(originally published in Avenue magazine, August 2005)
By Brian Tucker
“Hi, Tom,” a teenager says as Tom Fleming moves through Fanboy Comics, past boxes and boxes of comics and walls displaying older ones. Fleming is an accomplished artist whose range of work traverses the comic book universe, sci-fi and fantasy genres focusing on voluptuous heroines and bulky warriors and nature inspired imagery.
Fleming could pass for one of the subjects in his fantasy pieces that echo Heavy Metal magazine and Frank Frazetta’s work. Fleming’s a big guy – muscular, piercing eyes and long black hair pulled back. And friendly. Another kid walks by, also says hello to Tom. It’s clear many of the patrons know him. Fleming has lived in the area for ten years after visiting Wilmington with his wife many years ago.
“There’s a laid back atmosphere in Wilmington,” he says. “There’s diversity, a little bit of everything.”
Fleming is also a fixture at comic related events put on by Fanboy Comics, its staff and owner Thomas Gilbert. For a recent promotion for Star Wars Revenge of the Sith, Fleming created a pencil drawing that was given away for the film’s opening night.
“Tom’s a great guy,” Gilbert says. “He’s always willing to help out.”
He’s a professional artist fortunate to earn a living from his talents, in which not all creations are generated solely from imagination. Some creations are generated via assignments from comic book companies or commissions by individuals, sometimes professional models. He’s worked as a full time artist for fifteen years now but it hasn’t always been easy.
“It’s been tough but in an uplifting way,” he says. “There’s a lot of promotion.”
For a long time he fought the idea of promotion, believing that the work was what sold an artist. But promotion is probably sixty per cent or more of the total work a successful artist puts forth. Talent is much less of an aspect than the marketing and promotion these days.
“It’s all about branding now,” he says with a wince. Name recognition and the style of an artist go together in a way that a fickle and short minded public easily pick up on.
Fleming primarily does comic book art for a living, producing covers and trading cards. He has produced numerous covers, for magazines such as Cracked and Pin Up Illustrated to comics Captain Marvel and Elektra, for which he is probably most known for. Currently he’s waiting to hear from Heavy Metal about a cover. Aside from comic related work, Fleming’s fantasy pieces seem a natural choice for the cover of Heavy Metal. He even produced a piece of art, “Agency 32,” as a book cover for local author David Beauchamp.
“I’m just happy doing art for a living,” he says, having no pretensions about subject matter. Fleming’s art ranges from the dark images of “Dead Mime” to nature images serving as backdrops for outdoor thermometers. These images, such as a bass bursting from beneath the water were commissioned for Koch Measurement Devices.
Commission work has come from professional models looking to have an image painted by Fleming or locals who desire something exotic for their home. Fleming refers to it as the Fantasy Portrait concept in which portraits are painted from a photo of a person, or couple, putting them in a different environment.
“They’ll ask me to put them on the moon or in a garden or with aliens,” he says.
Fleming has been creating art since the age of eight, encouraged wholeheartedly by his parents, especially his mother. He started out creating strictly in black and white and then later dabbling in watercolor. Today, he uses watercolor, colored pencil and acrylic for comic related artwork and fantasy creations.
“My mom was a very creative person in general and has dabbled in watercolor,” he says. “I think I get it from her.”
Fleming grew up in Putnam Valley, New York and attended Syracuse University where he majored in art, finishing at the top of his class. While schooling can concentrate on craft and history, Fleming fostered his interest in fantasy art and tongue-in-cheek pieces such as “Dead Mime” and “Feet” (this issue’s cover).
“I jokingly refer to it as Agony of the Defeat,” he says.
What’s great about “Dead Mime” is that it first grabs a viewer as a violent image and then slowly reveals its, albeit dark, humor – a mime having murdered himself with his own finger, as a mime can only do. Twisted humor, but done elegantly. The style and theme of the piece are captivating in both appearance and process.
“That particular piece is big with the Goth crowd,” he says. “I get my biggest reaction about it.”
Spectrum, a Sci-fi art competition, the Emmys or Grammys of the Sci-fi art world, named it one of the top 300 in the world, publishing it in a book called The Art of the Fantastic. As far as selling original art it’s a particular piece he doesn’t want to part with. Prints are available for most of his work but he doesn’t want to part with the original painting of “Dead Mime” and “Feet” for “sentimental reasons.”
