Tom Yeates’ princely appointment

Tom Yeates work includes illustrating ‘Prince Valiant,’ Louis L’Amour.|

Tom Yeates grew up on Tarzan and Walt Disney’s Peter Pan and, at 59, still spends his days immersed in the worlds of fantasy and superheroes.

From his studio overlooking Jenner, the Sacramento-born graphic illustrator pens weekly “Prince Valiant” comic strips, draws “Groo vs. Conan” comic books and creates a steady stream of graphic novels that range from the science fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs to the Western romance of Louis L’Amour. His L’Amour drawings will be on exhibit through January at the Wine Emporium in Sebastopol.

Explaining his trajectory, Yeates said simply, “Everybody draws as a kid. I just didn’t stop.”

He remembers visiting his 14-year-old cousin Randy Yeates in Denver, who turned him on to music, art and reading when he was 13.

“Randy was a collector of all kinds of things, from (Jimi) Hendrix to organ music,” he said. Randy Yeates also exposed him to comic books, Tarzan, Zorro, Robin Hood and the great outdoors.

When Tom Yeates was a high school freshman, a teacher introduced him to India ink, a medium that helped launch his career path. After brief stops at Utah State University and Sacramento State, he moved to Dover, N.J., to enroll in the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, then a two-year school run by DC Comics editor Joe Kubert.

Even before graduating he began to get small jobs, doing things like drawing short stories that appeared in the back of comic books such as “Sgt. Rock.”

Kubert and other DC editors helped Yeates hone his skills, and in 1982 he was asked to draw a revival of the “Swamp Thing,” a monthly comic with an estimated 60,000 readers. It launched his career, and he illustrated 25 issues of Len Wein’s popular creation before his life took a dramatic personal turn.

In 1983, Yeates fell in love with Sonoma County while attending a wedding at The Sea Ranch, and he moved to Jenner. Since that time, he has filled his studio with superheroes of all stripes - Zorro, Captain America, Conan the Barbarian and Greek gods as well as the antiheroes who populated L’Amour’s western sagas.

The strangest may have been “Manure Man” Tom Lynch, a local folk hero.

Yeates was illustrating “Timespirits” for Marvel Comics when he met Dean Mullaney and his then wife, Cat Yronwoode, owners of the Guerneville-based Eclipse Comics.

They asked him to illustrate “Airboy” comic books, one of which starred the man who protested Santa Rosa’s cavalier attitude about sewage waste disposal by dumping may yards of cow ejecta along the street in front of Santa Rosa’s City Hall.

Soon after, “the comic book industry imploded” and Yeates stopped getting work. With a family to support, he turned to graphic novels, churning out three books for Marvel and several mythological fables.

Many of his fantasy characters are well-muscled action figures who have buxom, scantily clad gal pals, the traditional currency of action comics. Yeates said he has no apologies and tries “to imbue the characters with some dignity and grace to balance the pulp themes.”

He balances his own life by drawing characters who represent his values. Yeates has always loved the natural world, drives a Chevy Volt and is a staunch environmentalist, so it is no surprise that one of his all-time favorite characters is Tarzan, as Edgar Rice Burroughs drew him.

The English child who was orphaned and raised by apes in the jungles of Africa “is a wild man,” Yeates said, explaining the appeal. For more than two years in the 1990s, he illustrated “Tarzan, The Beckoning” and other Tarzan comic books. In 2011, he returned to collaborate with a Danish writer on a 1912 novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs about ivory poaching.

Yeates’ most recent change of pace came about after Louis L’Amour’s widow and son Beau sought him out to create a graphic novel out of “Law of the Desert Born.” It’s a short story about a lone rider who kills a man and is chased into the desert by a posse led by a Mexican/Apache tracker. The book was published in 2013 by Bantam Books.

Prince Valiant came into his life in 2011 at the ComicCon convention in San Diego, when a King Features representative approached Yeates about taking over the venerable comic strip. Its previous illustrator, Gary Gianni, had been hired to do illustrations for “Game of Thrones.” The first strip illustrated by Yeates appeared Apri1 1, 2012.

“I was speechless” said Yeates. “It was like a dream come true.”

Prince Valiant is the longest continuous comic strip story in print, created by Hal Foster in 1937 and still appearing in more than 300 papers, including The Press Democrat. It stars the distinctive prince and his kin, who are immersed in medieval Arthurian battles with sea serpents, shipwrecks, specters and sirens. And Yeates and his readers would have it no other way.

Valiant endures, he said, because of the ongoing action-packed story line and because the strip is visually well done and carefully crafted. To keep it fresh, Yeates keeps a watchful eye on movies and other people’s work.

Since 2004, the story line is written by Marty Schultz, who sends Yeates three or four stories at a time. He spends at least three days illustrating each strip with the high quality, complicated drawings in the strip’s characteristic style.

As Yeates juggles Valiant with all the other art projects in his airy studio overlooking the Russian River estuary, music is a constant companion. It follows him into his private life as a singer/songwriter.

Yeates performs locally with his band, the Jennerators, but nothing beats the national notoriety that comes from following in Foster’s footsteps.

“My biggest thrill,” said Yeates, “is seeing the ‘Prince Valiant’ logo on my drawings.”

An exhibit of Yeates’ drawings from “Law of the Desert Born” will run through January at the Wine Emporium, 125 N. Main St., Sebastopol, 823-5200.

Contact River Towns ?correspondent Stephen ?D. Gross at sdgross?

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