A legend of modern horror comics, Steve Bissette first made his name as the artist on The Saga Of The Swamp Thing, alongside writer Alan Moore and inker John Totleben. One of the first graduates of the Joe Kubert School Of Cartoon And Graphic Art, Bissette found a place in the comics world even as disagreements with the contracts and practices at Marvel and DC alienated him from the industry.
In the late ’80s, Bissette started to publish independently, first editing the horror anthology Taboo—which launched such works as Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell and Tim Lucas’ Throat Sprockets—and then working on the series Tyrant, which set out to tell as accurately as possible the life story of one tyrannosaurus rex, from birth to death. Unfortunately, young Tyrant never made it out of the nest; after Tyrant’s fourth issue, changes in the comic distribution model made the book commercially unfeasible, which helped lead to Bissette’s ultimate retirement from the industry in 1999.
Today, Bissette teaches at the Center For Cartoon Studies in Vermont, writes essays, film criticism, and other work on his highly entertaining blog, and even after his separation with the comics industry, continues to write and draw every day. His latest illustrated book, The Vermont Monster Guide, comes out this September from University Press Of New England. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Bissette about his career, his partnership and final falling out with Alan Moore, how he helped create John Constantine, his fascination with dinosaurs, his only major venture into superhero comics (the retro Marvel homage 1963, for Image), and what makes a great horror comic.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said started drawing monster comics when you were 5 or 6. Did you focus on monsters, or did you also draw people?
Steve Bissette: Monsters. I had no interest in drawing people. People were the incidental things that got eaten by the monsters. [Laughs.] But I went through a phase of giving up on comics as I became a teenager. And it wasn’t until my art teacher at Howard Union High School gave me a copy of Zap, the underground comic Robert Crumb did, [that I] got back into drawing comics. Because seeing Zap and then getting into underground comics made me realize that, like a lot of people, I had been wearing blinders. I had thought comics could only be one thing, and that was what mainstream comics were selling us. And the undergrounders proved anything you had in your head, as long as you had the skill to put it down on paper, was fair game. And I started filling sketchbooks with my own comics.
AVC: You were also a film buff?
SB: Yeah. And as with my appetite with drawing and comics, it was monster movies first. One of the formative experiences that opened up my interest in film was, we got a French-Canadian TV station, Channel 10. I And I was flicking through the TV, and suddenly there was this werewolf face that I’d never seen before. It was Jean Cocteau’s Beauty And The Beast, and even though I couldn’t understand it, Jean Marais as the Beast just caught me, and I stayed with it. I was probably 6 or 7 when that happened.
AVC: What drew you to it?
SB: It was in part that face, of the beast. But then it became his voice, his body language. Everything about the character became compelling, enough for a 7-year-old Duxbury [Vermont] kid to watch a movie in French. Which, that’s a pretty big leap.
I also tend to love stuff that puts me off. I’ll go back [and ask] “Oh, why did I react so strongly?” Because for something to hit me in that way means it’s struck a nerve, and I want to find out what nerve that was, good or bad.
And it got more intense as I got older. I was raised Catholic; I was the kid who would get in trouble because I would ask “How do cavemen fit into Genesis? I don’t get this.” “Go to the back of the room!” That made those questions more important to me, because it’s like “Wait a minute, if they don’t even want to answer them, what’s going on here?”
I think that was part of my confrontational nature as I got older, because I was a pretty shy kid. But if somebody was backing away from something, that made it more interesting to me.
AVC: You were in the first class at the Joe Kubert School Of Cartoon And Graphic Art. How did you make that leap? And what did your family think?
SB: I might as well have said “I’m going to go to Pluto. I’ll be back in two years.”
Growing up, it was a real battlefield with my dad. In part, he would be supportive. I remember my dad bringing home paper for me to draw on. My mom was always supportive. But it was also not a manly thing to do. Men went out and worked outdoors. And I was the middle kid, hated sports, had no interest in becoming an Eagle Scout. I thought that was stupid.
My dad was hoping I would take over the [family] store. They had it in their head that I would marry my girlfriend from high school. I wasn’t interested in that. I knew that if I didn’t try to get into comics, I would forever regret it.
My dad insisted on driving me to the Kubert School when I went up for the interview. And I’m so glad he did, because the minute he and Joe met and shook hands, my life changed. Suddenly it was okay. Because my dad had been in four branches of the military. And here’s Joe, who was in the military, and my dad instantly bonded on “Oh, what unit were you in”—all that stuff. And Joe had raised this huge family of five kids, on the income from a cartoonist. So suddenly it was real to my dad that what I wanted to do suddenly fit his world, for the first time.
AVC: What was the school like?
SB: As I started at Kubert School, I realized pretty quickly that I was one of the few people who had done published work. One of the others was Rick Veitch, who’s now one of my best friends in the world. It was this real mixed bag of people from different backgrounds and orientations. Some were there because they wanted to get into commercial art, some, like Rick Veitch and I… self-expression was more valuable to us than landing paying gigs working with DC or Marvel. Our ultimate goal was to find a way to do our own kind of comics.
