Rafael Navarro is an American illustrator, animator, and comic book author. He is the winner of a Daytime Emmy award and has recently completed Guns A’ Blazin!, a comic book series, in collaboration with Mike Wellman. Additionally, he is the creator of the Xeric Foundation Award winning Sonambulo comic book series. We interviewed Rafael Navarro at Long Beach Comic Con 2018.
Hello Rafael. How are you doing today?
Well, if there is a word to describe it, I would say ‘capital sir!’ How is that? I am actually looking forward to dinner and drinks, and not necessarily in that order. I am glad and happy that Long Beach Comic Con has gone well as it has.
Great! Where are you from?
I was born in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Soy del norte. I came here when I was about two years old. I was offered to become a citizen when I became 18 but I decided to wait a few years because I was about to start college. At the time I thought, ’75 bucks to become a citizen!?’ Instead I could use that $75 for tuition. Eventually, I decided to become a citizen for the main reason to vote. I have not regretted that. America is my home but Mexico is where my heart is at and probably always will be.
So your parents are from Sonora, Mexico?
Definitely de Sonora! My father was from Guaymas, Sonora and my mother was from Nogales (Sonora). That is where my point of origin begins and ends. My parents are definitely norteños and they are and continue to be an influence in my life.
The name of our media company is Chicano Perspectives. Do you consider yourself a Chicano?
I remember a time when the word Chicano meant the dirtiest, filthiest way to describe the fact that you are some kind of Latino-Americano or Latino perspective, no matter where it comes from in the spectrum of the world. Eventually, Chicano became a reactionary thing in the 60s. I was born in 1967 to give you an idea of the spectrum of things. When the 70s came around, I was able to figure out what was going on. I was living in two generations of people that were describing the word Chicano as dirty and filthy and the other one was using it as an act of war. It was an act of self-awareness to describe who you are. If we are all living in this particular country I say we are just American. I know it seems like a cop-out answer but there are times where you have to stop and you have to define these things because you have to know where you stand with things.
I don’t think it’s a cop-out answer.
As of late, if you want to use the word ‘Latino’ to describe us all there is a certain distinction that is happening. This next generation wants to describe themselves more distinctly, with ‘Latinx’ being the most recent one. And that is fine because every generation will redefine itself and that is a good thing.
If there is anything an artist should look forward to in any aspect, any race, or any culture it is change. Change is good for artists because it keeps things fresh and fulfilling because you are not working with the same materials. You are not trapped in the particular annals of where you appear to be. If you are just a Latino cartoonist, fine, so be it. If you are just ‘this’ then fine so be it. I like to say that I don’t like to limit myself in any form or any way. I am always open to suggestion. I am open to different ideals and different perspectives. I may not agree with them all but the most important thing is that we become aware of what is going on. Don’t live under a rock! Don’t let one group or particular sect of authority place you in one particular category! Even if you are placed in that category, take it with pride and find yourself in your own time. The key is to not limit yourself to what is perceived (about you). It is what you think you are.
Thanks for the advice. Would you please tell us about Sonambulo and how it incorporates your Mexican heritage?
Let me give you a slight history of Sonambulo. I was working freelancing in the comic book industry. I have always been and always will be enamored with the comic book form of storytelling. But, I finally left comics, at least working full-time, so I could work on animation. Don’t get me wrong, a steady paycheck is a good thing. But, I have to admit, even while I was working in other industries, the call, the siren call of comic books has always been there.
I told myself that the only way I could fulfill that dream (working on comic books) was to do a comic book as an indie thing. The best part is that it would be mine and mine only. Then, if I would do that, then what would I do and how would I do it? How could I do a comic book with a particular product that would be uniquely mine? Well, I could always do the same generic Wolverine character with a rough and ready, tumble person like everybody else was doing at the time, back in the early 90s. Or I could do whatever appeases the audience because I am just here to make money and money only. I could be just as unoriginal as everybody else or I could reach into other things. I chose to reach into other things and I reached into my culture. I reached into some of the things I thought were missing at the time.
