Claiming His Creative Territory: Tommy Lee Edwards Talks Turf

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The buzz has been building for several months, but now it’s finally here: Turf, the Image Comics mini series by British pop culture sensation Jonathan Ross and artist extraordinaire Tommy Lee Edwards has hit the stands.

BF spoke to Edwards about the book, its massive genre-crossing scope and why exactly it’s called Turf.

BROKEN FRONTIER: Going back to the very origin of this project, how did you hook up with Jonathan Ross?

Jonathan has been a huge collector and supporter of comics throughout most of his life.  With helpful nudges of encouragement from friends like Mark Millar and Neil Gaiman, Jonathan finally began to devote time to a life-long dream of creating his own comic. Mark Millar was the one to introduce Jonathan and I to the idea of working together. We hit it off, and started building on Jonathan's initial idea for a prohibition era crime story with vampires. 

We'd chip away at the story and characters in-between my comics for Marvel and my work as the concept artist on The Book of Eli. Jonathan was obviously fitting this stuff in-between his various radio shows, BBC film reviews, and the Friday Night chat show. And now here we are, a year and a half later, with Turf, and a dream come true for the both of us. 
BF: Did the long gestation period and working on the book in-between other stuff make for a stronger overall concept in the end?

Oh yes, for sure.  But at the same time, we had so many ideas constantly evolving in such an organic way, that Jonathan and I had to be sure and stay on track.  It's easy to lose sight of the core story.  And you also don't want to lose any good ideas you had early-on in the process. So, we just had to help each other by grabbing the reigns once in a while to stay on course.

BF: By now, everyone knows what the book is about, but why exactly is it called 'Turf'?

It took a while for Jonathan and I to settle on a title.  Turf ended up becoming the winner because it's short and concise and memorable.  Our story revolves around an era of American history where sections of certain sections of certain cities were "run" by various crime organizations.  Everybody had their own section of “turf”.  And in New York of 1929, a mysterious family of vampires decides to expand its “turf” and wipe out the competition. And why stop at New York?  They may expand world-wide.
Another meaning for the name Turf comes from an ancient prophecy, in which an ancient evil will literally rise again from the earth and claim its rightful place in the world.  Also, an intergalactic alien smuggler named Squeed crashes on Earth and is immediately involved in the war.  Eager to return to his own turf, an uneasy alliance is formed and makes way for some fun, exciting, scary, and unique situations.
BF: What does it mean to you personally to be the artist for this book?

It means a great deal, due to creating Turf from the ground-up with Jonathan.  This has been a wonderful collaboration, and the quality of what we're doing has surpassed my expectations.  I'm very proud.  It's a different feeling when you do something like this versus a work for hire job on a film or Wolverine book or something. 


BF: When you guys shopped Turf around the industry at San Diego last year, Image expressed the most interest. Do you recall what their sentiment was when they first got your pitch?

Jonathan and I pitched Turf to Image Publisher Eric Stephenson over breakfast at SDCC.  He had a great reaction and was very excited.  He, and later other Image members like Robert Kirkman, have been very supportive and expressed a lot of interest in Jonathan and I finding a home for anything we'd like to create. 

Beyond my art-concepts and Jonathan's fantastic premise for Turf, we were able to excite Eric and explain the book by having many scenes worked out, and characters extraordinarily developed.

BF: You’ve gone on record saying there was another publisher really close in landing the book.

Every publisher Jonathan and I talked to wanted to do Turf.  Image's enthusiasm won us over more than anything.  I personally was eager to go as "independent" as possible, and shied away from publishers owned by larger media companies like Disney or Warner Bros.

BF: What was the reason behind that drive for going as independent as you could? After all, it means you have to do every extra bit of heavy lifting yourselves…

I knew that we wanted total control, but I really had no idea what I was honestly getting myself into.  The amount of extra work on an independent project is staggering.  But I've always believed that the rewards would eventually reflect that fact.  When you've been lucky enough to work for huge companies like I have, it's a nice feeling to represent them.

But even on stuff like Star Wars or Batman, you can only hold back your own selfish creative urges for so long.  Jonathan and I would love to do more with Turf, and we're boiling over with other ideas for stories about completely different things.  I'm fairly certain that we will see Turf evolve into more books, and stretch into other media like film and video games.


BF: The book is a mash-up of different genres. Pulp noir and crime are an organic pairing, but how do you fit in horror and sci-fi and make it all work without stretching the canvas too far?

I think we mix all of the genres by first understanding them, and then approaching them all very well.  Beyond that, you have to have them all relate.  A certain vampire in the story wants the same thing our human journalist does.  Our main gangster character nearly finds a kindred spirit in the alien character. 

