This October, Titan Comics sends readers to hell with “13 Coins”, a 6-issue miniseries from writers Martin Brennan, Michael B. Jackson and legendary artist Simon Bisley. “13 Coins” revolves around ex-con John Pozner, who discovers he’s descended from fallen angels and holds the key to the war between Heaven and Hell.
One of comics’ most influential artists, Bisley and his painted style rose to prominence in the late ’80s and early ’90s on titles like “Slaine: The Horned God” and “Lobo.” More recently, Bisley had a well-received run on “Hellblazer” with writer Peter Milligan, including providing the cover for the iconic series’ final issue, #300.
Bisley spoke with CBR News about “13 Coins,” revealing what the supernatural story is about, the status of his “Tower Chronicles” series with Matt Wagner and why he believes powerlifting is the secret to better comics.
CBR News: Simon, what is “13 Coins” about?
Simon Bisley: I don’t know yet, it’s not finished! [Laughs] But in general it’s about fallen angels walking amongst us. The usual kind of thing. It builds up a story about the individual characters. One in particular is John. He’s one of the fallen angels who have a dark side. He’s struggling with alcoholism and drugs, trying to get his act together. But then dark forces drag him back to a bad way of thinking. It’s a bit of a soap opera right at the moment but as the story progresses it’ll get quite ferocious.
It’s kind of a “Paradise Lost” thing. It starts that way with the falling of the angels and there’s some good ones and some bad ones. But who should say the demons are bad? And a lot of angels are a bit pompous aren’t they? We like to think of angels as good but they can be quite manipulative controlling types. The demons are generally just rebellious. Rock n’ rollers! I’m on the demon’s side.
What are the 13 coins themselves?
You’ll find out in the story. They’re all symbolic. Read it and find out. That’s the whole point; you gather all the lucky coins together. Unlucky to some.
Is “13 Coins” a creator-owned series?
It’s not creator-owned. I have a little bit of a stake in it as I designed the characters. So I have a little bit of a piece of it, which is good. But I’m independent, though. Just tell me what you need, throw me the script, I’ll do the drawings and then throw me the money and let’s carry on.
So how did you get involved in this project?
I was approached by Martin [Brennan]. Somebody else was going to do it originally. There was a reason he didn’t do it and then I did. Maybe I was cheaper! [Laughs]
That’s generally how all these things happen. People just approach me and ask if I’d be interested in drawing their project. Then I ask what is the project, what is the deadline, how much are you going to pay me and when are you going to pay me? Also, can I keep the artwork or do you want to buy it out?
Has your art style evolved since your work in “Hellblazer?”
Yeah, it’s more of a halfway house between two styles. Initially when I did the “Hellblazer” style I did it specifically for that book. I was criticized for it. Well, maybe not criticized but people were saying I’d been tamed. ‘Oh, Bisley’s been tamed! He’s changed his style to a more ordinary normal style!’ but it’s all bullshit. I just did a style to suit that story. You can’t draw “Hellblazer” like you draw “Lobo” or “Judge Dredd” or “Conan.” It’s just a more realistic look to it. And you’re also more concerned with telling the story and having the panels moving nicely along as opposed to being too surreal or complicated. And when you look at the art for [“13 Coins”] I’ll think you’ll find the characters are the focal point there, too. It’s a slightly more realistic style with some stylization. So yeah, there’s a relationship between my style for “13 Coins” and “Hellblazer.”
It’s also penciled, same thing I did before. “Hellblazer” was penciled with ink, whereas “13 Coins” is purely pencils. What we were realizing on “Hellblazer” was that when you ink the pencils all the power was lost. Same thing with Legendary and “The Tower Chronicles.” We found that the pencils look really nice anyways if you reproduce them in black-and-white. Go look at Jack Kirby pencils or Neal Adams pencils before they were inked. They’re just beautiful!
You also mentioned “The Tower Chronicles,” your book with writer Matt Wagner at Legendary Comics. What’s the status of that project?
I’m currently up to the 12th issue now and I’ve got another 12 to go. And there’s no inker on that, just my pencils being colored. Same as “Hellblazer.” Same as “13 Coins.” It’s always great working with Matt. He’s got some of the same sensibilities as I have. Similar age, too.
What was it like designing the characters who populate “13 Coins?”
I generally design or redesign most of the characters for things I do. We went through a design process initially when I was assigned to the project. I was given a list of characters and their descriptions. Martin Brennan, the writer, was very specific on the looks he wanted to achieve. We went back and forth with different sketches I did until we came up with the final drawing everyone was happy with. That’s pretty much the process. As the story goes, usually the characters evolve and become more Bisley-ized over time.
Do your designs ever cause writers to go back and tweak their scripts based on decisions you make?
No, I don’t think the design or look of the character has. But maybe a gesture or something that has occurred in the paneling may make you rethink the script. “Lobo” is a perfect example. I threw away Keith Giffen’s storyboards. Well, not entirely, but I did a lot of stuff that was really left field with it so that when the writer got it he had to totally rescript it. He even added dialogue to it from what I done. But with Martin Brennan on “13 Coins” and Peter Milligan on “Hellblazer” they were really tight scripts. Not a lot of necessity to change anything in it. Very specific storyline to it so there’s no need to go anywhere with it.
It’s coming along, it’s coming along. [Laughs]
Are we any closer to seeing it?
What does Kevin say?
He says it’s a project that’s coming up and something he’s excited to do with you.
It’s one of those things where there’s just always projects to go. We’ve always got projects to go. It’s a massive thing to meet about it and then timing is a factor, too, and everything else. But I’m not really quite sure. It’s always been a go as far as I was concerned. We’ve always been getting ’round to doing it, but it’s just a matter of getting ’round to it. I’m sure we will at some time. I anticipate it as much as anyone else I think. I can’t really say anything else particularly because I haven’t really talked to Kevin about it in a while. It’ll happen one of these days. It fucking better!
