A Monstrous Talent: an interview with Steve Bissette, part3.

Third part of our exclusive interview and Steve Bissette talks a little more about Swamp Thing and also his self-publishing experience with Taboo.

Wellington Srbek: I believe that Len Wein did a great job back in 1983 hiring a talented but relatively unknown British writer and putting the team together. Later, Karen Berger was very effective defending Swamp Thing when #29 came with all the love, death and necrophilia. But you have said that the #46 Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover was “the begin of the end” for you on Swamp Thing, which I believe has some relation to editorial issues.

Steve Bissette: Well, first of all, Karen rolled with the punches on ST #29 -- initially, she wasn't 'effective defending' as much as on the defensive. She was under a great deal of pressure from DC management due to the Comics Code Authority (CCA) decision to refuse #29 -- first for the zombie imagery, which I defended by sending clippings from the local newspapers (ads for then-current zombie movies on the entertainment pages; the last gasp of the Italian zombie movies of the early '80s were still in theaters, luckily). But then the CCA read the comic, and the implicit necrophilia and incest angle (e.g., Abby having relations with her undead husband Matt, who was possessed by the spirit of her dead uncle Arcane) completely blew up in Karen's face at DC for about a week or so. Complicating everything for her was the fact that her superior, Dick Giordano, was away -- Dick was a member of the CCA at that time, so it really put Karen in a tough position. Ultimately, it was the one-two punch of our growing sales and the impossible deadline crunch that pushed through that issue of Swamp Thing without the CCA seal of approval on it -- there simply was not time to do anything except cancel the issue, period, or put it out as it was. Because of the hard-won sales momentum we had on the series by that time, the gamble was taken to put the issue out sans CCA approval, and the rest is history -- Vertigo emerged from that fateful decision.
So, Karen did fight the good fight, but she did so reluctantly -- the clock was so far against her, and I was always so far behind the eight-ball as penciller, that the final decision was as much one of bad timing as it was 'good' timing.
That said, I indeed felt the intrusion of superheroes, and the whole Crisis crossover lunacy, into what we were doing was toxic. I was so against the introduction of superheroes that early on, Len Wein claimed to be the one who insisted on it -- when Green Lantern, Hawkman and the rest of the Justice League popped up in the final chapter of the Jason Woodrue/Floronic Man arc, our first narrative arc as a team. That was what I was told, so I went with it. Only later did Alan admit HE had been the one who folded the DC universe into what we were doing. I was against it at the time, and was pretty outspoken about that at the time.
The Crisis intrusion was just -- a hassle, and a major interruption. Unfortunately, the Crisis situation was a harbinger of things to come: almost all the mainstream comics from DC and Marvel are now constructed from the top of editorial down, requiring extensive crossover and cross-pollination between series, and its a clusterfuck that I, as a creator and as a reader, have absolutely no interest in or patience with. We only had to mess about with that one issue, but given how few issues I had left to work on by that point in the series, I regret that I wasted an issue's worth of effort on that silly Crisis nonsense.
Now, understand, there were other things going on, too, between DC Comics and myself, some of which I can't comment on -- check out my interview in The Comics Journal (#185, March 1996), and Rick Veitch's in The Comics Journal #175, if you want to know more. Suffice to say, DC had made it difficult, at best, for me to continue working on the series, or on any DC project. I soldiered through, in part due to the chemistry and bond I felt with Alan, John, Rick and the character of Swamp Thing, and in major part thanks to Karen Berger. I felt great loyalty to and affection for Karen; I wish we had done more together, but I was a real 'problem freelancer' and I completely understand why she hasn't wanted to do more together. But I stuck with the series as long as I did, including the subsequent covers and guest scripts, thanks to Karen. In any case, the writing was on the wall by the time we reached ST #40, and I barely made it to #50, what part I played in that issue. I must say that home stretch -- what work I did between #40 and #50 -- was done under considerable duress. I was not a happy camper, and my heart was no longer in it.

WS: As a genre, Horror has a very long tradition in Western arts, driving its vital force from the grotesque imagery. The Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch, the German Albrecht Dürer and the Spanish Francisco de Goya are three of the great masters of the grotesque arts. And of course we see references to those three masters in Swamp Thing. You were really digging up the roots of Horror, weren’t you?

SB: Yes, and I would have gone further, had there been the opportunity. Taboo was where I went after Swamp Thing, and I think that's a better representation of my personal philosophy and devotion to the genre. I'm very proud of Taboo, and all that anthology embodied and accomplished.

WS: In its own way the Swamp Thing series has addressed racial, sexual and environmental issues. So, how do you see the role of comics on addressing social and political issues?