The main reason Jonathan and I can make these things work is by constantly asking ourselves "WHY".  WHY is this cop dirty?  WHY is the story in 1929?  WHY does the alien look that way?  If we did not know the answer to why, we threw it out.  

BF: Do you have a certain preference for any of the different bands of characters, be it the humans, aliens or vampires? Or are they all close to you having created every single one of them?

I can't decide really.  I'll get bored eventually with one of them, so it's nice to have the constant variety.
BF: What made 1920s New York the perfect setting for the story you and Jonathan want to tell? What is it about that classic, vintage atmosphere that articulates your beats so much better?

It usually starts with "what do you wanna draw?" or "write" or "watch"....?

Jonathan and I both love gangsters and horror and sci-fi.  But we also like research and history.  1920's New York was just perfect for us, because the story is about sacrifice and about a changing world.  Turf takes place at the tail end of a failed government experiment to outlaw liquor.  This is just before our tragic fall into the Great Depression and the building of Nazi Germany.  The vampires know this more than anybody.  Their days are numbered, unless something is done. 

Putting Turf in 1929 also gives us a chance to give a story about gangsters, vampires, and aliens some credibility.  The story looks and reads and feels like an authentic moment in time. That seems to add more validity to the fantastical parts of the story somehow.

BF: Artistically, you must’ve been challenged a lot blending in the more supernatural and sci-fi with a style that’s known for its realism.

Oh yeah, it's tough.  But like I just said, that lean toward realism can make a floating monster scarier.  Or an alien creature all the more weird.  I'm happy to be known more for a realistic approach, because I'm proud of my education and of the research and sheer labor that goes into my work. 

What I've never wanted, though, is to have my work realistic in the sense of it being boring.  That's perhaps one of the reasons I typically draw with a brush, and tend to enjoy a tiny amount of happy accidents.

BF: Your artwork on Turf seems to be even more realistic than it was on 1985 and Bullet Points.

I’m not really sure about that.  Maybe it's because the story takes place in a real and established history.  I certainly didn't mean for it to feel more realistic than Marvel 1985.  That's interesting.  It's way more WORK than those other books.  Maybe that's what you're picking up on.  There are 26 pages of story in each issues of Turf.  Much of it is very dense, and needs to have very clear storytelling.  There isn't a lot of room for dropping the ball.

BF: Well, for some reason, I feel that the emotion on some of the characters’ faces is more sharply portrayed than in some of your other work. But if there’s anyone who can disagree, it’s you. [Laughs]

Hmmm.  Maybe I'm projecting bits of that into the acting of my characters because the emotions and the story mean so much to me.  I'm definitely more connected emotionally to this book than any previous project.

BF: Overall, you spend a lot of time doing Hollywood work next to comics, like The Book of Eli which you’ve already mentioned. Do you find yourself transporting tricks of storyboard storytelling, merchandise design et al into your comics work?

I was the concept artist on The Book of Eli, which meant I had to tackle everything from costumes, locations, and vehicles, to composition, lighting, and storytelling technique.  This is all done from a script and your imagination.  Comic book artists do this all the time.  Oh yeah, I always learn something new with everything I do.  Most people who only do one thing for too long have a tendency to stagnate.  Their work becomes repetitive, and they don't grow as an individual or as a professional.

BF: Fans often don’t understand why their favorite creators choose to focus on other creative industries, while often, from a financial point of view, it’s more lucrative to work in film or animation. As someone who continues to dabble back and forth, how do you decide when to take on a comics project and when to do movie work?

EDWARDS: Sometimes the timing doesn't work out.  I recently turned down a film because of my Turf workload.  I turned down a great comics job today with one of my favorite writers, due to Turf and the extra-added responsibility of designing the Hughes Bros next movie. 

I have a family and a mortgage and everything, so yeah, the financial bit can get important, but primarily it's the stuff I mentioned earlier about becoming stagnant.  I get really bored really quickly if I don't have a lot of variation pushing me along.

BF: Something I’m sure everyone involved with the book – not to mention the fans – are excited about Jim Steranko providing a variant cover for the first issue. Who got him aboard for that? How did it happen?

Jonathan and I both love Jim's work, but this is particularly special for Jonathan.  As a fan for so long getting to do your first comic and then hiring you DREAM ARTIST for a cover....?  That's just awesome for Jonathan.  Jonathan has met Steranko a few times here and there, so at least we had that.  Then Jonathan pitched Turf to Steranko, I showed him what the stuff looked like, and he loved it. 

Jim’s very proud to be a part of the book, and we are proud to have him.  Beyond Steranko, some other friends contributing to variant Turf covers are Duncan Fegredo, William Stout, John Paul Leon, Bernard Chang, John Romita Jr, Mike Kaluta, and Dave Gibbons.

So I'm just loving Turf all around.

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