We live in a different age now. Believe me! When I look around and see what have been out there for the last couple of years, like books with Latino characters, books with Asian characters, books with different types of cultures that anyone could possibly imagine. Everything under the sun! There are other opportunities for other perspectives to share with the rest of the world. It is a wondrous thing!
When I first started, none of that had existed. So, when I decided to do my character Sonambulo I went to the things that mattered most to me at the time and it was my culture. I didn’t think it (my culture) was represented honestly and truthfully enough.
The whole theme of luchadores exists prominently enough throughout Mexico and it is revered as the samurai is in Japan and the cowboy in America. They are iconic characters. But that (luchadores) didn’t exist in America and I believed that would be my angle. I loved film-noir and I loved dark black-and-white things. I love things that are oscuro; things that move in the night like monsters and demons. And good old fashioned hot, beautiful, luscious, 30s/40s era femme fatales. So Sonambulo is a big, giant creation of all the things I love. It is a wondrous thing that I work on whenever I have a chance to.
For people who are not familiar with your work. Sonambulo is a comic book series based on a detective?
Yes, he is a luchador detective. Sonambulo is a masked Mexican wrestler detective who resides in that particular industry. He was a rudo (heel, brawler, or rule-bender) by trade. Obviously, we are all rudos and good guys depending on one’s perspective. He is retired in that department (wrestling) but he still wears the hood because it is all about code and honor. It is a long story but you have to wear that hood as it is a lifetime thing. He is a scoop tracer and his specialty is missing people. In actuality, he is more of a paranormal investigator.
There is also another weird little trait that makes Sonambulo more unique than other detectives, especially ones that are not wrestlers: he has the ability to read people’s dreams. It gives him a weird, surreal perspective. I love old film. I love Fellini (Italian film director and screenwriter Federico Felleni). Anything that reminds me wonderful, surreal, dreamscape in a Felleni sort of film is a wondrous thing. If there is any influence in that regard, that is where it all came from.
How was Sonambulo received when you first brought it out?
It was a weird project. People still think it is a weird project. It is a lot better accepted now but it was ground that was never trail-blazed at the time. I am glad it started when it did but it is more acceptable now. It wasn’t hard, hard, hard but it was a little weird indie comic book that gained notoriety at the time.
I look at it as my Frankenstein monster. It is my first one. I created him and like Dr. Frankenstein I went off to do other creations and this monster has ran off and has been running around the village terrorizing the locals and villagers for years now. Every so often, from time to time, I stand on top of my castle with my violin, straight out of young Frankenstein; I must call the monster back. (In a musical tone mimicking a violin player) Tadadad taddadaa tadada! As I call the monster back, every now and then, I do another Sonambulo story. And, yes! I am working on another one now as we speak.
We will have to read it when you release it. But, today you are promoting Guns A’ Blazin!
Yes, Guns A’ Blazin! was just completed. It was a six issue miniseries that I completed with my dear friend Mike Wellmen. Mike and I have been working on this project together for quite some time. It is a great collaboration project. I am the artist of the book and Mike is the ‘writer’ of the book. But in reality it is a collaborative effort because he gives me visual suggestions and I give plot suggestions. In the end and in the long run, I do the drawing officially and he does the official writing. We talk it out and we are like an old married couple. At this point, we are literally changing stuff at the eleventh hour and our printer just hates us because we do that. We have had to redraw and rewrite certain pages literally just before we are about to go to press. It is just how you create art as far as I am concerned. Things happen and things change!
So you have worked with big companies and smaller ones. Would you describe the benefits and drawbacks of each?
A steady job is a steady job no matter where you are in any industry. I worked at Marvel and DC and a bunch of other little places like Dark Horse Comics back in the day. I can go down the years and list all of the comics companies I have worked on through the years.
