As I mentioned in my last interview, it's funny to think that only a little over a year ago I never would have thought it possible to speak with so many talented individuals. Perhaps none more so than today's special guest and co-creator of El Tigre, The Adventures of Manny Rivera- Jorge Gutierrez. I can recall, having first really learned about online art communities way back in the late 90s, being enamored with some of Jorge's earliest works which he often posted at online forums such as PencilJack.Thanks so much for making the trip to the clubhouse, Jorge! Personally, I've been a long time fan of your work so it's really an honor to have you here. Would you mind giving us a brief glimpse of your background?
Of course, Jorge's work has evolved since then but he's never lost the heart and soul of what I enjoyed about those early illustrations (such as the Skeletor depicted below) which stems from his uniquely chaotic linework, bright color palette and bold use of patterns. Little did I know back then that this same man would go on to co-create one of my all-time favorite animated shows (El Tigre) let alone that he would agree to put himself under fire from my fanboy-riddled Q&A. But I did, and he did, and here we are with a look behind what I believe to be one of the most creative minds in the mainstream art world today. Meet señor Jorge Gutierrez- El Super Macho!
I'm originally from an epic crazy monster called Mexico City but my parents moved us to the gorgeously chaotic city of Tijuana when I was 9 years old. Growing up in both cities, like a strong Tequila, really screwed me up but in a good way. Like a lot of Mexican kids, I grew up loving American and Japanese cartoons and Mexican pop culture. And for some unknown reason, I have always loved mustaches. Anyways, I always wondered why there were no Mexican cartoons and I dreamed one day making some. How hard could it be I thought? By the time I was in Catholic all boy high school (more like a prison!), the cartoon thing seemed impossible and so I wanted to be a painter, writer or filmmaker (like that was easier!). It never occurred to me that animation was all three.
Eventually I found out about CalArts and as a high school junior Jules Engel somehow, after humiliating me for my crappy drawings, accepted me into the Experimental Animation program. When I got there I was blown away by all the incredible talent. Armed with my love for Mexican pop and folk culture, I jumped in and never looked back. Loving Mexican culture so much became my artistic strength, but it was also my commercial weakness since studios at the job fair didn't know what to do with me. Drunk with ignorance, I made tons of super crappy Mexploitation films in all mediums: stop motion, 2D, cut out, live action, and eventually did my Master thesis film "Carmelo" in CG. That film went on to win the student Emmy and it opened a ton of doors in the industry (my first job was an animation intern at Sony on Stuart Little). With the help of a couple of friends from CalArts I created a tiny internet short called El Macho vs. The Mariachis of Doom! and I uploaded to Icebox.com. It got a ton of views and Sony Pictures Digital called me in. I pitched them the El Macho series and they bought it. I thought this is the greatest country in the world- they just pay you to make your own stuff!
El Macho - Episode One
From the internet I graduated to TV working on various shows as a designer (WB's Mucha Lucha, Disney's The Buzz on Maggie) and a writer (PBS Maya & Miguel). While I was doing that Sandra and I formed Mexopolis and together we pitched to various studios. After many MANY broken dreams and pilots we eventually got to Nickelodeon and created El Tigre, The Adventures of Manny Rivera with the most astounding and talented crew you can imagine. It was a dream come true! And now I'm currently developing my life long dream feature project (and a huge love letter to Mexico) and hopefully I can announce it soon.
You mentioned having formed Mexopolis alongside your wife, Sandra Equihua. How did the two of you first meet?
We were both teenagers when I met Sandra at punk rock concert in Tijuana and I was instantly in love. She wanted nothing to do with me, but she was already an incredibly talented artist so I had to have her! Two weeks later I proposed, she said no, and we started dating and creating art together. Eight years later I proposed on Day of the Dead and she said yes. She eventually got her Graphic Design degree in Tijuana and she did her thesis on animation while I was in CalArts. We would see each other every two weeks. I swore to her we could be the Diego Rivera & Frida Khalo of animation. Except without all the infidelity and the train cart running her over part. She went for it and here we are. I still believe that since we can actually work together, our marriage is bullet proof! Or at least knife proof.
Proposing on the Day of the Dead? Sweet move! Being artists with vastly different art styles, do you ever find yourselves critiquing each other's work?
Oh yeah! It can get pretty cruel around here at Mexopolis Industries. Sandra can be a harsh mistress of design & story. I pitch all my stories to her first and it can get ugly. Like "you're sleeping in the coach tonight" ugly. But we're very aware of each other's strengths (we've been working together for 16 years now) and we both actually enjoy doing the thing the other one is not into- it works perfectly. We create stuff together, story is my thing but I always run them by her. Design is a split. Sandra draws all the girls and cute stuff and I draw all the men, monsters or anything macho. We're very sexist that way, haha.
What do you find most fascinating about Mexican pop culture? Is it Día de los Muertos? Churros? Lucha?
I really do love it all! The variety is rather spectacular. How can you not love Mexico? She is such a sultry mistress! Living away from Mexico (ironically I live in what used to be Mexico) has of course made me completely romanticize my native, if currently extra dangerous, land. I'm always drunk with nostalgia for the Mexico of my youth. I know it no longer exits (maybe it never did), but the memories keep me inspired. I consider Mexican culture the paint I use for my work. It's something I have always done and I see myself doing until I die. And even after that!
I love so many Mexican things: The delicious food, all the various music, the Tequila, the women, the machismo, the Catholic imagery, La Loteria, Cri Cri, Frida Khalo, Diego Rivera, Miguel Covarrubias, Gabriel Figueroa, Sergio Aragones, the Spanish/pre Hispanic fusion, Lucha Libre, Cantinflas, El Santo films, Kaliman, Pedro Infante movies, Narco culture, sombreros & mustaches, Sandra, Dia de Los Muertos, Cafe Tacuba, Guillermo Del Toro... I could go on forever. The list is endless. Mexico is an incredible fountain of inspiration that never dries. I just swim in it everyday!
You've also mentioned in past interviews that you possess an interest in art that expresses the 'pain of loss.' What is it about these kind of artworks that appeal to you?
I have a small art collection that I'm very proud of. I believe that from great pain comes great art (films and cartoons included)- at least that's what I deduced in my art history classes- and when something really bad and painful happens, I tend to make my best work. Nothing makes me happier than having a window into an artist's sadness. Maybe it's part of my masochistic Catholic upbringing. It's as if I subconsciously believe something that was not painful to make, cannot be good. Yeah, my super macho philosophy is very scientific. And painful.
The original pilot for El Tigre, The Adventures of Manny Rivera
Having worked as an artist/animator on several well-known cartoon properties over the course of your career (Mucha Lucha, Chalk Zone, The Buzz on Maggie) what were some of the toughest challenges of producing your very own show in El Tigre?
Having worked on so many shows taught me what to do and, most importantly, what not to do when I had my first shot. Every single creator is different and there's no right or wrong way, really.
My approach was to create a sandbox were all my favorite artists and writers (many who happened to be my friends already or who I became great friends with) could play and have fun. We were a big band making music together. But El Tigre was a hard show to make since we were very ambitious. The crew was super macho! And we took great pride in the fact that we were always on time and on schedule. It was a matter of honor for us. We made extra sure that all the hard work everyone created was up on the screen. Nothing broke my heart more when I was a production artist than to waste art. So we made a huge effort to be very disciplined in our process so that 97.5% of the art created for the show was actually used. This made everyone know their work was valued and it just made the show a great experience for everyone. It has been my favorite job so far. And I can honestly say it was WAY more satisfying than I ever dreamt. Now I'm hooked!
Is it true that the series pitch was originally titled Familia Atomica?
Yeah! It's not like they had nuclear powers, it was more of a subversive deconstruction of a Latino "nuclear family". Nickelodeon thought that was a bit to conceptual for a Saturday morning cartoon. And they were right!
Aside from what you've already mentioned, what else changed between the initial concept of Familia Atomica and what fans have come to know today as The Adventures of Manny Rivera?
