A Monstrous Talent: an interview with Steve Bissette, part4.

Fourth part of our exclusive interview and Steve Bissette explains in detail everything involving the 1963 miniseries and its “lost Annual”.

Wellington Srbek: Another project that has attracted controversy over the years is the 1963 miniseries published by Image Comics in 1993. Although Alan Moore had said in the late 80s he would never write another superhero story, after the financial problems caused by the “abortive” Big Numbers he came back to the genre with a “pastiche” of the early Marvel comics. In terms of quality the miniseries has its ups and downs. Anyway, 1963 is more remembered today for its “lost Annual”. What was your involvement on the 1963 project?

Steve Bissette: I was 'Ground Zero,' if you will. It all began with a phone call to me, in my Marlboro trailer studio in 1992. Larry Marder was calling on behalf of founding Image partner Jim Valentino, who wasn't so much asking for my working with Image, as for my working with Image in order to get Alan Moore to work with Image. Alan was who Jim really wanted -- but I was the only conduit open to them, via Larry's friendship with ME. Alan had already sworn off comics conventions years before (for the reasons why, see Bryan Talbot's excellent The Naked Artist: Comic Book Legends, Moonstone, 2007, pp. 19-20), and cultivated a sense of being, well, unapproachable. He had already declared Image Comics the "crack cocaine of comics" (compared to Marvel, which was the "cocaine" of comics) in an interview in The Comics Journal, and Image was seeking legitimacy and the involvement of more high-end popular creators to elevate their own product. Valentino really wanted to convince Alan and I to work on Shadowhawk, Valentino's Image character and comic, a vigilante who broke spines. We weren't interested at all in pursuing that, but -- well, I called both Alan and Rick Veitch after talking first to Larry, then to Jim Valentino. It seemed to me something worth considering, doing our own comic for Image, and Alan and Rick agreed.
Valentino was phishing, really, and Larry's phone call to me caught Alan, Rick Veitch and I at a prime moment. We were each caught up in Kevin Eastman's Tundra Publishing experiment in various stages of disenchantment; Alan was at a particularly low ebb financially, and it was during this period that he called me seeking advice about how to pull himself out of the fiscal morass he was in, which I felt partially responsible for via Taboo. Taboo only paid $100 per page across the board, and From Hell -- even with Tundra's then-recent 'pick up' and reprinting of Taboo-published chapters -- had devoured so much of Alan's time that he had precious little earning time or energy left. From Hell, Lost Girls, his novel The Voice Of Fire -- all were and are momentous works, but financially they paid very little. Alan also had no time to dedicate to better paying work -- if it could be found -- so my initial suggestion, which at the time he accepted as viable, was to reprint the From Hell scripts in book form, which led to the ill-fated From Hell: The Compleat Scripts. Borderlands Press and SpiderBaby Grafix (my firm) both paid Alan for the rights, and I paid Eddie Campbell to do new illustrations, both intended to help continue subsidizing Alan and Eddie's ongoing work on the series proper -- it ended badly, though. Volume One was a great success, and Volume Two was illustrated and completely typeset, ready to go, when the movie option on From Hell derailed the whole project. By then, Alan was flush, and the Compleat Scripts project was now a problem with the movie people for legal reasons -- Alan and Eddie had forgotten to mention it during the movie option negotiations. Borderlands was furious, and rightfully so; I saw no upside to engaging in a legal battle with Alan and Eddie over what was, after all, their property, and convinced Borderlands we should just stand down. It's too bad, it was a great project; it was successful, and would have continued to be successful, but I wasn't going to engage in legal battles with Alan and Eddie, period. So, a successful project originally conceived to rescue Alan financially without his having to do any work was scuttled. C'est la vie.
Now, I bring that up not to reopen old wounds, but to explain how thinly stretched Alan was in 1992. Whatever could be conceived of to earn him further income could NOT involve the kind of Herculean time and energy the full scripting of From Hell and Lost Girls required -- and remember, too, Alan was still reeling in the debacle of Big Numbers, which had depleted Alan both emotionally and financially. Thanks to 1963 and Image Comics, Alan was out of his fiscal crater by the beginning of 1993 -- but there was many a mile between 1992 and 1993, and that was the Image project.