But we didn’t know how! Graphic novels didn’t exist yet as a term. It was while we were at Kubert School that [Will Eisner’s] A Contract With God came out—in fact, Will Eisner came in and spoke to our class. And Sabre, which was Eclipse’s first graphic novel. Heavy Metal came out while we were at Kubert School, 1977.
So we were at this really volatile changing point. Aspects of the industry were caving in. I remember two of our teachers coming in in tears because, in one case, [her] husband worked at DC and had just been fired. DC went through what they called the “DC Implosion.” The whole company contracted. So it was a really steep learning curve, and part of the learning curve was experiential: watching what was happening to our instructors and going “Oookay.”
AVC: What were your specific goals at school?
SB: I wanted to reinvent horror comics. I felt like it was my mission to open people’s eyes to the fact that horror comics could be so much more than the popular perception of them at that time.
AVC: How did you see the genre?
SB: Horror is one of the few genres—romance and comedy are the other two that come to mind—that’s all emotion-driven. It’s not a rational genre, like science fiction is. It’s irrational by nature. And it is capable of exploring all aspects of human experience. And that was my belief from the time I was a little kid, and I don’t know why I understood that. I couldn’t have articulated it. I couldn’t even articulate it while I was at Kubert School. I just knew that the fact that [horror comics] kept pouring that old wine in the same bottle was frustrating to me, because it’s like “Man, so much more can be done!”
And some of my favorite books, short stories, songs, movies, that to me were clearly horror genre, others weren’t defining as that. Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, an award-winning novel about being a war orphan during World War II, and the atrocities he survived. It’s one of the most horrific books I ever read. B. Traven, who’s best known for The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, did an incredible book called The Death Ship that my friend Tim Viereck loaned to me. And it’s this grueling narrative about a man who’s been shanghaied and put into the most dangerous, crap job on a ship he cannot escape from. It’s another ordeal.
These vivid narratives, to me, were clearly horror, but no one was calling them that. They would reserve that term for something that had fangs in it, or a werewolf. And to me, that was restraining what was possible, not just in horror, but in comics in general.
Part of what defines the horror genre to me is exploring the deepest crevices of who and what we are. I am always drawn to anything that takes me to or over the edge. I don’t want to go there in my real life. [Laughs.] … To me, anything that goes to those extremes, once it crosses a certain parameter or boundary, becomes horrific by nature. Because it’s something we would never want to experience in a million years.
AVC: So you’re at the Kubert School, and you come in with the goal of working on horror comics. How much were you able to work on that at school? And as the reality of looking for work in Manhattan set in, what did you do?
SB: It’s tough. There I am wanting to do horror comics, and I had teachers—one of my favorite instructors, Hy Eisman [of Little Iodine], would look at how we were doing things in our assignments, and he would go “Bissette! You’re never going to make a living drawing monsters! No one’s publishing this right now!” And he was right.
[My strategy] was “Where can I sneak in?” or “Where can I get a gig that’s close to what I want to do?” And that meant doing a little bit of science fiction at Marvel, selling some stuff to Heavy Metal because they go for edgier stuff.
Until lo and behold, Swamp Thing is revived as a comic. And one of my classmates from Kubert School, Tom Yates, was doing Swamp Thing as the artist when it was revived in ’81. And by ’83, Tom let John Totleben and me know “I’m leaving.” We worked up samples, and Tom brought them to his editor Len Wein, who was co-creator of Swamp Thing. And that was my first shot really doing a horror comic.
AVC: Leading up to this, you had a lot of gigs—
SB: I did Weird Worlds and Bananas, for R.L. Stine [Goosebumps]. Bob and his wife Jane were the editors at Bananas, and for about a year and a half, they experimented with a magazine called Weird Worlds, which was like a Scholastic monster magazine they’d hand out in school.
The stories were boneheaded, there was no way around it. They were really dumb stories, by and large. But you don’t condescend to the reader. You don’t draw down to them. I wasn’t going to make it goofy. It was representational drawing, and when the werewolf appeared at the end it was slavering, and Bob Stine loved it.
When we got out of Kubert School, four of us shared a house, because one of us could get a freelance gig every month that would cover the rent. And you know, that was a survival technique. We ate lots of tomato soup and crappy meals. [Laughs.] And when there was money, you’d get chicken, oh boy!
But my eye was on the goal of, I wanted to transform horror comics. Rick Veitch’s eye was on the goal of, he wanted to do the comics that were in his head, that there was no venue for. And piece by piece, we found our way in, and opportunities would present themselves.
AVC: And for you, that was Swamp Thing?
SB: [When we turned in our samples], we weren’t sure what Len was looking for. John [Totleben] had this strong vision of where he wanted the character to go. Swamp Thing had always looked like this guy that was sort of like packed clay. And John thought he should be this thing of mold and lichen and moss.
