Practitioners 22: Dave Gibbons Pt 1

Born 14 April 1949, Dave Gibbons has already made his way into the hallowed halls of historical figures associated with comic books. It is no exaggeration to say that Gibbon’s name could appear alongside great artists and writers like Ditko, Miller, Eisner and Kubert. But while Gibbons is associated with one of the greatest (certainly the most critically and commercially successful) series of all time – his is not a career that is shrouded with his name. Whereas Quitely, Romita Jr and Kubert can occassionally dwarf a project and become the defining feature of it – Dave Gibbons has achieved something much more noteworthy – the project he works on and not his name remains the talking point of projects he is associated with. Dave Gibbons is a prolific Practitioner with a style that puts content and communication of the story first and foremost and has allowed (in a way that no other artist has been able to facilitate) a series to transcend the medium and be considered a work of awarded literature. No other artist in the medium has achieved this and that is why Gibbons is one of the most noteworthy practitioners in the list – effectively for not being as deliberately noteworthy as some of his peers. For those who know, Gibbons is a legend and one of the foremost practitioners working today.

Gibbons broke into British comics by working on horror and action titles for British 2000AD publisher DC Thomson and IPC. With the inception of the quintessential British weekly comic publication, launched in 1977, Gibbons was in a position to contribute artwork from the very start on Prog 01. As a founding member of the title Gibbons went on to draw 24 installments of Harlem Heroes (written by Pat Mills and making up the original 2000AD ‘Thrill 5’ Line-up. It was a cross between kung fu films and the Harlem Globetrotters with the crazily violent Aeroball set in a desensitised 2050). Gibbons almost wasn’t the artist on the project, originally intended to be drawn by Carlos Trigo but for reasons unknown Gibbons appeared in the starting line up. From Prog 25, Massimo Belardinelli drew the remaining episodes of the first run and remained its regular artist for the strip’s reinvention as Inferno.

Mid-way through the comic’s first year Gibbon’s began illustrating Dan Dare, a project close to his heart as he had always been a fan of the original series, his own work inspired by Frank Hampson who had provided the visuals for DD in its earlier years. Gibbons was also inspired by Frank Bellamy, (the noteworthy) Don Lawrence and Ron Turner. whose ‘style evolved out of (his ) love for the MAD Magazine artists like Wally Wood and Will Elder.

Also working on Ro-busters, Gibbons became one of the msot prolific of 2000AD’s earliest creators, featuring in 108 of the magazine’s first 131 Progs (issues). He returned to 2000AD in the early eighties to create Rogue Trooper with writer Gerry Finley-Day, about a cloned battle-hardened soldier and his cybernetically enhanced equipment imbued with the personalities of his fellow soldiers, providing the fans with an acclaimed early run that saw it roll well beyond his tenure under many more artists.

It was around this time he formed a working relationship with Alan Moore, working most regularly with him on his Tharg’s Future Shocks feature.

On the roll into the ’80’s, Gibbons took on the position of lead artist on Doctor Who Magazine, undoubtedly another character that’s stood the test of time more than a little well. The Doctor Who Storybook 2007 features the name ‘Gibbons’ in a list of the greatest artists of all time.

One of the British comic book talents identified by Len Wein in 1982, Gibbons was hired to draw Green Lantern Corps backup stories within the pages of Green Lantern for DC, starting with a Green Lantern story in Green Lantern 162 (March 1983) with writer Todd Klein, as well as the concurrently released ‘Creeper’ two-part back-up story in Flash 318-319. By Green Lantern 172 (January 1984) Gibbons was on the lead feature with Len Wein while still illustrating the back-up features through to issue 181. Finishing his run in issue 186 (March 1985) he briefly returned however to pencil a back up feature ‘Mogo doesn’t socialize’ with Alan Moore in Issue 188. Gibbons would later return as writer on Green Lantern Corps back up stories and his association and partnership with Moore was about to go from strength to strength, leaving him responsible for one of the foremost works of comic book fiction ever created, and by that I don’t mean ‘The Man Who has Everything,’ written in the 1985 Superman Annual by Moore and pencilled by Gibbons and collected in Moore’s greatest works for DC reprint a few years ago.

