I Wanted To Be Tony Scott When I Was In High School – Talking With Tommy Lee Edwards

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TLETommy Lee Edwards is a name familiar to most comic fans. The artist for works such as Bullet Points, Marvel 1985, Batman, Hellboy, and the recently completed Turf, Tommy quickly established himself as a fan-favorite with his unique style. A master of many forms and mediums, TLE leaves nothing to chance, pencilling, inking, and coloring his own comic work. He does hand it off to a trusted friend for hand lettering, but everything else is handled in house, his way of assuring it meets his very high standards of quality.

But this Renaissance man isn’t all about comics, keeping himself eternally busy with video game design, film design, book covers and book design, animation, as well as his recent turn in the director’s chair on Vandroid, his insane new multi-media experience combining his love of music, comics, and film. His many clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd, Microsoft, Warner Brothers, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Titan Books, Random House, Electronic Arts, DC Comics, Marvel Entertainment, Dark Horse Comics, Image Comics, IDW, Film Roman, Scholastic, and so many more. Seriously, I’d type them all out, but I’m too young for carpal tunnel. Basically, Tommy Lee Edwards is a very busy man.

A master of many artistic skills, he works both digitally and traditionally, with pencils, inks, paint, Photoshop, and anything else he feels will enable him to bring his various works to life. One of the founding members of The BLVD, a virtual studio including a few other brilliant artists as studio mates, Tommy never seems to sit still, always working to grow as an artist. And all of this while raising a family!

I recently had the chance to chat with him about his “origin”, inspirations, the importance of an education, the importance of family, his views on the direct market, his many various projects, and what’s to come in the future. He even shared a few of his earliest drawings with us!

Screen Shot 2014-03-24 at 10.05.58 PMI’d like to start off with your “origin story” as it were. What was the first comic you remember really grabbing you, and what was the one that inspired you to create them?

My first comics were usually random Thor, Captain America, and Spider-Man Treasury Editions I picked up at the newsstand or grocery store.  My grandparents used to take me to the library in Dearborn, Michigan, where I’d check out a lot of bound and collected Marvel stuff.  This was primarily in the late 1970s.

My first “monthly” comic was G.I. Joe in 1982.  I was nine years old, and would go to my local drug store every month to check it out.  That led to every week, where I eventually got hooked on monthly books like Shogun Warriors, Uncanny X-Men, Amazing Spider-Man, and many more.

Have you always been creative? What is your earliest memory of creating art? Were your parents supportive of your creative path?

Like most kids, I drew and wrote stories and picture books.  My earliest memories of making art revolved around my adoration of Star Wars.  I would draw that stuff and create my own stories, and was just in love with Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston.  My parents were supportive in getting me private art lessons.  My grandma was very encouraging towards my collecting comics, and made me feel like it was OK to not “grow up” too quickly.

Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 1.38.13 PMIn your early days, what were your biggest influences/inspirations, and have they changed over the years?

As a teen, I got more into “outside of comics” illustrators like Bob Peak, Bernie Fuchs, and Drew Struzan.  My interests primarily were grounded in stories and characters, though, so I gravitated more and more towards movies.  I wanted to be Tony Scott when I was in high school.  I worked as a projectionist back then at the local cinema, and would loop-up Tony Scott’s REVENGE and watch it as much as I could after hours, before our lease on the print was over.

All the way into college, I was obsessed with Tony Scott’s storytelling choices.  Even though THE LAST BOY SCOUT is a pretty shitty movie, I saw it 13 times at the theater and kept a sketchbook filled with it’s compositions, camera moves, and lighting.  I got on the set of TRUE ROMANCE and just watched Tony Scott direct for a few days.  He will always be one of my largest inspirations.

You studied film and illustration at the Art Center College of Design. What did you learn there that’s helped you the most throughout your career? Do you feel that an education is important for an artist, or was it something you just did for you?

I started in illustration, and had great teachers like Burne Hogarth and Harry Carmean.  I was getting a lot better by drawing and painting from life, studying design and color, and different techniques.  But eventually my yearning for storytelling pushed me into film, where I learned more “new” things.  Writing, photography, continuity, acting, and so much more.  All of that education has helped me just as much if not more than drawing and painting, especially when it comes to comics.  The very best thing I got out of college was discipline.  Sink or swim.  Prioritize, multi-task, and get the job done.  So yes, I think a well-rounded arts education is very important.

Bullet_Points_Vol_1_5I first noticed your work with Bullet Points, though you had already been a professional for a time before that. How did you break into the industry, and what was your fist published work?

I had been doing some work with music, film, and animation companies before my first comic.  When I was 19 or 20, I met Howard Chaykin, who was one of my favorite comic book creators.  Eventually we shared a studio in LA, and he recommended Denys Cowan from Milestone take a look at my work.

That led to my first mainstream comic, called MY NAME IS HOLOCAUST.  It’s horrible, looking back.  I suddenly had an inker and a colorist, and didn’t even recognize my work when it finally came out.  But like all those early jobs, it was a learning experience.

How has the industry changed since your early days, and specifically, how has your approach changed?