How do you first meet Kevin Eastman?
I know Kevin from way, way, way back. He got my number and phoned me because he wanted to purchase the “Slaine: The Horned God” artwork. And he did. And I was happy. And I think we just grew from there. I did some “Heavy Metal” covers. I came to America, we hung out and we did some projects together. That’s pretty much it. Like everything it’s just a simple phone call. Ring you up, do some work and then get together and hang out. That’s always the way to go. When people want to get work as a writer or artist it’s just a matter of sending your work to individuals and seeing what happens. No use looking down staring at it and hoping something happens. You got to make things happen.
Anything else you’d like to share with your fans about anything you’re involved with?
I’m just getting up every day and getting through life. Going to a lot of conventions lately and I’ve been enjoying that. Generally I’m knuckling down and working every day. I have a pretty dull life. I just hang around in the studio working.
I doubt you have a dull life.
I’ll tell you what I have done. I’ve been very into powerlifting at the gym. I’ve been doing powerlifting for some time.
Oh yeah. I just squatted five reps of 500 pounds and I leg pressed 1,200 pounds for 12 reps.
That’s impressive. How long have you been doing it?
I’ve been training for about 30 years. I used to be into that bodybuilder nonsense but now I’m into powerlifting. I enjoy it and it really invigorates me. I get very excited about lifting things up and down, up and down!
You think I’d be sat on my ass all the time. I’m 53 years-old so it really energizes you and gets you into very good shape. It makes you powerful. It’s very addictive but I don’t know how far I want to go before something snaps. [Laughs] My kneecaps are gonna explode! It’s lot of weight. But my bench isn’t too good. No, not too good at the benching.
But 500 pounds on your back? That’s ridiculous! I remember the first time I did it. The first time I had 500 pounds on my back, my instructor told me to step back. I said, “I can’t step back, I’ve got 500 fucking pounds on my back!” [Laughs] How can I step back from the rack when I can’t move my legs up? They were squashed to the ground! Now with practice you can step back but you’ve got to lift your leg up and step back. But think about it, when you lean on one leg to move you’ve in effect put 500 pounds on one leg. It’s mad. It’s insane, innit?
Was 500 pounds a personal goal?
Yeah, it was a goal for me. It’s interesting because that’s when I actually moved my legs backwards. When I moved the weight from one leg to the other one I felt, and I know this sounds scary, but I felt the bones bowing. I felt a slight bow in the lower leg! [Laughs] It’s scary, it’s quite frightening. You’ve really got to be into this thing and focus on what you’re going to do because it’s really quite dangerous.
When you practice you put a chair underneath you so you can do a squat and rest on it before you come up. It’s a safeguard so you can rest on the chair and use the rack to take the weight off your shoulders. I remember we squatted with 400 pounds and I couldn’t get up. I was trapped in the chair! It was too heavy for my instructor to lift and there was no one else in the room. He asked me what to do and I said I didn’t know because he was the instructor! I had 400 pounds on my back and I couldn’t sit like that all day. My ribcage was gonna cave in! So eventually somebody came in and we shouted him over and he helped get the weight off. That was funny.
So you got 500 pounds on your back. That’s done. What’s your new goal?
I’m not sure. I’m very uncertain about it. But it’d be 600 pounds, wouldn’t it? I’ve just got this feeling something’s going to break, though. I really am. I’m fairly stupid but I’m not that stupid. Something’s gotta give. How far do you go? How far? I really don’t know. Stupidity will make me carry on. [Laughs]
When are we going to get a story about a powerlifter from you?
Whose knees snapped? And legs break? I’ll let you know soon because I’m going to experience it myself! It’s interesting because I went to the gym to learn about anatomy and the body and how muscles work. The dynamics of the body. Because it’s not just muscles slapped on bones, the body moves in certain ways. Muscles interact in certain ways. Some flex. Some relax. If you want to know dynamism of physicality and how to draw it you have to experience it a bit to understand it. As with most things in life, you can’t draw them without having any real experience of them. Too many people don’t experience things in life. People just sit in their studio and suffer and complain that they can’t draw. They just suffer away and get more introverted. They need to just leave it alone. Get out and do something. Go for a walk in the forest. Meet people. Enjoy life. Look at the sky. Climb a mountain. Do something besides draw and you’ll find that your brain, without doing any actual drawing or writing at all, is absorbing everything. I’ve not drawn for a while and then come back and drawn better. Or I play instruments. I play bass and drums. If I leave it sometimes for a month or two, I come back and actually play better because the brain’s still working away. The forefront of the brain is the part concerned with failure and doubt.
‘To be a better artist you need to start powerlifting’ is the best advice I’ve ever heard.
You’ve gotta powerlift, brother. You learn a lot about yourself from it. A lot about emotional things, too. A lot of women are doing powerlifting now, too. You meet a lot of women at the gym doing this. It’s good to see women in there doing that. Some women are fucking strong, man! Unbelievably strong! And they’re just normal women.
How many days a week do you get to the gym?
Every day. The most important thing about powerlifting is technique. You’ve gotta get your technique right and focus on that. I thoroughly enjoy it. Every artist should try it. It’ll improve you all over.
Your whole body is connected. Not just your brain. So you use your brain, so what? The rest of your body is dead. It’s shriveled. It’s not working. You need energy pumping around your entire body coming through to your brain. Everything’s energized. It’s not just your brain. It’s your body. It all works together.
“13 Coins” #1 goes on sale October 8 from Titan Comics.