|Cover for Animal Man N. 25. Art by Brian Bolland.|
Originally printed in Italy on Scuola di Fumetto magazine (N. 83, July 2012).
Presented here in English for the first time.
Brian Bolland site: www.brianbolland.net
For most of your career you have been considered the best cover artist in the business. Did you pursue that career consciously or was it just natural to apply your drawing skills to covers?
That’s kind of an interesting question because when I first started reading comics as a child I saw them as great treasures, you know, and I wasn’t greatly interested in the stories. When I accumulated my first 100 or 200 comics as a teenager, I would keep them in bags, and it was always the cover that I loved the most. It was partly a practical thing when I became a professional (to concentrate on the covers) because I’m quite slow, and it takes me a long time to do a 48-page book or a 200-page series. So I would have to turn a lot of work down. Then people would say “Well if you can’t draw the story, can you draw the cover for us please”. But I do enjoy drawing covers, because I can draw all kinds of characters without being committed to that character for months on end.
Have you got a favourite cover of yours? What about cover of yours that you don’t really like?
The ones that I don’t like I sort of forget, you know. Recently DC compiled a book of my DC covers [Cover Story: The DC Comics Art of Brian Bolland, published Oct, 2011], so I had to go through my job book for the last 25 years, and I saw covers in there that I had completely forgotten about, and some of them I just didn’t want to see again (laughs). But as for favourites, I’ve got certain favourites. For example, I can’t remember the number but it was an Animal Man cover and it had a monkey and a typewriter, you could probably go and find the number [Animal Man N.25], and that was always a bit of a favourite of mine. When I was doing The Invisibles covers, that coincided with the period during which I switched from drawing conventionally to using a computer. You can use some all sorts of photocollages and you can do all kinds of strange things in Photoshop or whatever programs you are using, so I was enjoying those: some of those I’m very pleased with.
Your comic input, instead, has not been as prolific, at least for mainstream comics. Why was that? Is it just a question of you being slow or did you not find many right stories to work on?
Yes, I am a very slow artist, and I don’t seem to get any faster. You’d think that when you get older you’d learn short-cuts, but no… Anyway, going back to the question, after working with Alan Moore on The Killing Joke, he really is the best writer I can think of, after that I tried writing my own stuff, and I do sort of feel that some of the people I like the very best are people who write and draw their own work. I like Robert Crumb’s work, I like Berkeley Breathed’s work on Bloom County and I love the Hernandez brothers, who write and draw their own stuff, and I really felt that the way for me to go was to write and draw my own stuff. But I don’t think in commercial terms, I couldn’t sit down and write a series of Superman stories because I’m really not that interested in the characters from the point of view of the stories. I mean, it is fascinating to draw those characters, because they bring different challenges, but I don’t really have anything to say in terms of stories, so I’m not actually drawn to stories that much.
|The Killing Joke deluxe front cover.Art by B. Bolland.|
My memories of Alan really pre-date The Killing Joke, because Alan and I and Dave Gibbons and Kevin O’Neill and the rest of us were all near each other back in the 2000AD days, and so the times I spent with Alan were before then. I did actually spend some time with Alan at a convention just before he was working on From Hell, you know, the Jack the Ripper story, but I don’t really have any anecdotes about him that I can think of other than the fact that during the writing of The Killing Joke he rang me up once and he got into some sort of dark place in the story. He rang me up and I think he talked about the part were he was going to do some terrible harm to Barbara Gordon. He talked me through it and then seemed to feel a lot better about it and that was fine, carried on. He’s a great guy, he’s a fun guy to be with and he’s fascinating to listen to. I haven’t seen him for ages, he doesn’t seem to be much in the world of comics now, does he?
Not many people, instead, know that you write and draw Mr. Mamoulian, which is very different from your mainstream output. Do you want to talk about the strip for the people that might not have read it?
