“You’re American,” greeted the friendly face on my screen through a hearty English accent. “I didn’t know you’d be American. I thought you’d be English. Americans don’t usually know that much about me. Your questions — the questions you sent over — suggest that you know a lot. But we’ll see. We’ll see how much of the weird, dark shit you can dredge up then with me, eh? Anyway. I think I will shut up and let you talk now. Hullo.”
Our initial introduction is the best way to sum up the interview that I had with artist Simon Bisley. A phone call that was meant to last an hour —spanning from the far side of the American West Coast all the way to the middle of England, where Bisley resides — lasted nearly two weeks; encompassing two, two-hour phone calls, a number of emails, and a heap of voice messages and text exchanges that amount to a lot of insight and twice that in joy. And while a half-month interview this is more than any journalist is usually prepared to take on — let alone one who tends to keep to themselves and is happy with the sheer opportunity to talk to a personal creative hero — there was no better way to spend my time than the time I’ve spent talking to Simon Bisley about…well…just about everything, somehow.
[Author note: this interview has been edited for clarity and length.]
So where did you get your start? From my understanding you didn’t have a lot of formal formal training with art.
Nah, nah. I mean it doesn’t mean much at all, does it? It all starts from the very beginning with what’s inside you. The fact that someone went to art college, it just means they got some extra education. If you want to do art, you do art. Otherwise it’s just about getting extra education so you can get a proper job or whatever, pay your taxes, and prop up your government. That’s really all it is. But spiritually, any training comes from yourself after you take your first breath. But you look at musicians, artists, race car drivers and things like that and they’re just better than everyone else. They just seem to make it to the front. And it’s because they worked toward that themselves! Not because someone sat them down and taught them the perfect way to do it!
I’m sure a lot of people would consider it wild that you’ve come upon this level of talent from sheer willpower and practice alone! That’s truly incredible. I take it you started drawing and learning how to design from pretty early on then?
Yeah, basically. I started drawing and sketching at a really young age. What happened was that people seemed to recognize that I was doing something good and I was recognizing that people seemed to appreciate it. I had parents and family gathering around my art when I was too young to understand why they cared so much — just scrawling on paper and the walls and shit and they loved it. They said [in falsetto] “Oh Simon those are great! So talented!” So obviously I did get steered towards doing college later on and managed to do a bit of a foundation course designed for an art degree but…I mean, I decided to start working for 2000 AD instead [laughs].
Almost sounds like it’s just in your DNA in that case.
That and a great deal of luck, I think. The thing is, if you’re young and you find yourself interested in something with no particular reason why, you generally grow up able to do that pretty well because you’ve got your mind stuck on it and the rest just eventually takes over. It’s not so much a physical practice as it is a reflex; a natural mental sort of thing where your brain just takes over because it’s what you are geared towards. It’s like with acting — I think good actors are people that are just comfortable; people who are just naturally charismatic and are comfortable being in front of a camera or becoming someone else for a while. I think more than anything else it’s about feeling and attitude. If you have a lot of feelings for the things you’re good at and you have a drive to hold on to that passion, then that means everything because anything you do translates that passion which translates to your audience. It’s not formulaic. So, you know, I guess it’s just something that became very natural to me and I found a great deal of interest and passion in. But I guess my parents were pretty good with drawing as well.
Combination of everything then? In more ways than one it feels like you were born to do what you do.
Well now you’re making me look like an asshole! I should have just said that from the start! [laughs]
Your answer was much better! I can appreciate that you feel so strongly about the root of where that kind of creativity comes from.
Well I used to just give boilerplate answers to these sorts of things. Just something about how yeah I must have always been good at it or whatever, but looking back that feels really irresponsible of me. I think I owe it to people to explain my work better and give out some of the knowledge I have on where to steer that sort of creativity. It all becomes pretty self-analytic after a while but…yeah. Ah, fuck, we’ve gone through like two who questions haven’t we?
We have! It’s almost like you’re pretty good at this or something [laughs] Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you have some work with Kerrang! Magazine at some point before you got snatched up by 2000 AD?
The first paid work I ever did was a small humor strip — just a one pallet comedy image sort of thing — for a local magazine. But then, yeah, I think the first big job was doing something for a Christmas edition of Kerrang!. It was a character that was Eddie-esque like from Iron Maiden. They were London-based obviously.
And how soon after that did you get picked up by Pat Mills to do 2000 AD strips?
No. Well…it was around the same era. Maybe 1988 or something. The guy who got me the gig for Kerrang! also introduced my work to 2000 AD which was on Suffolk Street in London at the time. They saw my work which was very robot-like and the character mechanics were actually a lot like the ones in the first series I did with Pat [Mills], ABC Warriors. I had already illustrated these guys, these robots as something like biomechanics characters. Anyway, my friend took it to Pat, Pat liked it a lot and said that he wanted to base a story around it and have us do ABC Warriors. I got asked to do an interview and obviously it went well. I did a sample page that wasn’t very good because I had never really done a comic book page before, but my second try was much better. After that I got hired on and…man, what a thrill though, really. It was my second real gig ever and my first real gig in comics. And it’s just been all shit rolling downhill from there. [laughs]
Clearly it’s gone better than you’re willing to admit — especially when it comes to 2000 AD at least. I mean they just did a whole reprinting of Slàine: The Horned God, which you also did with Mills. That’s done exceptionally well and still holds a soft spot for a lot of readers.
