Arts Desk

Meet a Local Cartoonist: A Chat with Tom Arvis

Tom Arvis was a guest at the February Capicons comic book show, and had a selection of his self-published comics for sale. While chatting with him, he revealed that his comic book Wayout West once had a title that's now becoming familiar as a comic-book-based movie – Cowboys & Aliens. In this interview, along with our usual questions, Arvis tells Washington City Paper about how he gave up the title (since the ownership of the title was subject to litigation in the past, Arvis' account here is as he e-mailed it to me, edited only for style).

Washington City Paper: What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?

Tom Arvis: Mostly comic books. My Mom used to say I started drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil, and I filled dozens of spiral notebooks with my own comic book stories and characters since I was eight, but I've earned my living as a professional Graphic Designer/Illustrator since 1980 when I sold my first t-shirt illustration for $10. Prior to that I also had a humor comic strip called "Roommates" that ran in the James Madison University (JMU) newspaper, The Breeze, from '78-'82, two semesters after I'd graduated, and was featured in the 1980 yearbook.

Since 1980 I've worked full-time, part-time and/or have freelanced for such clients as Geico, (the old) MCI, the EPA, The Learning Tree, National Wildlife Foundation, Cluck-U Chicken, 7-Eleven, I could go on and on.

However, I've always struggled to get steady work, or any work really, in the comic business. After getting tired of submitting and getting rejected by the powers that be,  over and over again, in 1995 I decided to just create and publish my own line of small press books, and I've been doing so ever since, as well as working full-time and freelancing.

WCP: How do you do it? Traditional pen and ink, computer or a combination?

TA: I have a band of tiny elves that...Actually I do the pencils and inks by hand, then scan and computer color my pages in PhotoShop, then I create the lettering, and balloons in Freehand 10 (which I prefer to Illustrator), often actually scripting the story from outlines and notes at this point. Then I paste the finished word balloons onto the page back in PhotoShop, and save those as JPEGs, PDFs or TIFs, for further use.

WCP: When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?

TA: I was born in 1956 in Bluefield, WV. But my family moved around a lot between Virginia, North Carolina and back to West Virginia. By the time we settled down in Waynesboro, Va. (in the Shenandoah Valley) in 1968, I'd been to 10 different grade schools in five years. I'd usually draw a picture of Popeye on the blackboard my first day to make friends, which worked until about 5th grade, when it would just got me beat up.

WCP: Why are you in Washington now? What neighborhood or area do you live in?

TA: I live in Randolph Hills, between Kensington and Bethesda, but it's a Rockville address. My wife and I moved up to D.C. from the Valley in 1982, after we'd both graduated JMU in Harrisonburg, Va. There basically was little or no work for graphic designers, illustrators or much less comic book artists in Harrisonburg. We've lived and worked in the D.C. Metro area ever since, raising my son, Joe, who's currently a senior back at JMU. My wife grew up in Silver Spring.

WCP: What is your training and/or education in cartooning?

TA: Pretty much all self-taught. I took a few art classes in high school and college, but my degree was in journalism, which is also where the "Roommates" comic strip comes back in. I ended up doing more art directing, illustrating, and designing for The Breeze, than I did writing. Right after graduating, I went to work for the only ad agency in Harrisonburg at the time, before moving to D.C. and getting work designing ads for a Penny Saver-type tabloid called The Marketplace, which used to be in Fairfax. But I did spend years learning and honing my art skills on my own through studying classic art and illustration books, as well as comics, and doing literally thousands of commercial storyboards.

WCP: Who are your influences?

TA: Off hand–classically, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Van Gogh; personal-hero-wise, Johnny Carson, John Lennon, Bill Shatner, Adam West, Tom Jones, all four Monkees, my Mom, my Dad, my Granddad, my Grandma; comic-book-wise, Carmine Infantino, Neal Adams, Jack Kirby, Nick Cardy, Gene Colan, Jim Steranko, Joe Kubert, Alex Toth, Jim Starlin, Mike Sekowski, Barry Smith, all the old Disney, Bugs Bunny, Popeye, anything Hanna Barbera or Chuck Jones, basically all the stuff that was around when I was a kid. I don't claim that you'll see these guys in my work, but they're my influences.

WCP: If you could, what in your career would you do-over or change?

TA: I always regretted not heading to California to become an animator after college, but then I would never have met my wife or had my son, so that's a pointless regret. If I could change things though, I'd like to be able to support myself doing comics, or having one of my ideas made into a movie perhaps...?

