My motivation for putting a book together usually comes from two questions: do I want this book to exist, and how annoyed would I be if somebody else does it instead of me? There’s more than a little egotism involved in the second question, which contains the hubristic corollary that somebody might do it, but not as well as I could. I am duly embarrassed. Perhaps there’s a degree of egotism in every writer who sets themselves up as an authority or all-knowing seer, but in this case the challenge wasn’t so much intellectual as organizational. I usually conceive my books myself, but on several occasions the publisher has come to me with the concept, and so it was that in May, 2020, Rebellion sent me an innocent-sounding e-mail asking if I could help track down Brian Bolland’s 2000 AD artwork for an Artist's Edition type book (dubbed an Apex Edition for the sake of distinction). Having just finished my Masters of British Comic Art book, which included a small mountain of original art scans, I’d certainly built up a good network of art collecting contacts, so it seemed only fair to help out. Somehow, within a day of replying I had become the main writer and curator of this project and was also simultaneously compiling a companion volume devoted to another 2000 AD great, Mick McMahon. I’m still not entirely sure how it happened.
Going back to my first question, there was no doubt in my mind that the book deserved to appear - and more than that, I felt it needed to happen. The joy of the Artist's Edition format is the chance to luxuriate in artwork at the highest possible resolution, shown at the actual size it was drawn. I don’t think the format is necessarily the best way to read a comic strip, it’s perhaps too large and unwieldly for that. Instead, I look at them as a kind of portable art exhibition, bringing together artwork from disparate collections which almost certainly could never practically come together in real life, in one place. That was particularly true in the case of Brian, whose appeal as an artist is literally worldwide, particularly with the success of his Killing Joke strip. Answering the second question, in one sense anybody could gather together the scans for a book like this, but it does require patience, tenacity and sheer bloody-minded persistence to actually get it done. In fact, these books weren’t Rebellion’s first venture into this genre - their Zenith: Phase One Apex Edition had been published several years earlier, collecting together Grant Morrison’s and Steve Yeowell’s postmodern superhero. But that was a simple project because Yeowell had never sold any of his artwork. By contrast, Brian’s artwork was scattered to the four corners of the globe—and not always legally—so the task of finding it was far more demanding, let alone the logistics of arranging scans. I forgot to mention of course that this was conducted during a worldwide pandemic, just to add a little spice into the proceedings, but again I came back to that first, key question; and even allowing for the difficulties involved, I really, really wanted to hold this book in my hands.
Even as a youngster reading 2000 AD from its first issue in 1977, it was clear that Brian’s artwork was special. It was the perfect mixture of American-inspired dynamism, a British sense of the absurd, and avant-garde European SF imagery, rendered in meticulous, almost inhumanly perfect linework. It was a deeply seductive style, but one ill-served by terrible printing on the coarsest paper stock, which was the bane of the British comics industry in the ‘70s. By contrast, the Apex Edition presented an opportunity to fully appreciate the beauty of his work for the first time, a prospect that certainly kept me going through the seemingly endless production of the book - as was the enthusiasm of nearly everybody who heard about it, particularly other artists who were nearly salivating at the thought of poring over each page in the hope of discovering exactly how Brian created such captivating artwork.
