Ric Estrada: Call me the “Trailblazer”

4.22.09 | | 11 comments

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    Hello?
    Hello, is this Ric Estrada?

    This is Ric Estrada.

    Hi, my name’s Eric Jepson. Sal Velluto gave me your phone number, I hope you don’t mind.

    No, I don’t mind.

    Oh, great. I work with a Mormon criticism site called Motley Vision and Sal and other people call you the Father of Mormon comics. I was wondering if I could talk to you about that a little bit. I don’t know when a convenient time would be.

    Who calls?

    Oh, Sal does. Sal Velluto?

    He calls me?

    That’s what he calls you: the Father of Mormon Comics.

    Oh my goodness! Wow. Another honor.

When I wrote my seminal much heralded totally awesome somewhat overhyped survey of Mormon comics for Motley Vision last year, all I had to say about Ric Estrada was that he had written a Mormony story for a national comics publisher. I said: “‘The “Mormon” Battalion’ was a six-page sequence in Our Fighting Forces #135, 1972, by Ric Estrada (not LDS, presumably).” Ends up this was incorrect. As DC and The Friend artist Sal Velluto wrote me the same day, “Ric Estrada is the first LDS artist in the history of comics. His story needs to be the heart of your piece.” So I did a bit of research and, well, my original comment would have been somewhat like saying “The Journal of Discourses includes many sermons by Brigham Young (not LDS, presumably).” The grossness of this error requires some serious restitution, even if Brother Estrada himself is a marvelous person who doesn’t seem to hold my sins against me.

I interviewed Ric Estrada three times in October and January and he has provided me with plenty to think about. I will be sharing you the fruits of these labors over (tentatively) six posts. Today, though, please allow me to introduce you to, as Sal describes him, “a very nice person [who] will make you feel at ease” and “the Father of Mormon comics.”

Let’s start with some biographical explanation of how this figure, little known within the insulated Mormon arts and letters community, has come to deserve a title with such impressive nouns as Father, Mormon, and Comics.

Ric Estrada was born in Cuba on February 26, 1928. Like Brigham Young, he was not born Mormon, but: “As a boy, about nine years old, I was trying to decide what I would be when I grew up. And I said either I will be a truck driver, because that will help me drive all over the world and see places, or I’ll be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Those were my two choices. And I struggled with that for about a year when I was nine years old. Oh! Oh! And there was a third choice. Or maybe I could be another incarnation of Tarzan of the Apes and I could swing on trees. That’s when I was a little boy.”

This desire to aim high revealed itself in 1941 when, at age 13, Ric had his first publication credit, drawing the cover for Cuba’s premiere magazine Bohemia (which would survive the revolution and is still publishing today). Young Ric thought he had arrived.

The next place Ric would arrive was New York City, at age nineteen. Ric’s uncle provided the money and his uncle’s friend — a fellow named Ernest Hemingway — cut through red tape at the consulate and together they brought him to America, to the city where he would spend most of his life and that he still considers home.

In New York, Ric began the work he’s best known for today — comics — putting in time drawing for everyone from EC to DC — including DC’s flagship characters Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

But this is a Mormon story and as anyone who’s ever read a Mormon story knows, this life wants a conversation:

    Did I tell you the story of my conversion?
    No, you didn’t.

    Well, I was living in Germany at the time, working as a political cartoonist and journalist in West Berlin, when Berlin was still divided.

    Mmhmm.

    And one day I got into serious trouble and I slapped my boss —

    Whoops.

    — and I was so ashamed of it —

    Uh-huh.

    — that I came into my room, I got on my knees and I said, Lord, I’m so lost. I never — I’m not this kind of person. I’m lost, please find me. And next day two Mormon missionaries knocked on my door and I knew that was the answer. Very dramatic.

    It is, yeah. And in Germany!

    It took me three years while I studied the books, I read the Book of Mormon through several times, I read the Doctrine and Covenants. I read some of the literature they gave me and three years later, in New York City, back in New York City, my home turf, I joined the Church.

He was forty years old.

