MO: I’d like to ask you about the Holy Terror book you did with Alan Brennert, who’s another one of my favorites.
NB: It was a lot of fun. I was able to obliquely tap into my own previous Christian fanaticism. I’ve got some comics that I drew when I was 15, 16 years old where I drew Batman as a Christian. He actually prays before a fight where he has to fight like a hundred guys. And of course, he beats ’em all [laughs]. Well, actually he gets saved by the cops before he beats ’em all. But they don’t beat him [laughs]. Yeah, like Jesus would condone beating the crap out of guys. But, yeah, Holy Terror. Holy Terror was the first elseworlds book. [Gotham by Gaslight, drawn by Mike Mignola] wasn’t called elseworlds, but really was the same [concept]. [Terror] was really the second, but the first one with the logo. I liked the whole “elseworlds” concept. It’s too bad DC killed that. There are so many more things that could be done. In fact, there are a number of my own proposals that I thought would have been wonderful as “elseworlds” concepts that DC didn’t pick up. I guess they were getting deluged with elseworlds concept titles. Creators love that — it’s a new feel. You can do the same character, but it’s like you’re creating it yourself. For instance, one of mine was going to be tentatively called “Batman of the Apes”, where instead of Lord Greystroke, Bruce Wayne’s father would crash a plane in the jungles of Africa and he’d be raised by apes. I didn’t have it all worked out, but basically, there’d be another experience of a bat that would have him start dressing up as a bat to avenge the death of his parents or something. That would have been wonderful.
There was one I was considering calling “Atomflash” which was a combination of the Atom and the Flash. The Atom and the Flash have a long history of teaming up together — there were some stories by Alex Toth. I had great visuals worked out. God, it’s been too long since I’ve thought about it. The main character’s name was a combination of Barry Allen and Ray Palmer. The whole point of the story was that I’d be able to draw these wonderful visuals. [The symbol] on his chest was a combination of the Flash symbol and the Atom symbol. Like the electron going around the nucleus of an atom. He breathed miniaturized air. He communicated with macroscopic people through radio electronics, because he’s just “at point” (invisible in size).
MO: Some of these elements seem to evoke Ant-Man. This is neat.
NB: What was neat about it for me as an artist was that he would have all the neat visuals of The Atom, because instead of being stuck in one area, he would be able to see a lot more terrain; with his super-speed he could move much more quickly. [My proposal illustrations] were drawn not as segments of the story, but just to show what kind of visuals were potential. Even the Atom stories have never really been drawn like that. When the Atom shrinks, he’s either six inches tall and throws his weight around — literally, he beats people up — or else he goes into the subatomic realm. He’s never right in between, “at point,” where it’s the most interesting scale to draw. Since DC turned it down, I’ve decided to write a novel based on the concepts, if not the exact same character. I’ve got it halfway written now.
None of the original visuals are going to be involved. Like I said, DC was being deluged with elseworlds concepts. Plus, they didn’t really like my idea in that it was a combination of two characters in one. The traditional element of elseworlds is that you might use two characters, but they’d remain separate characters. This would be the first time two were combined in one. Yet, I thought it was ideal, because the Atom and the Flash are arguably both the most science fiction-oriented of the DC superheroes. Superman’s obviously science fiction too, but he’s got so many powers, he’s almost into a god realm. But these guys have one incredible power [each] that have been used in science fiction stories for a long period of time. Like H.G. Wells wrote in his short story “the New Accelerator” back in 1905. I think they should have kept going with the elseworlds titles. I guess they weren’t selling — it must be that, I’m not sure what else it could be. It’s disappointing that the fans didn’t find it as interesting as the creators.
MO: There was that year where all the annuals were elseworlds stories. Maybe they burned out then?
NB: I don’t know about that. If it was long enough ago, maybe they could bring it back now.
MO: I remember seeing a drawing you did of the Creeper that was part of a series proposal? How did that come about?
NB: It was in the late ’90s. It wasn’t that long ago. I guess it was like ten years ago almost. I heard through my agent — Mike Freidrich was still my agent — that DC was open for a Creeper proposal. So Pat McGreal and I put together a Creeper proposal. They didn’t go with it, of course. Otherwise you would have seen it. There were a lot of other drawings too — there were two production drawings of the Creeper. You probably just saw the costume design?
MO: I remember what I saw had him on a lamppost coming down on some guys. I noticed he had a different costume — a much more shirt-oriented costume. He had a V-neck.
