Practitioners 1: Simon Bisley

We’ve gained a lot of new fans in the last few months so I’ve decided to rerun all the old Practitioners articles that I’ve written. Over the next year or so more writers and artists will be added but otherwise, The Practitioners will appear here every Tuesday. Some of the articles will contain updates, corrections or new artwork for those who followed them first time round. You can find them all on the tab at the top of this page if you like but hopefully this way a few more people will get to enjoy them. Starting this week with Brit bad-boy Simon Bisley.

Black Heart 2000AD ABC Warriors: The Black Hole

Blackheart claims a guardsman 2000AD ABC Warriors: The Black Hole

Simon Bisley, born March 4, 1962 might have well have been born toking a mighty cigar made out of dragon skin and playing an electric guitar made of human bone and bits of broken tank. Simon Bisley is the ultimate British artist thanks to his work on 2000AD (ABC Warriors, Judge Dredd) Lobo and Heavy Metal.

Simon Bisley is a fine artist gone nuts. Much imitated, he inspired a generation of artists to draw the extreme in intricate detail. His work relies entirely on an intimate knowledge of human anatomy. He uses this to stretch, distort and excensuate in equal measure. He is a practitioner in the purest form. One that learned his trade intimately so he could turn it on its head and rape it silly.

Its hard to come up with enough superlatives about Simon Bisley’s work. His artwork looks like a methadone freakout in a schizophrenics wet dream. Muscles and sinew stretch across blood drenched and eyeball bursting panels lined with delicate and sumptuous colours or intricate crosshatched fine inkwork. Whether capturing an embattled mecha or a languishing nymph in minute (or no) clothing, Simon Bisley ruled the 90s in British comic books. No artist came closer in that period at capturing the grit, the savagery and the downright wild untapped sexiness and humour that the British comic book reader wanted.

He is a rock god with a pencil. Said to now be drawing for European magazines and having lost the legendary mojo of his youth I would have to say that there was little or no way he was going to keep the work he was doing without setting his right hand on fire and trying to paint with the stub of his finger while wanking crude oil into a cup. This is how I think when I’m faced with Simon Bisley’s work.

Slaine: The Horned God (1988) by Pat Mills and Simon Bisley

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Practitioners 43: Dan Abnett

Born in England (12th October 1965), Dan Abnett is  a comic book writer, novelist and full time fantasist absorbed in the world of fantasy, space and superheroes. He has directed enormous future armies into cataclysmic battles, led mighty metal robots to clang together to save the universe, assassinated space empresses and sent heroes into space in wheelchairs. He is a frequent collaborator with fellow writer Andy Lanning, and is known for his work on books for both Marvel Comics, and their UK imprint, Marvel Uk, since the 1990s, including 2000AD. He has also contributed to DC Comics titles, and his Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 novels and graphic novels for Game Workshop’s Black Library now run to several dozen titles and have sold over 1,150,000 copies as of May 2008. In 2009 he released his first original fiction novels through Angry Robot books.

While Abnett cannot claim to have kick started a character on the same scale as Judge Dredd, the ABC Warriors or Slaine in his tenure at 2000AD, he did create one of the book’s better known and longest running strips of the last decade, Sinister Dexter, following the exploits of gun sharks (hitmen) Finnigan ‘Finny’ Sinister and Ramone ‘Ray’ Dexter in the state city of Downlode, sprawled across central Europe ‘ like a hit and run victim’. Sinister Dexter is a universe apart from that of Strontium Dog and Dredd, and style supplants horror, with neat and precise detailing throughout to give it an alternative edge that readers found addictive. With more than 135 stories alone to his name, most stretching to more than one issue, Abnett is one of the most prolific of all 2000AD writers, making his lack of success at generating a  genuine globe trotting legend like Slaine or Dredd more down to bad luck than anything else.