Alan was disgusted personally by where superherocomics had gone in the late '80s and early '90s, and felt responsible for that trend due to Watchmen. Thus, in the week or so of phone calls and FAXes (email didn't exist yet) between Alan, Rick and myself, we resolved that (a) IF we did anything for Image, the three of us would work 'Marvel Method,' so that Alan could avoid doing time-consuming full scripts, and (b) the project had to remedy the depravity and negativity of the contemporary superhero comic scene. Thus, Alan conceived of 1963, which was to be comprised of six issues of faux-1963 comics -- written, drawn, colored and printed as if they had been published in the year 1963, reflecting that conceit in every aspect of their final form -- culminating in an old-fashioned Giant Annual that would have the 1963 characters confronted by the 1993 Image characters. This would be the vehicle for Alan to confront what superhero comics had been -- what we had grown up with -- and what the genre had become, directly using the "crack cocaine" of comics, the Image stable of characters.
Now, the fly in the ointment from the beginning was Image. Let me break this down -- and understand from the outset that this is just my perception of events. You'd get a different perspective, I'm certain (I know), from either Rick or Alan, if they cared to discuss it at all. Here's all the factors involved in the Annual's concept, and what eventually happened (and, more importantly, didn't happen):
1. By its very nature, the Annual required that ALL the Image creators be into this concept, and allow us to use their characters. This original conceit exponentially grew into the concept that Rick and I would lay out the entire Annual from Alan's notes (it became a script) and draw OUR '1963' characters, and each respective Image creator would then draw THEIR character in the appropriate pages and panels.
2. From the very first phone call, it was ALAN Image wanted. It was ALAN that Jim Valentino wanted to work with, not me, not Rick Veitch. As Larry Marder later put it, Rick and I were literally "the tugboats," pulling the big ship into harbor. We remained the tugboats throughout this process; to many of the Image partners, we were mere pawns in their comics industry chess game.
3. Understand, too, that the Image partners were all highly competitive, often childishly so. They were all young men, one (Rob Leifeld) barely out of his teens, each engaged in testosterone-pissing contests with one another. If you want to understand this aspect of Image, Don Simpson's two-issue Spittin' Image (1992-93) says it all; that remains the most accurate portrait of what was really going on at Image per my reality of the experience.
4. Valentino was the oldest member, and in many ways an odd man out -- yet, HE had suddenly 'scored' Alan Moore. Thus, Jim was now a target -- at least two of the Image partners were intent upon one-upping Valentino now -- and Alan Moore was the prize.
So, without going into the whole story in detail -- again, see the Rick Veitch interview in The Comics Journal, and my own in TCJ #185 for the particulars -- it ended up that Todd McFarlane trumped Valentino by calling Alan Moore directly (once I had established contact and bridged Image and Alan, the door was at last open).
Todd trumped 1963 by doing the four issues of Spawn with four guest writers -- Frank Miller, Dave Sim, Neil Gaiman, and Alan -- all of which came out before our April 1993 release of 1963 Book One: Mystery Incorporated. The immediate impact this had upon Alan and 1963 was it earned a fat paycheck, and Alan was working on the Violator miniseries with Todd, too -- thus, he had less and less time to devote to 1963, and less and less reason to devote time to our project as his financial woes were over.
Jim Lee trumped Jim Valentino by brokering, amid an insane cross-conversation with go-betweens at the July 1992 San Diego Convention, that he would do the Annual. The bizarre 'conversation', conducted entirely by middle-men, was aimed directly at Rick and I as we walked from the Tundra table to the hall where an Image panel (actually, it was more like a rally!) was going on. Valentino had arranged with us, via phone calls to Alan, that he could announce the 1963 project was happening. What we didn't grasp fully is that Jim Lee was now inserting himself into the process -- he, via his middle-men, was negotiating the Annual AWAY from Valentino. We didn't fully understand what was going on; we should have said 'no.' But we were being rushed from table to hall, and we had people in our face pushing for Jim Lee to "do" the Annual -- as I say, we should have just said 'no.' But by the time we reached the hall, where literally hundreds of cheering fans were being entertained by the Image partners on stage giving a strange, rally-like panel, Jim Lee had with our complicity wrested the Annual away from Valentino.
