Challenging Taboos

Challenging Taboos

A Memorial to Art Wetherell

I'm handing over Father's Day(column on comicsworld website) to my old friend Tim Perkins this month, so that he might share some memories of British comic book artist Art Wetherell. Back in the dim and distant days when I was an editor at Marvel UK, Art sent me samples of his work and I hired him to pencil strips for THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS, DEATH'S HEAD and DOCTOR WHO. He was talented, always cheerful and willing to learn (and teach) and never missed a deadline. When I left Marvel UK for the states he sent me a wonderful illustration with the legend "Starkings Quits, Will Things Fall Apart?" I remember how happy I was to see his work in JABBA THE HUTT a few years ago but had not spoken to him in fifteen years when I learned he had passed away suddenly before this past New Year's. It came as quite a shock, as I always imagined that I would run into him at a convention one day and we would catch up with one another. Art was about my age, still working hard and, of course, he was a father too...
— Richard Starkings

 Thanks once again Richard for affording me the opportunity to say a few words about British Comic Artist, Art Wetherell, who sadly passed away on Christmas day last year.
I first heard of Art back in the early-mid-eighties back on Martin Lock's Harrier Comics. At the time most of the Harrier Gang (creatives such as Kev Hopgood, Steve Yeowell, Jeff Anderson, Mike Collins, Mark Farmer, James Hill, Art Wetherell and myself) little suspected that we would soon become a big part of Marvel UK's next big push into publishing its own titles. This, following the success of Alan Davis' lovely work on Captain Britain and John Ridgway's classical renderings of Doctor Who, the guys that paved the way for us to enter mainstream comics. 

I started seeing Art's artwork at Marvel UK shortly after I had picked up work with them and I even had the opportunity to ink some of his pencils during my tenure there. Thundercats comes to mind amongst other comics like The Real Ghostbusters and Transformers.
But I didn't meet up with Art until we found ourselves at one of the many London Comic Conventions that were staged by Rusty Staples throughout the eighties and nineties. Naturally, we'd meet in the bar area where, along with other Marvel UK creators, we would sit talking and drinking a few beers as we all looked at each other's work. Seeing Art at UKCAC became a regular yearly occurrence, and we would also met up at Marvel UK shindigs at the London offices and the parties at nearby venues and at the Westminster Arms Pub in London, Marvel UK creators' second base of operations.

Art and I had one passion in common that made us talk for great lengths at times… Conan the Barbarian. Art, like myself, both felt that to be able to work on the Conan strip was the ultimate dream job. It was in this common dream that we became friends. He had a great sense of humour -- we also shared a liking for Monty Python and Fawlty Towers -- that complimented perfectly his quiet demeanour. I suppose he was very much like his hero, Conan, with his gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth. He was certainly great fun to talk to and intensely enthusiastic about comics.

In the early nineties, following on from the Marvel UK stint, Art produced work for 2000AD. We continued to meet up at conventions and spoke on the phone more and more as the nineties progressed.

We followed similar routes in our careers, probably owing a lot to the amount of times we spoke to each other on the phone. Art would ring me and tell me of another opportunity to work on some company or other's books and when he wasn't doing that, then it would be me ringing him with similar information. So it was that we seemed to work for many of the same companies at the same time. Art worked on characters as diverse as Power Rangers and fairytale stories such as Sleeping Beauty for Blue Moon, a British comic book for younger children.

Jabba It was about this same time that Art got his work with Dark Horse on the Jabba the Hutt and other Star Wars books. Art rang me when he was first offered the work, almost in disbelief that he had been given the job of drawing the books. I remember telling him at the time, he had been given the work because he deserved it… he was after all a bloody good artist and very professional to boot.

Following the Star Wars stuff, Art's work dried up from the states for a while, this was during the backlash of the speculator boom of the mid-nineties, of which most of us became casualties. Art told me of a stomach ulcer he was having some trouble with. It was being treated but he confided that it wasn't pleasant to live with at all.

He began to produce work for Caliber in the US, on books like Negative Burn. Towards the end of the nineties, he asked for me to ink some of his work for Caliber in the US. Art became incredibly busy at this point and asked me to do some fill in pages of pencils and inks for a story he was working on for them called The Searchers. Then he asked me if I would take over the book from him and finish off the story arc written by Chris Dows and Colin Clayton, as his workload became too much.

Art was busy at the time working on a variety of British comic book work alongside full colour comic strips for a number of men's magazines, which led to Art being one of the first artists hired by Fantagraphics for their Eros books.

PageHe also created a character for London Nights called Vampire's Tattoo, if I'm correct. This was a fantasy vampire story with lots of cheesecake and good girl (or rather bad girl) artwork in it, a motif that would become synonymous with Art amongst fans and fellow pros alike. Art became famous for his depiction of women with ‘rather large' bosoms. The state of the industry, however, especially in the UK, was becoming ever more dire. I know, from speaking to Art, that he, like me and just about everyone else we spoke to in the industry, was becoming ever increasingly worried about getting work.

In 1999 Art was one of the artists and writers that I approached to help produce a new weekly British Comic. Unfortunately, despite a lot of work by some good creators, it never happened.  I started listening to all the creators that were leaving the industry out of fear they might be next to lose all their work, and I lost heart in the comic business and decided to get out, before it was too late. I lost touch with the comics fraternity and with Art.

