Komiksowa Warszawa Festival: A Conversation with Brian Bolland

A comics interview article by: Michal Chudolinski


He is one of the best (if not the best) cover artists in comic industry. His astonishing works decorate such titles as Batman: Gotham Knight, Wonder Woman, Animal Man, Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles and recent relaunch of Dial H for Hero. Brian Bolland is also one of the finest Judge Dredd artists to date, not the mention one of the most defining visions of the Joker in Batman: The Killing Joke.

This well-known British artist and winner of many Eisner and Harvey Awards paid a visit to Poland in May as a result of the republication of the re-colored The Killing Joke in Polish. While he met his fans and had an incredibly interesting conversation in his panel at Komiksowa Warszawa Festival, we had an opportunity to talk with him about the beginnings of his career, the '80s “British Invasion” of American comics and his fascination with journeys and photography.


Michal Chudolinski: Let’s begin with the first years of your adventure with comics – you entered it with Dave Gibbons, right?

Brian Bolland: Yes, I’ve known Dave for years. We were fan artists in the '60s. I first met him, I think, in 1972 at a convention in London. I was studying graphic design at the time. When I left art school in 1974 I went to see him and he recommended I went to Bardon Press Features, his artist agency. After I produced a few samples, they offered Dave and me the job of artists on Powerman, my first professional work, starting in January 1975. The comic came out every two weeks. Dave and I drew an issue every month and we were in alternate issues. Then in 1977, 2000 AD came along. Dave jumped from Powerman right away and he was in 2000 AD from number one (or “prog 1”). I stayed on Powerman a while longer, then started on covers on 2000 AD prog 11 and eventually graduated to being one of the artists on Judge Dredd. It was a lot of fun but hard work. The pay was okay but nothing spectacular. By now many of the people I met at the 1972 convention were working as artists, editors or publishers. People like Nick Landau and Richard Burton. During this time I was drawing the occasional thing for advertising agencies, including adverts for Palitoy’s Star Wars figures.


MC: How did you become one of the first “British Invaders”?

BB: Richard Burton had been publishing a fanzine called Comic Media News, and through it he had links with people at DC Comics. One day he told me that Joe Staton who was drawing Green Lantern at the time was in London for a convention, but he needed somewhere to sit and draw Green Lantern. We had a spare drawing table in my flat and offered it to him. Joe and his wife Hilarie came over. We’ve been friends ever since. Joe got on the phone to his editor Jack Harris and told him he was staying with me. Jack, it seems, had seen my work and we agreed that I could draw the cover of that issue. My first job for DC, the cover of Green Lantern #127.

It wasn’t easy then to work across the ocean with American colleagues. Just remember, that e-mails, mobile phones and Internet didn’t exist then. We had a new fax machine and the phone. But it seemed to work out. DC editors could see that there was a pool of talent in the UK, mostly working at 2000 AD. DC’s Dick Giordano came over to London to meet a bunch of artists, like me members of the SSI, Society of Strip Illustrators, and invited us to work for DC. That’s how the“British Invasion” became reality. It’s only recently that I’ve come to realize how valuable the “British Invasion” was to DC. It brought them treasures like Alan Moore and Watchmen - and many other high profile hits.


MC: I've heard that recently, in the American comic mainstream, there's been an experience of a so-called "Brazilian Invasion" - a wave of talented artists from Spain, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico that draw superheroes and even more independent stuff. Do you watch these people and their work? What do you think of their artistic sensibility?

BB: I've never heard of the Brazilian Invasion. Because of the Internet there are no geographical barriers to working in comics. I, personally, have very little idea what country an artist or a writer comes from. That’s also my point of view of comic books nowadays - I don't look at, read or buy comics and haven't done so for the last 20 years or more and I don't open up and look at comics from the 80s so I can't answer your question. The only graphic novel I actually bought and read in the last 20 years was Asterios Polyp by David Mazzuchelli, which was very good. I keep an eye out, though, to see what other artists are doing. I think that Patrick Gleason is doing such a great work on Green Lantern and Batman at the moment.

MC: Going back to Alan Moore, did you have any desire to cooperate on Before Watchmen? How do you feel about the prequels?

BB: I don’t have any strong views about the Watchmen prequels. I can do only 1-2 illustrations for DC in a month so I wouldn’t have time to draw for this. I wouldn’t want to because I’m close friends with Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore, anyway. Before Watchmen doesn’t seem a good idea to me. Watchmen is a graphic novel with a beginning a middle and an end. It’s a finite work and it doesn’t need sequels or prequels.

Speaking of Alan: he hates DC and doesn’t seem to approve of people who works for DC. He appears to have completely cut ties with comic the industry nowadays. He avoids watching any film adaptation of his work. I think he’s wise to do so. To me he’s still a friend, but sadly I haven’t been able to contact him for some years.


MC: By the way, it’s strange that you rarely work for Marvel. Is there any reason your work is usually featured at DC?

BB: As a kid I was a DC fan and not particularly a Marvel fan. During my college years I bought Silver Surfer. I loved John Buscema’s work. I collected the black & white Conan’s and I loved Howard the Duck. In the end I’m loyal to the DC Universe because my earliest memories of comics, before there even was a Marvel Comics, was with the DC characters. My first professional encounter with Marvel was for Marvel UK, a Hulk cover. The editor didn’t like my version of the Hulk’s face and arranged for a John Romita (I think) Hulk face to be stuck over the one I’d drawn. This led me to think there was a strict Marvel house style based on Jack Kirby, John Romita and others that had to be adhered to. I wasn’t very happy with my first encounter with Marvel.

