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#56 [Jan. 23rd, 2009|03:35 pm]

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)

#56 BOLLAND STRIPS! - Brian Bolland

“The actress and the bishop lived
at number 22.
They lived a simple blameless life
that’s known to very few.”

Some of the most interesting characters in comics have started out as random sketches in an artist’s notebook – Hellboy was famously a doodle of Mike Mignola’s – created in collaboration between the hindbrain and the hand without the forebrain being informed. Brian Bolland’s The Actress And The Bishop were two more. Named for the followup to double entendres deployed by people who think they’re funnier than they are (“She’s my new secretary, but you can all use her... as the actress said to the bishop!”), these two punchlines to a thousand smutty jokes come to life in Bolland’s comics, living in sinful domestic bliss in an ordinary street called Rayner’s Lane. The personifications of impropriety and sniggering gossip, they read books in bed and sit on the couch watching the telly like an ordinary old married couple. The stories of their lives are told in rhyme, simple 4-line tales of their lost loves and forgotten devotions with deft Lewis Carroll touches of surrealness. The smut is mostly left as innuendo, there if you look for it but never the real subject, just as it is in the double entendres The Actress And The Bishop came from.

Aside from The Actress And The Bishop, Bolland Strips! collects a variety of short material by the artist, who is better known for his considered and studied cover art for other people’s comics. Among the strips is Mr Mamoulian, another character made up on the page, only this one retaining more of his doodled beginnings. A hunched and bug-eyed bookish recluse, Mamoulian is, as Bolland admits, a stand-in for himself, but a version of his self-image as it exists in his most insecure moments. In spontaneous stories close to automatic drawing, Mamoulian putters through parks, art galleries and his own absurdly guilt-ridden sexual fantasies with the same perpetually surprised expression. He’s well-read and full of trivia but completely incapable of interacting with people, even the ones in his imagination, and often a target for crazy people looking to rant at him about synchronicity or confide in him about their double lives as secret agents and sexual adventurers.

The Mr Mamoulian pages are a kind of poetry as well, though less literally than with The Actress And The Bishop. There’s no rhyme, but one strip is written in vague but suggestive blank verse and another approaches visual poetry, consisting only of obscene-looking dismembered figures and fleshy undescribable things labelled ‘bacon’. When the strips aren’t similarly bizarre experiments, each one adds more characters or builds on recurring themes until the simple scribbles of an ugly man sitting in his armchair have become an entire fascinating world so tangled it seems perfectly natural when he introduces a professor of ‘mamouliology’ who attempts to sort it all out.

There are more strips collected at the end, one-off ideas and gags, even a moment where he breaks down and rants directly at the audience for wanting their adventure stories dressed up with all this sex – though he’s more offended by the fact that otherwise wholesome sex has to share space with gratuitous violence. What these strips all have in common is Brian Bolland himself, the individual and his quirks showing through the page whether he intends them to or not.

The similarities between Mamoulian’s fantasy woman and The Actress, in fact most of the attractive women Bolland draws, are obvious. His obsession with sex and his obsession with his own obsession both show through. His own philosophy of life is apparent in the frequent secrets with no explanations; the Gods and monsters portrayed as ordinary men; the association of bondage and war imagery. The meta-level gag in which he reveals his work was secretly created by an Eastern European cartoonist hiding his identity for fear of political reprisal says more about his insecurity than any of Mamoulian’s clumsy conversations with women. Through these characters created by his subconscious, what Bolland strips away is his artifice and what he draws is a burlesque where a man’s inner workings are laid bare.