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An interview with Ivan Velez, a Bronx-born Boricua comic artist

Charlie 'Isa' Guzman

Ivan Velez Jr. is a little-known Bronx artist with great significance to the comic book industry. Creator of the 80s comic series Tales of the Closet, and Co-Creator of the early 90s series Blood Syndicate, Ivan has drawn comics that give greater representation to racial and sexual diversity. Ivan’s focus throughout his career has been to create complex stories featuring minority heroes as they deal with real-life issues that affect those communities. Being the only the second Latino and Puerto Rican to work for one of the top two mainstream comic companies, Marvel and DC, Ivan has consistently pushed against those boundaries of the status quo to create inspirational works and characters.

Currently working on the biggest project of his life, The Ballad of Wham Kabam, Ivan is again pushing boundaries by creating a series of five interconnected books telling the story of America’s multicultural past through the tropes of the superhero genre. I spoke to Ivan about what led him into comics, the difficulties of growing up gay, how this fed his art, and where that journey has led him to today.

Isa: When did you first get into comics and what made you decide to become a comic artist?

Ivan: I guess like every other cartoonist, I started when I was a kid. My child was during the 60s, so a lot of the time the only thing we did was read comics. My mom, if I was good, would buy us ten comics for a dollar. It was something to look forward to at the end of the week. One time, she even got two huge garbage bags full of comics, and basically I spend that summer reading comics book on the floor. I was reading all the old Silver Age material from DC comics, like Superman and Supergirl and Wonder Woman. I certainly loved those stories.

Isa: What were some of your early influences?

Ivan: Besides comics, there were also cartoons. Those first cartoons that came out like Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, even some of the old Superman cartoons, had a real large influence on me because of their beautiful stories. I also use to watch them with my grandmother. Those stories were very emotional. And since I was watching a lot of novellas with my grandmothers too, it kind of tied into that whole serial chapter format that both cartoons and comics did. It was a great place to hide in too, because when you’re a nerdy kid, and a gay kid too (and I didn’t fully know it) you tend to want to hide anyway you can. I tended to hide in comics, and I drew and drew and drew, and that became my world when I was a kid.

Isa: In your biography, you describe having a difficult youth with your sexual identity. How was it like growing up Gay and Puerto Rican?

Ivan: It was the Bronx. My family were the first Puerto Rican people in my neighborhood, back during the early 60s. Everything was very macho and tough. My father was a boxer, and you had to be a certain way. You had to be macho. When I was young, I told my mom my certain feelings, particularly when I watched the Hercules cartoons, but she wasn’t having it. So I had to stay shut about that. I became really introverted. I mean, I was a very extroverted kid growing up, but after that I shut down.  

Isa: How did comics help you through this tough time?

Ivan: When you get into comics you become obsessive about certain things: the storylines, and certain mythologies. If you go the right way, you start appreciating the Greek and other mythologies. My mother also used to read us fairytales when I was a kid, we used to have this big dictionary of Greek mythology, and so I began understanding how all the story elements connected with one another, like those archetypes and things like that. As far as teaching life lessons, not really the way to go, because all you had were these unreal expectations and all the characters were white. Every character was white when I was a kid. It was really unfair, and I realize this now, because only certain people could be heroes or star in their own stories. I was looking at stories that only had white people in a world where everyone in my life was Black, Latino, or Asian. This is why those kung fu movies were so important to all of us in the Bronx. It was the stories that mattered the most.

Isa: What was the impetus for your comic series, Tales of the Closet?

Ivan: When I was at Syracuse University, I was doing this daily comic strip called Adam, and it trained me on how to do a comic strip. It basically started out as dirty college jokes, but began evolving because of the influence of novellas when I was younger. I started doing cliffhangers, which soon developed a universe I started to get into. During the second year of college, when I came home for the summer, I started realizing my sexual identity. I started to realize my sexual orientation wasn’t a mistake, but something that was a part of me. During the late 70s, early 80s, there was an ad on the back of the Village Voice for a discussion group for Gay teenagers. This was part of the Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youths (IPLGY). I was scared, but I called them up. I joined. I was 19, and we were the first group of kids they had served. I started embracing my identity, and all of a sudden the HIV/AIDS crisis was happening at the same time. So I started working with the IPLGY to create a comic like a gay Archie, because I knew there was nothing out there at the time. The whole idea that teenagers had a sexuality was new. The whole idea that teenagers weren’t gay, but were converted or corrupted by predators was still very prevalent. With the education and information that IPLGY was giving me, I began creating stories. It started evolving, and became about a group of diverse kids. It came out darker than I expected, but I saw people dying through the AIDS crisis for no reason, all due to a lack of education and communication. I tended to educate both gay and straight kids about these issues through my comic. It needed to be cautionary. I wanted to protect kids. And it developed such a great following. The first issue, and this was during the multicultural initiative where we went into high schools discussing these issues, would sell by the thousands. It felt good. After that initial issue, the IPLGY would offer me a job to create more comics and posters and start training others.

