Howdy guys and girl, hope you’re all set for the fourth and final instalment of The Nexus Files’ retrospective on the work of legendary artist Brian Bolland. This week we delve into his less well-known and more esoteric work that was collected last year in the hardcover TPB Bolland Strips.
Not just a drawer of pretty things
After The Killing Joke, Brian Bolland was looking for a new project to work on. This wasn’t easy, as he told Joel Meadows “after The Killing Joke, working on a story written by Alan Moore, it was hard to know where to go after that” and with regards to his mainstream work he ended becoming primarily a cover artist with highly acclaimed runs on American reprints of Judge Dredd, Animal Man and The Invisibles. However in 1989 he was approached by Gary Leach to do a story for his new anthology A1. To convince Bolland to take part, Leach told him that he could write the story himself. The result would be The Actress and The Bishop.
The Actress and the Bishop
The original idea for The Actress and The Bishop came from an illustration that Bolland had done for a French publisher. The concept of this very old, infirm Bishop shacked up with this very attractive, flamboyant Actress appealed to Bolland. Bolland decided to steer clear of the obvious route of over sexualising their story due to the belief that “the least interesting thing to do with them would be to turn them into porn”. As he explains in his introduction to Bolland Strips he thought it a more interesting story to have them lead a normal, quiet life and leave the sex to reader’s “sordid imagination”. And Bolland wasn’t joking, there is a very suburban feel and pace to these stories with very little plot to any of them. The first story is about the two of them having a boat ride; the second story about them holding a party and the third, well in many ways the third story defies explanation.
What Bolland fills the stories with is wonderful character moments and pieces of whimsy. There’s a wonderful scene in the second story, ‘Throw a Party’ where the Bishop bumps into a past love who left him whilst pregnant with another man’s child. Bolland brilliantly portrays the anguish the Bishop felt and still feels in a few short panels. Obviously, his genius as an artist plays a large part as Bolland once again shows his mastery of facial expression but it would be wrong to ignore Bolland’s writing. Bolland knows exactly what information to convey and how to convey it, and he’s also not afraid to subvert the dramatic action with a simply delicious punch line.
One of the noticeable things about The Actress and The Bishop is the inventiveness of Bolland’s writing. Like a silent movie it eschews dialogue in favour of narration with the story being vocalised by short, sweet caption boxes. What’s more many of these boxes are not bland prose or even inspired prose but poetry! Whilst many of the rhymes are nothing special (Few/Crewe, Face/Place, See/Be) they give the narration a rhythmic quality and tone that many comics lack. In many ways the narration is similar to a child’s comic book with a whimsical and unmistakeably English tone.
However, that’s not to say that The Actress and The Bishop is a childish or parochial story. Underneath the whimsy is a sophistication that many ‘mature’ comics lack. Bolland’s writing style is very much a stream of conscious and many ideas and thoughts are disseminated in a seemingly careless manner. Particularly when it comes to religion Bolland shows a deftness of touch that more experienced and ‘political’ writers lack, with the Bishop’s various musings on the nature of God and the Actress’ relationship with Him being a joy to read. Bolland is also not afraid to dabble in the truly bizarre with such images as The Bishop and The Actress juggling knives and a certain monster in the shed. However, compared to Mr. Mamoulian its all as sane as Tom Cruise…er…well you know what I mean.
Oh my god this is bizarre. Honestly, if you thought the Invisibles was strange this has nothing on it. As he explains in his introduction Mr. Mamoulian started out as a technical exercise. Bolland wasn’t enjoying his art at that time and so he set himself the task of taking a piece of paper and just drawing whatever came into his head. The result (mistakes included) was Mr. Mamoulian.
The series concerns the adventures of Mr. Mamoulian, a hunch back, unkempt and somewhat ugly man who fancies himself as something of a philosopher. The early stories were basically Mamoulian telling either the audience or a supporting character some great philosophical truth. In many ways these were the most interesting and experimental from a writing standpoint, as Bolland went to great lengths to make what is effectively exposition (although obviously not quite ) visually simulating for the reader. A particular gem is ‘Scorpions’, which is based around an arresting metaphor for the Cold War. Over time a number of overarching plots develop in particular Mamoulian’s relationship with young punk Evelin and his fantasies over Bubbles. All this is quite mad and me explaining any more to you (let alone the very enjoyable Alban character) would ruin it for you.
However, the most arresting thing about the Mr. Mamoulian stories is Bolland’s art. Unlike many artists Bolland doesn’t find drawing particularly easy and is extremely cautious when putting pen to paper. The whole point of Mamoulian was to get away from that and it shows. Instead of Bolland’s usual clear, detailed and smooth lines we get rough sketches. However, this in many ways adds to the brilliance of Mr. Mamoulian as Bolland’s genius for caricature is redefined by the vibrant and chaotic nature of his artwork. Also as the series progresses the artwork becomes less obviously rushed and more just an experiment in style with some of the more esoteric stories having an Eddie Campbell esque quality to them. If anything, it’s great to see such an established artist challenge himself to do something different (*cough*John Byrne*cough*).
The ‘Bolland Strips’ collection is a must have for any Bolland fan. Not only does it contain the three The Actress and The Bishop stories (including one done especially for the collection) and all 54 pages of Mr. Mamoulian stories it contains a number of other rarities written by Brian Bolland including one his brilliant illustrated rants (which is literally Bolland drawing himself ranting), Bolland’s version of the legend of the Princess and the Frog and the Editions Deesee portfolio that includes the drawing that inspired The Actress and The Bishop.
Above all, this collections shows that Bolland was always more than a drawer of pretty pictures. He was a real artist with truly original and groundbreaking ideas that have influenced comics for the better. To truly understand the genius, care and thought behind Brian Bolland’s artwork you have to read this handsome volume.