It takes a certain kind of project for artist Kevin Nowlan to sign on to draw it. Although he’s best known by modern audiences for his cover work and his inking, he’s also been known to draw interior comics – but only on rare occasions. As it turns out, all it takes is a special character, an inventive writer, and a schedule long enough for Kevin to sink his teeth into the project.
Next month’s one-shot Hellboy: Buster Oakley Gets His Wish finds the legendary Nowlan teaming up with Mike Mignola to tell a story about the red devil’s time in the farmlands of the Midwest, investigating reports of cattle mutilation. But what starts as a cow conundrum turns into a full-scale alien invasion with spacecrafts, robots and more for the so-called “Right Hand of Doom”. Mignola’s story is a perfect cocktail of what the famed artist likes to do best: rural scenes, animals, and some twisted extraterrestrial oddities.
The one-shot special Hellboy: Buster Oakley Gets His Wish is set for release on Wednesday April 13th, and we caught up with the reclusive Midwestern artist about this rare full issue he’s doing and his appreciation for Hellboy and his creator.
Newsarama: I read an interview with Mike Mignola where he described how he asked you to do this book. What made it a project you wanted to do, Kevin?
Kevin Nowlan: We were sitting around talking after a convention in Birmingham, England and he started telling me about the story he had in mind. It’s always fun listening to Mike tell a story.
Sometimes, when a writer describes a plot to me, I sit there and fret about how hard it’ll be to work out all those drawing problems. A writer can describe things in three words that’ll take an artist a week to draw. But Mike’s stories seem to be “artist-friendly”. He mentioned several of the main plot points and I thought about how much fun it would be to draw.
Nrama: How much exactly did Mike give you to work with before you went off drawing the book?
Nowlan: He gave me a detailed plot. It was broken down page by page, panel by panel. He described the layouts and had some sample dialog. It wasn't a Stan Lee plot.
Nrama: What was it like for you to be able to work in Marvel style, breaking down the page descriptions into panels on your own?
Nowlan:I loved it! It might be hard for me to go back to working from a full script now.
Nrama: From what I’ve seen of this, Mike’s populated this story with lots of livestock and aliens – the livestock especially might be a big challenge for artists to get right. I remember you doing a great farm scene in the Jack B. Quick story for America's Best Comics. What was it like for you? Mike says you draw great cows!
Nowlan: Well, they’re not drawn very accurately. I shortened their legs, made their bodies more rectangular and their noses bigger. They’re exaggerated to emphasize their “cowness”. My assumption was that Mike picked cows over other animals for the story because they’re so goofy looking. They’re not elegant or regal like horses or deer. Cows and pigs just look funny.
Nrama: For this Hellboy story you've got cows being abducted by… something. Can you talk about what you've enjoyed most about it?
Nowlan: Other than drawing Hellboy himself, there are some rural scenes that were a lot of fun to draw: an old farm house, an old barn, a quick glimpse of an old abandoned gas station. We start out in Kansas and work our way up to Nebraska so I tried to show the changing terrain, from flat plains to rolling hills. Mike originally asked for this to be set in 1965 but they changed it to 1985 after I’d finished most of the pencils. At first I panicked, thinking I’d need to redraw the clothing and hairstyles. Then I remembered that rural Kansas and Nebraska have always been at least two decades behind the rest of the country I didn’t have to change a thing. A couple of the female characters wore horn-rim glasses. I’ve got a thing for those.
Nrama: What was your most memorable part of drawing this issue?
Nowlan: There’s a big, white, concrete grain elevator in our town and several times each week I jog past it. This is rural Kansas, so we don’t have any tall buildings. The top of the elevator is the highest point in the county and looks even taller because everything around it is so low and flat. The combination of music from my iPod, endorphins and morning light occasionally gives me a little goose of inspiration. In his plot, Mike asked for a large, flying object to “punch through a roadside billboard or take the top off an old barn”. I decided the grain elevator would be perfect for that scene and penciled it in. When Mike saw it, he said, “I love that…” and I felt about ten feet tall.
Any scene with Hellboy himself is going to look good because he’s such a well-designed character. That’s something I’ve always liked about all the Hellboy stories. Even the quiet stuff is interesting. There’s never a dearth of strong images. Hellboy just sits around and drinks a cup of coffee with this old farm couple and it’s one of my favorite pages in the book.
Nrama: I noticed that in addition to you doing a rare full story as artist, you're also lettering and coloring it as well. Was that opportunity a big draw for you to the project as well?
Nowlan: Number one was the chance to work with Mike again; he's terrific to work with. And Hellboy is a terrific character, with so much personality.
But yeah, the chance to do the whole art job myself was enticing. It's unusual to get that opportunity these days because it takes so long. The benefit to working as a team is that one person can be inking, one can be coloring and another lettering; the story gets finished much faster. But I'm so territorial that by the time I finish penciling something, it's painful to think of someone else doing the inks. Spending that much time with a page penciling it, I know exactly how the page should be inked and I know I'm not going to get the results I want, no matter how good the inker is. It could be a really slick, talented inker, but whoever it is they're bound to have different ideas and possibly misinterpret stuff on the page. The same goes for coloring. If I'm doing the color separations myself, I don't have to worry about the color choices pulling in the wrong direction. For instance, it would have been impossible for me to describe to a colorist how I wanted that grain elevator scene colored.
Nrama: Like you said, seeing an artist get to do the whole art job is a rarity these days, but when they do it seems like a real special issue.
Nowlan: Exactly. As a kid I always liked the issue where my favorite artist would take an issue and ink it himself. It always seemed to be the ones that stood out. And in a rare instance or two a guy might do his own color guides. Barry Smith did that with his last issue of Conan, “The Song of Red Sonja”. Neal Adams did it with his last issue of Green Lantern / Green Arrow. The Swamp Thing stories that Bernie Wrightson colored really stand out in that series.
I understand material has to be put out on a strict schedule, and people who take too long to finish the work aren't a good fit for the monthly books. There are workhorses out there who can do 20 or 30 pages of art per month; those are the guys that keep the business going. But I'm glad there are opportunities like this Hellboy issue where we can take the extra time to make it look a little different.
Nrama: Looking into the archives, I noticed this isn’t your first spin on Hellboy – or your first work with Mike. You did a Hellboy Junior pinup back in 1997, and you inked Mike for a Clayface story back in the mid 80s. How would you describe your working relationship with Mike? He says he came into the comics industry just after you did.
Nowlan: I've known Mike for a long time, and he's easily one of my favorite people in comics… and not just because he's so entertaining in person. He's always the funniest guy in the room. We don’t know each other well or talk much but he's always been very supportive and encouraging. One of the reasons he wanted to do this is because he wanted to see me drawing a story instead of inking other people. I think he said he wrote this story specifically for me to draw. It definitely plays to my strengths.
Nrama: What about Hellboy, the character? What’s appealing in it for you?
Nowlan: It’s a strong character design. None of us can draw him as well as Mike but it still works. He has a very human personality, which creates a nice irony, considering who he is in the greater scheme of things and how he looks. I love his crankiness and his gruff exterior. He seems to remind everyone of someone they know.