This is the second portion of an interview with artist Simon Bisley. If you would like to catch up and read the first part, you can find it right here!
Maveal: Tell me a bit about the transition to working with DC. I couldn’t tell you why, but I imagine the shift between doing things for 2000 AD was much different than with a larger American publisher like DC.
Bisley: At the end of the day, with 2000 AD, I felt like I had put a lot of gloss on my work. Not pretentiously mind you, but I thought it was really good stuff. But when it came time to do a bigger comic book, that’s what takes discipline. I’m still not even good at it.
Maveal: Well that’s just —
Bisley: No! Don’t be nice! Don’t be so nice about it. In comics you, again, look at guys like Glenn Fabry or Mike McMahon or Brian Bolland. I didn’t know how to do sequential art. I was good with exploding on the page with splash pages because I just didn’t know how to fucking do anything else. [laughs] Back in those days I was actually called Steve Bisley, too. It was around then that I got approached by DC for a collaboration on Judge Dredd and Batman.
Maveal: Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgement on Gotham?
Bisley: Yeah, yeah, that’s the one. And Lobo was around that same period as well.
Maveal: I’ve heard some crazy things about your work on Batman/Judge Dredd. Things like you staying up for days at a time or the editors getting you in an ice bath just to stay awake in order to finish pages.
Bisley: Oh pfff. I have no concept of time. When you’re an artist your whole life is lived in its entirety. There are individuals who pick the time and watch the clock and then there are the doers. I’m not a clock-watcher. What it really comes down to is that it takes the time that it fucking takes and you do whatever you have to do to make that happen. You leave an artist alone and they’ll get it done however they need to get it done. Watching the time is necessary though because you have to get the fucking thing published, obviously, and printed and all of that stuff. It’s a big conflict, the process of making your creativity seen; it’s a juxtaposition to the creativity itself. Creativity doesn’t know time. There’s no such thing as a time stamp or clocking in. Time just stops when you start to create things.
My first gig I was 19 years old fucking around with a paint brush and now I’m sat here at nearly sixty years old, feeling like I’ve only just blinked. But I guess when it came to that particular deadline, I just made them wait. I know I put people through the shit for that book and I apologize for everyone who suffered me for that. But you know what? It was fucking gorgeous. I’m glad that there’s still stories about it.
Maveal: You’ve done Dredd a couple of times, if I remember correctly, but I know that Judgement on Gotham was definitely one of the most notable of your Dredd contributions. What do you feel makes a good Judge Dredd? There’s tons of styles to how people draw him.
Bisley: I was actually considering Judge Dredd just the other day. When I want to do a character, I have to become involved with them. I’ve got to be them. I’ve been John Constantine, I’ve been Slaine, I’ve been Lobo; but I could never be Judge Dredd. I could never be Batman or the Joker or any of those blokes either. I’m just nonplussed, really. They’re more a silhouette to me; something representative of oppression. For Batman it feels like there’s something false. I just don’t believe in it. I don’t really prefer the Joker either but at least he’s not the parading goody two shoes.
Maveal: Maybe it’s an authority thing? Batman doesn’t always play well to the “fuck authority” crowd.
Bisley: Probably. I’ll let everyone else analyse that as they’d like, but yeah, that makes sense. I don’t know. I’m just not fond of Dredd. I don’t dislike him but it’s not something I can impress myself upon. Then again, I really do like Mean Machine though.
Maveal: I mean, who wouldn’t though?
Bisley: He’s just so dangerous! Love that. Anyway, yeah, I like drawing Batman. In that sense I guess I like him but otherwise he can fuck off. He doesn’t have any purpose behind what he does other than his fucking parents died. What kind of shit backstory is that? It was enough to fuck me off of it. Terrible backstory. I just can’t believe in it. But hey — no denying he’s fun to draw, there’s just no connection.
Maveal: Do you feel like that’s the case for a lot of the bigger superhero names? I know you haven’t been entirely keen on working on many of the main DC or Marvel titles.
