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Obituary: Tom Sutton 1937-2002
posted June 30, 2002
 

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Tom Sutton, the veteran comics artist who worked in multiple genres and for nearly every American comic book company in a career spread across five decades, was found dead by local authorities in his Amesbury, Massachusetts home on May 3. The cause of death was believed to be a heart attack. Sutton was 65 years old.

Sutton was born in April 1937 and raised in North Adams, Massachusetts. His widower father made his living as a plumbing, heating and air conditioning shopkeeper, a vocation that safely insulated the Suttons from the post-War transformation of New England manufacturing communities. The Sutton family consisted of Sutton, his parents, and periodically a much older half-sister from the elder Mr. Sutton's previous marriage. Like many professional artists, Sutton began to draw both as insulation from the pressures of home life and as an alternative to more physical activities enjoyed by other kids. He drew inspiration from comic strip efforts by Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, and Hal Foster as well as the lurid, early offerings of the comic book industry. Appropriate for an artist later known for his versatility across genres, the teenaged Sutton became a fan of the E.C. comics line and its multiple offerings. In a February 2001 interview with Gary Groth, Sutton cited Graham Ingels, Wally Wood, Roy Krenkel and Jack Davis as comic book artists he admired during that period.

In 1955, after graduating from high school, an 18-year-old Sutton enlisted in the Air Force at the tail end of U.S. involvement in Korea. Stationed at Fort Warren, near Laramie, Wyoming, Sutton began to work on art projects around the base in the hopes of receiving placement with the service newspaper Stars and Stripes. At Itami base in northern Japan, Sutton created his first professional comics work. F.E.A.F Dragon was a Milton Caniff/Frank Robbins-style adventure strip done for the base publication. Sutton eventually received assignment to the Tokyo offices of Stars and Stripes. Working in an office previously occupied by cartoonist Shel Silverstein, Sutton provided art direction and illustration as deadlines demanded. He later produced a new strip for the paper, another military adventure with the curious but seriously intended title Johnny Craig. That feature would run for two and half years before Sutton had the lead character killed in a storyline. Soon afterwards, Sutton was shipped stateside.

imageAfter leaving the service in 1959, Sutton received a scholarship to the School at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In the Groth interview, Sutton described this period as one of artistic advancement in life drawing skills, painting and being exposed to wider traditions in fine art. While in Boston, Sutton worked as both a freelance commercial artist and as the director of animation for Transradio Productions. In the early 1960s, Sutton married his live-in girlfriend and by the middle of the decade the pair had two sons.

While working in the studio of artist Paul Shapiro, Sutton discovered the Warren magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland amongst the various collage materials kept on hand, and soon became intrigued with the thought of a new freelance market to exploit. In 1967, Sutton made his first comics sale to publisher Jim Warren. Although Sutton rightfully pointed out that the first comic pages he sold were to Famous Monsters, the reference book The Warren Companion states that "The Monster from One Billion B.C." was diverted to Eerie #11 for initial publication before being reprinted in Famous Monsters #48 a scant four months later.

Sutton quickly found work from as many cartoon and comics publishers as were willing to look at his advertising and painting-heavy portfolio. Sutton received commissions for Topps Bubblegum cards through Boston acquaintance and comics industry figure Bhob Stewart. A formal meeting with Stan Lee at Marvel's offices led to his first assignment with Marvel, back-up stories for the western character Kid Colt. Sutton later recalled his first encounter with Marvel's writer-editor in humorous fashion: "He was reciting dialogue into his little Sony tape recorder, right? 'Then Octopus Man said this and Spidey said this and' - I don't even know if there was a Spidey at the time. And he would jump off the desk. He was quite athletic when I was there. He was in very good shape. And his hair didn't fall off. 'Hi. Whatta you got there!' I showed him what I had there."

Emboldened by his initial success, Sutton took a place in the East Village and continued his first fruitful run in comic books. The artist's most memorable comics during this early period were probably those he did for Warren, working with editors Archie Goodwin, J.R. Cochran and Bill Parente on a stream of characters, including a run as one of the seminal artists on the character Vampirella. Sutton's art was always atmospheric and well suited to black and white publication; he also displayed a dark and witty sense of humor when given the chance to write his own material. Sutton was even able to draw on his broader artistic training in doing several well-received painted covers for the magazines. "I loved the stuff I did for Warren," Sutton later told Gary Groth.