One problem with Brian’s book, in contrast to the McMahon companion volume, was how few pages he had actually drawn, so we decided to cast the net wider than just the weekly 2000 AD title to include any piece of artwork featuring Judge Dredd. So many of these images were truly iconic that I didn’t think anybody would object to their inclusions. One of the first things I did in planning the book was to compile a checklist of his 2000 AD and Dredd-related work to see exactly how much of it there was. The bare facts were these: altogether he had drawn 41 Judge Dredd strips; 13 Walter the Wobot one-page episodes; 1 Future Shock; 6 Dan Dare centrespreads (inked over Dave Gibbons’ pencils); 1 Dan Dare TV show page; 1 Spinball strip (for the 1979 Action Annual); 5 pinups; and a 3 figure mobile. He had also drawn 46 2000 AD covers, along with cover art for: 1 issue of Starlord; 5 2000 AD Annuals; 2 2000 AD Sci-Fi Specials; 3 Judge Dredd Megazines; 1 Judge Dredd Mega-Special; 3 new trade collections; 4 issues of Judge Dredd’s Crime File (an American comic published by Fleetway); and the first issue of Predator versus Judge Dredd, co-published with Dark Horse. For Forbidden Planet and Titan he created 3 giant posters, a 1979 comic catalog cover, 5 covers and 9 interior illustrations for Titan’s book reprint series; there were also 42 covers for Eagle Comics’ various U.S. reprint titles. Brian’s depictions of Judge Dredd had also appeared on: 6 fanzine covers; 1 issue of Time Out magazine; 2 comics history books; 1 board game; and 1 record cover. Phew. All of which amounted to 426 pages of art.
In recent years Brian has created several more covers for Rebellion’s various comics and books, but these were created digitally so were outside the remit of a book like this. At first the page count was uncertain, as we weren’t sure how many pages it would be possible to find, but ideally it was going to be 96, rising to 144 or higher if possible, though at times that felt like a far-off dream. But what that meant was that we were aiming to include as much as 1/3 of his entire British output, which was quite a sobering thought. One complication in tracking down Brian's pages was the haphazard way in which these early pages were disseminated among collectors. IPC, 2000 AD's first publisher, had a blanket policy of not returning artwork, something which only changed in the ‘80s in the face of mounting pressure from its artists. In the intervening years, however, numerous pages were stolen from offices and storage warehouses, often turning up for sale in London comic shops, much to the artist’s frustration. As 2000 AD's most popular artist, Brian’s art was particularly prized and most persistently stolen, and, to this day, certain strips, including his first Judge Death serial, have never surfaced again. Consequently, very few of his early strips could be traced, with thieves seeming to take a particular shine to his centrespreads and covers - most of which have seemingly disappeared. But Brian continued to improve with each new strip and illustration, and happily the book includes much of his best work from the ‘80s, which represents Brian at the peak of his powers.
Having established the extent of his output, the next step was to track down exactly where these pages were, and the first port of call was a trawl through the collections on Comic Art Fans, a treasure trove of artwork from many of the world’s biggest collections. Frankly, without this website many of my books would have been almost impossible to compile. Other methods of finding pages included contacting auction sites, requests on Facebook, cold-calling other artists, and going over old contacts in the hope that they might have artwork, or might know someone who had, or might remember the friend of a friend who vaguely thought they saw something on sale at a long-forgotten convention in the '80s. Or was it the '90s...?
Once a page had been found, the process of acquiring a scan could begin; this is a highly complex, delicate procedure, known in the business as shameless begging, and might involve selling the book's concept (which often worked), asking very nicely, or offering inducements. I’d say as a rough estimate each page in the book required 10 e-mails to acquire it. Typically, I would have to introduce myself and the idea of the book, then ask about the possibility of getting a scan, and then explain exactly what I needed (a 600 dpi color scan saved as a TIFF), and to clarify that no, a photograph wouldn’t do. Invariably this would be followed some weeks later by a reminder, and then a slightly more panicked reminder, possibly followed by serious bribery. The process of scanning itself often needed careful explaining; I might have to locate a nearby print shop, or suggest a friend with a scanner, and then go over the process of sending it to me (usually via WeTransfer) since these were large files and most collectors would never have had to do any of this before. Finally, there would be an exchange of grateful, relieved e-mails once the scan was safely stored on my computer. Like I say, 10 emails was typical, and the process could often involve many more than that, often straddling several months, or years. Multiply that by 100, since few collectors owned more than a single page of Brian’s art, and you’ll get some idea of the scale of the project.
