January 3, 2012
CR Holiday Interview #14 -- Steve Bissette
is currently a teacher at the Center For Cartoon Studies
, which as he discusses below is an appropriate late-afternoon-in-life destination for the talented, 56-year-old artist. Bissette is a Vermont native, and was a member of the first class at The Kubert School
. He was one of those students that published while enrolled, and by the time he graduated Bissette plunged into multiple opportunities in four-color comic books, the beginnings of the stand-alone graphic moment, and the final months of the 1960s/1970s/1980s comics magazine mini-boom. He is perhaps best known for his stint in collaboration with Alan Moore
and John Totleben
on the industry changing Saga Of The Swamp Thing
, his editing and publishing the anthology Taboo
and his short-lived self-publishing effort Tyrant
; his other professional gigs run the range from the ill-fated 1963
to an early-career adaptation of the movie 1941
with fellow cartoonist Rick Veitch
that far more than the film on which it was based has proved worth re-visiting. Earlier this year, Bissette wrote about one of Veitch's work in a book called Teen Angels & New Mutants
, which we discuss below.
Bissette was also a key member of a generation of cartoonists that straddled the mainstream American comic book industry and its various alternatives in the late 1970s into the 1990s, and has become over the years an eloquent defender of creators rights. There are very few experience in comics Steve hasn't had -- he even retired from comics in 1999. Bissette is also, as I came to understand things as we discussed them upon our meeting for the first time last Spring, one of the great collectors among comics-makers.
I was super-psyched to do the following interview, and I'm happy with the result: I think it's pretty pure Bissette, and I admire the way the artist and educator struggles with certain truths and their moral dimensions and is willing to turn the spotlight on his own actions. I don't agree with several of the arguments made in what follows -- you likely won't, either -- but I'm happy Steve chooses to make them. We could use a hundred like him. (photo of Bissette by Joseph A. Citro and used by permission; all copyright claims to him, and our thanks
) -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Steve, it seems such a natural to me that you're working with the Center For Cartoon Studies that I just realized I have no idea how this came about. Is there a story there? What made you decide to make that particular move?
Well, James Sturm
came to me. It was, essentially, as simple as that. Having retired from the American comics industry at the end of 1999, and already shifted my energies completely to the video market (as an active shareholder in Brattleboro, VT's First Run Video since 1991, occasionally promo manager since 1992, and full-time employee since 1998, working my way up from video clerk on the floor to co-manager/buyer from 2000-2005), I'd pretty much given up on comics, except for those I did for myself in my sketchbooks. James and I had exchanged a couple of letters and packages since his The Cereal Killings
in the mid-1990s, but he actively reached out to me around 2003 or 2004, when he was living in White River Junction
and starting work in earnest on CCS.
I recall spending a full day with James in, I think, the summer of 2004; we walked around downtown White River Junction, and he pointed out possible homes for the planned school among the empty storefronts, and we concluded that session with lunch at the Four Aces Diner, just across the river in Lebanon NH. James was dead serious, and I'd seen myself how nurturing and building upon a vital creative community had saved downtown Brattleboro, VT in the 1990s, when multiple factors (including the opening of a nearby Walmart just across the river in NH) threatened its downtown; at the time James walked me through WRJ, Bellows Falls VT and other towns were already imitating Brattleboro's model, with mixed success.
You also have to understand that White River had always been, all my life, a depressed Vermont village, a shell of what it once was. Whenever I took the bus any destination south while growing up in northern VT, or back to northern VT from New Jersey while I attended the Joe Kubert School, White River was the town you ended up stranded in, with nowhere to spend time, save the damned bus station -- there was literally nothing left downtown. It reminded me of Dover, NJ in a lot of ways, and I'd seen first-hand how Joe
and Muriel Kubert
's decision to build their cartooning school in Dover had made a difference to the local economy there. So between that life experience in Dover NJ, and seeing first-hand how investment in the creative community had rescued downtown Brattleboro, what James was seeing not just for the proposed school, but for the local WRJ community, made absolute, perfect sense to me.
Nothing more came of it for a few months, then James and I reconnected in spades at a weekend academic comics symposium at Bennington College in Bennington, VT
. We were guest speakers along with Mike Mignola
and Louise Simonson
, Ramona Fradon
, and others; it was terrific, I brought my son Daniel along, who was 19 at the time. James had color roughs of Seth
's original art for the first Center for Cartoon Studies brochure, and they'd settled on where they were basing operations in White River; James also spent some time trying to convince Daniel to consider being part of the first CCS class. I presented a considerably condensed version of my "Journeys into Fear" slide lecture on Fredric Wertham
, the 1954 Senate Subcommittee investigation, and the birth of the Comics Code
, which impressed James enough to meet me at the back of the hall after the talk and say, "Look, you have to teach the comics history class at CCS." That cinched it.
James had no idea how perfect the timing was: I'd just been let go at First Run Video, and the contract negotiations for a Swamp Thing
trio of novels I'd been working on for Byron Preiss
were going south (Byron's terms were ridiculous, and he was refusing to pay the agreed-upon advance, making it ultimately easy to walk away from). I was also aching to pass on, in some way, what I'd learned with three decades of professional experience under my belt -- my own kids were into other things, and I was wondering how I could engage with comics again in a way that would be productive and beneficial to others. CCS was knocking, and I couldn't believe it was happening in my home state! It would be a bit of a haul -- it was about a 90 minute commute each way to WRJ from where my wife Marge and I lived in Marlboro, VT -- but I jumped on board. I was part of CCS's first-ever summer workshop, working closely with our first Fellow Robyn Chapman
, who was and is terrific, and with James and Michelle Ollie
. That one-week summer workshop was all the prep we had working together before the doors opened in September, 2005, but we were a working unit by then. It's really one of the greatest experiences in my life, and I'm lucky to be part of CCS. I count my lucky stars every single day. It's a dream job, really, and again, the timing was just ideal: I was at the right point in my personal life to embrace CCS fully, and having already retired from comics professionally, I could give my all to teaching and CCS. The timing was in so many ways perfect: my own kids were now adults and out of the house, I was eager to get out of the video rental and retail business, and this was a way to stay creatively engaged with comics without having to deal with the American comics industry per se
. I frankly couldn't have done it if I were still a freelancer, or still doing Tyrant
; I wouldn't have had the time or inclination. Funny how things work out.
Finally, what a life opportunity James and Michelle were handing me: I was a member of the first-ever class of the Joe Kubert School, which had completely changed my life for the better. I now had the opportunity to teach the first-ever class of the brand-new Center for Cartoon Studies -- and, more importantly, I was ready to be on the other side of the classroom. I had the knowledge, the storytelling and drawing chops, the life experience; I really had something to offer the students. By 1996, I'd actively worked in almost every stage of the comics industry, from freelance penciler to editing, publishing, co-publishing, and self-publishing. I'd worked every aspect of pre-digital production, from pasteups and mechanicals to typesetting, stripping film, and hand-separations on color, and even had my feet wet with working digitally (with Murphy Anderson, Jr. on production for 1963, Tyrant
, and Spiderbaby Comix
). I had a lot to bring to the table, and a need to pass that on to the next generation, while I still could.
SPURGEON: How much are you able to draw on what I'm assuming is the very different experience that you had as a student in your comics-related schooling? I know that James comes from a background of doing a master's at SVA and then teaching in different programs… are your experiences informative in a different way than his and other teachers and artists at the school, do you think?
God, we all have such different experiential backgrounds, Tom. If you want, I'll talk about my teaching background a bit prior to CCS, but for now, let's just talk about my comics background.
James knew my generational experience was profoundly different from his. Sometimes that leads to sparks, but that keeps things lively. My generation is the last of the "old school" American comics generation, in many ways, and as I came to learn in my first year at CCS, James and his generation are the first of the graphic novel generation.
Look, we -- my generation, particularly coming out of Kubert School -- were trained to work for the industry as it was, and went through the transformative years (1977-1997) still carrying a lot of baggage from how comics used to be done. I'm talking not just in terms of pre-digital technology, but thinking creatively, aesthetically and commercially -- comics as monthly pamphlets, with novel-length works necessarily serialized as periodicals in format, or wherein anthologies were necessarily genre constructions -- while James really was and is of the first generation of American cartoonists who work as novelists, per se
. James is also part of the post-RAW
, Fantagraphics generation (he in fact interned at RAW
, so he had an insider's view of that definitive turning point in American comics), in terms of his perceptions of what comics are and can be, as opposed to my generation, where most of my peers were still mired in "mainstream" tunnel-vision of what comics were and could be -- the post-Showcase
generation, as it were.
I was unusual, though, in that I was part of a generation that had cut its teeth on the underground comix of the 1960s and early 1970s. But as my experiences as a student at the Kubert School and my initial freelance years proved to me, classmates and peers like Rick Veitch and I were the exceptions, not the rule: most of my Kubert School classmates and my first pro peers didn't even recognize comix as comics, if you will. I remember vividly arguments about Heavy Metal
, then RAW
: "Those aren't real comics," many of my peers would say, flat out, and refuse to look at them (especially RAW
). "Real comics" were still four-color pamphlets sold on the newsstand to most members of my own generation; few considered underground comix, or black-and-whites like Cerebus
, "real" comics. There were all these peculiar, myopic perceptions constraining my own generation, which is why I from the start gravitated more toward Heavy Metal
, Scholastic, and what remained of an underground comix scene when I first landed work in the field in 1977 and '78. I was more excited by Metal Hurlant
, and this new thing Will Eisner
talked to us about at the Kubert School in 1977 -- these "graphic novels" -- and Rick Veitch was pretty much alone in my immediate peer group in really, truly seizing the opportunities the presented themselves to us via Archie Goodwin
after 1979. We were oddballs among our peers; our fellow Kubert School classmates like Ron Zalme
embraced full-time bullpen work at Marvel, in the production department, and that made "more sense" to our Kubert School teachers than Veitch and I hacking away at odd freelance jobs while living in Vermont. Another classmate, Tom Yeates, took the more sensible route when he took on a monthly comic (Swamp Thing
) with DC
in 1982. That is what you aspired to if you were part of the first generation out of Kubert School: we had been groomed to work in the industry
. And I would forever be a failure in that blue-collar cartoonist freelance mold, if you know what I mean, where classmates like Tom, Rick, or (a year or two behind us at Kubert School) Tom Mandrake
, Jan Duursema
and Tim Truman
would and did excel.
Aesthetically, it's light years away from graphic novels, created by individual creators. It's even further away from the experimental, formalist comix of RAW
-- form as content -- and the very different confessional, autobiographical genre embodied by Harvey Pekar
, Art Spiegelman's Maus
, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home
, David B.'s Epileptic
, and so on. I knew my career was over, so to speak, when I read Jack Survives
, one of the RAW
one-shots; decades-calcified presumptions about representational cartooning and what made comics comics had irrevocably dissolved. It was a brave, new world, and my generation's tool kit simply no longer applied in many ways.
My generation cranked out comics, almost always working collaboratively. With the exception of my freelance for Scholastic, Heavy Metal
, and Epic
, and occasional sales to what was left of the underground (Dr. Wirtham's Comix And Stories
, Larry Shell's one-shots), individual work was discouraged and an aberration. The one time I sold my own stories to DC -- short ghost comics stories sold to Secrets Of Haunted House
-- I was essentially "punished" because they couldn't have work-for-hire comics written, penciled, and inked by the same person; I had to find a writer friend (the late Bill Kelley
, then very much alive and freelancing for DC) willing to put his name on my script, so the editor could push through the invoices with me just penciling and inking, which was in and of itself a problem. That happened in 1980, and was a formative experience. If you wanted to make a living, you worked for DC or Marvel, at least when you could. They owned whatever you did. You crank out x-number of pages a month, or you lose. You labored in periodical formats, never looking back at completed pages or issues save for reference to stay on model sheet or character design; you hadn't the time, venue, or indulgence to rework panels or pages, unless your editor instructed or required you to. You didn't shape a story or rework drafts -- you turned in pages as soon as they were off your board, most often to have some other creative hands letter them from the script you penciled from, and ink them, and color them. It was comics created collaboratively via industrialized assembly-line production, and any deviation from that was problematic. We were lucky to have the occasional venue, like Heavy Metal
or Dr. Wirtham's
, to deviate from the industrialized process.
Even my first brush with this new format, "graphic novels," just a year or so after Eisner's A Contract With God
was published, was a tortuous pressure-cooker: Rick Veitch, Alan Asherman, and I did Heavy Metal
's adaptation of Steven Spielberg's 1941
, as part of the first wave of bookstore graphic novels -- a full-color adaptation cranked out from a stolen film script working from stolen images (the rep from Universal/Columbia expected Rick and I to work from a singular closed-door session with a bunch of slides; art director John Workman saw to it we left with unsanctioned stats of those slides, for character reference -- it was insane, really) in something like two months. Rick almost fucking killed me, it was a bone-crushing pace and I barely held up my end of that nightmarish confection. So, even graphic novels were industrialized for me, and for my generation, from the get-go.
For James and his generation, that had and has nothing to do with it. Those industrial constraints and structures were and are, in fact, antithetical to the process. Comics were to be worked through multiple drafts, crafted carefully like true short stories and true novels. Yes, you work to deadlines, but you fully own that which you create -- emotionally, most often legally, fully -- or you devote yourself in that manner to the occasion work-for-hire project, as James did to Unstable Molecules
, but that isn't a norm, that's an experiment, engaging with old-school modes of creation and production.
So, I bring a living dimension of 1970s and 1980s "old school" American comics to the mix -- and all that entails, including some of the baggage. I teach old-school drawing, I teach the comics history class, and I co-teach one semester with the seniors. In the mix, I share everything from working from scripts by an outside writer to designing splash pages to old-school comicbook cover design and execution, to (with the seniors) in-class overviews of copyright, trademark, and actual contracts, walking the students through the infinite permutations of contracts, including the evolution and devolution of work-for-hire in the comics field from 1976 to the present. Of late, I've even broken my retirement to do one work-for-hire gig (Spongebob Squarepants
) so I could share everything about that kind of current job, while also experimenting with print-on-demand (as a writer), including one (Teen Angels & New Mutants
) with full distribution online and via traditional book market (Ingram, Baker & Taylor, etc.) and Direct Market (Diamond Dist.) channels in place. Writing book introductions for Marvel (just one) and DC allows me to assess current work-for-hire standards and practices with those publishers, and how they treat freelancers. Every year I experiment with another current mode of publishing and/or freelance, so I can bring that into the classroom -- 2012 I'll be experimenting with ebooks, if all goes well. And so on.