Most likely in fact it’s lack of intent intent. Abnett’s style is pretty light, humorous and wry. His stories bound along and drag you with them. First and foremost is character, planted firmly at the heart of whatever dying star/ hive of alien warriors / dangerous street he can find. In Abnett’s universe character is secondary to event at times but only momentarily. Then, the characters bounce resolutely back into the frey and mash it up (for want of a better word). Abnett is addicted to failures. The almost-guy. Slaine and Dredd, much like Superman, Batman et al are a stall of successes. You put a criminal in his way, Dredd crushes dissent and puts them away. Slaine warp spasms, charms, wangles or shags his way out of every scenario. One of Abnett’s character steps into the frey he might as well be ready to lose an arm. Abnett’s characters are desperately, hilariously and touchingly out of their depth. This makes readers even more attached to the characters as they survive all that Abnett (and Lanning – to be featured in the following article) throw at them. Major characters are put to the sword, or in the case of perrenial space empress and Mutant headteacher beau du jour circa 1995, Empress Nerimani of the Shi’ar, who has wandered in and out of Marvel’s most prominent titles for decades, unceremoniously blown away by a sniper as part of a Darkhawk conspiracy. This, to anyone unfamiliar with the situation – is lunacy. Brilliant lunacy. You can almost see the grins on their faces as they decided it.

This was to move a nobody character, effectively unheard of since the ’90s into the foreground of an empire churning, galaxy battering epic in the guise of Marvel’s War of King’s series two years ago, in which stable, mainstay characters were supplanted, abused, annihalated, twisted and entire empires changed status. The scale of the effect on accepted rules of the wider Marvel Universe was mad, but Abnett and Lanning play with the planets and principle characters involved like so many ping pong balls. This, you suspect, was learned in the furnaces of the creative pool of 2000AD and the more blood thirsty Marvel UK. But more likely, they are just crazy bastards.

As well as a neat absurdist streak and a whithering habit of throwing humour at serious plot points (hard not to when your head tactician is a talking Raccoon but more on that later). He didn’t stop there. As well as generating Black Light, Badlands, Atavar (with Richard Elson, about the last Human alive trapped between warring alien races), Downlode Tales (an extension of the Sinister Dexter universe), Sancho Panzer (with Henry Flint, featuring the eponymous character piloting a giant tank, excellently monickered Mojo, with his brilliantly named technician, Tool), Roadkill and Wardog, Abnett scribed Judge Dredd, Durham Red and Rogue Trooper.

With Marvel UK, Abnett had runs on Death’s Head 2, The crossover Battletide, Knight’s of Pendragon (all of which he co-created) as well as The Punisher, War Machine, Nova and various X-Men titles. Over at DC he reinvented Legion of Superheroes as the Mini-series Legion Lost which was later launched as the ongoing series The Legion. As was typical of his most recent work, most of Abnett’s work was written with Andy Lanning. From this they derived their moniker DnA. For Dark Horse comic Abnett was responsible for Planet of the Apes: Blood Lines as well as knocking out Lords of Misrule and Hypersonic. Many UK readers will know his work however primarily on the 40,000 Warhammer series, including the Gaunt’s Ghost, Eisenhorn and Ravenor trilogies, and more recently as part of the Horus Heresy, the SF best-selling Horus Rising, Legion and Prospero Burns. Frankly, these titles are unfamiliar to us here at the Bunker however clearly Abnett has brought his strong character and situation writing to bear on the battlefields of 40K, no doubt, injecting personalities that prove engaging in ferocious battle. He’s dabbled in comic books for 4ok’s black library imprint; producing Damnation Crusade, Lone Wolf, Inquisitor Ascendent and Titan. Again no doubt with the same results, given the number of titles.

Put this together with writing two Doctor Who audio dramas – the Harvest and Nocturne – as well as Torchwood: Everyone says hello for BBC Audio as well as two novels based on the respective series: The Story of Martha and Torchwood: Border Princes, and it’s clear that Abnett is a significant bedrock in British Science Fiction. With this grounding in space and time hopping adventurers it’s perhaps unsurprising that Abnett (and Lanning) have found such a secure home in Marvel’s cosmic titles.

But prior to that they developed the sharp edge of DC’s Wildstorm Imprint, The Authority, spawning storylines in which Earth is attacked by God himself back to feed on what was a primordial soup and understandably narked at discovering a Human populated, verdant planet where he left his pantry. It’s not til you see an interdimensional, sentient supership entering God’s pores and detonating its brain with the power of the previous century that you understand the lunacy of Abnett and Lanning. Magnificent space operas be damned, God assassinations by chain smoking blondes is the remit here. In many ways that is Abnett and Lanning’s genius. Lighter than Millar’s follow up too as perhaps would be expected.

