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June 30, 2008

Michael Turner, 1971-2008


By Tom Spurgeon

Michael Turner, a superstar comic book artist from Image Comics' second 1990s wave, a significant small-house studio head and publisher during this decade and a figure emblematic of a certain glossy, stylized approach to comic book art made popular over the last 15 years, died in Santa Monica on June 27 after a long fight with cancer. His passing was announced through a statement on the message board of his publishing company, Aspen MLT, Inc.

Turner was born in Crossville, Tennessee in 1971. He was one of several young artists to break into comics during the rush of new publications and attendant opportunities made possible by the early success of Image Comics. A relative lifetime latecomer to comic books reportedly without an involved history of reading them as a child, his initial assignments were working for Marc Silvestri's Top Cow, first on backgrounds, later on the breakout hit Witchblade. Silvestri discovered Turner's work at a comics convention.

Turner soon developed the style for which he would become famous within his chosen field, a more elegant variation on the exaggerations of form and simplicity of presentation by which Image and its related studios plied their trade. Sean T. Collins, who edited a 2005 book on the artist called Wizard Millennium Edition: Michael Turner, told CR that Turner's work represented a significant break with previous art from the same camp. "Unlike the work of the Image founders and most of their heirs and proteges, Turner's stuff lacked that sense of macho anger in every pose, the gritted teeth and gun-toting, testosterone-soaked fury of Rob Liefeld or Todd McFarlane or early Jim Lee or even Turner's most direct influence and former mentor, Marc Silvestri. You could call Mike's work ethereal, while you'd never get away with that description for any of those other guys."

imageCollins acknowledges Turner's was a style that had its vocal detractors, almost from the start. "Yes, he played the same exaggeration game with male and female anatomy that [the Image founders] did, but there was usually a serenity to his pin-ups and covers," Collins argues. "The characters stood, or frequently floated, arms to their sides, long hands and fingers pointing down and diffusing the energy. They looked like swimmers, a frequent reference point. Also, his line and vaguely nouveau-y design sense occasionally suggested shoujo manga, though I know that was not a direct influence on it."

In 1998, Turner debuted his own title Fathom, an undersea adventure that seized enough of a market presence to become one of the creator's signature works, a not-inconsiderable accomplishment as it launched at the dawn of comics' dark, turn-of-millennium sales nadir. In 2002, Turner left Top Cow to start his own company, Aspen MLT, Inc., partly named after himself. Their studios would reportedly be located in the general Santa Monica/Marina Del Rey area. The company's launch was delayed by litigation related to Fathom and other titles that Turner had either initially developed or published at Top Cow. The suit was settled in 2003, the same year Aspen's first title was launched. Soulfire launched in 2004; Fathom re-launched in 2005. The company would during its founder's lifetime publish about a half-dozen series and multiple issues under each of those titles.

Those new accomplishments saw the light of day at the same time the artist had settled into a long struggle with cancer, which entered the artist's life when he was in his late twenties. In March 2000, Turner received his initial diagnoses of chondrosarcoma in his right pelvis, leading to a debilitating surgery and long recovery. Although his attitude towards the illness had what many considered an almost heroic element to it in terms of the matter-of-fact way that Turner fought against the health effects, it couldn't help but have an impact on the course of the illustrator-turned-publisher's career. In one June 2007 interview, he admits that he hadn't thought about how to design Wolverine for an upcoming comic book because of having just spent 10 months in chemotherapy. Unable to sit and draw for long periods of time, Turner stockpiled work when he could. It was rumored that when possible he would even make art lying on his back. Turner's illness certainly limited his ability to attend conventions, which he reportedly loved to do and where his behavior was lauded as a model of gratitude, artist to fan.

The cancer may have had the greatest impact on ambitious plans at his own company. "Mike's recurring health problems kept on throwing curveballs at Aspen's ability to produce his comics on a consistent basis," says Collins. "When I was working on that book about him, I realized how little he talked about his illness in public, and how his stiff-upper-lip reluctance to talk about it and thereby be pitied prevented a lot of comics buyers from ever even knowing that his frequent lateness had really the most legitimate excuse imaginable." Collins describes Turner's plans for his comics in terms of their being self-contained epic fantasies more along the lines of "Star Wars than [Marvel's continuity-heavy] Secret Wars." Collins also notes that Turner mentored a number of young artists at Aspen such as Christina Strain and Koi Turnbull, noting that the publisher insisted those artists receive profiles in the Wizard book bearing his name.

imageIn the last several years, Turner became perhaps better known for his popular covers and occasional interior artwork for mainstream comics companies than for work on his own books. He contributed covers and some interior art to titles such as the Flash, Identity Crisis, Superman/Batman, Justice League of America and Superman at DC, meaning he was a driving force behind many of their major hits in that period just past. At Marvel, starting in 2005, Turner provided covers for the Civil War mini-series and Wolverine: Origins. He had been announced as interior artist on Ultimate Wolverine.

Collins told CR that Turner was ideally qualified to become the most identifiable comic book cover artist of the current decade. "That same muscular serenity he used for more uplifting, 'wow cool' covers could be flipped pretty readily to reflect the tone of mourning and guilt that became the calling card of major superhero-company event comics like Identity Crisis and Civil War. In other words, he could do flyin' or cryin'. Also, I think his strongest covers were the simplest -- one centered figure, doing something iconic -- and since this is an era where virtually every Marvel and DC character this side of Squirrel Girl and G'nort are referred to as 'icons', that approach delivered exactly what both the companies and the consumers wanted to see."

The artist would continue to fight with cancer before passing away in Santa Monica on Friday, apparently surrounded by friends and family. In one of its write-ups on Turner's passing, the comics news site Newsarama suggested that the last round of complications could perhaps be traced to a February 2008 operation and its after-effects. Aspen officials left the company's booth at Wizard World: Chicago to be with their friend and employer when Turner's health took a turn for the worse Thursday evening; the company's spotlight panel was canceled, and various at-the-show tributes including a con-wide moment Saturday were observed.

Aspen has asked that condolence notices for the family be sent to their care: Aspen MLT, Inc, c/o Michael Turner, 5855 Green Valley Circle, Suite 111, Culver City, CA 90230. Donations may be sent to Turner's designated charities, The American Cancer Society or The Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Michael Turner was 37 years old.
posted 8:25 am PST | Permalink

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