After the The Killing Joke I was rather frustrated at how slowly my work was turned out. So I thought I’d like to go back to the way I was when I was a child, when I could work quickly because I didn’t really have any standards to live up to. So I wanted to try to draw a page in like two hours. And the first page did take about two hours. Sometimes I would sit down with a blank page with Mr. Mamoulian wanting to draw without a story to draw, so it became like a stream of consciousness sort of idea, so it would be me just uploading various notions I had in my head. It’s curious the way in which the stories and threads of stories and characters begin to talk in their own voice: you know, they say that you became like a conduit through which your characters speak. So it was always going to be the sort of thing that got a lot more complicated and was never resolved in the end, but I shall still do more.
I found it amazing how different the feel of Mr. Mamoulian was, compared to your more visible projects. Does Mr. Mamoulian represent some sort of answer to your “pop” stuff? I find fascinating that a DC/Vertigo fan might not even recognise your style, seeing the strip. It’s almost schizophrenic…
It is quite different. At the beginning I wanted to draw in such a way that there were no mistakes. Any line I happened to draw on the page, whether it was in the right place or not, it was fine. And I used a rapidograph: normally I use a brush, but I just wanted to try a rapidograph. I wanted to get that kind of spidery look with thin lines you get with a rapidograph. Because of the kind of work I do, it is a bit like engraving, or wood carving. It is not something you do very quickly. It takes a long time to draw a human figure in my conventional commercial style, but I wanted the figures in Mr. Mamoulian to be drawn like in a second, in 2 seconds. So you’re right, people probably wouldn’t recognize that it’s by me.
|Page from Mr. Mamoulian. Art by B. Bolland.|
Well the commercial project… When I say my commercial projects it sounds like I’m doing them just for the money, but that’s not the case, really because the cover work I do does allow me a lot of artistic licence. The covers I did on The Invisibles, for instance, were quite strange in places, I mean it wasn’t a Superman cover, was it? And it wasn’t a Marvel cover. There’s something about Grant Morrison’s writing that is so hallucinogenic you know, and drug-induced that it sets your mind free: you can do all kinds of crazy things. So I don’t think that anything I do is purely and completely a piece of commercial art. I do put a certain amount of personal interest into everything I do you know, and they end up looking different.
Talking about The Invisibles covers that you mentioned, what was the process? Did you receive some kind of an outline of what was going on in the stories, did you receive the script or were you just free to do whatever you wanted?
Quite often the script hadn’t been sent in to the editor when I was asked to do the cover. My editor was usually Shelley Bond, and she would say something like “Grant says that the next issue has something to do with death in it”, or something similar. I really don’t remember how the process for Volume Two, but with Volume Three we got this thing where he was counting the numbers from twelve to 1 backwards hopefully to coincide with the millennium, so I then got into this sort of thing where I’d be playing around with the numbers. I mean if you look at some of those covers you’ll see the number of the issue referenced in 3 or 4 or 5 different ways. (The Invisibles Volume Three) Number seven for instance has a still from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and you have two of the characters posed like the actors from The Seventh Seal. And if you look at the checker-board it only has 7 squares on it, and stuff like that. So it became a kind of an improvisation on my part. And then, when we did the collected editions, I did one that was like a photo collage flash. For the final one, which has the last 12 issues collected, I made up 12 new covers which had never appeared. By then I was in free-fall, I was just doing what I wanted.
Did you get any feedback from Grant?
People seem to have the idea that there were secret messages hidden in Invisibles covers, they thought that it was some sort of a secret code from Grant, but it wasn’t really, because Grant didn’t have any input into the covers. He had to give the final OK, the roughs were all sent to him for him to say yes or no to, but he never said no.
Did you get any more input from him?
No, I had no conversation with Grant at all.
Talking about Grant, I think it was him who called you “the Norman Rockwell of the deranged”. What did you think about the definition, and how did you develop your personal brand of realism?
Oh I love that, “the Norman Rockwell of the deranged”, I like that. Well I think I’ve always been a very literal. I mean some people sort of think in metaphor and they can draw in metaphor, they can draw in a very expressionistic way, but I’ve always been drawn to very realistic art. I used to love Salvador Dali and I think I like him as much because he was technically so good, and I think that you can do very strange things, all the more so when you drawing in an comparatively classical way, really. But at the end of the day I want to be able to draw properly, it is a very important technical exercise for me to try to draw as well as possible.
