Artist John Bolton has had a long and storied career in comic books and sequential art. He made the jump from working in English magazines such as Warrior, to burgeoning American periodicals like Epic Illustrated, in the early 1980’s. He’s been working in and around the mainstream comic book industry ever since, as comfortable drawing superheroes as much as he is painting fairies, vampires and demons.
Drawn to the genres of fantasy and horror as both an illustrator and painter, Bolton has worked alongside some of the greatest writing names the comic book industry has known, including Chris Claremont on Marada The She Wolf and Black Dragon, both for publisher Epic Comics. With Neil Gaiman in The Books of Magic for DC Comics, he created the look of the reluctant boy-wizard, Timothy Hunter, based on his eldest son. His acclaimed graphic novel series, Shame, alongside writer Lovern Kindzierski, is where Bolton’s efforts most currently dwell, with the first three acts being recently complied into a single hardcover volume.
There’s a sense of wonder, amazement, power, and sexuality inherent in Bolton’s work, combined alongside an overt menace that makes a viewer full of trepidation. Even when his sense of horror is not manifest, nothing is ever as it seems in Bolton’s completed visual offerings.
On the eve of an infrequent visit to Toronto via the 2017 edition of Fan Expo Canada, JP Fallavollita caught up with John Bolton in an exclusive interview via email, and asked him about his process, his female-driven subject matter, and his recent work on Shame.
JP Fallavollita: Welcome to Toronto Fan Expo – it’s so great to have you here! What’s it like meeting industry contemporaries and the fans of your work at events like this one?
John Bolton: I am very happy to be in Toronto and I have wanted to come for years. It’s always fun to meet ones peers, and to find out that most creators work in the same way – in isolation. For me it’s the fans who are the most important people at a convention, and I enjoy hearing their stories and reactions to my work. I am very lucky to have some great and loyal fans.
JP Fallavollita: You’ve been working as an artist, both inside and outside the comic book industry, for a long time now. Has your approach to creating visual art changed over that time period?
John Bolton: I don’t think my approach to creating visual art has changed since I first started. I am always in pursuit of perfection. I have always been interested in telling a story with pictures. As a child I would constantly be sketching.
John Bolton: I enjoy working in this genre because I can create moods and atmosphere from my imagination, which is always a challenge. I want to make the images believable, and intrigue, excite and sometimes disturb the reader.
JP Fallavollita: Strong and important female leads are often the focal point of your works and you always seem to imbue those figures with an aura of sexuality that never seems sexualized. It’s a very fine line, especially in today’s world, isn’t it? How conscious are you of that tightrope while working?
John Bolton: To over-sexualize a female character has never appealed to me. If I have ever done this it has been for a specific reason, but in the main, it is not something I do. I want to maintain the strength of the women who can be beautiful and sexy without being sexualized and if I was to cross the line, I know that my wife Liliana would tell me.
JP Fallavollita: Over the years, you’ve worked with a number of great writing talents including Chris Claremont (Marada the She-Wolf), Neil Gaiman (The Books of Magic), Clive Barker (Hellraiser), Mike Carey (God Save The Queen) and now, Lovern Kindzierski (Shame Trilogy) to name a few. What was it about their writing and their stories that attracted you and what might you have learned about creating sequential art while working with them on various projects?
John Bolton: I have been really lucky in my career to have been approached by great writers and editors, like Karen Berger, who had the vision that Neil Gaiman and I would make a good team. But never before has someone approached me with a story where I have had to wait twenty years for the project to come to fruition, as I have with Shame!
JP Fallavollita: I know that you create a healthy number of preliminary sketches and drawings before committing to a final inked or painted illustration on a comic book page. What is it that you’re working out visually in those early sketches?
John Bolton: You are right – I do make many prelims. They are done to give me confidence that I have the right position, angle, etc. My prelims tend to be highly finished. This is to give me something to refer to when starting on the final stage of a page or a cover painting. Even though the prelims are in black and white, I am also, at this point, thinking about colours.
Many of the recent prelims of Shame are nude. This is because I want to get the right body proportions and position. I might then do another prelim with the character in costume.
John Bolton: My approach doesn’t really change, but using different mediums offers up different moods. Colour is my preferred medium, but I also try to put that [mood] across in black and white, like in Marada the She Wolf, but somehow it’s more challenging in colour.
When working in colour, not only do I have to judge how the colours relate to the frame, but across the whole page and the spread. To give you an example, for Manbat, I wanted an urban feel and by using acrylics, it gave me the density and opaque feeling I wanted. With Shame, I am using watercolours, which give me the ethereal delicacy I am looking for. Background texture is important to me so that the smooth flesh tones against a textured background intensifies the contrast between the two – take a look at the last page of Shame Book 2.
JP Fallavollita: The Shame Trilogy was collected late last year in a beautiful hardcover edition by Renegade Arts Entertainment. Truly, it’s some of your most beautiful and most emotional work. What’s it like to see all of that effort, all of that time, finally put together in such a wonderful compilation?
John Bolton: It’s fantastic to see the work Shame collected in such a beautiful package. The reproduction of my work is excellent and is true to the originals. I scan and colour correct the pages and then send the scans to Alexander Finbow, the Editor and Publisher of Shame, and the rest is up to him – and he has done a fantastic job.
JP Fallavollita: What’s on your artistic agenda these days? After completing the first trilogy, I know you’re working on another volume in the Shame graphic novel series with Lovern Kindzierski.
John Bolton: I am nearing completion on the next volume in the Shame series called Hope. Lovern and I have a great working relationship – he is open to any ideas I may come up with and then ultimately it’s up to him whether they are included, but whatever he does, I am always happy. I wait for Lovern to send me the outline before I start any visuals and I am always astonished at the direction that Lovern takes the story.
John Bolton: For the moment I am enjoying working in this macabre adult fairy story world. In these stories I can combine my love of costume and theatre design in a world with dark overtones.
Many thanks to John Bolton for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to Biff Bam Pop! and to Liliana Bolton, for taking the time to make it happen. You can catch up with John Bolton at the 2017 edition of Fan Expo Canada from Thursday, August 31 to Sunday, September 3 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He’ll be signing copies of Shame at his table location P046. He’ll also be part of a Creator Spotlight, alongside Shame writer Lovern Kindzierski, on Saturday, September 2, at 1:30 PM, Room: 715B.