Simon Bisley is a magnet for unlikely stories: he used to be a pro wrestler; he was sent back from art school because they couldn’t teach him anything; he sneaks cocks into his cover art. The stories have one thing in common: their extreme nature. This is something Simon does his best to justify at every turn.
One thing is certain – wwE or not, Simon has had the world of comic books in a headlock ever since he power-slammed an unsuspecting public with his ABC Warriors in the late 1980s. His work is as often crude and humorous as it is muscular and visceral, and he’s not shy of the darkness just below the surface of things, particularly the heroic.
It’s true he’s built like a large silverback gorilla, but there’s another striking similarity between the comic book legend and the giant mountain ape: he’s very difficult to pin down. Following a failed attempt at Bristol Comic Con 2007 to coax him into a telephone interview, IFX went in force to the 2008 event.
The interview took place over two hours on the Reed Comics stand on the final day of the Bristol event. It’s a not a two-hour interview; that’s just how long it took, the questions gingerly inserted between Simon’s bouts of playful banter with an adoring public – signing, sketching and offering advice to anyone who asked, his generosity of spirit matched only by the power of a third-day hangover.
ImagineFX: You work intuitively: how fast do you produce finished work?
Simon Bisley: I do about two or three pages in a day. If you’re doing a cover or whatever it’s easy to be distracted from it though, isn’t it… Something happens and that’s that.
IFX: You’ve drawn since you were young. What kind of stuff did you
draw when you were a lad?
SB: I dunno. I did draw when I was young, yeah. It was mostly animals, believe it or not. Lions and things. It wasn’t till later on – a lot later – that I started painting. Late teens in fact.
IFX: Was it destiny – were you always meant to be an artist?
SB: I just had a dabble. When I was younger I did enjoy drawing, just messing around. Now I have no spare time so I don’t draw. Things like preliminary sketches, I don’t do those or anything. I don’t bother with the whole laborious process of planning it out. I just do it straight off.
IFX: Where did you go to study art?
Did you attend art college?
SB: I went to what was then called Banbury Art College [which is now known as Oxford & Cherwell Valley College]. On the hill there. I was at Banbury for about a year. I did a foundation course. I can’t remember when that was – but it was probably sometime in the 1980s.
When I finished that I worked on labouring jobs. Driving a forklift truck. I did that for a long time. I applied to study for a degree and got in but I just never bothered turning up. That was in Swindon.
I just never considered doing art for a career. I knew people did comics but I didn’t know how to get into it. My choices were either go back to college or join the RAF or something. I don’t remember too much about the rest of it.
IFX: So what did you have to do to get your big break?
SB: A friend from the year above me at school was working for a car magazine –Autocar, you know – as an art director and he showed my stuff to a few people around London: Kerrang! magazine and 2000 AD. I had a series of interviews with them and that’s how it all started.
The first thing I did was the abc warriors. I always used to listen to this sort of stuff [points at metal CD artwork held out by fan] when I was painting them.
IFX: Did 2000 AD appreciate what you were doing or did they make demands?
SB: Are you serious? I was doing some robotic stuff. I was into cyborgs and stuff. Everyone knows this. There’s nothing further to say, really.
[At this point, we put the interview on hold for a few moments, as Simon takes
a short break for signing and discussion with some French and Irish fans.]
IFX: You were talking about 2000 AD.
SB: Yeah. When I was small, people always wanted to work on comic books but it’s like an actor in a movie, they never imagine being an actor and working on a movie.
IFX: These days are different, though, aren’t they?
SB: Oh yeah. They can do their own comics these days on the computer. Anyone can do it. It’s as easy as hell, innit?
IFX: You’ve mentioned the death of comic books before?
SB: I came along just as the whole computer thing was coming up. There was
a dip but I had already made my name by then. That dip was difficult for people to get into comics. There was a hell of a dip... a huge lull. What caused that?
It was huge with Extreme and Wildstorm – they were selling in their millions, then it just dropped off over night, [Todd] McFarlane and all that lot.
Simon Reed interjects: That was about 1995. They did the Clone War saga with Spider-Man. Marvel went into receivership. All the best people were picked up for films and games and comics were just left with the... Well, the quality really dropped off.
SB: I was getting royalties from Lobo. I was getting more from royalties than I got for the jobs. Then nothing.
IFX: You really put your mark on whatever you draw. You really own
the characters, don’t you?
SB: I’ve always been that way. Always just gone pretty much my own way with anything I’ve done. No-one dictates to you a particular look. They can be a bit finicky sometimes but generally… Look at Judge Dredd, I was doing the helmet differently. Look at the abc Warriors I did – completely different to the way the guys before me were doing it. More robotic and mechanical. Mine was more biomechanical. More fleshy metal. I wish I’d done it more like real robots. I don’t know why I did it the way I did.
IFX: You said you don’t plan things when you’re drawing, they just come out. How does that work? How do you know what to do?
SB: I never consider it. I don’t ‘think’ comics. I don’t come here to buy them. I’m not really aware of representing myself. I just don’t think anything of it.
When I go to a comic convention I just want to party and have a good laugh and you know…
I like tackling characters and putting my stamp on them. That’s always been my forte. I still don’t think I’m a really great comic book artist. And I’m certainly not a great inker.
SB: My strength is just making the characters look cool and work somehow.
I manage to put a bit of life in there.
I do like pencilling the work… No, I really enjoy pencilling the work but I hate inking it afterwards. It pisses me off. It seems stupid, I’ve already drawn this once.
[There’s another brief distraction as a representative of The Gnomon Workshop talks to Simon about the possibility of making a DVD of Bisley’s working practice. IFX loves this idea…]
IFX: Teaching the Bisley technique:
is that possible?
SB: Yeah. You can explain it. For example, weight and its distribution on the body. Being aware of how the body works. Where the weight is coming from. The way you use a line and so on.
IFX: So can you teach that?
SB: Yes you can. I might do a whole picture so you can see the weight of something.
It just comes to me.
IFX: Do you try to express something different these days to when you
first set out?
SB: No, it’s the same… but different
too, if that makes sense…
IFX: You look like you
get really into it.
SB: Look at all the characters. They all look the same. Batman. I like doing Batman because he’s easy. He’s immediately striking. Everyone loves Batman. I used to love Sláine.
IFX: Are you surprised when people like different pieces of work to you?
SB: Nothing surprises me. I’m not surprised by anything.
IFX: Your heroes always have a certain look about them: they always appear troubled. Was that intentional?
SB: What do you mean?
IFX: They’re not the wholesome, toothy champions of the early comic books.
SB: Well, it’s always going to be a bit of a struggle isn’t it? Being a hero can’t be that easy. It’s not, is it? Obviously not.
I don’t do them like that, I tend to see the ugliness in everything. Or the beauty in the ugliness. I try to parody everything I do. Sometimes I want to push the boat out and just irritate people. I always put the human into the characters I do.
IFX: And humour. There’s always a certain touch of humour in your characters, too.
SB: Oh, you can’t not can you? It’s in the nature, isn’t it? They can absolutely be a bit serious. It’s strange isn’t it, because comics are meant to be funny aren’t they? It’s why they used to call them the funnies.
IFX: Okay, thanks Simon.
SB: That’s not it, is it?