So all of these ideas had been percolating. So when we did our samples, I penciled a few pages that John inked, and a couple of character portraits. John inked them, and John penciled some stuff that I inked. And Len looked at them and went “Bissette pencils, John inks. That’s what we’re going with.”
We started with issue 16. Before Alan [Moore]. The writer on the book from its first issue of Saga Of The Swamp Thing, the revival in the ’80s, up to issue #19, was Marty Pasko. And Marty Pasko was a veteran DC scriptwriter at that time. John and I wanted to go a certain direction with the character in the book. And we sent Marty Pasko pages of plot ideas, story ideas, that he hated. In fact, in an interview in Comics Interview later on, he talked about how demeaning it was to get our plot outlines. [Laughs.] But oddly enough, they were the same plot outlines we sent Alan, and Alan used about half of them.
AVC: It was a different book before Moore wrote it, right?
SB: It was a wholly different book. It was a very busy drama, and Marty had this whole tangled web of subplots that involved this old Nazi, and a link with the Holocaust, and all this stuff. And John and I wanted to do a horror comic… The archetype of Swamp Thing from the start was “Sad guy Alec Holland who dies in a laboratory espionage explosion, and comes back as this pathetic being that longs to be a man.” And our whole take was, we were reading Ramsey Campbell and Stephen King, and we were loving that new wave of horror films that was hitting around then—The Howling and David Cronenberg. I was like “Man, this should be transformational! This should be about embracing change, instead of constantly longing for what was lost.”
And that’s exactly what Alan wanted to do. In fact, I still have all the letters we exchanged. We were sending voluminous 10, 12, 15-page letters to each other. It was a completely synchronistic chemistry of this three-person team that even before we knew one another, wanted to go in the same direction. Which was “Shuck this baggage, let’s make Swamp Thing this powerful plant elemental, and let’s really make this a horror book.”
AVC: What was it like to work with Moore?
SB: Alan could attune each thing he was doing to the artist he was collaborating with. And that was an amazing strength he had. We had a lot of other common points, too. I’m a huge fan of Nicholas Roeg, the director who did Performance, Walkabout, The Man Who Fell To Earth. Brilliant ‘70s filmmaker. And Alan loved his work too. Alan’s first script that I drew was Swamp Thing #21, “The Anatomy Lesson,” and it was structured like a Roeg film. And I recognized it, and I immediately wrote Alan, “This is fucking brilliant. I love this stuff where you tell a story from the middle out, and by fragmenting it, you reveal more about the narrative than you would have if you had presented it in a straightforward, linear fashion.”
Alan’s scripts were dense. They were like long, narrative letters to the cartoonist. And they were playful in a lot of ways, too. We did a two-part zombie story that was set in the antebellum South. And Alan’s script for the first page of the first issue, it was a page where you’re underground and you’re looking at a body in a coffin. And in every panel description, Alan had a beetle family. He had a description to me of the beetle family, that these two beetles are on the body, and they’re arguing. Now this is nothing I was supposed to draw, it was just like a joke. And at the sixth panel, he said “I’ve decided to kill the beetles. They don’t have any character potential, and there’s no future for them in this comic series.”
So Alan’s scripts were fun to read! But they were also these elaborate blueprints of not just what was happening on each page and panel, but where it was going to go. Like “This object is here because on page 22, it’s going to come back in. So be sure to emphasize it.” And it was unusual at that time to have scripts not just of that length and that detail, but scripts that carefully thought-out.
AVC: Was there a lot of back-and-forth after you got the script?
SB: The full script wouldn’t even come to us—it would go to the editor. And we’d get the script from the editor. The process at that time is that they were assembling comics like we were auto-plant workers. And that’s how they saw us. I did the frame assembly, as the penciler. Alan was the car designer. John Totleben put the doors on. Tatjana Wood sprayed the paint on. You name anyone in the process, and we were assembling a car, and that car that had to be out every four weeks was the new issue of Swamp Thing.
They didn’t want us talking to each other. [But] Alan, God bless him, took that list—the same list of plot ideas we sent Marty Pasko—and ran with it. Etrigan the Demon, the fear creature, the idea of [Abby teaching at] a school for autistic children. Nukeface was a character Totleben had cooked up years before, when we were sharing the house in Dover, New Jersey. He’d done a drawing and labeled it “Nukeface,” and just had the idea that it was this alcoholic bum that instead of drinking Sterno, was drinking toxic waste.
Alan loved it, because he’d never been to America. Alan never said this to me, but Neil Gaiman later did. He was like “Steve, you gotta understand. Growing up in England—America had zeppelins!” To them, America was this fantastic place, and Alan liked the fact that John and I had come up with story ideas that were rooted to these places.
And by this time, I cared about the human characters. I had a critique when I was at Kubert School—I went to visit an old cartoonist named Vince Fago. And Vince went “You’re pretty good, kid, but you can’t draw a character to save your life. They look different panel to panel.” And he was right! And he’s the one who made me start focusing on characterization. He says “You love movies, right? Cast your comic. Think of an actor or an actress, put them in the role, get all the photos you can get of them, draw from the photos. Make that person your character, and you’ll get better at this.”
