Jose Delbo was in his 80s, with a successful >50-year comic book career behind him, when he first entered the NFT space with the encouragement of his grandson, Nicholas Frontera. Within his first year, he created the first blockchain-based comic book and sold the highest-priced NFT to date at the time (a collaboration with Trevor Jones). Delbo continues to be one of the most sought-out and collected artists in the space as he approaches age 90.
But he didn’t do it alone. Working alongside his grandson, Nicholas Frontera, the two collaborated to create iconic characters like Satoshi the Creator and Captain Apemo, in addition to Delbo’s original Death character from his first crypto comic book.
We had the amazing opportunity to speak with Nicholas and his mother Silvana Delbo, Jose’s daughter, about the recent collaborative works Jose has done with Silvana, a fantastic and original painter in her own right.
Jose Delbo and his family can likely take home the prize for another blockchain first for crypto art collaboration between three generations.
Brady Walker: Silvana, can you tell me about your art career up to this point?
Silvana Delbo: I’ve always enjoyed drawing and painting since I was little. I used to participate in local art shows, selling my pieces to various exhibits. Later on, I became a graphic artist and became responsible for creating all the artwork for four different family magazines. And as a family we ran a cartoon camp, called The Delbo Cartoon Camp, where I taught art. When I started working at my current workplace, I taught an honors art class before eventually becoming the high school’s Dean.
BW: Can you tell me about your involvement with NFTs?
SD: I actually got into NFTs thanks to my son and my dad. I helped bring my dad’s artwork into the digital world by doing touch-ups and clean-ups. Then my son suggested that I showcase my own work, so we started with a collaboration featuring my dad’s and my own pieces. And now it’s been quite a while because for me to paint requires me having time and that’s what I’m lacking. Painting has always been my passion. I would love to pursue painting full-time and am exploring ways to retire from my traditional job. The NFT collaboration with my dad was a great way to get back into the game and something that I love to do.
BW: How has it been entering the NFT world?
SD: It’s been an interesting experience. I must admit, some of the lingo and terminology used in this space can be quite foreign to me, which makes me realize how old I really am. So, I often defer to my son to help me navigate through it all.
I’m also still pretty traditional — I like my hands on the canvas, pencil, paint, those things. But I love the fact that it gets digitized, and I’m fascinated by so many of the artists out there. I’m so impressed by so many of the amazing artists I’ve seen in the NFT world, like Trevor Jones, whose work I find captivating. My style is all about self-expression and making others feel happy, which is what I’m all about.
Growing up, my dad was my biggest supporter, but also my biggest critic. He would always critique my art, pointing out things like the perspective, focal point, or proportions. I eventually developed my own style, which he can’t criticize because I don’t do perspective or worry about proportions. Nowadays, he can’t stop praising my art and always encourages me to do more with it. And I’m thinking yeah, but back in the day.
BW: Your style is bright and unique, but one can infer some comic book influences, such as the flat coloring and the sharp line style. What other influences have played into your style?
SD: I always say that I was doing it before him, but I do love Britto. His work, colors, and style are exactly what I love. But when I was growing up, I was drawn to African art and naive art. They are very colorful, flowing, and loose, without rigid or fixed elements. I prefer to paint flat because of the way I do cutouts. I have never been good at perspective or volumes, and I prefer to do my own thing. When I was younger, I wanted to be a colorist for comic books and a letterer since everything was hand-lettered at that time. But my style is the style I created for myself. Some people may think it’s a little unusual, but some people love it.
BW: With two very different styles, how did you and Jose communicate your intentions going into this project?
SD: The great thing about my dad is that he trusts me explicitly with whatever I want to do. If I say to him, “Dad, I’m gonna put together this page,” he’s like, “Have at it. Do whatever you want and do it in your own style.” He gives me a lot of leeway. I was just excited about this project, and I wanted to take the big profiles of these now-famous images and add my own backgrounds and colors to them.
For me, nothing is planned out in advance. I don’t know if it’s anybody else’s process, but I don’t think ahead of the game. I draw it and outline it, which my father is always infuriated by because I use a black marker to outline it. He gets really mad because that’s not something traditional artists do, but since I’m not traditional, hey, I just do it my way. Then I start to color it. I start with one color, whatever I’m feeling, and then I just look at it and go, “Oh, this will look good here, this will look good here.” If I mess up, then I just color over it. I go with what I feel.
