My wonderful discussion with Brian Bolland.
Over the space of a few days my lengthy conversation with the remarkable and legendary Brian Bolland I learnt a great deal. Although I felt bad for disturbing his enjoyment of Squid Game on Netflix. As a quick note the beautifully realised portrait of Brian I have used here was created by Brian’s wife Rachel Birkett who I believe occasionally brought him a hot beverage whilst we talked online.
Paul: My first question is a Chicken and egg question of sorts. Were you interested in art and then discovered comics, or did comics propel you toward art? Can you recall the earliest comics you enjoyed reading?
Brian: My earliest memory is of my father taking me round to his brother Frank’s house with a drawing I’d done. Frank asked me how old I was. I said I was eight. He looked at it and said “a lot of work went into that”. At primary school I was in “natural history” class. My drawings in crayon of blue tits etc were quite good and I remember having a picture called “a dream” exhibited in the local guildhall exhibition. After that I was given an encyclopaedia of natural history and in the early pages there were a few painted illustrations of dinosaurs…. Below is Dinosaurus cover by George Wilson. The interior art was by Jesse Marsh.
Paul: That is a rather beautiful cover.
Brian: I was absolutely captivated by them. My father had given me a subscription to Look & Learn which had some comic strips in it but it wasn’t until my grandmother bought me a copy of Dell Comics’ “Dinosaurus” in 1960 that it started me off collecting comics. At first it was “Turok Son of Stone” because there was always a dinosaur on the cover. As my collection grew I gravitated towards DC and especially anything drawn by Gil Kane. My earliest goes at drawing comics were attempts to draw like Gil Kane, Murphy Anderson, Syd Greene and others at DC.
Brian: I've just found this one [above] online. I never had it. I was in the house of an old friend the other day and he still has his collection (mine is all sold) and he has many issues of Turok. As well as good runs of DCs. I was very jealous.
Paul: I'm a little jealous too. So, you were clearly a fan of DC characters at what sounds like an early age, did the Marvel characters not appeal to you?
Brian: I had quite a large collection of mainly DC before Marvel came along in (what?) '63. At the time DC was not exclusively superhero. They had the mystery books "House of Mystery", "House of Secrets", "My Greatest Adventures", "Tales of the Unexpected" and then there was "Rip Hunter - Time Master", "Challengers", "Sea Devils". Superheroes were never a big thing for me but the artists who drew them were. As I said Gil Kane's style grabbed me. I was always more visually stimulated than story stimulated. I knew the names of almost every artist even before their names were allowed credits. Ruben Moreira, Bernard Baily, Dick Dillin, Bob Brown, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito. I especially liked Bruno Premiani on Doom Patrol and anything by the artist who I (and I think a lot of other professionals) consider the great master - Alex Toth... I've just been offered coffee so I'll continue this answer after that.
Paul: Agreed Alex Toth is in my all-time top 5 artists.
Brian: DC, as National Comics, (?) invented the superhero with Superman and revived the superhero in 1956 thanks to Carmine Infantino and Joe Kubert with the Flash in Showcase #4 and had a sizable population of superheroes by '63 when Marvel came along and jumped on the bandwagon. People have said that Marvel gave a depth of character to its superheroes with people like Spider-man. Maybe so but I was very tuned into the visual aesthetic of DC and not particularly bothered about the stories. I bought a few early Spider-mans. I remember having #6. I had a shelving problem. I'd had to build a special wooden case to house my collection and I didn't know where on that shelf the Marvels should fit. My teenage friend Dave Harwood, with whom I drew fanzines, had more Marvels and I really liked Ditko's Doc Strange. It chimed with the psychedelic music we were enjoying at the time. I had most of the early Silver Surfer issues with the beautiful John Buscema covers. Later I was avidly collecting the black & white Conans with Buscema inked by Alfredo Alcala. And, most of all, I loved Steve Gerber and Gene Colon's "Howard the Duck". Eventually I was able to collect complete sets of DC comics going back to "House of Mystery" #1 from 1951 (the year of my birth. This is the earliest comic in my collection). (BELOW)
Paul: That is marvellous. I wish some of those comics from that era were reprinted in a cheaper format.
Brian: It's not the same. I collect coins and the last thing I want is a modern copy of an original.