I bring that up because by the time we were doing Swamp Thing, Abby was our central character. Swamp Thing, I could draw in my sleep. Abby was tough. John Totleben can draw women like there’s no tomorrow. He can draw beautiful women. We’re at a convention once, and he was drawing a nude Abby, and this guy was looking at him and went “God, if I could do that, I would just stay home, draw, and beat off, all day.” [Laughs.]
Anyway, I had to learn to draw Abby. And she’d never looked consistent. So I went “Okay, Sigourney Weaver. Sigourney Weaver’s going to be my Abby.” And our whole take on Abby, which reflected our lives, [was that] Abby isn’t rich. She’s fucking poor. She’s working two or three jobs, she wears dungarees. Alan was dirt-poor at the time, living hand-to-mouth. John and his wife Michelle were dirt-poor and living hand-to-mouth. Marlene and I were dirt-poor with kids, living hand-to-mouth. So Abby was us.
And John and I, from the start, were like “We are not going to draw the typical comic-book woman with huge breasts and big pouty lips. She’s going to be a real person.” When she gets scared, she cries. When she’s running, she sweats. And she wears cut-offs and cheap clothes, because that’s all she can afford. And people really responded to that, because suddenly there was a really believable human character driving this book.
AVC: Swamp Thing seems to tie together a lot of the extra-dimensional areas of the DC Universe—with the House of Mystery, Cain and Abel—
SB: That was all Alan. I mean, John and I had a hand in it, as the artists. [But] Alan was the first writer of our generation to come in and go “Oooh, I can fit this all together. I can not only fit all this together, but I can make the DC Hell fit with Milton’s Paradise Lost.” It was Alan who, when he introduced the Justice League at the end of the Woodrue story—which to me was this big intrusion, I mean, I wanted to be doing a horror comic, and here’s the fucking Justice League—for Alan, it was the first volley in pulling the DC universe into this universe of Swamp Thing, and using that as a way to shape his own vision of how all these comic-book universes fit together. Because Alan loved that stuff.
AVC: You’ve also criticized the Crisis On Infinite Earths crossover in Swamp Thing #46, which was an odd interruption.
SB: Oh God, that was a nightmare. And you read it now in the context of the collected issues, and suddenly it’s like “What is this?” And we were forced to take part in it.
AVC: So Alan wasn’t into that?
SB: Well, he was, and he went with the flow. But it was an intrusion to all of us. In fact, that was one of the things that was the beginning of the end of [our] chemistry, is when we suddenly had to deal with this intrusion of the DC universe.
I could get my head around what Alan was doing with the superheroes, because I remember vividly a conversation Totleben and I had: “Yeah, if Superman walked into the room, we’d all really be spooked.” I mean, superheroes are scary characters! And it was fun drawing Hawkman, who’s this absurd fucking character, but is also very imposing. And the way Joe Kubert always drew him, he was this really kind of scary figure. And we would play that up.
But then there were characters like Firestorm. You cannot make a human Bic lighter intimidating. I still remember John on the phone going “Yeah, where’s his fucking brain?” [Laughs.]
There were other speed bumps we hit. For instance, when we did [Saga Of The Swamp Thing Annual #2] “Down Amongst the Dead Men,” we had all the DC supernatural characters appearing. Phantom Stranger, The Spectre, Deadman. Well—when you pencil them, you realize that all the DC supernatural characters a) have no eyeballs, and b) wear little fucking booties with a little point over the toe. These things look stupid. [Laughs.] And Deadman and the Demon have the primary colors of a stop sign and a yield sign. That is not scary.
AVC: You mentioned there were other things that disrupted the teamwork.
SB: Okay. There was the intrusion of the DC universe. There was the wear and tear on John and I of, it took five weeks to do an issue. And coupled with that was the fact that as a writer, Alan could do Swamp Thing in a week to a week and a half, and he still had two and a half to three weeks to do other stuff. Like Watchmen. And as we watched Alan’s career skyrocket, you know, we were still the lowly Swamp Thing cartoonists. So that was a schism.
I really felt, coming off of Swamp Thing, that we’d been taken advantage of in some ways [by DC], and it took years to even sort out why things had gone down the way they had. [DC Comics president] Paul Levitz has only had one conversation with me my entire life. And in that very terse phone conversation, Paul explained to me “Steve, we made the worst licensing deal we ever made in the history of DC on Swamp Thing.”
And that’s when I finally learned why all through the mid-‘80s when I worked on the book, we had the lowest page-rate at DC. We got paid dirt by page-rate standards at DC. Because there was no stake in it for DC. They couldn’t license the character. They’d already sold the character out to Michael Uslan, who produced [the films] Swamp Thing and The Return Of Swamp Thing, and until that license was restored to DC, they couldn’t even put out a poster. That’s why nothing was done with our artwork all those years. People would say “Why isn’t there a poster of yours and John’s covers and pin-ups?” Well, they couldn’t put it out.
