MORE THAN JUST AN INKER:
An Interview with Kevin Nowlan
by Christopher Irving
 
 

        Unfortunately, most of comics fandom isn't familiar with the name
Kevin Nowlan, although they should be. Nowlan has garnered critical
and fan praise for his ability to, as some might put it, "improve" a
penciler's work with his inks that leave a strong signature behind.
Kevin has done some GEN 13 projects, embellished over Dan Jurgens in
SUPERMAN AND ALIENS, and is currently working over Chris Sprouse's
pencils on WILDCATS AND ALIENS with Wildstorm.

CHRISTOPHER IRVING: Where did you get your training?

KEVIN NOWLAN: I’m self-taught as far as illustration is concerned. I
did go to a trade school for about a year and a half; that was
primarily directed toward design and layout and some of the basic
commercial art stuff.
        As far as drawing, I’d have to say I’m self-taught. I didn’t go to
college or anything like that.

CI: That’s pretty impressive. You’ve been dubbed the “Renaissance man
of comic books” (Nowlan laughs) in the BATMAN: BLACK AND WHITE
collection. Is that a title you’re pretty hesitant to take or do you
think it fits you?

KN: The only reason they say that is because I occasionally do my own
lettering. These days that’s kind of unusual, but in the past it was
very common. Most of the guys doing newspaper strips did lettering,
and things like that. I take it as a compliment, I guess. (Nowlan
laughs)

CI: I guess it’s the only way to take it.

KN: Do you take it the way I do, because most people specialize in one
area like penciling or inking? And since I do several of them...

CI: Yeah, and you also paint and pencil and ink. Plus, a lot of people
love your work. You’ve been known as more of an embellisher than an
inker, since you seem to leave an imprint on a lot of people’s
pencils. Do you think of yourself as more of an inker as you sit down,
or do you think the embellisher title fits you right?

KN: I think of myself as more of a finisher, because the places where
you see too much of me in the work, it is usually because I’m trying
to...figure out a way to make it work. If there’s something really
awkward, or if there’s something in the pencils that I can’t figure
out how to finish, sometimes it is easier to just rework it a bit and
make it into something that I can ink.
        I have very mixed feelings about it because it’s not the right way to
ink someone else’s pencils. In the past, there have been a couple of
people that I’ve inked, and you can hardly tell that it is me inking
it because I’ve made a minimal contribution to it. Like when I inked
Mike Mignola and, right now, I’m doing a Chris Sprouse thing. Both of
them [have] work that is virtually flawless as far as I’m concerned,
stylistically, and there’s really no place for me to make a
contribution. When other people do layouts, they’re halfway through
working out their problems, and they leave a lot for the inker to
finish. That’s when you see too much of my style coming through.

CI: What was your first project, and was it as a penciler or a finisher?

KN: It was as a penciler, on a fill-in issue of DR. STRANGE that was
inked by Terry Austin, around ‘82.

CI: Where did you go from there?

KN: I did a few issues of MOON KNIGHT, as a penciler. Around that same
time, I did a back-up strip for Fantagraphics that was called
GRIMWOOD’S DAUGHTER. I was penciling, inking and doing some of the
lettering and some of the coloring.

CI: How did the story for BATMAN: BLACK AND WHITE come about?

KN: Mark Chiarello called and asked me to do it. I think that, at that
time, I was really busy and I wanted to do it, but I couldn’t figure
out how I was going to find time. A friend of mine, Scott Dunbier,
called me up and said “You have to do this!” (Laughter) He said “Look
at the roster.”
         The list of people who contributed to that series was incredible,
from Richard Corben to Archie Goodwin to Brian Bolland. I was so
flattered that they asked me to be in that group of guys that I not
only did the story, but I wanted to do something really special and
put a little more effort into the pages than I usually would.

CI: They had a hell of a line-up on that book that is probably what
made it such a good collection. I seriously doubt they could pull it
off again.

KN: Yes, and everyone of those four issues had, at the very least,
three or four stories that were very remarkable. There wasn’t a single
weak issue in that whole series.

CI: There were some really nice covers. I thought the Jim Lee cover
was really rushed and very stiff. I know he could’ve done a much
better job. But then there is the Alex Toth cover. He’s a god, he
really is.

KN: I’m happy that that was on the issue that I contributed to!
(laughter) Nice to have a  comic book with a story by me and an Alex
Toth cover.