NB: I don’t remember one of him on a lamp post. I’ve drawn so many pages! I’ve drawn at least 5,000 comic book pages. It’s incredible when you look back on it. There’s going to be another 5,000 before I’m done, I’m sure. I wonder what the record is. People refer to Jack Kirby as possibly holding that record, but I don’t know the actual number of pages that he drew. I’m sure I’ll never beat the record, whatever it is. I spend a little too much time on each page. Although I did start early, and I did them consistently, and I do plan on doing it the rest of my life. I might be able to get a lot of them out there.
MO: You did the Denny O’Neil book Batman: Birth of the Demon as well, the origin of Ras Al Ghul.
NB: That was overshadowed by the death of Superman. I thought that was very unfortunate. I thought there’d be a lot more interest in it. After all, Ras Al Ghul had been around, had been one of Batman’s icon villains for — at that point — twenty years at least. I was very excited by it. Although I must say, when I got it, I was a little disappointed there wasn’t more Batman in it. It was almost all Ras Al Ghul. I got around that by insisting that I do it in full color. So I was able to really enjoy the desert terrain, and all the colors involved. I ended up really liking that book.
MO: That’s one of the few places, aside from a pin-up here or there or some covers that we’ve really gotten to see your full color work.
NB: I love working in full color. Since I’ve started drawing comics, for twenty years I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to do it. That was one of the high points. Whenever I see Alex Ross’s work, I go ‘God, that should be me.’ Although my style wouldn’t be the same, because I don’t go for super-realism. I appreciate it, but I like putting in a personal, illustrative, stylistic flair and exaggeration. That’s one of the things that bothers me about Alex’s work — and it’s ridiculous to say anything bothers you about Alex’s work, because it’s just so beautiful — I’m going to be ultra-picky. The costumes look like people in costumes that were photographed. Sometimes the costumes don’t look that great. He puts in all the imperfections. It kind of emphasizes the fact that these superhero characters are kind of absurd because they look too realistic. That was my first impression of Alex’s work. It works better with certain characters, like the ones that don’t wear a mask, like Superman. A mask is kind of absurd. It blocks your vision no matter how skintight it is. Ask Burt Ward and Adam West.
MO: You worked not too long ago with Steve Englehart over at Marvel on Hellcat.
NB: Just a three-issue miniseries. I look at that stuff now, and I’m proud of it. Steve’s writing was really good too. Both of us were a little consternated as to why — I mean, they approached us. We didn’t really understand why Marvel didn’t really seem interested in any follow-ups on any of the characters or anything else. I’d love to have done more for Marvel. We’re just not the hot new kids on the block anymore, and that’s what they’re looking for. You get a turnover of editors, and the new editors don’t want to use talent that the other editors discovered. It’s as though the editors have some sort of credit in developing the skills of the creative people.
MO: That’s a terrible shame.
NB: The world’s filled with terrible shames. You’ve got to laugh to keep from crying [laughs]. There are a lot worse terrible shames. It bothered me for a while, but it doesn’t really bother me anymore. Once I started writing my novel, and I started writing a lot of poetry, and I cut my expenses and sold my house, and resigned myself to not being at the top of the game — as I put it — in comics, I started feeling a lot more free, and feeling like there were a lot more things — I had already known — that the treadmill of monthly comics was keeping me from exploring.
When I was in college and I was an art major, I always thought ‘Yeah, I want to draw comics’, but I thought it would just be a stepping stone to other things. It’s not [laughs]. If you’re any good, you get a lot of gigs and get off the treadmill really quick. I made the classic mistake of a lot of people: I didn’t invest my money as well as I could have. I didn’t have to declare bankruptcy or anything; I’ve been able to budget myself over the years so I could maintain that, but still I could’ve handled it better so when the jobs did stop coming on a regular basis I would’ve had a lot of elbow room. As it was, I was pretty desperate for a little while.