A few years ago, some “real” artist plagiarised your work, and you responded publicly making a series of excellent points. What do you remember about that time?
I don’t need to go through the whole story for you, do I?
|Tank Girl Odyssey cover. Art by Brian Bolland.|
Well, I did a cover for Tank Girl Odyssey for DC comics and it had Tank Girl and Booga sitting and watching TV. There’s a French artist (he’s actually Icelandic but he’s been living in France for some years), his name is Erró, who, like Roy Lichtenstein used to do, he makes collages of comics mainly. Not always comics, but a lot of the times he is using comics, and quite often the collages just have hundreds and hundreds of figures all over them like Jack Kirby figures or something and they’re legitimately a collage, but he made a big print which consisted, ¾ of if was the whole of my Tank Girl cover, a ¼ of it was Chinese social realism. I saw it in the Pompidour center in Paris: actually a friend of mine, called Rufus Dayglo, spotted it first. I was outraged, I thought “Most of this thing is mine”, so I went on the internet and wrote a letter, and eventually I was contacted by Erró. We have had various contacts since then, and I went over to see him in his studio in Paris. He took the prints off sale, he paid me all the money he made from the sale of them and offered me all the remaining prints to do whatever I wanted with them, I could destroy them if I wanted. But what I said to him was “Look, why don’t you carry on selling them and we’ll split the proceeds between the two of us?” so that is the deal we made. Well, actually to be quite honest, the deal we made, he offered to sell the rest of them and to pay me the proceeds, so basically I was bought off.”
Did you get pissed off about the fact that the whole thing played into the fact that maybe comics are not real art and you need someone to make them legitimate?
That was the key sore point in the whole situation. I mean, I made this point in the letter that he lives in the strata of the art world which are considered to be high art and he makes these voyages into low art where he steals, basically, and elevates it into high art. And it was an exact parallel with the colonial days of the Empire where the explorers would go and visit the natives in the darkest Africa, and they would find them very vulgar, but somehow they had this very colourful lifestyle and they would then steal it and exploit it and usually for no compensation whatsoever, and so I thought it was a direct comparison.
It’s bullshit, though.
(Laughs). Actually, to be fair, there are a lot of very good people: I do like collage, for example Max Ernst, the French surrealists, and all those other people, and I do rather like Lichtenstein’s work. I mean there is something he did with Russ Heath’s panels that did draw attention to them somehow, although I’m sure Russ Heath, or whoever he was, never got the credit for it.
Do you think that now that comics are really an accepted form of art by the general public, but still considered minor, episodes of plagiarism are more likely to happen?
Comics are used all the time. Occasionally I used to be invited to do commercial advertising work: whenever people from outside the comics world want to use comics in some sort of other context, they always want the “Whizz, Ka-Boom, Pow!” 1960 Batman-type of comic. That is the vocabulary of comics, and they like the vocabulary of comics, whereas in the world of comics, a lot of people are doing very intelligent, experimental stuff. You know, people like Chris Ware and all these people. I mean, Spiegelman won a Pulitzer prize for his book, didn’t he? But outside of the comics people still think of it the same way, and that is the contention with me.
Who are the people that you follow in your work? You were mentioning Chris Ware and Robert Crumb: are there other people, even in commercial comics?
