"Stephen R. Bissette Interview"

by Roger A. Ash
August, 1996

Stephen R. Bissette is probably best known for his work on DC's Swamp Thing and his self-published book Tyrant, which tells the life story of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Bissette recently spoke with Worlds of Westfield Content Editor Roger A. Ash about his new self-published title, Spider Baby Comix, as well as Tyrant.

Westfield: What can you tell us about Spider Baby Comix?

Stephen R. Bissette: Spider Baby Comix is a gathering place for the material that I've been responsible for, or collaborated on, over the 20 years I've been working in comics. It is a mature readers title. I've had the luck over the last 20 years to work with a lot of people who are good friends to this day, like Rick Veitch, his brother Tom Veitch, Larry Shell, Steve Perry - there's quite a body of work there. It was something Rick Veitch and I had discussed off and on over the past five or six years. At one point, we were going to do it as a book. But now's the time. A couple of things prompted my doing it this year. One of them, of course, being the collapse of Capital, because I need capital [laughter]. Also, DC is re-releasing the whole run of Swamp Thing that Alan Moore wrote and John Totleben and I illustrated as a monthly. It just seemed silly for me to sit on this material any longer. I'm finding with the signings and conventions I do these days that we have a whole new generation of readers coming into the field, and a lot of them haven't seen the earlier work.

Westfield: So this goes all the way back to '76?

Bissette: '75 actually, which surprised me. I forgot [laughter]. My first self published material was back in 1975. It was a comic entitled Abyss. A number of friends of mine at Johnson State College (way up in Johnson, Vermont) pooled our resources. One of my friends, Tim Viereck, ponied up $200, which in those days would buy you 200 copies of a 48-page magazine-format periodical. We put out one issue of Abyss and a lot of that material still holds up. I am going to give a good blend to each issue of more recent work as well as the older work. But it does go back that far. If Spider Baby does well, if there is an audience out there for the work that I'm doing besides Tyrant, I'll start putting in some of the new material I've been playing with as well.

Westfield: Where did some of this material originally appear?

Bissette: Boy, all over the place. By the mid-1970's, the underground comix were closed houses. It was hard for someone in my position to interest Ron Turner at Last Gasp or the folks at Rip Off Press in the kind of stuff that I was doing because I wasn't of that generation, although I'd grown up reading the underground comix. So some of my early work appeared in what, for want of a better word, I'll call the "fringe" undergrounds. Most of them were East Coast, and I landed work while going to school at the Joe Kubert School in New Jersey. Clifford Neal was publishing Dr. Wirtham's Comix & Stories out of Mystic, Connecticut. Larry Shell was just starting his publishing operations with titles like Fifties Funnies and Alien Encounters. Larry calls his titles "aftergrounds." Some of the work was done for fanzines, including the last hurrah of fanzines like Rocket's Blast Comic Collector, the RBCC, and so on. So I appeared in a lot of odd places - anyone who would have me [laughter]. I'll also be reprinting some of the material that appeared in more mainstream publications - Heavy Metal, Epic, magazines like that.

Westfield: Will you be able to reprint any of the black and white work you did for Marvel?

Bissette: That's up in the air. I obviously won't be able to reprint any of the stuff using their characters, like the Dracula story that Steve Perry wrote and I Illustrated. I did a few things for Bizarre Adventures. I have a letter of permission on file from the powers that were at Marvel to reprint one of the stories that I had done for Bizarre Adventures, but I wouldn't even know how to approach Marvel these days.

Westfield: Is there any work from the older time period that was never printed and will be showing up here for the first time?

Bissette: Oh, yeah, I'm pretty sure [laughter]. I'm surprised. In literally one evening I was able to put together two pretty solid issues of Spider Baby Comix, and I did find a fair amount of stuff that had never seen print.

