Treasured Stories: “Smalltown Stardom” (1999)

« I’m going down to the Dew Drop Inn / See if I can drink enough / There ain’t much to country living: sweat, piss, jizz and blood » — Warren Zevon, Play It All Night Long

Kevin Nowlan (b. 1958, Chandron, NE) is one of those artists whose style I’ve always admired, and I’m far from alone in this sentiment. However, when it comes to what I think he should be applying his tremendous talent to, I’m squarely in the minority. Most people would evidently have him drawing Batman or the X-Men or other spandex fanboy favourites… but I feel there’s far more to him. He’s too good for the mainstream comics industry as it exists.

Always a meticulous artist he’s slow as (anti-gravity?) molasses in February, but while that’s led to a relatively modest body of work, it’s all solid. Even early in his career, his path was set, as evidenced by this bit of biography that appeared along with the opening instalment of his short-lived fantasy series, Grimwood’s Daughter (written by Jan Strnad) in Dalgoda no. 2 (Dec. 1984, Fantagraphics):

He discovered that working as gun-for-hire, illustrating scripts for which he had no respect, turning out more art than he could comfortably (and conscientiously) handle, and being forced by publishing schedules to allow as four artists to ink a single story, was artistically debasing and depersonalizing.

Like other creators (say, Adam Hughes and Frank Frazetta, for instance) of the popular but leisurely persuasion, he’s got imitators that can produce at five times his rate of speed. Good; let them take care of the superhero stuff.

Nowlan’s always possessed a sure hand with wry understatement, but he’s not a writer, and that’s a thorny problem when lacking a reliable accomplice to handle that part of the equation. So Nowlan’s done more than his share of covers, pinups and inking jobs.

Ah, but then along came Alan, whom you’ve all met. That hirsute prankster from Northampton understood. He had in his mind’s eye just what Mr. Nowlan needed to truly stretch out and shine, the absurd deeds of Jack B. Quick, Boy Inventor.

JBQ was supposed to be one of a quartet of regular features appearing in the Moore-scripted anthology title Tomorrow Stories, but Nowlan didn’t last long on a schedule, and there are but a handful of JBQ tales, all excellent, capped by the fitting double-length finale, I, Robert. (Tomorrow Stories Special no. 1, Jan. 2006). The feature was (for the most part) replaced by an unfunny waste of Hilary Barta‘s talent, a woeful would-be Plastic Man ersatz, Splash Brannigan. Alan Moore can wring humour out of nearly anything, but as Splash and (even worse) The First American show, superhero parodies are his Waterloo.

JBQ, on the other hand, provides values rarely encountered, let alone appreciated, in mainstream American comics: deadpan, understated humour, surreal but non-cloying whimsy, and a rigorous, steadfast adherence to the mechanics of internal logic, no matter how outlandish things get. In prose, one might chance upon that sort of approach in the works of Marcel Aymé or R.A. Lafferty. But even there, it’s hardly routine. Oh, and given that it’s Alan Moore we’re dealing with, it’s a huge bonus that the JBQ stories are quite rape-free!

But let’s commence from the top, with the dizzying tale of Smalltown Stardom (Tomorrow Stories no. 1, Oct. 1999, America’s Best Comics). No need to shove, there’s plenty of room at the trough!

Find out more about the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta!

Is it just me, or can you also picture Thomas Dolby as a grown-up Jack?

-RG