Dan Brereton is one of those rare creators who’s always seemed to forge his own path in comics, an uncompromising, unique voice in both writing and art. Such diverse characters as Batman, JLA, Giantkiller, Vampirella, Thor, The Punisher, and his own Nocturnals and Gunwitch have been brought to life through his brushes. His unmistakeable style has earned him accolades from his peers, and quite a following through the years from fans who will purchase anything that his brushes touch. But twenty years ago he created his most personal work. It was that work that he is most remembered for, the first Nocturnals series, Black Planet, as well as the subsequent stories of Doc Horror, his daughter Eve aka Halloween Girl, and the rest of the Nocs.
Since then he has moved into the world of fine art, album covers, and even art for a theme park, but he’s never left comics, and The Nocturnals have never left him. For this year’s 20th anniversary Dan has a new Nocturnals series coming out. The Sinister Path launched its Kickstarter campaign a few weeks ago, and has already surpassed its funding goal, leading to fantastic stretch goals expanding the book to a whopping 80 page length. There are some great backer rewards available as well, including cover sketches and original paintings!
The Nocturnals has long been a favorite of mine due to its blending of detective stories, H.P. Lovecraft inspiration, halloween iconography, and Dan’s fantastic art style. I met Dan at Long Beach Comic Con a few months ago and had the chance to chat with him, and this is the follow-up interview where we discuss The Nocturnals, as well as everything from his childhood to a wild west theme park.
I like to start off interviews with creator’s origin stories. Where did your love of art and comics come about, and when did you first put them together?
My mother is an artist and she drew and painted when I was small. She got me painting as a toddler, but drawing is what really stuck . My drawings, mostly monsters, were a great comfort to me as a shy kid. It helped me break the ice at times with other kids, teachers, and adults.
A kid I knew in 3rd grade, whose family was from the east coast, where it seems comics were much more a normal part of a kid’s life, he was the only other kid in the suburbs of the Bay Area east of San Francisco who read them. He introduced me to an entire universe (or two) in those comic books – the characters and the art, the stories -blew my kid mind. How can a kid see the Marvel Universe of 1974 and ever be satisfied with life in the burbs again? I knew I wanted to be a comic book artist, just like my new found heroes, Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, John and Sal Buscema, Gil Kane …
What was the first comic you ever picked up, and what was the one that made you want to make them yourself?
The first comic I ever picked up was probably Captain America. Instantly hooked. By the time I’d made it through Avengers, Thor, the Fantastic Four, and into titles like Man-Thing and Conan, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I was about 8.
Was your family supportive in the early days?
Of my ambitions to be an artist and tell stories, definitely. To be a comic book artist? Not at first. They had come up in the 50’s, and were made to regard comics as material which would “rot your brain”. This I blame on that old devil Dr. Wertham, and the fact my folks wanted to protect our innocence. We weren’t religious or anything, but I was this little kid who was reading Conan and Son of Satan. I can’t blame them.
Over time, my folks realized the depth of my commitment and love of the medium, and by then I was into so many other influences. I was heavily into comic strips for a while, and then it was Frazetta and Wrightson, Epic magazine, and Heavy Metal. The Warren magazines. I ran the gamut.
You have a very unique, dynamic, and extremely recognizable style. Do you have any formal art education, or are you self taught?
I studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts, in Oakland, California. Artists like Steve Purcell and Mike Mignola had attended before me. I transferred to The Academy of Art College in San Francisco after two-and-a-half years. Both schools were outstanding. I probably wouldn’t be talking to you if I hadn’t attended them.
Who or what were your biggest influences when you were starting out, and how have they evolved through the years?
By the time I began drawing comics and painting them as a paid professional, I was big into black and white artists like Jordi Bernet and Jorge Zaffino. In the painting world, Bill Sienkiewicz and Howard Chaykin. Howard was doing it all back then, but I was particularly fond of his fully illustrated graphic novels like Time2. Having just transitioned out of art school, with my head full of 100 years of illustration history, I had a host of other influences and inspirations as well. Among them, artists as diverse as Thomas Blackshear (one of my teachers at the Academy of Art) or as classic as Dean Cornwell.
I still find inspiration in hundreds of illustrators – just as a writer must be a voracious reader, an artist can not work in a vacuum free of the work of his peers. I’m as inspired by amazing draftsmen and cartoonists as I ever was as a kid. If anything, my tastes have exploded so the tableau of inspiration is almost infinite.
