This interview was originally published in July, 2007.
I have a horrible confession to make. When I was at a convention looking for somebody to interview, I was actually looking for Kevin Maguire. I did not know what he looked like so I was walking through the artists alley looking at names on the tables and saw a Kevin and immediately went over to introduce myself and ask for an interview.
Kevin Nowlan agreed, but said he had just done a long interview about his career that was now out in the TwoMorrows Publishing Modern Masters series. He asked me to pick it up and try to not ask him the same questions. This was a reasonable request and not unusual either. I usually try my best to avoid asking the same questions as I think one of the goals of an interview is to learn something new about the subject so I was glad Kevin made me aware of the Modern Master’s book on him.
Since Kevin agreed to the interview I felt I ought to go through with it. I was able to pick up the Modern Masters book right at the convention itself and took it home to read it. Little did I realize how great of an artist he was and felt dumb for not knowing who he was before. I came up with questions and did the interview via e-mail. Off to the interview.
Interview with Kevin Nowlan
Kevin Nowlan is a jack of all trades when it comes to comics. He’s known for penciling, inking, lettering, coloring and even color separations. He’s also done a bit of writing. Nowlan is probably best known for his work with Alan Moore on the Jack B. Quick stories within the ABC line of books, but he’s been working in the industry since the early 80s. Kevin answers questions about his early experiences in the industry, his art, Alan Moore, recent Witchblade & X-men work, and more.
Jamie: I imagine there wasn’t a lot of professional comic artists in Nebraska where you grew up. Who was the first comic professional you met?
Kevin Nowlan: No, Nebraska is pretty much a comic artist free zone. I think Gil Kane was the first professional artist I met. The Fantagraphics guys went out to eat with him when I was visiting them in Connecticut. I was too frightened to speak but I hung on his every word.
Later, I saw him again at conventions and inked a couple of stories that he penciled. For a while, I seemed to be his go-to inker at DC. They kept calling me every time he was scheduled to pencil something.
Jamie: I believe you inked both Gil Kane and John Buscema’s last work, which was in the comic Superman: Blood of my Ancestors (what a title, yeech!). Did you feel at all uneasy about inking another artist from the golden/silver age?
Kevin Nowlan: No, but I wasn’t as comfortable inking Buscema’s pencils as I had been with Kane’s. With Buscema, there was less information on the page. The book was in limbo for a year or more after Gil died. He’d penciled the first 24 pages but no one could think of an appropriate replacement penciler. There just aren’t any Gil Kane Juniors out there.
John Buscema seemed to make sense. Their styles couldn’t be more different but the book already resembled a Conan Annual so who better than John Buscema to finish it?
Jamie: Early in your career you worked for Fantagraphics. How did you first meet Gary Groth and work for him?
Kevin Nowlan: I sent them some sample drawings and they published them in The Comics Journal and Amazing Heroes. They were just starting to move toward publishing comics so Gary tried to get me involved in one of those projects.
Jamie: What projects was he trying to get you to do?
Kevin Nowlan: A Harlan Ellison story, “Eyes of Dust” and an adaptation of E. L. Doctorow’s “Welcome to Hard Times”. Those didn’t work out but “Grimwood’s Daughter” a 5-part back-up story in “Dalgoda” was one of my first assignments. It was written by Jan Strnad. I hope it will be collected one of these days.
Jamie: You said Al Milgom gave you some solid advice on your first work for Marvel. What advice did he give you?
Kevin Nowlan: He warned me about trying to draw faster and encouraged me to just work at drawing better. He said that many of the really fast artists who cut a lot of corners have trouble getting work when times get tough. I took it to heart but I’d still like to pick up a little speed. Some of my favorite artists work or worked incredibly fast: Owen Fitzgerald, Kirby, Buscema, Byrne.
Jamie: When you draw normal people they end up looking much more ‘real’ than the standard superhero comic artist. Where did you learn to add in those very human looking flaws to the characters and do them well?
Kevin Nowlan: I try to imagine how the characters and settings would look if they were real so that I’m not doing a new version of someone else’s drawing. Then I exaggerate the proportions or gestures or expressions to give the drawing a little punch. But I like to start with reality. For instance, when I was a kid I copied Superman drawings by Curt Swan and put the little parallel lines under Superman’s shoulder even though I didn’t really understand what they were. Later, I tried to draw a shoulder by looking at the way the deltoids connect with the triceps instead of just repeating someone else’s abstraction. But I never like to get too clinical about it. Those things evolve as you work on them until eventually you have your own abstraction.
