Graham Nolan on Returning to Comics

For more than twenty years, Graham Nolan has illustrated hundreds of comics for DC, Marvel, Eclipse and other publishers. He’s drawn Superman and Hawkman, Airboy and Wolverine, the Fantastic Four, and the Transformers. Nolan’s worked with Tim Truman, John Ostrander, and Mark Waid. Nolan is probably best known, however, for his long run with writer Chuck Dixon on “Detective Comics” in the nineties, the prestige one-shot “Superman: The Odyssey,” and for co-creating with Dixon the Batman villain Bane.

Over the past decade, Nolan wrote and illustrated the independent title “Monster Island” and has been working steadily in the pages of your daily newspaper. He worked on the Sunday edition of “The Phantom” between 2000-2006, and has been the artist on the longrunning strip “Rex Morgan, M.D.” since 2000.

CBR News spoke with the venerable illustrator about his long career and to find out what readers can expect in the future.

CBR: Graham, you started out in comics at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. Tell us about that experience.

Graham Nolan: I did two years at Kubert's and couldn't afford my final, third year. During my second year, one of my teachers, Sal Amendola, who was also the talent coordinator for DC Comics and a big supporter of my work, bought two of my school assignments to run in the anthology series, “New Talent Showcase.” That was my first professional sale.

You worked on a lot of different projects in the eighties, but the first comic with which you had a really significant run was DC’s “Hawkworld,” written by Tim Truman.How did you get the gig and what was the experience like?

I had been working with Tim Truman at Eclipse on a comic called “The Prowler,” which was a very pulpy period piece in The Shadow style. I think Tim wanted that pulp feel with a superhero sensibility and suggested me to editor Mike Gold.

Had you been a fan of Hawkman and the Tim Truman’s original “Hawkworld,” from which the ongoing series was spun-out?

I was never a big Hawkman fan, but I really enjoyed Tim's take on him in “Hawkworld.” That plus [Caros] Alcetena's inks were awesome. A tough act to follow, to be sure.

It wasn’t long after your run on “Hawkworld” that you moved on to the Batman books.

I was working on a Metemorpho miniseries that I co-plotted with Mark Waid. I was going to pencil and ink the series but an offer to do a couple issues of “Detective Comics” presented itself. On the basis of that work, I was offered “Vengeance of Bane” and then the regular gig on '”Tec.”

You worked with Chuck Dixon on the title for years and you’ve worked together since. Why do you work so well together?

Chuck and I go back further than that. We were working on “Skywolf” for Eclipse back in the mid-eighties. Chuck and I are good friends and we work well together because we play off each others strengths and have similar sensibilities as to what we think makes good comics.

The early—to-mid ‘90s was a big time to be working on Batman. The Bane-fueled “Knightfall” storyline would see Bruce Wayne removed from the stage; a contagion that would threaten Gotham City; and an epic battle with Ra’s Al Ghul, among other storylines. Did you know about what was being planned before saying yes to the gig?

I knew that “Knightfall” was going to be big because “Vengeance of Bane” was being published specifically to kick-start the whole [storyline]. It was very exciting to be on the ground floor of something that turned out really big, but nobody expected the entire market to get as crazy as it did. It was a cool time to be working on a Bat-title when you're selling half-a-million copies a month.

You were on “Detective Comics” for a long time, off and on for six years, which is an especially long time by today’s standards. What was it that kept you on the book when you surely had plenty of options to go elsewhere? And what was it that finally made you step down?

“Detective Comics” has always been the flagship Bat-book. Even if it never sells as well as “Batman,” it is the book [in which] Batman first appeared. It's also where DC Comics gets its name and “'Tec” was also the first Batman comic I ever bought. For those reasons, I stayed as long as I did. Chuck and I were offered to take over “Batman” at one point, and we both turned it down. We loved “Detective.” I have always wanted to do a run on “Action Comics” for the very same reasons.

Between 1998-2000, things were changing in the market and editorially. I started to explore other interests, like self-publishing “Monster Island” and doing “Superman: The Odyssey.” I decided it was a good time to move on to other things before I got the inevitable ax.

How did you end up working on “Rex Morgan, M.D.” and what was it that appealed to you about the strip?