Paul: So, you're a purest and the nothing beats the original? would that be fair to say?
Brian: Well, yes. I had a copy of Showcase #4. It's worth a lot of money. A copy is just a facsimile.
Paul: Is it safe to assume you have a fairly extensive private reference library of books and comics?
Brian: I had a collection of DC Comics several thousand strong. Many of them complete runs. Including Showcase, Brave & Bold (at least from #25 the first Suicide Squad and #28 the first Justice League). You name it - I had the set. Before I sold them I scanned 2,500 covers so I can view them on-screen whenever I want. But not the interiors. Many Alex Toth stories are lost to me now. I have a lot of books. Shelves have been long filled and books are now in piles or in filing cabinets. Most of the time I can't find what I'm looking for. For years I've been looking for my copy of "Granny's Oz" that I had a page in. Most people have a great reverence for books but not me. Books are difficult to find, they come in all different sizes, they clutter up bookshelves. They contain stuff you were interested in 20-30 years ago. They go brown, get eaten by insects and become the homes for spiders. You can't snap your fingers, have the page instantly appear in front of you. Snap your fingers and have it instantly disappear. Most of my reference nowadays comes to me online.
Paul: It still sounds like an Aladdin’s cave.
Brian: I still have my collection of vinyl and CDs but that's another lengthy conversation.
Paul: Would you describe yourself as a collector?
Brian: An accumulator.
Paul: That is a much better word for us all I feel. Before we get onto 2000AD can you perhaps offer an insight into your most significant artistic influences.
Brian: Well, I have influences from all over the place. As I said - Gil Kane to begin with. I've seen and learned things from artists too numerous to name. At the beginning of my time at DC. '79 onwards. I tried to look like Neal Adams - and failed. I was influenced by Jesus Blasco' "Steel Claw" in Valiant. David Wright's "Carol Day" and Syd Jordan's "Jeff Hawke" both newspaper strips. At 2000AD I was influenced by my chum Mick McMahon. I've been influenced by Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman. Many artists and photographers outside of comics. Dulac, Rackham, Bacon. I can't remember all of them.
Paul: Your Art is very precise. As an artist would you describe yourself as a perfectionist?
Paul: Perfectionist? Well, every artist tries to be perfect. Comics is always a trade-off between quality and time. I've veered toward the former at the expense of the latter. The artists I admire the most are quick. Work that is laboured over and labour-intensive is, to me tiring on the eye. It goes right back to my uncle Frank when I was eight. "A lot of work went into that" he said. Many people are unable to see poor work when a lot of time is spent by the artist embellishing it with extraneous detail. But don't get me started!
Paul: I see your art and I try to imagine how many hours it must have been laboured over sometimes, although from myself I can barely draw a stick man. I guess it must be a question of perspective. Can I ask on average (roughly) how long does a cover take you that is up to your standards for publication?
Brian: In the past I've been able to draw a page or a cover in a day. Nowadays drawing is more of a paid hobby. Editors commission me well in advance and few things take less than a week.
Paul: Your status and legacy amongst 2000AD artists is quite obvious, but could I ask how you first came to be published by Tharg? If you'll excuse the expression.
Brian: Dave Gibbons, Carlos Ezquerra and I were all clients of artists' agent Bardon Press Features run by Barry Coker. Barry lined us up to contribute to the new comic 2000AD in 1977. Dave and Carlos from #1. I joined in with a cover on #11. Later fellow comic fan Nick Landau was working as editor. We knew each other and he asked me directly to draw an episode of Judge Dredd. Nick, along with Mike Lake, went on to found Forbidden Planet shop and Titan Books.
Paul: I remember it well. Denmark Street in London. Although it is loosely known as guitar alley these days I'm told. Can you describe how it felt to be published in 2000AD for the first time?
Brian: Dave and I had had a couple of years drawing Powerman for Nigeria. I was used to doing the work. Getting £17 per page. Hearing nothing from anyone and never seeing the artwork again. I still haven't. Drawing and earning a living was a slog. 2000AD was new and unproven but at least it was a chance to draw something other than football, war or cowboy stuff that was all that was available up to now. The biggest thrill for me was seeing the emerging talent of Mick McMahon whose work spurred me on, along with John Wagner's terrific satirical stories, to do the best I could.
Brian: I’ve just been brought me a cup of tea.