During his college years Fleming attended a class in which the instructor assigned the students to create anything with clowns. In class, the instructor would play the song “Bring in the Clowns.” The ensuing torture inspired Fleming differently from his fellow students. The original idea was to have the mime putting a finger to his head, mimicking a gun, and confetti blasting from the other side. The instructor was a little reluctant to Fleming’s finished work.
“It was me, doing a painting overnight for an assignment due the next day,” he says. “I got an A minus.” Fleming plans to do a series of dead mime pieces. He has begun a second piece depicting a mime in the desert hanging but without a noose.
Fleming graduated from college with no interest of going into comics, citing a stronger interest in sci-fi fantasy. A friend introduced Fleming to an editor at DC Comics. They were looking for someone to create artwork for trading cards. Fleming didn’t put much thought into it believing the editor would never call him back. Two weeks later the editor phoned about doing Superman trading cards. Fleming would later go on to earn acclaim for a card depicting the funeral of Superman.
He also created black and white drawings for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine garnering a hundred dollars per drawing. It was the first thing he worked on as a professional artist, and not bad for an artist just out of college in 1988.
Still, the work was temporary. In between jobs Fleming took work making pizzas and selling waterbeds. Then another call came, from Minwax Stains to produce a label for a pastel line. Unsatisfied with the work by another artist Minwax hired, Fleming was given twenty-four hours to come up with something. Reminiscent of college, Fleming pulled an all-nighter and produced something that impressed the company. The job landed a thousand dollars. The label he created consisted of pastel colors in one broad paint brush stroke.
“I believe they still use it,” Fleming says with a laugh. “The best paydays are from advertising jobs anyway but they’re not the most creatively satisfying work.”
In the early nineties, Fleming got his first big break working for the World Wrestling Federation by answering an ad in the New York Times where he went to work designing costumes, props and merchandising art. Between 1991 and 1994 he produced thirty seven portatrits of wrestlers.
“Some of those guys were real professionals,” he says, “and a few were animals.”
But today Fleming buys comics, “mostly for the art” (giving kudos to the New Avengers) but as a youngster, he was a Marvel Comics fan over rival DC Comics. Ironic, given that Fleming is in the middle of a big job of creating trading cards for DC. Trading cards are enjoying resurgence after over-saturating the market in the 1990’s.
“It’s hit or miss, doing trading cards, the characters you’re given to draw,” Fleming says. “In the past I’ve been given some lame characters to draw. That didn’t happen this time.” For the assignment Fleming was given Characters Batman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Firestorm.
There’s also talk with Marvel about doing a painted graphic novel, in which the panels in the comic are not hand drawn but each are painted. Such a project will take a long time to produce but the pay off would be merit the huge undertaking.
“They’re gung ho about working on a project but its still in talks,” he says. “Once they decide on a script we’ll go from there.”
It’s a lengthy process, but once he gets the go ahead Fleming will be looking for local models to work on the project.
Inspiration for his work comes from anywhere. For his fantasy pieces the seed of an idea can germinate from any given source. “Sometimes I get a model with a cool pose,” he says. “Or I simply have an idea I want to do.”
Sometimes his wife poses with her hands and arms or she takes pictures for him as a source of reference for a particular piece. There’s the need to get an image correct, a hand coming at you, thrusted, to show the effect desired in the finished drawing.
“I prefer to take the pictures myself, to be behind the camera to get the light,” he says. “So I know how it strikes the object.” Usually Fleming uses a digital camera but for reference he likes to use an old film camera.
Several years ago Fleming converted a garage into a studio that is now adorned with toys and models and original art. There’s an original Mort Walker Beetle Bailey comic strip and a Don DeCarlo Archie. Fleming once met DeCarlo as well as the real Josie that inspired DeCarlo’s Josie and the Pussycats.
Fleming confesses his own challenges and attempts at something new. Currently, he’s working on a new style based on the field of classic romanticism. It’s a style he thinks will be taken more seriously and accepted by the general public versus pieces that are classified as fantasy, pieces as sexual as they are artistic.
In recent months Fleming has discovered turn of the century artist Jay W. Waterhouse. It was the first time, in a long time, that Fleming was inspired to paint in a different style. His wife bought a large painting of Waterhouse’s and hung it in the bedroom.
“It’s tough for me to hang big art,” he says. Fleming explains Waterhouse’s work has a more painterly feel in the style of realism. Realism was brought about by Classicism (adheres to Greek and Roman art and literature, restrained and restrictive) and Romanticism (characterized by heightened interest in nature emphasizing on the individual’s expression of emotion, imagination and rebelling against social rules, conventions) as a sort of middle ground, an inclination towards literal truth, the representation in art of objects, actions, social conditions as they actually are.