In animation, I am always in and out of whatever particular studio requires my services. Lately, I have been working a lot at Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers to me is like the mob, it is like the family (now speaking in a mock mobster accent). The outfit needs my services, okay. I have to stop whatever I am doing and have to go work with the family. I am like a torpedo for the Corleone Family. I do my job and I am good soldier.
But once I do my job, I go home and try to fulfill my dreams because one of the biggest… well let me switch it to the setbacks when you are working for an industry. It is good to have a wonderful gig because a job, is a job, is a job and if you are very successful in it and are winning awards, and you are doing fine, and you are feeding your family, and you are keeping your dogs and cats fed as well, then you are doing a good thing.
However, if you have other aspirations, the ones that are your personal vision, you have to find a time to balance both. Definitely be responsible and pay your taxes. But please, never let go of your dreams!
One of the things that I always see when people finally break into the industry is that somewhere down the line, either because they don’t have time or are tired or have other obligations, they let their dreams go. And that is when you start asking yourself, ‘Do you want to continue to be a soldier for someone else’s dreams while yours continue to go unfulfilled?’ That is the riddle you have to answer at one point or another in your life. That is why I am here.
Yes, I have a deadline I am working on right now and I have another deadline for a company in China and that will get done too. But I am here for that very same reason: because I have not given up on my dreams and I will continue to work on my dream whenever I get a chance to do so.
I see people here at Long Beach Comic Con genuinely interested in your work. I have seen your fans approaching you and wanting to speak with you.
You will laugh. I have had, for a lack of a better term, fans or aficionados of my work or my friend’s work over there (Mike Wellman)… I have known people that have gone through so many trials in life and known them when they were in high school or college, maybe even younger like junior high, and they grew up reading my stuff. Now, they are married and/or divorced with kids. There are others who have seen me inspire them to reach out for their dreams. They suddenly and magically have gone down that way and they have successfully broken into the industry and have been working in it ever since. I feel like a proud papa when I hear the stories because I was there and I saw potential. I didn’t save them. All I did was point them in the direction and they did all the work.
That is what it is about my friend. It is not just about fulfilling any ambition you have. Ambition is like a very temporary aphrodisiac. Once success is already fulfilled, what else can you do to maintain that? It is like a quick high. The best high to fulfill in this industry is to always give back. Whenever you get a chance to encounter anybody who wishes to work in this industry, be able to provide some aspiration or inspiration. That is my goal: to feed the fire, to pass the baton to the next generation. Don’t just assume you will just be holding on because ‘No! You will not dude!’ There will always be somebody better and clever and more significant than whatever you think you are doing. What we do here in this life is finite. The only way to live forever is to invest in the next generation. Let them take it to the next level and they could take it to levels unheard of that you never thought of and that is how you will live on!
Speaking of success, could you speak to us about your Emmy win and the opportunities success creates?
The Emmy has been a big door opener for a lot of things and for other jobs. But, then again so is your reputation as a professional and any work you do for them (employers). If there is anything that I would like to speak for me it is my work. Let your work always speak for you! The way I have always approached this industry, not just the animation industry, is to let the work speak for itself and let others take what they can from it. That is probably the best way to always do it. Let your labors dictate where your next thing will take you.
Before this interview, you spoke to us about how you were informed of your Emmy victory and how you almost declined to be involved with the winning project. Would you please repeat that for us?
Like any member of any animation studio, you get nominated for whatever you are working on. Sometimes you get nominated as a group, sometimes for a particular single episode that you happen to work on gets nominated. I have been working in the industry throughout the years and it happens, maybe multiple times, it is inevitable (when you lose), and it is okay. Always the bride’s maid and never the bride is how the story goes.