My kids would probably call it crazy, but I’m a very zen, namaste type of person, so I just want people to kind of feel whatever they’re going to feel. I just hope the colors and forms I use make them happy.
BW: It sounds like you have a very intuitive process, which makes me curious about your subject matter. Is it predetermined? Do you just start drawing shapes and see what comes? Do you have a sense of the composition?
SD: Sometimes there’s something I really want to paint. For example, I started a painting that represents the union of the sun and moon, but I want it to be colorful with cutouts.
Other times, it’s based on what someone in my family suggests. For example, my son saw the lion painting I’m working on and asked me to paint more animals. So, I usually just go with what I feel at the moment or what is suggested to me. Many of my paintings end up in my brother’s house because he takes one every time he visits.
But I won’t paint if I’m not feeling it because then it won’t be me. That’s why I always want to have enough time to paint because the inspiration doesn’t always strike me.
BW: I saw pictures of a baby grand piano that you painted. Can you tell me about that?
SD: I was given the opportunity to paint a baby grand piano for a charity event. It was an interesting experience because I had to submit a sketch first to show whether I deserved a self-standing or a baby grand piano. I designed the piano in my style on an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper and sent it in.
Three days later, the director called me well before the judging was over to inform me that I was awarded a baby grand piano, and he asked where I would like it delivered. I was ecstatic but also intimidated because I had never painted on something so large and three-dimensional before. It took me about two weeks to even begin painting because of how intimidated I felt. But with the support of my parents, I started and eventually finished the project. In my opinion, the finished product was very stellar, pretty, and show-stopping.
This led to another person giving me a Fender guitar body to paint. The thing was worth about $1,000, which made me nervous, but it turned out well. Now, I am looking for someone to give me a cello to paint because I think that would be a really cool project to work on.
BW: The Beautiful Game and In Search of Peace feel quite complementary. What’s the story behind these pieces in particular?
As I mentioned earlier, my Zen phase inspired me to create art that’s fluid and dynamic. I wanted to convey a sense of reaching out to the world and embracing its energy, light, and vibrant colors — everything that’s happy. My intention was to give back this positive energy to the world. In The Beautiful Game, I moved away from traditional figures and instead created these shapes that look like aliens, and in In Search of Peace, the little guy with the round head has a shadow cutout appearance.
I am not a traditional artist, and I don’t want to be one. For me, it’s all about evoking emotions in people who see my art. I strive to create pieces that make viewers happy and uplifted, and I avoid anything that might trigger negative emotions like anger.
BW: Nick, I have to say, I’m jealous. You come from a very artistic family.
Nick Frontera: It’s funny because as a kid, I attended the same cartoon camp that she mentioned earlier. It was part of my upbringing, and I guess you can say it’s in my DNA. However, after that, I pursued a career in law for a while, which drained me of my creativity. But now, I’m slowly recovering and getting back into being creative again by doing this.
BW: Are you making visual art?
NF: Not in the traditional sense. I founded Satoshiverse, where I handle the writing for all our video games and lore. While I have a say in anything that goes out from an artistic perspective and give the final approval, we have a 30-person studio with art directors and many talented people, so I try to be hands-off and let them do their thing. But I enjoy the writing aspect of the universe’s lore and all the creative work we’re doing.
BW: Nick, How did you enter the NFT space?
NF: I originally entered the NFT/Crypto space back in 2017. I was fascinated by the idea of the metaverse and still am. At the time, I was working as a lawyer in the entertainment industry and oftentimes found myself thinking about what a “digital world” would look like. How would we own things? How would the economy work?
When I learned about NFTs a lightbulb went off in my head and I knew this had a chance to be that economic layer for the metaverse. So I dove in. At first, I spent a lot of time talking to the teams behind projects like Decentraland and attending virtual conferences. When 2020 rolled around, that was how I interacted with people since a lot of things were shut down.
I actually met most of my contacts in the space in Decentraland or through someone I met in Decentraland including MakersPlace founder Dannie Chu, who was introduced to me through someone I met in the metaverse. From there I left the firm and founded a consulting company to help brands and artists enter the space, which has now expanded into a production studio called Apollo Entertainment, and the rest is history.