Jamie: Another thing I really admire is your ability to draw detailed facial expressions. Do you have people pose for you and take pictures for reference?
Kevin Nowlan: I’ve done that before but I don’t make a habit of it. It depends upon the requirement of the job. I vacillate between realism and exaggeration. I went through a phase where I was taking lots of photos for reference. Nowadays I’m more likely to make stuff up and if it doesn’t look right at first I’ll keep sketching until it does.
Jamie: You mentioned in your Modern Masters interview that you go to the library to get reference material on things. Are you still doing that today or does Google take care of that?
Kevin Nowlan: Yeah, Google is a lot faster. You can find 50 photos of fire hydrants in two minutes. But there are still things that you’re more likely to find at the library.
Jamie: You were working when comics were printed on newsprint. Today the printing process is much different and comics are generally printed on much better paper. How did the upgrade in production qualities change the way you work?
Kevin Nowlan: It’s easier to be subtle now. The printing isn’t just better, it’s more consistent. Letterpress ink could look great or it could be run light and you’d lose half the color. The art has to be a little more refined than it did on newsprint. You see everything, whereas newsprint would soften the images up a bit.
Jamie: I have to wonder, your work in comics is often short stories, pin ups, inking and so on, all over the place. Do you make your living on comics alone or do you have outside work?
Kevin Nowlan: Mostly comics. I do a few commercial jobs from time to time but nothing steady.
Jamie: You spoke to Alan Moore on the telephone over the Jack B. Quick work for the ABC line. What was he like?
Kevin Nowlan: He was terrific. I had a little trouble with his accent but I got most of it. He was also surprisingly open to any of my concerns or preferences.
Jamie: You are the co-creator of Jack B. Quick. What did you contribute to the character?
Kevin Nowlan: The visuals. I don’t think Alan had anything specific in mind for the appearance of the main characters. Or if he did, he didn’t share it with me. It wasn’t until the third or fourth story that he described what someone would look like, and that was a secondary character, Mr. Murk from the Dairy.
Jamie: Will there be any new stories with the Jack B. Quick character?
Kevin Nowlan: There will if Alan decides to write them. I don’t know what his plans are but I don’t see much point in doing a Jack story without him.
Jamie: In X-Men First Class Special, you gave Jean Gray the smallest boobs I’ve seen on female superhero in a very long time. Did that sail through without any uh.. suggestions from editors?
Kevin Nowlan: Yes. The editors, Mark Paniccia and Nate Cosby were as
obliging and supportive as any I’ve worked for, almost to a fault. I think I needed someone to step in and point out that I’d drawn Jean Grey way too thin on the cover. But I was trying to suggest that all the characters were young, barely out of their teens. I think I was more successful with Bobby and Hank on the story inside. For some reason, exaggeration seems to work better when you’re drawing males. But females come in different shapes and sizes. I’m trying to avoid drawing them like they all have the same bodies.
Jamie: You’ve been inking Witchblade over different pencilers lately; Matt Haley, Stephen Sadowski, and Rick Leonardi. Are you supposed to keep it all looking similar?
Kevin Nowlan: No. I don’t think that would be possible. They’re three very different artists.
Jamie: Are you inking on paper or doing it on computer?
Kevin Nowlan: On paper.
Jamie: How many more issues of Witchblade are you doing?
Kevin Nowlan: Three.
Jamie: You have also worked with DRAW! magazine showing penciling and inking. Do you have any desire to teach comic art?
Kevin Nowlan: I’ve thought about that a little. In the right situation I think it could work.
Jamie: In your Modern Masters interview, you mentioned wanting to do a complete Graphic Novel. Are you any closer to doing that?
Kevin Nowlan: I hope so. The Man-Thing graphic novel is back in my hands now and I’m hoping I can clear my plate and finish the remaining pages later this year.
Jamie: Was that supposed to one of those thin 80s Graphic Novels with Steve Gerber?
Kevin Nowlan: Yes.
Jamie: How many pages are left to do?
Kevin Nowlan: Twelve — fifteen at the most.