CI: “Oh yeah, I did this and, by the way, Alex Toth did the cover.”
(Jokingly) Of course it could have been because Kevin Nowlan was doing
a story.

KN: (laughter) Sure, sure...

CI: Really! Okay, I know you’re doing an upcoming Batgirl story for
the LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE book, and had finished inking over the
Robin and Superman story. Was that book something you plan on doing on
a somewhat regular basis, or did it just work out that way?

KN: It just worked out that way. The Batgirl stuff I’d committed to
quite a while back, and I’m finishing up that second story right now.
The Superman/ Robin thing came up in the middle of that. Dave Taylor
did the layouts for that and I suspect that the editor, Scott
Peterson, was trying to get him to hold back, because he wanted me to
do finishes and not just ink on it. If he’d asked me, I’d have said
“No, please finish the pencils!” because I had so much work to do.
        Then again, there wasn’t a lot of time to do it. I started out inking
the first few pages and trying to treat it just as a straight inking
job. About three pages into it, when I was reworking a close-up of
Robin’s face, I started to get into it myself. I decided “I’m going to
take this over and just do it my way!” (laughter) Poor Dave’s style
got buried in the process. That happens sometimes and, hopefully, with
good results. I just really got into it and started thinking about how
this would work with Superman appearing at night in Gotham City and
how out of place he would look.
        The splash page is 100% me. They sent me Dave’s board with his
layouts on it, but there were notes on there like “Can you lightbox
this and move the figure up because his feet are too close to being
cropped off at the bottom of the page and he looks too scrawny (They
thought he looked too much like Miracleman in the pencils).” There
were all these changes they were asking me to make so I said “There’ll
be nothing left by the time I make all of these changes(laughter).” I
just got out a clean sheet of paper and drew a different splash page
and sent Dave’s layout back untouched. I’m amazed with what they let
me get away with, it’s not very professional but, hopefully, they
trust me to use good judgment.
        I did the splash page and was thinking about the coloring and how it
was a great opportunity to do something interesting with the coloring,
because it is nighttime and it is in Gotham City. As I was reading the
story, Superman is not only this alien, who at first Robin thinks is
going to be his buddy and then at the end of the story realizes that
he’s not just another guy, but something more unique. [Superman’s] out
of place in Gotham City. I thought it would be great to have Superman
in those bright primary colors where everything else in Gotham City is
muted down, including Robin’s costume. After I finished the inks, and
Scott Peterson and I were going down the list of names trying to find
somebody to color it, he said “Would you like to color this yourself?”
 I was almost sobbing, I was so happy (laughter).
        I thought it was way too late for them to consider that. I told him “
I have all these ideas for handling this this way and doing this and
that!” I ended up doing the color guides for it, and Digital Chameleon
did a great job of recreating what I’d roughed out in the coloring
guides.

CI: I’m usually not big on computer coloring, but they’ve done some
real nice work.

KN: I thought they were very restrained with the airbrushing and
stuff. They only put it in where I indicated it in the color guides.
It was mostly flat colors. I was really happy with that. The only
unfortunate thing was that poor Dave Taylor really got lost in the
process. That’s what usually happens when someone else is finishing
someone’s layouts.
        That is when I’ve been the most happy with jobs that I’ve worked on.
I feel like I’ve made more of a contribution than just tracing over
someone else’s pencil lines.

CI: What about the SUPERMAN: DISTANT FIRES graphic novel you did with
Gil Kane? How was working over his stuff?

KN: It was great, and hopefully we’re going to work together on other
projects. Gil is probably the most fun to ink of any penciler I’ve
ever worked on, because he gives you just enough. He gives you all of
this incredible structure and everything is worked out in three
dimensions. But it’s also not so tightly polished so I feel like I’m
making a contribution there, even if it is only slight. You can’t
really mess that much with Gil’s pencils. It is so stylized, yet so
beautifully structured that it’s very easy to ink because he has
worked these things out so well. His compositions are great and his
knowledge of anatomy is legendary. We’ve all been swiping from him for
the last thirty years or so.
        All of us learned how to do superhero anatomy by looking at Gil’s
stuff.

CI: You just recently did The Spectre story with Steve Ditko for the
LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE EIGHTY PAGE GIANT. How was working with
Steve?

