“I Try to Push Myself to Try New Things”: Javier Rodriguez on His Art and Defenders: Beyond

With apologies to all of the other artists working in comics right now, Javier Rodriguez may very well be my favorite. Every project he takes on lives its very best life, bringing joy to readers and an inescapable sense of wonder to the page. No page is ordinary in his hands, instead delivering a chance for the extraordinary in a way few can match. If his name is on a book, I will be reading it, and there’s nothing else to consider in the decision making process.

His latest project has been Defenders: Beyond, the sequel mini-series to another he did with writer Al Ewing. It’s the first series he’s taken on entirely his own, as the artist isn’t just penciling and coloring himself here, but inking as well. 3 This isn’t to speak poorly of his previous work, but if it was possible for Rodriguez to take himself to another level, he found it here, delivering astonishing visuals and pitch perfect storytelling at a 100% hit rate. It’s one of the best in comic history reaching the peak of his powers, and folks, we need to talk about it.

More specifically, Javier and I needed to talk about it. So that’s what we did, as the artist wrapped Defenders: Beyond and joined me for a discussion about his work on this project and in his career, as the Spanish artist rose through the ranks from a cartoonist in Europe to one of the best colorists in Western comics to one of the most unstoppable talents in the medium working today. We broke down an array of pages from the first two issues of Defenders: Beyond to better understand his process as an artist, and what goes through his brain as he’s making all of this magic happen. To the surprise of no one, the conversation is as fantastic as Rodriguez himself.

One of the things that impresses me the most about your work is how you’re always clearly you, style-wise, but it always feels like you’re adding something new and pushing yourself to another level, project to project. That might just be me thinking too much about your art, but are there things you do to keep pushing yourself, whether it’s trying new things or changing your approach in certain ways?

Javier Rodriguez: A bit of everything. To me any new project should have its particular “voice,” its own color, you know. That means I need to think a lot about how the book should look before drawing a simple line.. Sometimes you have time to develop that and other times you must find it once you’re working on the pages. I used to walk very early in the morning, close to the sea, and imagine how to resolve the pages, how to translate the script to images and the pace of the panels. And then, yep, I try to push myself to try new things, to test different ways to tell a story using comic language. Just to make the process more fun for me and more fun, I hope, for the readers.

Save for part of Defenders #1, all of Defenders and Defenders: Beyond have been penciled, inked, and colored by you. Why was that something you wanted to do, and how does that change things for you?

Rodriguez: This was something that I always wanted to do. Previous to my incursion in American comics I had a career here in Europe. I began my professional career doing all of it by myself. Scripts, art, everything. I collaborated with some writers from Spain and France. Then I jumped to the United States as a colorist with my friend Marcos Martin. I spent years doing colors for America and at the same time doing my own stuff here. 

One day, thanks to Stephen Wacker at Marvel, I had the chance to do some Spider-Man pages. I realized that the final art of my pages, to match the standard of those days, was weak. I mean, it was more “indie” for the mainstream then, if that makes sense. So I called my friend Álvaro López to help me with that. Álvaro did a tremendous amount of work as an inker. And I think that he did much more than the average inker. Fun fact was that in those days I couldn’t color myself because my page rate as a colorist was superior to my page rate as a penciler! Time passed and the day arrived when I felt confident enough to go back to my origins and take control of my art. In my opinion it changes a lot. It looks more organic. It is impossible to achieve the inks of Álvaro. He is a master. But I like how it looks now.

This is your third time working with Al Ewing so far, and it seems the two of you fit each other quite nicely. What is it about that partnership that seems to work so well, both overall and for you as an artist?

Rodriguez: It’s true. I think both of us enjoy working together.

The first time I worked with Al was in Royals #9. Back then, I was barely familiar with his writing. I used to read the previous books of the writers that I collaborated with. So I did my homework. When Wil Moss and Sarah Brunstad sent me the script, the thing that most impressed me was the quality. The characters were solid, sophisticated, and it had a “mature” approach for a superhero book. So I did my best to make it a personal book that would reflect the ambitious proposal that I understood Al was bringing here. I read it like some kind of the Odyssey of the Inhumans, the search for their origins.

It was difficult because when I started the book was fatally wounded. We knew that it would end only three or four issues after. So when I had the chance to do another project with Al — Defenders — I did my best to make it work. And suddenly COVID arrives and I had a call from Marvel that the book must stop because it was one of the ones chosen to wait. I had work at DC Comics, a lifesaver, and then the book had a second chance once Marvel went back to publishing. But it was delayed for a few months until I could return after my commitments with DC had concluded. I know that it was difficult for Al to put it all together again, and in the meantime I decided to take all the art duties. That’s the reason because Álvaro only inked part of the first book. It was pre-pandemic.  

This time Al and I tested different ways to collaborate. We went from something close to the Marvel method to full script, without dialogues sometimes, other times something like a TV script. Finally we arrived at the method that we used in Defenders: Beyond. Al would give me all the info I would need to build the page, descriptions, dialogues, actions, references, but I would take the design of the page, how many panels, where they will be placed… It was fantastic. I have learned a lot doing this book. 