And yet the second Swamp Thing film could pirate anything they wanted from our art run on the book. They could take every word, the characters, anything.
AVC: What was your page rate?
SB: I got $63 a page to pencil, John Totleben got $45 a page to ink, and I believe Alan was getting in the vicinity of $50 a page to script.
AVC: Do you have royalties on this now?
SB: Now, yes. We do get royalties from the trades. The money we make off of Swamp Thing is from Constantine, because the character of John Constantine was created while we were on the book. They changed the rules in—I want to say 1985, where they would then give a royalty share for new characters. And it was just dumb luck that Constantine came under the wire of that new rule.
The reason John and I got a share is we began drawing Sting in the background scenes in Swamp Thing. And it was a game we were playing. We loved The Police, John was a huge fan of Andy Summers. And I liked Sting, because he had a great face and I was a big fan of the movie Quadrophenia, where he plays Ace Face.
And we wrote Alan, and said “We’re going to put Sting in the comic, and Alan, you better make it a character, because he’s not going to go away. We’re going to make him more and more visible, whether you like it or not.” So Alan made him John Constantine.
When I hear the rates that cartoonists have been getting since the ‘90s—we did make things better. We fought some real trench wars, as creators, on the business side. Because Alan Moore walked from DC, that gave Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison an easier time of it with DC Comics. I’m sure there was a Time Warner board meeting where they went “So, what’s that nice fellow who came up with Watchmen doing for us this year?” And someone from DC had to go “Well, he walked! We lost him!” So when Neil Gaiman and Sandman began to gain momentum, and when Grant Morrison’s work began to gain momentum, they benefited from the battles that Alan Moore [fought]. And the artists that came in after John and Rick Veitch and I had it much better because of the battles we fought.
But that makes it hard for us. I mean I’ll never get work at DC. Those grudges go deep, in these corporate cultures. If they would have me, would I work with them? Well, you know, it’d have to be a fair contract.
AVC: On Taboo, you started to move into self-publishing.
SB: Taboo was not self-publishing. Taboo was my first real experience with publishing. Of the work that appeared in Taboo, very little of it was mine. With Taboo, I learned about the ethics of publishing. And our deal with Taboo was, we sunk no proprietary rights or hooks into any of that material. It was one-time publication, a flat page-rate, $100 a page, and that was it. Deal over.
When From Hell the movie was made, we got nothing from it. Some people felt like that was unfair, but hey, that was the deal. The whole reason From Hell and Lost Girls and Throat Sprockets exist today is because they were made for Taboo, and Taboo, I was the midwife. I literally looked at it as that profession. My job was to facilitate the birth of something into this world, and then I’m done.
AVC: On Taboo, it’s interesting hearing what you say about the business. You wade into the contracts and deal with lawyers and distributors, but at the same time, you don’t seem to enjoy that side of it.
SB: It’s a necessary evil. Like almost all artistic people, when I started out, I didn’t want to have to deal with that stuff. But you know, you end up job by job realizing—well, you can look at it as not being your fault, i.e. “I’m getting shafted!” But I believe in personal responsibility. So to me, it was “I’m shafting myself!” [Laughs.] “I am making these agreements, I’m agreeing to these things.”
[Cerebus creator] Dave Sim forged a friendship with John Totleben and I at the Mid-Ohio-Con. And Dave laid out his whole vision of the inverted pyramid, that the whole superstructure of these businesses was built on the backs of freelancers that they were treating badly, paying badly. But they wouldn’t be going home with their paycheck every Friday if the freelancers didn’t get their work done, and all their income and revenue was generated by the work of a freelance pool that was at the end of the food chain, instead of benefiting from the food chain.
I was receptive to that. Not just because it was a radical thought—and it was, at the time—but also because it was the first thing I’d ever heard from someone else in the industry that was making sense of my real-life experiences with the industry.
AVC: How did Taboo do financially?
SB: Taboo was like a kamikaze plane going into the deck of the Midway. It was a defunct business model before it started! I lost tens of thousands of dollars. Dave Sim poured tens of thousands of dollars into it that he never got back. The year I made a ton of money off 1963, I sent Dave Sim a check for $10,000. And he said “Steve, your checks are no good here. Keep it.” For Dave, it was an investment he had made in not just Taboo, but a group of creators he believed in, and it ended up having a beneficial effect on comics.
But no one ever waited for a check from Taboo. My family ate macaroni and cheese some weeks, which drove my wife nuts, as you can well understand. Because instead, a few hundred dollars were going to Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore, because the work on From Hell was underway.
AVC: Artistically, how did you set the direction for Taboo?
SB: When we launched Taboo, we had a manifesto we sent out. And it opened with a quote from David Cronenberg, which was “Horror is showing the unshowable and speaking the unspeakable.” And we went, “That’s what we want from you. We want a comic you write and draw that disturbs you. We don’t want what you think is scary to other people. We don’t want the typical horror-comic story—werewolves, vampires, all that shit. If you end up doing one of those stories, great. But it has to disturb you. If it doesn’t disturb you, please don’t even send it. Don’t waste my time.”