Waterhouse focuses on the details of important areas but gets painterly in areas where a viewer’s eyes does not need to go thus creating more of a mood. And it saves a lot of time too. For Fleming, to not be detailed on every inch of the canvas, was a learning experience.
“It was hard for me to break those detail-oriented habits,” he says. In the past he would obsess over putting in the most minute detail ion every inch of the canvas. Other admired artists include Alphonse Mudka (“one of the masters of art nouveau”), Frank Frazetta, (“of course”) most known for his fantasy artwork and Norman Rockwell. This may seem an odd choice given the company of Fleming’s peer choices but the variety makes sense.
“Rockwell was very underrated because of his subject matter,” he explains. “As an artist he viewed the world in a different way and doesn’t get the validity because of the subject of the paintings he did.”
Fleming responds to Rockwell, in part, due to Rockwell’s realism in the paintings, and he prefers realism in his art, understandable given his history of acute attention to detail. But with all creative people there’s a facet that those who don’t create in the same way never fully grasp – self criticism.
“There’s never a time I feel it’s perfect,” he confesses. “I’m very self critical.”
Even in the trading cards there is an extreme sense of reality to the art. One knows it is a piece of art but is at times is devastatingly real. Take “Dead Mime” again as an example or even the bass for artwork to accompany a thermometer or “System Shock” which Fleming refers to as a combination of gaming art and advertising. But all three examples are fraught with detail.
“Michelangelo makes things very detailed,” Fleming says. “Loosen up. You don’t have to have every detail to a painting.” Fleming still strongly makes the case for realism. “I’ll take Da Vinci and Michelangelo over Monet and Van Gogh any day.”
Fleming answers questions with candor and uncalculated answers. Answering about what artist he has seen recently that wowed him, Fleming weighs his answer the question. Unable to comment the conversation goes in another direction, discussing the business of art and the desire to create his own limited edition prints. Then, his eyes light up, stopping himself in mid sentence.
“To answer your question, about someone knocking my socks off, I went to the D.C. National Gallery and saw an exhibit of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work,” he says. It was an exhibit of cabaret art work. Lautrec’s work was comprised of realism and impressionism, oils and ink drawings.
“His work smokes Van Gogh in my opinion as far as craftsmanship and painting skills.” Fleming seems pleased he has answered the question. His plans for now include books of his art work; continue building a fan base and his own limited edition prints that can be bought on his web site.
Fleming’s artwork is on display at the Blue Moon Gallery on Racine Drive where prints are also for sale. Cassandra Peruzzi, manager of Blue Moon, says of Fleming’s work “that there’s never been anything like it at Blue Moon before.” Peruzzi has worked at Blue Moon since it opened four years ago and also commented that his subjects are varied. “There’s not enough space to really show all his styles of work,” she says.
Several years ago, Fleming put his talents to work on the Jodie Foster film The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys as an illustrator. He was responsible for creating the art work kids in the film created. The production gave him specific pieces to draw and other times allowed him to be creative.
“It was hard because they wanted me draw as a sixteen year old,” he recalls. “It was difficult in the sense that I had to deconstruct what I’d learned since that age as an artist.”
Challenges aside, Fleming has worked infrequently for other film productions like Stateside doing storyboard work and storyboarding a scene for NBC’s Surface. Some of his artwork is featured in a gory horror film shot in Louisiana, called Stay Alive. Like Altar Boys, his work serves as the creation of one of the film’s characters, a teenager. He was told that in one shot the camera pans across a wall where his work hangs and stops over his signature.
“The guy said it will be the size of a Toyota on screen,” he says proudly.
There are things Fleming confesses he’d like to have more time to do, reading for one. He just doesn’t get the chance to do it. There’s not a lot of free time. There’s always work and promotion, like the recent comic convention in Charlotte or the upcoming Dragon Con in Atlanta where the city will surely be filled with the wild, bizarre and exotic.
Fleming is fan of music, seventies punk, Black Flag, Ween – but has never created a cd cover for a band.
“I’d like to do it,” he says. “Definitely.”
There’s so much Fleming wants to do but there’s little time. Art, and the business of art, take up much of it. He gets cards and other mail from fans all over the world, especially Europe where fantasy art is very popular. He says he’s never gotten a letter or an e-mail and not responded to it. But the original spark always calls.
“I always feel like I should be painting,” he says with a reticent smile.