The newly minted Brother Estrada applied the faith of his childhood to his new religion and evidence of his new beliefs began to creep into his work. One example is the aforementioned “‘Mormon’ Battalion”; he was drawing for Our Fighting Forces at the time and the magazine was short a story that month and so his editor asked him to write and draw something to fill the space. And so he did.

from Ric Estrada's Mormon Battalion story

Later, under similar circumstances, he would draw an adaptation from the Book of Mormon for another DC war-comics magazine and this would lead him directly to working for the church. But we’ll talk about that in a later episode.

Comics eventually couldn’t keep up with the growing bills associated with a growing Estrada family and a move to LA to work on storyboards for advertising and tv animation was the result. We’ll discuss the connections between family and art in a later post as well.

These days, Ric Estrada lives in Provo, Utah to be near Brigham Young University where his kids have been gathering degrees. He’s become the wise old man of the local scene — he did “a huge painting for Dragon’s Keep showing a dragon, a castle, and a warrior” — and he’s been a mentor and friend to many in the business.

But he’s uncomfortable with this title, the Father of Mormon Comics. He and his wife discussed it and decided calling him the “Trailblazer” would be more accurate. Well, maybe so. Next time we’ll talk more about this, his connection with specifically Mormon comics. Now that we know who Ric Estrada is though, I’m ready to explain to you why Shauna Mooney Kawasaki and Brad Teare and Walter Rane should all send him a thank-you cards.

Tune in next time.

11 comments: “Ric Estrada: Call me the “Trailblazer”

  1. Wm Morris

    Thanks, Theric. And thank you Bro. Estrada for taking the time to do this. I look forward to future installments — and am especially interested in hearing about family and art.

    Is there going to be more about West Berlin? Because I’m highly intrigued by the idea of a Cuban working as a political cartoonist in West Germany.

  2. daveescaped

    I met Bro. Estrada as a missionary when he lived in So. California. Your article correctly captures that he is a humble and kind person yet one whose story certainly deserves to be told. His house was always one of my favorite dinner appointments and he would happily regail us with stories about his career in comics. You elude to a story he related to us, about using the BoM as the script for a story he did some years back as a filler in a DC war comic. That is a great story I hope you’ll follow-up on.

    Anyway thanks for this piece on a fellow saint with a great story and loads of charm.

  3. onelowerlight

    Hey, did you check out Schlock Mercenary for your project on Mormon comics? I noticed the photo of Ric Estrada and the painting he did for Dragon’s Keep in Provo and it made me think of Howard Taylor, who does a lot of his webcomic work at Dragon’s Keep. He’s up for a Hugo award this year, which is one of the most prestigious awards in science fiction / fantasy. His site is http://schlockmercenary.com.

  4. Th.

    .

    Oh: and yes, that story’s on its way, daveescaped. Not to worry. Next Wednesday, in fact.

  5. Richard C Bybee

    Ric Estrada and I were friends when we both lived with our families in Thousand Oaks, CA. Ric has always been congenial, thoughtful and kind. I have appreciated his friendship all these years. He is a wonderfully talented and spiritual man while still holding his testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his family as the premier elements of his life. I wish him and his family well. I’m sure his strength of character and his artistic ability will continue to bless all of us who have known and admired him. Dick Bybee.

  6. Seth Estrada

    This is a wonderful primer for the feature length documentary we (Idiot Savant Productions) have been producing about Ric. The last 4 years have been spent collecting articles, photographs, interviews, and other information pertinent to his story. We recently interviewed the President of DC Comics, Paul Levitz, and he had nothing but praise for Ric’s work ethic and religious devotion, which he calls a “stand-out” quality.

    Sal was right; no discussion of LDS artists working in comics can begin, let alone be completed without Ric at the center. Thank you for refocusing your posts.

  7. Th.

    .

    Sheez, Seth. I was going to introduce your project all subtly, but so much for that. Golly.

    That said, thanks to everyone who’s stopped by to sing praises to Ric. He’s a topnotch human being.

  8. Rebekah Vaisey

    I am so glad you wrote this. It was so good to hear my Dad’s voice again through your piece. I will always be grateful that you interviewed him and wrote about him.

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