At the heart of incredibly massive events, the collapse of star spanning empires or the decimation of a city block there is the average, the easily recognisable. The character’s written by them carry the easily recognisable traits of normal people. No matter what you throw at these characters, they remain people first and superheroes second. After joining Guardians of the Galaxy, as part of Marvel’s Cosmic Imprint Jack Flag can’t stand ‘space stuff’ even as he fights tentacled beasts from the far side of an interdimensional fracture or trying to survive a Negative Zone prison breakout in a wheelchair. Jack Flag is another fringe character unrecognisable outside of Captain America comics until he was crippled by the Thunderbolts under Osborne. He came out of nowhere, went downhill and sent to a prison in a backlot of the Marvel Universe and instantly became irresistable to Abnett and Lanning (I’m not calling them DnA – I’m just not).

It’s Guardians that represents the hybrid brain of Abnett and Lanning. Led by the permanently down trodden Star-lord and a Raccoon, Guardians of the Galaxy represents exceptional gung-ho space adventure and dead pan tongue in cheek humour at it’s own expense. Most of the characters are as unhappy to be there as you’d expect to be if you were faced by an interstellar absolutist faith that feeds on the beliefs of others and kills anyone who steps in their way. The members of the team are an eclectic batch (when alive); including a psychic titan lesbian, a master assassin, a talking tree king and a man from 1000 years in the future witha  Captain America shield. These characters should struggle to blend but at the hands of Abnett and Lanning the many parts become a much more satisfying hole. Not a mispelling.

Abnett is a veteran chef of plot line and character, always incorporating the right blend to create satisfying and engaging storylines. A man of specific interests, he is most at home (with Andy Lanning) dealing with situations of bewildering scale and yet manages to draw you in to the minutae of characters caught in these events. A master of scale and plotting, Abnett can handle a charge on an alien world or two characters grabbing a drink (provided it descends into a bar room brawl inspired by an quadreped alien with telescopic glasses on. As 9 Billion lives are threatened and an imprisoned Moondragon (character), pregnant with a spore from a cancerous universe where life won allowing disease to thrive is about to give birth amongst a militant fundamentalist cosmic church, Star Lord jumps out and shouts ‘ Hi, I’m Starlord! I’d wave but my hands are full of guns.’ Don’t know if that was Lanning, don’t know if that was Abnett but Abnett was in the room and that is good enough for me.

Regarding the talking Raccoon – you’ll have to wait ’til we do Lanning. I got worried I wasn’t going to leave anything for his article next week….

The ultimate Slaine trailer (in spanish!!)

I’ve been sitting on this one for a while just waiting for the right moment to release it but I realise there’ll never be one so here it is. Its been almost 20 years since Mills and Bisley’s Slaine McRoth stormed the pages of 2000AD. In all that time there’s been no approaches from Hollywood to attempt to bring the celtic cheiftain and his mythical shennanigans to the big screen. So, leave it to a spaniard named Miguel Mesas to bring it to rude life. Astonishingly for a fan film, the core visuals of the original are brought to life frankly as kick-ass, sumptuous battle porn. There’s even a brief warp spasm.

Practitioners 18: Mike McMahon

Mick McMahon is a British artist who has ebbed and flowed in and out of the comics industry for 30 years. His work has braced the pages of 2000AD, Toxic!, Tank Girl, Rugrats and Sonic the Comic. But his work has moved well beyond his pages, inspiring some of the most prominent graphic artists in the industry today. Some of the most prominent and successful characters around today owe a debt to McMahon’s constantly evolving style – proving without a doubt his incredible talent. But, more than that, he’s just plain funky.

Judge Dredd was created in 1977 to appear in 2000AD by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra, but problems with pre-publication ked to both of the previous creators walking off the project. Both Wagner and Ezquerra would return to the pages of 2000AD and the Dredd himself but in the intervening time the toughest lawman on the streets of Megacity 1 had to be given a face and a pair of boots to stride in. Pat Mills and Peter Harris took over and were responsible for the first published Dredd comic book, and was drawn by an inexperienced yung artist called Mike McMahon.