On stage, with a nod from us, Valentino announced having Alan Moore and 1963 -- and Jim Lee literally stole his thunder by immediately announcing that HE was doing the 1963 Annual! The crowd went nuts, Jim Valentino looked crestfallen, and Lee basked in the applause -- and Rick and I still didn't quite know what had just happened.
Well, we found out, over time. I maintain we lost control of the all-important Annual from that moment on. Rick sort of blames me, for not staying in charge, with him, of the project, and I can't deny that I lost my passion for the venture during the spring of 1993. Once Alan was flush with Spawn income, it became harder and harder to keep Alan engaged. I only ever saw a few pages of script for the Annual, which we should have been drawing by the time we'd finished the work on #4 -- but we couldn't. A couple of the Image partners -- Erik Larsen, Mark Silvestri -- had let us know they were on board, but none of the others would respond to our calls or queries. We couldn't do the Annual without them, though; we were hitting the wall of the Image chaos, really.
We couldn't get Jim Lee on the phone, not once -- I still have a copy of a FAX Lee sent us, with his drawing of the Planet (from Mystery Inc.), saying not to worry, he was in -- but we never heard another thing from him that I know of. He'd only 'grabbed' the Annual to steal Valentino's applause at San Diego Con; we didn't initially understand how the power-and-ego games at Image were impacting on Valentino, but now we were learning first-hand.
Most crippling, to me personally, was Alan's ongoing disconnect from the process. This resulted in my eventual disconnect from the process, too. I didn't find out until years later that Alan had a personal crisis that fueled this -- which shows you how out-of-the-loop I'd been relegated. I found this out only after years of finding myself blamed for the Annual collapse; I can't say that put my mind at ease about how it all went down. At least I understand, in hindsight, a bit more of what happened, but it didn't change events or allow a change of events.
For me, it all came down to the key players -- Alan, Jim Lee, the Image partners -- could not be corralled to complete the Annual. This was Alan's concept, and the Image partners only cared to talk to Alan -- but he wasn't taking any role in making it happen.
Now, understand, Rick and I cultivated this completely. I'm not bad-mouthing Alan. Rick and I (rather stupidly) had assumed all editorial chores from the start, sans pay share for that task; we did it initially to make sure the series happened, and out of love and concern for Alan, who had no desire to coordinate anything -- he just wanted to have some fun, earn some income, so we streamlined everything so it would take as little time as possible for Alan. Rick and I became the editors, the pick-up-slack handlers and roadies; as the series wore on, and Todd McFarlane's projects with Alan led to more and more Image work for Alan, it became increasingly impossible to get Alan engaged. Rick and I ended up pulling together the editorial and letters pages, which initially Alan had savored doing. It was a process of erosion, but it increasingly impacted on the Annual, which absolutely REQUIRED Alan's engagement. After all, the Image partners wanted to work with ALAN, not with Rick or I -- we were, it was made clear to us, just functionaries, at best. Go-betweens.
We should have been working on the Annual even as 1963 #4, 5 and 6 were being lettered, inked and colored, but nothing had been done. By April of 1993, I'd had it: I formally announced to all involved via FAX that I would draw my part of the Annual, but could no longer perform editorial duties since neither Alan Moore nor Jim Lee would even take phone calls on the matter. I felt then and still think now that was a reasonable assessment and action to take -- I hoped, at the time, that might prompt some immediate action, a rallying to get the Annual together, but all it did was piss off Rick. At me. Nobody cared I was stepping back -- except Rick, who felt I'd dropped the ball on our partnership. There was no rallying, much to my surprise and dismay; it was as if I was completely expendable, and I lost all passion for the project.
