Rod Espinosa graduated from the Don Bosco Technical College with a certificate in Architectural Drafting, and also finished a degree in Advertising from the University of Santo Tomas. He has worked in advertising, software entertainment, and film, but eventually settled into the life and career of a comic book author and creator.
Espinosa may be best-known for his work on The Courageous Princess (Antartic Press), which caught the eyes of both the Eisner Awards and the Ignatz Awards. He was nominated for Promising New Talent and Best Artist for the 2000 Ignatz Awards, and the comic also garnered a nomination for Best Title for Young Readers in the 2002 Eisner Awards.
He has authored and worked on a number of other titles as well, including, the Neotopia series, Battle Girlz (a manga novel adaptation of Alice in Wonderland), Dinowars, Metadocs, and has worked on several comic books that deal with American history such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Lewis and Clark, The Boston Tea Party, Jackie Robinson, The Alamo, Abraham Lincoln, Cesar Chavez, Patrick Henry, Clara Barton, The American Revolution, The Underground Railroad, and The Transcontinental Railroad.
Rod Espinosa’s latest projects include a free webcomic entitled Adventure Finders, and the development of his own board game, Adventure Kingdom. For those who want to show him support, you can do so on his Patreon profile.
Q: Everyone has an origin story. Could you share with us the exact moment (or moments) wherein you realized that you wanted to become an artist?
First off, thanks for sharing your time and space with this interview.
A fair warning, I tend to jump around in my answers. And I get really crazy. So be warned!
I believe a common story here is we always drew as kids. We were the different ones. The ones who did not fit in.
But we never realized it can be a legitimate career option. Back in my day, anyone who can draw was shunted off to Architecture because that had drawing in it. Thankfully, there was a new field in college called “Advertising” and that’s what I took. Did not regret that one bit. And to think I owe that turn in my life to a classmate in HS that I have lost track of. Life can be strange like that.
But even as a commercial artist, I did not know if I could really make it as a comic book artist. I thought I’d be doing advertisements for companies and such. My foray into Philippine comics was anything but fulfilling. I mean, it was exciting to see my work in print, of course. But I lamented that my work got butchered by the comics-making process they employed back then (the standard balloons that erased art, the double printing, the bad black printing, etc.). I drew my stuff with fine lines so it was a mixed bag seeing my work come out each week, mangled.
For details, I worked on only one title during the final days of Philippine Komiks. And that was the title for Cyberina, a girl cyborg cop with a robot sidekick. It was very fun at first, of course. But man, does reality catch up fast when you realize you spent more just going to Cubao than the paycheck you got from the 4 page strip. Rate was, I think… P50 per page? It was really low. So my pay for 4 page stories was p200.
I asked the guy in charge who made the most money. Some dude who made 150 a page. That seemed like a princely sum to me at the time. But it was depressing knowing it will be years before I would get that rate!
Haha! We can laugh about it now, I suppose.
Q: From that moment, and throughout your journey as an artist, what has been your biggest struggle?
To make money, of course! hahah!
Artistic struggles seem to be secondary to me. Finding a voice and all that…
I used to struggle with professional jealousy.
When I was younger, I used to get angry at anyone who made a fortune while exerting as minimal an effort as they could. That really chapped my hide.
As I got older, I just thought: “Well, the card dealt to them is that they know how to make money easily and quickly using little effort, so why should I be mad?” Even at the hacks, at least they are making a good living being hacks! Who am I to judge anyone? He’s got a new Toyota, while us “authentic types” are starving. He has to be doing SOMETHING right. Right?
Now, there is just serene acceptance though I may rant about it on occasion still.
My third struggle is on recognition (because some fame leads to more cash sometimes). I really got excited when I got nominated for an Eisner award in 2002 for “Courageous Princess”. But the award went to this other book by an artist who came in from the field of animation, wowed people with his book… and then just vanished for years after that.
AT the time, it felt so unfair. It felt like I was this low level MMORPG character trying to get some treasure, whittling away at a giant monster for a long time. In comes a high level character, makes the kill and gets the monster loot while I sit there open mouthed!
The awful timing of it all… And even for years afterward, I continued on in this funny little field toiling with very little to show for.
I suppose being nominated is a kind of recognition, but who remembers the nominees at the Oscars? The silver medalists? You remember who got the gold!
Q: How have you been able to cope with (or overcome) this struggle?