He was chosen primarily by Mills (who was editor at the time) because he could do a passable impression of Ezquerra’s work. However, it didn’t take long for McMahon’s style to take hold. It could’ve been said that he had inherited the greatest British Comic Book character to date by chance but to flip it, perhaps more logically it seems more likely that McMahon developed the lawman to become this. His style, more angular and abstract than Ezquerra’s more organic style; notable for its sharp lines and clear, crisp contours and clearly, nigh caricatured features on the characters he drew became the default with other artists such as Ian Gibson and Brian Bolland taking his lead and introducing their own spin on the way McMahon was developing the character.

In the early period of his career, McMahon’s style was characterised by a ‘quick, spontaneous approach that verged on the messy’. His figures were gaunt compare to Ezquerra and Bolland’s interpretations, with pen lines thrown down spontaneously and hatching completed with a fully-charged brush his work set the bleeding edge of visceral and unrestrained artwork for the environment and content expected in Judge Dredd and 2000AD itself. While John Wagner returned to his creation, McMahon continued on as the lead artist on Judge Dredd.

In 1979, taking a break from art droid duties on the Dredd, McMahon began on Pat Mill’s Ro-busters (following a freelance agent pursuing rogue or out of control robots in the future) and the more brutal and savage spin-off, ABC Warriors, alternating with Kevin O’ Neill. While working with O’ Neill, McMahon’s work became tighter and his characters began to become meatier and fuller in stature.

McMahon returned to Judge Dredd for ‘The Judge Child’ and introduced high contrast artwork for the following series ‘Block Mania’, separating more clearly black and white in his compositions. Due to complete 9 episodes, McMahon bowed out after only 2 due to the punishing nature of his newfound detailing and Mill’s introduction of extensive crowd scenes for the battle between the blocks depicted in the episodes. The work was completed by Ron Smith, Steve Dillon and Brian Bolland. Having handled 2000ADs primary character, McMahon needed a new character to draw.

As McMahon returned from a 2 year gap from 2000AD (in which he brought his distinctive style to Doctor Who Magazine), a character that had suffered initial difficulties reared its unwashed celtic head. McMahon met Slaine and applied a new style, unleashed from the sterile science fiction he introduced a more naturalistic, compositional and flared style to his work. The tones were deep and luxurious, the action visceral, uncontained and brutal where necessary and light and human when necessary. His character’s remained grotesques with elongated or extended features but upheld natural structure and anatomy at the same time. McMahon was applying abstraction and realism in equal measure to pages crowded with detail.

In 1984, McMahon disappeared from the scene only to return again after a long illness that prevented him from drawing in 1991, with the Last American, written by Wagner and Alan Grant, for Marvel’s Epic imprint. His style had evolved once again and met perfectly with the stark and deranged story of a US Soldier placed into suspended animation before a Nuclear War in order to restore order after it. Ulysses Pilgrim, the last American the title refers to spends three issues trying to find survivors, accompanied by three slightly malfunctioning robots, and struggling not to lose his grip on his own mind to despair. McMahon’s art is ‘blocky, all straight, edgy lines and enclosed areas of flat deep, vivid colour, stylised yet straight faced, perfectly straddling the low-key realism of the story and Pilgrim’s increasingly desperate mental state.’

From this McMahon has worked predominantly in games design and his distinctive comic works have become few and far between. He featured in Hellraiser, an Alien Legion One-shot, an unfinished comic strip, ‘Mutomaniac’ in the doomed 2000AD spin-off Toxic!, occasional returns to Judge Dredd and a futuristic take on Batman in Legends of the Dark Knight, all of which saw him with a more simple and flattened style. New depth returned to his work in Sonic the Comic, Tattered Banners for DC Comic’s Vertigo, a return to ABC Warriors and a short Batman Black and White back-up story.

He applied his distinctive style to the Marvel Uk/ Panini Rugrats series which was cancelled early on in its run. He returned to the Judge in Prog 1539 of 2000AD. McMahon also worked on Tank Girl (made famous by Jamie Hewlett) -Carioca, a six-part mini series with Tank Girl creator Alan Martin.

Mick McMahon’s style drags complacent onlookers out of the read-and-wander-off-the end-of-the-page mind set that is prevalent in modern comic books. His stylism and distinctly vehemently organic style, backed with a consistently evolving and altering pack of methods and techniques which he seems to apply to each and every new project that he comes across has kept his work engaging, relevant and challenging for 30 years and ticking.

