The Nexus Files: Brian Bolland Pt. 2

Welcome guys to the next exciting instalment of The Nexus Files, The Nexus’ brand new Retro column! This week we continue our feature on Brian Bolland with a look at his work for the character that made his name Judge Dredd, lead strip of British anthology 2000AD.

First Steps

Legendary comic editor and writer Pat Mills created 2000AD in 1977. Pat Mills had as editor of Battle and Action established a reputation as a radical and ruthless editor who was determined to revolutionize the stagnant and old-fashioned world of British comics. For his first two comics, he had made a habit of bypassing traditionalist British artists with foreign artists either from Spain or Latin America. However, as detailed in Judge Dredd: The Mega History many of these artists were themselves becoming reactionary and due to this and other problems (particularly reliability and language barriers) Mills was keen to use more British artists for the new science fiction weekly. Therefore he scoured the Britain for young and upcoming artists to give 2000AD a dynamic and vibrant look all of its own. Bolland was one of these new artists, although at the time he was limited to cover work. However, once his friend Nick Landau was made acting editor after Pat Mills quit, and since his agent had already established a relationship with 2000AD thanks to David Gibbons’ drawing for them, Bolland soon moved to interiors, first inking Gibbons’ pencils for Prog 35’s Dan Dare story and then making his full interior debut in Prog 41, on Judge Dredd. He would go on to draw around 300 pages interior artwork for the character, help define him as 2000AD‘s lead character and deliver the two most stunning panels in the character’s history.

The Dynamic Duo: Mike and Brian

Unsurprisingly Bolland’s genius didn’t emerge fully formed. His editor at the time, Nick Landau has said that “Brian’s first artwork was OK at the time…It wasn’t the greatest. But then Brian was another artist who developed in leaps and bounds.” The strip was having what may be called “teething troubles” at the time with co-creator Carlos Ezquerra having quit the character in protest at having not been the artist on the first story. In the vacuum, Mike McMahon had became Dredd’s premier artist, although due to a mixture of editorial guidance and inexperience Ezquerra still heavily influenced his art. However, both McMahon and Bolland would soon emerge with a degree of flair and innovation that quickly made the character their own.

Whilst McMahon attracted critical acclaim from artists and ‘serious’ comic fans for his wild, surreal imagery and impressionist style, Bolland was quickly established as the readers favorite. McMahon’s artwork was wonderful stuff, but like a true impressionist its strength was in the imagination and the heart of the artwork. McMahon didn’t bring the clear lines and detail that Bolland did, and Bolland’s tight artwork had a graceful beauty that the dirty lines of McMahon never did. As then 2000AD art editor and legendary artist Kevin O’Neil said the scruffiness and looseness of McMahon (and Ezquerra’s) artwork made Dredd “look meaner and more brutal” and Bolland’s finer art style idealised and romanticised the character. A benefit the beauty of Bolland’s artwork was that it allowed him to depict violence easier than other artists, something that he took full advantage of. As British comic commentator Walther Dragonbuckle notes Bolland had a panache for fight scenes and violence; “his Dredd would kick and punch punks under the chin, in the throat, on the back of the head. A straightforward roundhouse kick would rarely satisfy Bolland”. This genius for violence would be demonstrated at length in the wonderful six pages of Punks Rule where Dredd takes down an entire gang single-handed.

Bolland also made important revisions to Dredd himself, revisions that have became part of the definite version of the character. Unlike American superheroes, artists were never given an absolute, cast iron template for the character and so there has been a habit for artists to refine the character as the strip has matured. This was especially true in its early years when McMahon and Bolland were developing Ezquerra’s raw character design. Both Ezquerra and McMahon had a reputation as quick artists who sometimes cut corners on details, neither of which could be said about Bolland. Bolland’s painstaking attention to detail led him to redesign Dredd’s uniform to not only look better but also be more realistic. One of the big problems with the original design of Dredd’s uniform was the massive eagle shoulder pad on the right shoulder. With both Ezquerra and McMahon the Eagle had been poorly detailed with Dragonbuckle going as far to say that when compared to Bolland’s they “were really just shapeless masses in comparison”. The same was true for the eagle on Dredd’s belt buckle. Bolland went back to the original inspiration for the eagle motifs (fascist societies from Ancient Rome to Franco’s Spain) and redesigned them into things that were both more realistic and cooler than the original design. Bolland also redesigned Dredd’s helmet, something that he believed Ezquerra had gotten wrong. Instead of Ezquerra’s smaller, motorcyclist esque helmet Bolland developed it into a much larger helmet, which flared at the back. Bolland also developed the habit of having the helmet obscure only Dredd’s head above the nose, almost like Batman’s cowl. This changed helmet and a resulting emphasis on Dredd’s chin has remains to this day, sometimes taken to controversial lengths (*cough*Siku*cough*).