Thankfully, once I’d contacted them, most collectors were more than happy to help, but some of the biggest collectors proved hard to reach and harder to convince for reasons that never seemed entirely clear. Very few people owned scanners, and most who did needed to be walked through the process of creating high-definition scans. British comic artists usually worked on a big scale, typically at twice the size of an American comic page, so this involved scanning the original art in multiple sections, which I could then splice together on my computer. The biggest centrespreads might need up to 10 scans altogether, which involved some tricky maneuvering around a small-scale scanner - and each stage of the process needed to be explained again. And again. With Brian’s art being so attractive and highly prized, it’s understandable that many collectors had them mounted in frames, which proved to be the bane of my life as framed art couldn’t be scanned in the sort of clarity we needed. Understandably, many owners didn’t want to destroy these expensive frames so I missed out on some key pages and beautiful covers, but I simply had to be philosophical about it and gratefully appreciated the pages I had.
One difference between Britain and America is the connectivity of collectors. Many American collectors had significant presences online and were happy to show off the collections. In Britain, far fewer were part of the wider collecting community; many were fans of 2000 AD but nothing else, and were effectively off-grid as far as art visibility was concerned. In many cases these collectors had picked up their art in the '80s or '90s, never shown them in public or online, and their collections were largely unknown. This is where those friends-of-a-friend connections became so useful, leading to some incredible discoveries, including one of Brian’s earliest color covers which looked as fresh as the day it was painted. In many cases the owners were happy to help but were in the middle of a lockdown, be it in in Barcelona, Brisbane, Brighton or Belfast. A few connections just completely dried up, and after months of follow-up e-mails I had to admit defeat, aware of the awful possibility that the owner might be ill, bereaved, or dead. Strange days indeed. Similarly, collectors in more remote locations seemingly had no way of reaching a scanner and the whole process seemed almost impossibly exotic and out of reach. This applied as equally to a desert town in the States as Zurich in Switzerland, where apparently no scanners exist. Oliver, my editor at Rebellion, was a constant sounding board throughout the process and was responsible for bringing in some art himself, including a complete Dredd strip from France—"Night of the Fog"—which I had no idea was out there.
Rather than get bogged down in a mass of communications, I preferred to send out enquiries in batches, so I was never chasing more than 10 collectors at any one time. It seemed sensible to start with people I knew, then move out to friends of friends, then complete strangers, leaving Brian himself to the end. I had visited him a few months before the first wave of COVID hit the UK and could only remember seeing one Dredd page, but bit by bit he unearthed some real gems. Along with some choice Dredds from his Dark Judges and "Block Mania" episodes he found most of his charming Walter the Wobot one-pagers, some fascinating unused cover prelims, and even his first-ever 2000 AD cover, all of which bumped the page count up past our wildest expectations. As the final deadline approached there was one last collector in San Francisco who answered my request on Comic Art Fans. He had posted a handful of Brian’s early Judge Dredds and was genuinely thrilled to be involved in the process of creating the book. And, magically, the more we communicated, the more originals he seemed to find, including glorious centrespreads from the legendary "Judge Child" saga. He spent days trying to find one spread in particular, which he seemed to have lost - finally unearthing it behind a sofa! The scanning involved endless trips into San Francisco but he got swept up in the whole project and never complained, even when I asked for sharper scans. He was the sort of fan writers like me dream about, and I feel his collection transformed the book into something really special.
Ultimately that is what the book is all about: a tribute to a great artist, and the chance to present some pieces of comics history in a way they’ve never been seen before. Like so many of the projects I’ve been involved in, I just felt it needed to happen, and if I have to put it together myself then I guess that’s just what I’ll have to do. As of this writing the release of the book is a few weeks off,1 the McMahon volume has now become two—one of which is largely complete and ready to be designed—and we’re looking at bringing out more, devoted to other 2000 AD artists, if the fans want them. It might seem like madness to want to go through the whole process again and again, but what can I say? The world needs these books.
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