To tell the truth, I haven’t read comics for 20 years or more, I don’t read anything. I’m part of the way through a really nice graphic novel called How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. It’s a Vertigo travel journal by an artist whose name I can’t remember [Sarah Glidden]. It’s very nice. The artist I really like are nothing like my work. I like Jim Woodring’s work. His…is it Frank? I love his work. I cant’ think of what else I bought recently. I recently bought a book of Norman Rockwell, speaking of Norman Rockwell (laughs).
|Cover for Jack of Fables N. 17. Art by B. Bolland.|
I do all my artwork entirely in Photoshop. I’ve been talking to people today who use all kinds of bits of software: there is one called Brushes and there is also Manga Studio, but I’m just used to using a Wacom tablet, but not a Cintiq, which is very popular. Maybe I should try it, but I use a Wacom and I’m using photoshop and no piece of paper is involved at all. Everything, the roughs, the pencils and inks and colours are all done in Photoshop. But also they are really not at stages: you know, you can work on the pencils and the inks simultaneously, the top of the page could be inks and the bottom of the page you may not have even started drawing on it yet. Really without actually showing people it would be difficult to describe it, but it is all Photoshop.
Do you work on many layers?
That’s right. I mean, when you do the drawing you make a new layer, you fade it down to 50% or something so it looks like a pencil line. And then you do another layer and you fade it down to 10% and then you do another layer and sometimes I have two more layers of pencil. If you get two or more characters or figures interacting with one another it is quite of the quite useful to draw them each one on a different layer, so that if you got the arm in the wrong place you could move just the arm or something without interfering with the other figure so that drawing might have elements of two or three or more levels, layers. When it comes to the colouring I do have a finished piece of line artwork in Photoshop which is kept, and then you put the colour on top of that in channels.
How does the process work, when you have to produce cover art for comics? Is it always the same, or does it work in different ways? Do you get a generic indication of what effect is requested and the rest is up to you, or do you receive detailed instructions?
When it comes to covers I have very little instructions at all, for the Jack of Fables I tried to go for a watercolour wash effect, I was quite keen to keep the line drawing visible, and then lay the colours as if they were a wash on a piece of watercolour paper. I was trying to make them look a little bit like Dulac (I’ve forgotten Dulac’s first name, William? Thomas?). On that occasion, because they were supposed to be like fairytales, I wanted to make it look like watercolour.
In many occasions you have been called to be some sort of a bait to the reader, like I can think about Animal Man, whose interior art was not very strong, and you were the one who would have to catch the reader’s eye. This has happened many times throughout you career. What are the factors that made you accept the job like in this case?
Well, the main factor is that it would interest me. I mean I have heard that criticism: that people sometimes love my covers but the inside is shit (laughs). The thing is - how can I put this? - I mean the cover doesn’t really want to be the worst part of it, does it? The cover has to look good, and it takes me a little while to make something look good so I can’t draw 25 pages of it. But I must say Tony Akin’s interiors in Jack of Fables were nice, they were very good. He’s a good artist. Occasionally when I was not doing anything, Vertigo offered me a character to draw, and sometimes I really struggled to think “How an Earth am I going to make this character look interesting?”. I do like weird looking characters: it is very difficult to make a character that just wears jeans and a t-shirt look interesting. Some artists can, and they can do it beautifully, but I’m much happier with a character that has a bicycle wheel for a hat and a huge bowtie and huge feet (laughs).
|The Invisibles. Art by B. Bolland.|
Well I love Adam Hughes’ work. Adam Hughes has taken the art of beautiful women to a completely different degree, I mean there is no one to touch Adam for that. I mean the rest of us have just given up. James Jean was very very nice, but he has left the field I think, hasn’t he? There was artist called Phil Hale, who worked in comics for a while but he has become more of a fine art portrait painter. Apart from that there are other artists: I mean you mentioned Norman Rockwell, I think Adam Hughes uses Norman Rockwell as inspiration for some of his ideas because they tell stories. J.C. Leyendecker, I mean all of these names are the people who are very respected. There is an artist called Thomas Sullivan who was a sort of cartoonist from the first decade of the 20th century, whose work is inspiring me for the use of pen and ink. There was an artist called Lawson Wood, who was a British watercolour illustrator from the 1920’s, who I like. I actually like Daniel Clowes, I like the simplicity, I mean while we’re all trying to draw people fro all sorts of strange angles he just has a face staring right from the center of the page at you and it is very effective. And Charles Burns, and people like that.
Any final words for your Italian fans?
I’m delighted I have Italian fans, I must make a point of coming over there again some time to a convention.