A Monstrous Talent: an interview with Steve Bissette, part1.

When I think about which comic book artists I would like to interview, the name Steve Bissette is right on the top of the list! Together with Alan Moore and John Totleben, he created my personal favorite comics: The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21-27. In this 5-part conversation, we talk about his work on Swamp Thing, his self-publishing experience with Taboo, his pet project Tyrant, the 1963 miniseries and much more.

Wellington Srbek: It’s a great joy to be talking to you, Steve. Please tell your Brazilian fans where and when you were born, and how the art of comics entered your life?

Steve Bissette: Born in Burlington, Vermont, up in New England, in March of 1955. I grew up in Vermont, and still live in Vermont, though I've traveled plenty and lived for a time in New Jersey (while attending the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon & Graphic Art, Inc., 1976-78 and a year after) and New Mexico.
Comics were everywhere when I was a kid -- still sold at what we called 'Mom and Pop' stores, on spinner-racks and in tobacco and magazine stores -- and every kid in the neighborhood I knew had comics. They were still inexpensive then (10 cents to 25 cents), so I was exposed to comicbooks at a very young age. My personal favorites were the Dell adventure comics, like Tarzan (Jesse Marsh art), Turok Son Of Stone and Kona - Monarch Of Monster Isle (Sam Glanzman art), the pre-Marvel Atlas comics with the Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko monster stories, and the DC science-fiction/fantasy and war comics, where I was first exposed to Joe Kubert's art. Star-Spangled War Stories with "The War That Time Forgot" soldiers-vs-dinosaurs stories were a childhood obsession. I copied the art in all those stories, and copied any Charles Knight prehistoric art I could find (primarily in encyclopedias), which is how I began to draw at age three and four.
By age five and six I was drawing my own comics after see Mitch Casey, my next-door neighbor in Duxbury, VT, draw his own comic story with ball-point pen. It was entitled "Attack of the Giant Tse-Tse Flies" and I loved it, and had to draw my own. I would draw my own versions of the 1950s giant monster and horror movies that I saw on television, and copy photos in Famous Monsters Of Filmland -- it all started there.
As a teenager, it was the underground comix that inspired me to do my own comics. ZAP blew my mind, as it was intended to, and I couldn't get enough of the undergrounds; it was Greg Irons artwork that really fueled my own later work, though I also have to note the profound influence cinema had on my art and writing. Ray Harryhausen's monsters (the stop-motion animated creatures in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and The Argonauts, etc.), Mario Bava's horror movies and Sergio Leone's westerns, Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah's no-nonsense approach to storytelling and characters, George Romero's Night Of The Living Dead and everything he did after, Nicolas Roeg's incredible 1970s classics like Performance, Walkabout and Don't Look Now -- all these and more impacted on everything I did and still do, Bava and Harryhausen above all.

WS: In 1978, you graduated with the very first class in Joe Kubert School of Cartoon & Graphic Art. That school has offered the American comics other important names like Timothy Truman, Rick Veitch and John Totleben. Can you give us an idea of how it was there? What kind of culture was responsible for fermenting such a creative quality?

SB: When I attended the school, it was all a grand experiment and very intimate. We had extraordinary one-on-one access to our instructors, Joe Kubert more than anyone -- that first year or so, Joe's studio was in the school itself, which was the Baker Mansion (now a dorm for the school). It was a sort of monastary, too, in that we were all so focused on our art and comics that everything else in the world seemed quite distant, and for some of us (myself included) it was a pretty celibate couple of years. All my energy was solely devoted to my comics: many of us worked almost around the clock, we drew, drank, read, ate, slept, shit comics. It was an incredible incubator, and for someone like me who was intent upon finding a way into making my way in the world AS a cartoonist and creative individual, making a living with my work, the Kubert School was a real godsend.
I've since visited the Kubert School, which in some ways is much the same -- it still appears to be a real pressure-cooker for comics creation, first and foremost -- but very different. The Baker Mansion and the dorm building (originally the mansion's stablehouse) we lived in was in a little wooded oasis, apart from the rather squalid suburban ruin that is Dover, NJ; the new school is just a few blocks from Dover's downtown, in the old high school building, so it's got a much more institutional feel to it now. I wouldn't have thrived as well there; the Baker Mansion was surrounded by green lawn and massive trees we climbed into the branches of in warm weather. You could sit up in those massive trees and talk and draw in your sketchbook; that was important to a country-bred lad like myself. The New Jersey environment was otherwise pretty alien and threatening to me, though I came to love it and the access to Manhattan, a short bus ride away.

WS: As I see it, the late 70s was a transition moment to the American comics. Old models were collapsing and a strong desire for change was in the air. New ideas, experiments on techniques, the underground culture, the influence of European artists, Heavy Metal magazine, and you were part of that moment. At that time did you guys feel you were sowing the seeds of an artistic revolution or you all were just trying to make a living with an art form you loved?

