Most modern audiences probably know of artist Brian Bolland either from his recent work designing covers for Vertigo Comics' Jack of Fables or variant covers for DC Comics' ongoing Zatanna titles, as well as completing covers for a variety of DC deluxe hardcovers or prestige one-shots. Lately, some American readers are lucky enough to experience Bolland's earliest sequential art through 2000AD's rerelease of Judge Dredd strips in prestige softcover editions through their partnership with Simon & Schuster. For the truly hardcore Bolland fans who have enjoyed his work from Camelot 3000 by DC in the early 1980s to his creating the memorable covers of Grant Morrison's The Invisibles, the forthcoming Brian Bolland: Cover to Cover later this year is a welcome addition. Fortunately, Last Gasp Publishing has secured the North American rights to distribute a collection of Bolland's intimate, witty pieces that reflect not only his strengths in visual storytelling that many have come to recognize and acknowledge, but also his diversity in style, design, and wordplay.
Bolland Strips! collects his entire "The Actress and the Bishop" strips, along with a nearly complete run of "Mr. Mamoulian" and shorter vignette pieces. "The Actress and the Bishop" represents Bolland's first attempt at both writing and drawing a comic. Originally appearing as a set of prints in the mid-1980s, the central characters found life again on the pages of the A1 comic published by Atomeka Press in 1989. The first three-page strips—“Go Boating" and "Throw a Party"—appeared in A1 #1 and #3 in 1989 and 1990. Interestingly, the stories seem to represent the important shift in Bolland's workflow from traditional pencil and ink toward adopting a completely digital platform in the early 1990s. Akin to Bolland’s work on Camelot 3000 or even Batman: The Killing Joke, the linework on these early strips lacks the polished, digital quality contemporary readers have come to recognize as Bolland trademarks. In no way is this either a detriment or a fault with the work. In fact, the scratchier, more unrefined quality gives both strips a grainier, rugged, and rougher edge that signifies an important evolution and growth in Bolland's artistic process. Compare the first two pieces to the longer, more developed "The Thing in the Shed," also reprinted in the 2009 The Actress and the Bishop one-shot by Desperado Publishing. Amazingly, even when Bolland goes fully digital, as it appears he does in this last strip, he maintains the same level of quality and power his traditional line art holds.
Written in a metered, ABCB rhyme scheme, all of "The Actress and the Bishop" tales appear at first as some bawdy, degenerate play between a sex-addicted, older Bishop, and his semi but not often fully clothed Actress companion. The ensuing humor that emerges from the strip is rooted in a misperception of sexual congress and misconduct between the lead figures, an interpretation even Bolland dismisses. With sequential art, the involvement of the reader as an active participant in the story is key not only to forge a connection between the writer, the text, and the audience, but also for the cultural baggage the reader unintentionally or even unconsciously brings to the dialogue. As Bolland himself identifies, any actual smut in the strips is purely within the mind of the reader—sometimes a plunger is just a plunger; however, Bolland evokes such a torrid, deviant image in the mind of the readers through his selection of characters living in suburban London bliss. Part philosophical treatise, part morality play and completely amusing in the process, "The Actress and the Bishop" defies convention and comic genre classification.
Similarly, the majority of "Mr. Mamoulian" episodes collected here previously appeared in Negative Burn by Caliber Comics between 1993 and 1997; however, since then, Bolland has written five additional adventures for the quirky, alternative comics-styled character in the 2006 relaunch of Negative Burn from Image Comics and Desperado. Freer than anything in Bolland's lengthy canon, "Mr. Mamoulian" possesses a decisively underground feel and atmosphere as the somewhat neurotic line art is reinforced by the softer, fluid panel borders. Based on his love of Berkeley Breathed's Bloom County, Bolland's loveable figure comes across as both insightful and honest in his expressions that read as if Bolland was handing you the pages as he completed them. Whacky characters and dry silliness mixed with elements of thought-provoking introspection and even sadness help the strip blend in aspects of Bolland's crisper comic book linework at times.
Additionally, readers who purchased Vertigo Resurrected #1 in late 2010 or the original in 1999's Strange Adventures #1 will have already experienced Matt Hollingsworth's fully colored version of "The Kapas," which is stripped down to black and white in Bolland Strips! Rounding out the collection are also reprints of Vertigo's 1999 Heartthrobs #1 "Princess and the Frog" and "Prince and the Witch," and a few other, shorter strips.
Although the majority of entries in Bolland Strips! have been published elsewhere, the addition of Bolland's commentary and forewords to each selection gives the book an even greater value to the reader beyond the mere enjoyment and pleasure of the illustrations and story work. Last Gasp deserves credit as well for distributing this alongside numerous other non-US releases for the American market and making them available to an even wider audience.
Reviewed by Nathan Wilson on July 13, 2012