The thing is, I look at the stuff and I'm just looking at slices of my past. It was a pleasant surprise once I had these ashcans together and I showed them to some friends of mine who weren't familiar with the work I'd done prior to Swamp Thing. They were very vocal and positive about their reactions to the stuff. I was also surprised that it was still shocking to people [laughter]. Maybe I'm just numb [laughter]. But there is that element if you're the person who had a hand in it: in the case of working with my buddy Rick Veitch, we were doing stories at that time to be provocative and shocking, and they seem to still have that impact on people. That was a pleasant surprise to me. I guess I always think we're in the "unshockable '90s," but I'm wrong. Just look at the legal prosecution of Mike Diana, Planet Comics, and so on.

Westfield: You mentioned that some of the work in Spider Baby Comix was done with Rick Veitch. Have you considered putting any of his solo work in the book?

Bissette: I'm just going to stay with my own stuff. Rick certainly has a huge body of his own solo work and if Spider Baby Comix does find an audience, I'm certainly going to encourage Rick to collect his material. As I've stated in a few other venues, I've really tried to get away from publishing. Self-publishing works for me, where I'm responsible to myself, and only myself. Stepping into reprinting this material puts me back in the venue of being a publisher because, in many cases, I was working with writers and I'm responsible to those people: getting their permission, making sure they're getting a fair share of the income, and so on. Those are chores I don't take lightly, responsibilities that can be a bit of a burden. One of the reasons I now feel comfortable launching this title is I feel, for better or worse, our market has stabilized for the time being. It feels like a safe window of opportunity, however narrow it may be. So, point being, no I'm not even going to be inviting my best friend in the world, Rick Veitch, to put his solo work under these covers, because I don't want to be responsible to Rick as a publisher beyond the relationship defined in the work that we collaborated on artistically. In that venue, both Rick and I are comfortable with this. Beyond that, I wouldn't be comfortable.

Westfield: From looking through the first issue, this appears to be mostly horror stories. Is that what we can expect from upcoming issues as well?

Bissette: Well, horror, fantasy, and humor. That's always been the bent of my nature. I've never had any secrets about it [laughter]. There will be some surprises down the road. There is some material that I'd forgotten about that falls outside of the genre. Even when I wasn't doing what I might consider horror, most people read it and go, "Wow. That's pretty creepy stuff" [laughter].

Westfield: You also plan on having articles in each issue. What sort of things can we expect to see there?

Bissette: Most of the articles will be autobiographical in nature, about a specific body of work. In the case of issue #2, I'm gonna be reprinting the story Kultz, a story that appeared originally in Epic #6. It was a story that I did before video had really taken hold in the home, a horrific fantasy about a shopping mall that was entirely dedicated to showing movies. Now that seems pretty absurd, because home video has steered us in another whole direction. But it still holds up as a story. Kultz was inspired by the "Midnight movies," which were a really important part of my college years, films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Eraserhead - one of my all time favorite films - El Topo. Drive-in films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead found new leases on life as "Midnight movies." These "Midnight movies" were an important phenomenon to people who loved cinema in the early and mid '70s. So, in issue #2 the article will be The Midnight Movies & Me, sort of a nostalgic piece. In a later issue I'll be reprinting a story I did for Larry Shell called Forgotten Fears of the Fifties, which involves Drive-In movies, so the article in that issue will share my drive-in memories. Sometimes in lieu of articles, I'll do autobiographical short comics. It's my magazine, cover to cover, so anything goes.

I'm looking at Spider Baby Comix as being a venue for a lot of the material that hasn't fit into the venue that I've set up with Tyrant. Tyrant's been focused, properly enough, on dinosaur and prehistoric material. I never felt it appropriate for me to use Tyrant to, for instance, talk about the market. I've got strong feelings about how things are going in the comics market. In Spider Baby, I can address that. So every issue will be 32 pages of comics plus another 16 pages of letters and articles and short essays. They'll all be pretty fully illustrated, so it's not like you'll be looking at 16 pages of solid six point type. There will be lots of "eye candy," fun stuff.

Westfield: Switching over to Tyrant, it's obvious you put a lot of research into each issue. How much time do you spend researching vs. the actual writing and drawing of an issue?