He is referenced by many influential artists as an inspiration, including Mike Mignola, Jamie Hewlett and Dave Gibbons. His unremitting stylism expanding well beyond the small number of comic works he may have comparatively created. The mark of a true practitioner.

Practitioners 14: Pat Mills

Pat Mills is the ‘Godfather of British Comics’ but also its conscience. In spite of being at the birth of some of the most debilitatingly imaginative and indelible characters to grace the pages of British comics, Mills is driven by his views and beliefs. An iconoclast and sensitive and emotive writer at times he also has a light hearted darkness in his writing. His writing carries a very ‘english’ sardonic and ironic stance to propel his writing with intelligence and brevity while still imparting perspective and opinion. He trusts his readership and as such has seen success after success throughout his career. His books are notable for their violence and anti-authoritarianism but they offer an alternative view to more media friendly fare.

Born in 1948, he became a Sub-editor for DC Thomson & Co Ltd (Publisher of 2000AD, Beano and Dandy among others) where he met his perrenial collusionist John Wagner. In 1971 both left to go freelance and bizarrely given their later careers found themselves writing scripts for IPC’s girls’ and humour comics. In an act of delightful subversion seemingly more typical of later projects, both used their positions in the girl’s department as a convenient front to secretly create Battle Picture Weekly, along with Gerry Finley-Day at the request of IPC to offer an alternative to DC Thomson’s Warlord title. More violent and working class, Battle met with great commercial success perhaps as it had more of a plausible and wide reaching perspective than its competitor at DC – but having made it ready for launch, Mills resigned as Editor.

Creating a yet more controversial and gritty title in the boy’s title, Action in 1976 the title floundered against media protests in response to its high violence and anti-authoritarinist viewpoint and the title folded within 2 years and merged into Battle.

His next creation was the most legendary of all British comic books. The most successful Science fiction weekly in British comic book history was born. 2000AD was launched in 1977. As was typical of Mill’s generous creative stance he developed most of the early series before handing it over to other creators. He took over the development of Judge Dredd – 2000ADs most enduring character when John Wagner left.

Through the pages of 2000AD, Mills created indelible characters that would pock mark the face of British comics with shell holes, blade wounds and gunfire damage. Developing from Ro-Busters (a series about a robot disaster squad – surely due for a revamp soon) a mini-universe of anti-establishment titles formed taking in the incredibly enjoyable ABC Warriors (Battle droids for hire in a authoritarian universe built to withstand Atomic, Bacterial and Chemical warfare) and culminating in the absurdist Nemisis the Warlock (and incredibly anti-establishment anarchist chaos junky alien warrior). With these, Mills investigated themes of subversion, violence, dictatorship, the destructive nature of unabated imperialism and capitalism but did so with shiny robots and lunatic alien species. This proved Mill’s great ability to imbed clear politics and philosophies into popular culture, aided by Kevin O’ Neill (present for the creation of all three) and greats such as Simon Bisley, Mike McMahon, Brett Ewins and Brendan McCarthy.

His chaotic, anarchist tendencies burst out in a warp spasm of celtic might in Slaine, a juicy barbarian fantasy based on Celtic mythology and neo-paganism, which he created with his then wife Angela Kincaid (with whom he also created a series of Children’s books; The Butterfly Children) who he continues to write today with some of the most innovative artists such as Clint Langley and continues to break the boundaries of wild art ever since Simon Bisley’s tenure on Slaine: The Horned God which cemented the title into an ageless classic for future comic book fans.

Globally, Mills has broken the US and more successfully (and rewardingly as it had been one of his life goals) the French markets. The first with Marshal Law, a savage superhero satire (common place now) published by Marvel Comics’ Elite imprint in the late 1980s, drawn by O’Neill. The second was cracked with Sha, created with French artist Olivier Ledroit.

