Practitioners 21: Bryan Hitch

Bryan Hitch is a Practitioner in the truest sense of the word. From small beginnings in an industry that offered a great deal of work opportunities, Hitch has continued a career for more than 25 years, across the two largest comic book companies in the world. Through dedication and a willingness to engage new techniques and styles he has moved well beyond the artist he was in the early eighties with Marvel UK. His work, most recently, has graced the pages of the most sought after popular comic book in the world and launched a new literary universe that only recently ran out of steam.

Bryan Hitch started work at Marvel UK where he started working on Transformers with Simon Furman. This was the very start of American comic companies making a play for UK markets, controlled in particular as they were by transforming toys and action man figures (a quantum leap from the interests of today). While his artwork is almost unrecognisable today compared to his then, the stylistic traits were there. Hitch focussed predominantly on the person framed in each panel and made everything else secondary. A convention he has maintained even now. He joined Simon Furman again on Deaths Head, kick-starting the short career of the cult icon that would revolutionise Marvel UK and British comics.

He crossed the Atlantic in the the late 80s, early nineties as one of the first to find a footing on books specifically printed for US consumption, working successfully for Marvel and DC (both bloated at the time by the sheer popularity of the art form. Marvel Uk continued to break boundaries in the UK and Hitch continued to work for both (with Geoff Senior on Hell’s Angel and Liam Sharp on the incredible Death’s Head II for which his artwork no longer matched – Liam Sharp’s sharper, more realistic and textured style winning out).

Joining Furman again on his run on She-Hulk (9-11, 13-20, 24-26) between 1989 and 1991, Furman, his artwork at the time matched the period perfectly, clear, crisp lines, curves in anatomy and physicality, a natural and light touch. But in built even then was a very tense need to detail. In an issue in which Deaths Head attacks She-Hulk (a reintroduction by Furman and the only way I’ve seen a copy as part of a Death’s Head anthology), Hitch offered clear, buoyant artwork but the backgrounds of New York City that it took place in were well realised. Lightly detailed in terms of material texture but all the line work was there, paired down slightly for the period they were being shown in.

For a UK artist he straddled the big three (Marvel, DC and Marvel UK) perfectly – offered Adventures of Superman, Geo-force and Team Titans by DC but predominantly working with Marvel on Sensational She-Hulk, Excalibur, a Colossus 1 shot, the Maxiseries ClanDestine. He struggled as an artist to move beyond his populist routes, pencilling Captain Planet and the Planeteers for 2 issues (released through Marvel).

But it was as the decade ended that Hitch began to reveal a new style. Taking his original compositions of central character, well realised in the centre of the panel that had gained him so many character based projects previously he applied greater knowledge of detail than had previously been seen from him. The characters became more realistically humanistic,. his portrayal of events more gutteral and well realised. There was a real-world naturalism that had been applied to his template of heroic stances and impactful and bold visual storytelling that was resonant in a way it perhaps hadn’t been before. Comic books themselves were changing in style and content. Pre-millenium, comics had represented a popular form, characterised by superannuated and simplistic visuals and outlook. Hitch had typified this style and added to it technical proficiency but he was about to come into his own.

With an America at war and a dismissive left wing (comic book reading public) reeling from a Republican move towards conflict against global protests and the spectre of America a credible target for overseas terrorist organisations the mood turned more fatalistic, darker and aware of the forces the world could impose on heroes that stood against it. Fire Fighters (embattled, bedraggled and rubble strewn) were the visual hero of the early naughties. Heros would have to reflect this change of ideology in all forms in order to resonate with the audience.

Bryan Hitch had just finished a very successful run on The Authority, a deliberately sardonic and irreverant response to the World of heroes, featuring characters that took heroing to the level they would be expected to in real life – and fighting incredibly insurmountable obstacles. While the rubble was not there yet, the aggressive and brutal nature of the book was beautifully realised in Hitch’s work. His characters now represented real people with real power. His enemies squatted and assaulted a world easily recognisable. Cars were of makes you could recognise. Cities were brick by brick, people’s fashions well recognised and effectively presented. Hitch had learned some tricks and ridden the wave of realism that was being recognised in comics with its collapse in the mid-nineties. While it hadn’t fully taken hold of the industry it clearly had very much presented itself to Hitch.

Between Hitch’s steady incline into a gritty and realistic artist, imbedding his previous lessons of heroic and comic character physicalisation and technical precision with texture, detail and stark realism and the world’s (specifically America’s) sudden decline into insecurity, uncertainty and a need to acknowledge the truth of things; stepped a Scotsman. A scotsman with a plan.

Mark Millar had taken over writing the Authority after Warren Ellis and had realised the ideals it started with even more vigour, aided ably by Frank Quitely. Millar was about to start a series of books known as the Ultimate titles; a modern re-representation of the heroes created by Marvel. Essentially an if-they-start-now scenario. Central to this was the Ultimates; this universes version of the Avengers, and Hitch was selected as artist.

Here, Hitch hit full speed and realised his potential to be a full-on bona fide comic book legend.

The visuals offered up by Ultimates are staggering. The only way they can be described effectively would be like this. An Alien armada is sitting above a military base in the American midwest. A man wrapped in a red and gold sports car chassis is pummelling one of them, a blonde goliath is propelled through one with his hammer, fighters fly between these ships firing at any target they can identify. One alien ship is crashing into another and the debris from this battle can be seen impacting on the ground. Someone (perhaps from a balloon) has taken a photo of this moment – in landscape – and run it through a ‘Poster Edges’ filter on Photoshop. And it is simultaneously at once incredibly awe inspiring, artistic and realistic and thoroughly engaging.

By mixing his changes in style rather than dismantling or discarding them as he went Hitch has developed into a comic artist unlike any other seen in the medium. His blend of realism and grit imbeds the gravity and power of his compositions with an almost hypnotic grip once engaged by it. The need to look further into the panels never overwhelms the reading of the book however as many highly detailed artists have done in the past, as the first lesson Hitch ever learned – that of centralising and depicting a clear and recognisable figure central to each and every panel as a point of focus has survived all he has added to it.

An incredible talent and a seasoned professional at the same time, realised fully in later career life through the willingness to learn and take on new techniques. You have your Quitelys and your Coipels who appear on the scene fully formed like they were birthed from some freakish artistic gene pool but Hitch is something quite different. Hitch was (and is) an artist worth waiting for.

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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.