James and fellow faculty like Jason Lutes
and Alec Longstreth
and Jon Chad
are living the reality of the new generation -- James with his various projects, Jason working through his massive Berlin
, and so on. Jon Chad approaches his expansive projects, like Leo Geo
, on a different level: for Jon, books and comic are in and of themselves art objects, and watching Jon work through sort of retrofitting his incredibly creative Leo Geo
package to fit a book publisher's needs, and the whole process of reworking a completed graphic novel for a new format, is an incredible thing to have happening at CCS. Alec just completed his first full graphic novel Basewood
, and half the CCS community turned out the night he celebrated its completion with free copies of the final chapter and a ritualistic shearing of the beard and hair he announced he wouldn't cut until he was done -- another incredible backdrop to the regular classwork always happening here. It's part of the living, breathing environment at CCS. And yeh, I think I bring something different to the mix, for sure. James and Michelle (Ollie) were certain I would, and I'm pretty sure I have and do.
SPURGEON: I also don't know that I know exactly what that very specific gig entails. Is there a specific course you teach, an expected course load? Do you have advisory or supervisory duties as well?
Well, there's some staples I teach every year, since 2005 -- Survey of the Drawn Story, which is James and Michelle's fancy term for comics history class; Drawing Workshop I (single semester); Senior Thesis (one semester); CCS Movie Club (one movie shown/shared per week). Each year something different or new may emerge in the mix. This is the third year Survey has been two instead of one semester, which really allows us to spend time on some key aspects of comics history, but even two semesters requires considerable compression and leaves unfortunate blind spots; Robyn Chapman co-taught Survey II with me for two years, and this year is my first time solo teaching both semesters. I also co-teach a second semester cartooning workshop course with the first-year (freshmen) students, which allows me to get into storytelling, character introduction, and so on -- material I can't justify including in drawing workshop.
Since my first year or so involved a long-distance commute, teaching Tuesdays and Wednesdays (with an overnight stay between those) became the template for my time and workload; that's expanded a bit since my wife Marge and I moved closer to our respective jobs, which now puts me a short drive from CCS, but that kept me apart from much in the way of administrative or supervisory duties or obligations, and we've kept it that way. "Advisory," yes, in terms of one-on-one meetings and every year or two working as a thesis advisor with a senior, but just the classroom prep and active class time keeps me pretty preoccupied.
It's a pretty full workload, despite the tight student body (20-22 students per class, tops). There's seemingly infinite prep and revision of prior material for each year. I always head into class feeling I'm not covering enough
, and find I've timed that session to the minute, or have overprepared. I'll eventually get it down within some comfort zone, just in time for the retirement Mickey Mouse watch and the "laurel and a hardy handshake," no doubt!
I taught as part of the summer workshop teams, too, until this past year -- I'll likely step away from those, save for a guest lecture or two, as I really need some time to do my own creative work, writing and drawing. I still try to get out a book project or two per year, and that's a fierce juggling act at times. We also have an annual event that adds spice: James curated the "Mentors and Monsters" gallery show from my original art collection in the fall of 2010, and this fall CCS hosted ICAF
, and I was slated to deliver a 90-minute illustrated lecture, which was a major additional effort but seemed to work out to everyone's satisfaction. God, I loved having ICAF here -- I attended every single lecture and event, didn't miss a one. Wish I could do it every year, but time and money mean I can only attend when it's at CCS. I really don't travel any longer: quite doing conventions altogether as of 1999, and simply can't afford to participate in academic conferences, though that would be terrific. So, CCS is my bubble of choice, and that it will remain as long as they'll have me and I'm of use to CCS.
SPURGEON: Can you tell me about those pre-CCS teaching experience and how they've had an impact on your teaching now?
As for many folks, teaching began to interest me once I had kids of my own. My daughter Maia was born in 1983, as I was beginning work on Saga Of The Swamp Thing
; my son Daniel was born in 1985, while I was still in the thick of that tenure. By the late 1980s, I started to field requests from nearby schools to come in and speak in classrooms, and I started doing that off and on: Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts elementary schools, for the most part. Once Maia and Daniel were in school, their elementary school asked me occasionally to come in and talk, but that's not really teaching, per se
. It got my feet wet, and I loved it.
Just after leaving Swamp Thing
and before the end of the 1980s, I prepared a slide show lecture on the history of horror comics. I presented it for the first time at Necon
, a horror writers summer conference I attended faithfully for over a decade (God, I miss Necon), and it went over well. That grew into "Journeys Into Fear," my illustrated slide lecture on horror comics, which in its shortest form was about 90 minutes and in its longest format was a week-long, five-session interim class I presented at Smith College in Northampton, MA
. That really got my lecturing chops down, especially after the CBLDF asked me to present it at San Diego
as a fundraiser, prompting my self-financed combination of participating in the Spirit of Independence national tour in the early 1990s co-presenting "Journeys Into Fear" at every stop as a CBLDF fundraiser. I have fond memories of a packed-house at the longest CBLDF version of that lecture in Toronto, with Dave Sim
introducing the event -- standing-room only. I ended up presenting various permutations of that lecture for over a decade in a variety of university settings, ending with the 2005 Bennington College Symposium I mentioned earlier, where James proposed I teach at CCS.
There's other threads in this tapestry. In the early 1990s, Tom Roberts at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, CT invited me down to talk to his comics class and do an evening presentation of "Journeys Into Fear." That initiated an annual pilgrimage down to UConn and Tom's classes, where I made some lasting friendships with folks like Charles Hatfield
, Katie Laity, Gene Kannenberg
, Mark Bilokur
(who later graduated from CCS!), and others -- so, it was Tom Roberts
who really ushered me into the hallowed halls of the colleges, in many ways, and encouraged me in countless ways. We used to lunch together before or after a session, and he'd psychoanalyze what I was doing in Tyrant
, which was invigorating and fascinating -- it always pushed me to go deeper with the next issue's effort, really explore the possibilities -- and he'd always wonder aloud if comics were the 21st Century equivalent of "the buggy whip" industry, doomed to extinction.
Around the same time, three local school systems began to engage me from time to time as a tutor. In one case, I ended up feeling a bit used: the school didn't pay anything for the time spent, while pushing for a regular schedule, and the student involved wasn't really interested in being there with me -- he "liked comics," but wasn't really keen to put any work in to the process -- and in the end they popped me in the yearbook, as if it was something the school offered, and I politely declined to continue indulging that academic relationship. The nadir of that kind of thing when when a local parent petitioned me to meet with her son for weeks, and when I finally agreed to meet, she dropped him off with me and disappeared for three hours, as if I were a baby-sitting service. I nipped that in the bud promptly.
Sometimes, it would be the parents of a gifted student asking me to take on tutoring sessions: sometimes those were fruitless, but I had a great year or so working with a young man named Will who ended up channeling our time together into his history class final assignment, doing a brilliant little minicomic entitled Ratsputin
(don't steal his concept, I'll nail you for it) applying Spiegelman's Maus
tropes to a clever biographical comic on Rasputin. But those were difficult to maintain, as I usually donated the time, or worked out some barter arrangement (Will's father was a marvelous dessert chef, and would trade me a dessert for each session) -- it didn't help pay the rent, let's say, and few high school level students were really interested in maintaining any focus. Comics are a demanding skill-set, involving multiple disciplines, and for some teens nothing will kill an affection for drawing their own comics quicker than their parents taking an active interest and bringing another adult into the mix as a tutor.
More often, though, the money was only there for the students in need. While a high-aptitude student with a genuine interest in making comics had no access to parental or school funds to engage with a comics tutor, a special needs student's parents would have those financial resources made available to them. This culminated in two tutoring/mentoring relationships that were enormously rewarding: one where our meeting every week culminated in the student really taking off, from his initial interest in graffiti and tagging to self-initialized pushing himself to really learn to draw the human figure, a process that began when he asked me how to draw the alien creature from the Alien
movies. It was initially just to enhance his graffiti art, but it was, as they say, a "teachable moment": explaining that all the Alien really involved was an imaginative conversion of internal human anatomy into an exoskeleton, he became fascinated with drawing skeletons, then fleshing those out, and eventually working through a crash-course in drawing and anatomical studies from available art anatomy reference books. Due to his learning disabilities, though, as we moved into his senior year, he bemoaned he was flunking reading courses and was missing a necessary "health" credit -- so I brought to his mother's attention that he was reading and we were discussing Sandman
every week or two, and that his cumulative anatomical sketch studies demonstrated a college-level grasp of drawing human anatomy. I helped the student prepare his sketches for a proper presentation; I mean, typical high school kid, his sketches were on all kinds of paper, crammed into a looseleaf notebook without rhyme or reason. We gathered all he'd done, organized the material, and I showed him how to use the school photocopier to make them more presentable, and he pulled that together into a properly organized overview of his ability to draw the human body, inside and out, from head to toe. That was excepted as a more than adequate fulfillment of the missing "health" credit. I was also asked to speak to the teachers and administrators involved with the reading issues -- which basically meant arguing for the legitimacy of reading comics and graphic novels as valid reading, and took the extra step of loaning two volumes of the collected Sandman
to his reading teacher -- and the end result was that he did graduate. It of course made a huge difference to the teacher than Neil Gaiman is such an extraordinary writer, and Sandman
covered, in her words, "so many educational disciplines," but then again, I knew how to frame that argument, and the student was a devoted Sandman
reader, with a full grasp of the material and ability to verbally articulate his passion for Neil's work in ways he couldn't put down in writing, do to his issues with writing -- but in the end, it worked. He indeed graduated at the end of his senior year of high school. Making a difference in a student's life in that way was enormously rewarding.
The other student I worked with in the same school system was another special needs student with all kinds of problems I won't go into here -- but he loved, loved, loved to draw monsters. Thankfully, this we before 9/11, and he was in a school where the principle recognized this wasn't a "problem," this was a gift and an avenue to engaging the student on a different level. The principle called me, and we worked out a weekly schedule in which I'd just come in and draw monsters with him. He was very young, suspicious of adults and of school, so it was relatively unstructured "tutoring," in that I wasn't there to teach him anything per se, but rather just encourage him pursuing a passion he already had. The kid was amazing: he drew hundreds of crude monsters, no two alike. So, it was education as pure play. He came to look forward to and enjoy the sessions enormously, and once he trusted me, I could sneak in an educational component as a further element of play: for instance, getting him to engage, every so slightly, with sharpening his skills by drawing a little from reference, and from a live model. I brought in moose photos one week and said, "OK, let's draw moose monsters." He'd never done that, consciously: choose a "model" animal, and riff on it. He liked that. Once he was comfortable with occasionally doing that -- drawing using photo reference as a springboard -- his monsters got more elaborate, with a bit of thought given to how they might eat, and move, and live, and behave. It enriched his monsters, if you will. That led to my asking the teacher with a live painted turtle in his classroom aquarium if we could borrow the turtle for one session, and so we drew turtle monsters for a session, being able to draw from a live specimen that moved and behaved certain ways. And so on -- it was a lot of fun, and expanded his imaginative universe and drawings by opening his eyes to elements of the real world around us, the lifeforms around us. He produced hundreds and hundreds of drawings. In the end, the principle capped his school year by arranging, with his permission, a school-wide "gallery exhibition" of his monster drawings, celebrating his artwork. Man, that made this kid's year, validating him in ways no adult, much less school, ever had. Again, it was enormously satisfying to be part of this process, and to work in this way with someone who really wanted
to draw, needed
to draw, and to coax him out of his shell a bit and help him find wings, if only for that school year.
There were two other things, both in Marlboro, VT, where I lived then. The first was being asked by my friends Paul and Jane to get involved with a collective home-schooling experience for their son Jake and a circle of same-aged teenagers who were home-schooled. Paul and Jane asked me to work with this group of teens teaching storytelling, which I embraced as a multi-media exploration, using comics, films, video, music, literature, etc. This was an extraordinary group of teenagers, and most of them really took to our sessions, which often culminated in either watching a feature film or group of short films together, or my assigning their watching a film before our next session. The synthesis of using short fiction, songs, comics, short films, and features really allowed me for the first time to explore the art of storytelling. Once I brought Scott McCloud
's and my own 24 hour comic experiment into the classroom, the students, on their own initiative, surprised me the following week by presenting their own 24-hour movie
: a 24 minute short narrative film they'd written, rehearsed, shot, and scored with their own music in a 24 hour period. Now, that's
an educational experience -- they knocked me right out of my brainpan with that. As Alejandro Jodorowsky
would say, "Fantastic!" Working with Jake and his peers, working with Paul and Jane and that adventurous collective, was, well, fantastic.
I also found myself presenting "Journeys Into Fear" at Marlboro College as a fundraiser for the Marlboro School class trip one year, and acting as an outside examiner for a Marlboro College senior or two. This led to my being asked to lecture occasionally at the College and, eventually, encouraged by the College itself to apply for a position teaching film studies when that position opened up. I applied, and predictably lost out to a real filmmaker, Jay Craven
(Where The Rivers Flow North Disappearances
, etc.). I have no teaching credentials; I have no college degrees, save my certificate from the Joe Kubert School, and I've never actually made movies since my high school 8mm collaborations with friends like Bill Hunter, Jay Harvey, and Alan Finn, so of course my application fell short. Jay invited me in a few times, though, to speak and a couple times handle his class when he was away, so I kept myself involved a bit. I also began offering one-night film classes to my fellow employees at First Run Video in Brattleboro, VT, as a job perk; those were fun, and really helped expand their excitement and knowledge about movies in ways that improved morale at the video store and made them more valuable to our customers.
I have to note, too, that by 1999 and 2000, I could clearly see we'd culturally turned a corner. Where before that time I was to most of my neighbors a curio at best, if they knew what I did at all, for being a cartoonist, around 1999 there was a major sea-change. I started getting phone calls out of the blue -- and by 2000, I mean, a lot
of phone calls out of the blue -- from parents who wondered what, if anything, I could do to help their kids who loved to draw comics. Something fundamental changed in America, or at least New England, but I suspect what I was being confronted with was pretty universal in America at the time: comics were no longer something to be reviled, or suspect of. Parents saw their kids drawing, it was now something to be encouraged, not discouraged. Parents saw their kids drawing their own comics, and they saw something to encourage. Whatever the factors were -- more comics being recognized as legitimate media events, more comics spawning more movies, comics being recognized as reading
material instead of an obstacle to reading, self-expression being more highly valued, etc. -- something basic, primal changed between 1999 and 2000. Comics weren't just OK, comics were to be encouraged. It was measurable and obvious and becoming quite intrusive: "Look, you don't know me, but can you help my kid draw his/her comics?" More often than not, I couldn't: there were no structures in place, no way to justify the time, there was no place to do it, they or the schools couldn't afford even the most meager proposal or schedule or timeframe (however cheaply I made myself available), and so on -- and, as I said, the poor school systems only had money for the students struggling with educational obstacles, not the gifted students.
