Teen Dad, Dishwasher, Illustrator

T. Coker Asian Vampire    When I asked Tomm Coker how he became an illustrator, his answer was not a nostalgic wax backward, it was blunt and real.  “I had my son at sixteen,” he looked at me.  “You can’t live on pork ’n’ beans when you have a kid.”

T.Coker multi-man
So right away I see the story.  A kid had a kid, he didn’t know what to do, so he did what he knew.  Sometimes circumstance can rip you by the chest to a forced reality, and you need to go somewhere to disappear and still grow, and in his case literally that would be – to adulthood.  This is what happens when life gets very real, and gets there fast.  The pruned down stub of good sense that lives in an adolescent is given the the gift of desperation, and served up cold.  The baby was a boy.
    That’s a shocking piece of news to get at sixteen, I tell him.  And he corrects me to explain that the news came at fifteen.  The baby; sixteen.
    “I literally just sat down and said, I’m fucked!… I was good at two things; I could draw, and I could do dishes.”   And today?   “I’m still a really good dishwasher.”  Among other things, clearly.  “There was a glut of work in comic books, and I could draw comic book stuff, so I got a job.”
T. Coker Comic
When I used the word Graphic Novel to describe the venue for his work, he told me he uses the term comic book (thank you) and that the term Graphic Novel was coined to legitimize comic books.   The subtext being that he didn’t need retroactive legitimacy, he did what he did, no matter what it was called, and he has chosen to stick with the original term he had always used.  Comic Books.  When I asked him where he bought comics, he said, “Secret Headquarters,” and reeled off a triad of Silver Lake staples, “next to Spice Station and Forage.”  That’s the town square for Silver Lake.
T. Coker Bird Woman       There’s something about being around a person whose mastered what they  do, and makes a living at it.  It’s not so much the idea of doing what they were meant to do, because that sounds like a lot of cornball glory.   But in this situation the circumstances were set, the road narrowed, there was little choice, and access was granted.  When desperation meets focus, meets The Path.
T.Coker Fire
The first time we met, he was not expecting me.  I randomly rang his bell during a scorching Silver Lake heat wave, like something out of a noir film.  When he opened the door the A.C. came toward me like an ice jet, cold as a morgue, and so good.  Just beyond the entrance foyer his office was small, spare, deep gray, and nestled on the bottom floor of his hillside home.  He seemed willing to take a distraction, in that way creatives are when they’ve been leaning too far over the edge of work.  When the buzz and rush of story making and solitude needs to be let down like milk.
    The truth is, a story teller is a story teller, and that’s what Coker is.  He works in visual beats that are moody, dark, specific, sexy, and primal.  His rig (a tricked out, high-tech apple computer) is so impressive.
When I mention Malcolm Gladwell’s concept of how it takes ten-thousand hours to master something, he gives me an idea of where he is on that range.
“I think we figured it out a couple of years ago, my writing partner and I, and it was like seventy-eight thousand hours, or something close to that.”
    Did he go to art school?  No.  “I got a scholarship to Pasadena, but my son was born by that point, and I couldn’t go away.”  Does that mean he was self taught?  “…People showed me, and were like really nice to me, and explained things to me that I didn’t understand.”   And so I ask what was the first resounding piece of advice he got, and he said, “to draw from life, and don’t draw from other people’s drawings.”
    When Coker offered to draw me, and I confirmed the word model was  – as in –  “model”…?   He confirmed, that it was – Yes, as in correct.  I felt compelled to clarify my age, and befuddlement, but held back the chain of obligatory, self-deprecating, excuses.  I would say seven out of ten teenage girls wish they could be model caliber, if only for a moment, and I include my fourteen year old self.
    Suddenly, the idea became fascinating, and I said, “Sure.”   Who wouldn’t?   And I gotta say – Thank you, Tomm.  Wow!   I had to put this in.  I mean… Wouldn’t you?
 Tomm Coker Render. jpg
    Did he have mentors?  “There was a convention in Oakland and I went there, and I’d get feed back from artists, and then I’d show stuff to editors, and they’d say, no. Then you’d spend all year drawing, and wait for the next year.”
And who would you go back to?  “Thirty or forty real artists.”   What would you do?  “Have real conversations.”  His guidline seemed to be repetition of feedback.  “Everybody tells you the same thing, and it shows you where you’re at.”
    The baby that came at sixteen is now twenty-seven.  “As long as he’s not in jail and holding down a job, I feel I’ve done okay.”   Coker and his wife have a daughter who just finished at Franklin Elementary, “I loved it.”   Once again, an involved parent — a member of the board, worked the haunted disco, the whole middle school experience.
So what about friends in the business? T. Coker Princess_Mononoke
“That was my main support group when I was a kid,” he told me, “and we all were fortunate to make some sort of a living doing it, so we all just kind of  learned from each other.”
– SlLs


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