This larger Defenders story is a sprawling tour of all time and space for Marvel. You come across as convincingly aware of it, especially on the heels of History of the Marvel Universe. Do you have an affinity for Marvel and its stories? Is that universe and its characters a major part of your journey as an artist?

Rodriguez: Yes, I do. When I was kid, I read tons of Marvel comics. I loved them. I grew up in the 80s. Those days in Spain, we had a lot of the current Marvel books and we had a lot of back issues too. Obviously, not all of them, but I was completely into the lore. In the 90s that changed for me. The kind of comics that I liked were by publishers like Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly. I mean, Daniel Clowes was closer to Steve Ditko, who was my thing, than any of the rising stars at the Big Two. I was obviously still reading the highlights, but I was more into the indies or old superhero stuff that I had been waiting to read. But in the 00s, when I started my career as a colorist and my friends were working there, I got back to reading much more from the Big Two. Miller’s DKII was part of that.

The Marvel Universe had a huge influence on me. If you asked me for one of my most personal projects, I could tell you it was the History of the Marvel Universe. It took me a lot to figure out how to do it, even before knowing who the writer was going to be. When I had the assignment from Tom Brevoort, the size of the project overwhelmed me. Then there was a moment that I realized that I should tell the story of the characters, the story of the universe, not the authors (meaning those responsible for all of this) or editorial. This was about pure myths. 

All the stories related there should look and read at the same level, same importance. No matter the quality of the original comics or the historic relevance of the stories, all should have the same weight in this tale. They should be treated with the same respect. So I read and reread tons of comics to find out how to do it. And I understood why a whole generation connected with the 90s comics in the same way that I had done it before back in the 80s, and why some books touch you deeper when you are a kid because you’re discovering them for the first time. To you it doesn’t matter if that book you are reading is a retcon, a new version or whatever. It’s your first Spider-Man, your first Fantastic Four, or the X-Men cartoons from the 90s are the best X-Men ever.

It was a major part of my career as an artist, because I drew more pages in the Marvel universe than anything I did before.

I wanted to start with this page from issue #1, particularly on the panel with America Chavez looking in on a portal where Blue Marvel is. More specifically, I wanted to ask about the coloring in that America panel, most notably the limitations on it. When it comes to coloring a page, what’s your guide, particularly on something like this? Is it about contrast, or making certain elements pop? Or is it more complex than that?

Rodriguez: Colors are there to narrate. That’s the mission of colors in comics: tell the story in the same way as the panels, the art, the gutters, etc. do.

In this particular case I thought that we were going to explain the way the portals work with a big flash once Loki and Taaia arrive. So for this one I thought I should depict it as something “normal,” like “this is the superhero life, fellas. To cross dimensional portals is a normal day at the office.” America walking calmly, Blue Marvel there waiting and taking advantage to show the POV inside the portal, I thought that would be nice. We can see the blue/green tones of the Blue Marvel fortress laboratory and have the contrast with the warm NYC portal where America came from. Show how the portal works, just by playing with warm/cold color contrast.

The second panel here is striking as well, as your choice to completely bathe Blue Marvel in shadows makes the whole thing stand out. How much of storytelling decisions like that come down to instinct? Are those “decisions” or are they just what feels right in the moment?

Rodriguez: Both can be true. Sometimes it is just in the moment I do the layout and most of them before I draw a single line. This is one of the panels that came from the morning walks near the beach. When I thought about how to reflect Blue Marvel’s fortress I thought that it should be easy to understand. He is a lonely scientist at this moment. He doesn’t need all the lights on. The blue is in all places except where the technology is on and working. That was the idea. And when you have a portal or magic or whatever there is light, white, with some warm colors. 

I love this page for a lot of reasons, but one of them is the faces you give Loki and Taaia. They are in what should be an objectively wild situation, and they seem like they’re having a blast. That relates to something I appreciate about your art: there’s almost a joyous energy to it most of the time. Is that something you try to bring to the page, or am I reading too much into a pair of smiley characters?

Rodriguez: I think you’re reading it well! To me, it is important to create that peculiar moment when you are reading a comic and after two pages you forget that you are breaking down pictures and text. You’re just completely immersed in the story. Knowing that we work with figurative art, expressions, and behaviors of the characters is important to achieving that “sense.” At least to me. I love it.

This page could have just been the final panel, the one of Loki and Taaia dropping in. It could have been, but it’s so much better this way. Why was this the right solution, and how do you like to use paneling to build up to a major panel like the fifth one?

Rodriguez: It’s fun. When I read the script I realized that Taaia’s tiara was the only object of the group you saw in the first scene that didn’t have a purpose after showing it here. All of the others have a use. This one was only there as a call to say that Taaia was around. So I thought that it could be cool to use the tiara to add rhythm and show how Loki’s portal works despite you seeing something similar in Agents of Asgard. Furthermore, that allows me to show a happy Taaia recovering the tiara, which in my opinion matches the optimism of the character.

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  1. He mostly did that on Defenders as well, but his oft-collaborator in inker Álvaro López helped him out on issue #1 of that series.

  2. He mostly did that on Defenders as well, but his oft-collaborator in inker Álvaro López helped him out on issue #1 of that series.

  3. He mostly did that on Defenders as well, but his oft-collaborator in inker Álvaro López helped him out on issue #1 of that series.