Well, you get the idea. There's more I could cite and talk about, but there it is. Lacking any official degrees in education or even art, I can't teach academically in 99.9 percent of the colleges that exist. I just have three or four decades of hard experience in the field, doing what I do, and that includes now a decade or more of cumulative teaching experience. But whenever opportunities presented themselves to teach, particularly paying opportunities that helped with the monthly bills, I stepped up to the plate and did my best, which led to further opportunities as a result. It wasn't a career path, but it was something I love doing and was pretty good at, and always pushing myself to improve upon with each venue or task. I also wrote constantly, and Tyrant
allowed me to incorporate a strong educational component into my comics work, which led to my joining the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology for a couple of years, and work with real paleontologists while researching Tyrant
-- and that was a major source of pleasure for me. I love the process of learning, of researching, of digging as deeply as possible into sources and resources, and that feeds my teaching jones, too.
By the time James and I were really talking about CCS in 2005, I'd had a few years under my belt as a guest speaker, lecturer, tutor, and occasional teacher. I'd handled entire semesters of structured classes, and worked with a pretty wide variety of ages and types of educational venues. By then, Tom Roberts and UConn had really whet my appetite for working on the college level, too, with adult students who wanted to be in that classroom. Working with young kids is demanding, and having organized a couple of summer workshops -- just one or two day affairs, for ages five to teenagers -- and having by this time raised two of my own, I was wary of how damaging discipline issues can be to beneficial educational opportunities. Comics are a tough combination of skills to introduce, much less dance with, and the fun component that fuels the passion to draw comics must be nurtured and maintained, or you kill it. My drawing and comics workshops always involved scheduled "run around the school building three times" sorts of physical exercise between drawing exercises: younger kids just can't sit still for long, and older kids are easily bored, so if you don't work in physical burn-off-that-kid-energy blocks, you're courting disaster. But I have to say I found the comics work with high school and college students -- the ones who really wanted to be there -- the most useful and rewarding.
And for the most part, everyone at CCS worked their asses off to be in that classroom. I give 'em 150 percent, every day, every week, for their one or two years, and always will. I'm lucky to be at CCS, and I give it my all.
SPURGEON: Tell me about what you teach there. It's my understanding you do the history of comics course, and I was wondering if you could talk about developing that course from when you first taught it to now, and to what you've noticed the students reacting and maybe even not reacting. How much of the history course has what you describe above, this kind of active, informative streak on the way things are now? Do you have an itch to teach anything you haven't had a chance to yet?
Well, that's about four questions, Tom. [Spurgeon laughs] Let's see...
Last query first. Even given the expansive experience and opportunity I've had and have at CCS, I really wish I could teach more storytelling -- but, well, there isn't time enough for everything, and besides, the aesthetics of the contemporary comics scenes is more attuned to the aesthetics James, Jason and their peers are steeped in. I'm "old school" by compare, and that may be a factor, too, unconsciously. Let's face it, the old vocabularies -- splash pages, sound effects, inset panels, etc. -- are out of fashion, for the most part. I squeeze them in, when and if I can, but there's aspects of my own communication idiom that are artifacts of a past that falls between the beloved comic strip tropes currently being resurrected (Frank King
, Harold Gray
, George McManus
, etc.) and the graphic novel templates of the 21st Century. We'll see. I'm co-teaching a cartooning workshop this spring semester coming up with Bob Sikoryak
, and this is a fresh opportunity to push in those directions, if Bob is up for it. We'll see.
The comics history class changes annually, and there's never enough time. Randy Duncan at Henderson State University
once joked, "I can teach the history of comics in a half hour," or some such. And hey, I can synopsize Moby Dick
in three words (I can, I won that bet at a table with Bill Sienkiewicz
, Scott and Ivy
McCloud, and Cat Yronwode
one year). But there's always some key creator or movement or publisher or element I fear I've shortshrifted or neglected, and I incorporate that into the following year's revisions. It drives my wife nuts: "You've been teaching this course since 2005; isn't all the work done?" No, it's never-ending. Part of it is my ravenous research obsession, part of it is my constantly learning more about comics history myself, part of it trying to address things students ask about or express exasperation over the year before. It's never enough, and it's never going to be.
What can I say? I revise it every year, at times every week. I start with the prehistory of comics, including glyphs, pictograms, codices, illuminated manuscripts, Chinese and Japanese scrolls, and so on, and show them never to believe any claims to "first" anything. The British weekly comics industry was thriving before there was anything remotely like a "comic book" in America: we didn't invent it. There were American comics and cartoonists before the Yellow Kid: get used to it. There were graphic novels before the coming of the 20th Century, and certainly before 1977: here they are. I discuss the dime novels and penny dreadfuls and pulps as prototypes for what became the comics industry, and Robyn Chapman and I tag-teamed lectures covering chapbooks, self-publishing, and fanzines. When we were co-teaching the first time on Survey of the Drawn Story 2, Robyn showed me her minicomics lecture (which I'd seen an earlier form of during the summer workshops at CCS), and I responded with an introductory lecture to her lecture covering the first minicomics, from the "minicomics" of the 1940s to product giveaways of the 1960s to Clay Geerdes
and the "Newave" of the 1970s, which was all new to Robyn at that time. We learn from and teach one another, and it's ever-expanding. I learn so much from my co-instructors and the students at CCS, every week. There's so much I don't know, so much to learn, so much to get a handle on before I can teach it myself.
I also have the students present timed ten-minute oral presentations on any aspect of art or comics they are interested in, and I've learned soooooo much from that every single year, some of which I then research further and incorporate into subsequent classes. I'd never heard of Archigram and their sophisticated use of comics and zines to articulate their progressive architectural agendas before Alex Kim
(who came to CCS with a background as a professional architect) presented his ten-minute talk in my classroom; Sam Gaskin
(pioneer CCS class alumnus, Pizza Wizard
creator, etc.) turned me on to the whole Fort Thunder
scene with his presentation in 2005. I'd completely missed Fort Thunder when it was happening, in part because I was stepping away from comics the very years Fort Thunder worked up its head of steam (1995–2001), in part because it was inherently antithetical to everything my generation's aesthetics were about, save the love of comics and creating. With CCSers who come from other cultures and countries and infinitely different backgrounds, they bring their own specialties and experiences and passions into the community, and I do all I can to cultivate sharing that in the classroom -- which is, in part, quite selfish. I want to learn all I can, too. I want to glean what I can of what they know, what they're into.
Look, it's endless. My son Daniel turns me on to a lot of new and different stuff, too, just as he picks up on new "old" stuff that excites him every time he spend an overnight and combs my collection and library. I'm always seeking a peek at something I've missed, or didn't know existed, or that's just coming into existence, or whatever. There's no end to it.
As for the class and contemporary comics, shit, I always fall short. We usually make it to the 1990s, just cresting into the 2000s, and run out of class time. But then again, we have visiting artists coming in a speaking every week at CCS, sometimes more than one. We have Fellows from all over the world, and they bring their scenes and peers and contemporaries in. We sneak it into other classes in different ways. By osmosis, CCS pretty much lives and breathes the current scenes, and the students themselves
part and parcel of the current scene, so I reckon we do OK covering what's happening now in comics just by being here, doing what we do.
SPURGEON: Here's something that often gets asked of me about places like CCS, and while you touch on this a bit I was wondering if maybe you could more explicit in terms of a direct answer. Are you confident that the students get their money's worth from a place like CCS -- from education about comics in general? Comics has a history of self-teaching and apprenticeship that allow for different models. I know how obnoxious this question might sound, but I've even heard other educators bringing this up: their doubts that the gig of being taught comics is as good a deal for the students as the gig of teaching comics is for the teachers.
The short answer is: No. Of course not. Really, all you really need is something to draw with, something to draw on, endless dedication, absolute tenacity, and the will and patience and time to continually draw comics. Draw thousands upon thousands of pages, and you will improve.
There's plenty of self-taught cartoonists throughout the history of comics, many who made livings at it, some who became quite successful, and that's that.
Then again, there's plenty of schooled cartoonists throughout the history of comics, generation after generation of them, who owe much if not all in their careers to art colleges, intensive correspondence courses, Burne Hogarth
and the Manhattan Academy of Newspaper Art, which became the Cartoonists and Illustrators School and then the School of Visual Arts
, and classes later taught there by the likes of Harvey Kurtzman
or Art Spiegelman
; Joe and Muriel Kubert and the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art; and now James Sturm and the Center for Cartoon Studies. Of course there's value there, but it's not a passive process: "here, I pay you good money, turn me into a cartoonist."
Look, you wouldn't even be talking to me right now, Tom, if I hadn't attended the Joe Kubert School. Joe Kubert never would have been my mentor. I never would have met Rick Veitch, among others, with whom I worked on many comics for the first stretch of my career, and with and through whom I collaborated on much that was vital to my life and body of work. I never would have met Tom Yeates
, or John Totleben; I wouldn't have drawn Swamp Thing
, there would have been no Taboo
, and those alone are, I think, sans any hubris, measurable contributions to the current comics environment and reality. I wouldn't be teaching at CCS. We simply wouldn't be talking, or if by some stretch of parallel realities we were, I can't imagine it being a conversation worth sharing.
Joe and Muriel opened every door to the world for me. While I'd gone as far as I could essentially self-educated before attending Johnson State College
in Johnson, VT, and benefitted enormously from what Peter Heller (head of the JSC Art Department) worked with me on, and from my circle of friends there, many of whom convinced me the Kubert School was where I needed to be and go, JSC didn't give me anything I could have eked out a living with. Without the Kubert School, I'd have ended up pumping gas or taking over the family business (a grocery store) instead; fine art colleges offered nothing
that would have opened a single door for me.
I went from drawing almost exclusively with ballpoint pens and markers in August of 1976 to picking up a brush in September 1976, and working professionally by spring of 1977, and everything that gestalt leap of faith and work entailed. I was only able to do that thanks to Joe and Muriel (who were like second parents to me) and our instructors (Dick Giordano
, Ric Estrada
, Hy Eisman
, Irwin Hasen
, Lee Elias
, etc.) and friends/classmates like Rick Veitch, Tom Yeates, Ron Zalme, Rick Taylor, Cara Sherman-Tereno
, Sam Kujava
and everyone else in that pioneer class. Without Kubert School, and those two years, and that creative community, I never would have entered comics. I wouldn't be who I am, wouldn't have done what I've done, lived what I've lived, be where I am now. Period.
I hope CCS is that for our students. We try hard to open doors for all our students; the doors within, the doors outside. I think we are doing that. I think we are, that it is. I hope it is. We all work hard to make that the reality. I'm not a huckster or salesperson for either the Kubert School or CCS, but if I wasn't convinced of their value, I wouldn't have invested myself fully in either of them. I did, and everything about my life and my creative life was the better for it. With CCS, I am lucky to be able to do so (invest myself fully there) now; if I instead lived closer to the Kubert School, maybe that would be where I'd be. In any case, my life is infinitely better for what I've gained from both communities and schools, and I think that's the case for many who attend either of them.
Do you need comics college to draw comics? No. Do you need comics college to make a living in comics? No.
But, if you make that leap, that commitment, and work as hard as you can -- will you draw better comics? You bet. Will you draw more comics? You have to. Will you meet and live with and know and be part of and steep yourself in a community comprised almost entirely of fellow creators? You bet.
Is it worth it?
Make your decision, and live with it. I made mine, and I haven't regretted it for a nanosecond. If I consider what my life might have been without that experience, it isn't anything I can imagine being anything like what I have been through and been part of.
If you're afraid or unable to work your ass off, don't attend CCS or Kubert School. If you're into passive self-education, steer clear. I can tell you from hands-on experience, on both ends of the classroom at both schools, that you either invest yourself fully as a student in both schools, or you crash and burn. You are expected and must work hard; both schools are like boot camp, at least in their initial semesters or year. Then it gets tougher. Making comics is not an easy way to make a living.
So, the question begs: How much do you want it? How hard do you work? How hard are you willing to work? And how hard are you willing to work for your OWN benefit?
Bear in mind that the Kubert School, as it was when I attended, and CCS are in many ways trade schools. We teach every aspect we can of a profession, including, in both schools, classes involving Professional Practices -- the nuts and bolts of building and presenting a portfolio, self-packaging and promotion, seeking work, how to conduct oneself in the profession, contracts, etc. What the Kubert School, as it was and (I believe) as it is (I did get to tour the facility as a parent of a prospective student in 2006 or 2007), and CCS offer are full-saturation classes, facilities, and communities quite unlike anything else I've found anywhere else in North America.
I got my money's worth in spades from the Kubert School -- I was working professionally to some extent by the end of my first year, and transitioned into earning a living exclusively as a freelancer by the time I graduated -- and I saw nothing when I visited the new Kubert School with my son a few years ago to even suggest one doesn't get their money's worth today; if anything, it's a far more expansive, ambitious facility than the one I attended in its first year of operation in 1976-77. I can honestly say we give a student their money's worth at CCS; the visiting artists alone offer more than money can buy in any other imaginable venue outside of Kubert School and CCS.
As with any education, not all students are seeking what these institutions offer. As with any education, not all students are a "fit," and not all students invest themselves, as one must, in the process. If one isn't invested, I don't care how much you have or haven't paid in money and time -- it'll be a waste of that student's time, and reflective of the lack of personal, creative, and emotional investment. In that arena, personal assessments are all that matter, and there will always be those who come out of either tentative or full tenure at any school who will bemoan their experience. No school can be all things to all students, however hard they may try.
The question isn't obnoxious, per se
, but ignorance is bliss. I believe that question does reflect an attitude that there is nothing to
learn from others, that self-education (which has enormous value, I'm not belittling or dismissing that is has value, having been essentially self-educated until I was 20 or so) in relative or complete isolation is inherently preferable to investing oneself in a day-to-day creative community and structured educational process in which those who do
and have done for years, even decades.