Bisley: It just seems like a lot of them are macho bullshit, you know? At least with Judge Dredd it makes sense; kind of reflects the artist that’s doing him I guess. I think you get what I’m saying. Or like...well, what about Captain America? I love the uniform and the look, but the character? What...what’s really going on there? Skinny guy got big. That’s the character. It doesn’t much go beyond that with him, does it? Can’t imagine sitting down and hanging out with him. At least if you sat down with someone like Judge Dredd or Doctor fucking Doom you know you’d have an interesting time. It’s about connecting with the characters and really I just don’t connect with a lot of them because there’s just nothing to fucking connect to!
Maveal: Within that line of thinking — talk to me about your relationship with Lobo. If it’s easier for you to embody a character when working on them then how does that speak to your version — and arguably the most well-loved version — of Lobo?
Bisley: Well that’s easy. It’s because I already was him. I was basically a cartoon character. When I was doing Lobo I was hanging out with friends and motorcycle gangs and spending my time building choppers. Fast choppers, too; I mean some real badass shit that we’d race fucking country side like mad motherfuckers with no purpose or reasoning. I mean, I had money, I had long hair, all my teeth, and was built like a handsome motherfucker. I had the ladies and the money and the firepower and everything. I was a crazy motherfucker. Absolutely reckless. Reckless! I rode all over Britain on my motorbike, full on and full throttle. Just engine and fire and fury and blood and guts and all the dark shit that I had in my head. And entertaining a bunch of dark shit, really. I guess I can say that now that I’m older and can reflect on it more. But yeah, I really was just a cartoon character. Life was all Motorhead, thrash metal, motorcycles, and recklessness.
When you’re young you just fall into these things, yeah? You fall into the devil’s lap. The bits where you roll the dice. So my work at the time came from that period of honesty and speed and loudness and violence — though honestly the violence part wasn’t very nice. I didn’t enjoy that bit. I’m much more sensitive than people are willing to give me credit for. I’m much more loving and spiritually aware and all that type of shit now, which is better. People think because you’re a certain kind of way means you’re like that all the time. I’m actually just a big softie. But don’t tell anyone [laughs]
Maveal: It all seems to come back to experience. I have no doubt that that’s why your characters seem to be considered the staple. They’re something real born of something real.
Bisley: Yeah. I mean everything is from life’s experience, innit? It’s like with dreams — you’re not really consciously thinking about most of that stuff. It’s all the things that come out from behind the wall when you’re asleep. But if you let yourself live that dream or live in a constant dream state, it all just comes out and you make entirely new things. You can build the whole world and whole people. I could draw Lobo because I knew how a hand looks holding a bottle of whiskey. I knew how a body looks when it’s driving a bigass chopper. You have to be able to see and feel the attitude before you can think of creating a whole other person out of it.
Maveal: And what about when you were finished with Lobo? After Lobo’s Back you kind of dropped off of what was considered mainstream comics. In fact, that was around the time when you chose to start working with Glenn Danzig on his Verotik comics. What made you decide to make that shift?
Bisley: What do you mean shift?
Maveal: It’s just one of those things, right? For so many comic fans the mindset is the “well they went from mainstream comics to doing something else”. It’s always viewed as something of a shift. I’d mostly like to know if it was a change in mindset surrounding the work or if you were just ready to move on.
Bisley: You go where the money is, don’t you? And really if someone calls like they did and say “I think you should work with this guy” then I’ll get back on the phone and say “You wanna work with me? Yeah, alright.” And then I do. But if they pay me I’m there. I’m a slut for the money — and I say that as someone who has the utmost respect for people who want to be sluts! I, too, have morals and values and I also have bills and a wife and things that need taken care of. I’m not about to be precious about my work or who wants to pay me to publish my art. Plus, it’s fucking Danzig.
Maveal: I was about to say. I honestly can’t imagine a world where I’d turn down a chance to work with Danzig and make money at the same time. That’s kind of the punk rock dream isn’t it.
Bisley: Exactly! And I’m a commercial fucking artist anyway! I get hired to make my art for people. I make art for myself, but if someone hires me I’m going to fucking do it, aren’t I? I’m not stupid. Michelangelo was a commercial fucking artist. He got paid by the Vatican to do the Sistine Chapel! It might be about talent and beauty but it does come back to money. Any artist who says they aren't doing it for money is a fucking liar. Look, I love doing art anyway. Someone tells me that I can do it for a rock star while making money? Brilliant. It’s not mainstream and people don’t really give as much of a shit? I’m not bothered. I got to make a lifelong friendship with Danzig and I got to make some great fucking art. There’s a whole new generation of people doing the same thing — going off the beaten path and just making great art and making money doing that as they can.
