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The untimely death of Durham artist Mike Wieringo 

A fantasist's last sketch

click to enlarge A Mike Wieringo panel from his fantasy comic Tellos - PHOTO COURTESY OF ERIC NOLEN-WEATHINGTON
  • Photo courtesy of Eric Nolen-Weathington
  • A Mike Wieringo panel from his fantasy comic Tellos

On Aug. 10, Durham-based comic book artist Mike Wieringo updated his Web site, mikewieringo.com, with a detailed sketch of Jarek, the hero of his fantasy comic Tellos, which he had created with his best friend Todd DeZago. The post was titled "Just a Quick One Today." It would be the last post he made.

The 44-year-old artist passed away from an apparent heart attack Aug. 12, a shock to his many friends and fans. Wieringo, a vegetarian who went to the gym four times a week, was one of the most exuberant figures in comics, both on and off the page. Fans admired him for his clean, detailed, energetic style of drawing in the many books he penciled for Marvel and DC, and for Tellos, the project closest to his heart. Tellos is about a magic land filled with talking animals, reflecting Wieringo's love of animals and fantasy adventure stories.

"Mike had kind of a cartoony style, a very fun style, and at the time he came into comics, that was very unique," says Eric Nolen-Weathington, who co-wrote a book with DeZago about Wieringo for the Raleigh-based publisher TwoMorrows' Modern Masters series.

On the comic book Web site Newsarama.com, the initial report of Wieringo's death received so many reader responses (more than 500 as of Sunday) that the web traffic strained the site's servers. On Sunday, the site posted tributes to Wieringo submitted by more than 70 comic book professionals. And so many of Wieringo's comic book colleagues showed up for Wieringo's Aug. 17 memorial service in Durham that some attendees jokingly nicknamed it "the worst comic convention ever."

While high praise was offered for Wieringo's skills as an artist and storyteller, the words his admirers used to describe him rarely mirrored the way he saw himself. A tearful Mark Waid credited Wieringo's skill as an artist for pushing him to be a better writer. Waid collaborated with Wieringo on DC's breakthrough comic, The Flash, in the 1990s. Their adventurous, upbeat style earned them a loyal following with readers tired of the dark, gritty approach to superhero comics that was popular in the late 1980s.

"I had a job, but Mike gave me a career," said Waid, who has become one of the most popular writers in comics. "He pulled me up."

Wieringo later teamed with Waid again on a high-profile run on Marvel's Fantastic Four. When behind-the-scenes issues led to their removal from the book, an overwhelming fan outcry led to their reinstatement. Wieringo's other books include such high-profile titles as Adventures of Superman, Sensational Spider-Man and Robin.

Wieringo's most recent project was a Spider-Man/ Fantastic Four miniseries written by Burlington native Jeff Parker, with whom he'd worked at the now-defunct N.C. collective Artamus Studios. At the memorial service, Parker said they had planned to re-team on a What If? story for Marvel, and that he had received a new page of art from Wieringo the day he died.

click to enlarge Mike Wieringo at the 2006 Heroes Con in Charlotte - PHOTO BY DONNA NOLEN-WEATHINGTON
  • Photo by Donna Nolen-Weathington
  • Mike Wieringo at the 2006 Heroes Con in Charlotte

Born in Italy and raised in Lynchburg, Va., Wieringo was a lifelong comics fan who began drawing his own stories on lined paper as a child. He moved to North Carolina in the early 1990s, when his career took off. Though his busy schedule often made it difficult for him to get out of the house, he maintained an extensive and close social network with his peers and fans through e-mails and phone calls. Many of his friends at the memorial service recalled speaking to him on the phone for several hours in the weeks before his death.

Wieringo was fiercely loyal to such local conventions as Heroes Con in Charlotte. At signings, he would sometimes stay late to do additional drawings for fans and would do free drawings and covers to support up-and-coming creators. "He would approach every creator as though they were Jack Kirby or someone famous, because everyone was equal to him," Nolen-Weathington says.

Nolen-Weathington says Wieringo had to be talked into doing the Modern Masters book because he didn't feel the title applied to him. He finally came on board once DeZago became involved, as an excuse to talk with his friend. "He was very humble about himself," Nolen-Weathington says.

Wieringo's work remains a powerful testament to how his art and stories touched others. Most of his Marvel and DC stories are still in print, and a hardcover volume of his Tellos work is scheduled to come out in September. (At the time of his death, Wieringo was planning to revive the series once his exclusive contract with Marvel Comics expired.)

DeZago says there are plans to translate Tellos into other media, meaning that Wieringo's vision will one day touch people outside of comics. "I hope they might be inspired by the hope and joy he put into every line he drew."

  • The 44-year-old artist passed away from an apparent heart attack Aug. 12, a shock to his many friends and fans.

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