Kurt Busiek Talks Graham Nolan, Astro City’s First Guest Artist In 19-Years [Interview]
After almost 20 years of great stories from the same team of creators, you could probably be forgiven for thinking that a comic book might run out of steam just a little, but the return of Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross’s Astro City last year proved that wrong by a long shot. It is, with no exaggeration, as good as or better than it’s ever been before, taking the idea of focusing on “ordinary people” in a world of superheroes into new directions with amazing, heartfelt stories. With May’s Astro City #12, they’re adding another wrinkle: For the first time in the history of the series, another artist will take on a regular issue of the series: Graham Nolan, best known for his work on Batman.
To find out why the decision was made to open up their book to another artist after so long and why Nolan was the best fit for the story, I spoke to Kurt Busiek about art, scheduling, and the return of Astro City.
ComicsAlliance: Graham Nolan is the first ever guest artist to ever draw Astro City in 19 years. What was it that finally got you and Brent Anderson to make the decision?
Kurt Busiek: We actually made the decision a couple of years ago or so, back when we made the commitment to build up steam and come back as a monthly book. A lot of that rests on me, because my health, along with the demands of the series, has made it hard to get an issue done every month. But it’s hard for Brent, too — his working speed is a little slower than a monthly book would take, and while there are ways to speed things up, including bringing in an inker or a background assistant or something, all of those choices come with a loss of control, and we want Brent’s art to be under his control as much as possible.
So that means if we’re going to be monthly, we’re going to need to get Brent some help on the schedule, here and there. It’s not something we wanted to do unless we could get the right guy, though. So we talked about it for a long time, and finally decided to go for it.
CA: It might just be because I’m such a big Batman fan, but I always identify Nolan with a very specific era from when he was drawing Detective Comics. Why bring him on for this story?
KB: Hey, I’ve been a fan of Graham’s since he was doing backups in Airboy and The Prowler back in the 1980s, but I know what you mean — he’s best known for Batman, and darker characters like that. But “best-known” doesn’t mean that’s all he’s good at, by any means. He did a Superman one-shot — Superman: Odyssey — that just blew me away with big, bold, powerful artwork, and I’ve been determined to work with him someday ever since I saw that.
Plus, the stuff he did that made me think he’d be a great choice for Astro City was the issues he did of X-Men Forever, which is about as far from Gotham City as you can get. It had lots of different settings, from suburban neighborhoods to super-scientific HQs, and it had a lot of human drama along with the action, and it really made it clear to me that everything Astro City depends on — fantastic situations, real people, believable emotion — it was all there.
So that’s the stuff I sent around to the rest of the team to see what they thought, and they all agreed that he’d be a great choice.
CA: Stylistically, Nolan’s stuff is a big departure from Anderson. Lots of heavy lines, a little more exaggeration to the figures. How does that visual play into what this story is about?
KB: A couple of different answers:
First, as luck would have it, the story I came up with from Graham to draw is about a costumed criminal — the Gentleman Bandit, a character you’ve seen in the series before, though not under that name. It’s about who he is, what drives him, how he got into this line of work and how his life’s affected by it. So he’s the kind of guy who haunts alleyways and rooftops and might even fight a hero on top of a giant typewriter or two. We see him clash with Jack-In-The-Box and the Confessor. So on that score, it’s taking a different angle on the sort of world and adventure that Graham’s very familiar with, and benefits from that.
But on the other hand, I don’t know that I’d agree with the premise, not fully — Graham’s surface approach may be different from Brent’s, but his approach to storytelling, to the emotional realities and to making things look believable, I think he very much delivers on what the book needs. In finding another artist, we wouldn’t want to look for someone who has the same kind of finish as Brent, we want someone who’ll have the same kind of success in telling the story, but who tells it his own way, much as Brent does it his particular way.
We want a guy who’s got his own approach, and tackles it with confidence and style, not someone who people might mistake for Brent. And Graham does a beautiful job telling the story.
CA: The interesting thing about Astro City has always been that it’s a view of superheroes from the perspective of “normal people.” Do you feel like that presents any difficulty for an artist who’s used to drawing superheroes as the focus, rather than as something that goes on in the background?
KB: I don’t think so. For one thing, Brent was a guy used to drawing superheroes when we started out, and we still ask him to draw a lot of superhero action. It’s an important part of the job. For another, Graham spent ten years or so drawing the Rex Morgan newspaper strip alongside doing superhero and adventure comics, so “normal people” isn’t new territory for him.