You may work in a vacuum, and argue for its virtues by denigrating schools like Kubert School and CCS, and that may have illusory value, but creative communities and schools have greater value, and can help one feed oneself. If you refute the craft of comics having any value, well, have fun. Make your own, and good luck to you. I hope I get to read them someday. Henry Darger
may be a St. Francis of sorts to some artists, but no one was aware of what he was doing or had done while he was alive, and it certainly didn't "feed" him in any way other than his personal emotional life: he was a janitor all his adult life, as far as we know. Sweeping floors fed him, and no one saw his work.
I have long loved Fletcher Hanks
' work since seeing that Fantomah
reprinted in an issue of Cartoonist Profiles
in the late 1970s and the couple of comics Jerry DeFuccio
showed me in the MAD
office (during my one and only job interview at MAD
, in 1978), and I completely understand why RAW
and Paul Karasik embraced and republished his work, but hey, he had, what? Two, three years of eking out income as a Golden Age cartoonist? Any sane individual knows that Fletcher Hanks is hardly a role model for anything save obscurity, alcoholism, despair, and death. Then again, as Paul Karasik
discovered, even Hanks had his "school": he wasn't self-educated, he took a mail-order correspondence course in cartooning.
The rise of primitive comix is legit and I love many of them, but they're still utterly dependent on the work being made public (whether as performance or via publication), building a viable creative community, feeding a viable consumer community, and nurturing that as best as one can by being able to feed oneself with one's work.
Given the value perceived in many essentially primal, instinctive cartoonists and comix being published, I can't out of hand argue that an education is of value in the current market. I'd in fact argue the contrary. The rise of the primitive comix aesthetic may feed the belief that lack of education is desirable, a badge of integrity, but I don't buy that; you're still better able to earn a living at doing what you do if you ground yourself in some exposure to the basics of the art, the trade, and the business.
You can't escape the business aspects, come hell or high water; if you're going to earn your keep, you can't work for nothing, give all your art away, or have absolutely zero social skills.
Fort Thunder is properly celebrated for all they accomplished as a creative community, and became their own "school" for a time, if you will. Those who don't attend cartooning colleges generate their own "schools," their own scenes, and it costs money to be there instead. So, choose your scene, gravitate to or build your own school.
It costs whatever you do, and it yields only what you put into it -- "the love you take is equal to the love you make," as the Beatles
sang at the end of Abbey Road
. The same goes for cartooning and comics.
I could also argue the utter lack of any standards of business ethics, professional practices, or proper training and compensation for or from the business environment is benefiting publishers while impoverishing a new generation of creators in ways some of my generation worked very hard to redress. Given the contracts I see bandied about as "typical" and the bizarre nature of the current marketplace, including the rise and proliferation of standard work-for-hire and duration-of-copyright contractual terms, where cartoonists are either grossly over or undervalued and lip-service to copyright ownership on page one is taking away with a contract's page two duration-of-copyright definition of the proprietary timeframe the publisher claims, I can see myself that a lot of ground that was hard-won in the 1980s and early 1990s has been lost -- and I'd argue that a lack of education in general has fueled that degeneration.
SPURGEON: Are you a different cartoonist now for having taught?
Yes, of course. Teaching has changed everything about my life. I'm not sure how to parse that out apart from simply maturing, aging, and keeping at it: I'm 56 now, and I'd have been "a different cartoonist" at 56 whether CCS existed, and I were or weren't part of it, in any case. I retired from the American comics industry in 1999 -- I'd still be cartooning and drawing my own comics, but they likely wouldn't be seeing print. CCS and teaching at CCS necessarily re-engaged me with comics at a far deeper level of commitment than I would have otherwise been working, and that alone makes me "a different cartoonist" than I would have been without CCS.
But I may never again be the cartoonist I was when I was at my peak with Tyrant #4
-- I may never get back to that zone. Having freelanced almost exclusively since entering the Kubert School in the fall of 1976, I was living in what I like to call "the trance" -- a perpetual state of mind, of grace, if you will, in which the creating of comics was the be-all and end-all of my focus in life. Yes, I was married and became a father, and that was a vital and all-consuming focus, but I supported my family with my comics work exclusively. Every fiber of my being not involved with my family went exclusively into my comics: whatever I was doing, anywhere, at all times, was still meditating upon and working through comics -- whatever was on my board, whatever was next on my board, whatever comics I intended to work on down the road, in a constant trance masticating consciously and unconsciously comics intended to eventually come out of my fingers onto paper.
Deviations from that -- writing, for instance, which I began engaging with in earnest in the late 1980s thanks to my late, dear friend Chas Balun -- were still creative in nature, still fed and fed by the trance, and inevitably fed my comics. Writing for Chas Balun's Deep Red fanzine
, which led to my writing an entire book We Are Going To Eat You
which Chas edited down to a long chapter for The Deep Red Horror Handbook
, which led to a column for the newsstand horror movie magazine Gorezone
, which led to my writing the novella Aliens: Tribes
, all sharpened that set of skills for my eventual writing of Tyrant
, which was a better synthesis of writing and art than I could have mustered without having worked with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing
, writing for Chas and the horror film zines, and writing fiction and Aliens: Tribes
-- so, even the apparent deviations from comics with my ongoing writing labors directly fed my comics.
Living in the trance was all of a piece, a unifying focal point and technique for my entire adult life.
Circumstances forced me to break that trance in 1997–1998. Given my life situation (divorce), and the implosion of the direct sales market, I put my family's survival first and foremost and got a day job, working in the video industry. It was a necessary step, and I don't regret it a bit. But it necessitated the breaking of the trance, simply to function as one must in retail and management, working a day job with other people and the public.
In short, by joining the work-a-day world of retail -- which working for my father's grocery stores from age six to about age 20 trained me for -- I had to break the trance I'd nurtured and thrived within and upon from 1976–1997. The culmination of those years of work and living in the trance yielded Tyrant
#4, which may remain the best I can or will ever do in comics. I don't know, time will tell -- I've still got strong drawing chops, and sharp instincts and skills, but I've never returned to the trance. I've not achieved that state of being since, Tom. Teaching is a bit like retail, if you will, in that you're constantly working with others, and it's also a bit like editing, which I did plenty of in the late 1980s and 1990s. Teaching is quite the opposite of instinctual life in the trance: for instance, you must deconstruct process constantly in order to articulate process to yourself and then to your students, then work up lectures, exercises, etc. to walk your classes through that deconstruction of process in order to construct, for them, the process. That uses a very different part of the brain than simply doing
comics does -- I'm not sure I could have been an effective teacher living in the trance, to be honest. I'm working hard to find a balance, and to carve out a way and passage to regaining some aspect of life in the trance, but we'll see.
Joe Kubert somehow managed to build, launch, co-manage, and teach at his school while never stopping doing comics; he's arguably done some of his best work since 1976, as did Will Eisner in his later years. But Joe was always quite direct about his relative discomfort with teaching: he told us so from the beginning, though he was a natural at it. But Joe wasn't comfortable doing it, and I think now I understand that a bit better -- if you're in the trance, it's hard to talk about the trance, which is part of what teaching comics necessarily is. It sounds a bit lunatic even talking about it, but having had to break that mode of being in the late 1990s, and feeling the very real mix of agony and relief letting it go, and experiencing first-hand the loss created by breaking the trance, I can appreciate completely now its importance. In hindsight, I can even articulate what it was, what it needs to be, and how it endlessly fed my life and work.
So, am I "a different cartoonist" at 56? Yes, primarily because I had to break my trance of two decades to function in the real world, and I've not found a way back to the trance. Has CCS changed me as a cartoonist? Yes, I think so, but I'd have to place that secondary to the primal repercussions of having broken my trance in 1997 -- and thank CCS for making it possible to return to making a living in a far more creative path than retail ever was or ever could be.
I still have my drawing chops -- working for a year on The Vermont Monster Guide
let me flex those muscles and regaining a certain comfort with drawing for publication again -- and as and when I do comics, they're very different from what I was doing in the mid-1990s, and that's thanks in large part to the benefits of living in the beehive that is CCS. Like all truly creative communities, you inevitably learn a great deal from everyone in the hive, and that informs your own work. It certainly has mine. But I'm not at the peak of my abilities I was at with Tyrant
#4 and the work I had completed on #5, and I don't know if I'll ever get back that zen state -- but if I do, CCS will have helped me get there, or get close to it. It's a process I'm still very much in.
Then again, I'm also "a different cartoonist" because there's no outlet for my comics any longer, period. I'm never going to be part of the Kramer's Ergot
universe, and I'm certainly not part of the DC universe, and as 2010 taught me, the Image
universe doesn't want me. There's no means of creating comics for me that would feed me, much less help pay the mortgage. What I've done since 1999 for publication is scattered like a madman's shit. It's all fragmentary -- I contribute every year to this or that, including a few of the anthologies the students invite me into -- but I've absolutely no will to re-engage with the American comics industry, and it doesn't seem to want me in any case, which is fine with me. It's a toxic environment in so many ways, particularly for a cartoonist in my age bracket and situation, and not a single thing has enticed me to re-engage since I left in 1999.
The occasional offers are laughable: "would you do a cover for [insert licensed work-for-hire monster title here] for the rate that prompted you to stop doing cover work for DC Comics
in 1988?" is not an enticement. I haven't the energy to even engage in that pointless conversation. The best offers of the past two years I steered to my peers and old Kubert School classmates who are still in the game. Going through the 2010 meatgrinder involved in trying to get the 1963 reprint out, and the time wasted with Image Comics on their fickle, tentative interest in working with me on my quartet of 1963 characters, was completely counterproductive and an absolute waste of time. I'd frankly rather do something that pays nothing for AccentUK
or one of the CCS community anthologies: it's clean, pleasurable, trouble-free, I own it, nobody is blowing sunshine up my ass, and my meager contributions at least gives something to those communities, which are creative communities I do care about. Very little has changed, except for the worse, in terms of the business of American comics. The contracts are odious: I see what's offered to me, my students come to me seeking advice on those offered to them. I get offers and invites -- I almost did a story or two for Joe Kubert, in fact -- but I haven't the will or desire any longer to put up with it. I know it may one day change -- I can't tell you how happy reading Bernie Wrightson's collaborations with Steve Niles
makes me, evidence that there are creators like Steve (who I was friends with back in the Taboo
days) out there in vital creative partnerships with a seasoned vet like Bernie, and that Bernie's still flexing and stretching those incredible chops -- but for now, that's just not happening for me. Sometimes old jazz musicians get to play in the arena, sometimes they just play at home. C'est la vie
. My son Daniel got me back into wanting to see my comics in print when he asked me to do one for his first zine a few years ago, and my students build on that every year.
I'm keeping busy. I'm working on my contracted instructional art book for Watson-Guptill
, which is coming along, and writing substantial books like Teen Angels & New Mutants
and getting a book out every year come what may (print-on-demand and, for 2012, ebooks keep me going), and occasionally doing comics for publication, and I know nobody gives a damn. I know those are only seen by a handful of people; I know the print runs, and what we laughably refer to as the sales, and that's OK. I'm having fun when I do the work; it's all gravy.
It's not about me in any case. It's about the current generation, and their path. They're doing the vital work. It's different for my students: they're young, their work is fresh and needed, and (as I tell them, though they don't believe me) there's doors open for them that will never be open for me.
Just as my generation carved niches, nooks, crannies, venues, and opportunities out of the very toxic comics environment of the late 1970s -- remember, we were trying to enter the field as newsstand distribution of comics was collapsing, the DC implosion
occurred during our first year at the Kubert School, and the underground comix
scene was essentially gone -- they'll find and create venues for their work, and for some, the venues will come to them. The publishing community that does come to CCS is looking at their work, and some are finding venues through that. It's their time, absolutely, and this generation is creating some of the greatest comics I've ever read in my life.
I'd rather give my all to CCS and the CCS community, day in and day out; that feeds me, and I apparently feed CCS, too. That's a healthy symbiosis and dynamic, for all of us. So, now, I am indeed "a different cartoonist" -- and part and parcel of that is my teaching work, and that's decidedly different from who and what I used to do and be.
SPURGEON: How big a loss is the end of the Xeric grant going to cartoonists? You were a self-publisher, and that was a self-publishing focused grant, particularly in its early years. Also, you're dealing with students that may have directly benefited from that program at some near-future point. But mostly I'm struck by the way you constructed that point about people making their own schools if they don't have one -- it reminds of the statement from the Xeric people that cartoonists have the tools on-line to do what the grant did for them.
Oh, it's a huge loss. I can only access it as an outsider looking in: of course, I never applied for a Xeric myself -- I'm friends with Peter Laird
, and I knew folks on the selection committee, and as a vet working pro couldn't have pursued it in any case, it was properly meant entirely for new talent -- but the Xeric was brilliant and essential. Look at how different in every way Peter's Xeric was from Kevin Eastman
: both of which were their respective means of "paying back" the comics communities, if you will. The Xeric was an elegant, self-perpetuating solution, for Peter, and for the community. It launched so many worthy cartoonists and comics careers; it was a sorely-needed haven in the stretch between the Direct Market implosion, when the Diamond Dist
. monopoly and its partnership with the major surviving comics mainstream publishers essentially dismantled viable self-publishing distribution and the rise of online media that has presently culminated in digital comics, print-on-demand, and funding organs like Kickstarter
. The Xeric was an essential life-support system for new comics and new creators.
Perhaps more importantly, the Xeric was a real, concrete goalpost: something to work toward and for. I saw that once I was part of CCS, and I saw how the students who applied were so fully invested in that process. I don't want to talk too much about that -- as you may have noticed, I'm find talking about my life with and at CCS, but beyond that, not so much, as it's their lives and their experience, and that's not mine to discuss or share. But I tell you, I've seen how vital the Xeric was to this community. We had a lot of CCSers applying and winning Xerics. It meant a great deal, and that's hard to quantify. The evaporation of the Xeric for cartoonists is already being felt here, and as more than a vacuum. It's a real loss.
