Cover artist extraordinaire Tom duBois visited us for a great chat and insight as to the life of the video game cover artist. You’ll no doubt recognise his work and it’s a pleasure to feature him on our humble blog!
Do you remember how the opportunity to first create video game art arrived and what was your first ever game you worked on?
Yes, I remember that day vividly. It was in the late 80’s and at the time I was Iiving and working in a tiny space on the top floor of a 6 story building on LaSalle & Huron downtown Chicago. I slept in a sleeping bag next to my drawing board where I was working on illustrating backgrounds for animated television commercials for a breakfast cereal called Cap’n Crunch (oooohhh we know it well – Ed).
One day as I returned from the art store to grab some supplies I just opened the door and someone yelled at me from across Huron St. “Hey, Tommy!” It was my cousin David who I haven’t seen in several years. He ran over and we exchanged pleasantries and told me he recently moved to Chicago from Indiana and was representing a food photographer down the street.
He said he was just walking back to the studio after calling on an agency to see if they needed any photography work. They said they didn’t need a photographer but they were looking for an illustrator who could develop some creative an imaginative images. Cuz’n Dave asked me if I still drew the wild and crazy stuff he remembered I was drawing when we were growing up. I said I just so happen to have a sample upstairs you might like to see.
I brought the sample to Cuz’n Dave at the photography studio and he brought it over to the ad agency who was called Michael Meyers & Associates. They said it was just the type of thing they were looking for and would like to use me to work on something for a brand new client they were very excited about working with who had a really weird name. They were called “Konami”.
This is the sample Cuz’n Dave showed the guys at the agency and was the start of a new chapter in my career.
You have created some of the most iconic artwork in the video game industry, including Snake’s Revenge, Castlevania II and Bloodlines, TMNT titles, Rocket Knight Adventures and Sunset Riders. How did you go about catching the true essence of each game and delivering such high-quality art?
“Iconic?” Really? That’s extremely flattering, thank you very much!
Basically, all I did was collect as much information the art director could provide for each project and do the best I could do in the little bit of time they typically gave me.
Also it depended how busy that particular art director may have been with other projects as to how much effort he would be putting into composing a layout for me to follow.
I liked when they were tied up with other projects because the less direction I received after the initial introduction to the game’s subject matter the better the illustration turned out. This is because I wasn’t forced to follow specific subjective guidelines and restrictions which would more likely hinder me instead of help me capture that true “essence” of the game.
The first assignment I did for Konami wasn’t a cover but an ad I think they ran in comic books.
Unfortunately, I left the original art of this Jeep & soldiers at my parents house in Chicago while I was living in Texas.
A few years ago a game art collector from Canada who has since become a dear friend told me he was interested in purchasing the original art of the Jeep Konami ad if I had it. I told him I actually did so I called my dad and asked him to send me the picture of the Jeep & soldiers I left at the house. Pops said he couldn’t because someone bought it for 10 bucks at a garage sale he recently had.
The first cover I illustrated for Konami was called A-JAX. I really wanted the original of this art back beacause I had a lot of other cool things going on there that got cropped out with the graphics on the front. I also wanted to revise the jet because that’s an F-22 which is an AirForce plane that wasn’t on the carriers. Navy only used F-16s at that time. Just a technical glitch that always bothered me.
You helped create the cover artwork for many classic Konami games. What was it like working for this great company and how do you reflect back on your time there?
“Great Company” in respect to the impactful products they produced that have been so endearing to so many young gamers in the late 80’s and early 90’s. But my experience wasn’t that great. Konami never ever communicated with me directly.
They always went through the agency people. And the worst thing is that they did not return all my original artwork. It is standard practice in the illustration industry that the original art gets returned to the artist and that the company hiring the illustrator is just paying for reproduction rights. Any art ownership is a totally separate deal. So it was my fault for assuming everyone knew this already. I really regret I’m such a wuss and never kicked cuzin’ Dave’s butt in gear to get things written down in stone in the beginning to avoid this glitch in the hardware.
It is very frustrating receiving countless offers from collectors around the world interested in purchasing original coverart from me. Not so much that I could have any financial gain from the sale but much much more in the fact that I could provide something to someone who truly has a love and sentiment for that particular piece of art.
We are big fans of Sunset Riders here at Arcade Attack. Your cover art for this game perfectly captures the colourful look and feel of this title. What inspired you on this particular piece of work and how do you reflect back on this great cover?
Thanks a lot, I really appreciate the kind words!
Sunset Riders was an assignment given to me by one of the art directors who seemed to like whatever I came up with. He was a cool guy and I think one of the owners of the agency. By this time Jim would just call me directly instead of going through cuz’n Dave and fax me the guides of the characters and say; “Do your thing Tommyboy, we need it yesterday!”
Were you ever interested in creating in-game artwork, as opposed to just cover work?