I got stories and scripts from veteran, published, beloved comic creators whose names I will not give, because I don’t want to shame them. And they were abysmal! It was the kind of shit they would’ve turned in to House Of Mystery at DC.
Then we would get stuff out of the blue that hit that nerve. And a lot of times, it was a process. Even with Alan Moore, Alan sent a script for a brilliant fucking story. And it was hilarious. But it wasn’t disturbing. I said “Alan, it’s a great story, but this isn’t Taboo.” And that led to Alan coming up with From Hell. It made him dig deeper, and he called me, and with one phone conversation, he laid out all 16 chapters. He had the whole fucking thing in his head, and he described it to me—I was on the phone for like two hours that night, and when I got off, I went “Oh my God!”
And Tim Lucas, who did Throat Sprockets in Taboo. Tim sent me a story called “Your Darling Pet Monkey.” And it was a little script about somebody who mail-orders one of those monkeys in a cup that they used to advertise in the comic-book ads in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and the pet shows up, and it’s rabid or something. I don’t remember the whole story. It was a thread of an idea, but it wasn’t a story. And Tim and I were friends at that point, and I said “Tim, I hate to do this, but I’m not going to accept this. This is a terrible story.” And he came back with Throat Sprockets, and I just went “This is it. This is what we’re looking for.”
I’m proud of what we did with Taboo, and Taboo was the point where I went “There, that changed horror comics.” It changed the cultural perception of what a horror comic could be. Vertigo came after Taboo. And I got direct feedback from within the industry, and over time from the wider cultural world, that we had that ripple effect, and impact. And I went “Okay, I got that out of my system.” I didn’t feel the need to tell horror stories anymore.
I remember Dave Sim ringing me up when Taboo came to an end, and he goes “Okay, Steve. Are you done now doing things like what you want to do? Are you ready to do what you want to do?” And that was Tyrant.
But still, it took 1963 to earn enough money so that I could buy the two years of life to finally self-publish. I only got the opportunity to do it because we earned so much off that silly six-issue 1963 series.
AVC: Which was a departure for you. What do you think of superheroes?
SB: I hate superheroes. I always hated superheroes. From the time I was a little kid, I could believe in a 50-foot gorilla trashing New York City before I could believe a guy would put on long tights and bat ears and go and fight crime. Like, the fantasy never made sense to me, on a basic level.
AVC: 1963 was also your last project with Moore. What exactly was the beef with him? You’ve mentioned it was prompted by your interview with The Comics Journal.
SB: I don’t know what pissed him off. I think what happened was, I talked about business practices. I really got into the nuts and bolts of the limitations of working comics as a writer. And what examples do I have to draw from? I mean, look at my career. The main writer I’ve worked with is Alan Moore.
The interview hadn’t seen print yet. I sent copies to anyone I mentioned by name, of the transcript of the interview with a cover letter, saying “If anything upsets you, I will take it out. If there’s anything I got wrong, I will change it. Please read this, go over it, and let me know.” Alan, I never heard from. But when Neil [Gaiman] saw him, Alan…
AVC: Gave him an earful?
SB: Yeah. Actually, Neil called me before he left England, and I called Alan that night, and it was the last sentence he ever said to me. He said “Right, Steve? I’ll keep this short. Don’t call me, don’t write me, as far as I’m concerned, it’s over, mate.” Click. That was it. All done.
I don’t know what offended him… But I remember clearly feeling the change going on, because a phone call to Alan that used to be a friendly, peer-level co-creator chat was turning into more and more business. And Alan hates doing business. And it was becoming more and more of an intrusion in his life.
AVC: We’ve talked about all of your major projects except Tyrant. You’ve been into dinosaurs since—
AVC: As separate from monsters?
AVC: Do they have a different appeal?
SB: I think all kids understand from a very tender age that dinosaurs were real. They really walked around. That instantly sets them apart from monsters. And it instantly makes them safe. Because you can love ‘em, and they’re never going to bite you. They’re not like a dog. They’re safer than a pet, in a weird way.
And kids that get really into it—and I was one of those twisted little kids—really get into it. It’s like our first obsession. And I never outgrew it. And it wasn’t out of childishness that I never outgrew it. It’s because the object of the fascination is very real, and only grows more fascinating the older I get.
So it’s very different from monsters. The power of monsters is, it is a way of giving almost tangible substance to fears, beliefs, things that aren’t real. You can coalesce it and draw it, or describe it, and it’s a monster. And you can get your hands around it, and you can empathize with it. And you can demonize it.
Dinosaurs are different. Dinosaurs were real. They can serve the same purpose as monsters. But in a way, they’re better than monsters.
