the sense that I've always and purposely cultivated that I'm the artist guy. I'm the guy who just wants to be left alone and just work. I'm also the geek guy.
[At Image], we wanted to figure out how we were going to do this a little differently because we understood that, even in the beginning, not only were we going to do what we did in the big companies and [in the same way that we] got the attention from the fans, but we wanted to give them back something a little different. And that was going to be Photoshop. That was put on my lap because I was the only one who knew what Photoshop was at the time. I've been into computers since 1986, doing 3D and all that stuff.
I was the guy who's just the artist guy, and I was fortunate in [that] that's how I got in with Image, too. It turns out [that] I didn't have to do any of the heavy loading, any of the work, really, because while they were starting to get this going, before they really understood what they were going to do, Jim [Lee] called me up and said, "We've got something going on. Something's going to happen, but we're not really sure yet. I can't really say anything, but I want you to think about it."
Then I took my annual jaunt to the Philippines. I was raised here [in the US], but every year I went back to the Philippines. And by the time I'd gotten back, they'd already [decided to start Image]. And so then the choice just was whether I was going to join as the last founding member.
Jim and I had been in a studio for years before that, Homage Studios with Scott Williams, but it was just us three. Scott Williams is an old friend of mine from high school, so we trusted each other. Scott was the resident comic geek collector. He had, even back then, Barry Windsor-Smith originals. That's like a couple of thousand bucks of original artwork. I'd have to go to a high-end museum to see something like that.
Scott knew everything about comics and, like I said, I'm just the guy who wants to do stuff. I was young, unattached, feeling powerful. Whether this failed or not, no problem. I'd just get up and do something else. And so I just asked a simple question to Scott. "Scott, are we gonna do this?" I said, "Are we gonna do this?" And Scott says, "Yeah! I think it might work." And that's it, I just called up Jim and said, "Yeah sure, no problem."
CB: So it wasn't a big decision for you? It wasn't jumping of a cliff like Todd was talking about yesterday?
Portacio: Well, no. Let me put it in context with my life. I'm knocking on wood here. I have been very, very fortunate in my life from the beginning. Even without Image, even without comics, I've lived a very charmed, lucky life.
In the context that I just want to lay back there and do the art I'm feeling. So I've been able to get into all those nice, sweet positions. Everybody seemed to like me all the time; everybody seemed to favor me all the time. Especially as a kid, being liked got you a lot of passes and stuff. And because I got a lot of those passes, instead of worrying about getting in trouble and worrying about trying to get the latest this or that, I just sat there and it all was given to me and I could just watch and observe life and people around me. That's how I became the artist.
In order to become a real artist -- and I'm talking creative across the field, dancers, actors, everything -- you have to have that huge period in time when you can just observe, when you can just conceive. Like when I opened my door to go to school every day, there was this tree over there and every day I noticed that it looked a little bit different, but it always looked cool to me. So I asked the question every day, why does it look that way? And there I started my education on light logic.
So I had the curiosity to try to figure out why everything is the way it is. And because of my luck, I had the opportunity to actually sit down and try to figure that all out. That's why I'm the artist that I am, still constantly exploring and trying to push my boundaries and trying to go to different places.
Image was the perfect place. It worked to a certain extent in terms of years. But now after all of it, it worked well for my whole overall life and career. It has the legacy that it has now. A lot of what we intended, we were thinking [in] more immediate [terms] when we were doing it. Our own success, our own making this be something we could live our lives through and raise our families and then realize that we've made a couple more good steps in decisions along the way that maybe were subconscious and helped make the industry a lot stronger... Seriously, would you have thought that comics, superheroes and fantasy would be accepted like [they are now]?
CB: It's everywhere. It's incredible. As a fan, it's nirvana. What's the biggest buzz out of every movie this year? The Avengers!
Portacio: Right, right. My dad was the typical strict Navy dad. I had to call him sir when I was young and everything. But I can remember the moment we got really close as father and son, and that's usually in your later years when you understand finally what your dad was actually doing -- making choices and living to them.
I woke up one day, late as usual -- you know, typical artist -- and I get up to go in my car to go to the studio and my dad was just finishing washing my car for me. We just looked at each other and it was like me saying thank you and him saying something, but with no words. Just looking at him, me saying thank you and him saying you're doing good.
CB: That's a great feeling. I know that family is obviously really important to you. You've been talking all weekend about your daughters, saying how cute they look and everything.
