Ten years ago, first-year art school student Juan Castro of Tijuana, Mexico, posted a series of sketches on the website DeviantArt, and a comic book career was born. Today, Castro’s works have graced titles such as Transformers, Aquaman, Batgirl, GI Joe, and AHOY Comics’ premier series THE WRONG EARTH, which he inks over the pencils of longtime collaborator Jamal Igle. He has been nominated for three Inkwell Awards. Castro recently spoke via phone from his home in Tijuana.
As a kid, did you draw comic books?
I have been drawing since as far back as I can remember. I grew up with artists in the family, so that helped. The first comic I did was in third or fourth grade. I’ve always been into them.
What was it about?
Probably some Power Rangers rip-off.
Yeah, you grew up in the Power Rangers era.
They were really big from kindergarten to almost seventh grade.
What was the first comic book you loved?
It would be The Amazing Spider-Man during the ’90s, when Mark Bagley was doing it, the “Maximum Carnage” era. That was the one that made me beg my parents every week to take me to the comic shop.
So, you drew a lot of Spidey?
Oh, yeah. All over my desk, all over my room, in my notebooks at school, all over the place.
Did you draw the villains, Doctor Octopus, all those guys?
Oh, yeah. My favorite was Spider-Man fighting the Green Goblin. One summer break, the summer between fourth and fifth grade, I had a sketchbook, and I pretty much filled it entirely, each page. It was one giant battle sequence between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin.
So, when you hit art school, you were ready for comics.
Pretty much. I had been practicing and practicing. I learned a lot of valuable things, tricks of the trade and techniques, in school, but, yeah, I was pretty much ready. Along the way, I think I’ve learned a lot, so much that—compared to when I started—I look back and think, why did anybody hire me? But luckily, they did.
What is Tijuana like?
It’s very interesting, for sure. You can be driving down one street that is very nice, and full of friendly people, and then on a corner, there might be a dead body covered in sheets. You grow up with this sense of, this is really fun, but at any second, it can turn really bad. You grow up with a thick skin for that kind of stuff. Sadly, you get used to it.
How do folks feel about America these days?
Well, since the bulk of our interactions are with the people of California, who are pretty chill for the most part, we have great relationships with Americans. And if you’re talking about everything that’s happening across America right now, well, most people here just find it funny, rather than offensive.
If you walked down the street and asked 10 people what they think of Donald Trump, what would you get?
Ten out of ten would just start laughing.
What do you mean?
They would say this is all so silly, and that it doesn’t make any sense. But when the presidential election started, we all knew this was going to happen. I was in the New York Comic Con when Trump made his ¨bus¨ comments. (Note: they are also known as his Access Hollywood or “grab them by the pussy” comments.) The artists around me were saying, “That’s it! He’s done!” I was with a friend - we’d made it a convention/vacation trip, New York in the fall. And we knew and told them - and they didn’t believe us– that long before he became the candidate, that as soon as he announced his run for the presidency – we knew he would be the one. We also kind of found it amusing. At this point, we just consider America to be one big reality show.
Do you visit the United States often?
I used to go pretty much every weekend to do shopping or grab a bite, do some hiking in Southern California. They have great trails there. I would go to a lot of comic conventions, but not so much anymore, because of what’s going on. Things have been tricky at the border. They’ve been taking away passports. My girlfriend had her VISA taken away for no reason, and lately, you hear a lot of stories about that going on.
You’ve cut back?
I just go when I have to. I used to go there for fun. I mean, we’d go just for lunch sometimes. If I walk 20 minutes, I’m at the border crossing. That’s how close I am.
Does Tijuana get washed over by American culture?
Oh yeah, this is very Americanized. I mean, American currency flows through Tijuana as much as our local pesos. Sometimes, I have a problem when I travel further south, deeper into Mexico, and I try to pay with a dollar or a quarter, and they’re like, “What’s that?”
Are they angry with Trump?