As the '60s became the '70s, Sutton was doing as much work for Warren, Marvel and Topps as he could handle, settling down with a second wife (Sutton's first marriage lasted five years). When the comics work became light, Sutton picked up assignments from his Boston advertising industry connections and even worked on a children's book. The work for the mainstream publishers varied as well. At Marvel, Sutton moved from westerns into a highly regarded period doing humor work for Not Brand Ecch! magazine. Never career-conscious, Sutton's negative and often vocal outlook regarding superheroes ("I considered all super creatures to be fascists.") handicapped him in pursuing work in mainstream comics' dominant genre. Sutton did eventually ink Gil Kane on the cosmic superhero Warlock, finished pages for Bill Everett during his controversial 1970s run on Sub-Mariner, and provided art for a well-received run on the Dr. Strange character.

Despite the occasional high-profile gig, Sutton continued to work mostly in those eddies of mainstream comic book output that did not include men in tights. He often collaborated with burgeoning talent breaking into the field. Sutton provided the art for the first comics story published from quintessential '70s comic book writer Don MacGregor, who waxed rhapsodic about Sutton's skill in a recent interview with Fanuniverse.com. "Sutton did a wonderful graphite approach to the art on that story. If I asked for reverse angle shots, or continuity shots in the shape of being in a gun-site, or large, establishing panels of something like the characters fighting atop Mount Rushmore, Tom gave me that and more! Man, I thought, hell, we can do anything!"

The comic work recognized by many as Sutton's best came in partnership with another big-name mainstream writer from the 1970s, Doug Moench. Together, they created the "Future Chronicles" stories for Marvel's Planet of the Apes magazine. An enormously elaborate and cleverly designed fantasy saga set on the world featured in the movies, Sutton worked with oversized originals to better show off his mixed-media work and allow for meticulous detail. The result was a lush, moody, and striking fantasy story to stand with any in mainstream comics history. "He really made the work a joy, and pure fun," Moench told the Journal. "This guy was so into the Future Chronicles, he wanted to put so much detail into it, he worked on these gigantic boards. It was black and white, so it was already bigger than regular comics pages. Then he did that series twice up, these enormous things that would cover my desk. Right there it made it something special, the sheer physical size of it. The enthusiasm you could see in every brushstroke just made it so exciting. I loved working with him."

Although scattered across dozens of titles and genres, Sutton's achievements were not lost on the new generation of writers and critics entering the field. Fantagraphics publisher Kim Thompson wrote an appreciation of the artist's run on Dr. Strange in an early issue of The Comics Journal. "I was a huge fan of Tom's back in the '70s when I was just a fan," Thompson told the Journal. "Tom's work had an unbridled organic, sensual quality that made him one of the all-time great horror artists. He had this tremendous energy that caused his images to spill out of the panels, and a fantastic visual imagination. As ridiculous as it may sound, that Planet of the Apes work he did remains for me a touchstone of how one can create a visual milieu in black and white through design texture. It's a great tragedy that he never found himself in a situation where he could pour himself into a major or ongoing work."

Not only did Sutton fail to find that regular, prestige gig in his remaining time in comics, his career path through the '70s and '80s became even more diffuse. Sutton increased his client list to include Marvel rival DC, Warren competitor Skywald, the Chip Goodman effort Seaboard/Atlas and a run with the Charlton comics line that began in 1972. By the end of the 1970s, even Sutton's regular assignments had changed in nature, as the artist was less associated with name projects like Vampirella and more with short-term tie-ins like the Alice Cooper appearance in Marvel Premiere, the abortive Logan's Run series and Marvel's Godzilla comic, none of which engendered the effort or creative energy that went into the ape stories.

Of these clients, the work for Charlton remains a favorite for many of Sutton's admirers. Sutton appreciated the company's light hand when it came to the material, and the constant availability of scripts and cover painting assignments given the haphazard nature of opportunities at the bigger outfits. Fellow Charlton regular Joe Staton provided this appreciation in Comic Book Artist #12: "Tom Sutton, I love Tom's stuff. He was one of the regulars with all the horror stuff, and I met Tom maybe once. He doesn't get out a lot, so he doesn't come to cons or anything, unless it's up north somewhere. There were a lot of books that were me, Tom and [Steve] Ditko. Tom did absolutely one of the greatest comic book covers of all time, which was a killer teddy bear with awful fangs. He did some great covers, those painted covers, really nice stuff. … Sometimes people would hire Tom to give atmosphere to things that didn't really have atmosphere to start with."

imageSutton's most visible assignment in the 1980s was DC's Star Trek comic, featuring the characters and adventures from the movie series. Sutton worked diligently from model sheets provided by the movie studios, and indulged a love for science fiction comics and fantastic detail nurtured by his respect for Wally Wood. The demands of Trek fandom and the way his pencils were treated from conception to printed page proved to be among those factors making Star Trek a frustrating experience. Even with that relatively long-term assignment, Sutton worked wherever he could. Sutton contributed to Eclipse Comics, and also took a number of assignments at Chicago publisher First Comics, working on later issues of ongoing science fiction series.

