Brian Bolland, DC Comics Artist
Comic artist Brian Bolland discusses his career at DC Comics, where he drew covers for Green Lantern, spearheaded the art for Camelot 3000 and contributed to Superman, Batman, Animal Man, The Invisibles and Wonder Woman. Terence Dollard hosts.
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- Hello and welcome to Comic Culture.
I'm Terence Dollard,
a professor in the Department of Mass Communication
at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
My guest today is legendary artist, Brian Bolland.
Brian, welcome to Comic Culture.
- Thank you very much for having me.
- Brian, you are known for some of the most famous covers
of the 1990s and two thousands, here in the United States,
working for DC comics.
So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about
when you are given an assignment for a cover,
how do you sort of handle it?
Is the editor telling you what the story is about
or are you just drawing something and hoping that it works?
How do you approach those covers?
- Well, it's been different over the years.
I mean, right at the very beginning,
when I first went to DC, I went to Marvel too,
a couple of few times, but I've mostly worked for DC.
And I know the DC characters because I grew up with.
I had a large collection of DC comics,
so I knew the characters rather well.
And at the very beginning, I met Julie Schwartz,
the legendary Julius Schwartz Suzan.
He'd been an editor at DC,
right through the '50s I believe.
And he said,
"Look you're coming to visit us in New York,
draw a couple of covers for us
and we will work a story around them."
And I came up with a Superman cover and the justice league,
some justice league covers.
But later on I was doing the maxi series Campbell at 3000.
And that was all very sort of totally written
and sorted out.
I mean, the first two covers I did for Campbell at 3000
were laid out, drawn in pencil by Ross Andrew,
who was a veteran artist in DC,
and I just had to copy what he'd drawn.
Since then, it's gone through various phases.
Sometimes I'm reading the entire script
and looking for something in there
that I think would make a very good cover.
Sometimes the writer has an idea
of what he'd like on the cover.
So really it changes every time.
And I was doing covers for Grant Morrison's books,
sometimes I had a complete free rein,
thanks to editor Shelly Bond,
to come up with something of my own devising.
So occasionally, the writer Grant Morrison,
would tell me exactly what he wanted.
So it does vary from time to time.
- I think that's one of those things that we see now.
A lot of covers are maybe
just what we would call pin-ups in the day,
but your covers, generally had something to do
with the story.
And I think back to those great covers you did
for Animal Man that were just,
you could look at those books and just,
there was something about, you know, your cover work,
that was just a notch above everyone else's.
And I think of that famous one
where we sort of see you drawing in the figure
and buddy's kind of lying in the ground,
like he'd been hit by a car or something.
So when you get an idea like that, you know,
it seems like there's a lot of thought that goes into it,
and there's a lot of work that goes into the artwork.
Your art is very detailed.
So how are you sort of approaching the page
when you have the idea to put it on there?
When is it going to be ink?
When's it going to be color?
- I can't remember specifically
how I came up with each of those covers,
but there was something very meta
about Grant Morrison's writing on the Animal Man.
And on the occasion of the,
I think it was number four, was it?
The one with,
my hand on, well actually I drew my hand,
on the cover there, the master one.
To tell the truth, it was quite a long time ago.
I can't remember exactly how the script went,
but there was something in there
that indicated that would be a very good idea.
And I have actually done that sort of idea
a number of times on later editions.
- It's just fascinating because your work is so detailed
and I'm imagining that, well, it just seems to me
that you are perhaps a perfectionist.
You're always looking to make sure that every line is right
and every detail is correct.
So, you know, when you are given an assignment,
whether it's sequential work or it's a cover,
how do you sort of divide that time so that, you know,
you can make sure that it's done and get, you know,
to print on time and still be satisfied
with your work as an artist.
- Well, I mean in my case, it was always,
there was always a dilemma.
When I first started drawing comics
in the mid '70s in Britain,
I had to draw as quickly as possible.
And I knew that if I had a little bit more time,
I could do it better.
As I moved into doing work in 2008, drawing Judge Dredd,
they knew that I was not the quickest artist of the bunch.
And I did a little short series called Judge Death.