Bissette: A lot of time goes into the research. My reading habits have slipped away from reading novels and short fiction. I'll go weeks not having read anything other than the current books on paleontology. I'm constantly getting photocopies, which I'm very thankful for receiving, from people who work professionally in the paleontology field. I just got a batch this week from Michael Ryan, who was the first paleontologist to take me under his wing and open the world of paleontology as a science to me. And it's dense reading. I'm not exaggerating when I state in Tyrant #4 that it takes me three dictionaries to read a lot of this stuff. I have a current edition of the Websters unabridged sitting next to me, along with a dictionary of scientific terms and a dictionary of evolution terms. I am not a scientist by any means. Even after I've been doing this for 15 years, at the end stretch of Tyrant, I still won't be a scientist. I'm a cartoonist. I'm a storyteller.

The material that's presented in scientific papers is rarely illustrated in a manner that easily translates to my needs as a cartoonist. I still have a hard time finding proper text books on the plant life, the flora, of the late Cretaceous era. The books discuss these plant forms with a certain familiarity assumed between the author and the reader that I just don't have. Often I'm doing research on the research I've just done! So it's a hard call. Hopefully that'll get easier as time goes on, as I become more familiar with the material and better resources. In the comics field, it took years of establishing the personal contacts that led to being published. I'm still working very hard at establishing the personal contacts with scientists who have the expertise I'm looking for, and are willing to work with me. In Tyrant #4, it took me two months to track down what kind of turtle was going to be in the book. For people who don't care about that - and plenty of my readers just want me to get on with it, they just want to see dinosaurs fighting - that sounds superfluous to what I'm doing. But to me, it's essential, the bedrock that I'm building on. I also find with this research, that every time I stumble on new material, it suggests many story ideas. It's very fertile ground for the storyteller in me.

Westfield: After you have done this research, how long does it take you to do an issue?

Bissette: It's an ongoing process. You have to understand that I'm doing the research as I'm writing and drawing. The books are very… mercurial. Every issue is in a constant state of change and flow until I get to the point where I go, "OK, that's issue 5." I'm in that stage right now where I've got pages up on the wall in my studio that belong to issue 5, issue 6 and a few pages on the Tyrant special that I'm planning for next year. These pages shuffle themselves around; sometimes pages that I've finished for the issue I'm working on end up being bumped into the next issue, because additional material suggests itself that I hadn't even imagined a week, a month, a year ago. I'm really giving myself, for the first time in the 20 years I've worked in comics, the room to create with the kind of freedom that I used to enjoy when I was a kid drawing in my own sketchbook. It's a hell of a way to run a publication [laughter]. But it does yield my best work and I continue to look at the big picture in terms of our market as a whole; in terms of the medium I've chosen to work in, the medium of comics. Fifteen years from now, no one's going to care how long it took for Tyrant #5 to come out or the fact that 6, 7, and 8 came out two months apart. No one's going to care. And that's really what my eye is on; those completed novels. I realize that it's a completely, to most people's minds, irresponsible way of running a publishing company, but it's one of the reasons I'm self-publishing. I'm not hurting anybody when it takes me additional time to work on an issue. It impacts on me. It impacts on my finances; it impacts on how people will perceive me in the market, but I don't care. All I care about is that when that issue comes out, it's the best work that I could do. And it's also important to me, as I've already said, that it be as accurate as I possibly can make it. So I can't say it takes me a week to do two pages; it just doesn't work that way. Some weeks I'll get five pages done, which mathematically works out to a page a day. Other times I'll go a month or more and I'll just manage to complete a sequence. It's strange, but it's how I work.

Westfield: In doing all of this research, are there any books you'd recommend to people who want to find out more about dinosaurs?

Bissette: The one author I can recommend whole-heartedly for laymen readers is Dr. David Norman. There's quite a number of his texts out there, The Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs, and the book Dinosaurs that was a companion piece to the A&E television series of two or three years back. Norman is a pretty reputable author if you're an interested reader or just someone who loves dinosaurs, or if you're a teacher looking for a book to bring into the classroom.

It's hard for me to recommend books because I've gotten so deep into it. The "hard paleontology" texts are pretty intimidating. These academic books are often quite expensive because they have small print runs. It's nothing to me these days to pay $70 for a paleontology book. One of my key reference books was a book entitled Dinosaur Eggs and Babies, but I can't really recommend it to your readers because it is a very difficult text, gathering the current essays on dinosaur nesting habits, eggs, and in rare cases, fossils of babies. But the material that I turn to, day in, day out, is not the kind of thing I could really recommend to anybody.