Paul: Very nice. Where's mine?
Brian: My wife just said, “Are you having opinions again?!”
Paul: I rather like your opinions. It’s rather the point of an interview…. You've worked for some wonderful writers, and you mentioned there, John Wagner. Many say his scripts are very "artist friendly" and offer a lot of freedom to have fun. Would you say that is true?
Brian: I can't remember, specifically, what John's scripts are like. It was before computers so they would have been typed. Did I return them? I can't remember. They would have told me how many panels to a page and what was going on. Most of my writers must have had a visual sense of what was going on. (Not all.) I've heard that there's the "Marvel style" of scripting in which the artist (apparently) makes stuff up and the writer adds some dialogue. One artist once told me with glee that the script he'd received said "Pages 2 to 8. They fight!" That wouldn't work for me. I like a full script. It's hard, though, for me to remember how much visual input came from the writer and how much from me.
Paul: You created some iconic images for 2000AD. "Gaze Into The Fist of Dredd" is especially loved by fans I believe. Do you personally have a particular favourite story or cover image you did for 2000AD?
Brian: Paul. Yes, I like the "Fist of Dredd" image. It's pretty iconic. I'm not sure the entire page is anything to shout about. That whole "Dark Judges" saga was pleasing to me. My brush was working well, the ink flowing well and the drawing flowed well too. My favourite Dredd stories, though, were drawn by other people. I loved the League of Fatties and the Ape Gang. Only got to draw covers with them. The Synthetti Men cover is a bit of a favourite of mine.
Brian: Oh, and the last story I drew with Dredd's fight in the rain with Orlok turned out okay.
Paul: Just okay? You certainly hold yourself up to very high standards. The covers that you did for the Eagle reprints are highly regarded. Do you have a favourite of those? Do you have fond memories of producing them?
Brian: Yes. The Eagle Judge Dredd covers were great fun to do. Before that I did a few covers for Nick Landau. He and the others had just opened their little comic shop, Forbidden Planet, in '78, and in '81, under the name of Titan Books, they ventured into the world of publishing. Their first book was a collection of my Judge Dredd stories. I provided a full colour cover, frontispiece and B/W back cover for the princely sum of £325. Nick and I worked on the pagination in my flat in Southampton Row in London. The second book, "the Cursed Earth", had a cover by me too and we discovered one or two stories were starting on the wrong page so I supplied three new pages. This time I received the generous sum of £410.
Brian: Other books followed with lovely covers by Mick McMahon and others. The Eagle Comics Dredd reprints resized and coloured for the American market came along in '83. The first cover netted me £120. Nick and I, again sat in the front room of my flat thinking up ideas. The stories were already in print, so the best cover ideas were just there for the picking. Uncle Ump's Umpty Candy. The Ugly Agency. The Judge Fish cover. (Probably my favourite.) Some of my most enjoyable work and some of my favourites.
Paul: It is a much loved cover.
Brian: There’s even a Judge Fish action figure.
Paul: I'll have to seek one of those out.
Paul: You obviously eventually moved on from 2000AD at a time when many 2000AD creators were discovering publishers further afield. At the time did you find the working for American publishers a challenge? I would have thought time difference alone may have presented some challenges. Can you compare the experiences at all?
Brian: Okay. Picture this. Before working for DC I'd been in a world where our names were not credited (until Kevin O'Neil put that right at 2000AD, even though we were called "droids"), our artwork was not returned. I never met the people publishing my work at IPC. At DC in '82 I was flown to the US to attend the San Diego Comicon. I and writer Mike W. Barr were interviewed and made to feel special. It was the beginning of the '80s boom when people like Frank Miller were being treated like stars and refashioning the look of the books they were in. "Ronin" for instance.
Brian: Camelot 3000 was a great treat for me to work on because it looked like one of the DC comics I'd loved as a kid. The first two covers were even sketched out by Ross Andru who had drawn Metal Men. On the downside the page-count meant that, for the first time, my pencils would be inked by an inker. Bruce Patterson and then Terry Austin. It took me a while to come to terms with that. Logistically the thing was accomplished thanks to the fax machine and long, hilarious, five-hours-apart phone conversations with Mike Barr. I remember, in his script it said that King Arthur is "pissed". In Britain that means drunk or "rat-arsed". In the US it just means he's cross.