Portacio: Hey, they're doing their own stuff. They've organized the comic book company already, junior Image.
CB: So you were working on X-Men at the time that you left. Was it hard to walk away from something from which you were making pretty good royalties?
Portacio: If I'd had a family at the time, maybe it would have been different. But I've always been fortunate in that, if I make a decision, I make it and I just go with it. If there are a few obstacles, I run over them, and so I have no regrets that way. I consciously try not to have any regrets, and if it goes totally sour on my decision, then I just turn around and look for the next way to go.
CB: So you just took the leap and you figured, what the heck, I'll find work down the line then, too.
Portacio: Exactly. Because with my experience, I can look at look at people's work and see, okay, maybe they're not yet ready for comics, because you have to be almost perfect. Editors won't take the time to nurture you.
But you call tell if a person will eventually be an artist in some field. You can see if a person has that sense. As long as you have that sense and you keep going forward, you'll get into something. It's just a matter of you being brave enough to put yourself out there. Just like us. We put out comics out there and we were just lucky that it was a time when the audience was being very vocal about what they liked and what they didn’t like.
And so we gave them our all, and we were just fortunate that what we wanted to give was what they wanted. It was very easy for us to give them what they wanted every time, in spades. And then all of a sudden, really quickly, it got big and we decided, okay, let’s do a lot of second tier comic books and then let’s do the cards and then let's do the mini posters and then let’s do the ashcans. It wasn't like we were going, "Hey, let’s do this so we can get some more extra money." We were trying to keep up with the audience.
CB: They couldn’t get enough of you guys.
Portacio: I remember Todd signing Spawn #1, [and the] Youngblood #1 signing. Here's Rob and Todd signing, and we're all signing ashcans and everybody’s like, "When's the animation coming out, when are the toys..." We'd just finished the first issue!
So we understood that there was this ravenous appetite and we were just young enough to jump and leap at that.
CB: Valentino was describing it as being at the center of the hurricane. You're watching all the fury happen all around you, and you're just like, "How is this going to affect me?"
Portacio: Yes, and maybe we just didn't have the presence of mind to understand that this is a type 6 typhoon that could tear us to shreds. We were just curious enough to go, "I wonder what it's like inside there."
CB: Well that's the thing, you survived for 20 years. And not only did you survive but the company's thriving. You've got Kirkman and all his great work and all the thousands of great comics that came after you founders.
Portacio: Todd put it the best the other day when he said that we segued to Kirkman all the amazing books to come, the ones that that Eric Stevenson has announced. I mean, those announcements were phenomenal. That's a real cue that… not that we could leave, the founders, but that we can now take a sigh of relief that all of the heavy work is done, at least in terms of us. Image it will keep going, and it now has its solid legacy. No matter what happens to us, Image will still continue.
CB: You showed a third way. It's not the Marvel way, it's not the DC way, it's the way that you can control your own destiny, make your own money, do your own project.
Portacio: Well, I even go further, because you remember (and maybe some of the stories are exaggerated but from what I understand from our history) Frank Miller walked into the DC offices and said, "Hey, can I do a 50-year-old psychotic Batman?" And DC were only half listening because they didn't really care, because the sales were so poor, they go, "Yeah, sure, go ahead." Or with Watchmen -- anything like that, anything that you can name that is very successful in our industry -- you could make a case that it was because those creators were allowed to do what they wanted.
CB: Sure. Marvel in the '60s or you guys in the '80s and '90s.
Portacio: And so this third way is, I would argue, the real way, the ultimate way. I mean, look even across our field at other fields like novels and stuff. You don't see or hear stories of Stephen King or William Gibson ranting and raving how editors are dictators. You know, they just find another editor. Somebody who will just allow them to be who they need to be, and, for the most part, just dot the i's and cross the t's on the technical stuff. The editors should just make sure that, as a storytelling process, it reads correctly.
Look at movies. How many years and decades has Hollywood tried to do our stuff the way they thought it should be done? And the moment that they started doing comics films the way we gave it to them and catered to the audience that we built, all of a sudden they're sitting pretty.
CB: We know this stuff.
Portacio: We know this stuff, yes. We live it. Why do you need to go further than that? I've been fortunate to be able to visit Pixar and ILM and all these great, fun, creative places, and one thing I'm proud of is just the way comics are.
Because comics are a monthly medium, I get a plot and I have to, in one month's time, draw 22 pages and a cover, but I also have to create two species of beings to fight against, then a new blank-mobile or a blank-suit or maybe even design a new villain all in four weeks.