KN: It wasn’t quite as satisfying as working with Gil, because Gil’s
is more three dimensional and Steve’s style is so idiosyncratic that
it is so tough for another person to come in and ink his pencils and
be faithful to what he has done. He doesn’t give you a whole lot of
information in his pencils. For one thing, Steve Ditko, for most of
his career, inked over his own pencils. He’s penciling, I think, with
himself in mind where Gil, for the most part, is penciling for other
inkers. I think Gil may do a better job of giving the inker plenty of
information so that he can do his job.

CI: And you’ve also worked with Dan Jurgens over SUPERMAN AND ALIENS.
How did that whole project come about?

KN: I think Mike Carlin called and asked me to do it. I was a little
unsure on how it would work out with Dan doing layouts and me doing
finishes. He sent me copies of a recent story that Dan had done, and a
copy of the pencils for the layouts. Dan’s layouts are very tight.That
was an odd experience, because I think that Dan and I clashed a bit
stylistically. Since I was doing finishes, I was probably taking over
more than I should have. Jerry Ordway, who finished over some of Dan’s
stuff [in ZERO HOUR] did a beautiful job. He preserved a lot of Dan’s
style in there but put a beautiful finish on it. I think that was a
more successful collaboration.

CI: George Perez’s inks over him in early TEEN TITANS issues was
really nice.

KN: That’s probably another good example.

CI: What do you think makes a good inker?

KN: That’s funny, because this is one of those schizophrenic moments,
because I’m not actually that fond of other people inking pencils.
Almost all of my favorite comics were penciled and inked by the same
guy; the collaborations seemed like almost a compromise. I’m sure if I
had the time I would pencil and ink more stuff by myself. Actually, I
have a series that I’ll be doing all of the art on myself coming up.
        It’s obviously a much more expedient way of doing comics, where you
have a time constraint...The stuff that I’ve been most happy with is
where I’ve gotten to do most of those jobs myself. All of my favorite
inkers are artists. They do much more than just put a pretty line on
someone else’s pencils. P. Craig Russell is really the best inker in
comics. Obviously, he’s much more than that, but if we’re just talking
about inking, he does something that I know I’ll never be able to do.
I saw a page that Steve Ditko had penciled with a note from the editor
asking Craig, who was inking the book, to completely change one of the
panels. Craig made the change, but he did it in Ditko’s style. I could
never do that, I wish I could, but I can’t.

CI: What can you tell me about this new book?

KN: The series is called JACK B. QUICK, BOY INVENTOR. It will be one
of three stories each month in TOMORROW STORIES, a new anthology
series written by Alan Moore.
        The first one is about a cow, that is owned by Jack’s father, that
suffers from “Bovine Night-fits.” (laughter) Jack sets out to save the
cow with an old busted vacuum cleaner and some discarded radio parts.
I swear, somehow, Alan is reading my mind...it is a very short story
but has all these things in it that I’ve been
wanting to draw; (an old farmhouse, a small Midwestern town with a
water tower) I love drawing this stuff but I’ve never had a chance to
do it in comics before.
        I know this sounds odd, but the most enjoyable part for that series I
did for PENTHOUSE was drawing the old tractor in the background. The
writer didn’t even ask for it, but I thought it was important to
establish the setting visually. It took days to find the right
reference, but I knew that it was important somehow.
        I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited about beginning a new
series, it is not just that it is written by the greatest writers in
comics, but it has all of these things in it that I’ve been dying to
put into a comic book story. Alan somehow read my mind and put them
into a six page story.
        It is a great funny little strip that I know I’m going to have a lot
of fun drawing.

CI: It sounds like it will be a lot of fun. What else do you have
planned for the future?

KN: That is probably going to keep me busy for the most part, because
I do hope to do pencils, inks, letters, and color guides. Even though
it is only sixteen pages a month, that will be quite a bit of work. It
should leave me a little bit of free time to do some other project.
There is a Hal Jordan GREEN LANTERN thing that we’ve talked about
doing with Gil, so that ought to be a lot of fun. That would hopefully
be an issue of LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE, or some format like that if
we’re all up for it. Then there is also a short segment in this Mark
Evanier and Sergio Aragones book, called FANBOY, that I’ll probably be
working on before that.
        Gil will be penciling the Hal Jordan segment, and I’ll be inking it,
so it will be a lot of fun.

 
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