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CR Holiday Interview #14—Steve Bissette
posted March 22, 2012

imageSteve 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?

STEVE BISSETTE: 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, Walt 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.

imageSPURGEON: 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?

BISSETTE: 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/Marvel Age 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 or Elfquest, "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, Arcade, 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 and Epic 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 Epic or Dr. Wirtham's, to deviate from the industrialized process.

imageEven 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 for Marvel, 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?

BISSETTE: 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!

imageI 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?

BISSETTE: 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.

imageJust 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