The Daily Heller: Brad Holland Awakens His Sleeping Giant

Posted inThe Daily Heller

I have known Brad Holland for the better part of 55 years—virtually my entire professional life. Admiration for his art, craft, intelligence and ethics abound. He taught me the foundations of almost everything I bring to my professional (and a fair share of my personal) life. It has been 45 years since the publication of his first monograph, Human Scandals. A rich collection of his linework, the book is an embodiment of a modern-day Goya.

The COVID lockdown confined Holland to his studio, where fortuitously he was convinced to revisit the black-and-white crosshatch conceptual method that catapulted him into the spotlight as a leading illustrator for the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. Many of these influential drawings can be seen in his latest monograph, Sleeping Giant, currently published only in French. I haven’t seen Brad in over two years and instantly phoned him when I heard about the book. I asked him to talk to us about the making of this volume, and the work included—drawings and ideas that molded me when I first entered this profession.

Your new monograph is titled Sleeping Giant (Les Cahiers Dessinés) and is the first since Human Scandals was published in 1977. What is the significance of this title?
I never thought about it. I just picked that drawing for the cover, and that happened to be the title I had given the drawing. It seemed like a decent title for the book, so I adopted it.

In 1977, I had a contract to do three books of drawings with TY Crowell. But the same week as the book came out, Crowell was sold to Harper and Row. Harper folded Crowell and fired the staff, effective that same day—125 people, if I remember correctly—and cancelled the contract on my next two books.

Did you think of going to another publisher?
Well, my editor went to Bobbs-Merrill and took my contracts with him. But then Stanley Sills (brother of Beverly Sills, the famous opera singer) was named chairman of that company, and he announced that they’d be shutting down all their publishing except for self-help books, cookbooks, and nonfiction—“the kind of thing the public wants,” he said, or something like that. So my editor left Bobbs-Merrill and went to Dell. He said we’d do the next two books there. But it wasn’t long before he called to say they, too, had bought out his contract, and after that he just seemed to disappear from publishing (at least I never heard from him again). But then a few months later, I met the girl of my dreams and decided to start earning money to buy that big house in Connecticut.

Left: The Invincible. Right: The Cutthroat.

Toujour d’amour, I guess. I am showing your book mostly as spreads because I believe the juxtaposition of themes is a large part of the strength of this presentation. By the way, the interview with you in Sleeping Giant is in French. Do you have an English transcript of it?
No, in fact I never saw it. The publisher came here two years ago with Callisto McNulty, a young French writer of Irish parentage. She spoke perfect English, so she translated for the publisher and me. Then she interviewed me for a couple of hours. I thought she was going to use the interview to write a page or two for an introduction, so I never asked to see what she had written. But then the book came out, and I was surprised to see that they had apparently just run a transcription of whatever I’d said. Well, it’s in French, of course, so I reckoned what I can’t read won’t hurt me.

Top left: Beauty Sues for Divorce. Top right: Punch and Judy Seek Counseling. Bottom left: Lost Time is Never Found. Bottom right: The Sands of Time.

How did this book come to be?
Well, a couple of years ago, I started working on a memoir, doing a lot of writing. And I was publishing what I was writing in illustrated installments on a blog I called Poor Bradford’s Almanac. I was in the middle of that when I got an email from this fantastic publisher of drawings named Frederic Pajak, saying he’d like to do a book of my ink drawings. Well, I hadn’t started looking for a publisher for my memoir yet, so the Pajak offer was a bird in the hand, and he had a great reputation. So I put the memoir aside for the time being and started work on this book.

Top left: On the Beach. Top right: Passionate Strangers. Bottom: Reunion.

Did the publisher choose the drawings for the book, or did you?
He came to the studio and we went through maybe 400 drawings and chose about 300. Back in France, he boiled those down to 200 and sent me a rough PDF. I had a different idea about how they should be organized, so I made a new PDF and sent it back to him. That’s the version we used, although I kept fooling around with it—switching pictures around or substituting others—until the thing finally went to press.

Top left: Swamped. Top right: Wipeout. Bottom left: Uneasy Chair. Bottom right: Smile.

Did you send the original art to Paris for scanning?
No, I scanned everything here myself. Then I doctored all the scans by hand in Photoshop. Ink drawings where there’s a lot of crosshatching are notoriously hard to reproduce well. In fact, I was so disappointed with my first book that by the time it came out I had disowned it.

Why is that?
The preproduction was thin and the paper was an awful fluorescent white—a blueish white—really cheesy. Not at all the paper I had chosen. But the reproduction in this book is great. The reproductions are perfect and the paper is the same warm white as the Strathmore kidskin I did the drawings on. In fact, the images on the pages are as close to the original drawings as I’ve ever seen in a commercially published book.

So you’re happy with this book?
Very happy.

Top left: Master of Ceremonies. Top right: Bag Men. Bottom left: Welcome to the World. Bottom right: Nobody Asks to Be Born.