I don't think the decision to terminate the Xeric grant for cartoonists understood its own import and function for young cartoonists, and how vital that was to them, personally, professionally, creatively, and in being part of a continuity, a living history. Ah, well, it's all over now. I loathe how our culture sees everything in terms of money and cash investment and reward: it's a horribly myopic way of seeing and being in the world. The Xeric meant more than just that. Kickstarter doesn't supplant the Xeric. The Xeric wasn't just a fiscal means to an end: it was a hard-won goal, and the most vital kind of goal -- one of those that is, by its nature, proof of a new beginning, a starting point, a launch pad. There's nothing to replace that.
SPURGEON: You've done a lot of admirable advocacy for Creators Rights, which this year took the form of a call for a boycott of the companies that exploited Jack Kirby and debating the moral issues involved. What is it about the nature of comics fandom and many professionals that there's such hostility towards creators and their families chasing after rights and remuneration for these absolute founts of monies made? Are you distressed at all -- and perhaps you'll just disagree with this -- that there seems to be less agreement now about some of these issues than there was 25 years ago? How do you think these issues will develop from here?
Actually, you've inverted what I said this year, which is OK, since most anyone who even noticed I said anything at all about Kirby has, too.
I called attention to the moral dimensions of the summer of 2011 Marvel Comics/Jack Kirby judgment, first and foremost; and I publicly announced my
boycott of Marvel Comics product derivative in any way of Kirby's work.
You can link to the Myrant
blog posts, and I participated in the one-hour public discussion of the relevant legal, business, and moral issues with Oliver Goodenough at the Vermont Law School this past fall
, which was co-sponsored by CCS and the Vermont Law School. Oliver is a fantastic legal scholar and teacher, works actively in that field of law, and that conversation is, I think, worth listening to.
I didn't call for a boycott: I said, "look, this is wrong. I understand the legal argument, I understand Kirby didn't fight for his own rights properly or adequately in his own lifetime, that he didn't join forces with Joe Simon when he could/should have, that he signed what he signed under duress, and I understand the judgment. But I also see Stan Lee was rewarded every step of the way for working on the very same properties, and still benefits and is rewarded. This is wrong, and I personally won't support this corrupt system any longer with my dime -- I owe too much to Jack Kirby."
It was and remains my personal call, make of that what you will. I'm not rallying anyone or anything. Do what you will: this what I'm doing, until and unless Marvel changes how it treats Kirby's heirs.
I won't go into the entire argument yet again: it's all out there to be read or heard.
But frankly, the comics community at large -- and hardly the fan community, Tom, but the pro
community, too -- doesn't care, as far as I can see. Oh, some care: Mark Evanier
cares, and John Morrow
cares, and James Sturm cares, and honorable pros like Steve Rude
refused to work with Marvel after a certain point because of how Marvel has dealt with the Kirby legacy and Jack's family. Thousands of fans care, a handful of pros care, and there's plenty of folks who said, publicly and privately, "yes, you're right" when I posted what I did the week of the judgment, but the utter indifference and often outright hostility that followed wasn't a surprise to me at all.
publicly accused me of naiveté, but that's hardly the case. Anyone who worked at Marvel, and many of us who worked at DC, and arguably anyone who worked in mainstream comics after 1963, period, owe too much to Kirby to ever repay. Byrne's right, legally, and correct to raise the issue over Steve Ditko
and Spider-Man; that doesn't alter the fact that the Kirby/Lee and Kirby/Ditko creations irrevocably changed the entire landscape, and that Marvel owes its very existence to Kirby, and should have long ago done right by Kirby and the Kirby heirs. John and the usual lineup of those who benefitted from Marvel's post-1977 copyright revisionism and more progressive 1980s royalty policies have instead ridiculed and even pilloried Kirby and his heirs: born on third base, strutting around like they hit a triple, pissing on Kirby's grave on their way to home base. It confirmed what the 1990s proved to me: whatever solidarity there might have been in circles of the comics community of the 1980s long ago evaporated.
Even the die-hard Kirby fans, and die-hard Kirby pro fans, who posted with such enthusiasm on Facebook the week the Captain America movie
opened, actively resented, reviled, and/or shunned my stance and argument. When I can't convince as rabid a Kirby lover (as well as nice guy and terrific cartoonist) as Scott Shaw!
that this doesn't outweigh the addiction to Kirby-derivative media that doesn't pay a red cent to Kirby's family -- and I'm not meaning to be unfair to pick on Scott here, but he's a clear example of the passionate Kirby fan and devotee who isn't a Marvel employee who continues to support the status quo -- I'm not sure there is any traction to be had, frankly. So, I speak up whenever I see that happening. Which, as far as I can see, has only made me a pariah in new arenas. Big deal. The whole vicious cycle will play out when The Avengers movie
promo machine revs up and then hits.
If you have to stick your fingers in your ears and go "lalalalalala" anytime anyone points out the gross injustice of Marvel's ongoing relations with Kirby's heirs, you're hopeless.
Thus, as far as I can see, there's absolute and almost total "agreement now" about the current environment: "If it exists and/or can be exploited, and I want it, anything that gets in the way of my instant gratification is hateful." Something as vague as ethics or morality should hinder "my" seeing an X-Men
or Captain America
movie? What, Jack Kirby's heirs are in "my" way? Shit on that! Spit on them! "What did they
The almost pathological nature of the arguments are fascinating in and of themselves.
There's the "if you're drawing that
line in the sand, why not draw every
line in the sand?" non-argument: Kirby's role in comics and Marvel history was and remains exceptional, the Marvel/Kirby judgment is a landmark, and you pick your battles, and picking one distinctive, clearly significant battle doesn't mean one either fights all
battles or one's evaluation and decision is, ipso facto
, meaningless and without merit. This isn't about Kirby and DC, or [insert creator name here] and [insert corporate name here] over [insert injustice and/or intellectual property name here], it's about Marvel Comics and Jack Kirby, and we all know exactly what that means and entails.
There's the "Kirby's heirs didn't create anything, why should they benefit at all?" argument, which is hilarious coming from some of the quarters it comes from: I mean, really, doesn't John Byrne's entire Marvel career make him quite literally one of "Kirby's heirs"? Jack didn't "earn" enough from Marvel to reclaim his own original artwork without further legal, moral, and public degradation and absolute subjugation to Marvel's will; John Byrne earned enough from Marvel to collect and own Kirby original art. Isn't Stan Lee
post-Kirby/Lee one of "Kirby's heirs"? Isn't every person who worked at Marvel from the time it was Marvel and took up more than one room post-1962 one of "Kirby's heirs"? Aren't the legal teams that are crushing the genetic real-life Kirby heirs under their virtual boot heels "Kirby's heirs"? Kirby's creations are still paying their paychecks every fucking Friday, that's for sure.
More to the point: of course, I want my own kids to benefit from whatever I manage to create in may lifetime; doesn't every creator who happens to be a parent wish and work for that? So, only corporations wielding unfair legal abuses and rich families revered as new aristocracies should benefit from inherited legacies? Why the scions of inherited wealth in corporate America should be elevated and feted while Kirby and Kirby's heirs are reviled is emblematic of many of the arguments: for example, George W. Bush
, who created nothing, should enjoy the sanctioned inherited wealth and station that led to the Presidency while Kirby's heirs deserve only brickbats, ire, and resentment?
We can all see, and are all invested in, creative work being the coin of the realm. Why should nepotism rationalize Stan alone benefitting while Jack and Jack's heirs suck wind? Lee built his personal fortune on the uncontracted, unspoken market presumptions of the era when Timely/Atlas/Marvel was a one-room office; it was only the success of the Kirby/Lee and Ditko/Lee creations that turned all that around, nurtured and bankrolled the very legal departments that allowed Marvel to crush Kirby into signed submission in his lifetime, and to grow into the media giant Disney
bought in 2010, bankrolling the very legal machines that just crushed Kirby's heirs. If you just break it down to active American economic exports in the years 2008-2011, what is more valuable in the 21st Century than intellectual properties, and all that's derivative of successful, marketable intellectual properties like the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby legacy?
It really comes down to, in most cases, "how dare you muddy my desire/fun with Kirby-derivative products I crave!" Even those who agree with me come to me with crazy conversations: "So, what if I wait and only buy the Captain America
DVD from the used sale bins? What if -- " blahblahblah. If you're looking for a way to sneak around money going into Marvel's pockets while getting your Kirby-derivative hit, you're hopeless, you don't get it. There's the "mail Kirby's heirs a dollar for every Kirby movie you see," which accomplishes nothing. If Marvel doesn't feel the fiscal pinch or shame, nothing will ever change.
I've no illusions or pretensions. I'm one person, with no market presence or power per se, speaking on a personal blog and occasionally on Facebook. All I said, and am saying, is "This is legal; this is wrong
. I'm not spending another penny with Marvel's Kirby-derived products." It matters not a whit to most people. Fine.
But we see time and time again how consumers simply saying "enough!" can bring certain product lines and producers to change their ways. It's not impossible, it's not crazy, and it's not too much to hope for.
But it's a stretch. Generationally, we're into the first generation of creators who have grown up totally without Jack Kirby being an active presence. That's part of it. It's also a generation that, if it bothers to go back and read the Lee/Kirby comics, primarily sees the seams and shortcomings; you can't expect the generation that grew up with Maus
and all that followed to react as the readers of the 1960s did to the ramshackle, crazy-quilt periodicals Lee and Kirby were grinding out at a furious pace, inventive and imaginative and marvelous as they were and in many ways remain. So much of what Kirby innovated was so quickly and completely absorbed by the pop culture, codified by Marvel's own procession of Kirby imitators and chameleons working to what was, by 1967, the "Marvel look," that it's no surprise a new generation looking back just can't see the definitive ways Kirby reshaped and redefined the landscape: they grew up in the new world he built, and only saw Stan's name and lasting imprint on it.
We're also into the first generation of creators who have grown up with mass media super-saturated with adaptations of comics, from X-Men
to Art School Confidential
, in every nook and cranny of their environment. That's part of it. They've grown up consuming endless media streams without worrying for a flicker of an eyelid who might have created it, or been ripped off: I mean, the author who created Cheetah Girls
was completely ripped off by Disney
, they bought all rights for a song. You think the generation that grew up with Cheetah Girls
being a fleeting spike in their Disney Channel
confections consumption to give a rat's ass about that? Why should, or could, they give a rat's ass about Jack Kirby, much less Kirby's heirs?
And we're amid the first generation utterly addicted to free
media: the seemingly infinite, illusory "free" flow of the internet.
Part of the toxic comics industry environment I referred to earlier has to do with this, Tom, and I'll do my best to be succinct. There's precious little sense of debt or obligation to our predecessors, and that permeates every corner of the current wide community, from how it embodies and expresses our country's radical swing to the Right -- so-called "Conservative" values that conserve nothing, as far as I can tell, save the enshrinement of the wealthy, their "right" to amass, mobilize, and wield that wealth through any means deemed "legal," and the deification of corporate culture -- to how it actively embraces the rampant exploitation of old and new talent sans compensation.
Honestly, I don't see much difference between the cottage economy based on handsome, high-priced reprints of past comics creations that pay nothing to the creators or their heirs -- and in this I'm including everything from the Dark Horse Dell reprints
to the PreCode horror reprints to the Kirby and Ditko reprint collections to the Archie
reprints (and arguably no comics publisher with that company's longevity has badly used and ill-treated more creators than Archie) to the Fantagraphics
reprints to Munden's Bar
and First Comics
reprints that pay nothing (having experienced that first-hand with the Munden's Bar
reprint) -- and the post-RAW
generation of anthologies that pay creators zip. The oversized Kramer's Ergot
was a benchmark for that, in my mind: did anyone involved creatively in that venture earn what it cost to buy a copy of that monster volume? If it's a creator-owned collective trying to build an audience by collectively publishing their own work, that's one thing, but many of these lavish contemporary anthologies are quite another.
It doesn't have to be this way -- but it is
Whenever I hold in my hand a book that I know, for a fact, paid more to the printer than that book cumulative paid the creator(s) whose work is between those covers, what can I say except, "This is fucked." They're lovely books, and it's great having all this work back in print, but this is fucked. There's simply no other way to put it.
Where will it go from here? That's up to this generation of creators. They've a lot of decks stacked against them -- mainstream book publishers have unfortunately appropriated variations on the legal conceits of traditional comics publishers and gaming industries amid this graphic novel boom. I regularly see deceptively worded contracts that lock down so many rights contractually that they might as well be work-for-hire, trying to lock down all media rights and claiming to pay "advances" that aren't actually advances but paid incrementally, with the final payment coming months after completion (that's hardly an "advance"). We've lost as much ground as we thought we'd gained in the 1980s.
But the other side of the equation, which leaves them both vulnerable and empowered, is the fact they've also been essentially abandoned by all previous viable modes of publishing and distribution. They've been shut out of Diamond and the direct sales market, they're shut out of the book market. They've no choice but to congregate like tribes, at regional conventions, and sell their creations as if they were at a craft fair, which essentially they are. They've no choice but to build their OWN venues and revenue streams (income), from the ground up.
As I say to many of my students, "If you're addicted to free media, how do you expect to make a living creating new media?" That's the central challenge and conundrum.
Furthermore, what I see of this generation of cartoonists, unlike the majority of my generation, is that they aren't addicted to simply feeding the system. We don't have many students at CCS who dream primarily of drawing Batman or Spider-Man. They grew up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
and Eastman and Laird's legacy instead of Jack Kirby's, and however convoluted and bizarre Kevin and Peter's path, they know as cartoonists that initially, at least, Peter and Kevin owned and shaped the TMNT
. They grew up reading comics and graphic novels created in the wake of Harvey Pekar, MAUS
, and such, and have their own stories to tell. They're not predisposed toward feeding the Marvel, DC, Image, Archie
coffers, and that's a great source of optimism and hope for me.
SPURGEON: You're in your mid-fifties now, as is most of your remarkable generation of comics-makers, if not a bit older. Have you ever thought about the beginning of a generational legacy, all that you've done? This year we saw Alan Moore and Frank Miller receive a lot of public grief for certain public positions, and while I know that may be difficult to comment upon, I wonder if you see the kind of vehemence that certain creators experience at a certain point in their careers as a natural tearing down of idols?
Well, we made quite a mess of things, didn't we? I don't feel so "remarkable" most days, and I don't want to get into particulars about my peers; what a clusterfuck, is all I can say.