SB: Some of us really felt the axis shifting, and that was incredibly invigorating and exciting. The down side of the transformation was very much part of our day-to-day at the Kubert School during our two years there -- for instance, we felt the so-called 'DC Implosion' of 1977 quite directly. Joe had shown us work-in-progress on the line of books he was editing at DC -- Doug Wildey's Savage World, the Bob Kanigher/Lee Elias Panzer, and Joe's collaboration with Kanigher on Ragman -- and it killed us when those were canceled before publication, and we saw how it impacted on Joe. Only Ragman came out; the rest of that gorgeous work he'd shown us was either forever buried, or (in the case of the Panzer first issue) reworked for publication later in a different format and title. We had teachers arriving to teach who were emotional wrecks when they, or their spouses, were fired by DC during that fateful period -- so, we really felt the collapse of the marketplace that was reshaping the comics environment in 1976-78, and the very real, very human toll that took on that generation of cartoonists and professionals. We also experienced less directly -- as readers, as fans -- the final death throes of the underground comix movement: the comix were disappearing, the last issue of the great underground anthology Arcade was published while we were at the Kubert School, Vaughn Bode's autoerotic hanging death, and so on. So, both mainstream and underground comics were on the ropes. It was grim, in a lot of ways.
On the other hand, incredibly exciting stuff was going on, too. Will Eisner visited our class during the first year at Kubert School, and talked about this new form he was working in, and A Contract With God was published the very next year: the birth of what's now commonly called the graphic novel, there and then. I came to the Kubert School with my collection of Métal Hurlant in my collection, and National Lampoon launched Heavy Metal soon after, and that excited many of us. Our classmate Cara Sherman (later Cara Sherman-Tereno) brought our attention to this odd black-and-white comic called Fantasy Quarterly and its cover feature Elfquest, by Wendy Pini, so we had our eye on that when Wendy and her husband Richard relaunched Elfquest as a self-published comic, on the heels of Dave Sim and his completely peculiar Cerebus. All this happened while we were at Kubert School, between the fall of 1976 and our graduation in spring of 1978. It was amazing -- we could see the change, and felt we were indeed PART of it, could contribute to it and make our own mark (indeed, I made my first sale to Heavy Metal as a freelancer before I graduated). The growth of the direct sales market is something we felt, too, via the new access to comicbook stores, which hadn't existed earlier in the decade.
Everything that followed -- Cerebus and Elfquest ushering in self-publishing, more original graphic novels (Sabre was released within weeks of A Contract With God, if memory serves), new publishers like Eclipse Comics, the Heavy Metal graphic novel trade paperbacks appearing in book stores, and so on -- kept us going, made us want to play our part. Many of us did, as it turned out, thanks as much to dumb luck and being in the right place at the right times as to hard work and creative visions we might have harbored. It was a scary time, but it was also an exciting time. We carved out our own niches here and there, and worked collectively toward the common goal of making our livings as working artists and cartoonists.
Rick Veitch, Tom Yeates, John Totleben and I shared a house in Dover after we graduated, and Tim and Beth Truman lived in nearby Hopatcong; we all shared professional breaks, connections and networked like crazy. Tom introduced us into the New York Creation Convention scene, where we met folks like Charles Vess, Bob Schreck and Adam Malin who were of our generation, and veteran pros like Roy Krenkel, Al Williamson and many others. However bad times were for the mainstream comics, it was a great time to be insinuating ourselves into the ruins and finding or making new paths that were opening up -- which is something I tell my students at the Center for Cartoon Studies today.

WS: Spiderbaby #1 and #2 are collections of your early horror comics. The first issue’s cover reminds me a lot the aesthetics of the EC horror magazines. Have those classic horror comics influenced your early work?

SB: First of all, understand that I didn't read any EC comics until I was in college -- I saw my first EC comics stories via the hardcover Nostalgia Press collection in the early 1970s, and read the first EC reprint comics while at Johnson State College (1974-76) courtesy of my friends there, Jack Venooker and Mark 'Sparky' Whitcomb. So, you see, I had already been deeply affected by the works EC had informed -- films like Night Of The Living Dead, and entire underground comic movement, particularly comics like Skull, Bogeyman and Slow Death and artists like Richard Corben, Greg Irons, Rory Hayes, Spain, and writers like Tom Veitch. In fact, while in my last year or so of high school, I'd seen the Amicus anthology film Tales From The Crypt on the big screen before I ever read an EC comicbook. Thus, I experienced the EC line vicariously first, via the pop culture's regurgitation of the EC imagery and such, and then via the reprints.
I didn't really get to experience the full impact of the EC comics until 1978 and after, when my first trip with Rick Veitch to visit his brother Tom in San Francisco led to my meeting Gary Arlington, the comics shop owner who was so instrumental to the underground comix movement. Gary had in fact turned on many underground cartoonists to the ECs in the late '60s, and Gary edited and published the first underground horror comic, Bogeyman. Tom and Rick took me to Gary's shop in San Francisco and insisted I bring my portfolio; Gary dug my drawings, and insisted on selling me the first boxed set of the Russ Cochran EC reprints on the spot at COST. That was still a lot of money for me at that time, but Gary was insistent: "You NEED to read these!" He was right, and I subsequently bought every boxed set as Cochran published them, right up to the color MAD reprint sets. That's when I really, really experienced the EC comics -- reading them, volume by volume, via the Cochran reprints, from 1978 onwards.
By then, though, my work already had the bent you're seeing in Spiderbaby Comix. Yes, the cover of Spiderbaby #1 is very much patterned off the look and feel of the Pre-Code horror comics (that woman, I should note, was penciled by John Totleben, who draws much sexier women than I ever can or will), but not so much the EC comics as their imitators. I have amassed a pretty sizable collection of original Pre-Code (1950-1954) American horror comicbooks, and Spiderbaby #1 is closer to the lurid absurdity of EC's imitators, like Harvey (Tomb Of Terror, Witch's Tales, Black Cat Mystery, etc.) or Tobian than anything EC did. It's also inspired by the dreadful Eerie Publication black-and-white horror comic zines of the '60s and '70s, those were incredibly nasty and had a very distinctive look and feel unlike any EC ever published. Spiderbaby #1 and #2's covers are also closer to the sort of lurid exploitation horror movie advertising and poster art of the 1960s and '70s that I so love -- some of those ads were, and remain, pretty amazing! I love that kind of over-the-top imagery, and that's what I was tapping with the Spiderbaby #1 cover.

Next: Steve Bissette talks about working on the masterpiece Swamp Thing with John Totleben and Alan Moore.

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