I haven’t let anybody else ink or color my work in at least ten or fifteen years.  So that changed pretty quick haha.  There are more publishers now.  Sales keep getting worse.  Even the pay rates have gotten worse.  I don’t think the 1994 me would be smart to get into comics professionally in 2014.

Screen Shot 2014-03-24 at 10.09.49 PMYou formed the BLVD art studio with, studio mates John Paul Leon, Sean Chen, Trevor Goring and Bernard Chang. How did this come about, and does working in a studio change the way you work?

Well, we are not all in a studio together “physically”.  It’s virtual, man!  The five of us are basically brothers, and always help each other through constructive critiques, shared ideas, job recommendations, etc.  About ten years ago, San Diego Comic Con kicked me out of Artist Alley because I wouldn’t donate art to the convention.  Then they shrunk that section of the con by two-thirds.  So Bernard, JP, Sean, and Trevor and I started our OWN artist alley.  Our own “BLVD”.

Unfortunately, SDCC is ridiculously expensive for us to be part of, with little return on investment.  So I’m actually trying to convince the group to ditch that show and focus on more creator-driven conventions like Emerald City, Heroes Con, and the NC Comicon (of which I recently became co-owner and senior director).

book-of-eli-posterYou’ve been involved with some amazing projects, from the Marvel 1985 comic series, to designing The Book Of Eli film. What is the project that has shaped your career the most? Which was the most rewarding project?

THE BOOK OF ELI was extremely rewarding.  Working with Albert Hughes and seeing all of our hard work come to life at the premier was enormously gratifying.  I’d have to say that my interactive animated series THE RANDOM ADVENTURES OF BRANDON GENERATOR has been my most rewarding project so far.  I helped Microsoft come up with the concept, and got Edgar Wright to write it.

The whole project was a huge collaboration, where I was able to put my skills and experience in comics, film, and gaming into illustrating, animating, and directing some really unique storytelling.  I had a lot of freedom, which was good because of the tight deadlines, and was lucky enough to put together my little dream-team of creators who constantly inspired and supported each other.

BatmanSuperman.steampunkYou have a very unique style that is constantly evolving, while remaining recognizable as yours. Do you find it challenging continually moving your art forward, or has it happened organically?

Style is something that we all struggle with in the early stages of our career, but it happens organically if you let it.  The way I do things is totally a product of who I am and the experiences I’ve had.

You pretty much handle all aspects of creating your art, minus the lettering. How much is digital vs. analog? Is it different depending on the project?

I have more fun doing everything “analog”, but yep- totally depends on the project.  I draw all my comics on paper with ink, and then color in Photoshop.  John Workman has lettered all of my comics by hand for the past 20 years, and his work is designed as part of the art.  It cannot be separated from what I’ve drawn.  Sometimes the choice of medium is dictated by the deadline, but usually I make that choice based on the desired effect of the art.

TURF.03.01.finishI’m designing an animated kids’ TV series right now that just screams “graphic shapes and textures” to me.  Painting in Photoshop makes the most sense on this, where I’ve got another series I’m developing that has an “old-school” vibe and really needs to be drawn on shitty paper with unprofessional tools.  Most of my Star Wars work is acrylics, ink, dyes, and colored pencils.  I just did a poster for Disney where 3D models were utilized.  So yeah, pretty much whatever works.

You’ve been a creative force to be reckoned with in comics, illustration, video games, and film, jumping from project to project, always moving forward. Why can’t you seem to sit still?

The only consistent thing I’ve wanted to do is to make a living as a storyteller.  I get bored easily, especially when a project isn’t consistently challenging.  With comics, I love do the layouts and story stuff.  Then it becomes drawing and coloring and solitary labor for weeks or months.  Sometimes I do better collaborating with people working towards a common goal.  And there are just too many cool things out there that interest me.  I think that’s why I liked making BRANDON GENERATOR so much.

Brandon.FallBackWhat is it about the various mediums you work in that you love the most, and how is your approach to working in each one different?

Comics are the most unique form of storytelling, and have the most “specialized” language and set of tools.  So in a way, comics will always be my favorite.  Since BRANDON GENERATOR is meant for viewing and interacting with on the web, I used a different tool-set.  I had actors and motion and sound and music.  That’s why online “motion comics” are always so stupid.  It’s a completely different medium.

John Stevenson (director of Kung Fu Panda) has said, “There is no doubt in my mind that Tommy was put on this planet to tell stories.” Do you just view each medium as a different way to tell a story?

Yes, that’s exactly right.  I let the storytelling dictate every choice I make when making concept art for a film, directing a music video, drawing a comic, or whatever.  I’m always aware of the audience and making sure the viewer/reader knows exactly where and when we are, who’s in the scene, and what the emotional arc is.  Seems real basic I know, but most comics I look at totally miss the mark on all that stuff.

TURF.05.cover.TLEHow is working with licensed characters, such as Doctor Who or Star Wars, different for you than, say, Turf, with Jonathan Ross? Do you prefer working on creator-owned projects?