Robert Bakker's books are very engaging, whether you're versed in the field or not. He wrote the Dinosaur Heresies. Bakker also has a novel out called Raptor Red, which is a very entertaining book. The other fellow I'd steer anyone towards is John Horner, the co-author of the Complete T-Rex, an excellent book, and Maia, a Maiasaur's Tale. Horner's had his hand in some very excellent texts that are very readable, highly recommended.

Westfield: What can we expect to see in upcoming issues of Tyrant?

Bissette: Five and six wrap up the initial storyline in Tyrant, the activity around the nest on the first day of Tyrant's life. It's ridiculous. Before I'm done, it's going to take me two, two-and-a-half years to wrap-up the story of what happens the first day of Tyrant's life [laughter], the first novel. The first album of Tyrant will collect issues #1-6, late summer of next year. I'm also working on a one-shot special, a self-standing story called Daddy's Gone A-Hunting. It's the story of the father's approach to the nest and the mother's reaction to dad approaching the nest.

The next three or four years of Tyrant are going to revolve around those formative years of a newborn animal. A lot of issue 5 is pretty strange stuff: It's my character literally learning to see. We take for granted that if we see a bird in the sky and we look away and we look back at that same bird, we know it's the same bird. When we're infants, we don't know that. That's behavior we learn. When we see something twice when we're very young children, and I'm talking pre-verbal, we think we've seen two different things. Depth perception. There's a whole passage in book 5 that I've just finished where Tyrant doesn't know the difference between a fly that is an inch from his nose and a Pteranodon that's circling the nest looking for easy prey. To him it's something that's in the air above his nose, that's all he knows; that's all he can recognize. A lot of that kind of material will form the first couple years of Tyrant.

There's an entire issue based around an accident that happens outside of the nest where baby Tyrant spends an entire day watching what happens to a T-rex who's injured itself. Over the passage of a day, this crippled animal is preyed upon by a procession of larger and larger scavengers. A Tyrant reader once said to me, "Gee, beyond the parental care, this is a world without love." And that is true. It is a very primal landscape that I'm playing in. For the next couple years, we're going to be spending time with Tyrant, his nest, his siblings and so on.

Westfield: Do you have any other projects you're working on?

Bissette: A couple of back burner projects are reaching fruition. Tim Underwood, the California-based publisher who specializes in horror and fantasy limited edition books, is just about to publish a signed limited edition of the book Comic Book Rebels that I co-authored with Stanley Wiater two years ago. It's a collection of interviews with a number of key comic creators in the current scene like Will Eisner, Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean, Alan Moore, Dave Sim and so on. That'll be coming out from Underwood Books by the end of the year.

Every year I illustrate one horror novel or short story collection. It's a way of keeping my hand in drawing people [laughter]. I don't want to forget how to do that. In the past, I illustrated Joe Citro's Deus X and Joe Lansdale's Dead in the West. The one that's about to come out is from Cemetery Dance, Rick Hautala's new novel, The Mountain King. I did the full-color cover and four illustrations for that book.

I've also got a book I finished back in 1990. I finally found a publisher for it, and I'm working on the revisions this winter. It's called We Are Going to Eat You, a history of cannibal films [laughter]. That's going to be published by Borderlands Press, the folks who published the From Hell scripts, late next year.

I'm also talking with Tim Underwood about publishing my history of the horror comic. I've been doing it as a slide show now for about five years, most recently in San Diego. I've given the slide lecture at 50 or more venues to date, including conventions, universities, libraries and so on. When the slide show was almost four-and-a-half hours long, I realized, "it's time to turn this into a book." But that'll be a back burner project for five or six years. It's definitely taking a back seat to Tyrant.

Spider Baby Comix is not a difficult book for me to put together. Much of that material will be new to Westfield's customers and I hope they enjoy it, whether it's material that's completely new to them or work that they remember reading years ago. But Tyrant remains the main focus of my life. And it will be for the next 15 years or so.