Tod Smith is living his dream - one sketch at a time.
The 41-year-old from Altoona has been working as a free-lance graphic artist since 1994, doing comic illustrations for pop culture giants such Lucasfilm Ltd., Marvel Comics, The Upper Deck Company, LLC and The Topps Company Inc.
The son of a military man, Smith was born and raised on Prince Edward's Airforce Base in Southern California. He cut his artistic teeth drawing detailed versions of model airplanes and popular cartoon icons.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Tod Smith, an Altoona artist, works in his studio in the Altoona Transportation Center on 12th Avenue.
"I've been drawing as far back as I can remember - since I was at least 5," he said. "I can remember specifically drawing from Flintstones comic books that my grandmother had for my uncle. Throughout the years, it slowly progressed from nonsensical stuff like race cars and airplanes to getting into comic books - around third grade, in 1977. Then it got more intense in my later teens, early 20s, when I was making a concerted effort to break into the comic book business."
He also was inspired by his maternal grandmother, who was a painter and sketch artist.
"We moved in with her when I was about 5," he said. "Looking back, I think she's probably what started it. I think the creative part of my brain was probably in overdrive at that time. I could sit back for hours as a kid and just create things out of thin air. And that just kind of stuck."
With his imagination in full throttle, Smith soon began taking his cues from comic book masters such as Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, Carmine Infantino, Jim Lee, Walt Simonson and Brian Stelfreeze. His favorite characters to draw were Marvel's Captain America and the X-Men.
"When you first get into collecting comic books at a young age, it's very difficult to really tell who drew the illustrations, but as you get on in years, you start to recognize one artist from another," he said. "Kirby was one who popped out right away for me. Those guys were really influential to the way I drew. Subconsciously, I took that stuff, and it came out in my own work."
His biggest inspiration, however, would come from a galaxy far, far away - in the form of droids, Sith Lords, Jedis, bounty hunters, humanoids and creatures of all shapes and sizes.
"When you're 10 years old in 1977, and you're seeing 'Star Wars' for the first time, that becomes your life," he said. "I've gone pretty much my entire adult life just wanting to have something to do with 'Star Wars.'"
That day would come, but there were dues to pay first.
Smith, who works full-time as a coverage processor for Allstate Coverage Investigative Unit in Altoona, began shopping his work around to comic book conventions across the country and submitting his work to various publishers, some of which responded favorably to his art. He got his first professional gig in 1994 inking pages for a character called Razor for the now-defunct Londonight Studios in Texas. He then did illustrations for a role-playing game publisher called Palladium Books (Westland, Mich.) and comic book publisher Imperium Books (Reading, Pa.) in 2000 and 2007 , respectively.
"Tod's greatest strength as an artist is to perceive what he is drawing and making it his own without compromising the subject matter," Don Pedicini Jr., a 39-year-old graphic designer from Columbiana, Ohio who met Smith through online art forums and worked with him on various trading card sets, said. "For example, he is able to take a computer-generated character such as Ahsoka (Tano) from 'Star Wars: The Clone Wars' series and breathe life into her, making her more believable - as if you could see her standing right next to you. This is all done without taking away from the original character's look."
In 2007, Smith posted his work on the Web site, Deviantart (www.deviantart.com), where he got the attention of Upper Deck's art director. That led to a job doing sketch cards (trading card-sized original art pieces measuring 2.5 by 3.5 inches that are randomly inserted into trading card sets) for Marvel Masterpieces trading cards, sets 2 and 3. A year later, he submitted his art work to Topps. The company approved his work, offering him his choice of two jobs - doing sketch cards based on the NBC science fiction series "Heroes" or the feature film "Star Wars: The Clone Wars." He chose the latter.
Today, Smith is doing sketch cards for Topps' "Star Wars: Clone Wars Season One" animated TV series (Cartoon Network).
"It's just been a complete thrill to realize that because of my love of art work, I actually have the opportunity to have my name associated with 'Star Wars' and with Lucasfilm," he said. "It's a dream come true. If I were to never do anything professionally again - never again touched a pencil and paper - my life is complete as far as art is concerned."
To view Smith's art work, visit norvandell.deviantart.com.
Jose Negron, a cartoonist from Brooklyn, N.Y., came into contact with Smith through an online forum run by a mutually admired artist named Travis Charest. He cited Smith's precision as his strongest artistic attribute.
"It's a style where, when you look at it, the lines are very stylized and everything looks just like its supposed to look," Negron said. "It's just really great stuff - very polished."
Smith anticipates doing more sketch card work for Topps come fall or mid-winter.
"There's always opportunities down the road," he said. "For example, 'The Hobbit' (a fantasy novel by J. R.R. Tolkien) - when that movie comes out there will probably be another trade card set for that and another set of sketch cards."
But despite the success he's had so far, making it big has never been first on Smith's priority list.
"I don't expect to get rich by drawing. I'm not in this for the money," he said. "It would be nice to one day be able to pay the bills solely on my artwork, but I'm really laid back about it. I just enjoy drawing ... I'll be doing it regardless."
Mirror Staff Writer Jimmy Mincin is at 946-7460.