Friday, February 17, 2006

Artist Graham Nolan broke the Batman’s back, and lived to tell about it.

A 20-year veteran of the comic book industry, he was tasked as DC Comics’ Detective Comics artist in the 1990s to illustrate a beefy villain named Bane, who put the Dark Knight out of commission nearly permanently.

After a career that saw him work with such characters as Superman, Spider-Man and X-Men, Mr. Nolan now chronicles the daily adventures of Rex Morgan, M.D. and keeps the Phantom in the Sunday funny pages (The Ghost Who Walks is actually celebrating his 70th year as a comic strip). Mr. Nolan’s Phantom work has been recently compiled in Moonstone Books trade paperbacks, “The Phantom: The Graham Nolan Sundays,” Volumes 1 and 2 ($16.95 each).

The seasoned illustrator recently gave Zadzooks a piece of his mind in the 52nd chapter of an open-ended series that profiles the elite of the comic-book industry.

Official title: Comic strip artist

Age: 44

My comic book origins: I had a sixth-grade teacher who brought in a stack of comic books for recess, and that was my first exposure to the medium. I voraciously read them over and coveted them.

I remember in particular a Justice League comic that reintroduced me to characters that I had remembered seeing on TV when growing up, such as George Reeves’ “Superman” show and Adam West in “Batman.”

Education: I took art classes at a community college and then went to the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in New Jersey. I spent two years there and did not graduate because I began getting job offers. It was expensive to go and I really couldn’t afford another year, so I decided it would be better to do some learning on the job.

Influences: John Romita, John Buscema, Alex Toth, Roy Crane and Frank Robbins.

My first job: It was for DC Comics and a story in an issue of New Talent Showcase. An editor who was an instructor at the school liked one of the assignments I did and wanted to buy it for the comic. It was a story I wrote and illustrated called “The Fan,” about me at a comic book convention and meeting all of the rabid fans.

My big break: Hawkworld for DC Comics was the first big assignment.

The origin of Bane: In 1993, I began working a few fill-in issues on Detective Comics. The editors were in the planning stages of the Nightfall story line and wanted to use some new villain to initiate it all.

Chuck Dixon came up with the idea of doing an evil Doc Savage, super smart and super strong. Chuck knew I was a rabid Doc Savage fan and recommended me for doing the Vengeance of Bane issues. DC then asked me to take over the monthly comic book.

Life with Batman: It was a dream come true. Batman was one of my favorite characters in comics as a kid — and Detective Comics even more so than Batman Comics, because my dad was a detective and Detective Comics was Batman’s first appearance.

Other part of my Bat legacy: We re-created the Penguin after the Knightfall story line. Instead of having him in a tuxedo, I came up with the idea of making him more of a Sydney Greenstreet type of character, where he is the manipulator. I also put him in a white dinner jacket; he was working at a nightclub with beautiful women on his arms.

How I began stripping: I got out of comic books around the year 2000 because they were cutting titles and editorial changes. I was also looking for something with less micromanagement, and I needed more freedom.

So I tried to syndicate my Monster Island book and ended up with strips by accident. King Features had an opening on Rex Morgan, M.D. and asked if I would do it. I told them I would really like to do the Phantom, but there was no opening. A month later, after taking the Rex Morgan job, I was called to take over the Sunday Phantom strip and have been doing both ever since.

Why the Phantom fascination? He was my mom’s favorite and she was always very supportive of my career. He is also not dissimilar to Batman, kind of noirish with lots of shadows, and I have always been drawn to the pulpy stuff.

Back into comic books: I just finished a book for Marvel Comics, a New Avengers specialty issue for the AAFES (Army and Air Force Exchange Service), that was distributed to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. I thought it was a great opportunity for my first foray back into the comic book world.

Characters I still want to draw: Doc Savage, Tarzan and Captain America

The right and wrong of the industry: Big gains have been made on the production end as far as the coloring and use of computers for a far nicer product than old newsprint.

However, as far as content goes for the major U.S. publishers, they have lost the fun in comics. The distribution system has limited the availability of comics, so publishers now produce comics for a limited audience. They are targeting a dwindling audience that is moving on to other things, as opposed to recruiting a younger audience.

When I was a kid my mom could buy me Superman or Batman and never have to look through it and hand it to me. When I was working on Batman and I would get complimentary copies of all the books, I could not hand out most of that stuff to the neighborhood kids. It was inappropriate.

Create a comic 101: Jack Kirby and Stan Lee would hop right into the action on page 1 and dared you to put the book down. I remember a Fantastic Four comic, and the first page had a baby dinosaur running through the superheroes’ living room, and in three pages they capture it.

The dinosaur had nothing to do with the rest of the story but it was just a device to get into talking about Doctor Doom’s time machine — and they opened the door to an exciting world immediately.

Favorite image: A Captain America splash page in issue No. 114 by John Romita. I look at that as a great example as how fun comics are done.

What really annoys me: People talking on the cell phone.

News for Phantom fans: We are finishing up a story that has the Phantom dispatched to New York to kill an assassin who is actually after his wife. Next up for the Phantom is an Edgar Rice Burroughs-style story with a lost world.

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