Location: 2019 Lightbox Expo
Interview Date: 9/12/2019
Anime Herald: Can you tell me a bit about Loteria?
John Picacio: It’s a game that’s been around for centuries in Mexico. It’s a national cultural pastime. It’s played the same way as we know Bingo, but instead of random assortment of letters and numbers, it uses a system of the mundane and the magical, with a 54 card deck.
Anime Herald: How does the board work?
John Picacio: It’s a four-by-four placard, or as we say in Spanish, a “tabla.” Four in a row wins, or a blackout wins, depending on how you are playing. There’s a host who calls out the card, let’s say the heart “El Corazon”, they’ll hold up the heart. If you play it like the way they did in old Mexico, they’ll make up a rhyme or a riddle and you’ll have to guess what icon they’re saying. They might not even show you the card. That’s part of the old tradition. When I play it I just call out the card. I’ll call out “El Corazon”, and if you have it on your placard you’ll mark it with a bean or a peso. If you are the first person to get four in a row, do not yell out “Bingo!”, you have to yell out “Loteria.”
Anime Herald: When did you first get the idea to create your own Loteria deck?
John Picacio: Around 2013, 2014. I had just won my second Hugo award for best artist. The Hugo’s are like the Oscars for us. Right around that time I realized that I was really flying high right now as a successful cover artist, getting a lot of notoriety, this was the time to think about if this was what I wanted my life to be. It’s great to have success, but I felt that was time to look to pivot and evolve. To do something that wasn’t just a personal project, but something that would give back to my culture.
John Picacio: I’d basically been a gun for hire, doing a lot of covers for American publishing. I felt that I really hadn’t done enough for my own culture to feel comfortable about myself. Winning that award made me feel that people were looking at me in a shinier way right now. I thought that perhaps I should use that visibility and that leverage to do something that before this award I perhaps could not have done. Loteria was my choice because I wanted to give back to the culture and I wanted to do something that was intensely personal. It has been exactly that. What’s been great is that people who are not just Mexican-American or “Mexicanx” have gotten on board with this thing. I want something that’s seen as exclusively brown to be seen as inclusive of everyone.
Anime Herald: So you signed up to do 54 pieces. How are are you along?
John Picacio: I’m closing in on halfway. I’ll be halfway by the end of 2019. I’m at 23 right now. I have five pieces on the board at home. I’m hoping to have four of them done and released as cards by Halloween, one of them being Death, “La Muerte.” It’s a death image that no one has ever seen before. It’ll be very iconic.
Anime Herald: When do you think you might finish the project? What’s your time frame?
John Picacio: It’s going to take me at least another year. I’m decelerating my cover art, saying no to a lot of my New York cover opportunities, which is dangerous and risky when that is how you built your career, but it’s necessary for me to pull this project off. I need to carve out that time to do this thing and do it right. I would say I am at least a year away from finishing, but I do have a major New York literary agent representing this. That gives me some comfort to know that when this is done I will be able to pitch it.
The cold honest business truth is that I’ll be prepared to pitch it by this Fall. I don’t need to finish the series for a publisher to say “we want this.” I just need to get the written part of my pitch done. The pitching will probably happen this Fall but your question was about the completion of the work itself, which in all honesty should take at least another year, whether it’s signed to a publisher or not.
Anime Herald: Let’s say you do get signed to a publisher, what do you want to do once you’ve completed it?
John Picacio: I want it to be a book of stories and art that changes not only the way ““Mexicanx” or Mexican-Americans look at themselves, but how the world sees us. I want it to be more valued as a culture, and that starts with us valuing our own culture. I want my story to help be a part of that process. It won’t be able to do that by itself, but I hope it will be part of that process. I want this book to be in Barnes & Nobles and Target and Walmart. I want it to be everywhere. For that to happen it will have to be with a major publisher that has the distribution power to put it in as many outlets as I want to see it, which is everywhere. I want it to be published in America, in the UK, and abroad. I’m with an agent that will be able to help me make that happen.
Their will be a game attached to this as well. It will be sold separately from the book. I think the book has to happen before the game, or simultaneously. The game can’t come first. The reason I say that is that I’m creating a mythos. For the phenomena that has never existed before. I say that because I’m creating a story, a narrative, and Loteria doesn’t really have a narrative. I think that will help give my game a bit more gravitas or resonance that currently we don’t have. I’m not trying to replace the old Loteria. I’m trying to bring it into the contemporary.
Anime Herald: I’ve noticed you’ve done a few gender-flips in your Loteria pieces. Was that always part of the plan or something that happened in the moment?
John Picacio: I think it’s something that happens in the moment. It happens with evolving and becoming a father and looking at where the world is and really paying attention. I come from Texas and there are some really bad things happening with women’s rights in Texas, and across our entire country. I feel like I want to say something about that and do some things to help. You’re not going to be able to remove the machismo attitude that comes from my culture. I certainly wouldn’t be able to do it by myself. I can try to, in my own way, be more progressive about representing the way I would like to see the world. There’s so much pushback against women. There always has been. It’s nothing new. It’s been around forever. I wanted to do my small part to introduce more positive images of women, powerful images of women, within my set of Loteria.