Paul: It is true there a few unfortunate language issues, despite being the same language.
Brian: I've been fascinated by the differences in our language ever since. You'll have to seek out my essay on the matter. By all mean try and find my online essay.
Paul: If memory serves you did a Marvel cover with Howard the Duck for John Byrne's Sensational, She Hulk run. You mentioned earlier a fondness for Howard The Duck so it feels relevant to ask about it. If memory serves there were two versions of that cover.
Brian: I've had a chequered career, or more accurately a brief series of misadventures, with Marvel. In the case of that particular issue - I was commissioned to draw a cover on a She-hulk co-starring Howard. I'd been working for DC for a few years, and they had a fairly tolerant attitude to my slow pace of work. Look at the final two issues of Camelot 3000. I did my best to get my She-hulk drawn in time and completed it. But then there was the FedEx shipping time.
Brian: I was told by the editor that my artwork hadn't turned up on time and they got someone in the Marvel "bullpen" to take my initial pencil prelim and knock off some artwork from it that day. That was what ended up on the cover. My artwork turned up via FedEx and they decided to print that separately as a free give-away. I did get to do another Howard the Duck cover which I was completely satisfied with. He's sitting on a pile of money.
Paul: It is hard to mention your career without mention of The Killing Joke. It has been said you're not a complete fan of it as such. Would you at least agree the cover is rather impressive and much loved?
Brian: The Killing Joke - - I've spoken a lot about Killing Joke. It was supposed to be a high watermark in my drawing career. Working with my friend Alan who was the best writer of the time. I think it's some of my best work. There was the issue with John Higgins' colours and my re-colouring job 20 years later. The disappointment for me is that it's now known as Alan Moore's controversial Batman book, one of his lesser works, one that he's disowned in fact.
Brian: The disappointment is that Alan, one of our fellow 2000AD pals and a writer whose work I hugely admire is now inaccessible to us. Like "gaze into the fist of Dredd" there are one or two images that have become iconic (people have even shown them to me tattoo on their bodies) including the cover. It's been re-purposed a few times by people. Me too.
Paul: I suppose as a side issue to that, can I ask what did you make of the animated cartoon of The Killing Joke? Did you have any input into the production of that project at all? Some of the reviews of the final product were not terribly positive.
Brian: I produced a cover for the DVD which consisted of the 2006 cover extended (ABOVE). They sent me the film. It was very odd to see a film about Batgirl and a long way in we were suddenly shot-by-shot in the Killing Joke. I’m not a fan of jerky slow frame-rate manga-style animation and I’ve never heard a Joker voice that’s how I hear it in my head. I haven’t watched it again.
Paul: Who does The Joker sound like in your head?
Brian: Well, Heath Ledger came close.
Paul: For me voice wise it has to be Jack Nicolson, but that might be a bit of nostalgia talking.
Brian: Yeah. He was good. At a time when (latest news) characters are gender neutral or polyamorous I always saw the Joker as not entirely heterosexual. Hence his obsession with Batman.
Paul: Yes, certainly your take on the Joker is entirely valid. It is such an enduring character that can be interpreted so many ways. Perhaps hence the success of the most recent Joker movie. In regard to the Killing Joke, can you comment at all about your working relationship with Alan Moore? What were his scripts like? Was it all smooth sailing to produce a modern classic?
Brian: I continually have to stress that it was more of a Bolland project than a Moore project. Dick Giordano gave me carte blanche to come up with whatever I liked, and I said Batman-Joker-Alan-Moore please. Alan came onboard. We'd known each other since 2000AD days and met up often at conventions, signings and socially. Alan set about the business of writing it in his home in Northampton. He checked with editor Len Wein to see if he could have the Joker do terrible harm to Barbara Gordon. Len gave him the go-ahead.
Brian: Alan called me once to talk through a problem he had which I wasn't very clear about. Len was replaced by Denny O'Neil as editor. I only spoke once on the phone to Denny. The script completed I started drawing it. I was getting no sense of urgency from Denny or DC, so I did a few Eagle covers and other things. Then - right at the end - it was scheduled, and we had to get it coloured. John Higgins was called in to do that job. I'd been very impressed by Richmond Lewis' colouring on David Mazzuchelli’s Batman Year One.