Later I’ve done some small projects and a few covers but that’s all. I did a She-Hulk cover for Marvel. I got it finished a day later than they wanted it. They got someone in their New York office to trace over my original rough prelim, pencil and ink it for the cover. My artwork arrived the next day but wasn’t used on the cover. It lead me to think I was going to have deadline problems with Marvel.


MC: Back to one of the characters that you're pretty famous for, I always wondered if you had a hand in the design of the Joker for Tim Burton's Batman?

BB: No, but I did meet him before he made the film. He was at Pinewood Studios in London and he asked me to come over and meet him. Apparently he’d read and liked The Killing Joke (take a look at his comment on the Deluxe Edition). He asked me to do some production sketches for the film. He wanted my opinion about the Joker and how he should look. I seem to remember telling him he should look like Conrad Veidt in the '20s silent film “The Man Who Laughs” and that he should have prosthetics to create the grin. He wanted me to start right away. I said that I had some things for 2000 AD that I had to do first. He said he’d be working on Batman 2 by then! So, I didn’t end up working for Tim Burton on Batman. I thought Jack Nicholson looked terrible.


MC: What do you think about the influence of comic books on design in general? Is there any similarity between elements of design and comic books? Are there any inspirational comic books for creative people that you think are the most expressive as far as design?

BB: In the greater world of design comics are usually misrepresented. Comics can be adventurous and experimental but when the world of advertising and design decide that what they're doing should be in "comic style" they like to incorporate the furniture of comics (word balloons, thought balloons, comic book lettering etc.) but also particularly bad and crass drawing. That's the way they know the public sees comics and therefore the stereotype of comics as trash perpetuates, sadly.

I'd recommend Asterios Polyp, a hardback graphic novel. It’s a great, powerful tale about love and obsession between two people. What it's about is secondary to the fact that it's a case of the medium of comics used to its full potential. It demonstrates the things you can express utilizing the specific tools of comics that you can't in any other medium. There are probably many things I've missed because I'm out of touch.


MC: How can comics, as an art, help improve upon the general techniques of applied art, such as of architecture and design? If you think it’s possible, of course.

BB: As I said, except for the fact that comics have drawings of buildings in them, I see no connection between comics and architecture. I'm not sure comics are significantly helping or improving general techniques of design. It's more the other way around. Comic artists are increasingly exposed to design and art of all kinds. It's inevitable that they'll be bringing new and interesting dimensions to the world of comics. Also, the potential is already there in comics.

Comics is a language.

All the ingredients for great art, great story-telling, are already built into the medium of comics. Most of the time that potential is squandered. Except for rare exceptions like Asterios Polyp.


MC: What do you think of web comics? Do you see some kind of an improvement in this area of comic art?

BB: They're still drawn in the same way. Mostly in pen and ink. In my case in Photoshop on a computer. Whether they end up on paper or on a screen is a matter for the publishers and public taste. I prefer paper. It seems inevitable that digital comics for iPad are the way of the future. I read the newspaper on the iPad. One of my most recent covers is for the iPad. Nevertheless I think there’ll be a lot of people who will always buy comic books on paper or at least in the form of graphic novels. People want something to collect, an actual physical object, an artifact that they can hold in their hand.


MC: What can you tell us about any current or future projects?

BB: Well, at the moment, I’m regular cover artist on Dial H for Hero, a DC monthly book. I’m having a lot of fun with it. It’s a challenge – drawing completely new characters each month that no one’s ever seen before. I’m a “cover guy” for now, but there are all sorts of other projects which I kind of have in mind, including the cover I mentioned for the digital comic Treatment. Unfortunately, I'm not allowed to talk about it until its launch later this month. There’s also a Hellblazer cover to be done.

MC: Last question will be about your passions – photography and travel. You have been to Burma, haven’t you?

BB: Yes. I could talk about Burma for hours [laughs]. I went to Burma in 1988, just as the street protests were beginning and just before Aung San Suu Kyi returned. Burma was a delightful place. Caught in a time warp, frozen in 1946. The people were lovely. Many of them spoke English so I was able to strike up friendly conversations with them. The country was littered with the most wonderful ruins and pagodas.

Unfortunately its people were suffering terrible oppression from the military junta and the regime that ruled them, and the system was as far from democratic as you can get. At the time I wasn’t really aware of that fact. I’ve heard recently, though, that things have begun to change for the better in Burma, changes which I would never have expected are taking place there. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from nearly 20 years of house arrest and stood for election. She’s now allowed to travel and will be heading off to Norway to accept her Nobel prize for peace.

While I was in Burma in ’88 I took a lot of photographs and kept a journal which I later expanded. I have always wanted to publish them as a photo album of my trip and a love letter to Burma. It was always a possibility but the publisher who was interested didn’t have sufficient funds to put out such a commercially risky book. He suggested that since people know me as an artist they’d be more likely to buy the book if it had drawings in it.

To me the contents of the book were complete. I wanted to show a pure and accurate portrayal of the country I’d come to love and not one filtered and diluted through the medium of my drawing. Hopefully one day I’ll manage to publish the book, by now 24 years later, a document of history. Some of the photos of Burma along with others from around the world appeared in my book The Art of Brian Bolland available from all good booksellers. Go and get yourselves a copy.


This conversation is edited interview with Brian Bolland, which I committed at Komiksowa Warszawa festival, May 12th, 2012, expanded from quotes from panel of Brian Bolland in Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw the same day and conversation from Polish Radio (http://www.polskieradio.pl/24/289/Artykul/603665,Czlowiek-ktory-narysowal-Batmana ).

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