by David Bedard
JBER Public Affairs
1/28/2016 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Sept.
11, 2001 was a grievous day for everyone. It was Richard Cornwell's
25th birthday, and the terrorist attacks proved to be the straw that
shattered the camel's back.
The then-Marine Corps lance corporal had recently suffered a major
relationship breakup, his close great grandmother died, and 9/11 only
deepened his overshadowing depression.
In the comic books Cornwell loves, superheroes use extraordinary powers
to save ordinary people from dire circumstances. It would be those same
heroes who would save him from his depression, but it would be by his
pencils and paintbrushes rather than the supers' otherworldly and quite
Pursuing a passion
Cornwell, a civilian materials handler at the Alaska Army National Guard
Central Issue Facility, said he has been drawing comic book characters
since he was in kindergarten.
Though he could only draw stick figures, they were Hulk and Superman
stick figures capable of incredible feats within the confines of their
His sketches were the beginning of a single-minded interest in all
things fantastic, all things amazing that could be dreamed up and
captured on the pages of a comic book. Cornwell said he doesn't dodge
being identified as a nerd, geek or similar moniker.
"I've been a dork all my life," he said with a grin. "I've been such a
geek about all this stuff. I grew up watching scary movies and sci-fi
movies - Star Wars and all that stuff. You grow up with these movies,
and you want to draw some of these characters."
Cornwell said his artistic impulse is genetic. His Saturday morning
routine of watching Thundarr the Barbarian was interrupted when his
mother would set up her easel and tune into The Joy of Painting, hosted
by the soft-spoken Bob Ross.
"Every Saturday, when I could be watching cartoons or a movie, she would
turn it to [The Joy of Painting]," Cornwell recalled. "It was only half
an hour, but it was an excruciating half an hour. Then, when I would
watch him paint, and he would make this masterpiece in half an hour. I
In the same manner Ross created landscapes from the pastures of his
mind, Cornwell would grow up to conjure scenes of superheroism from his
fervor for the fantastic. After high school, he sent his portfolio to
the Kubert School in Dover, New Jersey - founded by DC Comics artist Joe
Kubert - and was accepted.
His curriculum included computer-aided coloring, animation, narrative
art, lettering, character design and airbrushing. Cornwell said he was
surprised his strong suit was painting.
"I didn't even know I knew how to paint, and I was one of the top three students in the class [of 20]," he explained. "I
Though he found success in painting, he struggled in other areas.
Cornwell said it was difficult to keep up with the pace necessary to
produce a monthly comic book.
"I wanted to be an artist, and then I found out the pressures it took
with the deadlines and stuff," he said. "It was actually really hard for
me to actually draw comic book panels - to tell a story. I had to have a
lot of help."
Cornwell completed two of the school's three years. He had run out of
money and said he suspected making a living with his art may be out of
The artist placed his dreams on hold.
Cornwell returned to his home in Exeter, California, where he worked odd
jobs. He wasn't using the skills acquired at school, and he wasn't
forging ahead in a new career. The artist was aimless.
His father noticed. Soon, the younger Cornwell came under pressure to
move out and join the military. He met with recruiters from every
military service. The last one he met with, a Marine, hit a nerve.
United States Marine Corps Recruit Training is widely regarded as the
toughest boot camp the U.S. military offers, and Cornwell said his
friends and family didn't think he could do it. He wanted to prove them
wrong, and if he couldn't be a comic book artist, then he was determined
to be a Leatherneck.
"Hearing the term 'starving artist' - not knowing where your next
paycheck is going to come from as opposed to paying the bills - didn't
really appeal to me," Cornwell said. "I wanted something a little more
stable, so I joined the military for stability, and I joined the Marine
Corps for myself to see if I could do it."
His naysayers were partially correct. Recruit Training was even more
difficult than he imagined, but he would prove he had the grit necessary
to hack the 13-week-long trial.
"Everyone was surprised I made it," Cornwell said. "I wanted to quit every day, but I wasn't going to."
Cornwell qualified as a motor transport operator and took assignments at
Camp Pendleton, California, and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni,
Japan. Though he walked away from a potential career in comic books, his
passion followed him to the parade field and the motor pool.
His peers and leadership quickly discovered his artistic skills, and
they put his talents to good use. At MCAS Iwakuni, he was commissioned
to paint a gigantic mural of the Marine Wing Support Squadron 171 logo.
Though most artists use a projector to assist them in tracing a large
logo, Cornwell said that method didn't cut the mustard for him. Instead,
he used a drafting technique he didn't learn at art school.
With the assistance of another Marine, Cornwell graphed a picture of the
171 logo into 1-inch squares. He graphed the mural wall into 1-foot
squares. He could then free-hand paint the logo with the accuracy of a
trace, adding artisan quality to a process of precision.
Grappling with depression
It was during his Marine Corps enlistment when terrorists plowed
jetliners into the twin towers and the Pentagon. It was after 9/11 when
depression tried to get the best of Cornwell.
He said he self-medicated by drinking too much and by indulging in his
painting. Unfortunately, his passion had turned into a drudgery.
"I would not go anywhere, and all I would do is paint," Cornwell
elaborated. "It got to the point where I was cranking out all of these
paintings, and they didn't mean much to me. It was just something to
pass the time."
Cornwell said he recognized he was walking down a dark path. He saw a counselor and was prescribed antidepressants.
Eventually, he vanquished depression with the help of counselors and stopped taking prescription drugs.
"I try not to keep the weight of the world on my shoulders - so much pressure," Cornwell explained.
Avengers in Wonderland
Today, Cornwell said he has regained his passion for bringing
superheroes to life. His work area at the Central Issue Facility looks
like Doctor Strange transmogrified a ComicCon expo into Cornwell's
personal miniature pantheon of the amazing.
Comic book characters from Marvel and DC mingle with stormtroopers and
Star Trek starship models. Paintings of Superman, Hulk and other
fantastic fictional characters - all with a military aspect like a
ballistic helmet added in - embellish the walls.
"Even though I'm paying back loans to the school I went to, and I'm not
really making any money at it, it's a passion for me," Cornwell said.
"Doing these pieces isn't just to satisfy my art craving. Now, it's to
entertain. I've had people bring their kids to see this stuff, and I'm
just blown away sometimes. This is my museum."
Roberto Vina, a materials handler who works with Cornwell, said he
admires how each painting integrates National Guard elements. He isn't
the only one.
"There are customers who, every time they come here, they appreciate the way it shows the Guard," Vina said.
Cornwell is all too eager to show other comic book enthusiasts his
portfolio. He flips through the parchments, cradling each piece like
it's a tiny Renaissance painting.
He doesn't just talk about how he painted the artwork from a technical
perspective. He talks about how he was feeling at the time - what was
happening in his life. Each portrayal of hero or villain, zombie or
ghoul, is a snapshot of Cornwell's contemporary experience.
The artist's favorite superhero is Spiderman, and perhaps Peter Parker's
alter ego represents someone he can relate to - someone who has
surmounted deaths of loved ones, regret over fateful decisions, and
triumph through following his convictions.
"There's something about a person who has gone to hell and back and
still does the right thing," Cornwell said of the webslinger. "That, and
his costume's just cool."