For the past six years John Sewell has made a living from something that used to cost a dime.
Laid off in 2007 after a quarter-century career at auto parts manufacturer Accuride, the Old East Village (OEV) resident was forced to turn what was a forgotten passion into a new revenue stream for his family.
For two years, Sewell and his wife, Carmen, and son, Daylon, now 20 and out on his own, lived by selling his massive comic collection. That included several copies of Hulk #171, which depicted the first appearance of Canadian X-Man Wolverine, and were worth about $1,500 in top condition.
Today, he has turned selling sketches of classic comic book covers, hand-designed T-shirts and other commissioned pieces into a real living.
Some of the most popular covers (he has hand-drawn about 100 of them, poster-sized) are gory images from “pre-code” comics, those inked in the 1940s and 50s before the Comic Code forbade graphic violence in the books.
“Most people don’t even realize that stuff exists,” Sewell explained. “Some of the stuff is pretty shocking, what you could buy for a dime.”
Sewell recalled two pieces he is particularly proud of. They were commissioned just weeks apart while he had a booth upstairs at the Western Fair Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market.
The first was a piece for a couple getting married. Sewell caricatured them, then superimposed them on a 50s romance comic for their wedding picture.
“They just went nuts.”
About two weeks later, Richard Bardawill walked up to his booth with an even cooler pre-code commission for the comic re-creator.
“It was really strange, I had just got the big, huge book of Jack Davis, my favourite artist’s work and all I needed was someone to ask me to do a war drawing,” he said. “(Davis) had some fantastic war stuff I wanted to re-create. So (Bardawill) walks up to me and says ‘I want a war piece.’ It was fate! He didn’t know what it was going to be. I just told him that it would be big and sensational.”
Sewell reproduced the cover of Two-Fisted Tales #30, released at the end of 1952, depicting a close-up of a Second World War soldier holding a burning cigarette and calling out “…shots from the hill! Douse that light!” as another soldier holding a lighter is sniped over his shoulder.
“It turned out real well,” Sewell said. “He was just gob-smacked.”
The cover was paid homage to by a 2007 issue of Dark Horse Comics title Fear Agent that recreated the scene, but with the second soldier being shot with a ray of light by an alien instead of a sniper’s bullet.
Born and raised in London, Sewell is a graduate of the art program at H.B. Beal Secondary School. He has been drawing just about as long as he can remember, inspired by two other brothers and an uncle that share his flare for illustration.
When he left high school to find work, he left art behind as a hobby he figured he would get back into when he retired.
“In those days you could get a job out of high school making way more money than you could trying to become a funky art guy,” Sewell said. “So I took a job at Firestone 25 years ago and put this on the back burner.”
But retirement found Sewell at age 45 when he was laid off. It may have worked out for the best.
“I never really thought I’d take my hobby and start making a living at it,” Sewell said. “But I’ve improved so much as an artist from when I started doing this to now. I don’t know if I would have been able to grow that fast and become as good as I am now at 60 years of age. Your eyesight starts going, your reflexes. I’ve done thousands of hours of drawings since I was working with Dr. (John) Craven.”
Business really took off when Sewell got clean and sober in 2002, kicking an addiction to oxycodone he said runs rampant amongst autoworkers, especially those working night shifts.
He connected with Craven at his opiate addiction clinic.
Craven runs a website called SupportNet, a collection of educational resources aimed at those struggling with opiates such as oxy, and commissioned Sewell to draw a 10-part graphic novel series about addiction. Links to the mini-graphic novels are featured prominently on the clinic’s website.
The books took Sewell four years to complete and 50,000 copies, five runs of 10,000 each, have been distributed to schools and clinics across Canada.
The final installment is to be released this month.
“That led to the next thing which led to the next thing,” Sewell said. “I’ve basically been doing illustration for the last five years.”
Sewell’s work is also on display at the Artfusion Gallery.
The classic comic covers are his bread and butter. Black and white prints are available for $5 at Forest City Coins, The Comic Collector and on most evenings on Sewell’s front lawn on Lorne Avenue, east of the public school of the same name.
He said they’re too expensive to colour in personally (he has to charge $160 to get a fair rate for his labour) but are great as colouring projects for kids. He recalled a woman running a daycare who bought up the poster-sized covers 10 at a time.
“We have this OEV block party ever year,” Sewell said. “So we put some of my work out. Not this year but last year I sold every piece I had. All of my prints, down to the last one and all my original work was gone. I made like $3,500 on one afternoon so I had to start again from scratch.”
Nice work if you can get it, which Carmen points out not all the laid off Accuride workers have the luxury of.
“You can’t imagine after 26 years at a factory and then all of a sudden it’s game over,” she said. “What are they supposed to do? That was their life. At least John had his art to fall back on.”