And they knew that
they would have to give me a little extra time.
The artists up in 2000 AD, the British Comic,
the stories where, the issues came up weekly
and the stories, the episodes,
were up to something like five pages long.
So they can have a bunch of artists,
they have one artist working on one story
and meanwhile, another artist would be worth taking
as long as was necessary to do his segment or his story.
And I was given three weeks or so to draw 30 pages.
Well, no, I don't think I could possibly
have done 30 pages in three weeks,
but I was given extra time to finish that stuff.
And now that I'm, I sound retired,
I've been retired.
I've saved two years to leave.
I've been as busy in this last two years as I've ever been.
I now have the luxury of taking as much time
to do the thing as possible.
I think if I were required to be a proper comic artists,
somebody who could actually draw 25 pages in a month,
it wouldn't look like what I do.
I spent at least a week on just about everything I do now.
So, you know, I guess,
I don't know whether you call me a perfectionist,
I'm a more of an obsessive, you know.
I mean, once that part of the drawing is drawn
with a certain amount of detail,
the rest of the drawing has to continue
to be drawn in the same degree of detail.
So it just takes as long as it takes to finish the thing.
But, you know, I can't see an error, you know, every time,
you can't call me a perfectionist
because I keep looking at some of the covers
I have stuck to the wall there.
I can see things that I could have done a lot better.
- And does that drive you as an artist?
Because there's always something that you see
that you could do better.
And there's always that, you know,
desire to get better and better every time you do something.
- I don't think I could get any better.
I think I've peaked.
I think I'd probably peaked 20 or so years ago.
I didn't think I could, well, I'm saying,
I don't think I could get any better.
I've leveled, I've arrived at the level of ability
that I have and I don't think it's going to get any better.
I mean, nowadays, as a cover artist, the beauty of,
some people wouldn't like this at all,
but I find the thing I love the most
is that I can spend as long as I need on one piece of work.
They may be Batman,
and then the next week I'm drawing the Steel Claw,
who is a vintage British comic character.
Or I can be drawing Barbarella, and I do love that.
I think a lot of people really enjoy
the continuity of the story.
I like the change from one I've just recently drawn,
Swamp Thing, For instance, it's a great joy
to be able to do something, finish with it,
and then try drawing another character.
- And you had mentioned Camelot 3000, which is one of those,
I guess it was DC's first mini-series,
and it's the introduction that I had to your artwork.
I came across a collection of it and I was blown away.
I think it was either that, or was Batman 400,
where you worked in some pages to complete that story.
Your artwork was one of those things that for me,
looking at the Marvel style of let's say, John Buscema,
who I absolutely love,
your artwork was a completely different world.
And I'm just wondering when you're working on, you know,
some sequential pages and what not,
are you drawing inspiration from someone like John Buscema
or are you taking an influence
from maybe a British comic that, you know,
American readers are aware of?
- Okay, well, I grew up,
my first love was American comics.
And I In fact I have the very first American comic
I ever bought right here.
Dinosaurus from 1960,
but the British comics were drawn,
though mainly in black and white.
And a lot of the artists we had in our comics
were from Spain, Italy, all over the place.
And the style was completely different.
So when I first started drawing in British comics,
myself and Dave Gibbons, I would say,
were the two people who were most influenced by America.
We'd both grown up reading DC or Marvel.
And so my style of drawing was more in the American style
than had previously been the thing in British comics.
And so I suppose, drawing Judge Dredd,
it didn't require me to draw in the Marvel superhero style.
There was a kind of fusion of the British
and European black and white artwork style of the artists
at the time.
And people like Gil Kane,
I grew up on the work of a lot of Gil Kane's work
and later Neal Adams and all of the American great artists.
So I think my, what I do is a sort of fusion
of a number of different styles from around the world.
What do you think?
- Well, it's interesting.
- Is that true?
- I can see, you know, the influence of Neal Adams
with that more realistic style.
And one of the things I was looking before our conversation,
I did just look back at some pages of mine that I,
of yours rather, that are favorites of mine.
And I was looking back at some of your work on, let's say,
The Killing Joke, where the Joker is wearing a glove
and his hand is holding something just a certain way.