Anime Herald: In terms of the story will you be bringing in other writers, or handling it all yourself?
John Picacio: I’ll be writing it all myself. I think that’s a very good question because early on I did entertain thoughts of having some of my very powerful and popular writer friends do stories related to my stuff, thinking that would help with the visibility. In the end I realized “No, it has to be me doing it, this is my personal project.” It would have been a shortcut to ask other writers to help out here. I would have been using their popularity to improve my visibility. The real road to establishing myself as a creator is to do the hard work and earn it and make sure my writing is good enough to hold up to this. That means I have to learn how to be a writer, which is why this has taken a while. You don’t get to do that overnight. Writing, as you know, is a hard craft, and I’m having to learn my craft and do it the right way. It takes a while but I will get there and make it happen.
Anime Herald: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you end up becoming a creative, writing and making art?
John Picacio: I guess comics is my first language. I’ve been reading comics, superhero, DC, Marvel comics, since my earliest memories. I always thought I was going to work in comics at some point.
I got a lot of scholarship offers coming out of high school. There was some pressure from my family to get a professional degree instead of an art degree. I bowed to that pressure and ended up getting a degree in architecture. My lame high school thinking at the time was “At least I’ll be able to draw for a living doing architecture, and I’ll make everybody happy since it’s a professional degree.”
I started working in residential architecture, but, there’s what I tell a lot of people “There’s what you like and there’s what you love.” I always knew what I liked, and I really knew what I loved. Eventually love won out. I liked architecture. I could make a lot of money in architecture, but I loved science fiction/fantasy/sequential art. I started doing my own comics by night as I was working in architecture. Those comics led book publishers to see them and say “Hey, have you ever thought about doing book covers?”, which I hadn’t. I got to do a Michael Moorcock book in the mid 90’s, around 96 or so. I fell in love. I fell in love with not just the genre which I was already in love with, but the whole way of making a book. Not just doing a cover, but doing the whole design of it. I was illustrating and designing books for a while but I knew that illustration is what I really wanted to do. I keyed in on it and it took me five years to go full-time. By 2001 I was working full-time as a book cover illustrator for a lot of the New York publishers. Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Tor, Random House, etc. It’s what I wanted to do. It’s still what I love doing, but as we are talking about in this interview, I am evolving.
Anime Herald: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists or writers?
John Picacio: Yeah. One thing is “Own your own story as soon as you can.”
What I mean by that is whether you work for a publisher or a studio, whatever your day job is, salaried, or gun for hire, start thinking about what your personal stories are. Even if you’re not trying to publish them, start creating those things. Put them in a file. Have things that you own. Whether they are characters, or stories, or whatever your intellectual property is, start creating them. The sooner the better. The art field is moving in that direction where our stories are going to matter for our ways of making a living. They always have mattered, but the more the art world gets more corporate, the more it’s going to matter to have our own personal narratives to build upon. It’s like building equity in yourself.
I would say also, when new artists are trying to get work, think about what you’re doing at 1 AM as much as what you’re doing at 1 PM. What I mean by that is back in the day when I was hustling, people were busy. Art directors have meetings, editors have meetings, publishers have people to see, places to go. They don’t want to talk to me. But then you get to after dinner. People start getting liquored up in the bar. They start loosening up. You’ve had that portfolio tucked under your armpit all day long. All of sudden people ask “Hey, what’s in the box?” whereas before they didn’t care what was in the box. Now it’s late in the evening and they’re a little more loose and more interested in seeing what you have. The fact that you had your stuff ready allows for that opportunity to happen. You always had that portfolio under your armpit, you always were ready with your pitch. Whether you’re a writer or an artist, have your stuff ready at all times when you show up at these shows. Sometimes opportunity happens when you’re not looking. Just be ready. Preparation, preparation, preparation. Do your advance work.
Anime Herald: Last question: What’s your process? How do you create these pieces?
John Picacio: Everything I do is graphite drawings. I do my work in a full-value graphite drawing. I then digitally color on top of the graphite. Often I’ll do these acrylic paintings that have nothing to do with shape or form. They’ll just be color palettes. I’ll start layering them in Photoshop over my graphite drawings and use Photoshop filters to see through the color onto the graphite. What it looks like is if you vomited all over your graphite drawings.
Anime Herald: (Laughs)
John Picacio: It looks awful. What I’ll do is start thinking subtractively rather than additively. I’ll start thinking like a sculptor and start carving away the color where it shouldn’t be and leaving it where it should be, if that makes any sense. There will be color combinations that I’ll see that I would not have seen had I just painted linearly.
The short version is graphite first, full-value graphite drawings, and then Photoshop color on top. That’s essentially the recipe. I do work in color differently than a lot of artists. I work more subtractively than I do additively.
Anime Herald: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our audience?
John Picacio: Thanks for the opportunity. I would encourage all artists to value the ideas in their head as much as the skills they hold in their hands. Both of those tools are your weapons and you need to own them. You’ll be better off for it and have a longer career for it.
If you would like to learn more about the Mexicanx Initiative, you can find a scrapbook on their website.
John Picacio’s work can be found on his website.
He’s also can be found on social media: