As a child growing up in Garland, the artist Arturo Torres often holed up with his two brothers in the bedroom they all shared, watching superhero movies and reading comic books to escape the terror their abusive father inflicted upon the family. The middle child, Torres would draw his own alternate endings to comics or create his own entire stories. In one of these, his father was the villain, and Spiderman saved them.
Torres’s mother eventually kicked his father out of the house. But one night, he returned. “I turn on the lights, and I can see the knives in his hands,” Torres recalls. “I just laid him out cold, and he passes out. We tied him up, and we called the cops, and I told him, ‘Look, you’re out of this house, and we are going to live better without you than we have been with you.’” As for how exactly a nine-year-old kid was able to knock out his own father, Torres, who now stands six feet tall, says: “I’ve always been pretty big.”
After that last incident with his father, Torres, his mother, and his brothers went to live at Genesis Women’s Shelter in Dallas. Counselors tried to get him to open up about what had happened, but he “didn’t know how to communicate what was going on at home,” he says. One counselor noticed Torres drawing and bought him his first set of art supplies, replete with watercolors and markers.
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Though he’s played the role of a real-life Avenger, Torres is now famous for drawing others in a distinct comic book style. For years, he’s had a creative partnership with the San Antonio writer Shea Serrano. Together they have collaborated on two New York Times best-selling books: The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed (2015) and Basketball (And Other Things), which was selected by former President Barack Obama as one of his favorite reads of 2017. Their newest book, Movies (And Other Things), is out this week.
Like Serrano’s other books, Movies (And Other Things) includes a series of essays addressing questions that he feels need to be answered. One chapter opens by asking, “Were the Jurassic Park Raptors Just Misunderstood?” That chapter features Torres’s drawing of John the Baptist baptizing a velociraptor, to symbolize their redemption in the chapter. In Basketball (And Other Things), Serrano answers other intriguing hypotheticals, such as: “If 1997 Karl Malone and a Bear Swapped Places in a Season, Who Would Be More Successful?” To accompany the text, Torres illustrated a drawing of Karl Malone, clad in his Utah Jazz uniform, grabbing a salmon out of a river while a grizzly bear looks on.
Torres’s deep history with comic books comes across in his drawings. For one thing, he depicts nearly everyone with an air of invincibility surrounding them. In one illustration from the basketball book, Steve Nash, dressed as Rambo, stands on a tree branch with bow and arrow drawn—a far cry from the boyish-looking point guard who won two NBA MVP awards for the Phoenix Suns. “He’s one of the best working illustrators in America,” Serrano says of Torres.
The writer is particularly drawn to Torres’s art, he says, because of the textures the illustrator achieves by hand-drawing each piece. Torres is particularly proud of the color palette he uses, which he says are the same 64 colors that early comic book artists, like his idol Jack Kirby, used. Kirby, famous for his work with author Stan Lee, drew and helped create many notable Marvel characters, including Captain America, Thor, and Torres’ favorite superhero, the Incredible Hulk. As with each collaboration between the two, Torres’s style deftly illustrates the range of Serrano’s imagination.
Torres toiled for years before becoming a best-selling artist. He worked a lot of odd jobs as a kid: His mother, who had immigrated from Mexico and was undocumented, struggled to make ends meet for her and her three boys. A neighbor taught her to sew, and she made some money stitching clothes in their neighborhood, while Torres and his brothers worked at thrift stores in order to bring in extra cash. He sold art whenever he could. After graduating from Garland High School, he spent one semester at Collin County Community College in Plano, and another at Richland College in Dallas, before dropping out.
For a while Torres worked at Common Desk, a co-working startup then gearing up to open its first location in Dallas’s Deep Ellum neighborhood. But he felt like he needed to take the leap into a full-time illustrating career, so he quit that stable job and took a chance on himself. As one of Shea Serrano’s favorite refrains goes, he decided to shoot his shot.
Here and there, he took on projects like designing murals and illustrating fliers, but nothing consistently provided him with enough money to cover his meager living expenses. (Susan, his girlfriend at the time and now his wife, helped him with rent). When a Dallas musician named DJ Sober needed a flier for a show in 2014, Torres took on the project, thinking it was going to be like any other flier he had made. The poster’s centerpiece features a giant gorilla wearing a headband emblazoned with “Granada!,” the name of the venue. Members of the band The Hood Internet, clad in Star Wars attire, surround the gorilla.
Unbeknownst to him, a budding literary superstar in Houston was struggling to finish his first book. Serrano, then a middle-school teacher, had built a dedicated Twitter following (known as the FOH Army) from his coverage of the Houston rap scene and later his work for the defunct sports and culture website Grantland. In 2014, he’d secured a book deal to write and illustrate The Rap Year Book. Serrano says he had procrastinated too long, and he was scrambling to find an illustrator. That’s when the poster that Torres drew for DJ Sober appeared in Serrano’s Twitter feed. “I didn’t know why it had a gorilla on there. I didn’t know who those two guys were, but looking at it made me feel good,” he says. Serrano reached out to the group and eventually figured out that Torres had drawn the poster. Their creative partnership took off from there.
Those nascent days weren’t without road bumps though. It’s a lengthy process to craft each chapter, since Torres hand-draws everything before scanning it into the computer and coloring it. At first, Serrano and Torres butted heads over their opposite working styles. Their collective inexperience as illustrator and author and the book’s tight deadline didn’t help.
But they got it done, and after The Rap Year Book’s release, Torres got a call from Serrano informing him that they were New York Times best-sellers. Torres didn’t realize how huge that was until he went to a book signing in Dallas and saw the line of fans snaking around the corner of the venue. Serrano’s legion of Twitter followers, combined with the book’s fresh approach to music writing and illustration, had made them both hugely successful. It also secured them another book deal, which they turned into another hit.
The numbers aren’t out yet for Movies (And Other Things), but given that it had at least 10,000 pre-orders, it’s likely another best-seller. With this book, their collaboration has evolved. Instead of specifically art-directing each piece like he used to, Serrano now gives Torres an idea and knows a few days later he’ll get something incredible and unexpected back. “The best work you are going to get out of him is if you get out of his way,” Serrano says. “Give him the bones of an idea, of what you think you might need, and let him do what he does.”
Torres says he’s now constantly flooded with job offers, but he turns almost all of them down. The Serrano books provide him with enough income that he only takes on projects he’s passionate about. For the foreseeable future, those projects mostly involve more with Serrano. The two are already working on another book, though they’re tight-lipped about the specifics. With the money he’s made from the books and other major projects, like designing basketball courts for Nike in the Philippines, Torres bought an updated house in Dallas’s Oak Cliff neighborhood, where he lives with Susan and their infant son, Benny. “[He] is the first Torres in the family to have a father and a loving family,” Torres says.
For all its faults, Twitter had a hand in connecting an unknown artist from Garland and a middle-school teacher in Houston and made them worldwide superstars, best-sellers, and brothers for life. “There’s nobody who I would pick above him,” says Serrano of Torres. “He’s my guy.”