There are few comic book artists whose work is recognizable on first glance, and fewer still to have emerged in the last few decades when giants such as Alex Toth, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko have already laid the groundwork for what followed. One such artist is Simon Bisley, whose work across the past three decades has set a new bar for just how anarchic, energetic, and unexpectedly luscious comic book artwork can be, all at once.
Bisley’s comic book debut came in 1987, when he relaunched ABC Warriors with series creator Pat Mills for 2000 AD. Bisley was actually the reason the strip was revived after nine years; as the story goes, Mills had chanced upon an illustration Bisley had drawn of a robot holding a baby via a mutual acquaintance, and that one image alone convinced him it was time to revisit the idea of the all-robot army of soldiers and update them for a new generation.
Bisley’s ABC Warriors artwork was frenetic, ignoring years of conventional wisdom about what makes comic book art “work” properly in favor of an unrestrained dynamism and wild energy that felt like a previously unimagined combination of heavy metal album covers, the strange mix of misogyny and eroticism that makes up Heavy Metal magazine, and a glimpse at the distracted cartooning styles that would come to dominate comic books in the 1990s; you can see glimpses of both the Image Comics style of Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld in Bisley’s early black-and-white work, as well as the fourth-wall-breaking asides of Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett. He was — perhaps unsurprisingly — an immediate hit with readers.
If Bisley’s ABC Warriors was something that made people sit up and take notice, his next collaboration with Mills, 1989’s Slaine: The Horned God, was work that influenced a generation of British comic book artists, and made Bisley’s reputation internationally, bringing his work to the U.S. and beyond. The Horned God was an expansion of another long-running serial in 2000 AD, but one that’s the very opposite of ABC Warriors in a number of ways; whereas ABC is a science fiction war story with robots as the central characters, Slaine is a fantasy series centering around a Celtic counterpart to Conan the Barbarian, with a twist of two — namely, an occasional tendency towards time travel, and the fact that Conan “warps,” with a grotesque Hulk-esque ability to transform into a monster during battle.
What makes The Horned God truly memorable, however, is Bisley’s artwork for the serial. Creating fully-painted sequential art for the first time, the serial showcased a surprising debt owed to Frank Frazetta, with lush figures that looked as if they’d stepped directly from the background of Death Dealer or any other classic ‘70s Frazetta painting, and exquisite backgrounds that felt more fully-realized than anything Bisley had offered to date.
Arriving at a period where 2000 AD —and British comics in general — was slowly coming out of a history of single-color comic strips, The Horned God was a breathtaking leap into the possibilities offered by full color storytelling, as if cinema had gone straight from 1902’s A Trip to The Moon to Lawrence of Arabia in one step. The impact was felt immediately, with Bisley’s style being imitated by the up-and-coming generation of artists to varying degrees of success, leading to a period of British comics not-so-fondly remembered by readers as one where less talented artists created indistinct, over-worked pages of varying shades of brown in the hopes of coming up with something close to what Bisley made look effortless.
(Curiously, one of those artists — one of the best of the 1990s Bisley clones of the early 1990s British comics scene — was Chris Cunningham, working under the name Chris Halls; he’d go on to work as a designer on the mid-90s Judge Dredd movie, and then as a music video director, creating the iconic Aphex Twin videos for “Come to Daddy” and “Windowlicker”.)
Slaine: The Horned God led, indirectly, to Bisley working in the U.S.; it was the reason he worked on the 1991 Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgment on Gotham special crossover issue, which brought him to the attention of DC Comics, resulting in his work on interiors for Lobo and Lobo’s Back and covers for Grant Morrison’s acclaimed Doom Patrol run.
With the level of visibility offered by the second biggest publisher in the western comics industry, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Bisley really hit the big time after his DC work, with all manner of publishers offering countless opportunities to do whatever project — an opportunity that he took full advantage of, leading to an especially irrational period of unfinished or uneven work for everyone from Glenn Danzig’s Verotik Comics to Dark Horse Comics, with all number of publishers no longer in existence in between. Not everyone can boast of being published by Atomeka Press, Heavy Metal, Kitchen Sink Press and the comic book publishing arm of video game manufacturer Acclaim Entertainment, after all.
In recent years, Bisley’s work has been more rare, unfortunately; his art still shows up in the most unexpected of places — issues of DC’s Hellblazer, covers for a number of different small independent publishers, illustrations for a Conan roleplaying game — but it maintains a quality that might be best summed up simply by calling it his “Bisley-ness”: manic energy, a continual irreverence for his subject matter, and, at odds with all of that, a level of craftsmanship and even a strange kind of beauty visible in everything he produces.
For all the visible influences on show in his work — being self-taught, it’s easy to recognize the influence of Frazetta or British comic artist Kevin O’Neill in Bisley’s work, as well as Richard Corben and Bill Sienkiewicz as their footprint is more fresh and less likely to have beaten out by academia — Bisley’s work is unmistakably his own, and comics are better for his choosing them as the field to work in.