You have to have a life outside of comics. I have learned to cope with this by almost being a Zen Buddhist in this regard.
I did my best to create the work I thought was worth sharing. That’s about it.
In dark moments, you just comfort yourself with stories of other people. My current idol with the “starving artist” struggle is Jane Austen. Sure, her books are bestsellers now. But when she was alive, she never moved out of her bedroom in her parents’ house! Talk about starvation wages, eh! And that’s someone of true literary weight!
I guess that’s my one lament with the current world.
But we cannot control these things. People will spend what they will spend on.
It is sometimes gutting to see my work downloaded for free online. But what can you do?
All it takes is $1 or p50… then these same people spend thousands on a new phone or game. So you know they got money.
**(Now… If this interview still exists 400 years from today, here is what I will tell people of the future: “Thanks for supporting my work and that it means something to you… ”
Maybe I will still be around when they say that to my face at some retro gathering in the future… who knows? Maybe they will say that to me as I sit there, my brain marinating in a vat of liquid with me smiling on the monitor… and playing online games forever in the matrix. I will be nice to get vindication.)
Q: What would you consider is the ONE thing that REALLY helped you level up your skills?
Being with other artists.
I am not the best, really. At this point in the game, the people that survive in comics aren’t the most skilled at times. More than skill, you have to have determination… and the willingness to accept a lot of painful moments in life.
I managed to pay my bills. That’s about it. It’s a sort of a living. You can say at least I don’t do other things outside of art.
If that’s a measure of some success, ok, I will let you say that. 🙂
Q: What is one thing you’d wish you’d known before you started your artistic career? Why?
I would have loved to learn how to attract the right mate. I spent so much time perfecting art, that I forgot life.
Maybe so that I can have a partner right now. It’s not an over arching need, of course.
It would just be good to wake up with someone there beside you. Preferably someone who shares your goals and philosophies in life.
The hard thing about growing old is we barely have time for life anymore. Most people are on the “maintenance” mode of their relationships. You just wake up, have a small chat, share coffee… laugh a little… then go to work… meet her for lunch or dinner, share each other’s days and then go to bed.
Back when we were younger, we had time to pursue a relationship.
Today, I am saddled with so many other things in life. Taking care of aging parents, relatives, so many things that I did not do when I was younger. That adds complications because that’s now part of the package like being with kids or something.
Again, it’s not a gaping unbearable hole in my life. I still have the ice cream cone, just not the cherry on top.
I’ve learned to be happy with what I have today.
I’m already thankful to have lived up to 44 years of age. Way too many cousins have died earlier than me. Children who die at age 4 or younger will never have a romantic relationship. So, you just count your blessings and be content for now, you know?
Q: What drives or inspires you to continue making art or comics?
I have stories I want to tell. Which is why even if they offered me Spiderman or Batman, I would not accept it.
Firstly because I am lazy. I don’t see myself drawing a lot of webs or those uniforms over and over again. 😛
Secondly, there are no new stories to tell with those characters. Maybe if Marvel allowed me to co-create something new that I can play with, then turn over to them later for their use, then that’ll be ok.
Q: What does your average day look like? (And when do you fit in the time to create art?)
You have to make time to do your art. I try to treat this as an office job. I clock in at 9 am, have lunch at 11, work till 5… do my one hour walk.. (which I have to do right now so…
–ok I am back)
6PM, I eat an early dinner with the folks.
Yes, I am living the “Jane Austen struggling author” story!
Well, more like watching over my parents because they are old now. It’s part of life. They took care of us, we take care of them. It’s an age old tradition but also a decent thing to do.
Depending on if I am on a roll, I can do art till 12 midnight. Then, I retire. Maybe surf the web for another hour or two… then begin again at 8-9 am!
Q: How do you deal with distractions or challenges that you encounter while you’re working on your art?
You just have to roll with it. We had two funerals back to back early January just now. That cut deeply into the time I had to draw. But well, family, you know?
At the end of the day, your loved ones matter more. I just have to double time it now these last 2 weeks.
Q: What do you do when you feel just completely uninspired or burnt out? How do you motivate yourself to start working again?
First of all, I begin ranting online about how life sucks –hahah!
There was a time around 2006-2009 when all I wanted to do was one shot stories like what you see here with George Washington and the classics like Romeo and Juliet.
I got paid well, I turned in my work and I wasn’t committed to any continuing storyline. This was the time I worked in the newly rising graphic novel genre the big book publishers were all getting into. I turned my back on serialized comics during those years.