As I mentioned earlier, it's great to see from time to time something like the Steve Niles/Bernie Wrightson collaborations working and cooking and contemporary, to see Colleen Doran
carry on and become (essentially) a lobbyist for our rights as she keeps up her creative work, or more to the point seeing Jeff Smith and Bone
become an international hit while Jeff and Vijaya maintain ownership of everything, seeing my friend Neil Gaiman
soar in so many media and venues (all the while throwing his muscle behind the CBLDF
, mind you) -- there's been a lot of good, a lot of highs. But for every one of those, there's something utterly heartbreaking from another corner.
It's not just the "tearing down of idols," whether natural or unnatural as a process, but reaping what has been sown, and it's still got a long way to go, I'm afraid. The highs are pretty high, given how high the stakes have become, but the lows are horrifically low (as the murder of my old friend Steve Perry in the spring of 2010 demonstrated). Frankly, the terms under which some pretty big fish in the pool agreed to work within -- and thus perpetuated -- when they could have made a difference, should have known better, and could have insisted on better have had a decidedly negative impact on everyone, except for those with the powerbase or clout to transcend the reconfigurations of the market and the new contractual paradigms.
For me, personally, by 1999 I'd just had it with my own generation in comics. It's like Peter Fonda
at the end of Easy Rider
: "We blew it." There was the killer one-two punch of the Florida Mike Diana obscenity verdict
and the Oklahoma City retailer prosecution
ending in resignation -- the retailers understandably walked away, having been jailed and had their livelihoods and personal lives completely ravaged, leaving it to far more visible media (video, specifically the videocassette of Volker Schlondorff's adaptation of Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum
) and defenders (the VSDA
-- Video Software Dealers Association -- and a far more aggressive alliance with the ACLU
, since it was no longer comics they were saddled with) to knock the tar out of the unholy alliance of local religious and police zealots involved. That's pretty much forgotten today, but those were very real signposts for me of what was happening in the 1990s. The CBLDF survived that, and thankfully carried on, but I was glad Taboo
was behind me by then.
Personally being in the rooms and witnessing first-hand Will Eisner's paid speaking gigs at the last of the 1990s distribution trade shows, with Will essentially sponsored by Diamond and Capital
to speak and him clearly saying to all gathered there, "this direct sale market experiment is an extraordinary thing, it's precious and fragile, don't mess this up," only to see the whole show dismantled into a monopoly-by-proxy within two or three years -- well, that was mortifying. The grand creator-owned publishing experiments were remarkable: Image Comics did as much harm as it did good, especially if you explore the whole McFarlane/Gaiman debacle
and what followed (in which I still can't see anyone finding McFarlane's actions defensible, much less something to champion), and I've caused enough trouble talking about experiments like Tundra and the Spirit of Independence tours
and the like: the big experiments in collective creator publishing really mucked things up, in the end. Dave Sim was right about a lot of things, but nobody wanted to listen; they were too busy villifying him over gender issues.
The creeping contagion I saw in 1990s contracts, too, wherein language in the Vertigo/DC contracts began to creep into others as a sort of codified lip-service to creator rights while establishing terrible new "norms," and the capitulation to work-for-hire in some circles (as some book publishers adopted terms from traditional comics publishing and gaming industries, including some publishers and imprints I could cite that would frankly surprise you) even as the book industry's embrace of graphic novels could have revolutionized everything for the better just sickened me. Instead of graphic novels benefitting via the adoption of traditonal book practices, the boom in graphic novel and comics-based movie, TV shows, and games prompted publisher legal departments to go, "hmmmm, these comics publishers might be right, securing all media rights," and so on and so forth.
A core new aristocracy of creators emerged in the 1990s who benefitting from more traditional, and (for comics) progressive, book deals -- the RAW
circles, for instance, and as I said Jeff and Vijaya Smith negotiated the minefields admirably and with aplomb -- and that's all to the good. Jeff and Bone
is such a sterling role model to have out there -- the work itself, Jeff and Vijaya themselves, and the fact they've managed it all so well, for the good of themselves and of Bone
and Jeff's ongoing, new creative work. But far more pervasive influences in contracts I've been offered or have been asked to review are boilerplate contracts and agreements refuting limiting termination language and insisting upon "duration of copyright" agreements, meaning they're still your publisher long after you're dead; work-for-hire terms cloaked in other legal language; rights reversions are either excluded altogether, or they're sliding in some variation the fucking Vertigo/DC claus in which rights revert only after you've paid back any advances, even when the contract and work was completed and accepted for publication. That means they're not required to even publish what they agree to publish, and lock up rights unless you buy
them back: it's inverted the option principle. I'm seeing suspicious Hollywood accounting practices are sliding into contracts, and so on. The money has dried up, too, and the corporate umbrella structure has even peeled away clear royalty terms: if your contract states you're earning not a percentage of cover price, but a percentage of what the imprint you've signed with earns, it's frankly impossible to audit and you know then you're getting a fraction of what the imprint earns only after their parent corporate proprietors skim off the top. It's not that "the grass was greener" on the other side of the fence; it's that the terms have fundamentally changed, and unless you've got a potent agent or rep, or have the necessary boxoffice clout or name value, the pickings are mighty slim.
I've watched it all from some distance, mind you. Nobody wants me to speak about it, precious few of my peers want to offer their own testimonials, and essentially punish me if I dare mention them by name, and any sense of collective will or action has blurred or evaporated. I've given up, in a lot of ways.
Then again, I'm doing my part, as best I can, at and with CCS. In the classroom at CCS, I can share what I've learned and my perceptions of what I've seen with a part of the next generation. I can walk them through what worked, what went wrong, what to emulate, and what to avoid like the plague. The next generation is all I find worth investing in, and thankfully there's plenty of like-minded creators doing the same, and with far more influence and clarity than someone in my position can muster or manage.
On the other hand, the best comics I've ever read are being created -- just terrific stuff, some of it mainstream, some of it from CCSers, some of it in tiny print runs and in precious art objects that happen to be comics. The academic dialogue about comics (CCS just hosted ICAF, and it was positively intoxicating to attend, I didn't miss a single lecture or presentation) is a positive development, and I hope that will elevate the conversation in ways that will directly confront, challenge, and benefit the new generation of creators. As I said, it's up to this new generation to revolutionize and change the paradigms. I see that they're doing it creatively
, with the work itself, but it also has to reinvigorate and revolutionize the industry or industries that emerge over time -- embracing progressive and fair terms and treatment of creators necessarily requires refuting all that is regressive and detrimental to personal and professional growth, well-being, and the individual and (by proxy) collective good.
In this, CCS brings in the creators of the previous generation that can be their strongest advocates and allies -- the threesome of Seth
, Chris Ware
, and Ivan Brunetti
, Jeff Smith, Charles Burns
, Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel
, and I could go on and on. Those are the healthy, positive voices and examples that immediately come to mind; there are too many to cite, given all who have graced CCS with their visits, voices, visions, and time. Those are some of the voices that engage and have something to offer, Tom. The "tearing down" process is just a din that occasionally rises to cacophony then subsides.
SPURGEON: We had a very fun discussion in Vermont this year about collections, and one thing I think people began to take stock of this year is the amount of stuff that people with certain passions accumulate over time, and what's to be done with it. Do you know what the ultimate destination is for the stuff you have? Do you have any thoughts on all of this material being put back into circulation or used in a different, more directed way over the next 20-40 years?
A large portion -- or so I thought -- of my papers and materials have already been donated to the HUIE Library at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas
. It's a vast collection they have in hand, and that's accessible to scholars, researchers, fans, etc. right now, and has been for a number of years. I'm overjoyed with having worked with Lea Ann Alexander and her staff, and Randy Duncan, at Henderson, but I eventually overwhelmed them, I fear. Then I moved in 2006, and holy shit, I still have literally tons
of stuff. It's quite a collection, but what to do with it all before I check out? Having helped my late friend Steve Perry deal with his copyrights and such before his death was pretty goddamned sobering, as has been my peripheral involvement with other late friends passing and their collections, which has lit a fire under my own ass to deal sooner than later with my own collections.
I had hoped CCS might be interested in the rest, but that's not the case. I offered to photocopy all the comics scripts in my archives, for instance, and the response was, "Uh, how about just a couple?" You'd think the complete Alan Moore/Bissette/Totleben/Veitch Swamp Thing
scripts would be of interest and use, but what do I know? Any institution I've approached in the past either express interest and do nothing, or want to (understandably) cherry-pick, which defeats the purpose. Thankfully, HUIE Library accepted (and has) a lot, but that connection has drifted -- my fault, as much as anyone's, I reckon, but -- well, we'll see. Maybe it'll all end up there.
I'll be donating a few choice bits of my comic original art collection to CCS, I'm sure; James and I have talked about that, and I'll be making decisions shortly. I'm dealing with what to do with the rest now, and my now-adult daughter, son, and stepson will be brought into the decisions at some point, but right now it's just so much shit to them -- you know, "Dad's shit," some with sentimental value, some desirable, mostly clutter. I've no desire to just sell my original art all off, and it's still of use to me and must be completely scanned, catalogued, etc. Who knows. I'll sort it out, hopefully with more sense and responsibility than I've seen in how my late friends have dealt with their respective life clutter, and hopefully in time... which, per usual, "time will tell."
More difficult to navigate or predict is what I'll do with the intangibles: the intellectual properties, all my writing, illustration, artwork, stories, copyrights, trademarks. I'm sorting some of that out now, and I'll use print-on-demand and ebooks to gather digital files for publication (if only to sort and prep it for my kids to access after I'm gone), but nobody's interested in the stuff that requires long-term vigilance or work: the copyrights, the trademarks, and they're frankly of little or no value until and unless I elevate their value by getting it all back into print and developing it further. The irony is after I'm dead, it'll be of interest and value, I reckon; but right now, it's all sort of inert, save for the occasional reprint option, and frankly the interviews I've done over the years generated more interest and revenue for me in 2009-2011 than anything I did in comics outside of Swamp Thing
. It's a weird limbo to be in. I'm struggling with related issues -- work-for-hire being the only legal terms under which I can work with others on my quartet of the 1963 characters in order to protect the trademarks and copyrights; division of shared creative properties; and so on -- which slows everything down terribly at times, but there it is. I'm only hurting my now-adult offspring if I don't sort all this shit out now
, and once and for all.
But back to the material collections: being in the economic Depression we're in nationally, most collections are either under lock and key, or being sold off to make ends meet. I find it amusing that some of my peers talk about selling their collections to institutions; I thought myself lucky to find one (HUIE Library) willing to accept the donation. Maybe this interview answer will prompt some action about this for me.
SPURGEON: Your book,
Teen Angels & New Mutants, is very ambitious in terms of all that it could be said to encompass. It can be seen as a book about process, and one about a historical moment, and about making art generally, graphic novels as a kind of art-making, and just about this specific work. Can you talk about your aims going in, considering how many ways a reader can dig into the final result?
Personally, I think a book like Teen Angels
is long overdue -- I wish I could have simply read such a book, instead of writing it myself, but there you go. More often than not, you make the media you need yourself. As sometimes happens, this emerged from a freelance commission.
Teen Angels & New Mutants
was, going in, simply an essay Rick Veitch was commissioning me to write about the genesis of Rick Veitch's Brat Pack
, the Tundra miniseries and the King Hell revised graphic novel. Sitting on our back lawn in the summer of 2007, Rick specifically asked for me to give him "both barrels," cover everything in detail, for a planned King Hell
anniversary hardcover Brat Pack
collected edition; we agreed it would not be a hagiography, but rather an extensive and intensive dissection of all the led to Brat Pack
, we agreed on payment, and I jumped in. I wrote multiple drafts, each time submitting the current draft to Rick for input, corrections, and revisions, responding to Rick's needs (remove this, add that) and push to go deeper -- and I ended up with a book manuscript. In the end, I had to strip back the final draft to abridge it to long essay form, for the Brat Pack
As a professional writer who loves writing nonfiction, this is a pretty familiar process for me: The same happened when Christopher Golden
, Tom Sniegoski
and I wrote The Monster Book: Buffy The Vampire Slayer
for Pocket Books
, and when I did extensive monster research and a full examination of relevant monster myths, lore, and pop cultural archetypes for the law firm representing Pixar in a lawsuit about Monster, Inc.
(which I didn't think I was ever supposed to discuss, but since it's discussed in David A. Price's book The Pixar Touch
, I reckon it's all right for me to do so, now). The client -- Pocket Books, the Pixar legal reps, Rick Veitch -- ask for an expansive study of something, followed by ever-more-extensive revisions, for deeper research and analysis, and in the end we end up with a monstrous book manuscript, which I (or, in the case of The Monster Book
, we) have to abridge it into a tighter publishable page count or format. I cut my teeth on the same process in 1991 with the novella Aliens: Tribes
, completing what I thought was a final draft for Dark Horse to the contractual word count, only to have to cut that by 10,000 words when Dark Horse realized the contractual word count was too expansive for the physical format of the book. That was insane on Aliens: Tribes
, having to all be done as a sweeping rethink/rewrite in a single pressure-cooker week (due to DH sitting on the ms. for months without attention or activity; after the extensive rewrite, it sat for another few months sans attention, business as usual at Dark Horse, by my experience). With Rick, it was a much saner, measured process, and we were both happy with the end result, in both the complete book length and the abridged essay form.
It's an odd book, one I never would have written without being commissioned to do so, but it is a book I'm intensely proud of and pleased with, and the kind of analysis of a singular graphic novel work I always wanted to read. There was nothing else like it, as far as I knew: a full autopsy of a single work, tracing (to the best of my ability, within the time constraints and deadline I was working within) all the cultural and pop cultural threads that culminated in this creator's life, this creator's body of work, and this creator's business affairs and career arc, and how all those threads coalesced into Brat Pack
, and then following the ripples from the publication of the singular work and all that came after it, in the culture, the pop culture, and comics. In the best of all worlds, I'd love to write such a book about, say, Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary
, or American Splendor
, or, closer to home, Swamp Thing
, or From Hell
, but Brat Pack
was the creation I was assigned to autopsy, and like a good coroner, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
I ended up working on the project for two and a half years, and completing both a full book version and abridged version that Rick accepted; in the end, the ever-declining direct sales market conditions prompted Rick to pull the plug on his planned hardcover definitive Brat Pack
edition, and Rick gave the full ms. back to me with his blessings to publish it as a solo book and keep the fee he'd paid me. He furthermore offered to let me include whatever Brat Pack
artwork I needed for the book, sans cost, recognizing (as publishers don't seem to these days) that it would ultimately only promote him and his work. In the end, I gave the whole book one more revision and polish through the winter of 2009–2010, ran that past Rick one last time to be sure I'd betrayed no confidences or inadvertently compromised him in some way, and he graciously agreed to allowing me to use two of his commissioned Brat Pack
sketch portraits for the front and back cover art. I briefly shopped Teen Angels
around, and was declined by a clutch of publishers (including Headpress in the UK, who I really hoped would take it on), and turned to the more modest print-on-demand with my long-time friend Jean-Marc Lofficier at Black Coat Press to finally get it out there. My pal Cayetano "Cat" Garza, Jr.