The meat and potatoes of Tyrant was, I wanted to put the reader in the mindset of an animal, without anthropomorphizing the animal. I wanted to plunk us down 75 million years ago, in what is now Alberta, Canada. Let’s stick with one animal and let’s only work with what actually coexisted with it in the fossil record. What was it like? My goal was [to show] the birth, life, and death of a T. Rex. I wanted to follow it all the way.
AVC: You’ve talked about that idea of “the other”—you want to look it in the eye and see something that’s alive, but not human.
SB: Yeah. If you have birds, or if you’re a herpetologist and raise reptiles—you look in those eyes, and there is nothing there that’s human. I mean, they don’t think like us, they don’t see the world like us. But the common elements also interest me. [Professor Thomas Roberts of the University of Connecticut] and I were having lunch together, and he was asking me what was happening with Tyrant, and I told him where I was going with it. He just said “You know, I love what you’re doing with this book. Because you’re doing the book as a parent. Tyrant’s all about what you’re doing as a parent.” And he laid it all out, and he was absolutely right.
Right from the opening panel, that’s what it was about. It’s about all the tensions of parenting—how am I going to feed them, how am I going to survive as I’m doing it. And it was exactly what was going on, especially after Tyrant, in my life.
And it was also about predation. It was, in a way, going to be a primal version of these ethical battles that we’ve been talking about. Like, what does it mean to be something that has to kill in order to live?
I was trying to get my hands around how to write Tyrant, and my last trip to England, when I got to spend three or four days with Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, Alan was—I can’t say in his cups, Alan was in his spliffs one night. And he was getting into the challenge I was facing, and he started pacing around the room, and he said, “You know, it would be really basic. It would be, ‘Everything in the world is either meat, or not meat.’” And Alan started pacing the room, and he started like—“This would be not meat! And this would be meat! And if it’s meat, it’s important, and if it’s not meat, I don’t care about it!” And that night is when it all came together. Alan gave me the gift of what I needed to get my hands around how to write Tyrant.
AVC: You have the four issues that are published, but you’ve said there are other sketches—
SB: I actually did a rough equivalent of almost 40 pages, which was going to be Tyrant #5 and #6. My goal was to get to Tyrant #6 and put out my first collection. And that was the big mistake I made. I should have collected #1, #2, and #3 in trade paperback, and I might have had enough to get over the market hurdles when distribution collapsed.
AVC: In a perfect world, if you had the time, would you work on the project again?
SB: Oh yeah. If I had a windfall like we had with 1963—let’s say we sold a collected 1963 and suddenly I had enough income that for two years, I could cut a check and the mortgage is taken care of? I would go back to Tyrant.
AVC: What would have happened next?
SB: Here’s what’s interesting. I, as a storyteller, was asking questions no one in science had apparently asked. What happens in a nest of tyrannosaurs? They’re precocial, meaning when they hatch, they’re ready to feed and move about. My questions are “Hmm, if there’s a nest of tyrannosaurs, and there’s three siblings that survive, would they try to eat each other? Would one of them gravitate toward scavenging, because it’s the weaker of the bunch, and the stronger of the three would be the predator?” I had a storyline set up where I was going to follow all three modes of tyrannosaur behavior that are being passionately argued among paleontological circles.
There’s three dinosaurs that survive the first night at the nest. There’s the younger brother, who is the weaker of the three, and he’s the scavenger. Because all that’s left for him in the nest is the carrion, because the more aggressive two siblings always go after the live food or get the best part of the meal that the mother’s brought in, if the mother brings in anything at all. I still was sorting that out.
Then Tyrant has a sister. The sister is the more aggressive and stronger of the three, and she’s the one who is the active aggressive predator. She only eats live food.
Tyrant is the middle kid. Like me! Tyrant will eat whatever the fuck is available. He’s a carnivore, but within being a meat-eater, he will eat anything that presents itself. And the first full narrative arc of Tyrant was going to build to the point in Tyrant’s life when he was at the peak of his powers, when he could just stand in a part of the forest, perfectly still, and wait until something big enough to bother with crossed his path. Then I was going to have issues where I spent time with the brother and the sister.
AVC: Is she the one biting the eggsucker on the tongue on the cover of #4?
SB: No, that one wasn’t going to make it, my friend. [Laughs.] There were going to be four eggs that hatched, and that little guy dies. I’ve just given away a plot point. The eggsucker ends up snapping it in half by trying to get it off his tongue. And what was going to happen was the father T. Rex was going to show up at the nest, because of the noise and the ruckus. Tyrant #6 was going to end with the image of the surviving three hatchlings asleep in the nest. So it’s their first night in the world.
Tyrant #5 and #6 were also going to be about perception and misperception. What happens with Tyrant in the nest is, he hatches out, and a fly lands on the end of a really sensitive part of his muzzle. And he snaps, and he tastes his first meat, and “MEAT” was going to be the first thought that enters his head.