How did you get into this industry, and what was your first official published work? It wasn’t The Black Terror series for Eclipse, was it?
The Black Terror was my third comics job. My first was designing characters for Mike Mignola for use in a Doctor Strange/Doctor Doom graphic novel. Mike had seen my student work and hired me to come up with some cool characters for a sorcerers competition, a real boost to my confidence at the time. The second job had almost the opposite effect. I was hired to pencil a six part back up series for Eclipse Comics, which I felt I did fine on, but I wasn’t crazy about the end result and neither were they, as it turned out.
So after that summer, I was starting my last year of art school, and decided to do some painted comics pages like the ones I’d seen done by Sienkiewicz and fellows like George Pratt. I’ve been studying painting and illustration for four years so it’s time to put that to the test – and I came up with 7 painted pages by Christmas break. I showed those pages to a supportive editor at Eclipse, who in turn showed them to his boss, and they hired me about two weeks later to illustrate THE BLACK TERROR. My first major comics job was 3 48-page fully painted books. Life was never the same after that.
What is your process like, and has it changed as you’ve grown as an artist?
Not much, actually. I still mostly work at night. I tend to go from very rough prelims and sketches into the final product – by this I mean that I don’t do a lot of color comps and color prelims, and be as spontaneous as I can when it comes to painting. I can ink, and I am fine with working in black-and-white, or monochromatic, but working in color it’s just always been easier for me. There have been lots of times when I wished it was the opposite. I think I would’ve had a much more prolific career drawing comic book stories. It’s hard to commit to a monthly title when you paint interiors. For the first years of my career this was not a problem as painted comics were much more popular, but in the second decade it became more difficult to nail those longer gigs.
How is your process different when writing a script for another artist, as opposed to writing for yourself?
When I write for me I don’t usually write full dialogue/full script. I tend to go raw plot and thumbnails. Just like movie scripts are re-written and polished while scenes are shooting, I feel it’s important to be able to edit, change, and improve on a story while you’re doing the art. Not always so easy when you’re not drawing it yourself, so when I work with an artist I usually give them a panel by panel plot breakdown with a minimum of dialogue. Unless the editor requires a full script, in which case I will definitely deliver it. (One editor required I deliver full scripts – and when the penciler sent back the pages, would again require me to totally re-dialogue them because of the way they had been drawn. Big waste of time.)
I just think it’s important for an artist to be free to tell a story with a healthy amount of freedom, because I can come in as the writer later and complement the art with just enough dialogue without things getting bogged down in the dictates of the script. You always hope an artist grasps and embraces your material, without changing it, but complementing it, but you really have to roll with the punches in a collaborative process like this. But that’s just the way I tend to do it. There are many ways that work just as well, if not better.
Being all over the place is the role of a professional illustrator because not only am I jumping around in comics, I’m jumping around as an illustrator, as well as a writer – working in television, animation, music industry, publishing: anything that comes my way I am qualified and ready to do, I’ll tackle. I don’t think it’s that different from any other professional illustrator or writer. Being able to put on different hats is a great way to keep things fresh and expand your range. I got to see my favorite thing about any of the jobs I do is really the core creation of the story and characters and the world that they inhabit. Ideas for these things come at you in a way doesn’t at all seem like work. Does not sound like the kind of thing you’d want to be your life’s work? The thing that seems like play?
You’ve done plenty of books with “Big Two” characters, but you’re probably more well known for The Psycho, Giantkiller, and Nocturnals especially. How is the experience different between writing your own characters, and those that don’t belong to you?
It’s always a big kick to be given the keys to the kingdom, say, with Batman, like I’m doing now, and have done in the past. It’s like having your dad give you the keys to his cherished car to have on the weekends to road trip and have adventures in. As long as you act responsibly, bring the car back, and it’s not damaged too badly, that can’t be anything but a source of joy.
On the other hand, cruising down the highway in the vehicle that you worked on yourself, maybe restored and crafted with a meticulous and loving hand – there’s no feeling like that.
Where did the idea for Nocturnals originate, and how has it evolved through the years? Is there any one character that’s become your favorite to write?