But that’s over now. In fact, in some ways it’s good. If it hadn’t happened, I would’ve just contentedly drawn company-owned characters for the rest of my life. I always knew I had a writer inside me, and I wanted to develop it. I’m developing it now. I’m not getting any of it published yet — well, actually, a little bit of my poetry I’ve submitted has won a couple contests. It’s going to be published in a couple of publications. The American Poets Society, and — I forget what the other one is. There’s no way to make money off poetry; there’s no way to make a living off poetry. But it’s aesthetically very satisfying, and it has developed my skills with words in a lot of other ways. I do plan on finishing the novel. Not only illustrating it — I want to have the whole thing written so it’s entirely mine before I show it to anybody. I was tempted very often once I got a lot of it worked out, to approach writers that I knew to finish it so that I could get the project going faster, but I wanted it to be entirely mine. Then I’m going to illustrate it, so it’s going to be an illustrated novel. Kind of like an old-fashioned Alice in Wonderland kind of illustrated novel. Then I’ll pitch it as a comic book too. It’s just a question of how much time it’s gonna take to get through that.
I’ve always been fascinated by the scaler contrasts, and the shrunken scientist motif in science fiction. It’s almost a standard. There have been so many movies, not to mention stories told about the ability to shrink into other worlds. The Atom is the beneficiary of that kind of science fiction motif. I remember being so fascinated by it at a young age, that when I’d see in the TV Guide that The Incredible Shrinking Man was going to be on at like three in the morning, I’d beg my mom to let me get up to watch it. I’d watch it, even though I had school the next day and was bleary eyed, I’d watch it with rapt attention. Then there was Fantastic Voyage, from the Isaac Asimov story.
I’ve come across recently a number of golden age 1930s science fiction stories hat dealt with the same kind of motif. The best one that I’ve read so far was ‘He Who Shrank’ (by Henry Hasse). It’s about a scientist that develops a liquid that he can drink — he actually calls it ‘shrinx’ — and he tries it on his assistant. He starts shrinking, and the scientist puts him on a slab of really dense beryllium steel or something so the atoms are close together, so he’ll have a better chance of not disappearing into the space between the atoms. As he shrinks, he finds that he can gravitate towards the atoms, and the atoms are worlds, or universes. He goes through a whole bunch of them. And then in the final one that he shrinks through, it turns out, is earth [laughs]. That really wowed me. Even though it was pretty crude, it was written in the 1930s, I like early science fiction. I like early science fiction movies. Not just that they’re crude, although that’s kind of amusing, but that they’re seminal. They’re fresh. You can sense how fresh the concepts were then. Everything’s been worked over so many times now, it’s difficult to come up with a really fresh idea now. In fact I’m doing that now. Even though I’m using this motif, I’ve got — and I don’t want to give it away — but I’ve got a twist on that shrunken scientist motif that no one’s ever used before. I’m really happy with the result. I hope other people feel the same way when I finally finish writing it.
MO: What else do you have in the works?
NB: The first issue of Of Bitter Souls is going to be out in August; it’s an ongoing [series]. I’m really enjoying it. We’ve got good production values, Speakeasy is giving it a good advertising push, and Relative Comics itself — namely, Chuck Satterlee — is very energized about it. He’s calling each of us personally and giving us updates on a regular basis. He’s also all over the net promoting it, and calling retailers personally! From what I’ve seen of the coloring and the lettering, I’ve really enjoyed it, and it’s going to be on high-quality paper. And Eric Enervold – who’s the chief production artist behind all of it – I’ve become very impressed with his enthusiasm and his love for comics. All his editorial input that he’s given me, I’ve agreed with all of it. It’s been improving the book in a lot of ways just by critiquing my pencils when I send them in. But also, I really trust his judgment when it comes to… For instance, I was going to be sending scans in order to save money, and yet, to send really good scans, you’ve got to have a very expensive scanner. I just couldn’t see the funds in my wallet for that. I ended up being surprised, I found a $200 scanner that could do large scans. But there were shortcoming in it that didn’t satisfy Eric. Instead, they’re going to have me continue to send in the original art. It’s just an example of how the Relative Comics crew is putting quality over saving money, for instance. And I’m enjoying it. That’s the chief thing for me at this point. It reminds me — largely because Chuck has such a good feel for what makes for good comics, and he’s a good writer in that respect– but he’s also got such a fan’s appreciation and enthusiasm for what he’s doing, that it’s a lot like drawing Prime. Len Strazewski and Gerard Jones were really able to write for the artist for me. They put in a lot of double page splashes for me, and single page splashes. It wasn’t overdone, it was always in the service of the story. That’s how I feel about Chuck’s writing.
It’s something I didn’t feel when I was working on The Spectre with J. M. DeMatties. Although I really enjoyed it, it was kind of tedious work. There were a lot of word balloons, a lot of talking heads, and a lot of small panels, and there was almost never a splash page.
MO: What I’ve seen of Bitter Souls looks really strong. I look forward to seeing it in print.