Maveal: Tell me a little bit about that. Are you relatively connected to contemporary comics art and things like that?
Bisley: Well let’s see. I think of the experiences I’ve had while doing shows, and I’ve been doing shows for ages and ages, right. It never stops being humbling. I’m always surprised that people come up to me a lot. It’s an ego trip, really. People just come up and tell you how much they love your stuff. I feel very lucky about that. I’ll never take that for granted. And then sometimes you get people that come up to your table and want you to look at their portfolio. I always try to look at it and I’m just blown away. I’m blown away by some of these people. I look at the kind of work that people can produce these days — people younger than I was when I first started — and I’m just like oh my fuckin god. They’re kicking my ass all the way around the yard. There’s so many people that never see their work as done and they’re already surpassing half the old-hats out there.
Maveal: Oh I know! I’m on Twitter all the time and I’m constantly seeing people whose work is staggeringly good and yet they aren’t being hired by everyone under the sun. It’s damn near criminal.
Bisley: It is! I’ve got a few people in my sights. I really think people need to learn to be more aggressive. To move forward it’s important to be aggressive — well, not aggressive aggressive, but willing to put yourself out there pretty loudly to the places you want to be and the people you want to work with. I’ve met so many young artists who put me to shame with their daily sketchbook but are so shy and so quiet. We’re so fundamentally protective of ourselves and we have to be so competitive with ourselves and with each other, well into our careers. These younger artists are coming in and for me to keep my job I have to compete; but they’re feeling the same way about my tired ass, too! There’s a time to yield in that case though. I’m 59 years old, Chloe, and don’t get me wrong but I’m competitive as fuck, but there’s times for me to take a back seat and make it about someone else.
Maveal: Anybody in particular you’d like to name?
Bisley: Oh sure. There’s a bunch of them. But there’s this one Australian artist I met named Stefanie. She’s absolutely amazing. She does a bunch of really amazing robot art. And Katie Houghton-Ward over at Heavy Metal Magazine right now, she’s also just incredible. To be honest it’s just nice to see so many awesome female artists showing up with scifi and fantasy art. Coming out of the woodwork, they are! It’s really great. There’s so many women who are just brilliant and I want to do everything I can to get them out there, too. Least I can do right?
Maveal: I’ll make sure to include the links for those two in that case! I’m excited to check them out after this call.
Bisley: Please do. I dunno. It feels like my responsibility to put other people forward when I can, you know? It’s a mutually beneficial thing. I can give a boost to someone in this industry, and they’ll keep creating art that I can be inspired by as well. Or say they’re inspired by my work and they go out and become the next big thing, right? Even if my work is done, it still gets to live on as an influence for someone else. That’s something that shows in art — who you’re influenced by. When someone asks me who I’m influenced by and I say Bill Sienkiewicz or Frank Frazetta, if someone hasn’t seen their work but they like mine then maybe they’ll go on to look them up, too. It’s the same thing with these new artists. Us old fucks get to live on through the success of someone better than us. We’re all gonna die, right? We live on through those who surpass us.
Maveal: That’s a really lovely way of thinking about it.
Bisley: Told you I’m a big softie [laugh]. I need to stop being so soppy. Anyway, yeah, I just want to see more people be able to make their art. If I can help that then I will. Especially women. Or anybody really. It’s some ridiculous notion that gender or sexuality or whatever has anything to do with how someone is able to create and it’s bullshit. I feel somewhat responsible, being a very clumsy man. I’m not that bright, but I do want to try my best for other people. I’m still learning a lot of new things but I want to keep trying. Doesn’t fucking matter what you are or who you like, does it? What really matters is what we do with ourselves and what makes us want to create; what makes us want to put ourselves out there like that.
Maveal: I couldn’t agree more.
Bisley: The important part is that you do, though. Put yourself out there. Do something dangerous and fun. Fuck, man. Just live. If there’s one thing that I can make people do it’s live it big and make big things. Nothing simpler.