WCP: You've told me you used to publish a comic book called Cowboys & Aliens which has nothing to do with this year's feature film, which is also based on a comic book. Can you tell us the background about that?

TA: I thought you'd never ask. Cowboys & Aliens was the original name of the first comic-book I self-published in 1995. It was only a 16-page black & white ashcan, which I wrote, drew, xeroxed and stapled together myself, and sold nearly 100 copies of at the 1995 Small Press Expo in Bethesda.

I had an offer to publish the book as a full-sized black and white from another publisher and attendee, but by the time we were ready to publish, the bottom had fallen out of the B&W independent comic book "glut" of the time and there were no longer the funds, so I shelved the comic (though I had written six issues and drawn two) and moved on to other ideas, until 1998 when I posted a colorized version of the ashcan's cover on my website, www.arvtoon.com, with the intention of re-publishing the book myself, full-size and in color, based on the then-burgeoning, on-demand, and on-line and inexpensive comic printig business.

In 2002 I had attended the Baltimore Comic Con and a friend and former attendee of the '95 SPXPO congratulated me on selling Cowboys & Aliens as a movie, which I had not. I didn't think of it as anything but a rumor, but by the time I'd finished re-drawing, lettering and coloring my book, and remembering the rumor, I decided to Google Cowboys & Aliens.

That's when I learned that Scott Rosenberg had trademarked the name Cowboys & Aliens in 1998, and that Platinum Studios was negotiating a movie deal with Sony Pictures, though they had yet to publish anything called Cowboys & Aliens, and would not do so until 2006.

In an endeavor to make an already long article shorter, after finding an attorney and contacting Mr. Rosenberg, and after a year and a half of negotiations, we were able to reach an agreement wherein I was paid a small amount to relinquish any claims to the title Cowboys & Aliens, and to not bring any further suits against Platinum Studios or Mr. Rosenberg.

In return I would change the name of my book to Wayout West and could continue with my plans to publish my story, without fear of legal retribution from Platinum. Platinum also agreed to publish another property of mine, which they never did.

I realized what I was giving up, but it was take the offer or nothing. Mr. Rosenberg claims to have never seen my book, and I can't prove undeniably that he has. My own attorneys had advised me that I had no guarantee of winning a court case, and I didn't have the money to pay lawyers to take on the deep pockets of Platinum or much less Sony.

So I accepted the lop-sided offer and still published the full-color version of Wayout West- The ORIGINAL Sci-Fi Western #1 in 2005, a year before Scott Rosenberg published "his" graphic novel, which he hired others to produce (write and draw).

I can't prove or claim my story was stolen, and I officially can no longer make any claims of ownership or rights the title Cowboys & Aliens. I, in turn, have intentionally never read Platinum's book, and I won't see the movie.

I won't make a cent or get any sort of credit for the movie, but I'd like to get as many people as as possible, to read both stories, see the movie, and decide for yourself who created what. What I can claim and prove, undeniably, is which came FIRST.

Since signing the agreement, I have published three issues of Wayout West, though I still have no distributor, and have sold very few copies on my second web-site,sureshotcomics.com, at small shows and local comic shops.

I've also recently released my own graphic novel, a 56-page book called Mercenary Pig, available now on Amazon. And I plan on posting a 100-page trade paperback combining the first three issues of Wayout West on Amazon within the next couple of weeks.

I'm also currently working on Wayout West #4, and hope to have that published early 2012, if not before, along with more "Mercenary Pig" and a few other surprises.

Phew!

WCP: What work are you best-known for?

TA: Probably my son, Joe. My JMU alumni buddies would tell you "Roommates", and others might tell you Cowboys & Aliens aka Wayout West, or currently Mercenary Pig. I'll leave it for them to decide.

WCP: What work are you most proud of?

TA: Again, my son, Joe. After that, my marriage, and every one of my Sureshot Comics comics.

WCP: What would you like to do  or work on in the future?

TA: More comics. Movies would be nice, or animation.

WCP: What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?

TA: I've never suffered writer's block. Right now I have more ideas on paper than I have time to draw.

WCP: What do you think will be the future of your field?

TA: Digital comics.

WCP: What's your favorite thing about D.C.?

TA: Everything you could want is minutes away, except it will take you hours to get there.

WCP: Least favorite?

TA: Three things; traffic, traffic, traffic, and did I mention, traffic?

WCP: What monument or museum do you take most out-of-town guests to?

TA: My basement, it's a monument to comics, music, and obsessive hoarding.

WCP: Do you have a blog?

TA: No, but I'd like to add one to my Sureshot website. If I had time and someone would show me how!

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