Understand, too, my marriage of 13 years was also falling apart at the time, under very dire circumstances (again, see the TCJ #185 interview if you want to know more) and we have two kids. By the summer of 1993 I turned my attention to the more immediate personal crisis within my own family and let the chips fall where they may. Alan drifted further and further away, though we stayed in tentative phone contact through these months, Rick was increasingly pissed at me, and I increasingly cared less. The Annual never happened -- no surprise to me -- and never will.
The Annual, by design, was so tied to its time -- what was happening in comics, in superhero comics, and at Image in 1992-93. We had no idea, save for the occasional ominous calls from Larry or Jim V, what a clusterfuck Image had become, either, which soon manifest in Rob Liefeld being ostracized and exorcised from the collective. But we had no control over that -- and I thought then, and think now, that Jim Lee should have done what Jim Valentino did for the rest of the series and honorably shepherded us through the necessary process to complete the Annual. But as far as I can see, his only interest was in pissing on Valentino and the project, like a dog marking territory; it was canine pack-mentality dynamics at work. Jim Lee didn't care about 1963, or the Annual -- he publicly announced his taking a sabbatical from comics in the spring of 1993. That was that, as far as I was concerned, and it was too late to convince Valentino to take over -- he'd had it with the whole project. Rick and I were odd men out at best, and now completely expendable: Alan was working with various Image partners on all kinds of projects, to everyone's benefit. We -- and 1963 -- had served our purpose. We were discarded.
Frankly, as Larry Marder explained it to me patiently at the time, Rick and I were "just tugboats" -- we weren't peers or equals in the eyes of the Image partners -- and we just didn't have the steam to pull the monster ships of Jim Lee and Alan Moore into the same harbor. That's what it came down to, and what it still comes down to.
Everyone left with a bad taste in their mouths over the Annual not existing -- it was an embarrassment to Image and to Alan, a sore point for years between Rick and I, and an endless wellspring for questions like yours, Wellington. It doesn't matter how often Rick or I answer the question, it never goes away.
But we'd all made a bundle of money off 1963, which made it ridiculous then and now that the Annual never happened. Had we completed it, we'd still be earning income from collected editions. Understand, though, that the money was part of the problem. We earned more off 1963 than I'd ever earned in comics. Ever. But once we weren't working from that strange, divine conjunction of inspiration, passion, hunger and need, the will to work together at all dissolved.
In the end, in the short term, Image got what they wanted: Alan Moore. Once they had Alan working on other stuff, Rick and I and 1963 were no longer desirable or imperative. Alan got what he needed at the time: income sans the kind of obsessive hard work projects like From Hell and Lost Girls exacted. Short-term, Rick and I earned enough to get out from under Tundra for good (perfect timing: they were imploding at the time) and enough income to finally self-publish. No one needed, or got, the Annual in the end.
Long-term, Rick and I ended up dealing with the fallout, and still do. After Alan terminated all contact with me a little over a decade ago, the partnership was simply no longer viable; I insisted upon a legal agreement formally terminating the partnership on 1963, and by the end of 1999 had that agreement, properly negotiated and signed by all parties. I own the three characters I co-created and drew -- The Fury, N-Man and The Hypernaut -- and all associated characters and concepts; in the case of The Fury and N-Man, I in fact designed the characters, though I didn't initially want or ask for Hypernaut, as Alan completely conceived of and designed that character, but he insisted, so be it. However, I can never reprint those stories Alan wrote featuring those characters, also at Alan's insistence. Rick and Alan retain all other rights, including the 1963 comic book titles to all but The Fury.
Every few years, Rick and I field requests and invitations about reprinting 1963 in book form; we've picked our way through a lot of the mine fields, bit by bit, and Rick and I are OK with what we can and can't do. We're forever paying for what legal issues we didn't resolve back in 1992-93, and for the Annual not existing. Time will tell what, if anything, will come of it all. I'm doing my own thing with my three characters, which will see light of day at some point.

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