NB: Me too. Oh, by the way, my brother is inking the other Relative Comics title, Smoke and Mirrors. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know what it’s about exactly, except that it’s about a golden age team that makes a comeback. It’s my brother’s first inking gig that is this professional. Actually, he penciled and inked Carnal Comics for 5, 6 years. He really cut his teeth on that stuff. He always had the ability. He just didn’t have the connections and he never landed a big character. My having done Batman has been a real boon for my career in a lot of ways since. I have name recognition because everybody saw it. Maybe my brother’s going to get some name recognition for what he’s doing now. It had been a number of years since he’d done any inking, and we were all a little worried about the results, but the results have been really nice.
I’m calling [Of Bitter Souls] ‘Cajun ghostbusters with Matrix style’. Basically, there’s a really slick-looking small group of superheroes that have gained superpowers to fight the evil beings in New Orleans that are based on actual legendary and historical incidents of ghosts and hatchet men, murderers, things like that. For instance, in the first issue, they fight vampires. In the second issue, they fight a Turkish ghost and the slaves that are with him that are also ghosts. In the third issue, they fight an axeman that apparently actually was killing people in 1920s New Orleans and then writing letters to the local paper. People took to calling him ‘the Bogeyman’. So we’re calling him both ‘the axeman’ and ‘the Bogeyman’. He’s called both in the story – kind of colloquially ‘the Bogeyman’. So I designed him to look like the bogeyman, and it was a lot of fun.
Even after drawing comics for 20 years, I haven’t had this much opportunity to draw monstrous characters. It’s usually been mostly straight superheroics, with every now and then a monstrous character, but this has been like every issue fighting another weirdo of some kind. Plus, there’s going to be a murder on a regular basis. In fact, Chuck is considering – I think he’s already made the decision – to do a contest. I’m not exactly sure what the contest is, but when they win, the winner gets to have his likeness as one of the victims. It’s going to be almost a monthly thing. When Chuck suggested that, I said ‘Do you want to write a murder every month? A grisly murder every month?’ He said, ‘Well, maybe not every month’ [laughs]. I already drew myself as the first victim, I got axed by the Bogeyman. Then Chuck gets axed by the Bogeyman right after that in the same issue. We’re offering ourselves up as templates for everybody else.
[Editor of Relative Comics]: I think you get to choose your method of death.
NB: Really? I didn’t know that. I don’t think Chuck mentioned that to me. That’s even better. I hope somebody chooses crucifixion. I haven’t had the chance to draw crucifixion in a comic book. I drew a lot of crucifixions; I was a very religious guy in high school. I was a born again Christian. I actually drew a hundred penciled pages, 8 ½ by 11 based on the Gospels. Bits and pieces here and there [are around]; I’d have to piece it all together. But I don’t even know if I have all of it. I have a bunch of it. It’s pretty crude, I was doing it when I was 15, 16.
MO: I’ve always been taken by projects born of passion that come out of being that age.
NB: You’d really get a kick out of the crucifixion scene, because I wrote it almost like a superheroic crucifixion. I added my own narration — it’s not just quotes from the Bible, although I use quotes from the Bible. I followed the Bible slavishly, except that I added my own narration, my own mood, to a lot of the scenes. I have Jesus on the cross, and he’s gritting his teeth, really superheroic, because he’s going to save all mankind.
MO: The picture I’ve got in my mind is one of your Batman covers that’s kind of a crucifixion, Batman strapped spread-eagle to a rocket…
NB: I’ve used that motif a lot of times; I guess it comes out of my subconscious, like the first issue’s cover of Metaphysique, he’s bursting out of a cage. He’s very much in a crucifixion mode. When I conceived the original painting that this was based on – this is the second version – in the first version, it was just a bunch of naked guys; it wasn’t a guy in costume. That was for Eclipse’s version of Metaphysique. I repainted it for this one, and added the superhero costume to the character. But when I drew it, I didn’t think about the crucifixion at all, it came out of my subconscious, it’s a natural position to be in if you’re breaking free of a cage.
MO: [Laughs] The thing that I see, having had the conversation we’ve just had, is the Neal Adams Superman cover where he’s breaking out of chains.
NB: That’s another good example. I think those have – especially in a predominantly Christian country – profound resonances with a lot of people who don’t even know that’s happening. I was raised as a religious kid, so… No matter what position Neal Adams put him in, though, I would have loved it [laughs].