Vanesa R. Del Rey doesn’t think she could have stayed in her native Cuba. People who are different are ostracized, she says. "It’s tough," she adds. A small, slender woman with dark eyes and a wry smile, the artist might seem demure if it weren’t for the large snake tattoo slithering across her right arm.
She is part of a growing number of woman comic book artists. She has worked on titles including Marvel's Scarlet Witch, Spider-Woman Alpha, and Black Widow.
While growing up on the island, Del Rey was first introduced to painting by her grandmother. It was miraculous that she even found the world of comic books and began a career in that realm. “In Cuba we didn’t have any comics,” she points out. Titles from companies like Marvel and DC were banned because they were American. Although she attended a creative arts high school where instruction in traditional structure was readily available, comic-style illustration was not an option. That type of work is considered kid stuff, she says.
At 19, the artist moved to Miami. The transition from Havana to Miami was a shocking one. Del Rey began classes at Miami Dade College, and five years later she completed her Associate degree. She then attended Ringling College of Art & Design in Sarasota, where she earned her BFA with a concentration in illustration. If Central Florida wasn't different enough from Del Rey’s hometown, her next stop would be.
While working in Louisiana, she loved working on concept art and storyboarding for the animation company there, but the culture shock was pronounced. “It was weird over there,” says Del Rey of the experience. “It was really boring. I was the only person who spoke Spanish, I think, in the entire studio... Over there, I got super Cuban. I was teaching people how to dance salsa, and I don’t even know how to dance.”
Soon after, she began illustrating on a freelance basis. Her ten-hour workdays attest to both her discipline and passion.
Del Rey operates in what can be hostile territory. She acknowledges women comic book artists inevitably still incite backlash among some fans. In an industry whose creators and fans are chiefly male, “Most of the females [illustrators] get female leads, female series, female characters.” Her versatile work, however, proves she does not feel the need to operate within this mold.
Her illustrations often feature violent, bloody scenes and voluptuous, sexual women. But as she points out, “The audience is not just dudes anymore. I think [the business is] going to have to come around.”
When drawing women, the artist points out, “I want them to be strong. Sexuality for women is toned down, suppressed.” Frequently in comics, men are portrayed as sexually dominant to submissive women. Del Rey rejects this notion, drawing women in seductive poses or touching themselves, saying she is trying to even the playing field.
“Hell yeah, I masturbate," she says with a laugh, adding, "Girls should masturbate.”
She has no patience for the infantilization of women that is so often present in male-drawn comics. Instead, Del Rey says, “It’s sort of like I put myself in the [art]. I like to be strong and do what I want.” So too, then, do the women she draws.
It may be surprising, then, that Del Rey says she is “not a nerdy girl comic fan. I read comics, but I’m not a fan,” she says. “It’s actually, I think, a good thing that I’m not so influenced by [the world of comics] because I bring something new into it.”
Her fine arts training more than makes up for the fact that she doesn’t know anything about the X-Men. “I have to research every character that I do because I don’t know much about them,” she adds. Her unique style and comprehensive skills are evident when examining her body of work. Take Empty Man, with its shadows and ambiguity, and compare it Hit, with its definition and smooth curves. Each of Del Rey’s works, while discrete, is similarly striking.
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