Isa: Onto your mainstream career. How was it like being one of the only Puerto Rican writers for the top two comic companies?

Ivan: It was really a strange thing. It should have happened earlier than me. I mean, George Perez was a great artist. He did so much work for The Avengers, he got to do Wonder Woman, and he got to do all these amazing things. But why was he never given a monthly book to write? He only had the chance to write three issues of an adventure book, but I always wondered why no Latinos were ever able to write a monthly. Particularly for George Perez. His influence on comics, especially Marvel, had been amazing. If you look at the first Avengers film, the whole first scene was taken right out of his panels. So when I took jobs for both companies, I didn’t feel like I could protect myself. It felt adversarial and political, but at the same time very professional. It was difficult to get work, and there were no benefits. I appreciated the experience, but it was sad that it wasn’t a better thing. When you’re a kid, it’s an amazing dream to actually be able to write a monthly title. It didn’t work out. Milestone Media was a far better experience, and thank goodness it was first.

Isa: Tell us a bit about your experience at Milestone Media.

Ivan: Milestone recruited me after they saw me at a convention with Howard Cruse, the granddaddy of Gay comics, after Cruse invited me to table with him because of Tales of the Closet. During that time, and even before then, I felt outraged about the lack of diversity in comics. So I started sketching out superhero teams of people of color, connecting them to American and World history. When Milestone asked me to join, it felt like the perfect time. There was a synchronicity in our ideas, so of course I was going to help. Dwayne McDuffie, co-owner of Milestone media, wasn’t lying when he said he wanted real diversity at Milestone, and he allowed me to do it. I had a lot of freedom to create all these characters, and I’m very proud of that. They wanted more diversity than they had, especially in their series Blood Syndicate, which were originally all Black characters, except for one Latina who was a maid. So I went in and refitted their ethnicities, and played off that. Skin tone was especially important to them, and I understood that because it is an issue in the Latino world too. I even added Korean and Chinese characters in there, trying to mix things up. Then I started playing with sexualities, and they really supported me on that.  

Isa: How would you describe the diversity in mainstream comics today?

Ivan: Well, I’m glad there is so much more diversity right now. Because of the internet, kids are demanding it. People are now becoming aware of the shortcoming of the industry. Marvel, for example, is now pushing for more people of color to join the superhero teams; pushing for more characters of color. I think that’s great, and the children are seeing it and growing into a different type of environment right now.

Isa: Finally, you’re now currently developing a series called The Ballad of Wham Kabam. Could you tell us about it, and why it is so important to tell this story?

Ivan: The whole story is about characters and heroes of color. I wanted to play with the concept of having these heroes come out during the most important times of history and discuss how they would be treated, which would likely be like everyone else of color. It is largely about subjugation and unfairness. It starts in the Caribbean because America, this current American anyway, began when Columbus arrived. Slavery and Colonization happened with the arrival of Columbus and the rest of Europe. I explore that history as it comes into the mainland United States, through World War 2, to the Civil Rights Era, and onto the present. I mean, it’s really heavy right? Well, I wanted to tell it through the old superhero tropes and mythologies of the world, and put the United States in this superhero world yet still dealing with the same history. It starts with the Tainos in the Caribbean. There are myths about the Tainos that make them seem like a weak people, but really they were a group of tribes that started developing a culture, and were like nations under one nation. They were creating something big before the Europeans arrived. Yes, they were tortured and massacred, but many resisted. You have these awful mythologies, but there were also brave tribes of warrior women and tribes of escaped slaves who waged war against the Europeans for hundreds of years. That is something we don’t learn about. One of my characters is born on the day of Columbus’s arrival, and she lives during those horrible times. When her and her family are set to be executed, and are burned, she remains unharmed. She gets her powers out of desperation. She would be the first superhero of this world. So her story is about how she struggle against the Europeans until, by the end, she has to give up, and it is her bloodline that continues that struggle throughout history. We follow her bloodline into the United States. Another main character, América, is a teenage girl who part of a small black superhero family during the Civil Rights era. Her family helps protect the protestors during that time. However, América is frozen in time and wakes up in our present. With her I want to address how a young hero of color during the 50s would see the struggle as it is today. My comic will also not only cover the Black and Latino experience, but also the Asian experience through such events as the Internment Camps of WW2. It’s a lot of work, and a lot of research. I’ve gotten a grant from Creative Capital to do this. It’s a hard project, I’ve been scared of it, but it has been good to have it in front of me. I mean, I would be grateful if this was the last thing I ever do. It will be through these characters that I make my statement about the comic world and the United States.

*The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.