This Fil-Canadian Writes Comics About Teens and Titans
By Ruel S. de Vera, Inquirer News Service
Editor's Note: Published on page Q4 of the August 14, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
LIKE many great ideas transformed into reality with a roar of thunder and a puff of smoke, J. Torres began writing comics because he dreamed of doing so.
“I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and comic books were my first love. So it made sense to get started there even though I had aspirations to write children’s books or work in TV as well. I wanted to both write and draw at one point, then realized I sucked at the art part so I concentrated on writing. So, yeah, I wanted to work in comics really early on, I just didn’t know how to do it.”
The 35-year-old Joseph Torres has certainly come a long way, because he is now the regular writer for DC Comics’ “Teen Titans Go!” and the Oni Press series’ “Love as a Foreign Language,” and adds to the zany happenings over at the Cartoon Network’s “Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi.”
A former elementary school teacher, J. Torres was born in Manila but left for Canada when he was 4. After completing his B.A. in Communications Studies with a Diploma in Elementary Education from McGill University in Montreal, Torres broke into the comics scene with his semi-autobiographical “The Copybook Tales.” This would lead to a zooming career in comics for both independent and mainstream publishers, writing, among others, stories for The Batman and the Uncanny X-Men, garnering nods from the Eisner, Harvey and Shuster Awards.
His upcoming project from Oni, the graphic novel “Lola: A Ghost Story,” bears his unmistakable mix of humor and wonder, as well as a palpable Pinoy mystique. Reflecting on his comics career and his Filipino roots, the Toronto-based Torres talked with SIM through e-mail about all that has happened and what comes next:
Q: How young were you when you began reading comic books and which made an early impression on you? Who are your big comic book influences?
A: I can’t even remember how old I was when I first started reading comic books. Some people can remember the first comics they ever read, I can’t. I guess I was pretty young at the time. But I do remember being a big fan of the DC characters, particularly the Justice League and Teen Titans. I’m sure watching the “Super Friends” cartoon nurtured that. As for influences, it’s a long, long list. And it’s different for different times in my life, different projects I’ve worked on, etc. But I can thank everyone from Charles Schulz and Bill Waterson to Grant Morrison to Evan Dorkin to Rumiko Takahashi, for making me want to create comic books in some way or the other.
Q: “The Copybook Tales” came out in 1996. How do you feel about the series now, years later?
A: I’ve always said it was “semi-autobiographical.” Half the cast consisted of composites of family members and friends, but the main characters Jamie and Thatcher were very much me and Tim Levins, who drew the book. Some of the situations they found themselves in were things that actually happened to us, while others were fictionalized. Looking back, I sometimes cringe at some of the storytelling, the corny lines, bad jokes, etc. But overall, I’m pretty proud of it. We were still learning our craft at the time, and everything that happened because of that series led me to this point in my career. People tend to say they wouldn’t change a thing when they reflect on the past. I tend to say I wouldn’t change much.
Q: You’ve written for Batman and The X-Men and are currently the regular writer of Teen Titans Go! How does it feel being able to write these characters? Any favorites?
A: It’s great. I mean, I grew up reading these characters, imagining stories of my own starring them in my head, and here I am actually being paid to do that for an audience now. I feel very lucky that I’m in a business that allows me to be creative and childish and love what I do to the extent that it doesn’t feel like work most of the time.
I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the Teen Titans. And sometimes I still can’t believe that I’m working on a series based on characters who were favorites of mine in high school. A series that’s even seeing print in Psi-Com’s DC Kids in the Philippines! Who would have known that would happen to me? And not only that, but the series I work on is geared towards kids. I’ve been writing all-ages comics for years with the hope that it would bring more readers to the fold. So, I see “Teen Titans Go!” as an opportunity of a lifetime, one that I feel comes with a certain responsibility. I take this job seriously, but I’m having a blast doing it!
Q: Your upcoming graphic novel, “Lola: A Ghost Story,” clearly carries a Pinoy flavor. Tell us, how did this come about?
A: “Lola” combines family stories about my maternal grandmother and various Filipino folk tales with a little magic realism and good old fashioned campfire storytelling thrown in for good measure. It’s inspired by parts of my childhood and is a blur of fact and fiction.
Q: Any other projects in the works after “Lola”?
A: “Dead Goombas” is my next project for Oni Press. That one’s about zombies terrorizing some mobsters. It’s a comedy. I’m also working on some more Teen Titans-related stuff for DC, but can’t really talk about that just yet. Outside of comics, I’m contributing stories to Cartoon Network’s “Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi” show. I’ve got a story in season two and two stories in season three. Hopefully, you’ll see more work from me in animation in the coming years. I should also be doing more for Scholastic on the kids book front, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll finally publish some original material that you’ll soon see in a children’s library. Wish me luck!
Q: You’re currently doing a mix of independent comic work and mainstream work. Is this a balance you intentionally set out to do, or is it something that you’re planning to change?
A: I think I’d go crazy if all I did was superhero stuff and I’d probably go broke if all I did was the vanity press, indy stuff. But fortunately, I love doing both and will continue to do so as long as editors and publishers will have me. I think one sort of also feeds the other, both creatively and financially speaking, so I don’t plan to change that.
Q: You write a lot of comic books about teenagers. Any particular reason why?
A: Probably because I’m immature and refuse to grow up.
Q: You reside in Toronto. What do you do in your spare time when you aren’t working on your comics?
A: My fiancée and I like to travel, do dinner with friends or entertain at home, go to movies, plays and concerts now and then, maybe try our luck at some casino action. Usual stuff. We’re not into extreme sports or underground culture or anything like that. We can be pretty boring.
Q: Have you seen the local comic books being produced in the Philippines and do you have any impressions on the local comic scene?
A: It appears to be thriving creatively from where I stand. I keep in touch with a number of Filipino creators online, and follow the work that they do on this side of the pond. I’ve even met some of them in San Diego at the annual comics convention. I’d love to visit there again someday soon and check out the shops, hang out with local artists, and meet the fans. I really enjoy doing that sort of thing. And it appears to me that there’s an exciting scene happening over there and I wish I could somehow be part of it.
Q: How Filipino do you consider yourself?
A: Well, it’s odd. When I’m among Filipino friends, sometimes I feel more Canadian. Like when everyone’s complaining about the cold and I’m actually sweating. And when I’m among Canadian friends, I feel very Filipino. Like when a group of us is trying to decide where to have dinner and I’m the only one craving rice. I guess it’s all relative. In any case, I’m proud of my Filipino heritage, where I come from, my family, my culture and what it all represents. I think it even shows in some of my work, as early as “Copybook. ”
Q: Is working in comic books something you see as a long-term gig for you, and is there something specific you’d still like to do in the future, comic book-wise?
A: As I said, as long as editors and publishers will have me, and as long as there are people out there willing to read my work, and as long as I’ve got stories to tell, I’ll keep writing. I love comic books and I think they’ll always be a part of me, my life, who I am. So, one day if you hear about some crazy old man who put in his will that he wanted to be cremated along with his entire comic book collection, that might be me!
For more information about J. Torres, please visit jtorresonline.com.