Now you give that workload to the best production crew at ILM or Pixar, they'll get three years to do that. I've got to do it in one month and then the editor calls and says, "Oh, wait a minute, that character that I really like that you put in there, we can't use him, there're some legal problems. Can you come up with another character that will fit that slot?"
CB: And you're giving it away to them.
Portacio: Right, and that's actually an interesting, important point you put out there. Because if you're a real artist it, doesn't matter what you create for whom, really, because the character that works is the character that fits the situation.
Like Rob was saying, he's created some X-Men, he's created some other keynote characters in Marvel and stuff -- and I have too, and Jim and everybody has --but those characters pulled into Image might not work. Because they work in the context that they were built in. I built Bishop specifically to be a rocker and roller within the blue team of X-Men. You take him out of that, and he's just this gruff handsome guy. In that context, maybe he's just considered another Wolvie clone, just in the anger department.
So a true artist, a creator, can continually create, and you're continually creating. So I created Bishop for them. Whatever. I've got another idea. You don't like this one? I've got another one. You don't like that? I've got another one. That's my life; that's all I do.
I think a lot of artists short sell themselves believing that they may only have a handful of ideas. If you already think that in the beginning, that's gonna come true. You gotta understand: you're creative, you think, you just put pieces together. You see a situation happen in real life and then you go, "Oh that would be an interesting story." And what's the end product? Is it an exact copy of what you just saw in real life? No, you're just taking bits and pieces of what you saw and you've blown it up and you've added other characters and you’ve made it really interesting and enticing and clear in a storytelling sense.
CB: That's what makes it art and not just a picture or something.
Portacio: Right, exactly.
CB: There's a consistent theme you've been talking about all through the interview, and it's something that most of the other guys haven't talked about, which is art. You really see yourself first and foremost as an artist, as a creator. Todd seems to be much more focused as a businessman -- with comics being part of his larger thing of who he is -- but you just really have a passion for creating art.
Portacio: Remember in the '60s and '70s when you read Stan's Soapbox, Stan not only gave everybody nicknames like Jack "King" Kirby, Stan "The Man" Lee, [but] he also always talked about the Bullpen. He made it sound like there was this crazy room somewhere, full of tables where everybody would just hash out stories. That's the way Marvel pumped it out. When I got in the industry, my biggest disappointment was that it never was true. The bullpen wasn't like he described it.
CB: Right, that's what you heard. First of all, everyone worked from home more or less. It wasn't a big 24-hour party place.
Portacio: Yeah. Stan told me that his big conferences with Jack were maybe an hour on the phone. And Jack would do the comic and maybe remember things in a different way or add things. Like Stan said, Jack was the one who added the surfboard for the Silver Surfer. After he saw the art, Stan would take it and in, true creative fashion, would adjust to the art. He wouldn't gripe, "Oh, Jack didn't remember this part," or, "Where’s this part?" Stan went with the flow and made it better, and that's what creativity is about.
So when I came in and I understood that that bullpen scene actually never really happened, that's what I tried so hard to recreate at Homage. Scott was already with me, so we were already together working in an apartment. We tried very hard to get Jim to move down from Berkeley, and he finally did. Then we had Homage Studios in a two bedroom apartment.
And after that, we grew Homage. It became a big studio with Mark Silvestri's crew, Joe Chiodo's crew, Mike Heisler's crew, with Erik Larsen. Then we had a huge team. My key memory of that time is that this was the actual Bullpen. It was not just people who were training under me. I've always been training people, always people that I respected artistically, such as Jim and Marc. I loved being able to see what those guys do and what they did. As an artist, I loved that, because Marc was doing great work and Scott was going crazy about the work. The work they saw just made me want to do a triple-page spread to top then.
So we just kept empowering each other, and that's the situation that I really love. It stands tall, and that's how my whole life has been and [I] can't knock it. I wouldn't change any part of it at all because that's pretty much who I am.
CB: You talked about legacy and training and helping the new group of artists to move ahead. That's another thing that's obviously really important to you.
Portacio: Yes, yes, that is my number one thing. Maybe they are two parts of it. I was born and raised here in the US but in 1999 to 2000 I went back to the Philippines -- you know, my roots thing. Okay, let's see what my culture is, where my parents were born into.