And it looks, well, it looks really realistic.
And when you see that in a comic, at least for me,
as somebody who's reading comics heavily in the '80s,
it was, you know, one of those mind blowing events.
As I realized
that there's just so much more to do with the medium.
So, when you're doing something as mundane
as a person's hand holding the lens of a camera,
are you using a lot of photo references
or are you just, you know, it's in you
and you can just kind of put it on paper.
- I do tend to use photo reference for my hands
I mean, I have a mirror in front of me
and I can often sort of pose my hands
and various bits of myself in the mirror
so I can see what hands look like.
And most, I think some people
do rather slavishly use photographic reference.
And I do personally find that a little bit tiresome
to have when basically the drawing
is very much based on photography.
I do occasionally use a bit of photo reference.
Like for instance, when I'm having to draw a suit,
a person in a suit,
also somebody in particular form of dress,
I will need to know what that looks like.
But, I believe some artists actually use models.
I've never used a model.
So I would say my work is 70 to 80% made up.
And there's a little element of photo reference in that.
Especially when it comes to hands
and facial expressions too I would say as well.
- I think Lee Weeks said recently that,
"If you can get the eyes and the hands, right."
And he was, I think, quoting Joe Kubert.
He said, "If you can get the hands and eyes, right,
you can fudge the rest because the audience--"
- Yeah, that is true.
[Brian laughs softly]
I always start with the eyes out,
I just start with the left eye on the figure.
And then, if you can get the both eyes right,
the risk is less crucial, isn't it?
So I agree with him on that, but that's how I started.
- And it's interesting that you were holding up a comic
from Dell, which is,
I don't even think they're around anymore.
But they had some licensed comics
and I think that one was called dinosaur.
And I have some comments on the set here
that I remember from my childhood.
You know, when you look back at those comics,
are you able to look past
maybe the art not being the level of it,
let's say a Jack Kirby,
and still just kind of enjoy it as an adult say, you know,
there's the nostalgia, there's the fun,
there's everything that I love about writing.
- Oh, yeah.
Well, to be quite honest, I'm very loyal
to a lot of the artists I liked at the time.
I was a great admirer of Bruno Premiani,
who drew doom patrol in 1966 on.
It was quite a material man when he came to DC
to draw a dude who was in his mid '50s I believe.
Gil Kane's works still looks great,
Alex Toth for me is the great master of American comics.
I think a lot of the artists of my generation
hold him up as the best.
I mean, he really knows how to compose a panel, a page,
he knows how to interplay the black and the white,
the chiaroscuro effects.
And his drawing is, some people think it's simple,
they call it simple,
but to be able to strip away the extraneous detail
the way he did and just get back to what works the best,
is so good.
I also love the work of Dick Sprang,
who was drawing Batman in the '50s.
During the sort of silly creature Batman phase
of the '50s.
So, those artists are still excellent in my view.
And then of course in the very late '60s, '70s,
Neal Adams came along, with it, as you might say,
"A realistic style."
But it was realistic.
It was more realistic and well observed,
but it was also more dynamic.
It didn't lose any of the dynamism
that you would get from a Kirby or some,
or one of the Marvel artists for instance.
It was more so, it had more explosive action going on
and while being realistically observed.
and a lot of difficult, difficult for shortening
and tilted head effects and you know, so good.
- I agree.
And Toth is, he did the character designs
for one of the great Saturday morning cartoons of my youth,
The Super Friends.
And to this day, I can't look at those shows without
seeing a master at work.
And I think to that great Black Canary story he did,
where it's just some great panel layout
and like you say, it may look simple,
but it's, I guess, knowing what not to put in.
- Yes, now I liked his work before that.
I didn't see Super Friendsú,
but that his work did drift into the cartoony sort of,
sort of style a little bit too much for me.
I much preferred his mystery, DC mystery book period.
His Bravo for Adventure is his masterpiece, I believe.
And Zorro, he drew Zorro, and countless other things.
I think he was one of those artists
who many artists you think, well, Jack Kirby,
that's the fantastic four or whatever,
the Ditko is Spider-Man, but with Alex Toth,
you couldn't really place him as the artist
on any one long running thing, really, can you.