I ended up with “Rex Morgan, M.D.” because I was trying to sell “Monster Island” as a syndicated strip. King Features liked “Monster Island” but said they could not sell an adventure strip anymore, but they had an opening coming up on “Rex.” I never read the strip before but was always a big fan of the comic strip artists, so I had them send copies of the strip from its heyday. I found out that Rex was one of the "must have" strips in newspaper polls from the ‘50s through the ‘70s. It has a huge following even now.

That was around the same time you were offered “The Phantom,” right?

When the late Jay Kennedy offered me “Rex,” my answer was "do you have an opening on ‘The Phantom?’" He didn't, but about a month later I got a call offering me the Sunday strip. It's all about timing.

Had The Phantom been a favorite character of yours?

Yes, I always loved The Phantom because of the mysteriousness of the character and his long family history.

Was it intimidating to take over a strip like “The Phantom,” with all that history and the intense fanbase?

Not really. Because of the superhero aspect, I felt comfortable doing that strip. It was actually more intimidating doing “Rex” because it's an entirely different readership. When I first took over on “Rex,” I got a ton of unhappy readers screaming at my stylizations.

Work-wise, how was it tackling both strips at the same time?

It was quite a workload, but I am very disciplined and pretty fast so I was able to make it work.

How do the rigors of working on a daily comics strip compare to drawing a monthly comic book?

Comic strip work is a marathon, comic book work is a sprint. The deadlines never end on a strip. It's every day. When you finish a comic book project there is a sense of completion before starting the next one. You don't get that on a strip. On the plus side, there isn't the editorial micro-management on the strips like there is in comic books.

Did you have to rethink how you worked now that you're working in a much smaller size?

Absolutely. The main challenge of a strip is making the panels look interesting in a small space. I don't have the luxury of angling panels in interesting way or going vertical if I need that type of long panel because of the format restrictions as well as the eventual print size.

What’s your relationship with “Rex Morgan, M.D.” writer Woody Wilson and how the two of you put together a typical strip?

Woody was on “Rex” about ten years before I came on board. He took over from and actually worked with the strip’s creator, Nick Dallas, so this guy knows what he's doing. He has a great flair for the "voices" of the characters.

Woody sends me a script each week with descriptions of what's going on and all the dialogue. I then interpret that into the most visually interesting way possible to move the narrative forward.

What are the comics and the creators you enjoy reading?

Strips: I like “Mutts,” “Pearls Before Swine,” “Zits,” “Blondie,” and of course the classics like “Johnny Hazard,” “Wash Tubbs,” and “Buzz Sawyer” by my all time favorite strip guy, Roy Crane.

Comic books: I love the Marvel Essentials books drawn in those classic styles; Kane, Buscema, Romita, Wood, Kubert, Toth. I also love John Romita, Jr.’s work as well as the Kubert brothers, Lee Weeks -- anybody who puts the story before the pin-up is what I like.

Other than the strips, what are you working on these days?

I've been doing a lot of work at Marvel on their Marvel Adventures line over the past year, including three issues of “Marvel Adventures Iron Man,” some covers, and a Fantastic Four story that I penciled and inked. It looks like my next project will be a Spider-Man story that I will write and illustrate.

How did you end up at Marvel?

I had been casting my net out there, looking for projects, and Mark Paniccia was the first editor to offer me a project. It was three issues of “Marvel Adventures Iron Man.” I love the MA line because the stories are self-contained and they are for all ages, not just kids. They remind me of the type of superhero comics I used to enjoy as a kid.

You mentioned that you were writing an upcoming Spider-Man story. You've written or co-written a number of stories over the years. Is it something you'd like to do more of?

As of this writing, I am still awaiting approval on my Spidey story. And there is a possibility I might write a Hulk story as well, but yes, I would love to write and draw more of my own projects. There is great satisfaction in doing the whole package.

You mentioned that you'd like to have a run on “Action Comics.” Are there any other characters you haven't had the chance to work on that you still want a shot at?

Plenty! Sub-Mariner, Captian America, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Tarzan, Doc Savage.

Working on both “The Phantom” and “Rex Morgan” pretty much occupied all your time, but now that you’ve left “The Phantom” and started working at Marvel, will we be seeing more of your work in comic books in the coming years?

One of the main reasons I gave up “The Phantom” contract is so that I would have more time to do comic book projects. This past year, I've done quite a few issues and covers for Marvel and I did a Bane origin for DC. It's the best of both worlds to be able to work in comic books as well as comic strips. I'm a happy clam!

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