And I had all these comic people in the Phillipines by the names of Leinil Yu, Philip Tan, Roy Allan Martinez, Jay Anacleto. All these people were just looking for an avenue, looking for some help. They had the same dream I had. I eventually gave in to them and set up a school. I found out through the school that, indirectly, that's a big part of why I love being around creative people. I actually really love teaching because I have a very analytical brain. I just told an aspiring artist that one of the problems with the way we learn as artists is we just do things by instinct.
There's no school, really, to tell us how to create art, and so you just do it and if you like it then you go, "Oh!" Then the way to test it is to show friends, and if they respond the same way, then you just keep doing the same thing. But you don't understand why you're doing that; you don't understand what your other options are and maybe why you didn't choose those options.
And so later on, when you become a professional, everybody obviously wants you to help them. They want you to impart your knowledge to them, but because of the way we usually learn, it's very hard to consciously do that. You don't really understand why you're drawing the way you do. You're just relying on your instincts, waiting for that inner bell to ring that says, "Hey, this is it." It's your Spider-sense, you know?
And I'm always looking on the positive side. I'm diabetic now, I went into a coma [in 2000] with a blood sugar of 1600. I made the world record at Sharps in San Diego. At 800, your organs are warming up. So I was burning. I lost 32 pounds in four days.
CB: My mom was a diabetic, and that's why I refer to her in the past tense. That's exactly what happened to her.
Portacio: You can adjust to certain aspects of diabetes, but the disease has so much control over so many things that you're always trying to figure out what to do. My eldest girl, Camilla, was born the week before my blood sugar spiked.
So when I woke up in the hospital, I didn't ask the doctor what happened. I asked the doctor, "Can I hold my baby?" And he said, "No." "Oh," I asked, "what do I need to do?" “Well," he said, "show me you can sit up from your bed tomorrow.” I tried to sit up and I couldn't. And so the next day I sat up and the next day the doctor came in and I went, "So what do I need to do next?" And he said, "show me you can stand."
So I worked all day until I could stand the next day. For two years, all I thought about after I got out of the hospital was just to take care of my girl. And that's fortunate, because a lot of doctors will tell you that you become despondent by just concentrating on the negative, by concentrating on what happened to you instead of trying to move forward.
One good aspect of that is when I came out of the hospital, I could not draw. My mind was a jungle. I could feel all of my knowledge there in my head, but none of it connected in the right places. None of it made sense. And so, for the next eight years, I basically had to go back to school and teach myself watercolor, sculpting, digital painting, anything, just teach myself again. But this time I did it with a conscious effort to understand what I was doing and why I didn't make certain choices.
I think I'm better because I know what I'm doing now. See, one of the problems of doing everything by instinct is that when you get a little sick or you have a fight with your girlfriend, your mind gets emotionally screwed up and your concentration goes.
Guess what disappears after that? Your instincts. Pretty soon, you can't do anything, really. If you understand what you're doing consciously even when you’re sick, you at least have those basics. You understand, "Okay, well, mouths go from here to here, so use that guide marker." Maybe the mouth that you draw isn’t as pretty as you normally would draw it. But the mouth is where it should be, for the most part, and you can get by and you can get your deadlines done.
I really believe that your community needs to be really raised up. Let's talk specifically about the creator-owned stuff. All the companies have a "division" for creator-owned work, right? But every single creator, no matter who they are, will complain to you that companies won't advertise their work. What's our advertising tradition? One little paragraph in Previews, lost in the five trillion little paragraphs in Previews.
So every creator out there will tell you that it's all about getting the word out. I don't know how many times I've been to conventions where I'm the guest and my fans come up to me saying, "I didn't know you were going to be here."
CB: You're hitting a sweet spot, because this is our mission with Comics Bulletin: to find stuff that doesn't get a lot of publicity. I'm really glad to hear that you feel the same way.
Portacio: No, I really think we need to work hand in hand because again, I think as an industry, we should be ashamed. We love the fact that Hollywood and gaming [are adapting our works]. Everybody loves being with us right now, but we should be ashamed that they're making a lot more money off of our stuff than we are. I'm just centering this on publishing. You know what our numbers are.
CB: Yeah, unfortunately, not what you where making 20 years ago.
Portacio: Right. Aren't you getting sick of that 14-year-old, who traditionally was our always emerging market, coming out of a movie theatre hyped up about Iron Man [but who] doesn't know where to get the comic with that character? Maybe doesn't even know that comics are still being made?
Don't miss the rest of our series of interviews with the Image founders!