Gibbon’s clear, unrestricted and unfussy style saw him produce work for both DC’s Who Who in the DC Universe Guidebook and Marvel’s The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition. He contributed to Harrier Comic’s Brickman 1 with Kevin O’Neill, Lew Stringer and others. He provided covers for Peter David’s and Joe Orlando’s four-issue The Phantom mini-series and inked Kevin Macguire’s work on the landmark Action Comics 600 and created the cover for issue 601.

The Comedian, Silk Spectre and Nite Owl : Three characters designed by Dave Gibbons

But in September 1986-October 1987 Gibbon’s joined with Alan Moore and colourist John Higgins and rendered the blood-stained smiley badge firmly in the minds of every comic reader for 25 years. Now one of the best-selling graphic novel’s of all time and the only graphic novel to feature on Time’s ‘Top 100 Novel’s List’ Gibbon’s artwork is notable for its stark utilisation of the formulaic nine-panel grid layout, removing opportunities to embellish or emphasise through scaling or composition – forcing him to rely entirely on his capacity to communicate the effect of each panel within the fixed panel shape and size itself. To have pursued this course and succeeded in the way he did, puts Gibbons in the at the table with some of the top comic book artists of all time as he put away certain stylistic tricks and still rendered a piece of graphic literature that knocked popular novels from a highly sought after list. Its dense symbolism (some suggested by Moore, some by Gibbons) is carried throughout the piece as the conflicting and complex characteristics of the central heroes is cast against a kaleidoscope of recognisable, realistic and perfectly realised environments. Watchmen in the hands of Gibbon’s is a contained beast, twice as savage with its muzzle on. The psychotic Rorschach better realised with Gibbon’s sure, naturalistic style forming a Human around a monster wherein another artist may have depicted a much more emotional and overt depiction of the same character. Gibbons and Moore’s choice to draw Dr Manhattan full frontal nude is never gratuitous and is so innate a part of the character thanks to the clear, anatomically minded style of Gibbons that the feature film 2 years ago featured the same thing – so much an ingrained visualisation of a man’s isolation from his own society that it would have altered the character immeasurably to have simply given him pants.

In the Watchmen, alongside Moore, Gibbons created a timeless piece of literary history. He succeeded in depicting a disparate group of Supermen so flawlessly that Moore’s words can almost be redundant. The characters so well realised that you understand the innate characteristics they represent. Although originally intended to be the characters bought by DC from Charlton comics, the characters that were adapted from them (due to obvious concern that having bought them Moore would kill two and remove one from Human kind completely within 12 months) are familiar archetypes without ever being cliched. From the pug faced Comedian, scarred through years of hard living to Moloch, the curve eared ex-supervillain suffering from cancer, Gibbon’s gave them enough humanity to communicate all the frailties and complexities of Human beings without even once diminishing their inherent heroism.

The unmasked Rorschach – a pathetic, ungainly and slightly ugly figure when revealed from under his cowl is trapped in a cell being threatened by a criminal boss and his goons directly outside. By the end of the sequence all of the characters (save Rorschach) are dead in grotesque and memorable ways. All of this takes place in a space little larger than a toilet cubicle, in panels of 3x3x3 of equal size and largely using the same head on angle. It remains one of the most effecting and brutally challenging moments in modern comic books and its all thanks to Gibbon’s unswerving and meticulously precise style.

A giant space squid (or so it appears) destroys a city centre at the end of the Watchmen. Undoubtedly a moment that could have so easily been – and borders the absurd and tacky (and effectively the only detail of the film altered because of the difficulties in communicating it) and Gibbons communicates visually one of the most harrowing and frightening depictions of mass death to have appeared in any graphic novel with carefully rendered people piled high and strewn about the streets representing mega-death in its coldest aftermath.
Rorschach appears undisguised in early pages in crowd scenes and your eye never falls on him as he’s depicted as clearly and as obscurely as all others. But on a second glance, having been introduced to the character later on – all of what he is as Rorschach is present in the figure but entirely absent without the later revelation. Art on that level is masterful. Characterisation in remission, relying on something you will discover in order to validate it. That is Dave Gibbons the artist. Every panel retains as much information as the story needs you to know at that moment, and a thousand and one things you can acknowledge when your ready. Gibbon’s work doesn’t bait the eye – it waits for when the eye is ready for it. Few artists are more satisfying to revisit.