, with whom I've done a procession of covers for various books and publications, took on the final coloring of Rick's cover pieces and cover design, and Jean-Marc helped me winnow down the plethora of illustrations I had to what you see in the final book, and reformatted the files as necessary for print-on-demand in black and white. Black Coat no longer distributes through Diamond, but does have distribution via Ingram
, Baker and Taylor
, and all the various internet venues, so I reactivated my long-defunct SpiderBaby account with Diamond, and we got Teen Angel
out with as wide a possible distribution as was possible. For me, by that time, it was a grand experiment with expanding upon my initial print-on-demand experiments: regional with Green Mountain Cinema
, a book on Vermont films and filmmakers I did back in 2000 and self-distributed in my home state, and S.R. Bissette's Blur
, a complete five-volume collection of my weekly newspaper "Video Views" film review columns (circa 1999-2002) and other film-related writing I'd done in the past. I've learned something with each venture, and Teen Angels
allowed me to assess the current possibilities a bit, though I naturally recognized from the get-go it was a peculiar book with a limited audience.
Personally, Teen Angels
was immensely satisfying, too, because it was the ideal and proper vehicle to finally sort out, make sense of, and really chart disturbing pop cultural and cultural trends that had intruded upon and in ways shaped my own life: not just comics industry trends, transformations, and upheavals that Rick and I worked within and through, but also aspects of American culture and teen pop culture, specifically the ongoing exploitation and abuse of youth in myriad media. My friend G. Michael Dobbs
had once jokingly suggested America needed a book on "pedophile pop culture," and Brat Pack
certainly was the ideal catalyst for addressing that sick aspect of our culture, which is quite real and pervasive, particularly on the Disney Channel and shows like Tots And Tiaras
these days. As it was Rick's and Brat Pack
's story, not my own, there were formative experiences I left out of the book: the details of Joe Orlando
's abusive portfolio review of yours truly back in 1977, in which he told me "we're not selling comics, we're selling sex," which is cited but not detailed; my first wife Marlene's and my brush with the child model industry, when our daughter Maia passionately wanted to be part of a sweeping audition for child models, which we reluctantly engaged with -- what an experience that was!; the wide-sweeping late 1980s/early 1990s wave of adults overwhelmed by "recovered memories" of having been sexually abused as a child, which spilled fully into our lives via Marlene's experiencing just that (which I referenced in two footnotes in Teen Angels
, but didn't get into beyond that); the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandals, which exploded just after Mike Diana's trial in Florida and after Brat Pack
, but are still ongoing. Since both Rick and I were raised Catholic, that had great significance to us both, and in one draft of the book I did have a more expansive chapter on Mike Diana, the CBLDF, and the Catholic sexual abuse scandal, but I decided it was too peripheral to Brat Pack
-- Rick was involved with none of that, nor was Brat Pack
, so I cut that completely and I'm glad I did, just as I'm glad I cut the chapter I was working on about Dave Sim, the Spirits of Independence tours, and the Fantagraphics-fomented "misogynist Dave" character assassination and consequences -- that wasn't part of the Brat Pack
years or experience, that came afterwards, and again Rick and Brat Pack
weren't directly involved (those were the Roarin' Rick's Rarebit Fiends
years, which wasn't the focus of this book). As it is, it clocks in at 400 pages, and that's after trimming away such fat.
But it was appropriate, both Rick and I thought, to really dig into Fredric Wertham's writings and their impact on comics, and Harvey Kurtzman and MAD
, though again the focal point of Brat Pack
determined which aspects of Wertham and Kurtzman it was appropriate to discuss. Teen Angels
did provide a stellar vehicle for tracing how preteen and teen culture played a role in Rick's life (those Davey Crockett hats, sex drugs & rock 'n' roll in Rick's rural Vermont teen years, becoming a young father before entering Kubert School) and the teen idol phenomenon (which I initially experienced via my younger sister growing up -- she was the David Cassidy generation -- and later via my daughter -- who was part of the Jonathan Brandis and Leonardo DiCaprio generation) and its relationship with comicbook teen sidekick archetype and iconography. The political dimensions were essential, too, but since that component wasn't as central to Brat Pack
as it was to, say, Rick's The One
, I thought it best to save that for the final chapter of the book, where I speed-dial the reader through a synopsis of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush years Brat Pack
emerged from and existed within.
I wish I could have included, as an appendix, certain documentation -- the Brat Pack
proposals and pitch art, which, understandably, Rick is reserving for that someday-to-be-published definitive King Hell Brat Pack
special edition -- and was compelled to hire Bill Volk to prepare the Brat Pack
synopsis appendices, which would have been unnecessary in the proper context of the planned Brat Pack
definitive edition, it's pretty much the book Rick wanted, too. I wish I could have provided somewhere a more intimate snapshot of Rick's process, as an artist, writer, and freelancer, but he resisted that and I didn't push it. Rick's got one of the strongest work ethics I've ever seen in a human being, the kind I've seen in only a handful of cartoonists -- Joe Kubert, Tim Truman, Alec Longstreth -- but that would have come across as hagiography, and we'd agreed from the start not to go there. I think tracing, instead, the insider details of Brat Pack
's genesis, from a proposal for DC Comics and its brush with Piranha Press, to its eventual publication as a coproduction of King Hell and Tundra, does the job of detailing process in its twin threads of creative process and the necessary business of selling and publishing such a project.
There were concessions I made to not sharing certain privileged, insider knowledge we had, either individually or together; I let Rick determine that comfort level, not just because he was initially the client, but because he was the one who had to live with Teen Angels
existing at all. With certain passages, like discussion of the Tundra years and Alan Moore, it just seemed wiser to cite only the public record, specifically the print (not the online) public record on Tundra, and more specifically Rick's and Kevin Eastman's public interviews concerning Tundra, and leave it at that. I think I negotiated that minefield with some precision, losing no limbs, fingers, toes, or readers. The fact that once it was published Rick wanted copies for his sons Ezra and Kirby spoke volumes to me -- I think it's a pretty solid piece of work, accomplishing everything I'd set out to do. It does, I hope, establish a new threshold for the kind of analysis of graphic novels there should be much, much more
of, for those works deserving or rewarding such scrutiny. The fact that 2010 closed with Teen Angels
making it on to one academic's amazon.com list of "Essential Books on Comics History
" was awfully gratifying; I hope this book eventually builds an audience and prompts similar books on other comics and graphic novels of merit.
SPURGEON: This was something I asked Art Spiegelman about his MetaMaus. Did you intend any part of the book to be critical -- of a certain kind of comics making, or a certain poverty in the collective critical apparatus -- perhaps using Rick's book as an positive example?
I've just finished reading MetaMaus
-- Marge gave it to me for Christmas -- so I think I can fairly address this. Yes, I completely intended it as just that, Tom. I came to see Teen Angles
as a gauntlet of sorts: "here, take up this challenge. I dare you." Ya, that was part of it, for sure.
I think our cultural dialogue about our own culture and pop culture is horribly shallow and impoverished, and despite the blossoming of academic comics studies, I think "the collective critical apparatus" applied to comics and graphic novels is also terribly shallow, myopic, and inadequate.
Now, Brat Pack
is admittedly an odd choice: Rick's comics are an acquired taste, Swamp Thing
remains his most mainstream venue and success (with Army@Love
a close second, possibly), Brat Pack
was never a blockbuster hit (except in the context of Rick's self-publishing King Hell Press ventures), and the topic and graphic novel itself remain pretty unsavory fare for the casual reader. But then again, so is the Holocaust -- but I put it to you that the Holocaust as the focus of a graphic novel still is considered more palatable than a graphic novel about how we devour our young. Be that as it may, Brat Pack
was the subject at hand because this book grew out of a commission -- just as MetaMaus
grew out of a commission of sorts, from his publisher, for Art to reissue his Maus
CD-Rom for a new generation, and to publish a new Maus
artifact that was in keeping with the serious nature of Maus
and the considerable (deserved) high esteem Maus
is held in. So, there's a mercantile agenda to both books, and both those mercantile agendas either originated with, or were sanctioned by, the creators of the graphic novels that are the singular subjects of each book. In his discussion of working with art and Holocaust galleries in MetaMaus
, Art clearly states his discomfort with the commercial aspects of all this, but there it is: MetaMaus
exists because it is
a commercial package, just as Teen Angels
exists at all because Rick had a commercial impulse that initiated its creation. They're really odd companion volumes, book-ending 2010, though of course MetaMaus
will be much, much wider known, read, and appraised; MetaMaus
is a prestige full-color book with a bonus DVD/CD component by a prestige author from a prestige publisher about a prestige Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel getting prestige promotion and book store distribution. Teen Angels
is, by comparison, a rather paltry black-and-white brick that's reached, at best, about 500 readers; it isn't even a small fish in a small pond, it's a walking catfish gasping its way from a dried-out mud-baked canal in search of a puddle with enough water to breath in.
That said, and all due bowing and scraping to Art and Maus
and all that embodies, I wish MetaMaus
had some distance from Art in order to offer as expansive an analysis of Maus
richly deserves, and that the creative community (rather than the New Yorker Maus
audience) needs. The interviews with family members are illuminating, but again, its insular, and all very protective of Art's bubble, wherein looking and probing outside the creator's own bubble is what's essential for full assessment of any such, or similar, magnitude or scope. There is a very real cartography aspect to this kind of nonfiction work, and one really needs to be in love with mapping everything, including the subterranean currents, eddies, and abysses.
Without being either too glib or unduly critical, there are self-evident blindspots in Metamaus
that I wish weren't there, as there are questions I've long had about Maus
are not only aren't answered, they aren't even addressed. It's one thing to terminate the discussion of Holocaust literature and pop culture without even mentioning, much less illuminating, the darker abysses of the really overt and fleetingly popular at a mainstream level Holocaust-exploitation of Hogan's Heroes
(1965–1971; it's almost unthinkable that TV series isn't even mentioned in MetaMaus
!) to the mid-1970s Holocaust porn wave, soft and hard, from Liliana Cavani's Il Portiere Di Notte/The Night Porter
(1974) to Tinto Brass's Salon Kitty
(1976) or Don Edmond's Ilsa, She-Wolf Of The SS
(1975, perversely shot on the to-be-demolished sets of Hogan's Heroes
, which only adds to the sick electricity of the whole endeavor) to the really trashy Italian imitators. On the one hand, that's arguably a matter of personal taste -- Art's, surely -- and such fare is dismissed as glibly as Art dismisses the EC horror comics, given brief scrutiny via the showing of one men's adventure magazine cover, mention and showing of one suspect paperback slice of Holocaust porn, and his reference to "the Big Taboo" all this stuff was in his life. But part of the import, power, and necessity of Maus
is its powerful redress of those base exploitations of the Holocaust -- which were very pervasive components of the 1970s, domestically and internationally -- and to my mind quite relevant to the nerves Maus
struck, and for its success, aesthetically and commercially. Art admittedly addresses some of the relevant issues, if not the content, in his own self-analysis of his own underground comix work he's less than proud of (the Viper, etc.), but I wish some further context were there, or at least more than merely hinted at.
I wish Art had gotten into the nuts and bolts of Maus
's extensive, odd publishing history, which really is extraordinary -- it's there, piecemeal, in MetaMaus
, efficiently summarized in one paragraph and that glorious double-page spread of rejection letters, but it's not cohesively scrutinized or assessed. Nor is there discussion of the inherent problem Maus
or any work of similar scope presents for the graphic novel creators and publishers: how the hell does any publishing model adequately nurture, much less subsidize, a substantial work that took over a decade, four publishing venues, and a fucking Guggenheim grant to complete? I was relieved when he got into the crazy ride associated with Don Bluth
iconography to convert it into pre-digested sugary pop pabulum with An American Tail
(1986) as an immediate contemporary of Maus
, even as Art was still working on Maus
; that was, in its way, another form of Holocaust porn, if you will, as was Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List
(1993), both closer in their ways to Hogan's Heroes
, but there you go. But what about the Air Pirates? How did the emergence, and the fate, of the Air Pirates and their appropriation of Disney characters and iconography influence, or dissuade, Art's evolution of Maus
? Why not, in context with mentioning Harvey Pekar's attack on Maus
and Art in The Comics Journal
, reprint a portion of Harvey's essay? Why didn't they interview Harvey while he was still with us?
Now, I completely understand why Art doesn't, and didn't, go there, or in same cases only goes there in with the briefest of discussion or flirtation, but it's part of the cultural stew that Maus
emerged from and exists within. For all I know, Art's editor(s) may have resisted or edited out discussion of those elements, or Art may even resent my raising the issues or making the point. In any case, it unfortunately makes MetaMaus
a shallower work than Maus
deserves, and I say that with all due humility, respect, and regret, and mean absolutely no disrespect to Art or the book that exists, which is nonetheless a fantastic and invaluable tome. It just should have gone deeper, and cast its net wider, than the format and decorum (if you will) allowed, and in that there's an aspect of hagiography: only Art's self-critical capacity affords any measure of critical analysis, and that's always going to be an issue when it's an artist dissecting their own "body," so to speak.
That's the problem with interview-based, or autobiographical, self-analysis: you skirt the elements you simply don't wish to discuss, or have out there, for whatever reason, or you're too close to your own creation: you can't see the forest for the trees, and nobody involved with the project (MetaMaus
) is going to risk pointing that out to you. There was a bit of that in writing Teen Angels
-- the entire Tundra chapter really was a potential minefield, but Rick's candor in his own interviews about the subject made it relatively straightforward to navigate; discussion of Alan Moore was tougher, given the complexities of that 25+ years inter-relationship, but since it was peripheral to Brat Pack
, I think I managed that just fine, too. Besides, I challenged Rick about that during our first conversation about the project in the summer of 2007, and that's when he said, "I want both barrels, Steve." So, I had a certain license to perform my autopsy of Rick's career and Brat Pack
that I don't think Art can or would give himself to autopsy himself, or Maus
I also think, in the case of both MetaMaus
and Teen Angels
, we've got relatively expansive illustrated texts only because the books were sanctioned and completed with the full participation of the creators of the works being scrutinized: of course, Art is going to allow the reprinting of any component of his work or of Maus
to service his own self-analysis (which make MetaMaus
, oddly enough, as much a confessional memoir as Alison Bechdel's Fun Home
). Rick Veitch withheld only a few components I would have loved to have included in Teen Angels
, and that was because he's saving them for the eventual definitive Brat Pack
edition, not because he didn't want that material to ever see print. But would Art have so fully sanctioned an autonomous outsider author's fully-illustrated autopsy of Maus
? Would his publisher allow it? Would any publisher publish it? Would Rick have so fully cooperated with an outside author on some equivalent to Teen Angels
? Would he have allowed the use of the registered Brat Pack
trademark, and the artwork? Those are the questions these books beg, really. These are steps in the right direction, but only steps, though I think both are substantial and significant works, if I may say so.
As with so many aspects of American life, our collective conscious and unconscious capitulation to corporate proprietary belief systems has in part crippled that apparatus, or its development. We've long been in a publishing environment wherein asking permission of corporate proprietors to include images or illustrations -- from comics, from films, from TV shows, concerts, whatever -- usually results in punitive threats and the removal of any such illustrations. I've seen it first hand -- University Press of New England, the publisher of two books I illustrated, The Vermont Ghost Guide
(2000) and The Vermont Monster Guide
(2009), was publishing an academic text on pop cultural images of Africa, and the author wanted to include one
illustration of DC's Congorilla from the 1950s. Being an academic press, they required the author to secure permission, rather than evoking (as they should, I believe) fair use laws, and as a result DC's legal department issued a letter threatening legal action if they dared reprint a single panel image of Congorilla. My friends who write film and cinema studies have long told me "don't ask" when it comes to using stills to illustrate an article or book, with ample case histories and personal anecdotes to make their point. If dialogue about pop culture ipso facto necessitates extravagant illustration budgets far in excess of what the writer might earn simply to illustrate the book or certain chapters, or the elimination of illustrations altogether because the corporate proprietors demand either excessive permission fees and/or scrutiny of the manuscript to ensure no negative criticism of their property, practices, or policies exists, we're firmly in the era of legally-enforced corporate rule of any dialogue about corporate-owned pop culture.
I briefly chart in Teen Angels
DC's legacy of tolerating certain cultural play and appropriation of Batman
iconography, issuing "cease and desist" primarily when that play and appropriation edges into the taboo turf of homosexuality in the Batman iconography. Why are Mel Ramos's famed Pop Art paintings celebrated and published in every Pop Art history book, while any artist introducing overt homosexual elements is shut down? When a serious journal like John Lent's International Journal Of Comic Art
, out of rational dread of legal prosecution, avoids fair use publication of certain Batman
archival images to illustrate analysis of that pop cultural artifact, and instead The Comics Journal
publishes every one of those images in their news coverage of the self-censorship of IJCA because the corporate owners have a long-standing policy of tolerating fan publications publishing archival images of their characters, comics, and properties, something is inherently broken, and fair use laws are being shunned in the shadow of being able to only write, if you will, corporate-sanctioned hagiographies of fictional entities.
I think it bodes well for the evolving dialogue that we've seen these two books emerge in 2010, and from such divergent reaches of the current publishing spectrum: an ambitious but lowly black-and-white print-on-demand 400+ page book on Brat Pack
, and a handsome, full-color, polished jewel of a mainstream book on Maus
, both sanctioned by the authors of the graphic novels being studied. It's a great first step, and it's sheer providence that both emerged separately in the same year, as they have. But the real test lies ahead: what comes next? Who is up to the challenge? For instance, is a genuine critical analysis of From Hell
possible without it being a licensed spinoff, or (again) essentially a hagiography of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell? Would, say, a comprehensive Vertigo Comics history and analysis be possible without the sanction and involvement of DC Comics? Can anyone but Fantagraphics publish a critical history of Fantagraphics (which is, I daresay, long overdue), or Dark Horse alone publish a Dark Horse Comics history and critical study (also long overdue)? Like the critical Walt Disney biographies, can such a work only exist sans illustrations, because the parent corporation doesn't wish such an analysis existed? Does the current paradigm -- in which academic presses are afraid to face legal challenges, and fair use is deliberately challenged by corporate legal departments in order to squelch free speech rather than simply protect trademarks or copyright, and so on -- only permit the kind of borderline hagiography MetaMaus
and Teen Angels
actually embody, or is something more challenging, intensive, and invaluable viable?
We'll see. I, for one, would love to read such a book by Tom Spurgeon
, for instance...
SPURGEON: Hey, I greatly enjoy the artwork of yours I get to see now. You talked earlier about taking on certain gigs to have that experience through which to teach your students, and you talked about your retirement. When you make art, is that still a fulfilling thing for you? How do you regard the act of making art considering your long career, and your own relationship to it, and the tacit endorsement that comes with giving the next generation of cartoonists tools with which to make this stuff on their own?
I'm glad you find some pleasure in it, Tom. I've posted a new sketch a week on my blog since January of 2009, and just wrapped that up yesterday, with my final Myrant sketch for sale. It was fun while it lasted. I wish I could get more of it into print, but I just don't care any longer to fight those battles; it's tedious and numbing and frankly doesn't pay enough to be worthwhile. I don't care to keep providing a free art gallery online, either, though I'll keep the archived material up as long as there's a blogosphere to archive it in, so there's an abundance of eye candy there of Bissette art now, but I'm done feeding that beast.
My creative wiring is odd: I love writing, and can write anytime, anywhere, for any length of time, for any venue, paid or free, it doesn't matter. I can make full use of however long or short a time span is available to me, be it minutes in the morning or hours during the day, whether I'm tackling fiction or nonfiction. I love writing, and do it every single day, without ever hitting "writer's block" -- it just flows for me, always. I'm so thankful to my late pal Chas Balun for opening that door in the late 1980s, and much good has come of it. It's been almost effortless to keep up an essentially daily blog with Myrant
since the late summer of 2005, and I'll miss that daily fix once I disengage to just posting weekly, starting this very week [January 1st, 2012]. I'm pouring that writing time into work on a few book projects, with my Watson-Guptill How To Make A Monster
instructional book first and foremost on the keyboard and boards. It's a text-heavy undertaking, packed with art but also quite an intensive showcase for my philosophy of drawing monsters -- what they are, why they are, and why they're important as well as fun -- and I'm enjoying that tremendously.
Drawing, though, is something else altogether. Sketching I can do anytime, anywhere, but "drawing" at the board, on a specific job or piece, specifically drawing comics or commissioned freelance work, requires a privacy and process and re-entering of the trance that can be daunting. While I love the ease and work of drawing once I'm there, in that space, I loathe the process of going into that space, and find the disengaging unpleasant, too -- I've got my demons, so to speak, and they're all drawing-related. I'm easily aggravated and peevish when I'm working through that, and I don't know how my first wife and my kids put up with it through the Swamp Thing
years, I really don't. My second wife, Marge, hasn't had to deal with it much at all, and we've a coded "beware of Bissette dog" method -- if I'm playing music in my drawing studio, leave me be! -- that's worked out fine. Drawing -- that's where the emotional baggage and obstacles are for me. I've struggled with it for decades, and it's just how it is for me. I won't bore you with the psychoanalysis (I did therapy for a few years) or baggage, it's just how it is for me. Except for the blissful three years I had working on Tyrant
, I've never been in a work situation that was drawing-related wherein either payment or employment made it easier -- I can't fathom why publishers insist upon presenting obstacles as they do, since I'm great at generating my own ample provision of obstacles. So, anyhoot, there it is, in a nutshell.
I've arrived at a place where I most enjoy doing comics in a less structured, regimented fashion. The comics I've done since 2005 tend to be pretty spare and lean affairs, rather than the lush density of what I was doing in Swamp Thing
, and that's kept it pleasurable enough for me. I can't engage with the constant redrawing and redrafting process typical of graphic novelists like Art Spiegelman and James Sturm: that just sucks the life out of drawing for me, it really does. In writing, the rewriting and multiple drafts is essential, and very pleasurable; in comics, it kills me. I lose all interest in the project at hand, and would prefer to wash my hands of it rather than go through another redraft. I found an equilibrium with the process when I was doing Tyrant
, thanks in part to having my own open schedule, thanks in part to being in a studio space that physically accommodated having an entire issue's pages hanging up on the wall as I worked them through, able to shuffle, replace, and rework them as necessary with the entire chapter in clear view at all times. I'd relegate my redrawing, as much as possible, to the preliminary tracing paper stages, and save the juicy fun for the final inks, when I could savor the sensual process of bringing it all to life with brush, pen, ink, and white-out. There's a sculptural quality I quite enjoy in inking that is unlike any other aspect of doing comics -- I'm not sure how else to describe it. Dave Sim once likened inking to "skating," and I can see that, though the metaphor doesn't work for me entirely since I was a suck-ass ice skater. I don't fall down half as much when I'm inking, and my ass and back doesn't hurt when I do.
I'm quite enjoying drawing this "how to draw monsters" book, though the stop-and-start of scanning or photocopying my stages of drawing is at times frustrating. It's tough to keep a flow going having to record each step; I've arrived at a solution that works for me, if it'll work for my editor, of lightboxing stages, so I can just go with each stage in a fashion that preserves the process as a separate drawing in and of itself. It was more fun doing the illustrations for the Vermont Monster Guide
, where I was contractually obligated to deliver 50 or 60 pieces and came through with 80 or more, including the covers -- I was still wrapping up inks on new "monsters" the book's author Joe Citro (one of my best friends) was turning up after we'd turned in everything, and I basically asked the art director and editor to just pull the plug when necessary, and they did so right after we turned in two new entries in the final two days of work on the book. I could have happily kept going. As I say, once I'm in that zone, it's a sheer pleasure for me, but the process of getting into it, and getting out, finds me surly and moody. It's weird.
I can't properly address your query about my own drawing providing a "tacit endorsement" for my students: they're there because they've already been bitten by the bug, and must draw. If anything, I sometimes fear my relative paucity of comics output compromises my teaching abilities. I mean, God, Jason is juggling raising a family (his kids are quite young), writing and drawing Berlin
for next to no income, and
teaching -- he's incredible, I don't know how he does it, but then I remember when my kids were his kids' age, I was struggling (and often failing) to make deadlines on penciling a 23-page monthly DC comic book. In any case, I think Jason, Jon Chad, James Sturm, and Alec Longstreth provide much better role models, in terms of drawing and creating comics, for the CCSers than I ever could or would. Most of my students are far more accomplished craftspersons than I'll ever be, but I've got 50+ years of drawing under my belt, and there's a comfort level with making marks that I've arrived at that I know is daunting for them to observe when I do, say, an inking demo. I always point out to them I've been at it half-a-century or more, and they can sort out the math.
I'm still hoping to return to Tyrant
in my lifetime; now, that would be something of value to bring into the classroom, with new pages instead of Tyrant
as a frozen artifact. Joe Kubert is doing his best work while in his 70s and 80s, and I had the pleasure of commissioning a few tasty Sky Solo portraits from my hero Sam Glanzman, who is now 88, so I'm sure I've got a few years ahead of me still, life and God and luck willing. Between the Vermont Monster Guide
and the ongoing work on the "how to make a monster" instructional book, I think I could almost match the chops I had in the mid-1990s, when all I was doing was Tyrant
. Who knows? Now and again, something comes up that makes it fun again. Re-establishing contact with Leah Moore in Denmark some years back led to my doing a couple of things for AccentUK, a comics collective Leah and her husband John Reppion were part of. When I'm invited to do something via the CCSers lights a wee fire: out of the blue, CCS pioneer class alumnus Sean Morgan pushed me to collaborate with him on an alien abduction story back in 2006 or 2007, and that was fun; I did a Tyrant
one-pager for Sundays
#1; stories or pages for Secrets & Lies
, a western piece for a western anthology, a framing two pages for a town-based theme anthology Nomi Kane concocted and shepherded to completion, and so on. It keeps my hand in it a bit beyond my private sketchbook comix pieces.
Cat Garza really wanted to get me going with digital comix. I tried to work up a head of steam doing my first digital comic early in 2010 -- "King of Monster Isle," back in January
through spring -- but I didn't dig it. It killed the revenue stream I'd built up posting sketches regularly, generated lots of "hits" on the site but nothing in the way of helping pay the monthly bills, and it was just too much work to juggle between freelance work, CCS teaching, and everything else. Besides that, I hate engaging with the digital realm with my art: there's none of the tactile pleasures of drawing for me, and I loathe how my work looks on a fucking computer monitor; there was none of the pleasure of seeing it in print, when a proper printing job has been done, which is what has held me back from doing comics as either print-on-demand or ebooks (among other technical learning curves that I've yet to engage with).
Being out of the trance, too, makes the long-term commitment to any comics venture problematic. Maybe I'll find a way to fall back into the trance, long enough to work through a few more comics creations of substance. Time will tell. If it happens, it'll be thanks to my son Daniel rekindling the urge some years back, and CCS and the CCSers making it inviting and viable again. If it doesn't happen, well, I've already had a hell of a run from 1976 to 1999, and that's nothing to spit at, either.
* The Center For Cartoon Studies
* Teen Angels & New Mutants
* photo of Bissette and friend by Joseph A. Citro; used with permission and all copyrights owned by Mr. Citro
* Seth brochure image from the early days of CCS
* early Bissette work
* the 1941
* a panel from some of Bissette's original art collection
* a Steve Ditko image
* Bissette draws monsters; from his "King Of Monster Isle" serial
* a proto-comic, the pre-comics comics being a part of Bissette's history course at CCS
* this Swamp Thing
art from Bissette would not exist without his schooling
* Henry Darger is not a vocational example to follow
* an image from Fort Thunder alum Leif Goldberg; they made their own school
#4; Bissette in the zone
* Bissette drawing of Bigfoot from Vermont Monster Guide
* from 1963
, an extended tribute to the early days of Marvel Comics
* Bissette cover image for Tattoo
, far behind him when the troubles hit
* Teen Angels & New Mutants
* Ilsa, She-Wolf Of The SS
* a more recent drawing of Bissette's
* image from a comics project with son Daniel
* another Vermont monster sketch (below)
posted 4:30 pm PST
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