How Mexican-American Artist Arturo Torres Became the Illustrator Behind Two NYT Bestselling Books

Art by Arturo Torres. Collage by Alan López for Remezcla

Arturo Torres is the Mexican-American illustrator whose lively graphic work has adorned the pages of Shea Serrano’s two immersive books – The Rap Yearbook and Basketball (And Other Things). Together, the Texan duo has amassed a growing legion of followers and earned the right to call themselves New York Times bestsellers.

In the art and publishing worlds, where the voices of people of color often go ignored or are relegated to niche categories, Torres’ work is refreshing and increasingly necessary. Art is a reflection of personal experiences and as the number of Latinos in the United States swells, Arturo is an all too rare example of a Mexican American making waves in the industry.

“It fuels me to work hard so kids can see if some knucklehead dude with a Mexican name like Arturo Torres can be a New York Times bestseller, they have a shot at it like I do,” Torres tells me, explaining the influence his heritage has on his approach to art.

With Shea Serrano – the acclaimed writer and exalted leader of the altruistic FOH Army – the Tejano tandem has broken into the publishing world without compromising either of their respective voices.

Their collaborative work began four years ago when Serrano came across a flier Torres made for a local musician. “He was working on The Rap Yearbook at the time and needed an illustrator for the book,” he explains. “You could say it was love at first sight on his end, and one thing led to another; now we have made two books, bookmarks, a newsletter, a ton of other stuff – he’s a great guy.”

The collaboration may have come by chance, but their pairing is a match made in heaven. Both seem to share a primal need to get the inner-workings of their mind down on paper. If Shea’s writing can be described as a hilarious, thoughtful stream of consciousness, Torres’ illustrative work is best described as whimsical pop art-meets-evocative graphic novel.

By contrasting Good and Evil, Arturo’s illustrations draw on the visceral emotions we often felt about our favorite comic book and cartoon characters – stark, tidy contrasts of thought and feeling that helped us navigate the blurry world of morality.

His subject matter, however, often deviates from common comic book tropes. Instead, you can expect anything from Chance the Rapper dunking Satan’s head in a toilet bowl to LeBron James, the Power Ranger, fighting off a giant Toronto Raptor.

His detailed, tongue-in-cheek style speaks to an adolescence spent admiring a who’s who of graphic artists. “I grew up reading comics and would imitate the artists I would read – Jack Kirby, John Romita Sr., Mike Mignola, Brian Bolland,” he says.

Now, with two New York Times bestselling books featuring his illustrations under his belt, the Dallas artist is poised to shake up the comic book world by bringing his unique voice to the table. While the world of comics has often been progressive in its politics, the industry’s heavy hitters are just now catching up to a changing world looking to center marginalized voices.

With Marvel rolling out superheroes like the Black Panther and Afro-Boricua Spider-Man Miles Morales, Torres’ arrival on the scene comes at a time when the comic book universe is beginning to look more like the people who make up its ardent fan base. Torres hopes to create comics for those people. “I want to make comic books and graphic novels for Latino kids and adults who grew up with one parent or around domestic violence like I did,” he says.

That commitment to his voice and his people was especially apparent earlier this year when Torres posted an illustration to his Instagram featuring a tightly wound Donald Trump with a hooded Klansman serving as his shadow. On Trump’s lectern sits a Swastika reworked to spell out 45 (as in 45th president). The caption reads, “if you are siding with hatred, we ain’t cool at all.”

Arturo minces no words when talking about Trumpito. “I enjoyed the backlash actually – it makes it easier to not work with racist people or people that voted for someone who says it’s okay to touch a woman sexually when one is rich, or that not all white supremacists are bad, or that black people are lazy, or that Mexico is bringing its worst to the US,” he says. “I had to draw that piece… I was given this talent and I strongly feel that being silent is just as bad as backing him up.”

Having recently returned from the Philippines – where Nike commissioned Torres to paint five murals – he’s now gearing up for the next steps: marriage and life transformed through art and the opportunities it provides. But throughout it all, he’ll remain unchanged by the industry’s rules or expectations.

“If people like my illustrations then that’s dope. If they don’t, well, they have bad taste,” he says with a laugh, before finishing his thought. “There shouldn’t be be any balance with anything – draw what you like and what’s close to you.”