He did the Bravo for Adventure and he did Zorro,
but he does it around all over the place,
drawing of story here, a story there.
He drew Hot Wheels for DC beautifully.
He drew a couple of Rip Hunter timer episodes for DC
in their mid '60s I believe.
You just had to find him where you found him.
- Let's just go back to The Killing Joke for a moment,
if we can.
I know you probably talked about this book
for years and years.
- Well, I've hardly ever spoken about it.
[Terence laughs softly]
One of the things that just dazzles me about the artwork
is the way you are able to do simple,
what seems like simple things,
like rain puddling as it hits the ground
or the reflection of lights from a carnival in that puddle.
So when you're doing something like that,
it seems like, it's something that you see
and you're able to put on paper and there's a magic to it.
But for me, I look at rain and I think, well,
it's got to look like a line coming down.
So I'm just wondering, you know,
from your artistic point of view,
how are you approaching something as mundane as rain,
or as explosive as you know, the Bat-mobile,
as you are designing the world that the characters live in.
- I have made this massive transition
from working on an ink with a brush on the paper,
to the computer.
And The Killing Joke was drawn, you know,
with a brush on paper.
So, looking it on, I mean,
I've been doing that for over 20 years.
I've been working digitally for over 20 years.
So looking back, I'm trying to remember.
I mean, there was a time
when you could draw a rain with a scalpel.
I remember you could do drawing
and then you'd get a steel edged ruler
and take a scalpel and just scratch the page.
And that would give the impression of rain falling,
but I don't think I was,
I certainly didn't do that for this.
I did have a tendency.
I never liked using whiteout.
I always, if there was some white lines
somewhere on a black background,
I would be drawing the spaces between the white lines.
Particularly hair, Wonder Woman's hair for instance,
it was never a black mass
with a lot of whites drawn in for highlights,
It was always me drawing the black around the white.
I spent more time drawing Wonder Woman's hair
than I would spend on any other parts of the drawing.
But in the case of those puddles,
the same thing applied really.
I mean the script,
Alan Moore script required that opening scene.
It's not that difficult
to know what a puddle of rain looks like.
It's not the most complicated thing I've ever drawn,
but thank you for pointing that out anywhere.
- I do have a tendency to point out the arcane sometimes.
- Oh, that's brilliant, why not.
- Now you mentioned that you are working digitally,
but you used to ink with a brush.
And if I looked at your work,
I would think that
for the most part you were maybe doing like crow quill,
and then maybe fattening up some lines with a brush.
But was that sort of?
- No, no.
I drew everything with the same Winsor and Newton series.
I think it was called Serie--
Well, it was a number three Winsor and Newton brush.
Everything I drew was with that.
I never learned to use a pen.
when I was a kid, I used to draw with a ballpoint pen
and then I discovered the repeater graphs.
But when I first started working professionally,
I think that David Gibbons and I
started working on a thing called Power Man,
published in Nigeria actually.
And it was then that I discovered I really,
I had to choose what tool to use and it became the brush.
but all of those lines were drawn with a brush.
And I believe, and I mean a lot of artists use a pen.
I've never done it.
I believe Dick Giordano, who was a very fine inker,
used a brush.
But his lines, I could be wrong on, you know,
if that's not the case, then I stand corrected.
But I have a feeling that that's the case.
No, I used a brush.
- That's amazing because I mean,
I've spoken to other inkers or inkers
who would talk about how they could do just about anything
with their brush, do the panel lines and everything else.
It just marvels, it amazes me that the detail
that you're able to put in with that brush
the number three a is sort of intermediate, you know,
you can get a nice fine line,
but you can also get a nice strong line there.
So being able to do some really delicate line work.
- I suspect the panel borders would have been done
with a pen of some of some repeated graph of some sort.
I don't really remember.
I mean, I've got, I've got one here.
I mean, that's a judge Dredd, that's all brush.
- That looks fantastic.
- And there's another, this is artwork by the way,
that's all done with a brush.
- That is, that is amazing.