SB: I was full of piss and vinegar in the 1980s, and really poured all I could (whatever was possible in a mere 30 days) into stories like "The Nukeface Papers." John Totleben, Tom Yeates (especially Tom) and I also worked on comics projects like Real War Stories (published by the Conscientious Objectors Organization) and the like in the day; Neil Gaiman, Michael Zulli and I worked on a PETA comic story, Rick Veitch and I donated work and art to Alan's initial Mad Love project, AARGH, which was out to raise minds and money to fight homophobia in the UK. We did what we could during our tenure on Swamp Thing, within the parameters of a DC comicbook circa the mid-1980s, and I'll also note that the US Army mounted a legal battle -- which they lost -- against Real War Stories. At the time, I felt like it was possible to effectively address sociopolitical issues in comics. That said, you've opened a can of worms with this question. On the one hand, no anti-nuclear activist I know has ever taken "Nukeface" seriously in my experience -- but a lot of people have noted, personally, how much that story impacted on them (don't take my word for it -- see Brad Tuttle's unsolicited comment on my blog today,
http://srbissette.com/?p=1396#comments, which arrived AS I was writing this answer to you, Wellington!). The horror genre, to my mind, is a very effective means of addressing social ills, but those actively engaged in fighting such ills usually despise the genre, so it's a sort of vicious circle, conceptually. Still, I think it's valid, and has power.
In the pop culture, films reach far more folks than comics do; so, I'll discuss my genre perceptions in that milieu, for a moment, if only to emphasize my point. For instance, I've written at length in a few venues about how the George W. Bush Presidency spawned a cycle of horror films that confronted issues the American public only recently engaged with; to my mind, the whole "amnesia horror" subgenre (e.g., The Jacket, The Mechanist, etc.) was the pop culture confrontation with America not wanting to confront the consequences of its foreign policies; the so-called 'torture' film cycle (e.g., Hostel, Saw, Captivity, etc.) was the first and for a time only pop cultural engagement with the consequences of Abu Ghraib and Guantanemo; and gems like Bill Paxton's brilliant sleeper Frailty reflect and anticipate the entire Bush era with insight, clarity and unflinching honesty.
That said, comics are a very potent medium. But I think whatever we did in Swamp Thing was relatively meaningless next to the integrity and power of, say, Joe Sacco's Palestine. Joe really opened up a more powerful form of comics journalism than any I'd seen since the post-WW2 graphic novels like Southern Cross. Even in genre comics, it's telling that the underground sf/horror environmental activist anthology Slow Death morphed over a few issues into a more journalistic form, culminating in works like Greg Irons's whaling screed and Bill Stout's "Filipino Massacre." Jack T. Chick's endless procession of religious tracts demonstrate HOW powerful comics can be in hitting people where they live -- if only that kind of comics pamphleteering were being leveled at targets that matter.
I still think it's a remarkably effective medium to address any and all social, political and religious issues, but I've hardly done much in my lifetime to build on that belief. There's never enough time or money, rarely a viable venue -- whenever I've pursued it, it always comes down to cartoonists (who are, by and large, an impoverished lot) donating time, work, art and so on, working with folks who are paid for their time and efforts; now that I'm in my 50s, I've grown weary with that process of invitation/ proposal/ work/ layouts/ volunteerism when I'm so often barely living hand-to-mouth myself. That said, I've got some passionate, skilled young cartoonists at the Center for Cartoon Studies who are absolutely dedicated to this path, and I've been very supportive. They're young and full of piss and vinegar -- so I'll do all I can to help them.

WS: In 1989 you began to publish Taboo, the horror anthology where the early chapters of From Hell and Lost Girls were first published, along with other cutting edge works. Please explain to your Brazilian fans why Taboo was so controversial? And why it folded in 1995?

