Jason Lenox lives in two worlds.
During weekdays, he deals with electricians, carpenters and plumbers as an employee of Cisney & ODonnell, a Huntingdon remodeling and construction company.
But by night and on the weekends, he trades them for aliens, sorcerers, monsters, samurai sword-swinging assassins and gun-toting Victorian women. He becomes the supreme creator of dark worlds, unfettered by gravity, physics or the boundaries of reality.
In his late 30s, the Pennsylvania Furnace resident is finally having a ball as a freelance comics artist after spending years in an artistic desert of his own making. He and the creative team of writers, colorists and letterers behind his Ugli Studios have one horror/sci-fi comic out, Ugli Studios Presents #1, featuring Grizelda, a necromancers cat with a nasty streak.
Their second production, appropriately called Ugli Studios Presents #2, is in the works, with Lenox busy inking pages. The main story will be The Painted Ladies of San Quentin, a Tarantino-esque, alternate history of the California prisons origins, full of flying bullets, leaping figures and eye-catching views all rendered in Lenoxs meticulous pen and ink lines, stippling and cross-hatching.
In addition, his imagination and pens have created interior artwork for a role-playing game company, TPK Games, and its The Bleeding Hollow module. One of his character illustrations will be turned into a gaming metal miniature.
Lenoxs credits also include a promotional poster for the upcoming film Zero Charisma, a movie about role-playing game enthusiasts. Some of his artwork appears in scenes.
As do many of his detailed black and white visions, his life today presents a sharp contrast. His past wasnt always this fruitful. Just four years ago, his art supplies sat gathering dust in boxes, abandoned like the childhood talent that gained him admission to a prestigious summer art school.
But after an epiphany awakened him, he has plunged back into his art with a vengeance his current crop of volatile heroes and villians would be proud to claim.
Jason has kind of a very enthusiastic personality, said Joe Freistuhler, a Cleveland-based artist on the Ugli Studios team, who also returned to comics art after a lengthy absence. His enthusiasm is kind of contagious, and it fired me up.
It took him a while, but Lenox, now a married father of a 10-month old son, has found his equilibrium. His business skills promote his art; his art, once again springing from his fingers, is growing into a business. And hes enjoying the results.
I feel good I did it after not doing it for so long, he said. I feel I crossed a huge thing off my bucket list. I feel like I didnt let myself down.
Fulfilling a dream
Much of Lenoxs fantastical existences start in a mundane spot: next to the washing machine.
A curved drafting table sits below dozens of sketches and photos stuck to the wall. Its just one corner of his basement complex devoted to his art and its influences. Theres his classic man cave with a widescreen TV, comfy chairs, bar, toy figurines and models, and action movie posters: Goodfellas, Scarface, Kill Bill.
In another room, Lenox keeps an archive of Japanese manga comics, comic books, graphic novels and art books that fill shelves from floor to ceiling. They not only contain diverse influences, from medieval illustrator Albrecht Durer to manga artist Yukito Kishiro, they also represent the lifetime collection of a heavy metal, science fiction and fantasy fan drawn to sketch fearsome beings from an early age.
Even as a little kid, I liked doing stuff that was weird and richly detailed, he said.
Growing up in Lancaster, he was so good and prolific at it, his elementary school art teachers thought he needed further instruction. His mother approached Elaine Renna, an artist and graphic illustrator. She was reluctant to take a student not yet in double digits, but after meeting with Lenox, she was impressed enough to change her mind.
Two hours a week for years, Lenox and other budding artists came to Rennas home to learn draftsmanship and sharpen their eyes. Renna remembers his diligence as much as his precocious talent.
He was just an artistic kid, she said. There was never any coaxing. He was always full of ideas.
She and Lenox have stayed in touch, and while some of the darker images severed heads, bursting gunshot wounds arent her taste, she loves her former pupils fluid sense of movement, skewed perspectives and rich penmanship. In his sci-fi and fantasy landscapes and storylines, she sees something whimsical despite the gore.
Shes proud of his work.
Hes thinking out of the box, she said. Hes taking it to the next level as far as imagination and what he can do with light and dark. ... Hes really got it figured out.
In high school, Lenox appeared to be ascending toward an art career. He earned a spot in the prestigious Pennsylvania Governors School for the Arts, a competitive summer program for gifted writers, artists, musicians and dancers.
Throughout school, I always wanted to draw, draw, draw, he said.
And then, the picture changed.