I was demoralized by the low sales of Courageous Princess book 1.
Neotopia wasn’t any better. Two years down the drain, I thought. Nearly 700 pages. I was tired of putting out original stuff (even today, this title is still out of print).
Prince of Heroes was a mess and a financial disaster for me (I ended up owing 2 thousand dollars).
So when the opportunity came to do these short biographies of historical people, I just said, “Sure!”
But the spirit of writing cannot be denied, I suppose. I slowly realized I needed to conclude Courageous Princess if I wanted to see money from that. So I did.
Nowadays, when I get to a dull stage, I just do chores. OR… If the work has to be done… then I get to work! The art may be a little uninspired and I might take shortcuts, but I will make it happen.
I have posted online a couple times that you know you’re a PRO… A REAL PRO, when you can turn that juice on and off like a faucet. Or you can work regardless of inspiration or lack thereof.
A fireman still puts out fires regardless if how he feels that day.
Q: What would you say has been your most EPIC win so far?
I got selected in a contest to draw a comic book STOP TB by the U.N., WHO, and the Food and Agriculture Organization. It’s online: http://who.int/tb/publications/figo_comic_book/en/
I have to say that’s one of the milestones. Because I felt proud about that. That actually impacts real lives. I could have stopped making comics in 2008 and still am proud of what I have done all because of that one little booklet that can possibly save lives. It’s pretty awe inspiring to be involved in such work.
Second greatest milestone (or nearly equal to the first one above), is my completion of The Courageous Princess with the finishing of books 2 and 3, written and drawn side by side in the years of 2009 up to 2015. That was a tough slog.
Many times, I almost quit in disgust and frustration. And many times I came back and began work again. It got stopped so many times out of my need for money.
It was a most distressing time for me. I took solace in my life outside of comics.
I did some traveling. Visited family and friends.
I had my first Romeo and Juliet relationship (*her parents hated my guts –especially the Mom. She was like the Mom in Titanic to my Leonardo di Caprio). It was fun times while it lasted, but yes, ended of course. But with little drama.
Q: What would you say has been your biggest failure?
My biggest failure is still ongoing, really. 16 years of this.
Where is the stability? Where is the money? These are the things that bother me all the time.
My biggest and worst time was when I was still affected heavily by depression. I got online and this news of a complete newbie getting it all after just one book out just sank me to deep depths of darkness.
(13 years and it was all for naught!)
This was around the time big publishers like Scholastic got into the graphic novel game.
It seemed like every month or two, you see “viral” success stories like that. Some young kid out of design school gets a plum deal of a lifetime. It’s enough to get you permanently depressed.
Anyway,I was just going to burn it all and be a restaurant cook. Just like I thought I would in 2000.
Soon, I got over that. I commiserated with friends (friends who suffer the same thing are important)… ate a lot of Mexican and Japanese food in San Antonio… I got better. Decided the work isn’t going to get done if I don’t move.
I also, at this time, got into board game design. I had this idea for the longest time and to occupy my idle moments, I began designing Adventure Kingdom.
Adventure Kingdom is a boardgame where you play fairy tale characters trying to escape an ever changing enchanted castle.
Being occupied like this kept me busy from thinking negative things.
I think my attitude these days is mostly…
Screw it. If I die poor, at least I will be remembered.
I will go on regardless. I will make a comic book only for 15 people if I have to! (oh wait, I already am doing that!!!) #adventurefinders
These days, I have no time for that. I get down in the moods for like a day, but I bounce back. Since becoming an atheist, I realize we have no time to waste. Do you have any idea what kind of a revelation that is when you find out you have no extra lives? No endless years to enjoy in some paradise? It will get you off your butt and doing work –important work!
I used to be complacent about this. I was gonna die one day and just morph into this spiritual being that will live on forever. There was no rush to accomplish anything! Nothing I do in this world mattered if it was only going to be for 80 years. That is how I thought back then. I could not wait to just keel over and be this blue jedi who can talk to dead people and fly around FOREVER! I mean, this was forever! I had millions– billions of years to enjoy things and never go hungry or worry about money. So yes, I did not care about existence in this life back then.
Which is why I try not to occupy most of my time with generic corporate properties.
My stories are my children.
We humans are unique. Animals spread DNA all the time. But humans… we spread DNA… but more importantly, we spread knowledge and wisdom.