Brian: I wrote lengthy notes to John about my preference for November colours and the flash-back scenes in monochrome. Then I waited. Titan had acquired the publishing rites in the UK. I waited some more. I then heard that copies of the printed book had arrived at Titan. I asked someone at Titan how it looked - how the colours looked. He said "kinda garish". I eventually got hold of a copy and went into shock. Purple! Orange! I took to my bed inconsolable for two days. Alan had already departed from DC and has, for his own reasons, disassociated himself from the Killing Joke. Alan was always great company and a great raconteur, and I miss him terribly.
Paul: Your covers for DC are practically too numerous to mention. With that in mind could I focus on the images you produced for Animal Man. That was a wonderful run of comics. I'm curious how the final image for a cover comes about. Do they come from the writer, yourself or an editor?
Brian: I took the time to count up the covers I've done just for DC. I make it 430 plus 3 back covers and one Aquaman cover that I inked over Neal Adams. The more I'm asked about how covers come about the more I struggle to remember how they come about. They come about in various ways. Apart from my first Green Lantern cover in 1979 my earliest were sketched out by Ross Andru (until Camelot #3). Mostly I get a copy of the script, digest the gist of it and a central idea pops out. I then produce an A4 pencil "prelim" or three which I fax and later email to my editor. He or she would choose the one he/she likes best or suggest something different. I'd then go ahead and draw it. Eventually I and the editor will be in harmony and that process will go smoothly. Later I just offered one prelim to save time. Occasionally an editor will ask for something specific, as in the case of the first Invisibles cover, I drew for Shelly Bond. The Animal Man (Grant Morrison's break-out work, I think) allowed me the same quirky mix of imagery that I was allowed on the Eagle Dredds so I was happy. Apparently, I drew the first 63.
Paul: As you say Animal Man was most assuredly a ground breaking series. Especially the Grant Morrison scripted issues. Are there any of those covers you would single out for being unusually eye catching and as you say quirky?
Brian: People seem to like #5. I liked the monkey and typewriter. The wolves one (you may notice) is an homage to that House of Mystery #1 cover.
Brian: Here are three that never made it as covers. I finished them recently for Facebook and for my own amusement. You can use any of these you want.
Paul: In a way that rather neatly brings me onto my next question. Obviously, comics are read now online and on tablets and computers etc. I'm interested to know how technology has altered the way you produce your art. You've had a lengthy career in comics. Can you describe how technology has changed your approach to things?
Brian: Well, that would take a whole interview in itself.
Paul: granted it is a complex subject. Let's say for example computer colouring? In terms an idiot like me would understand.
Brian As, more and more, comic colourists were using Photoshop and other computery things to colour my work I found their effects were swamping my line-work. I thought I should learn the computer (I'd never owned one) and do it myself. Dave Gibbons introduced me to Photoshop. I spent a lot of money in 1997 buying piles of Apple Mac machinery that was a complete mystery to me. I spent months hating it. Not understanding anything. I'd recently done some work for the mysterious avant garde group from San Francisco, the Residents. They'd given me a copy of their CD-ROM "Freak Show". After I'd played it, I wanted it to stop. The instructions said hit Apple-Q. So, I hit "Apple" and then I hit "Q". Nothing happened. Bearing in mind the 8-hour time difference I rang up a Resident and he said you have to hit Apple and Q at the same time. That was the level of ignorance with which I approached all this.
Paul: I feel your pain. I'm hardly a world class hacker or anything myself.
Brian: After 10 months, and with much help from Dave and Angus McKay, I was finally able to produce an Invisibles cover in Photoshop. I was able to colour line art that I'd produced in the conventional way on paper - but gradually, I found it easy, with a Wacom tablet and pen, to edit the line layer and eventually to draw everything from pencil rough, through finished pencil to finished ink line and then the colour. Moreover, all of these stages melded into one another. There was also no rule that stated you can't incorporate elements of photography into the work. That reached its zenith for me with some of my later Invisibles work. Since late '97 every piece of work for print by me has been digital. Much to the annoyance of artwork collectors. I still, though, consider my work in Photoshop to be the process that leads up to the printed copy. I'm not one for digital-only comics.
Paul: I'm also a bit of a purist from a reading point of view. I much prefer "paper comics" to read. What would you say was the first "digital" cover you did that you were happy and comfortable with?
