To climb to the top of his profession, Denton native and University of North Texas graduate T Lewis first had to get "Over the Hedge."
Lewis illustrates the syndicated comic strip about suburban animals that appears in newspapers all over the United States. He has seen the strip grow from its infancy to immense fame. The DreamWorks animated movie it inspired in 2006 -- featuring the voices of Bruce Willis, Garry Shandling and Thomas Haden Church -- finished as one of the top moneymakers of the year.
The comic strip looks at suburban living through the eyes of a raccoon named R.J. and his best friend, a turtle named Verne. As they fight to save their woodland from suburbia, they find themselves falling victim to distractions such as big-screen TVs and lawn furniture.
"I love it! I love it!" says Henry Whiddon, UNT professor emeritus of visual arts, who taught Lewis drawing. "I read my cartoons religiously, and I look forward to that one every single day."
Lewis, who graduated from the university in 1976, still calls Whiddon an inspiration, adding that he taught students to "use the page as a place to make mistakes, to crash and burn and learn." It was a concept Lewis later appreciated as an instructor himself.
"Students can come into a class intimidated by the media or expecting to turn out masterpieces and so they will tip-toe around their art," he says. "Whiddon addressed that head on and it has stayed with me."
Ironically, Lewis was living in what he calls "Hedge Land" -- a developing area on the edge of Houston -- when he and partner Michael Fry, who lives in Austin and provides the scripts for "Over the Hedge," created their comic strip in 1995.
"One night I was working on ‘Hedge' and there was a tap, tap, tap on my window," Lewis says. "I looked and there was a raccoon outside my window watching me."
"Over the Hedge," which was nominated last year for the Reuben Award for Best Newspaper Comic Strip by the National Cartoonists Society, wasn't the first taste of big-time success for Lewis. In fact, before "Hedge" came to be, he was illustrating the most famous cartoon character in history, Mickey Mouse, in the early 1990s.
"I went out and got some of those books you get as kids that say, ‘You can draw Mickey,'" Lewis says. "It set the pattern for what was to come. To be drawing the signature character of the Disney Corp. was a lot of pressure, but it was also great experience.
"I still find myself trying to draw Mickey. It's not easy to draw Mickey. You really pat yourself on the back when you get it right."
Lewis must have gotten it right quite a bit. He spent several years drawing the famous mouse before he and Fry combined to come up with "The Secret Life of Pigs."
But they could not find a syndicate that wanted a comic strip set on a farm. So they replaced the farm animals with small woodland animals and moved the scene to the suburbs, and they were on their way to fame.
The success of the strip moved all the way to Hollywood.
"It was nice to have a movie that captures the essence," Lewis says. "It was cool to have an end product that grandmas and kids both can enjoy."
Lewis now lives with his wife and son in Omak, Wash., less than 50 miles from the Canadian border. But his ties and devotion to Texas run deep. He attended high school at The Selwyn School in Denton, where he changed his name from Thomas to T.
It also was in Denton that he found a way to fit into the world of the artist. For a senior comic book project at UNT, he and fellow students collaborated on "Shadow and the Star Stone," fashioned after the then-famous Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game.
"I did that with three or four other guys. It was teamwork, and ever since then, it seems I've done a lot of collaborating," Lewis says.
He and Fry are considering other projects now. Lewis says he would like to work on more children's books. He has illustrated about 15, including The Forgotten Helper, which was based on his idea about a cantankerous elf.
But he knows he must keep his fans happy -- and they anxiously await more adventures from their favorite animals.
Whiddon says he could not be prouder of Lewis.
"I could not be happier that he has done so well, and I can't wait for that next cartoon," he says.
This story originally appeared in the fall 2007 issue of The North Texan, the University of North Texas alumni magazine.
By Rick Mauch
UNT News Service