While all this action was going on around the nest, he’s looking up at what he thinks is another fly, but it’s pterosaurs that are circling the nest. They see all this activity happening, and they’re going to station themselves so they can feed on whatever is dead at the end of whatever is going on down there. His eyes aren’t seeing clearly, and he can’t tell depth perception yet. So he thinks it’s a fly. He starts snapping at it, because his instinct from that first taste is “Oooh, meat.” And it was going to be this running crosscutting between the babies hatching in the nest—because all the action moves away from the nest, the eggsucker goes tearing off, the father shows up, the mother wants to go after it but doesn’t want to leave the nest, she’s worried there’s another one there—and in the nest, it’s quiet. Nothing’s happening. They’re not hearing anything, because their ears aren’t working yet, and it’s baby Tyrant, fixating on these pterosaurs that he thinks are right at the end of his nose. Because he can’t tell where they are.
And that’s what I was sorting out, was, how do I tell that story and not lose the reader, but keep it interesting? But that’s a fairly abstract set of things to communicate in the context of a dinosaur comic, right? And that was going to be the end of the first complete book. Because that to me presented a full-enough view of a world. And it worked for me emotionally. Each of these creatures has an impulse tied to parenting that drives them. And they will cling to it to their dying breath. Because it’s that powerful. Not just an instinct, but a motivator. And that’s what the book was about, to me at that stage.
I was going to have a whole issue where his mother crosses his path, and he recognizes her, but she doesn’t recognize him. So he’s caught in a skirmish of having to fight off this larger but older T. Rex. He smells her, he recognizes the odor. But she doesn’t—there’s no familial link there.
And I had all those kind of stories planned out. I was going to have a whole five-issue arc where he ends up too close to the proximity of a volcano that’s erupting, and he has to escape the devastation of the ash, the breathing difficulty. It was going to introduce this breathing disorder that really becomes crippling as he gets older. And I saw on one of those shows, they had a whole episode about dinosaurs and volcanoes, and I went “Oh, there goes that story arc. I won’t do that.” [Laughs, adopts blues voice.] “I had lots of great plans! Oh, the shit I was gonna do!”
Tyrant was viable for two years. And then distribution fell apart. When the comic direct-sales market imploded, and we went from 14 distributors to one, I just went “My kids are teenagers. That’s a risk I can no longer take. I have to find a day job.”
When you’re making your living as a writer or an artist or a musician, you kind of live in a trance. You’re sort of in the day-to-day world, you’re certainly there for your day-to-day relationships with people, and so on. But you’re always in this trance state, where whatever you’re working on is happening in your head. It’s taking up a lot of energy and time. That’s the pleasure, that’s the beauty of it. But it’s the reality of it too. And the point in time when I pulled the plug on Tyrant, there was this conscious act of “I’ve got to pull myself out of the trance.”
AVC: What was your day job?
SB: I had been a shareholder in First Run Video, a video superstore in Brattleboro, Vermont, since November of ’91, when we opened our doors… And then, in ’97, ’98, when the whole comics industry collapsed, I pulled the plug on Tyrant, I went back to my friend and the owner, Alan Goldstein, and said “Alan, I’m looking for work now.” He wanted to bring me in as a manager, and I said “Nope! I want to start as a desk clerk, minimum wage. I need to learn every job in the store if I’m going to be manager, and I want to work my way up the ladder.” So I started at the front desk, and I popped popcorn my first week, because I didn’t know how to run the computers. And I did every job, worked my way up through.
There was a kid who walked into the video store. He was one of the customers, this shaggy-haired teenager. And he looked at my nametag one day, and it kind of hit him. And he said “Are you the guy that used to draw Swamp Thing?” And I went “Yeah!” And he bolted out of the store. It’s like I’d hit him in the head with a board.
And then I got an e-mail from a friend saying “Have you seen Grant Morrison’s blog?” I didn’t even know what a blog was. And I’m pretty sure it was the kid, because he said “I just found out that Steve Bissette of Swamp Thing is working at a local video store, and he writes a column for the local paper, and I’m horrified!” And Grant Morrison said something like “I’d rather put a bullet in my head first.”
I was like “Well, what the fuck!” [Laughs.] And I never saw that kid again. He never came back to the store. It was really a shock for him. And to me it was like, “Welcome to the world.” And as I said earlier in the interview, I remembered the teachers at the Kubert School, who were going through all the employment upset—like losing their freelance gigs, and their husbands being fired from DC. They were in their 40s. I was in my 40s. I see how it is.
AVC: How did you become involved with the Center For Cartoon Studies?
SB: James Sturm came to me and said “Come up to White River!” And he had this vision of the school. I felt like passing on what I know is the most important thing I can do right now. I said yes from day one. And it’s gotten me back to doing comics, which is a pleasure.
And if I live long enough, you know what may come to pass is, some of my students end up going into the publishing industry, and they may be the ones that make it possible for me to do Tyrant. I don’t know.
I have kept everything I’ve done on Tyrant, all my notes and everything. But I was at the peak of my game when I was working on Tyrant #4 and #5. I don’t know if I would get there again. I can draw like that, but I’ve got to get back into that space. I’d have to fall back into the trance. And I haven’t been in the trance for a long time.