Brian: I was satisfied with these two. Probably the first.
Brian: They are the invisibles covers, Vol 2 numbers 20 and 21.
Paul: You’ve tried your hand at some writing. Your Actress and The Bishop stories really showed you have a have rather fun sense of humour. How did they occur? Is there any chance there could be any more on the horizon?
Brian: In 1985 French publishers and bookshop owners Editions Deesse asked me to draw a portfolio of six images completely of my own choosing. It was a limited edition of 666. One of them was of a raven-haired femme fatale and a decrepit old bishop. Sometime later Gary Leach and Dave Eliot were launching an anthology edition called A1 and asked me to contribute. I thought - what should I do? The Actress and the Bishop had come to life somehow in the French portfolio and I wanted to know more about them. I gave them a three-page origin story in A1 called "the Actress & the Bishop go Boating" and another called "the Actress & the Bishop throw a Party". Much later the publishers Palmano Bennet made the bold move of publishing a book called "Bolland Strips!" containing both stories and I persuaded them to let me add a further 20-page story: "the Actress & the Bishop & the Thing in the Shed". With hints of HP Lovecraft. That book is still available. Since then, I've written and drawn "the Actress & the Bishop go to the Seaside". It's only viewable online.
Paul: I am proud to say I have that book. It includes your Mr Mamoulian work too I recall. After years of spending time creating art was it satisfying to write? Is it something you enjoy?
Brian: I enjoy writing. That’s probably why this interview is going on for so long. I take my hat off to people whose job it is to write a comic every month - or in the case of 2000AD every week. I’m not a professional writer so I have the luxury of writing only when something springs to my mind. I have nothing whatsoever to say about superheroes. I could never write about them. Everything I’ve ever written has its own reason and origin and there isn’t time to explain everything here. I wrote a one-off Batman story originally inside Batman Black & White #4 (I’m delighted to say behind a unique cover by Alex Toth). Now it’s included in the deluxe Killing Joke. It’s called “an Innocent Guy” even though it’s title isn’t mentioned.
Brian: Clues to where the idea came from are in the artwork. I wrote it, in part, to allow myself the opportunity to draw details from the Batman comics I loved as a kid. The giant typewriter. The ridiculous animal masked villains. The Penguin. I love drawing the Penguin. There are other things I’ve written and drawn which would take time to talk about. “The Kapas”. “The Princess & the Frog”. Mr Mamoulian. Primarily I write my own stuff so I can include what I want to draw and exclude what I don’t want to draw. Characters have a habit of taking on a life of their own (such as Mr Mamoulian) and sometimes you just have to write down what they have to say.
Paul: In a way it is the characters are doing the writing?
Brian: Writers, I think, say that they're just channelling the thoughts and words of their characters.
Paul: Would you have liked to try your hand at writing any 2000AD characters? Obviously, Zenith aside they're not superheroes.
Brian: No. I only really knew Judge Dredd and John, and others were doing a perfectly good job.
Paul: Your Apex Edition art book that is certainly an exciting publication. How much direct involvement did you have its development?
Brian: Almost none at all. I only heard there was some sort of book in the pipeline. Weeks later I got an email from someone at Rebellion mentioning it. I had to ask him what he was talking about. Comics uber-expert David Roach seems to be putting it together. Joseph Melchior, an avid artwork collector, seems to be using his contacts in that world to get artwork scanned.
Brian: When I had an idea it was shot from artwork I set about finding, scanning and sending a few pages I have here. It involved stitching together four or more scans of large artwork at hi res on my A4 scanner. My first cover, #11 was especially tricky piecing it together. The cover and page order was decided without my input. When we produce inked artwork, the intention is to have the artwork reproduce in sharp black and white. After 45 years much if it has yellowed. The black ink isn’t solid, and the stick-on blurbs and word balloons are faded, staining the paper and peeling off. A perfect fright in my opinion. But apparently people like to see that sort of thing. I await to see how it will turn out.
Paul: Do you ever read 2000AD these days? Does it interest you?
Brian: 2000AD comes in the post every week for which I'm grateful. I'm always pleased to see something by Cliff Robertson. I'm impressed by his dedication to draw the same characters over and over. I don't read any of the stories. I just look at the art.
Paul: I think that's everything Brian. I thank you for all of your time.