Art was always a quiet, very unassuming person, who came across as an artist who was always striving to be better. At conventions he would sit happily drawing and sketching for kids and adults alike for hours on end. He made a great many people happy with these drawings and many happy smiling faces left his table over the years. I remember a time at one of the London Conventions when he sold a page of his Jabba the Hutt work to a fan. The guy was so amazed that he now owned one of Art's pages; he literally jumped in the air when the piece was handed over.

Art was everyone's friend and would spend hours listening to other people talk to him asking about his work. He had time for everyone, even when he was worried about the where his next job might be coming from or when he actually needed to be somewhere else.

I never heard Art speak ill of anyone. Sure we'd talk for hours on the state of the industry and how the same mistakes were being continually made by the comic companies and how we could change things if only… but in all the time I knew him Art never named anyone individually in a negative way.

BatmanHe was highly professional and rarely, I feel, given the credit and respect he deserved. He wasn't in your face… he just got on with the job at hand… a career he thought he was lucky to have. Like me, he had never wanted to do anything else.

Art never turned away from comics… I left to pursue pastures new in the theme park industry as a conceptual artist and designer, then concept and story artist/writer in animation.

So I lost touch with a great many people who meant a lot to me. Things moved so fast that, when I turned around, four years had passed. I lost touch with a long list of people -- fellow professionals, artists, writers, editors, everyone -- but on top of the list of those people I regretted losing touch with, was Art…

Now, quite often throughout my life I have felt powerfully compelled to do or not to do something, that sometimes it is almost like someone or something guides our hands. This may sound strange to some, but I really feel this to be true. Fate is a very strange thing.

The week before Christmas week last year (2003) I was talking to a friend of mine who had been approached by an adult comic company. I hadn't heard of them but thought I might know someone who might be able to help. I told my friend I'd ask Art if he knew of the company and see if they were kosher.

That Thursday night I rang Art… and it was like old times again. We spoke for about twenty to thirty minutes about what we had both been up to. I asked Art about the company for my friend. He told me he hadn't heard of them but said he had always been well treated by the men's magazines and Eros, and to tell him to give it a try in a small way first, to see if they paid and what they were like to work with.  He then apologized and asked if I could give him a call the following week, as he had to take his young daughter to a Christmas play she was appearing in.

Well, after telling him he had no need to apologize and assuring him I would call him again the following week, I told him to have a great time at the play.

The following week Wednesday night I called Art and once again it was like old times. Art, like he had been the previous week, was excited about his comic work once more. He didn't sound worried anymore. He told me of the great reception he had received at the Raptus conventions in Norway alongside such stalwarts as Dave Windett, Mike Collins and Lew Stringer.

He told me the conventions were great and the Norwegians very hospitable and accommodating. He was raving about them…  it was obvious that he enjoyed himself with all the sketching and demonstrations over there. He recommended that I go over too, that I would love it. "The fans are great!" he told me. "They are pleased to see you, time and again, pleased to get sketches from you and to get the chance to talk to you."

He was very excited about a new prospect that lay just around the corner -- a Norwegian company had asked him to produce a new superhero comic for the Norwegian and European markets. He was buzzing with excitement, and couldn't wait until he saw them again in 2004 at the Raptus convention…

We spoke for an hour and half or so, maybe a little longer, and we each promised to stay in touch from now on. We said our goodbyes… and it was the last time I would ever have the privilege of doing so again.

I never for one second thought it was to be the final one. I had thought that getting back in touch again after four years meant a return to the good old days of hands free telephone conversations and drawing comic books with one of my old mates in the comic biz… even though we were working from either side of the Pennines, me on the West, him on the East… a regular war of the roses… not.

It wasn't to be.

I will never know why I felt so compelled to speak to Art those last two times… it was the run up to Christmas… I was busy getting the shopping done and meeting my deadlines… I was helping my wife with the decorations… there were a hundred and one things to do… and yet something told me to call. I know I had told my friend I would get the information for him, if I could… but why then… it could have waited.

I am so very glad I didn't wait… Art was only in his early forties and his life was cruelly cut short. Those of us lucky enough to have known the man, however, are ever the more rich for having done so. Dave Windett rang me on Boxing Day, unfortunately, I was out at relatives. Dave left me a message saying he had called. I called Dave back expecting to hear him return my Christmas greetings, which he did of course. But then he told me the sad news of Art's passing. Neither Dave nor myself said much. I know Dave, like myself, will miss him.

I thought about the first time Art had told me about his ulcer and the times afterward that I knew it was bothering him. You hear people tell you they are unwell, but the enormity of life-threatening illnesses sometimes never really sinks in.

We'll never know what kind of things Art would have produced for the new super hero comic. I'll never hear him talking to me about Conan. His phone number will not decorate my phone bill like a long shopping list like it did in the old days, but I, like anyone that knew him, or anyone that met him or better still got a sketch off him will never be able to forget that beaming smile from beneath that beard. Although he told me in that last conversation that he had shaved it off… shame on you Art… Comic Artists Have Beards!

I miss you mate, but I'm glad I had a chance to say goodbye.

When next I feel the dreaded artist's block and the muse doesn't visit, pay us a call, mate, take a look over my shoulder and lend us a hand…

It was fun…


Your friend,

Tim Perkins

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