BW: Can you give me some background on your leaving your legal career and what projects you’re working on in the crypto space?
NF: Leaving my job at the law firm for this new space felt like a huge risk, but I am glad I took the leap of faith. It allowed me to work hand in hand with my grandfather on all of his NFT releases over the past two years. It also allowed me to consult with many great artists and brands over the last two years to help them enter the space. More recently, through the company I co-founded called Apollo Entertainment, we have been developing Satoshiverse, which is a blockchain-themed superhero universe. We are currently about 30 people at the studio and are building a fast-paced Rogue-like RPG called Satoshi’s Legions.
BW: Jose’s journey into NFTs is not typical. Successful artists weren’t the first to jump into minting and selling NFTs, but he was. Can you tell me how that came about?
NF: Jose, who worked for DC and Marvel for about 50 years, was a comic book pencililst throughout his entire career. He worked on every major superhero and other comic books, including Disney and The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, among other iconic projects. He traveled from conference to conference and convention to convention, selling his art and interacting with fans, getting by on that. Even at the late stage of his career, when he was 85 or 86 years old, he continued to attend these conventions.
He enjoyed meeting his fans and reminiscing on the memories he had created over the past 50 years of creating comic art. However, selling his art at conventions was also a source of income for him, which allowed him to support himself, his wife, and the rest of his family while feeling useful doing his craft. But that took a turn when COVID-19 hit in March of 2020.
At the time, it was really tough. COVID was particularly challenging for the elderly, and many older people couldn’t leave their homes to see their families or do the things they loved. Jose’s entire profession, even at his advanced age, was centered around seeing people, interacting with them, and creating art. When he lost both at the same time, it was a really difficult moment for him.
I was working as a lawyer in the industry while also collecting digital art and NFTs. I had been interested in the space since 2017, and this was in 2020. I knew Dannie Chu, who was the CEO of MakersPlace at the time. He enjoyed Jose’s work and recommended that Jose do his first release on MakersPlace. Just before that, Jose, my mom, and I had a conversation about what’s next for him. I suggested that NFTs could be an outlet for him to create and sell art from home, and I could help with the tech stuff while my mom could help with getting the art digitized. It wasn’t very big at the time, but it could keep him doing what he loved.
We pitched the idea to him as a way to sell his art digitally through a new format called NFTs and this new technology that uses the blockchain. He very much understood that surface level from our first conversation, the fact that these were going to be digital assets instead of physical ones, and that they would be authenticated and have a limited supply.
And so, once he understood the fundamentals of NFTs, he became comfortable with the idea of his first release and said, “why not, let’s try this new thing since the conventions are canceled and there’s not much to lose.” It surprised me when he suggested the topic of superheroes fighting COVID as a collection.
His first three pieces on MakersPlace were a series of black-and-white ink pieces depicting superheroes fighting the COVID virus. One of the most iconic pieces in the series was Superman fighting the virus in space.It was such an iconic starting point for him because it had so many deep meanings and metaphors, which was not typical for a comic artist who usually focuses on illustrating scenes from a script.
Jose’s willingness to change his style for this medium was really impressive. He took the concept of comic art and infused it with a much deeper meaning and all these metaphors.
What surprised me about that drop was that he had been working on his Death comic book for probably four or five years before that. He had just been looking at publishers and ways to release it physically, but COVID made it much harder. What I proposed to him, and he was really excited about, was the idea of releasing a limited set of those comics as NFTs. And that ended up being the first-ever original NFT comic book. So not only did he have a history-making drop on his first release on MakersPlace, but he also did well financially, which inspired him to continue doing what he loves and interacting with the medium.
And so, at that point, we created a Twitter account for him and got him involved in social media. He started making videos for his collectors, and you could see that the joy he got from going to conferences and interacting with people was starting to shine through in this new medium.
And I think there was a lot of confusion early on about trying to understand what all of this was, especially when things started to really take off after he did that drop on MakersPlace with Trevor Jones, which ended up being the first six-figure sale of an art NFT. It was amazing to see this collaboration between an 87-year-old man and Trevor Jones, who I don’t want to overestimate his age, but I believe he’s in his late 40s or 50s.
Jose was like, “Wow, this is life-changing even at this late stage of his career.” He had already established his legacy in the comic art space, but now he was building a new legacy in the NFT space. This really excited him, and he started to think about different ways to expand and evolve his style.