Sutton's best-remembered work for First was probably the 1989 mini-series Squalor, a comic that combined many of Sutton's genre interests, and featured full-color art on high quality paper. As in previous decades, Sutton found himself working with an inexperienced writer, Stefan Petrucha, who was more than pleased with the result. "It was my first full script, and, like anyone who hasn't gone through the process, I had this solid picture in my mind of what the thing should look like," Petrucha told the Journal. "As such, I was bracing myself for getting the pages back, since, of course, they couldn't possibly look precisely like what I had in my head. But, with Tom, they did, and more so. Much as I'd described every itty bitty detail in my then over-written scripts, Harry's world only came alive when filtered through Tom's wonderfully bizarre, unique sensibilities. He captured the humor, the horror and the personality perfectly. It was a real meeting of demented minds."

Tom Sutton began to withdraw from the American comic book industry in the early '90s, leaving behind a recent client list as eclectic as he had enjoyed at any time in his career: a book or two for Byron Preiss, short stories for the Dark Horse Harlan Ellison anthologies, and even some fix-up work for DC. Jim Salicrup, a longtime Sutton fan stretching back to the Not Brand Ecch! and Warren work, and the artist's editor on the Alice Cooper story at Marvel, told the Journal that Sutton's dark sense of humor remained intact through the end of his mainstream career. "We last worked together on Mars Attacks! at Topps Comics. I got a real kick out of the promo Mars Attacks! strip he produced for the Diamond catalog. It featured 'Marv Perilman,' a billionaire corporate raider, that went on a killing spree through the 'Martian Comics Group' shouting, 'You're fired! You're fired! You're FIRED!'" Several potential creator-owned projects, a Lovecraft-related story with Doug Moench, another Lovecraft work scheduled for Tundra, and a painted story with Stefan Petrucha, never came to fruition.

In 1994, Sutton began a second career in comics doing work for the X-rated Eros Comix line under the nom de plume Dementia. A large percentage of Sutton's work for Eros featured acts of bondage, including stories starring his character Buffy. Buffy was near and dear to the cartoonist's heart. In the Gary Groth interview, Sutton indicated that this was a character with whom he had dealt internally for a long period of time, and even said that he spoke to the character while drawing. Eros Comix Editor Michael Dowers told the Journal that while Buffy was Sutton's most visible character, she only appeared in a modest percentage of his Eros output. Many of Sutton's works were bondage pin-ups, send-ups of EC comics, or stories about women in garbage, all very strong even by that company's standards. "People were sometimes horrified by the Dementia stuff, but he was really doing it tongue in cheek. He was trying to be funny, and trying to be cute," Dowers explained. "I didn't get Tom's stuff at first, but when I realized it was supposed to be funny, it really made sense."

Sutton always sought time to paint in addition to his comics work, often depicting a milieu which he very much enjoyed and with which he was deeply familiar: drinking establishments. Sutton admitted to troubles with alcohol since at least the period doing art for Star Trek, but never seemed to back away from his affection for the drinking life, particularly the atmosphere found in famous drinking establishments such as McSorely's in New York, the bar made famous by Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker and a favorite of Sutton's.

Friends and professional colleagues remember Sutton not only for his talent but as a loquacious telephone companion and solicitous fellow professional. According to Dowers, Sutton was a "sweet-hearted guy" who depended on those phone relationships. "He literally painted his whole life into a corner. As far as I know those conversations were his life." One beneficiary of Sutton's predilection for talk was Steve Bissette, an admirer of Sutton's work who happily recalled their acquaintance on the Comicon.com message board, "Tom used to call late-nights to chat, and we'd talk into the early morning if my constitution allowed it - it was always me who tossed in the towel, not Tom! He was a great conversationalist, a warm and abundantly knowledgeable man; I loved those wee hour talks..." Jim Amash, a friend of Sutton's and co-editor of Alter-Ego, told the Journal he remembers the artist in conjunction with another great industry conversationalist, the late Charlton regular Pat Boyette. "Tom and Pat were very close friends, and it was due to Pat that I became Tom's friend. The three of us were big talkers. Tom would call me up and the next two hours were filled with funny, witty, thought provoking dialogue. Tom's perverse, often ribald sense of humor was charming and side splitting… I'm going to miss him very much and was glad he was such a fun, important part of my life these past five years."

Tom Sutton's last comic, May's Dementia's Dirty Girls #1 from Eros, includes a tribute to his life and work by longtime friend Bill Pearson. Tom Sutton is survived by children and grandchildren. At press, the family had made tentative plans to collect any future profits from Sutton's comics work and additional proceeds from original art for the youngest generation of Suttons.

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