SB: You have to remember that Taboo predated Vertigo, and the whole 1990s horror comics explosion. When John Totleben and I co-founded Taboo in the late '80s, Swamp Thing was one of the few horror comics standing; other than the horrific aspects of X-Men (e.g., The Brood) and DC's short-lived Night Force, we were the ONLY horror comic on the newsstands. The direct-sales market, the comic book stores, had a few anthologies like Twisted Tales, Death Rattle and Tales Of Horror (both of which John Totleben and I contributed work to), but those were weak tea, and very much in the mode of the EC Pre-Code horror comics of the 1950s. As I wrote in our " Taboo Manifesto," what was taboo-breaking and subversive in 1954 certainly wasn't any longer in the 1980s, so our wanting to even do Taboo emerged from a relative vacuum in genre terms. To our mind, nobody was really engaging with the potential of the genre in comics, not the way we saw the genre growing and expanding in cinema and literature, via the work of filmmakers like David Cronenberg and writers like Clive Barker.
So, we launched Taboo before the comics YOUR readers grew up with. We also felt strongly that the best new work in the genre, like Charles Burns's stories in RAW, weren't being perceived or presented AS horror. The cutting-edge comics horror work was being marginalized, and not recognized as horror -- it was presumed that horror in comics had to involve the usual trappings of the genre. John and I both felt that was an obsolete reality, and one that was strangling the potential of horror comics.
So, with the support and funding of Dave Sim, we launched Taboo. It took almost three years to get the first volume done and out, and everything grew from there. We were banned in many countries, including the UK and Canada; we had constant problems finding printers willing to print the book, and even binders willing to bind printed books! Taboo's fusion of traditional and non-traditional horror, and incorporation of non-genre adult imagery and concerns (like the candid sexuality of From Hell, Lost Girls and other stories, like S. Clay Wilson's work), indeed proved to be an ongoing source of fireworks on a number of fronts.
Taboo never sold particularly well; it was expensive to produce and reached at best around 10,000 readers. Though it has proven to be influential in a number of ways, Taboo was never a success -- the first issue was profitable, the profits were divided amongst the contributors, and then I proceeded to lose tens of thousands of dollars for about five years continuing the project. Kevin Eastman and Tundra funded Taboo from its fourth to its seventh issue, and Taboo Especial; however, once Tundra began to publish the serialized From Hell chapters we'd already run in Taboo, it undercut what few sales we enjoyed due to From Hell. That was a mortal blow, really. Why buy Taboo if you could just wait four months a buy the same chapters of From Hell in their own title? It was a kamikaze publishing strategy, but I didn't think I had any right to fight it -- after all, I was only paying contributors $100 per page, which Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell split, and Tundra was offering them more income to continue the project. So, From Hell came out in serialized form from Tundra, I continued subsidizing From Hell via a couple more volumes of Taboo, and our sales continued to plunge.
Besides, Tundra just didn't understand Taboo. They also, after From Hell, saw it solely as a breeding ground for 'new properties' -- Tundra assumed, for instance, that Tundra would by proxy be free to acquire anything serialized in Taboo, including Lost Girls (which they did, briefly) and Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli's Sweeney Todd. Neil and Michael didn't see that as viable at all, and spurned Tundra's initial advances; I appreciated their recognizing the damage the From Hell editions had done to Taboo, and their solidarity with Taboo as their chosen venue for Sweeney Todd. That quickly generated misplaced ill will, toward me, Taboo, Neil and Michael, as if we were ingrates or spoiled children or something for not just going along with the From Hell precedent.
It was all a moot point within a few months, really. Relations between Tundra and I soured over their mismanagement of many things, including Taboo, but I was the least of their problems as Kevin was already dismantling Tundra. Thanks to the financial success Alan, Rick Veitch and I had with 1963 for Image, I was able to negotiate a large (to me) settlement and severance payment with and to Kevin Eastman to cut Taboo loose, free and clear. It cost me a lot of money, but it was worth it. I let the dust settle, then negotiated with Denis Kitchen the publication of the final two volumes of Taboo, volumes 8 and 9, to ensure I honored my commitment to those contributors. I returned everyone's work to them, including work paid for that was never published, and cut everyone and everything loose.
The experiment was over. I think it was successful, on its own terms, and time seems to have borne that out.
I'd learned a great deal, at great cost, and a lot of good came out of Taboo -- including published works like From Hell, Lost Girls, Jeff Nicholson's Through The Habitrails, Tim Lucas's novel Throat Sprockets, and more. By then, Taboo was an anachronism. Karen Berger had successfully launched Vertigo, and Vertigo took it -- the genre -- to the next level. We'd proved our point: "horror comics" weren't just this narrow little ghetto that required horror hosts and bad puns and gory revenge stories to sell. Horror was a way of seeing the world, expressing one's vision of reality, and it was as expansive and expressive a genre as any in existence. We proved that in spades, I think, via the work that appeared in Taboo. Then, Vertigo took things so much further, with the major muscle of DC and Time-Warner (now AOL Time-Warner) behind them; it worked. Taboo dragged horror comics into the 1990s, made its point, and then got the fuck out of the way after its time in the moonlight.
It was a good run, the right project at the right time. I've no regrets.

Next: Steve Bissette explains everything you would like to know about the 1963 miniseries and its "lost Annual".

Nenhum comentário: