Raúl the Third (his full name is Raúl González III) flew off the starting block with Lowriders in Space (Chronicle, 2014) a picture book graphic novel that featured Latinx characters and lowrider cars. To show young artists that professional art can be produced with ordinary tools, Raúl did all of the illustrations with ballpoint pen. Two more Lowrider volumes followed; the second won the Pura Belpré Award in 2017. His new picture book graphic novel, Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market, explores the magical Mercado de Cuauhtémoc. Modeled on Ciudad Juárez’s market of the same name, it’s across the river from El Paso, Tex. Raúl grew up going to the market, and his extended family still works there. In the story, a young wolf cub named Little Lobo and his dog Bernabé deliver supplies to the market’s merchants, savoring treats and comic books along the way. Raúl spoke with PW about the mercado, what friends are for, and how important it is to tell your own story.
In preparing for this interview, it became clear that there is more than one artist named Raúl González.
Yes, there are several! There is a guy in Texas who does performance art, and another guy, too. I’ll get a phone call and they’ll be complimenting me and I’ll say, “I think you mean the Raúl from Dallas.” I know people who know those guys, and apparently they get confused with me, too. That’s why I decided I wanted to be Raúl the Third. There’s only one Raúl the Third, and I kind of like that.
Can you talk about the beginning of ¡Vamos!?
It was an opportunity to take part in something new. My friend Arielle Eckstut asked if I’d be interested in working with Kwame Alexander’s new imprint, Versify. I was working on the third Lowriders book and also working on illustrations for SpongeBob Comics.
How did you get to do SpongeBob?
I drew maybe five issues. I got involved with the series after meeting [Workman editor] Chris Duffy. It was a great series to experiment with different styles, and it was where Elaine Bay started coloring my illustrations. It was such a fun and natural collaboration that when the opportunity for ¡Vamos! came along, she and I joined forces once again.
So there you were, doing the third Lowrider book and SpongeBob...
I said, “That sounds fantastic!” And Arielle said, “You have about a week to get something to us.”
You’re quoted somewhere saying that you turned in the first sketches for Lowriders within hours. So maybe a week was doable?
Well, I had had elements of this idea for many years now. My idea was always to try to create a book that was simply about taking in all of the things around you. It took me back to being a young kid growing up in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, where a trip across the bridge put you into a completely different country.
Whenever anyone asks me about my aesthetic, I tell them, it’s influenced by the mercado. In the mercado, every little piece of real estate is filled with all sorts of detail. I wanted to fill the book with that dynamic energy. You can hear it, you can see it, you can smell it—it’s exciting!
And I knew I wanted to work with Elaine Bay. Her coloring is so suited to my work.
She’s your wife, is that right?
She is! And she’s from the same place as I am, so she has a deep sense of how color is affected by the hot sun, how it gets bleached out.
Some of the images in the market—the masks, the skulls—might seem strange for some readers, but for Little Lobo, they’re home.
To grow up on the border is to be immersed in two cultures simultaneously—two cultures that were one to myself and the people growing up there. The influence of the frontera on our lives is part of our everyday.
Can you talk a little about the relationships Little Lobo shares with all the different people he knows?
Yes, that’s very important! When you get to know the people around you it makes life so much richer. When my son was first getting to be aware of what was going on around him, he asked,
“Why are people always saying hello to us?” And I told him, “They’re all our friends. They’re here to help us, and we’re here to help them.”
What I love about Little Lobo is that he’s just good at doing things for other people. He tries to make himself helpful. The mercado is about community. That’s so important to instill in our youth. Be open to learning about the place where you live!
Who was your editor? Did she play a big role in shaping the story?
My editor is Margaret Raymo. She’s incredibly helpful, and very hands-off. She would nudge me here and there and push me in all of the right ways. It just makes you feel confident.
Was there anything in an earlier version of the book that didn’t make the final cut?
No. What is in there were things that I wanted to be in there. I remember [Margaret] saying, “The way you’re creating this book seems to be very organic.” A lot of discovery happens when I’m creating the final art. I have characters that I’m getting to know for the first time and there are these background details that suddenly appear. Through the sheer will of their own personalities, the background characters force themselves into the storyline. It has been this way as I finish the second book, too.
There’s going to be a second one?
It’s already in the can.
What happens in this next one?
In the first book, I tried to focus more attention on the merchandise, so the second book is going to be all about food.
Is it done in the same way?
This second book has been completely different because I decided that I was going to create all my layouts digitally. I drew them all on my Cintiq [an interactive touch screen for artists] and [went] directly from rough layouts to printing them on smooth plate Bristol board. Then I started directly inking my rough layouts, adding little details that I had wanted to put in. As soon as I finished the first page I scanned it back in and immediately sent it to Elaine.
There are lots of halftone screens in there, right?
Yes. I wanted the book to resemble some of the Saturday morning cartoons I watched—Hanna-Barbera and Top Dog. And there’s a thread in ¡Vamos! about the comic book rack, my home away from home—it’s about the influence of printed matter on both of our lives, Elaine’s and mine. Through the halftone dots we’re paying homage to the four-color printing process. And to that really cool pop sensibility of Lichtenstein and Warhol’s screenprinting.
Elaine is riffing off of a lot of things: my fine-art practice, and her passions and color choices. It’s a nice marriage of both of our styles.
That’s right! You have a career as a fine artist, too, correct?
It’s true. I love finding different ways to create an installation in a museum or a gallery. Finding different ways to tell a story—with video, sound, or sculptural elements... or with funny animals!
Simply being able to share, in some surreal, dreamlike way, the frontera, the desert—I am so happy that I get my own corner to create my own world and my own characters. That I get to draw characters with names like Mal Burro and Peeky Pequeño.
What can you share about what comes next?
There’s going to be a new Lowriders book, and there’s a picture book coming, too.
Do you feel like an artist with more ideas than you’ll ever get down on paper?
It took me a while to begin to create artwork that was about myself and who I was. I remember one day I was teaching after-school classes. I was having the kids design comic book characters. I just started to notice all of these kids—kids who had just come from El Salvador and Mexico and Jamaica, all these different places—and thinking to myself, “Why are their heroes not like them or their parents? Why are their characters all stereotypical American heroes?”
Then I turned the question back to myself. I had been trained to shy away from that. It was almost as if I had opened up this well full of material. Suddenly, I went from having a difficult time creating artwork to having a difficult time catching up with all these ideas. I started laughing at my jokes and my dad’s hard luck stories, and I became proud of my grandparents who opened up the market in Juárez.
At the same time, I started being an example to the young kids I was with. I wanted to infuse them with the confidence to tell their history, and their families’ journeys. Sometimes you’re just made to feel embarrassed by differences between yourself and the new place you find yourself. I wanted to find a way to reverse that.
This book and the book to come are other kinds of American stories. There are so many American stories that have yet to see the light of day. I can’t wait for our youngsters to have the confidence to tell them.
Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market by Raúl the Third. HMH/Versify, $14.99 Apr. 2 ISBN 978-1-328-55726-1