Brian Bolland and Mike Zeck are two of my all-time favourite artists working in comics. You’ll find them at near opposite ends of the alphabet, and the Atlantic Ocean separates their abodes, but in an odd way I think they have a lot in common. This blog comes out of my conversations with Welsh comics artist and historian David Roach who is as enamoured with Mr. Bolland’s work as I am, but less convinced about Signor Zeck. For the purposes of this blog, I’ll consistently put Bolland and Zeck’s work side by side with the Bolland on the left and the Zeck on the right, for no other reason than alphabetical precedent.
In the circumstantial totem pole rankings that end up deciding these things, Bolland has ultimately fared better career-wise. His work is highly sought after and he has more or less retired. Zeck’s art is also highly sought after, especially his classic covers and pages, and he no longer works on interiors, but he will still work the convention circuit and respond to select commission requests.
Both began working in comics in the 70’s but really came into prominence, solidifying their art styles and followings, in the 80’s. Bolland rose through the ranks of artists at Britain’s 2000 A.D. while Zeck worked primarily at Charlton before doing memorable runs on Master of Kung Fu and Captain America at Marvel. Bolland worked on stories involving Judge Dredd and Judge Anderson before doing a few Green Lantern covers for DC and then illustrating one of the first maxi-series of note, Camelot 3000. Zeck, on the other hand, illustrated the Punisher limited series and became inextricably associated with that character. Bolland illustrated The Killing Joke which was a very dark look at the co-dependent relationship between Batman and the Joker. Zeck illustrated Kraven’s Last Hunt which was a very dark look at the co-dependent (at least as far as Kraven was concerned) relationship between Spiderman and Kraven.
Since both artists tended to be painstaking practitioners who ended up taking longer than the average artist to produce their meticulously rendered pages, both became known as go-to cover artists whose talents could be used to sell comics by hitting the covers out of the park even if the contents – sometimes rendered by less regarded artists – did not live up to the magic promised by the covers. Bolland became exclusively a cover artist while Zeck continued to do interiors as well as covers.
What I like about both is that you can see just how significantly each grew and improved from their first efforts in the field. It’s hard to believe that in each of their cases, an artist could improve that much. By the mid-eighties, each had a distinctive and arresting style, had become adepts at framing and composition, not to mention figure drawing, employing filigree and detail, to produce works of power and mastery. It must be said that Zeck worked with inkers (Bob McLeod and John Beatty and Gene Day come to mind, and Phil Zimmelman must also be mentioned as an important collaborator), although he was also exquisite at inking his own work, while Bolland exclusively inked his own work on covers, often colouring it too.
Was there any cross-pollination or influence between the two? It’s unlikely, as I’m the only one who ever seems to draw a link in their work. Perhaps it’s something generational, something circumstantial, or something in the air, but I really see a similarity in their ability to pose their figures in a way that uses drama and composition to tell a story. Jim Thompson, comics historian and scholar, calls this quality “operatic: the characters mug a bit. They ACT, they PERFORM, their actions are arias,” and I think that is a perfect description for it!
There are differences too, of course. Zeck’s compositions tend to be more action-oriented. He sometimes employs a thicker line although he makes up for it with the excruciating and gorgeous detail in things like the scalloped chain mail of Captain America’s and Deathstroke’s costumes or the lighting that highlights the rippling muscles below the pools of black on the Punisher’s costume. Both have a real understanding of the linework necessary to evoke precise shags and tufts and waves of hair, both of them seem to know just how to move the muscles on a subject’s face to get the expression that they want. Though their rendering of figures are both powerful and bold, Zeck employs what might be called the classic Marvel style – more dynamic posing and the use of foreshortened perspective. DC, the company that Bolland became associated with, tended to do less of that and since Bolland was primarily influenced by DC Comics as a child in Britain, perhaps he leans away from such effects.
However, both seem to capture their characters in points of extreme tension. They both love drawing their characters with grimaces on their faces, facial muscles stretched in rictuses of struggle. I will grant that Bolland renders a greater range of facial expressions but that is because, especially as time wore on, his covers had a hint of rueful comedy or British cynicism that I don’t think Zeck ever had the luxury to employ. I asked Jim Thompson how he regarded the two. He replied that “Bolland is more sex and grins (while Zeck is more) muscles and grimace” which I quite liked. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, perhaps it’s a difference in intention or origin, but the two artists do diverge in sensibility and tone. Thompson also pointed out that Zeck plays to Kirby sensibilities (perhaps as a requirement of working for Marvel) while Bolland shies away from that and that Bolland was often fond of breaking the fourth wall. That’s not to say that Zeck’s art didn’t sometimes have a sense of playfulness or humour about it – it’s just that the humour was different, more mainstream and less quirky than Bolland’s.
Zeck eventually ended up simplifying his style, especially when working on interiors, perhaps partly in attempt to meet deadlines in a more expedient manner. Bolland’s art changed too (my favourite period of his was the early 90’s when he was doing the Wonder Woman and Animal Man covers) and simplified a little as he switched over to working solely on the computer. Both remain two of my favourite artists and perhaps one speaks to the British part of my soul while the other speaks to the North American side, but I’d like to think they both come from the same place: one that speaks to individuality, development, obsession, and finesse.