I always hold a soft spot for all the work I’ve done. There’s always a part of my life that I was enjoying at the time, so it’s a part of me. But yeah, absolutely. I mean it’s never really been out of reprint — or at least not for long. It’s because it’s just a timeless story. It’s timeless. It’s not different to Beowulf really. Slàine is based on a Celtic myth so it’s timeless in the same way that sort of shit is. Like Macbeth is timeless or Sword In The Stone and all of that King Arthur crap. But really I think it was so successful because it was so well painted. I don’t say that to talk about what a good painter I am — which I am, though [laughs] — I say that because I couldn’t for the life of me do pen and ink. I couldn’t do comic book art. I was very, very bad at it.
[laughs] I find that very hard to believe.
Well what it was was that I saw Glenn Fabry’s work and thought “Oh fuck me I can’t do that! Lookit him! LOOK AT THIS! This is just too sublime!” To this day comics art just doesn’t get better than Glenn. But Glenn has a way of making it look like a painting. It doesn’t look like it’s done in inks at all! You don’t question what you’re looking at because it’s all so fluid. So I said “well, I can’t do this” because the way I did ABC Warriors was very scratchy. I really liked graphics pens — very thin pens —and what I’d do is draw it so that it looked like it was a brush stroke but it was done by the pen instead. My work at the time was actually described by the 2000 AD editor at the time Steve McManus as being really almost too scratchy.
Honestly, I had already begun developing as a painter, though — already experimenting with different paints; spraying car spray paints down and highlighting over them. I had already begun that experimental process that you go through to be an artist. So I guess I really jumped head first into Slaine: The Horned God. You can see the process and where I’m learning new techniques as I go and which artists I was feeling inspired by and what artists I was looking at while the stories goes along. Lots of Bill Sienkiewicz, Richard Corben, Frank Frazetta, Gustav Klimt. At some point I really had to take a step back because once you get really good at something — and I think you can relate to this — once you get really good at something then you stop trying to refine it. You stop messing about with it. Towards the end I think I kind of stopped caring enough to play around and experiment more. I was making a lot of money and just wanted to get the work done because I thought I knew how good I was. I ended up going back years later to rework some of those pages and really, really found my love for it again. But anyway…who knows why it was so successful. Who knows why anything is successful. Maybe people were just excited to see something that wasn’t so fucking black and white for a change.
What kind of time did that take? Painting something like The Horned God, I mean. You’re talking about it as if it’s something effortless.
Well it was. [laughs] I did maybe a few full pages a day. I mean, you see painters who can sit down and paint whole seaside images in one go. Same thing, really. Once you’re off you can just kind of keep going. I suppose there’s no difference between doing those sorts of large scale paintings and someone being able to turn out a lovely pot or blown glass. Or! Or like the other day I was sitting around being a lazy bastard having a cup of coffee and just watching the guy cleaning windows. He was just really good and so quick about it. It’s the same thing as painting or any other kind of art. You get really good at it and speed just sort of comes. I didn’t even realize how fast I was until I saw a playback of me drawing and painting. Either way, art takes the time it takes though, yeah?
Sure, sure. So did that shift for you at all when you began doing more large-scale comics work then? I mean you went from doing 2000 AD pages which were relatively short and serialized to doing things like Lobo for DC which obviously had many more panels than a weekly strip. What kind of transition was that like for you as someone who felt like you didn’t have a knack for doing “comic work”?
Oh god, it was easy. It was so easy. I mean, I’m an artist, aren’t I? It was different styles to suit the mood of what you’re trying to do. It’s instinctive, you know. You’re told how it’s meant to look and it looks that way. I mean, I could just make some stuff up. But really it’s just a lot of things happening outside of your conscious mind. A lot of things are happening in your brain that you’re not necessarily there for in the process of. So I try to think of it that way. Give up some control to my subconscious and that’s how I can approach artwork is to really let my subconscious come through. Not really thinking, but letting my brain do that work, you know what I mean? If you start to think about what you’re doing, you’ll lose that track, you’ll lose it for the pieces and not the whole. Best to just let your brain do the work and not bother with anything else.
Almost like letting your innermost thoughts speak through you. Am I getting that right? It sounds surprisingly zen.
Well yeah. In a way you have to dumb yourself down, right? Listen: you want to be an artist or a writer or a potter or a sculptor then get the fuck out and experience a life. Go to London and hit the fucking town! Have a big meal! Meet people! Do something fucking dangerous! Do something and challenge yourself! When you become someone creative you’re allowing your brain to just suck all of this shit in — even the shit that you’re not consciously aware of! And when it comes time to harvest that creativity, it’s just going to well up and spill out.
If you’re too busy thinking about it then you’ll never be able to fucking do it. “I can’t draw, I can’t paint” blah blah blah — of course you fucking can’t because you’re not even trying. You’re thinking. You’re letting all of that noise get in the way of making a single great line or one chord or whatever. You don’t have to be any good, but you do have to fucking try for god’s sake. I mean when you’re young you can play around with it but when you get to be an old bastard like I am, you start playing the same part over and over like a washed up actor. But I guess it’s like any relationship — you have to find new ways to rekindle it. You can be safe in your abilities and your relationship with art while still making yourself try something new that will give you that spark again. If you just give up on those experiences and still try to create them you’re just going to be fucked. Look at all of the comic artists that just don’t give a shit anymore because they’re just having to bang out the same fucking comics every day! Comic books will just kill you.
I’m keeping it on the record that Simon Bisley is replacing Jack Kirby as far as inspirational comics quotes go. Comics might have broken your heart at one point but now they’re going to straight up fuckin kill you! [laughs]
[laughs] Destroy your fucking life! But yeah. It’s just about making it something special again and not forgetting to stop thinking and just fucking live again. So many people want to create but forget to live.