I mean, it just speaks to the control
and I understand that, you know,
years of training and practice would get you there.
As a hobby cartoonist myself, I'm lucky
that I can sit down and occasionally, you know,
dip a pen into some ink or a brush into some ink
and have some fun.
Now you mentioned that you're working digitally now.
So I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.
The way that you work now.
Cause it seems a lot faster, but also,
you could get bogged down in the detail a little bit more.
- Yes, people do ask that.
They say, now that you're working in Photoshop,
I work in Photoshop.
There are lots of other apps,
I would especially call them apps for,
Manga studio, for instance, was a very popular one.
I believe it's called something else now.
Dave Gibbons, I'm always referencing Dave because
he and I go back a long way.
He was the one who actually suggested I'm
switched to working on in Photoshop.
Now I've forgotten exactly what the question was,
but just refresh it for me.
- Sure, it's just about the change in approach
and how do you stop from maybe putting too much in.
- Well, that is the danger you see,
because I work at 600 dot.
I mean, this could get very technical
for people who are not into that sort of thing.
But I work up,
printed page size, but at 600 dots per inch.
Now on my screen, I have one,
I'm going to do this like this.
I have one window taking up about two thirds of the screen,
which I blipped at 200%.
And I have another little one on the corner,
which is the entire page
so that I can see what whole page looks like.
Now on the big window, I'm drawing the detail.
It might be an eye or something like that.
And, yes, I am using a Wacom tablet with a pen
to draw the line, to draw everything actually.
The rough is drawn very loosely with the layer
reduced down to 50 or 45%.
So it looks like a pencil, it's got a paleness,
like a pencil line that can be done very quickly but then,
A layer goes over the top of that
which I call the ink layer.
And I use a pencil tool too
because it has a non antia-aliased edge
to draw the ink line.
But it was 600 dots per inch,
you can't see the little pixels
when the thing is reduced to print size.
You can on this big screen I'm using, you can draw,
you can see all the little pixels you are drawing.
But by the time you're back down
to the print-sized version,
it looks like just an ink line on a piece of paper.
- That's interesting.
I would never have thought
that you could just have the page that you're working on
so you can see the whole thing in a smaller size.
So that way you don't muddy it up a little bit.
- That's right, you can have two images of the same drawing,
but at two, you know, two different windows,
but at different sizes.
Yeah, very handy.
- In fact, that is fantastic.
You know, I see that they're telling me
we have about three minutes left in our conversation.
And the problem is that there's so many different directions
that I would love to go with
to our continue our conversation.
So I'm just gonna go back to your artwork
and those covers that you do.
So when you're doing something now on the digital tablet,
are you able to give everything to the publisher
where it's going to be inks and color
and maybe even the graphics that they want
or are you still just giving them the black and white
and they're going to send it to maybe one of the--
- No, no, no.
Nowadays I do everything.
I've become very precious about, you know,
I didn't really like other people inking my work
and I switched to working on in Photoshop
because I wanted to color the thing myself.
So nowadays, I turn in full color artwork.
I do the rough,
the pale pencil version
that I've described at the beginning,
which I then email to the editor,
just so to get his or her approval.
But the finished product is in full color.
It's in CMYK full color.
I send it as a TIFF
over one of these large file sharing platforms.
But I also, since my work,
the line to me,
has to look okay even before I put the color on.
I send the full color version to the editor
and also the line version.
Sometimes they may, occasionally we do these things
called variant covers where, you know,
potential customers are induced
to buy two copies of the same thing,
which is a bit of a cheat really.
But they can buy the full color cover version
or the one which has just line.
So I can supply two versions of the same bit of artwork.
I say artwork but indeed it's actually a file, isn't it?
- Well, Brian, they are telling me
that we've run out of time.
I want to thank you so much.
- Hold on.
[Terence laughs softly]
[John laughs softly]
- I want to thank you so much
for taking time out and to talk with me today.
- Well, it's been a great pleasure.
I'm sorry we couldn't go on for longer.
Maybe some other time.
- [Terence] Hopefully we can.
I'd like to thank everyone at home
for watching Comic Culture.
We will see you again soon.
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