I think I began by somewhat identifying with Doc Horror, the leader of the Nocturnals, because I was a father with three small children, and had also tended to be the ringleader in the circles of friends I ran with. Like that he is a man of science but is also kind of a wolf underneath it all – as I worked more on the books, I realized how much I identify with all the characters.
These days I think Eve is my true focus – Halloween Girl is that daring and fearless kid we all wanted to be or perhaps were in our better moments. The fact that she’s a girl is just not putting too fine a point on things, I guess. Female characters are interesting to me because they aren’t usually the ones you root for to be the hero, but they tend to be survivors and heroic in the end a lot more often than we realize, maybe used to realize. For starting Nocturnals with a ten-year-old little girl character in mainstream adventure comics was pretty much unheard of. Not so much now. Having written many pages of text for NOCTURNALS: LEGEND in which the characters speak for themselves, I found it a great exercise for getting my head back into the Nocturnals arena.
I’m not sure, but I like to think it’s the same things that make them resonate with me – I love drawing them. Visually, they are unique and interesting to me. I try to write them honestly, as separate personalities who are less archetypical, and more realistic in their behavior, hopefully? I know that when I’ve been done with any one Nocturnals story, three more ideas for stories leap right in there – I can’t wait to do them but haven’t been able to do them with the frequency I would’ve liked. It makes me think people who enjoy the Nocs are possibly hungry for more just as I’ve been hungry to do more. Whatever it is I’m thankful for it!
Even fellow creators love to play in the Nocturnals sandbox. We spoke a little about this before, but what’s it like to see another artist’s interpretation of your characters?
It’s a huge compliment and it’s probably the biggest form of validation, aside from just having readers come up and tell you how much they enjoyed the story or love the characters. When someone comes up and remembers the name of a character that is a big deal too! I mean you just made it up out of your head in now it’s become something we can all relate about. Fiction, storytelling are very powerful.
Nocturnals: Legend , a hardcover retrospective, came out in November. Now you’ve got a funded Kickstarter campaign in full swing , with a little over a week to go ( Jan 31) to wrap it up. Tell us about the project –
The campaign will fund a new Nocturnals graphic novel called “The Sinister Path”. We posted as a 64 page story but now it has been funded to 80 pages, which is amazing. The story deals with Eve’s powers changing and growing in frightening ways, she’s got a little bit older, now she’s going to deal with that – at the same time the Nocturnals run afoul of the clan of creatures who have been released from a kind of imprisonment by their father, a powerful local judge. The judges died and his monstrous children are loosed upon the world once again. In a way these feral children are sort of the original Nocturnals in the world our characters inhabit- except that they are anything but heroic. The title refers to a few different things, but to me it’s about how our paths in life can change irrevocably, whether by our own actions, or events or people that throw us off course. The Kickstarter page has lots of examples of our work from the story because I’ve done over a dozen pages of it already. The video has a few other surprises in it as well if you haven’t seen it yet.
The book will be available in shops when it’s done and printed, but eight pages of the story will be seen only by Kickstarter supporters as a special thank you to them for backing our project. It does not require deep pockets, so I urge you to get in on that now!
I’m assuming you’re a fan of the Sisters of Mercy from the title of your first Nocturnals series, amongst other things. What role does music play in your life and art?
I listened to them once upon a time, at least that one album – I don’t know if I chose the title based on that song as much as the story evoked the title. It was a perfect fit in any case. I think the Sisters of Mercy have a lot darker view of life than and I do, actually. I think I’m as connected to music as anyone else is. I don’t play an instrument, but I sung a lot as a kid, in choir and theater, stuff like that. I sing mostly in the car now. Music is the accompaniment to much of what I do, except for writing. I need it quiet to write.
You’ve finished Vampirella: The Red Room two years ago, and Legends of the Dark Knight: Six Fingers is happening now. What’s next on the horizon?
Very soon I’ll be finishing writing and illustrating The Sinister Path, and hopefully another Nocturnals graphic novel after that.
I’d like to write one of the following monthly titles:
The Fantastic Four
Tomb of Dracula
You on Man-Thing would be fantastic, especially guest starring Dracula. Okay, this is a bit out of left field, but how did the Rawhide theme park gig come about?
One of the guys who ran it was a fan, and they wanted my work to promote their haunted ghost town attraction for that year. Wish you could’ve seen the highway billboards they made out of those illustrations!
I wish! Do you have any last words for our readers?
Not yet I don’t!