Heck yeah man! Nobody ever asked me!
How many game covers did you create and what tools did you use to create each one?
I never counted. The graphic novelist I’m doing some work for now who is a gamer told me he thinks close to 40. If you throw in the ads then I would guess around 40 more.
Tools? I was getting work back then because I wasn’t married to any particular style or medium.
Probably not such a good thing for me today because these days you really need to have that specific niche, style and genre carved out for yourself which I don’t have since I’ve been involved in so many other things art-wise. So I used tools that I thought would be a good fit for the assignment. Like using some airbrush work on Mystical Ninja and Rocket Knight. But I was always most comfortable with just simple paint brushes using Alkyds or Acrylics on illustration board which you’ll see a good example of painting style in this Castlvania piece (feature image – Ed).
How much freedom are you given when painting video game covers and artwork and does this freedom differ between different publishers?
I only worked on one assignment for a publisher outside Konami. The game was called MetalMech, for JALECO:
The best scenarios came down to getting the freedom to submit several rough sketches of concepts I would come up with after studying the material made available to me and then proceeding with the final art after one of the layouts was chosen.
There was only one guy out of all of the art directors I worked with who always gave me terrible layouts to follow. “ContraForce” (above) was the last cover I worked on for him that he finally let me design.
Did you ever complete cover artwork for any games that were never released, and if so, could share us some juicy details?
No. Except for “Rocket Knight Adventures”, by the time a project got to me the game was just about fully developed so not releasing that game for any reason at this point would be time and money down the drain. R.K.A. was the exception to the rule where they brought me in early on top create the Rocket Knight character. I remember Konami wanted to get a game out there to compete with Sonic the Hedgehog.
Out of all your great artwork for video games, do you have a personal favourite and can you explain why?
Since I’m a Libertarian and a staunch advocate of our feedoms and 2nd Amendment right to bear arms to protect our loved ones from evil sonzabitchez I’m going with Lethal Enforcers II “Gunfighters”.
Also the image kinda reminds me of that freaking awesome HBO series from a few years back called “Deadwood”.
Did you ever fall out with any developers about differing opinions and creative visions for a game cover?
No, I’m an easy going guy and stirring things up in art related matters will not bode well in the end result of the image. And I never communicated with developers. Only the art directors at the ad agency. There were three: Jim, Frank and Tony.
Are you a gamer yourself and have you played all the games you have helped create artwork for?
Never played any of the games. Sometimes they would give me VHS tapes of the games being played so I could see what was going on in the game and what the characters looked like.
A video game for me growing up would be to buy a model car, battleship or tank. Spend a week building it and meticulously painting it. Go in my older brothers closet to find some of the Black Cat firecrackers they were hiding next to the naked lady playing cards my Uncle Johnny gave them. And then go out in the alley and blow it up!
Apart from your own work, is there an artist or game cover that you are a huge fan of?
SIMON BISLEY. The guy is savage! (and deserves the caps! – Ed) And I mean that in a good way. He fully, completely and unquestionably defines the meaning of the word “talent”.
With more and more games now available just for download, are you worried the skill of cover artists in this particular field will soon become a dying art?
Since I’ve been out of the loop for so many years involved in other facets of the art industry I really cant say much about this. But if I was 30 years younger I would head to Asia. Illustrators are in high demand over there with all the Anime and publications of fantasy stories, especially in Japan.
This, and I would say “no, not all all.” Cover artist skills are just moving into other areas of usage.
If you could be transported into any one of the video games you have created art for, and live there for day, which game would you choose and why?
Because we could wrestle alligators, rescue damsels in distress, beat up bad guys and listen to Cajun Music!
If you could travel back in time and work on any video game cover, which game would you have loved to be involved in?
Wow, that’s a really great question that I’veer been asked before. I’d say all of them. I feel immensly blessed to have been given all the opportunities I was given to work on the covers. Yes, any cover and every cover. I know that sounds selfish but I’m just sayin’.
Now where the heck did I put that Turtles in Time Machine?
Why did you leave the video game industry and what projects are you currently working on?
I never left it. It sort of left me. I remember late in the game for me in working on the covers and ads a couple guys came over from Konami in Japan to visit the ad agency M.M & A. They must not have been impressed because not long after that they dropped them for an ad agency in New York.
Cuzin’ Dave wasn’t able to find the same kind of juicy work for me so I had to move on and look for projects that I was interested in getting involved in. So I bounced around doing all sorts of different things.
Currently, I am working on a graphic novel called Red Giant Battle.
However, it’s a little slow-going because a few years ago I moved back home to take care of my parents who are in their 90’s. It’s more difficult than I thought it would be but it’s an honor to take on the task.
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
I wanna ask him where I can get one of those flying Tiger-cats.
Yipee yo ki-yay you Sonzabitcheez!