It finally happened with me (the Emmy win) with an obscure little show that I wasn’t even planning on working on. It is not so much that I did not want to work on it but that I had so much on my plate. I was getting ready for Comic Con and wrapping up another show for Warners Brother. I think it was a direct to DVD movie for WB. This other opportunity came and I said ‘Well, I do need the money and what the heck? I’ll take it’
As I wrapped up my other responsibilities and prepared to go to war for Comic Con, I took on this other assignment. It was a bit of a herculean effort but eventually I did get the job done. They even asked me if I could stick around and do revisions, which is basically all the post-mortem. Everybody had their storyboards finished and they get some guy to come in a fix stuff that is not working. You have to look at stuff a lot more closely before it goes to shipping. I politely declined because I was preparing for battle. I went to Comic Con and that was it.
I got the job done and worked on a couple other projects and then a whole year later, I am not kidding you, and I am having some health issues and was preoccupied. I was working on a Batman storyboard when I had this heart condition happening so I took my Batman storyboard with me to the hospital. There I am; I could have been in my deathbed for all I knew but had to get that darn deadline done! It is just the way we work in this industry.
I got a call from the director of show and he said, “Hey man, we won. We want to fly you to New York.” I said, “Sorry, but I am a little busy. It is nice to know we got the Emmy!”
It is kind of funny that it is one of the most obscure shows which got nominated and we won an Emmy for. It was a project that I was not really interested in doing but it doesn’t hurt to do whatever you need to do. Never limit yourself. If you have the time to expand your horizons try different things. In my case, it was doing a different sort of show with a different type of vocal rhythm than I used to do. I used to do a lot of action/adventure stuff on a regular basis. This was a children’s show and a good experience. And sure enough, it was also the one that won me an Emmy. The show is called Tutenstein for Discovery Kids.
And because we are in Long Beach Comic Con, what are your favorite comics? And could you recommend Latino comic book authors?
I will recommend my buddies and not necessarily because they are Latinos. Mostly, I will recommend them because they are my buddies! Always check out anything and everything that catches your fancy, of course!
My personal recommendations, even if I sound a bit bias, I actually love and adore Javier Hernandez. His work is absolutely astounding and his vivid imagination is just absolutely in abundance. What I love about his work is that he invokes the culture but at the same time his character Diego De La Muerte is a reluctant hero. I think that is a trait that a lot of people can relate to no matter where you are at. I always thought of Diego as a victim of circumstance. It wasn’t his fault that this (story plot) happened. His situation arose to where it is at. We are always placed in a corner, like the line goes in the movie, ‘putting baby in the corner.’ How will you react in a situation like that? And that is how heroes are really truly born: how do we react to the situation at hand? I think Javier handles that every single time beautifully. I can relate to Diego and I actually feel like Diego most of the time. It is a sense of your own reluctance but duty calls and sometimes you just have to stand in the face of adversity and do what you can just to get the job done: whether for friends, for family, or for love, for country, or sometimes just for beer. Haha! You have to just set your fears aside, roll up your sleeves, and get the job done.
Here is the link for our interview with Javier Hernandez: https://www.chicanoperspectives.com/interviews/essays/javier-hernandez-interview
And where can we find more of your work?
My Sonambulo website is down at the moment but try going to every comic show in California because I will most likely be there.
I do have a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/rafael.navarro
My Instagram is: https://www.instagram.com/rafael_navarro007/
I am always posting stuff there and information until the official website is back up. And, yes! There will be a new Sonambulo coming out. I am working on that and it is almost done. Like I said earlier, I called the monster back and he is back in the lab. I am modifying him and recreating him for this new generation of readers.
We appreciate your time. Is there anything you would like to say or add that we did not ask about?
A statement or a question to you sir? Haha.
How about a morale boost! Guys, if you are listening to me and you are feeling that mother-effin demon called self-doubt and it is stopping you from doing what you need to do to get done. You need to look that thing straight in the eye and bitch-slap it. Bitch-slap that demon as often as possible and don’t forget to make the time to work on your dreams. I am not going to say it is easy and I am not going to say it is hard because everybody’s story is different. Definitely stay focused and on target because persistence is going to be where it is counted. That is going to be where it is at. Just keep on trucking and keep on going and eventually they will see the light.
Thank you very much Rafael Navarro.