Oh yeah, creator-owned stuff is obviously more fun.  But the challenge of nailing an actor’s likeness, or contributing to a universe you have an affinity for can be a real treat.

Turf, being a period piece, must have taken a lot of research. Hell, many of your projects must. How much of your work is research, and how much comes from your imagination?

I love doing the research.  It’s a gigantic part of every project I do.  If you do it correctly, though, it’s an early stage that gets out of your way and builds confidence as you move forward.  Speaking of John Stevenson, he asked me to do a series of illustrations for a movie he’s directing.  This specific scene takes place at a shipping port.  I don’t know anything about ports, so I scheduled a private tour of the Wilmington NC ports and took about 1000 photos.  From this research, I was able to construct an authentically dangerous action scene.  So not only is the research key for the project, it’s also fun and educational.

GA.keyframe.01.colorTurf was a rousing success, and your collaboration is continuing with The Golden Age. How did this collaboration come about, and what is it that really clicked between you and Jonathan?

Jonathan approached me through our mutual friend, Mark Millar, with a handful of ideas.  One of them was about a family of vampires during prohibition-era New York.  I loved it and we started developing it into what became TURF.  That book is my baby.  I killed myself on it and nearly went broke in the process, but I’m very proud of the results.

The series was unfortunately solicited too early, and grew from four 22-page chapters into four 26-page chapters.  And then a fifth issue, which was 36-pages!  I could barely keep my head above water on that thing, and the last couple issues shipped late.  That really bothered me, but we’ve got a nice hardcover out of it, and a story that will hopefully live on as something special and unique.

Jonathan and I parted ways shortly after co-creating Golden Age, however.  Our working relationship had deteriorated, so I left the project to pursue more gratifying collaborations such as Vandroid and some film work.

Vandroid.02.coverVandroid is a pretty fun concept, and also an impressive undertaking, mixing film, music, and comics into one crazy project. What can you tell us about Vandroid? Is it something that’s been trying to claw its way out of your brain for a while?

I regret the creation of the Direct Sales market, and the resulting exclusion of comics in the mainstream.  Unlike Eric Stephenson and Image Comics’ view of “real comics”, I really enjoy stories that cross over into other mediums.  Vandroid celebrates a lost era of telling and reading stories for entertainment’s sake.  There was no “elitist” attitude about what comics were more “worthy” or not.  There wasn’t a pretend “higher form” of comics known as “graphic novels”.

I grew up in the 1980s and loved Shogun Warriors, Godzilla, Robocop, Commando, Night Rider, The A-Team, and sipping on artificially-flavored ice slushies while reading rolled-up comics on the way home from the mom & pop corner store.  Nick Nicola, the composer and “founder” of Vandroid, grew up in a similar way.  So we decided to join forces and create an experience that pays homage to the past while embracing new technology and markets.

Vandroid.04.coverVandroid was filmed over the course of five days, from what I understand, a remarkable feat for sure. What were some of the challenges you faced getting this thrilling project going? How was it different than Brandon Generator and the other film projects you’ve worked on?

VANDROID is the biggest live-action project I’ve written, produced, and directed.  It’s short, but packs in many locations, actors, and pyrotechnics.  This is the most fun I’ve ever had on any project ever, as I got to pay homage to my heroes Tony Scott, Michael Mann, and John Carpenter.

The biggest challenge was to make VANDROID truly feel like it was shot in 1984.  Therefore, all of the effects needed to be practical and the lighting and camera techniques had to feel period.  The costumes and hair and all of that had to feel authentic, and I think we mostly nailed it.

I chose to make VANDROID at home in North Carolina, where we had a very accommodating community in which to work.  Also, we got a lot more quality for the budget.  You really see every penny spent on-screen, unlike a music video I just directed for David Holmes in Los Angeles, where we were drowning in city permits and costs.

With Vandroid, The Golden Age, and your various illustrations, design work, and book covers, when do you find time to sleep? What is an average day for Tommy Lee Edwards like?

And then there are my kids haha!  Actually, having a family is what keeps me sane, and forces me to separate work from “real life” as much as I can.  Even my studio is separate, about 40 yards behind the house.  Beyond a fair amount of travel, I try and approach my work as a nine-to-six kinda thing.  I often have to head back out to work after the family goes to sleep, and seem to constantly be emailing, but I love my job and am grateful for the opportunities I get.

Screen Shot 2014-01-17 at 11.19.13 AMYou have an impressive career behind you, and an unbelievable future ahead. What’s next for Tommy Lee Edwards? Are you going to stick to film for now, or keep jumping from medium to medium?

I’m considering doing another big comics project.  I’ve enjoyed writing more of my own work, and hope to continue down that path.  So I’ve got some irons in the fire at DC and Dark Horse, but have been primarily working on an animated tv series I’ve created and have in development with Film Roman.  It’s kind of a dream project for me, and we are hoping to find a home network for the thing very soon.  I’m trying not to get my hopes up, but it’s very exciting.

Thank you, Tommy, for such an extensive, and forthcoming interview. And thank you Aub Driver for making it possible. You can follow Tommy’s career here, and be sure to follow him on Twitter.


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