PART 2 ON THURSDAY. INCLUDING TALES OF THE BLACK FREIGHTER, HIS INFLUENCE ON THE WATCHMEN FILM AND GREEN LANTERN : BLACKEST NIGHT

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Practitioners 17: Brian Bolland (Part Two)

Part 1 of this fine article can be found HERE!

Bolland was one of the very first comic creators ‘discovered’ by the American comic industry, spearheading the ‘British Invasion’ of ’79/’80. Joe Staton (co-creator of the Omega Men in Green Lantern and long standing DC illustrator) came to live with the Bollands to continue working on Green Lantern while attending a comic convention. Finding out that Bolland wasa Green Lantern fan, Staton called his editor, Jack Harris and said Bolland would like to draw a GL cover. Green Lantern 127 duly featured the work of a certain Mr B Bolland and the cross over the Atlantic was underway. A ‘trickle’ of covers began however Bolland would design covers that writers would craft stories from including Starro and the Superman Beastman cover (Superman 422 (Aug, 1986)).

Among his earliest interior work with DC was a short chapter in Justice League of America 200 – in which his work sat beside some industry legends – and some artistic heroes – Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane as the best of the best George Perez, Jim Apero and Dick Giordano. His success with GL 127 had opened the floodgates and following that small start American companies began to look to the small grey island on the far side of the Atlantic for fresh talent – in particular the heavily DC influenced artists of 2000AD. From Brian Bolland – aided in completing some of his works by his UK compatriots could now return the favour – by opening the door ajar enough for the big companies (namely DC offer Dave Gibbons, Kevin O’ Neill… Alan Davis, Mark Farmer and following the artists, Alan Grant ‘went across’ and at some point ‘a certain tall hairy writer from the Midlands.’ The British Invasion had begun and continues to rumble on. A spearhead created by the modest and extremely talented Brian Bolland, an enthusiast of comics he had now opened the door to for so many.
Len Wein, DC Editor in 1982 chose Bolland to be the artist of Camelot 3000, in which King Arthur returns from Legend to defend Britain from alien invasion. From this, Bolland enjoyed ‘being made a fuss of’ being flown to San Diego to represent DC and the sideways glance at the Arthurian Legends. His attempts to ignore the Andru drafted covers handed to him met with consternation from Wein and so Bolland conceded but reversed the ‘N’ in his name to remind him of his artistic integrity in indignant protest. The ‘N’ remains to this day, reversed as Bolland found he really liked it.
Others inked it (initially an irksome scenario to the practiced draftsman in Bolland though he eventually like the results.) Although the first example of a Maxi-series (12 issues), Camelot 3000 was monthly but Bolland struggled to get it out in time, representing the single largest body of work ever created by Bolland. His determination to make each page better and better and his intention to make the artwork in the final editions ‘look amazing’ caused issues 8-11 to go out quarterly instead of monthly, and the final issue cover dated nine months later than the penultimate issue. Camelot 3000 remains a noteworthy work of illuminated detail and careful and precise artwork attached to a great sci-fi story.
At the time Alan Moore was looking to work on a series under DC, talks underway for a crossover with the Dark Knight and Judge Dredd (which occurred some time later) featuring Bolland and Moore. Dc Editor Dick Giordano asked Bolland what project he wanted to work on next. Of this, Bolland says;

“I thought about it in terms of who’s my favourite writer at the moment, what hero I would really love to do, and which villain? I basically came up with Alan, Batman and the Joker.”

