WILMINGTON — Tom Fleming’s eclectic career has taken him from the World Wrestling Federation to the “World of Warcraft,” with stops in film and television, and a landmark copyright infringement case against HomeGoods for good measure. Fleming will be the featured artist of the first of the Fourth Friday events of the year.
“Yeah, my career has kind of gone all over – there’s been connecting strands though,” Fleming said.
Fleming got his start in 1990 working for the World Wrestling Federation – now World Wrestling Entertainment – where he fashioned the look and logos of Hulk Hogan, among others.
“It was my first real job out of college. I still see the costumes I designed on T-shirts and action figures at Walmart, they’ve come back as the ‘classics,’ so that’s nice to see,” Fleming said.
After four years with then-WWF, Fleming returned to freelance work, painting covers for Marvel, Dark Horse Comics and Heavy Metal, as well as illustrations from “World of Warcraft” and “Magic: The Gathering.”
His first illustration in the world of comics was “Superman.”
“A friend of mine introduced me to some people in New York City, I showed them my portfolio but, you know, I thought it was a ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you thing,’ but right after that, they called,” Fleming said. “It was DC (comics), they were doing the ‘Death of Superman’ storyline, and they gave me the card of Superman and Doomsday.”
DC initially set Fleming up with veteran illustrator Kerry Gammill, who made a thumbnail sketch. But, Fleming said, once he started working DC quickly felt confident. Work with other comics followed, including work on “X-Men” for Marvel and “Kull” for Dark Horse.
“I was very lucky. Since I was 9 years old, all I ever wanted to do was work for Marvel,” Fleming said. “Or, play for the Yankees, but that was less likely to happen.”
Fleming also worked for numerous television shows, including Wilmington’s own “One Tree Hill,” and several films, including “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,” alongside animator Todd McFarlane.
He also moved to Wilmington, as the internet revolution made it increasingly possible for him to work further away from illustration offices in New York City.
Fleming’s career took turn into a different kind of spotlight in 2010, when he heard from fans who had purchased his work at a HomeGoods store in California, which came as a surprise to Fleming because he hadn’t licensed his work to the company; after a brief negotiation with a licensing company that provides HomeGoods and other home décor stores, Fleming walked away.
By the time Fleming heard about the illegal use of his work, it had become so popular that it had apparently sold out – though selling at a fraction of the price of Fleming’s originals.
After a two-year lawsuit, a judge ruled in Fleming’s favor. Fleming credits perseverance and luck.
“I initially thought, well I probably can’t do anything about this,” Fleming said. “But I was lucky to have found a lawyer that would work on contingency. It was kind of right time, right place.”
Although Fleming was granted a relatively small award, it was enough for him to start his own design company. The case also created a valuable precedent for artists, who typically do not fare well against corporations, even when they are found to be using their work without permission.
“Well, the big lesson for me is that, if you don’t get your work officially copyrighted with the Library of Congress, you can’t sue for punitive damages,” Fleming said. “But, I mean, the other part was, even though they dragged it out for two years, hoping I wouldn’t be able to afford an attorney, we didn’t let them get away with it – it gave any single artist who is scared to go up against a big corporation some confidence. You can win…just make sure you have a lawyer who will work on contingency.”
More recently, Fleming got what he called a “once in a lifetime fanboy moment” when Heavy Metal magazine contacted him to illustrate a special Iron Maiden cover.
“I grew up in the 80s, listening to those metal bands, and – it was that kind of thing – I had so much going on, I said, ‘I don’t have time to do this, but I absolutely have to do this,” Fleming said.
“I have loved all the work I did for DC, Marvel, for Magic — I still do. But those pieces ended up belonging to them, they were their characters. Now for the first time I’m doing my own work. I’m experimenting with abstract painting for the first time, too, which is the opposite of what I usually do. Yeah, for the first time in my life I don’t have to pre-plan it all out. I just sit down and go to work, it’s a whole new chapter,” Fleming said.
Fleming will show a range of his work – from comics and graphic novels to fantasy work and his current work for Chakra Art and Design – on Friday, Jan. 26, from 5 – 9 p.m. at 21 Market St. in downtown Wilmington. Fleming’s show is part of the Fourth Friday Gallery Nights program, sponsored by the Arts Councils of Wilmington and New Hanover County. You can find more on Tom Fleming’s website.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.