He did that Heroines collaboration with Hackatao, which I still think is one of the biggest collaboration drops ever released and really changed things for the intersection of crypto and comics as a whole. From that point on, it was all about exploring new opportunities and working with new people. I think he has enjoyed every step of the journey, even though he’s also been his own biggest critic and has faced some frustration along the way.
BW: How long had Jose been working on the Death character and stories before? What was the creative vision there before blockchain came along?
NF: Yeah, so as I was saying before, Jose worked on every other character created by every other person for 50 years. So I think every comic artist has a dream of creating their own superhero or character or comic book that’s truly theirs, but that’s usually not what pays the bills. They do it on the side but keep working with established characters.
I think for Jose, his age and thoughts about death and the afterlife prompted him to explore and illustrate these themes through his comic art. The Death comic book was his way of creatively exploring these concepts, and the stories within it reflect his perspective on death. Each story is made up of several short, mostly silent stories that rely heavily on the art itself to convey the narrative.
And so, when I look at the Death comic and knowing Jose, I see how all the things he’s interested in life tie into the theme of death. For example, he grew up loving cowboy westerns, and so he extracted the death element from those stories and incorporated it into scenes within the comic.
He also explores the concept of death through topics like robberies, gangsters, and plane crashes, drawing from his own experiences and interests. I remember him watching these types of movies growing up and finding them fascinating. And now, as someone who doesn’t fly very often, he reflects on how people worry about death in various situations.
The Death comic is made up of several short stories, mostly told through the art itself, and each one is an exploration of death from Jose’s unique perspective.
BW: Another interesting thing about Jose’s work is that, like many OG crypto artists, he incorporates the mythos of blockchain into his work in a way that previously successful artists generally do not. Why create characters like Satoshi the Creator or Captain Apemo?
So, there’s a little bit of background there that stems back to my relationship with Jose and how we’ve worked together in the space. Both Satoshi and Captain Apemo were ideas that I brought to him.
With Satoshi, I proposed to Jose that we create a superhero for the blockchain space. I said, “You’re a superhero artist, and this space has been so great to you, let’s create something for it.” We discussed what the superhero would look like and incorporated features of the space such as the anonymous mask, all while maintaining Jose’s unique style. We came up with the idea of a half-man, half-machine superhero who leverages technology for the greater good, and Jose illustrated the character accordingly.
It was a little bit different with Apemo, which was obviously based on the Bored Ape that I owned. Together, we developed a whole character around it. We started with the idea of what Apemo’s backstory would be. Jose dove in and illustrated the story of how this ape came to be. In the story, a jaguar ate Apemo’s parents, and Apemo was rescued by pirates, learned their ways, and eventually became the captain of the pirate ship, thus becoming Captain Apemo.
And that was really a collaborative effort between us. It put him back in those days of illustrating a concept that was presented to him like in the old comic book days. It was fun for me because I would give him a loose idea, and he would run with it and make it his own. It was really fun to see how it played out.
BW: What prompted the collaboration between you, Jose, and Silvana? Have you collaborated before this?
Sure. It was a collaborative effort between the three of us. I think the characters themselves are very special to me, and I saw an opportunity to showcase them in a new way with Jose’s illustrated characters and my mom’s style, which I’ve always loved for the colors.
So I pitched them the idea of showcasing these three characters that Jose has illustrated in the past, since we have this great following and community who loves these characters. I suggested we could have them done in Silvana’s style, which is totally different from how we’ve ever portrayed them before. And they were on board with the idea.
My mom and Jose collaborated on the concepts. After I pitched them the idea, it took about three months for me to see the pieces, and I fell in love with them. They are really cool. Then we started discussing what the final draft would look like. But I think there’s something special about the initial collaboration, the story of a father and daughter working together.
And I think that since they had worked together successfully in the past, it would have been a missed opportunity not to collaborate on these characters. I didn’t want to look back later and regret not doing something special with these original characters that were so dear to me. Bringing my mom’s unique style and my grandpa’s illustrations into the mix really tied everything together in a beautiful way.
SD: And we incorporated what he wanted to see. You know, he has his perspective and proportions, with my insanity of non-perspective and non-proportions. So that was the fusion of both worlds. And it turned out great, in my opinion.
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