Match that with a hand in IPC’s Horror comics aimed at girls, Chiller, Dice Man, featuring characters from 2000AD and more anarchic and deliberately subversive work such as Crisis (1988-1991) – a politically aware spin-off from 2000AD for older readers (including a Carlos Ezquerra drawn tale, The Third World War, a polemical critique of global capitalism and the way it exploits the developing world). Crisis launched the careers of Garth Ennis, John Smith and Sean Phillips. In 1991, almost in reaction to his own work in Crisis – less politically worthy and anarchic title, Toxic was founded – along with Tony Skinner, including Accident Man (a hired killer who makes every assassination look like an accident). The title lasted less than a year but launched the careers of Duke Mighten and Martin Emond.

Mills continues to write Slaine, Bill Savage, Black Siddha and ABC Warriors in 2000AD as well as the franco-belgian comic Requiem Vampire Knight, with art by Olivier Ledroit and its spin off Claudia Chevalier Vampire, with art by Franck Tacito.

But it is the First World War series Charley’s War, written by Mills and illustrated by Joe Colquhorn reprinted in hard back recently that might live beyond its associated characters. Depicting the days of the First World in brave and unflinching writing and appearing in the pages of Battle from January 1979 to October 1985, Mills made clear through the eyes of his central character, 16 year old Charley Bourne, the reality of that great conflict without diminishing the characters into victims or unrealistic heroes but normal men diligently vying to reach the far end of a savage and clandestine war. His depiction of Shell shock harrowing and poignant it is my firm hope that this piece is offered to future generations to enjoy and understand.

More projects continue to appear. Greysuit, a super-powered government agent and Defoe, a 17th century zombie hunter drawn by Leigh Gallagher began recently in 2000AD. Mills has formed Repeat Offenders with Artist Clint Langley and Jeremy Davis ‘to develop graphic novel concepts with big-screen potential’ – an eventual plug-in to the way the rest of the industry is heading, beginning with American Reaper (optioned by Trudie Styler’s Xingu films), Mills has written the Screenplay.

Whatever lies ahead for the Godfather of British comics I hope his future doesn’t lie too heavily in the US or France or Belgium. Because uniquely I think, Pat Mills belongs to us. A writer who personifies, perhaps better than any, what it is to be English. A realist, surrealist, idealist and pragmatist rolled together. With a head nod to the absurd and the edgy and a knowing and wise grip on otherwise difficult or divisive subject matters he sees the light in the dark. His clanking monstrosities battling zombie bikers on Mars carry the same determined fatalism and charm as a mud soaked soldier in the trenches of Charlie’s War. America go hang; we’ve got the Mills.

A typical look at the life (and deaths) of English servicemen on the frontline (Charley's War, Battle, 1979-1985)

Practitioners 1: Simon Bisley

Black Heart 2000AD ABC Warriors: The Black Hole

Blackheart claims a guardsman 2000AD ABC Warriors: The Black Hole

Simon Bisley, born March 4, 1962 might have well have been born toking a mighty cigar made out of dragon skin and playing an electric guitar made of human bone and bits of broken tank. Simon Bisley is the ultimate British artist thanks to his work on 2000AD (ABC Warriors, Judge Dredd) Lobo and Heavy Metal.

Simon Bisley is a fine artist gone nuts. Much imitated, he inspired a generation of artists to draw the extreme in intricate detail. His work relies entirely on an intimate knowledge of human anatomy. He uses this to stretch, distort and excensuate in equal measure. He is a practitioner in the purest form. One that learned his trade intimately so he could turn it on its head and rape it silly.

Its hard to come up with enough superlatives about Simon Bisley’s work. His artwork looks like a methadone freakout in a schizophrenics wet dream. Muscles and sinew stretch across blood drenched and eyeball bursting panels lined with delicate and sumptuous colours or intricate crosshatched fine inkwork. Whether capturing an embattled mecha or a languishing nymph in minute (or no) clothing, Simon Bisley ruled the 90s in British comic books. No artist came closer in that period at capturing the grit, the savagery and the downright wild untapped sexiness and humour that the British comic book reader wanted.

He is a rock god with a pencil. Said to now be drawing for European magazines and having lost the legendary mojo of his youth I would have to say that there was little or no way he was going to keep the work he was doing without setting his right hand on fire and trying to paint with the stub of his finger while wanking crude oil into a cup. This is how I think when I’m faced with Simon Bisley’s work.

Slaine: The Horned God (1988) by Pat Mills and Simon Bisley