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The Pittsboro illustrator's biggest film work yet is The Book of Eli, a post-apocalyptic action drama starring Denzel Washington.

Tommy Lee Edwards is everywhere, from comics to Denzel Washington and George Lucas movies 

Graphic artistry

click to enlarge Click for larger image • Pittsboro Illustrator Tommy Lee Edwards - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

The room is in a small building just behind a white house with a garage, located off a private road in Pittsboro that looks like the proverbial Norman Rockwell painting—big front lawns, scenic views and the occasional pond that might attract migrating ducks in winter. You'd never guess its inhabitant was plotting an alien invasion and pitting Denzel Washington against the apocalypse.

If you're a fan of most sci-fi or fantasy films of the past decade, this is one of the places where, as they say, the sausage gets made. The room belongs to Tommy Lee Edwards, a veteran comic book artist whose work you've seen, even if you haven't realized it. Edwards is a fan favorite for his work for Marvel, DC and other companies, working on such characters as Batman and Hellboy, and with such writers as Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski and Kick-Ass writer Mark Millar. Last year, he did a comic tying in with the popular British SF series Torchwood with show star John Barrowman.

He's also a prolific illustrator and designer, whose work has been used in merchandise and tie-in products for such films as Batman Begins and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. His work helps the merchandise for these films stay consistent with what's in the films; among his fans is George Lucas, who often buys his original artwork relating to Star Wars.

This Friday will see his biggest film work yet with The Book of Eli, a post-apocalyptic action drama starring Denzel Washington, for which Edwards did concept art. It's part of a big year for the creator, who will launch a creator-owned miniseries called Turf with British media superstar Jonathan Ross from Image Comics in April. "I've never really been 'The Guy,' working directly with the director," Edwards says of his work on The Book of Eli. "It's a really rare thing, but it was a treat."

In Eli, Washington plays the ass-kicking savior of a devastated future United States, who carries the book containing the key to human survival. For the film, which co-stars Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis and Ray Stevenson (and, in a small role, Tom Waits), Edwards helped design many of the costumes, settings and scenes, and worked with screenwriter Gary Whitta on an animated-comic fleshing out of the backstory of Oldman's character, Carnegie, which runs on the film's Web site.

Edwards says he worked for four to five months doing artwork for the movie from his studio, e-mailing the pieces to directors Albert and Allen Hughes (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, From Hell). He didn't get to work directly with Washington, who serves as a producer on The Book of Eli, but he did learn Washington's children were enthusiastic for a poster for the film he created for San Diego Comic-Con last summer. "That's the way to someone's heart," he says with a laugh.

After The Book of Eli comes and goes from the world's movie theaters, Edwards will be launching Turf, which will be published stateside by Image Comics. The book is already poised to receive a significant amount of attention in the U.K., where writer Ross is a television and radio personality on the level of David Letterman or Conan O'Brien in the States. Ross, who recently resigned from the BBC following salary negotiations, is a big supporter of comics; he's co-owned a comic shop, named one of his children after comics legend Jack Kirby and produced a documentary on reclusive Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko. He's also married to screenwriter Jane Goldman, who adapted the comic Kick-Ass to film, leading that book's writer, Mark Millar, to recommend Edwards to Ross for his first major comics project.

"He's been a comic fan for years and years and years," Edwards says of Ross, who's coming to visit Edwards for an in-depth profile and photo shoot for the London Sunday Times. "He's a very witty man, but the comic has gotten much more serious—it's very fun, but there's a ton of research, and it's very scary and exciting and I think it could be something really great." The pages he shows me are promising stuff, filled with period details, pale vampires hovering over city streets and massive spaceships with giant alien warriors.

Edwards is a hard-core comics fan himself—his last comics work was Marvel 1985, a tale of Marvel characters invading the "real" world, with his son drawn in as the young protagonist and himself as the boy's dad. For Turf, a tale that combines 1920s gangsters, vampires and aliens, he designed the aliens' spaceship by building a 3-D model from various kits and spare parts with his kids. "It was a nice family project," he says.

His output is prolific—he finishes about one full graphic novel project per year, in addition to a plethora of film and illustration work. "I just treat it as a regular 9-to-6 job I go to every day, only my family's 30 yards away in the house and it's not always 9 to 6," he says. He works seven days a week at times, occasionally finishing projects in the middle of the night. Though he tried to take a little time off at the holidays, he wound up getting inspired and worked on Christmas Day, though he's quick to add, "I didn't work on the 26th."

Edwards, who spent his early years in Texas and Michigan, moved here from Los Angeles in 1996. "I like North Carolina, and I like raising my kids here ... We wanted a place that had seasons, that wasn't too far north or too far south."

Though he often flies elsewhere for his film work (he recounts being on the set of The Book of Eli in Mexico and texting his wife that they couldn't talk because "Denzel's about to blow some stuff up"), Edwards is deeply entrenched in his adopted state, whether it's regularly attending local film revival series, going to local concerts or taking motorcycle trips through the state on his Yamaha V-Star 1100.

"It's refreshing to meet people who love movies and comics and music and things like that with a sense of pure joy," he says of the area's artistic scene. "There's a cool kind of energy here that helps charge your creative batteries."

Still, there's always work calling. Throughout our conversation, he received numerous calls from representatives for film projects he couldn't discuss. The next day, he said, would involve doing a series of illustrations on how to fight with a light saber. And he was annoyed to discover he'd had to miss the next "Cinema Overdrive" at the Colony Theater in Raleigh because he'd be out of town for a meeting. "Back to work," he says. It's back to work in his room. Perhaps next time he'll get to straight-up destroy the world.

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