And hey, it’s not as if most superhero artists don’t have to draw interpersonal drama in between drawing fight scenes. We just kind of flip the emphasis in Astro City, and make the drama the main story and the superhero action the context for it all. It’s still drawing the same kind of thing, just with different proportions to it. And like I said, those X-Men Forever pages showed me that what we need, Graham’s got in spades.
CA: Does this open up the opportunity for other artists to take a shot at Astro City, or is it more likely that we’ll see another guest around 2033?
KB: Well, at this point all I can really say is that when and if we need another issue’s worth of help for Brent, Graham’s my first call. If he’s available, then the gig’s his, whether it’s about Honor Guard battling an interdimensional conqueror in a subatomic universe or about a woman rescuing abandoned robot henchmen — I’ve seen more than enough to know that Graham would do a gorgeous job whatever we throw at him.
If Graham’s not available, then yeah, we’d need to find someone else. But we’ll have to see how things go.
CA: Are there other artists that you’ve considered working with on Astro City stories?
KB: We’ve talked about a lot of people, over the years — some artists who’d probably be up for an issue or two, some who are so busy doing their own thing (or tied up in contracts) that it’s not likely at all. But we’re not looking to make any drastic changes. Brent’s doing his best to speed up his process while maintaining the same high quality, and as far as I’m concerned, he’s going to do all of Astro City that he can, Graham’s an ideal go-to guy if we need someone else, and beyond that, who knows?
CA: Astro City‘s return in the new series has brought the ongoing story back to the present day, after a few years of telling stories set in the past. What made you feel like it was time to return?
KB: Hey, after 16 issues of spending time in the past, I think we needed to get back to the present!
We never really abandoned the present — even during The Dark Age, we took breaks between each arc and did other stories, mostly set in the present. And we’ve told some stories that delve into the past in the new series, notably #5. But we did think that with a new series starting up, we really should spend some time largely in the present, sowing people what’s up with the signature heroes of the city, and what’s been going on.
We do have plenty more stories set in the past — and even a few set in the future — to get to, and we have the luxury of bopping around in time as we choose (as we do with Graham’s story, which takes place over a period of over ten years). But the present-day stuff needs attention, too.
CA: Was there ever any thought to going with other artists for the stories in the past to distinguish them from Anderson’s present-day stories, or was it important to give the series a unified look?
KB: When we originally started the series, before Brent came aboard, we figured we’d be changing artists a lot, finding just the right guy for each story. But then I ran into Brent and asked him if he wanted to do an issue. Then if he’d like do do a multi-parter. Then I realized he was the right artist for just about anything we might do in the book, so I asked him to join Alex and me as a regular creative team member, and he said yes to it all. And that’s been wonderful — he’s given the book an amazing and consistent visual identity.
So no, since Brent came aboard, we haven’t thought about mixing up different artists for different time periods — we don’t want the book to feel like a pastiche, imitating styles of the past, or anything like that. We want it to feel emotionally true, dramatically coherent. And the past is the past, and people had different hairstyles, drove different cars, but they’re still people and still have a lot of the same emotions and concerns. So if we told a story about the Silver Agent, I didn’t want it to feel any less “real” than a story happening with Samaritan, merely because it happened in the past.
Brent’s made the book his own, and I think we’ve been better off for it. Now that we’ve got a story drawn by someone else, that’s not a stylistic shift for story reasons, it’s a different artist bringing his approach to the same concerns — credibility, drama and emotional truth — as Brent does, each in their own way.
CA: Was the process any different working with Nolan as opposed to Anderson? After two decades, I imagine you two have a pretty tight routine.
KB: It was a little bit different, but then any two collaborations will be. Brent and I are used to going back and forth on everything — script, layouts, pencils, inks, refining as we go. Graham’s more used to just going off and drawing the job, and he kept us posted as he did, so each page was sent to me, Kristy, Brent, Alex and crew as it was done, and there was a scene or two where we refined things, but for the most part it just didn’t come up. The pages looked great, they told the story well, everyone was happy with them.
If Graham and I work more together, on Astro City or something else, we’ll develop a working rapport as we go, but that sort of thing is always different from collaboration to collaboration; it’s about the way two different personalities bounce off each other, so it’s all about whatever gets the best results. It’s one of the things I like most about working in comics, that every collaboration is different.