IN THE BEGINNING:
Drawing and telling stories is something I've always liked to do. I can't remember ever not doing it. I can, however, remember where and when I decided to channel that interest into some type of career.
From the time I was 12 years old, I knew what I wanted to do. My sixth-grade teacher at the Lindell School in Long Beach, New York, brought in a stack of comic books for the class to read during recess. Those comics lit my world on fire with their heroic tales, action and bright colors. I took them home and immediately started copying the pictures. I remember thinking, "Gee, somebody must get paid to do this, so it might as well be me!" I would draw my own comic adventures on anything available, including the school desktops. I began to wonder if my last name was really "Detention," because after finishing another desktop masterpiece, I would invariably hear "Graham Nolan ... DETENTION!" I got really good at scrubbing desks.
My enthusiasm for my newly chosen career didn't quite translate over to my parents. My mother was a teacher and was artistic as well. She was very encouraging at that time. Probably not wanting to squash my dreams. Moms are like that, you know. Dad was a different story. He was a homicide detective and saw the world through a more pragmatic prism than my Mom or me. At the time, though his two nephews had master’s degrees from Pratt Institute, one was flipping pizzas and the other was laying brick. He couldn't wrap his head around the idea of making a career out of art. Many years later, that would change.
My first love was comic books. Actually, my first love was monsters and monster magazines, but since this is about comics, we'll go with the former. I used to read the comic strips in the New York Daily News and Newsday, but they didn't grab me like the adventures in the comic books. The reign of the humor strip had already taken hold of the newspaper real estate. The only adventure strip I remember seeing as a boy was Dick Tracy (Dondi was there, too, now that I think about it) and it just wasn't as cool to a 12-year-old as Batman, Superman and Spider-Man.
Eventually, I ended up at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Arts (now just The Kubert School). I attended a couple years, but money was always an issue and I couldn't afford to go back and finish. Fortunately, one of my teachers at Kubert's, Sal Amendola, was also the talent coordinator at DC Comics. He bought a couple class assignments I had done for him to run in their New Talent Showcase book. My first professional sale!
Back in 1984, long before the 9/11 security precautions, you used to be able to go up to the offices at Marvel and DC and show your portfolio around to the editors. It was a wonderful way to network and allow them to attach a face to the name and work. Eventually, I began to get more regular assignments from them, working on The Doom Patrol, Power of the Atom, Hawkworld, Metamorpho and eventually to the holy grail, BATMAN, in Detective Comics.
I ended up spending six years in the Bat-offices, eventually becoming the senior illustrator, co-creating Bane, designing various characters, the Bat-Cave, Wayne Manor and The Trophy Room for the "bible" that was sent to all the artists that worked on the character. An image bible is important for continuity when there are so many people working on the same character with the same environments.
Eventually, I started to become dissatisfied with the direction that comics were taking, so I submitted some samples to the syndicates of an adventure comic called MONSTER ISLAND (based upon a comic book I had published).
It was rejected soundly by all the syndicates, who said they couldn't sell a continuity strip to the papers. It paid off in the end because I got a call from King Features asking me if I wanted to take over the art on their medical soap-opera strip, Rex Morgan, M.D.
I fell into the comic strip side of the business by accident. It's funny where the eddies and currents of life will take you. Once I picked up the Rex assignment, I added the Sunday Phantom to my schedule a month later.
Back to my dad. At this point in my career, my Dad was proud of my success, but he never read any of my work. He didn't buy or read comic books. Woody Wilson (the writer of Rex Morgan, M.D.) and I were working on a black mold storyline in Rex. In the story, there was a bad smell coming from the basement.
One morning my phone rings and it's Dad. "I know what the smell is," he says. "Huh?" I replied. "In the basement. There's a stiff down there!" Ever the detective! He was actually reading my work and getting in to it. He was wrong in his deduction. The smell was the black mold, but I knew I had won him over.
When my dad retired from the police department in 1974, he moved the family down to Florida. Quite a culture shock to this kid from Long Island, but the sand and surf were a constant source of familiarity and comfort. Still are.
I had been kicking around the idea of a humor strip about a family of alligators since 1986. I had done a bunch of strips as samples, but kept hitting a dead end. It ended up being just another slice-of-life family strip. Substitute alligators for people.
They say to write what you know. As I got older and my life got more complicated, I started to think about the laid-back lifestyle of Florida I remembered as a kid. Married and living in western New York, I missed that lifestyle (particularly during the long winters!). The strip took on a decidedly different theme. We live in very busy, hectic and complicated world. Who doesn't need a vacation? And that's when it hit me. A buddy strip where the weather is warm, the drinks are cool and every day is like a vacation!
Of all the projects of my career, I can honestly say SUNSHINE STATE gives me the most joy. Probably because it's so personal. All the characters contain aspects of my own personality. Plus, when it's cold up here, it's fun to draw palm trees and alligators.
So many. The comic books of my youth and the artists that drew them, like Joe Kubert, John Romita, Jack Kirby, John Buscema, Gil Kane, Alex Toth, Curt Swan.
The comic strip greats like Roy Crane, Frank Robbins, Charles Schulz, E.C. Segar, Russell Myers.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention my biggest supporter and inspiration – my wife, Julia. She has been there at my side from the beginning. Back in the days when we would have the deli guy take a slice of turkey off the scale because we couldn't afford it. True story!
I used to work in an office above a movie theater right in the middle of town when my kids were young and I needed more quiet. Once they got older, I built a large studio in my basement. I have my computer, drawing table, bookshelves, flat file, magazine rack and toys down there.
It's usually a mess because there is always a work in progress. Particularly when I am working on comic book projects, because the amount of reference you need is enormous, so I usually have pictures and books strewn about the place. I also have a TV mounted on the wall and I stream movies and TV shows while I work for background noise. Sometimes, I use the shows as reference and freeze frame a scene to draw.
I still work in a traditional method. I draw on Bristol with pencil and ink. I do my lettering and coloring on the computer, but I haven’t transitioned completely to digital.
JOE FRANKENSTEIN #3 on sale April 29
JOE FRANKENSTEIN hardcover book on sale in August
SPONGEBOB #44 on sale the first week of May
SUNSHINE STATE every Monday and Friday on GoComics.
FCBD – Yancy Street Comics May 2
Albany ComicCon – June 7
ComicCONN – August 14-17
Florence Comic Con – Sept 13
THE BOTTOM LINE
Cartooning is all I've ever wanted to do, and I've been blessed with the ability to make a living at it. I've been to many places I never thought I would go because of it. I've met and worked with some amazing people. Got to work on Batman, a childhood favorite, and design and co-create an iconic villain for him. I was awarded the prestigious Inkpot Award for my contributions to the comic arts this past July (never saw that coming!). All in all, it's been a great ride. I'm not the type of person who likes to live in the past. My best work is yet to come. Hope you'll come along for the ride with me.
Read Sunshine State here or follow along on Facebook and Twitter.