SKETCHING FOR HIS LIFE
THERE’S AN IDEALIZED SCENE IN Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prizewinning novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” where the two lead characters — a writer and an artist — are huddled in a Manhattan office scattered with pencils, ink bottles, coffee and cigarettes while a gaggle of creative-types crank out pages of World War II-era comic books:
“For two days, none of them slept. They drank Jerry’s coffee until it was gone, then brought up cardboard trays of sour black stuff from the all- night Greek on Eighth Avenue, in blue- and- white paper cups… They went through four cartons of cigarettes.”
“It’s not quite like that, but the hours are true,” says Lee Ferguson, sitting in a safari-themed living room in a Cape Coral home that was obviously decorated by his wife. Mr. Ferguson’s office, at the back of the house, sports a decidedly more man-child motif than the rest of his home. Shelves in his back room are filled with graphic novels (bound comic books), action figures and bobble-head dolls. This is his equivalent of the Manhattan war room-office — except there are no cigarettes (he’s asthmatic), and it’s a lot quieter (it is Cape Coral, after all).
Nevertheless, Mr. Ferguson belongs to that same legion of artists as the fictional Kavalier and Clay; and as it is for them, his struggle to make a living in the hardscrabble comic book field is a story of sweat, heartbreak and overcoming impossible odds. He has battled his way through a home ravaged by Chinese drywall, a recession that left him without a steady paycheck and the everyman struggle of being a decent husband and father while simultaneously living out his other identity, that of an artist working in the service of the big New York firms.
He’s drawn Supergirl, The X-Men and Batman in books published by DC and Marvel comics — the two most powerful entities in the business. Over the years, those one-shot gigs helped establish him as a player — albeit a second stringer, one who was often called in at the 11th hour to pinch-hit on a title when an artist was missing or otherwise couldn’t keep up with the workload.
Today, with his own book in stores and another series on newsstands, Mr. Ferguson is poised for the elusive success that comes with a steady gig on a regular monthly book.
Meet Miranda Mercury
Before he fell in love with comic books, Mr. Ferguson was enraptured by the Flash Gordon newspaper strip and later, the campy 1980 film. He imbues “The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury,” a book he co-created with writer Brandon Thomas, with that same larger-than-life, swashbuckling space-epic vibe.
“I wanted (Miranda) to feel sort of classic,” he explains. “I wanted her to have that Flash Gordon feel, and that informed the color. I also didn’t want to her be like a lot of female characters running around in bathing suits.”
The character and her mission are greater than just the adventure on the page. The book is also intended to challenge comics industry dogma.
“Why aren’t there more comic books willfully pushing against the walls the marketplace has built up around them?” Mr. Thomas writes on his website. “When did we just start accepting everything we’re told — that female characters can’t headline books unless they’re running around half naked, or that titles with minority characters don’t have a chance in hell of making it past their sixth issue. This book endeavors to take the rules and restrictions, expose their lack of validity in public and say with every bit of possible intensity that can be mustered, I DON’T BELIEVE YOU.”
Archaia Entertainment released the hardcover “The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury: Time Runs Out” earlier this month. The book is the compilation of a story-arc that Messrs. Ferguson and Thomas first began publishing five years ago.
The first Miranda Mercury adventure, which hit newsstands in 2008 and is reprinted in the hardcover, is numbered as issue #295. It’s a clever gimmick that not only serves as promotion for back-stories, but also allows the creators to jump right into the middle of the action. Miranda, “the greatest adventurer in this or any other galaxy,” finds herself poisoned and facing death. Nevertheless, she moves to protect the universe from evil rather than seek out a cure for herself. Meanwhile, her loyal confidant, Jack Warning, “the boy with the golden brain,” races to save her.
“All in all, ‘The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury’ works on pretty much every level. It has everything in it that I love about comics. From dynamic characters to fantastic action, from inventive storytelling to thematic intelligence, there’s something for everyone here,” writes Daniel Elkin for Comics Bulletin-dot com.
While Archaia is not DC or Marvel, the publisher is one of several smaller companies that have achieved a certain level of credibility among fans of the medium. This year, two Archaia books earned Eisner Awards, considered by many to be the highest honor for comic-book creators. The company has attracted A-list artists such as Alex Ross and Jim Steranko.
Unlike how it works with the two big publishers, artists who publish through Archaia keep the rights to their characters and split a percentage of sales with the company. Conversely, if the book doesn’t sell, the artists don’t make any money.
Making the hard climb
After a brief trip to New York to show some editors his work in 2001, Mr. Ferguson got his first real break: a one-page pinup for a tribute to the heroes of 9/11. His life had changed. He had made it. He was going to be a big-time comics artist for the biggest publisher in the game.
Except, of course, it wasn’t that easy. He started getting small gigs here and there, but nothing that could support his family.
He worked as a shipping manager for OfficeMax and then as a courier for TIB bank, every so often getting a call from Manhattan. He did some work on G.I. Joe for IDW, another big comics publisher, and DC Comics started throwing periodic projects his way as well.
Sometimes, the dream job was more trouble than it was worth — like when he got called to fill in last minute on Supergirl.
“It was 124 hours that week, the last 36 without sleep,” he says. He wasn’t pleased with the results. “I didn’t get any more work on that series. You can’t afford to keep having your name show up on stuff where you have no time,” he says.
Nevertheless, Mr. Ferguson kept growing as a professional while dealing with the challenges of being a workingclass dad in Cape Coral. He lost his job as a courier due to cutbacks. His home, ensconced in toxic Chinese drywall, was making him sick. Computers and appliances were ruined. The family relocated to a rental.
During all this, he was working on what might be the most high profile and best work of his career: “Batman 80-Page Giant 2010,” a disturbing psycho thriller featuring legendary villains The Joker and Two-Face along with the lesser-known, albeit utterly creepy, Humpty Dumpty.
“I finally had a lot of time with that, which was nice. I wasn’t behind. It was nice to do it the way I wanted it to look.”
Mr. Ferguson recently finished a four-issue run on Kato, a spinoff of the Green Hornet franchise, for Dynamite Comics. Like so many times before, he hopes the short-term gig will lead to a multi-year contract on an ongoing series. It’s that hope that has kept him sketching away in Cape Coral since 2001.
He keeps in mind fellow artist Mike Mignola, who toiled for a decade until he was considered “an overnight success” with his creation of the popular Hellboy. “He said the first 10 years in the business are miserable,” says Mr. Ferguson.
By that measurement, Mr. Ferguson’s time has come. All he’s waiting for is one phone call flashing the 212 area code on caller ID. ¦
in the know
>> “The Many Adventures of Miranda
Mercury: Time Runs Out”
By Brandon Thomas and Lee Ferguson
176 pages, full color. $24.95.
Available at Barnes & Noble.com and
Also available by placing orders at local
comic book shops:
Cool Comics and Games
231 Del Prado Blvd. S., # 3, Cape Coral
Comics, Cards & Stuff
3563 Fowler St., Fort Myers
Big Katt’s Comics
1029 Airport Road N., Naples