It starts innocently enough, a couple trying to escape their doldrums by hosting a party for their friends and neighbors. But the past has an ugly way of popping up at these things; old lovers suddenly mingling with the neighbors in the living room and potentially bumping into the current significant other to expose long-forgotten secrets. Even as one past is being avoided, another is being discussed in hushed tones in the garden, memories touched and fondly rekindled.
For me, I first encountered Brian Bolland’s The Actress and the Bishop like most people did in the pages of Atomeka Press’ A1 #1, still one of the greatest anthologies ever. That first issue contains work by Barry Windsor-Smith, Alan Moore, Garry Leach, Eddie Campbell, John Bolton, Dave Gibbons, Ted McKeever, Steve Parkhouse, and Brian Bolland. Honestly with every anthology since then, I feel like I’ve been chasing the high that A1 gave me. All of the stories were great but some of them were just truly strange. Windsor-Smith’s contributions to this series weren’t like anything that he had done at Marvel; his line was unmistakable but the looseness of his rendering was a revelation from someone who always seemed so fussy. I’ll just say if you’ve never seen any issue of A1, head to the nearest comic shop with a back issue collection and start digging through those long boxes.
Brian Bolland offered up two The Actress and The Bishop stories in this series (issues #1 and #3.). In an interview in a recent collection of The Actress and the Bishop, Bolland describes his characters this way:
Well- they’re this oddly mismatched couple living in a semi-detached house in Rayners Lane, a suburban district in the London Borough of Harrow. He’s a former man of the cloth. She a former exotic dancer and occasional sex worker. They’ve given all that up but, out of habit, still wear the costumes of their trade at all times… They live a simple blameless life that’s known to very few.
Most of that comes out in the story (maybe not the “former” part for either of them,) it’s the sheer dissonance of this couple being together that catches your attention. In typical Bolland fashion, the Bishop is drawn in his vestments in wonderful detail and she in a tight, short black skirt, sitting together on a couch, bored as any urban couple could be on a typical night. In the two 3-page stories in A1, the couple looks to escape that civilized boredom, first with a road trip and then by throwing a party.
Most of “The Actress and the Bishop Throw a Party” from A1 #3 focuses on the Bishop and an early love of his who broke his heart. But Bolland throws in the above panel, one of two panels of the Actress having her own dalliance with past out in the garden. Somehow even in setting it largely in the shadows, the drawing has that level of detail that we expect from Bolland, perfectly telling us everything. Inside the Bishop recovers from his unexpected encounter while she’s touched by this chance meeting. The closeness of The Actress and the man suggests an intimacy that’s otherwise missing from her life.
This one panel could be split into two, one focused on the garden meeting and the other focused on the man inside but Bolland would have lost the mystery of this panel by separating the Actress and the Bishop. The darkness between them connects them in this moment of either affirmation or betrayal. Just as he faced his past, she is now doing the same thing and the moment is fraught with peril. Is her gaze on the man or looking just past him? Her hair flows toward the Bishop, reaching out to the stability, security, and love that she knows.
The man himself is a mystery, a one-night stand from the first story when the Bishop was searching for and questioning God. He was lost but she was possibly having the most intimate relationship ever with his absent God. And now he’s back, still absent from the Bishop’s life but trying to re-enter hers. Bolland’s story about the past intruding on the future is almost purely focused on the Bishop and if this wild-haired man is his god, even more so.
It almost feels like a throwaway panel in this 3-page story but Bolland practically boils his whole story down to this one, magical panel. The whole story is fun- Bolland exhibits a flair for humor in these stories— but this panel is weighty in the middle of a flighty story. It’s quiet and emotional in a story that’s trying to be brash and humorous. And it’s mysterious because, at this moment, you don’t know what’s going to happen. What’s she going to say and do? Is the Bishop going to experience more heartbreak or will everything work out in the end? In another world, maybe a better world, Bolland would have kept on doing these 3-page stories that would have continued to wow us with the range and depth of his storytelling.