"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Kevin Nowlan, and the story is “Monsters in the Closet” from Batman Black and White #4, which was published by DC and is cover dated September 1996. This scan is from the trade paperback, which came out in 1998. Enjoy!
Once Nowlan started inking himself exclusively, his artwork took another step forward. His lines became crisper and more decisive, and his figures became a bit more angular. It’s been his style ever since, with one unusual exception, which we’ll look at tomorrow. There aren’t a lot of examples of this Nowlan, as his pencilling gigs have become fewer and further between, but this story is a pretty good one.
Nowlan begins the tale with a nice, eerie set-up. We get the long, tall window, out of which the bald dude pours a bucket of goop. Nowlan follows the goop down the roof and through the gargoyle, giving us a nice idea of the gothic Gotham – in Panel 1, the building has Victorian-style chimneys and the stonework is pitted; the roof on Panel 3 is tile or brick; the gargoyle in Panel 4 looms menacingly. In Panel 6, we also see a 1950s-style car in the lower left and the men are wearing hats. There’s a very old-fashioned feel to this story. I do like how Batman is just chillaxing right off a busy street when the dude chucks the goop out of the window. It’s not like he has anything better to do!
Nowlan’s inks are quite nice, as he’s gotten very good at using cross-hatching in crucial places but also ditching holding lines in other places to add to the atmosphere. Panel 4 is nice – it’s all shadows and very few lines, so the gargoyle seems to come out of a mysterious past. The final panel is fairly indicative of how Nowlan now draws characters – very thin eyes and lips, with the mouth usually slightly downturned. Not a lot of joy in Nowlan’s worlds.
The dude with the goop is creating “biological affronts to all that is holy, all that is sane” (well done, Jan Strnad!), and Nowlan gives us this amazing splash page to drive the point home. Nowlan’s attention to detail is marvelous, and the container is both sleek and a bit clanky, while we continue with the olde-tymey motif – the container is vaguely steampunk-ish, and the light on the left side is vaguely Art Deco. The judicious erasure of holding lines and use of spot blacks inside the container give the environment a weird, misty, alien look, which is what Nowlan is going for. The inside of the container is contrasted very nicely with the harder exterior, as the “science” inside the vat is haunting and mysterious, while the machinery outside is solid and brutal.
Nowlan does a wonderful job leading our eye across this sequence. The water from the broken vat spews to the right, and Batman leans that way, taking us to Panel 2, where the water continues to lead us to the right. The scientist dude is in the lower left, right were Batman’s eyes in Panel 1 lead us, and his gun is pointing upward toward Bats and the hole in the vat. Then, in Panels 3-5, we’re constantly being moved from the left to the right, and Nowlan makes sure to capture the key moments in the fall. His details are once again marvelous – the building itself is impressive and foreboding in Panel 3; Nowlan’s fine lines in Panels 4 and 5 help clearly show the characters falling; the clotheslines are another indication that this is taking place in a strange, non-past past – I mean, do you see clotheslines anymore? Nowlan’s figure work, which was always lithe, is even more sinewy, which makes the action in his stories more believable. As we’ve seen in other examples above, his inking is impressive here, too – the blacks dominate in some crucial places, but Nowlan uses them to create stark contrasts with the water and even with Batman. To show the water more clearly, he adds white spaces in Panels 4 and 5, giving the entire scene a weird, eerie feeling. As above, the small details like the pitting in the building give us an impression that this is somehow an archaic version of Gotham. The best thing about Batman’s city is that it can be every city – Metropolis is always a clean, sleek city, but Gotham can be modern as well as gothic. Nowlan uses this idea well.
Tomorrow, we’ll finish up with Nowlan, as we see one of his more unusual artistic efforts. Oh, it’s a weird one! There’s some weird art in the archives to get you ready for it!
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