Shakespeare, Austen, Tolstoy, Gates, Lao Tsu… nobody knows who their kids are. But you know the products of their minds. Bequeathing more than just DNA and hair color is a special thing only humans can do.
So yes, there is very little time to waste.
(I can talk endlessly about my interest in genetic longevity, but this is about comics –just use Google.)
Q: What, for you, has been the best way to promote yourself and your work to potential fans, clients, or publishers?
If I knew that, I would be making tons of money right now! 🙂
Kidding aside… Well, my social media accounts are all I have.
Not a lot of people realize that I already do the monthly work of 5 people: writer, penciler, inker, colorist, letterer.
So yes, I have heard it all. I got to go on this site, that site… Where do you find the time to draw???
There’s thousands of online sites out there. Which is why those artists with simpler drawings pull in huge numbers because they are social butterflies online. (smart, if you have an art technique that is sellable like that)
That’s the endless problem. If I get on all these sites, nothing will get done. Either that or I neglect what is left of my family life. I already have no partner right now.
(That little person representing LOVE in my head is weeping piteously in one corner accompanied by SADNESS and JOY while ART, MELANCHOLY and OBSESSION rule the roost.)
I will always be glad when people repost what I posted or magnify it to their followers. I only have like 500 people on my feed. The typical teenager has 2,000.
So you see… I’m already a dinosaur! 🙂
That’s why I need good people like yourselves.
With your help, we can spread the word faster. Word of mouth, one person at a time. Or at least a few dozen at a time if they want the stories I am selling.
(you don’t want people 400 years from now glancing at my art in a museum to say: “just like Jane Austen, Rod Espinosa died penniless”, do you???) 🙂
Q: What has been your game plan throughout your journey? What’s the BIG picture here? The ultimate dream? The end game?
I just want to finish what I started now.
We are not going to be able to take any of this with us when we die. End of the day, I can be happy knowing I did what I loved to do.
Yes, I hate the no money aspect of it, but, well… At this point in entertainment and literary history, people are just obsessed with remakes and rehashes of things they liked. So not a lot of people are looking for new things.
So I must thank the loyal few readers who do stick with me. Thank you.
Q: What, for you personally, has been the source of your ideas, creativity and talent?
Anything and everything. I just attended THE Ati-Atihan festival in Kalibo, Aklan. got lots of inspiration from that and from the wonderful host family that took us in.
I was at a comicon and I just had this idea: What if I put together a team of girls from the various genres like a schoolgirl, a scientist, a sword and sorcery type, and a goddess? That was Battle Girlz released back in 2003.
Q: What is your big “WHY”?
To tell stories. And to share my views about life, my philosophies, my sense of ethics and morals… at the end of the day, I am always trying to tell a fairy tale with a moral ending. To add to the world’s knowledge and well being. To NOT be a tree that falls in the forest and nobody knows about it.
Q: What 3 stories (comics, movies, documentaries, novels, etc.) would you say influenced and inspired your work the most?
A LOT. 🙂
Q: What are the top books, art books, blogs, podcasts, or workshops you’d recommend that helped you level up your skills?
Sadly, I live in a general isolated state. I don’t go exploring too far online. I barely know people in my own industry. I am sure you will do better, much better out there with friends.
Just find art books that appeal to you… or collect images online if you are strapped for cash.
Q: If you could work remotely, from anywhere in the world, where would your office be? Why?
I am beginning to do that again. I am looking at moving to England or the EU, maybe Germany. I would love to bequeath my legacy to those countries’ peoples for all of them to enjoy. Philippines is tempting, but to protect the legacy of the work, it must be a country that actually won’t sell out to a gigantic corporation. One that cares for its citizens more. We are not yet there, sadly. Right now, the EU has the best chance of becoming THE Star Trek One Earth alliance. For better or worse, my one mission is to get my work to belong to them somehow. Because I know they will share it with everyone in the world.
Q: Name ONE artist/writer that, if you could, you would pick their brain and find out all the hidden secrets behind their amazing work?
Tissot. A man whose skill I will never reach in this short lifespan.
Unless we miraculously get genetic engineering perfected early. Do you follow that field? We are staggeringly closer than you realize. It only needs funding. (check out sites like www.sens.org)
Q: Who do you consider your biggest mentor that helped you improve your skills?
(Doesn’t have to be someone you’ve met personally. Can be someone you look up to, or someone whose art really inspires you to get better.)