Not really. They don’t take him seriously enough to be angered by what he says or does. All the stuff he says, it’s pretty ridiculous. We know we’re not paying for a wall, so that doesn’t really bother us. We know it’s just rhetoric to rile up his people. It doesn’t really affect us. That’s a thing about Mexican culture. For such a violent country, we’re a surprisingly chill people.
What’s the border like near you? Is there a wall?
There are two walls, actually. There have been two since I’ve been alive. There’s a giant steel wall that separates the countries, and then a few yards away from that, there’s another concrete wall. We have two border crossing gates in different parts of the city. You can go by car or just walk across. And there’s a border, an immigration desk, where you show them your passport, your visa, and you’re good to go, for the most part.
So, it takes just a few minutes?
No. It used to take about 20 minutes. Now it’s like an hour and a half, two hours.
They keep you waiting?
Yeah, and sometimes, they’ll pretty much tear your car apart. They randomly pick a car and open the trunk, open the doors, look under the car, under the seats, bring in the dogs, it’s a hassle.
Do Americans still come to visit?
Oh yeah. Every weekend. There are two big party places in the city. One place, back in the ’80s, used to be a giant mall. It went bankrupt and was abandoned in the late ’90s, early 2000s. A couple of years ago, it was revived. Now, every store has been converted into a bar or brewery, so it’s nothing but party life. There’s also a street in the center of town, Sixth Street. It’s filled with bars, and it is always, always, full of Americans. Unfortunately, a lot of them think that just because they’re in Mexico, they don’t need to behave as they should.
The Ugly American. There’s a stereotype.
It’s funny. Last year, I was in Europe for a convention and workshops with some fellow Mexican artists. I was told that whenever I travel to parts outside of Spain, such as France or Italy, where I couldn’t speak the language, most locals there would speak English. But I was told to first ask if they spoke Spanish. They would say no, and then I’d ask if they know English. That way, they know you’re not an American, and they treat you much better.
Last time we left this country, we just pretended to be Canadian.
That’s a great technique.
Let me ask something stupid. What exactly does an inker do?
The serious answer would be, it depends on the penciller. I try to approach everyone differently, because they all have such different styles and I like to tailor my approach very specifically. Some pencillers are very tight, some are very loose, sometimes you get to put more of yourself in there, sometimes you have to be very respectful. I’ve been working with Jamal Igle (penciller on THE WRONG EARTH) for eight years now, so we have a close relationship. He knows what I’m going to do, and he sometimes gives me carte blanche to explore what I want. Also, he’s very clean, so it makes for an interesting puzzle.
Was WRONG EARTH challenging because of the multiple universes?
Actually, I loved that part of it, and I hope the readers are able to pick up on it, because I used different styles in the backgrounds and all the extras. In one earth, I go with darkness, big black shadows, ink splatters and dry brush all over the place. For the happy-go-lucky earth, I go very clean, almost cartoony outlines. I love that aspect of the project.
When you start a project like that, isn’t it daunting?
It’s taken years to figure out the things that work for me. For example, I like to start outlining characters along with the foreground. It helps me define the flow of the page. Once I have that, I can start building the backgrounds, and then I can start working on how that renders the characters. It’s taken me years to develop the approach. But I would say in the last two, I’ve kind of moved into this technique/flow and it really helps. Each step helps form the next one. But I’m sure the process will keep evolving .
What’s the hardest thing to ink?
Grass. Grass and rubble. You’d think they’d be almost automatic, but then you look up at the clock and realize, I’ve been doing this for three frickin’ hours, and I haven’t even put a dent into it.
Wait a minute. You’re talking about grass, right? The stuff you mow?
Grass. And rubble.
I’d think that was easy. A blade of grass, a straight line, right?
That would be the easy thing. Maybe I think too much about it - about the flow, the shape. But to me, it’s got to be sharper and more defined. Maybe I’m over-complicating it. That’s the fine art nerd inside me, kicking in.