Bolland’s contribution to the character is widely recognized, as being key to popularising the character and helping it become the flagship strip in 2000AD. Unsurprisingly, the modest artist disagrees vehemently. Instead he believes that Mike McMahon, who to him was the “real ideas man of 2000AD”, made the key contribution and that he and other Dredd artists relied on his ideas. He goes on to say that all he did was to take McMahon’s ideas then “reinterpreted them in a style which actually borrowed a lot from the work of the American artists I was looking at”. Of course, anyone who has looked at Bolland’s artwork knows this to be so untrue that if someone else had have said it, they could’ve been sued for slander!

Bolland’s Dreddest Hits

If you were to look at the Brian Bolland story that has the most impact on Dredd and his world then you don’t have to look any further than his Judge Death stories where he not only created Judge Death but also his ‘killing cousins’ Judges Fire, Mortis and Fear. The genius of his designs can be seen in the fact that they have survived largely unaltered to this very day and Death remains one of the most popular and iconic Judge Dredd villains. Bolland manages to strike the balance between genuine horror and dark, macabre humour that is so essential to make The Dark Judges work. In particular the introduction of the character is a wonderful example of genuine horror in a comic with Bolland not only expertly showing Death’s attack on Tiny but also Tiny’s absolute horror, whilst The Dark Judges’ rampage through Billy Carter Block is a classic example of his sly and understated visual humour. The two Judge Death stories are also famous for introducing PSI Judge Anderson and Bolland perfectly captures her character as bubbly, attractive blonde. Bolland is brilliant at capturing Dredd’s unease in Anderson’s company, especially when they are trying to break The Dark Judges force-field in Judge Death Lives. Finally, Bolland gives us perhaps the most perfect comic panel ever, the famous ‘Gaze into the fist of Dredd’.

Another great Bolland story is The Jigsaw Man mini-story in the wider Judge Child Quest mega-epic. In a story written to utilise Bolland’s ability to draw the human anatomy, we see the terrifying effects of jigsaw disease as chunks literally disappearing out of the victim’s body leaving him literally looking like jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. Bolland’s artwork was awe-inspiring with his sense of perspective and anatomy allowing him to make what could’ve been an extremely silly looking story into a minor masterpiece. What’s more he was perfect at capturing the victim’s complete and utter horror and dismay at what was happening to him, even when he had less than half a face!

Lastly, we have Bolland’s final Judge Dredd story, the last part of Block War. Undoubtedly the finest episode he ever drew, his complete mastery over the character was obvious. We see Dredd fight the Sov-City agent who had infected Mega-City One’s water supply with a serum that made everyone aggressive and fight each other. It’s most famous for the vivid panel where Dredd asks a very simple question.

The End

Bolland was becoming disillusioned with the character, especially the limits it imposed on his drawing. In Judge Dredd: The Mega History he said that by the end of his stay on the character he was missing more and more of his deadlines and had “almost lost the ability to draw simple human anatomy” due to the bulky nature of Dredd’s uniform. Like McMahon he was worried about forever being seen as just a Dredd artist. In addition, American publishers (DC in particular) were by the eighties going to great lengths to woo British artists. This held great attraction for Bolland not only due to the fact that he was a lifelong DC Comics fan, but also because of the better pay and DC Comics’ commitment to creator’s rights (well when compared to IPC). Bolland drew his final Judge Dredd strip in Prog 244. Even today, some 25 years since his last interior artwork for 2000AD many fans still considered his version of Judge Dredd the definitive one and yearn for his return to the strip that made his name…

Well we can dream, can’t we?