Instead of art school, he chose Shippensburg University and a business major. Looking back, he thinks he may have been scared by an art instructor who asked if students were willing to starve for their passion. In any case, he went with the safe thing.
I dont regret a bit of what I did. I think it was the smart play, he said. To be honest, I dont know if I was good enough then.
After graduation, he went to work in sales for Sherwin-Williams for about 11 years. For most of the time, the companys spectrum of paints was about as close to art as he got. He did a few pieces for his niece, a T-shirt design here and there, but largely, his creativity had run dry.
Now and then, he would feel a twinge looking at comic art and thinking he could do something better but his supplies stayed tucked away, forgotten.
Of all things, state budget cuts in 2009 lit a fire.
When the ax threatened the Governors School, an upset Lenox began communicating with some of his old art classmates rallying to the cause. Many had become artists or illustrators, involved with rewarding projects. To his chagrin, they asked what he was doing and were astonished at the response.
It was like embarrassing to me, Lenox said. I hadnt done anything in years. My portfolio was really thin.
He began reflecting on his life.
It was kind of like self-exploration: What have I done with all this talent and training? Its all in crates, he said.
But it took encouragement from his wife, Crystal, and his sister-in-law, Helene Brown, to start his second act. For a 2010 birthday present, they gave him a shopping spree for art supplies. About $500 later, he had new pens and papers. A carpenter friend built his drafting table. He had everything except inspiration.
He drew little but blanks.
It was very difficult, he said. It scared me. I would kind of retreat from it.
In the spring of 2011, he caught a break. He wrote the director of Zero Charisma, asking if the production needed any artwork. The director, liking his style, asked him to draw art for a poster.
That was kind of like putting blood before a shark, Lenox said.
Working late into nights after long days, he delivered, a critical confidence boost.
That was like the final thing that flipped the switch, he said. That was what I needed to push me over the edge.
He started reaching out online for writers. A fan of Heavy Metal magazine and its pulp blend of science fiction and erotica, he submitted a 5-page comic to the publication. It passed, but Lenox wasnt deterred.
After moving on to another comic idea and forming Ugli Studios, he spent last year making more connections in the comic world, attending shows and soaking up everything he could about the business. The ink flowed.
He had finally become a man of action himself.
We made this little comic, he said. Now I wanted more. Thats kind of my personality.
Plenty of practice
On a cold evening, Lenox waits for a nude man or woman.
It could be either at the open drawing session inside the Art Alliance of Central Pennsylvania studio in Lemont. For a while, Lenox has been quick-sketching poses to improve his knowledge of anatomy. He cares about accuracy so much, he first draws his characters naked, just so proportions and perspectives are correct once clothes shroud bodies.
Drawing the human form, to me, is like shooting free throws, he said. You cant practice enough.
He brings the same attention to detail to business.
On his personal website, he posts most of his work, including mistakes and the corrections, for his fans enjoyment. He subscribes to the 1,000 True Fan theory: building a base of devoted followers who become advocates of his art.
For shows, inspired by the example of star artists at marquee events such as the New York Comic Convention, he hires models to attract visitors to his booth. To engage them, he delivers a practiced rap like he uses with consumers at home shows for his day job. He passes out plenty of business cards.
He credits his hard-nosed Sherwin-Williams sales training and experience for his methodical approach. There, it was no excuses, dont take no, get it done a fit with his all-in personality.
If Im going at it 100 percent, thats all I can do, he said.
Ken Feduniewicz, who runs a comics store in Huntingdon, worked for Marvel Comics in the 1970s and 1980s. Lenox did a signing at the shop, and will appear at his friends Nittany Con comics show 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 24 at the Quality Inn in Milesburg.
While talent alone doesnt guarantee success in the comics industry, Feduniewicz said, Lenox seems to have both the goods and drive to give it a shot.
He has his own style, Feduniewicz said. Hes not trying to ape or copy anyone else. Its just a tough row to hoe.
Lenox understands not everyone appreciates his images. At a show once, a woman chastised him for purveying stylized violence. Hes not bothered. Instead, he remembers wisdom from an iconoclastic Canadian stand-up comic, the late Bill Hicks: Stay true to your art no matter what. If people object, they can move on.
With that as an anchor, he holds himself to inking a page a week of the San Quentin story, pulling no punches. Other projects wait, but for now, hes focused on his mad version of the Wild West with the intensity of a steely gunslinger, almost as if hes trying to make up for lost years.
In my mind, its all hands on deck for one thing. This is what Im doing.