Batman: The Killing Joke was born in that moment. Bolland had a fascnation with the Joker, having recently watched the silent movie ‘The Man who Laughs’ and wanted to do a ‘Joker story with the Batman as a more distant, peripheral character.’ The result introduced one ‘possible origin story’ for the Joker and the plot required the sign off of a major character in the Batman canon being horrifically mutilated at the hands of the Joker. Controversial, incredibly influential and wildly popular The Killing Joke may never have happened. Moore was already at odds with DC following the completion of the Watchmen series (with Dave Gibbons) and effectively finished the job for his friend Bolland. With its near completion in 1988 after a considerable time working on it (both creators reknowned for their intricate and unswerving loyalty to accuracy and precision in ink), Bolland was afeared that it would be consumed by the media fire storm surrounding Frank Miller’s ground breaking Dark Knight Returns. He was also hurt when Moore referred to Killing Joke as ‘to him, just another Bat comic.’ Reeling from the statement by his friend regarding a title he held so close to his heart he was again mortified with the presentation of Watchmen colourist John Higgin’s finishes. Having imagined the flashback scenes in black and white he found “garish… hideous glowing purples and pinks… and my precious Eraserhead-esque flashback sequences swamped in orange.”

In 2008 a version was rereleased as a 20th Anniversary edition featuring colouring by Bolland, restoring his artistic intentions to the palate.

Unable to hand work over to other practitioners, and since Killing Joke, Bolland no longer drew any strip that was not penned by him. Disappointed by a masterpiece that took the comics world by storm rather than being overshadowed by the sharper and more muscular Dark Knight of the same period seems an odd response but a true artist has vision and Bolland can certainly be argued to be a true artist.

He wrote and drew ‘ An Innocent Guy’ for the Anthology title in 1996 in which an otherwise normal inhabitant of Gotham plans the ultimate crime: The murder of the Batman. In it he explored idea that nobody could be deemed a GOODIE or a BADDIE but walked a tightrope in between. Bolland created the covers for Gotham Knights 2-47 (from 5 coloured by himself). Eventually Bolland was told he’d be ‘off the book in a few issues time’ but upon discovering that upcoming covers featured Bane and not Penguin or the Joker as he’d been hoping for some time, Bolland said he’d go right away.

In the following years Bolland created covers for some of the most recognisable characters in DC, including 63 issues of Animal Man, covering the tenure of Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, Tom Veitch and Jamie Delano. His practice of identifying a scene in the comic and then a hook from it that would create an entertaining cover has informed his work throughout.

He worked on The Invisibles (Grant Morrison), deftly dealing with the surrealism of the work (perhaps informed by his 60s college days…), and introducing the countdown numbers 12-1 to count down to the millennium installed, hidden into the cover image in each case after watching Peter Greenaway’s film ‘Counting by Numbers.’ By request he gained cover work on Wonder Woman (as she wasn’t interesting to A-List artists – Bolland not considering himself A-List), as well as Geoff John’s The Flash, Tank Girl, Superman, Green Lantern, Batman and Fables and Jack of Fables, Doom Patrol (though he was often rejected while trying to follow previous cover artist Simon Bisley’s work.)

He has produced odd covers for First Comics, Continuity Comics, Eclipse Comics and New Comics though admits a mild phobia about Marvel comics covers after a bad experience on a Marvel Uk Hulk cover and a She-Hulk cover featuring Howard the Duck. The latter is hard to imagine; even in Bolland’s accurate and realistic style.

He has since drawn (and written) Mr Mamoulian, a Robert Crumb-esque semi-autobiographical stream of conciousness humour strip and The Actress and the Bishop, written in rhyming couplets and based on request work from 1985. Both our personal projects but both are of course beautifully realised.

Brian Bolland is a spearhead, notably well loved in his industry. A mainstay of the art form of comic books – Bolland has sold millions of comic books, revolutionised a long standing hero and worked with some of the most demanding and impressive minds in the comic industry. His work a matter of pride first, he has managed to enjoy a long and respected career in comics. His covers are memorable and indelible, as is the effect he has had on the readership throughout his long and impressive career.

But to me the greatest thing about Brian Bolland is that because of his realism and acute awareness to detail and pursuit of accuracy you would never know how old he is. Within his own lifetime, and beyond thanks to his work on Judge Dredd and Batman, with Moore, Morrison and… more. His work is timeless and will illustrate the accomplishments of a great many more artists and writers for many more years to come. Which is, perhaps, why he, more than perhaps all others, has represented so many others on the covers of such great titles.