What are the drawbacks to drawing comics? Too much time hunched over the table?
I am hunched over the table right now, as we speak. Definitely. There’s a lot of time spent like this. You sacrifice a lot of weekends, summers, all that stuff. But at the end of the day, you get to do this for a living, and you get to be what you dreamed of being as a kid. So It’s worth it. Not a lot of people get to work in their pajamas all day.
I was wondering if you work in sweatpants. You know, that’s the American dream.
In Mexico, it’s too hot for sweatpants. We don’t really have winter in my part of the country, so it’s light pajamas or shorts. Those are my art-making uniforms.
What do you listen to while working? Music, or do you watch TV?
I do podcasts and audio books, and yeah, I love music. I bought an old record player a few years ago – spent way more than I should on vinyl records. But when I listen to records, it gives me a nice excuse to get up every once in a while, to change the music. You have to flip it over or put on a new one. As an artist, you have to appreciate any little excuse to get up from the table and stretch.
What kind of music?
Well, right now, I’m looking at my record player, and I’ve got LED ZEPPELIN 1 playing. I listen to a lot of classic rock and a lot of jazz.
Zeppelin, eh? Have you heard about the new band, Greta van Fleet, which is supposedly the reincarnation of Led Zeppelin?
Yeah, yeah! I started listening to them about a year ago. I was just leaving Spain, in the airport, during a flight delay, and a friend of mine texted me one of their music videos. He said, “Listen to them, but don’t look at the video, because they sound great, but they look like One Direction, and if you look at them, you might hate them, lol.” They’re awesome. I’ve been listening a lot to their new album which came out last week.
A question I ask everybody: What superhero would be the biggest asshole to work for?
I hope this isn’t seen as me playing favorites, but I think a big asshole would be Dragonfly (from THE WRONG EARTH). I affectionately refer to him as “the goddamn Dragonfly” because—actually, it’s horrible, once you get to see his backstory—maybe he’s justified in being that way. He has had a rough life in a tough world, so probably he is not the most pleasant man to be around. Dragonfly would be up there.
Of all the supervillains, who would be the best employer?
I would say the sixties version of The Joker, from the TV show. He employed a lot of henchmen, which makes me think they had a good health plan. Or Hydra, because at this point, they’re so corporate that you’d probably get great dental insurance and decent vacation pay.
In the old TV series, the Joker’s henchmen wore colorful outfits. He must have paid to dress them.
He would have needed a great wardrobe department.
He also always knew their names, when barking orders.
That’s a good boss, right there.
I’ve had bosses who didn’t bother to know my name. But in your work, you don’t have bosses, right?
I consider editors my bosses, because ultimately, they’re the ones who decide whether I get the job. They’re the ones who get me paid and who manage the schedule , But you’re right, I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder. So, yes, whenever my friends are complaining about their real jobs, I think, I’m glad that’s not me.
You never have someone yell, “Get to work, Castro!”
Nope. But I’m my own really bad boss. There are times when I’m thinking, “Man, I’m hungry,” and I tell myself, “You don’t get to eat until you finish this panel!” So, in a way, I’m my own really bad boss.
Where do you think you’ll be in 10 years.
Hopefully, still working in comics. Hopefully, still working with Jamal.
And doing THE WRONG EARTH! Issue number two went to a second printing.
Yes, that is amazing, and I want to thank the fans for making that happen. We’ve been working on this book for so long in secret, I was so happy to finally let the world be exposed to it. For it to be welcomed like this, it’s amazing.
What did you think of it at first?
Right away, I was a fan. I was approached by (writer and AHOY Editor-In-Chief) Tom (Peyer) about the project. He said he would send the script. But before he even did, Jamal sent me the initial character designs, and an explanation of the series concept… It hooked me right away. Some of my friends who have been reading the book, they’re like, “Dude, this is really good!” I’d say, thank you for saying that. And they’d say, “No, I’m not saying it because you’re in it, I really dig this book!”