Arturo Torres has the best reason for missing my first phone call: His son was asleep on top of him.
“Sorry, bro,” the illustrator is quick to say. “I’m a father now, so you know how it goes.”
I do not, in fact, know how it goes, but anyone who talks to Torres immediately feels as if they do. He is quick to crack wise, and his soft smile and boisterous chuckle are contagious. A conversation with him is like being let in on an inside joke. If you talk to Torres, or buy one of his books, you “know how it goes.” You are part of the family.
And if his family does indeed include all of the fans who buy the books illustrated by him and written by Shea Serrano, then he has lots of brothers and sisters. The duo’s latest release, Movies (And Other Things), a combination of film-centric essays and Torres’ vibrant illustrations, reached No. 1 in the Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous section of The New York Times best-sellers list, making Torres and Serrano the first Mexican Americans with three books to have that distinction.
Yet when I call Torres, that record barely comes up. He has other, far more important things on his mind, like his infant son, Benny, his wife, Susan, and how he is going to keep providing for them.
“I’m in a weird position, man,” he says. Even though he and Serrano have owned a perennial spot on the best-seller list since 2015’s The Rap Year Book, Torres is not accustomed to this kind of attention. Nor does he know exactly where he goes from here. “Your boy has money now, but babies are expensive, bro. So I have to stay focused. I have to do these things to make sure I can provide for my family. I want to make sure my kid can tell me one day, ‘Hey, these were cool drawings.’”
Torres has been making cool drawings for a while. The artist, 30, has been selling his work to make ends meet since his teenage years. Before becoming a full-time artist, he worked for the co-working space company Common Desk while painting murals and creating posters on the side. A flyer Torres made for DJ Sober caught Serrano’s eye on Twitter in 2014, around the same time the acclaimed writer was scrambling to find an illustrator for his Rap Year Book. Serrano contacted Torres, and a soon-to-be record-breaking partnership was born. While Serrano spins humorous essays that ask the important questions (“Would Titanic Have Been Better with The Rock?”), Torres crafts the colorful characters to match.
The Rap Year Book offered Serrano's take on the best rap songs of each year between 1979 and 2014 and inspired the AMC documentary series Hip-Hop: The Songs That Shook America, released this year on AMC. The latter drew some heavy hitters: It was produced by Questlove and Black Thought of the Roots with documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and The Armstrong Lie, among many others).
After the best-selling The Rap Year Book, the duo cranked out an illustrated book of essays inspired by The Office, and their second best-seller, 2017’s Basketball (And Other Things), which President Barack Obama shortlisted as one of his 12 favorite books of the year.
Torres’ story about the day he learned of the latest book’s No. 1 ranking is perhaps the most dad story you have ever heard.
Serrano was spending the day at Torres’ Oak Cliff home, and the illustrator wanted to watch a movie.
“I’m like, ‘Let’s put on No Country for Old Men. Let’s put on Nightcrawler,’” Torres recalls. “But Shea is like, ‘Bro, you have a family now. You have to watch family movies.’”
So they put on Finding Nemo. During the middle of the Pixar classic, Serrano goes to the bathroom.
“He’s in there for a really long time, so I assume he has to be taking a shit,” Torres says. “When he comes out, he starts slapping me hard and saying, ‘No. 1, baby!’”
While Serrano calls his wife, Torres checks Twitter. He sees the fans’ reactions, then runs to the bathroom himself. The excitement made him throw up.
“It didn’t hit me until I saw everyone on Twitter celebrating with me,” he says. “Everyone who bought a book should be celebrating, because they got us here. They’re the reason we’re No. 1, so this is their celebration, too.”
The book at the center of all this fanfare is classic Serrano and Torres. While the humorous writer crafts think pieces on Denzel Washington monologues, John Wick shootouts and Jurassic Park’s raptors being misunderstood, Torres employs his distinctive style to capture the essence of Serrano’s tightly written, often absurd essays.
Torres’ style is inspired by the comic books he devoured as a child growing up in Garland, and he uses the same 64 colors that his idol, Jack Kirby, used while drawing heroes like Thor and Torres’ favorite, The Incredible Hulk.
Even though they joined forces to publish a book about cinema, the writer and illustrator have drastically different tastes in film. On their recent book tour, Torres and Serrano often traded biting barbs in front of their audience.
“Shea doesn’t like anything that came before the ’80s,” Torres says, laughing. “He watches shit like The Meg, so he’s not exactly a film critic.”
When asked to share his favorite movies, Torres demurs, saying it is hard to pick a favorite, and that “all my answers will be lame.” But his answers are anything but.
He loves the classics, including 12 Angry Men and Casablanca, and the aforementioned Nightcrawler.
“That movie is so creepy,” he says. “I only watch it at, like, 2 or 3 a.m.”
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Even though he and Serrano like to critique one another's tastes, Torres cites seeing his collaborator as the highlight of their book tour.
“People don’t realize we don’t see each other often,” Torres says. “We probably text more than I text my wife, but he’s in San Antonio, and I’m in Dallas, and with Benny, that’s not an easy trip to make.”
The duo relished the chance to finally hang out, and luckily, they were able to agree on a movie to watch.
“Even after I threw up, we had to finish Finding Nemo,” Torres says. “You know how it goes, bro.”