The hero dad/villain grandpa and Manny having to choose between the two was always there. That was the core of the idea. But in the original version the Riveras were not cat themed at all. In fact, Manny was only 7 years old and he wore a Zebra Donkey outfit (which was our homage to Tijuana) and all three of them drove a giant Luchador Robot. Frida was the mechanic. Then the show evolved from that to what we know today. Our creation process is very organic and a little chaotic since we follow our gut and heart. And sometimes those two disagree.
How did Manny's superhero persona come about? Are there any specific cultural influences?
As far as Tigre's personality, it was originally based on my childhood (and stories from Sandra & various crew members) and then he eventually evolved into his own self. The characters came alive as the series took form. It was very magical.
As far as cultural influences, there were tons for every character! The idea of a bandit hero is all over Mexican history with noble rebels like Joaquin Murrieta or El Tigre de Santa Julia or Zapata or Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution. And of course El Zorro was a big influence since he's one of the first super heroes ever (inspiring Batman even). And the idea that the government and the police are corrupt and that the people need a hero is very Mexican. The idea of wearing a tiger costume came from my love of Aztec Eagle and Jaguar warriors. And even though there are no actual tigers in Mexico, the word tiger and it's various meanings are all over Mexican culture; Los Tigres Del Norte, los Tigres de Monterrey, La Tigressa, tiger wooden masks, tiger themed luchadores, tigers as Narco pets, etc...
The show was unfortunately cut short in 2008 after only two seasons. Were you ever given any indication why Nickelodeon decided to pull the plug so soon?
Nickelodeon always believed in us and I could not be more thankful. But our ratings never lived up to our spectacular premier (the highest Saturday morning premier ever at that time). That was it, nothing personal really. I was sad when it ended but super happy for what we made. Eventually the show won a ton of Annies and Emmys so at least we knew our hard work was highly regarded by our peers and some of the most loyal and endearing fans. To this day we get the most amazing fan letters from all over the world- especially Mexico! I could not be happier with how it all went down.
Any chance we'll see Manny, Frida and the gang return for a TV Special or in a different medium perhaps?
You never know. Nickelodeon owns the rights and they get to decide. If it was up to me, which is not, I would love to do an El Tigre feature. I have the whole story in my head!
You've been hard at work ever since on a variety of new projects and pitches, most recently with an animated pilot for Carmen Got Expelled!. Even with your past success/experience, has it been difficult to get another show off the ground?
It's been really hard! Maybe our ideas are a little too crazy now. The good thing is I'm currently developing my dream project, but it's an animated feature. Unfortuently I can't say much about it yet, but hopefully it will be announced soon. It's the most epic thing I have ever created.
Epic is certainly good. Speaking of good things, you and Sandra have a little Niño running around the house nowadays. How has the birth of your son influenced your life/work?
Our son Luka, has changed everything. Right after he was born I had a really hard time caring about anything work or art related since he stole my heart. But yeah, Luka has became a huge inspiration for all our new work. He's going to be showing up in everything we do. And he's taught me that sleep and pants are for cowards!
If you'd be so kind to leave us with this bit of Gutierrez trivia... what's the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?
That's a tough one. Hmmm. I am in love with what I think are the positive sides of Mexican machismo: strength, tradition, loyalty, honor and family. Without them I am nothing. So one of my fondest memories of my grandfather (who passed away during us making El Tigre) is that of him playing a game with me in front of everyone in the family to see how long he could slap me in the face until I cried. I was 3 years old- I loved that game! That's not too strange is it?
Not at all, Jorge, not at all.
Being the kick-ass individual that he is, Jorge agreed to bring his trademark Gutierrez artistic styling to Strange Kid with this insane portrait for which he was handsomely paid the sum of 1,000 churros with which to lather his feet in their sugary/cinnamon luminescence (keep watching that mailbox, J). I sincerely cannot even begin to express my appreciation for this man or the work he's done and if you've yet to become a fan of Jorge's work the only thing I can say is: what's wrong with you?!
View Jorge's portfolio - Super Macho!
Read Jorge's Blog
Mexopolis on DeviantArt