Friday, July 10, 2009

The British Invasion! Gaze Into the Art of Brian Bolland

In the mid-to-late 1970s, Brian Bolland was wowing 'em in the UK. By virtue of his meticulously detailed line work, his mastery of black/white/positive/negative space, his facility for caricature, and his realistic-yet-grand style. He had come into 2000A.D., now one of Great Britain's premiere comicbooks, then a struggling new venture, to help in deadline crunches and had become the definitive Judge Dredd artist. Bolland's work on Cursed Earth and Judge Death is some of the most beautiful, haunting, and just flat-out cool art in (dare I say it?) the history of the medium.

You'd think American publishers would have gotten wind and snapped Bolland up, but Marvel, DC, and the newly forming independent publishers didn't seem to be interested in what was going on "across the pond". It took fate stepping in for the British Invasion to begin.

I have many reasons to admire Joe Staton. His art on E-Man, Mike Mauser, JSA, and Green Lantern, just to name a few*. However great his artistic accomplishments, I'm even more thankful for his need to have a roof over his head when drawing Green Lantern. The story goes that when Staton attended the UK's 1979 Comicon, the Bollands were kind enough to put Joe up. Brian mentioned to Joe that he'd love to do a cover for Green Lantern, since he was a huge GL/DC comics fan. Joe, having seen Brian's art and being no fool, called GL editor Jack C. Harris and told him of Brian's desire to do a GL cover. Harris was no fool either. He assigned Bolland the cover to Green Lantern #127 (January 1980). That led to the covers of GL issues 130 and 131. Then Adventure Comics editor Len Wein got into the act and handed Bolland the cover assignment to Adventure #475 (June 1980). In October 1980, Bolland's first interior work for the U.S. showed up in Mystery In Space #115, a seven page sci-fi short titled "Certified Safe". Wein then assigned Bolland the covers of Justice League of America #'s 189-190 (January-February 1981). Those Starro covers, with little Starros attached to the faces of the JLA-ers really got Bolland noticed, capturing the imaginations of fans who had recently seen the movie Alien. Bolland was quickly becoming a superstar. 1981 started off right with the January appearance of another Bolland-illustrated seven pager, "Falling Down to Heaven..." in Madame Xanadu #1.Next Bolland did the covers to the three-issue mini-series Tales of the Green Lantern Corps (February-April 1981), then the cover of DC Comics Presents #43 (December 1981). Bet you'd like to see that legendary run of DC covers, wouldn't you? Give the fans what they want, I say!

Also of note during this period was Bolland's contribution to Kitchen Sink's "Spirit Jam" (The Spirit #30, cover dated July 1981). Bolland's work can be seen on the bottom three panels. The top half of the page, by the way is drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz. The tier above Bolland's is by John Byrne and Joe Rubenstein. The whole page was written by Chris Claremont. That's right, DC's main cover-man shared the same page with Marvel's hottest writer and artists. (A special tip of the hat to my pal Pete Doree for posting the Spirit Jam scans on his awesome Bronze Age of Blogs.)

By this time, fans were dying to see how Bolland would handle DC superheroes. Well, in Justice League of America #200**, we finally got our chance. Not only did writer Gerry Conway and editor Len Wein tap Bolland for a chapter of that giant JLA anniversary spectacular, but they gave him the chapter with the coolest characters: Batman, Green Arrow, and Black Canary (you'd have to have lived back then to know how hot GL and BC were back then, trust me!). In the overall scheme of the issue, I have to think that this chapter was written with Neal Adams in mind ( it did star three of his signature characters, after all***), but for whatever reason, Bolland got the gig and man, did he ever deliver!

Up until this point, you'll notice that Bolland stuck to mostly covers with the occasional short story, When he worked in the British comics, he did mostly five to seven page stories. But in 1982, Wein gave Bolland a shot at penciling his first full-length "maxi-series", Camelot 3000, written by Mike W. Barr. Created for the "direct only" market, the 12 issue series was an immediate hit, giving Bolland that last bit of energy he needed to catapult him through the stratosphere. The proof of how rabid--and loyal--his fans had become was put to the test during this series. Bolland's meticulous style could not be rushed, so the lag between issues kept getting longer and longer. Two months skipped between issues 5 and 6. Three months between numbers 9 and 10 and then between 10 and 11. Then a whopping nine months between issues 11 and 12. But it was worth it. Bolland wasn't "growing roses", he was working. He was producing one of the most beautifully drawn comics ever, and fans ate it up and asked for more.

Bolland, being a wise man, would stick pretty much to covers, pin-ups, short stories, and one-shots for the rest of his career. He'd rather "leave us wanting more" than leave us hanging by committing to assignments he wouldn't be able to carry out in a timely manner, and you have to admire his integrity. In 1988, Bolland would produce what many call his magnum opus with his work on the Alan Moore written The Killing Joke, starring Batman and the Joker. His art was far more than magnificent on this story. While many debate the merits of Moore's story (this is, after all, the story in which the Joker shoots and cripples Barbara [Batgirl/Oracle] Gordon, after all), none can deny the beauty of Bolland's art.

Still going strong and still a fan favorite, Brian Bolland opened the floodgates for the comicbook's British Invasion of the 1980s. Those who would follow in his wake might have produced more in quantity, but few can touch him in quality.

* For more Joe Staton love, check out Diversions of the Groovy Kind! **JLA #200 will be covered here in the not-too-distant future. ***JLA #200 was written by Gerry Conway with the framing sequence penciled by George Perez. The rest of the issue was filled with team-ups of the JLA characters drawn mostly by the artists most closely associated with them, like Gil Kane on the Green Lantern/Atom segment, Carmine Infantino on the Flash/Elongated segment, Jim Aparo on the Aquaman/Phantom Stranger segment, and so on.

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