Aug. 6 2013 08:14 PM

Cancer and chemo sapped a San Diego comic artist's drive to create, but he's not giving up

Oliver Nome (right) sells one of his pieces to Joseph Rubinstein during Comic-Con.
Photo by Susan Myrland

It was the final day of Comic-Con. Oliver Nome looked tired, but he was in good spirits. He sat behind his table in Artist's Alley, the section of the exhibit hall where comic-book artists show and sell their work. Nome was representing himself this year instead of participating with a publisher like DC Comics or Aspen. It was a last-minute decision to attend the Con. He didn't know if he'd make it.

In May 2012, Nome learned he had a tumor the size of a golf ball in his brain. The news came out of nowhere. He was young, strong and fit, with no family history of cancer. Two weeks later, he underwent surgery to remove it, spending his 34th birthday in the hospital. 

The surgery went well. In less than a month, he was back to work. Then came chemo.

His tumor had been a Stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme, the worst brain cancer to have, his doctor told him. Nome faced seven weeks of radiation, five days a week, and up to a year of intravenous chemotherapy treatment twice a month. He had a stroke and a major seizure, leaving him with diminished motor skills. He became too weak to work or leave the house. Michael Alexandropoulos, his art dealer, and a circle of friends started an online campaign to help pay his hospital bills. It raised more than $20,000—but that amount barely covered one day in the ICU. 

In October, an MRI showed that the tumor had grown back and was bigger.

"My worst was December and January," Nome says. "By March, I was a wreck. I was in a cave. I made the decision to quit chemo. I knew it was terminal. Doing this was just buying time."

He says he told his oncologist, "This is no way to live. I can't do this anymore."

Nome's "Princess Mononoke"

That became the turning point. He was referred to a new specialist, Dr. David Piccioni at UCSD. Piccioni had a different perspective and treatment plan. Under his care, Nome's health stabilized. He regained the will to keep fighting, and he started making art again.

Nome always knew he wanted to draw comics. He remembers his mother driving him to a comic-book convention in Waco, Texas, more than an hour away from their home, when he was 12 or 13. A few years later, he began showing his own work at conventions. Still, it took more than a decade for him to break into the business. 

In 2006, at the relatively old age of 28, he won a national talent search for an internship with comics superstar Jim Lee. That resulted in a move to San Diego and a full-time job with Lee's company, WildStorm Productions. It lasted until the La Jolla branch closed in 2011 and operations were shifted to Burbank. All of WildStorm's in-house artists became freelancers*, and Nome was left without insurance. For someone his age, in excellent health, it didn't seem like a problem—until the headaches started. 

"I was unable to draw for a long time. I couldn't physically do it because of the side effects of my condition, chemotherapy, everything. And mental blocks. As months went on, laying in bed, more and more mental blocks." 

Nome paints and writes, but drawing is his passion. Alexandropoulos says he's very diverse, "a five-tool player," to use a baseball term, with a style ranging from Gothic to abstract. He gets deep fulfillment from completing a picture; he thinks of it as therapy. That comfort eluded him during the dark months of the fall and winter. 

"Getting back into it was hard, because I pushed it aside—like having resentment towards a lover," he says. "Those you love the most, you push them aside. That's what I did with drawing for awhile."

Keeping him afloat, emotionally and financially, was what he calls "the best support team possible" of family, friends, fans and colleagues. Alexandropoulos created a nonprofit charity through, which will continue to fundraise until Nome is strong enough to work again. Local bars like The Office and Bourbon Street contributed money and helped sell his art. Jim Lee donated a 3-by-7-foot illustration that had been drawn on the walls of the WildStorm office. 

Nome says it was humbling, yet he had no choice but to learn to accept help. Formerly a fast and efficient artist, adept at blending American comic art with Japanese influences, he'd lost all hand-eye coordination. He couldn't dress himself, let alone keep up the expected page-per-day output of a professional artist.

"It's a lot of work to be a comic-book artist if you're on your A game," he says. "The deadlines are tough. It truly is one of those careers that you do because you love it."

Nome's "Chaos and Couture"

Now he's in limbo, waiting to see if the tumor grows back or if he's in remission. He could have another year ahead, even two or three. He understands that the odds are not good—this type of cancer has an extremely high chance of returning. He's taking it slow, getting out a little more each day, gradually rebuilding his strength and his professional contacts. 

After all this, the hardest period of his life, Nome knew he had to get to Comic-Con. It would be his seventh, and he didn't want to sit at home with the convention happening just down the road. He had friends, fans and publishers he wanted to see. He wanted to say hello, and goodbye. He wanted to draw and sell his work. He wanted to pick up some comic books. 

"I scrambled, knew the right people, and got a table," he says. "I usually take on a lot of commissions, but I didn't overexert myself. I didn't overstress. Just pace, take it easy.

"I let people know that I would be [there]," he adds. "A lot of people showed up, showed a lot of love and bought things, which is always nice." 

He pauses.

"Yeah—just another great Comic-Con."

*Editor's note: The original version of this story reported incorrectly that all of WildStorm's employees were let go. It was just the artists and some other staff.

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