When I initially approached Steve Niles a couple of weeks back about doing a Steve Niles Week event at CBR, we got together to figure out what we were going to talk about. We decided we’d give one day over to discussion of his books coming from Dark Horse. Another day would be given to discussion of IDW books. A third day would be spent talking about horror films and his influences. Steve then offered to interview his writing partner on “The Nail,” Rob Zombie. Great, that’s four out of five days planned. We were on our way, but we still had a fifth day to come up with.
We spent a few days thinking about what to do with that final day. I had some ideas, but nothing that really grabbed me. I called up Steve one day to nail down a time to get together for the interview we were going to do and asked his opinion. Did he hved any suggestions, maybe someone he’d like to hear more from? The first thought from Steve was to talk with Stephen Bissette. Of course! I only wish I could take credit for having thought of him. I wrote Stephen immediately and he was touched we thought of him and would be happy to talk with CBR about horror.
Stephen Bissette has made numerous contributions to horror comics. His best known work can be found in the ground breaking pages of “Swamp Thing” in the 1980s. Along with writer Alan Moore and inker John Totleben, the trio helped usher in a new era in comics with stories and art that were unlike anything else creators were doing at the time in mainstream comics. Lesser known to most, but critically acclaimed and fondly remembered, is the work Bissette put into the horror comics anthology “Taboo” published in the 1990s. Bissette co-created the title and edited every issue of this ground-breaking, award winning piece of work that gave birth to Alan Moore/Eddie Campbell saga “From Hell” among others.
After a long career in comics, Bissette chose to retire from comics in 1999. The reasons why he left comics have been detailed in other interviews and in his own bio, but suffice it to say he was done and ready to do other things. Since his retirement, though, his interest in comics and especially horror has remained consistent. He’s also continued to lecture about the history of horror comics on college campuses, having put together an in-depth look at the rich history of horror comics that you’ll learn more about in the interview below.
I spoke with Bissette from his home in Vermont Monday evening and found his enthusiasm for the genre intoxicating. The genuine love and depth of knowledge of the genre comes through when reading this interview and I assure you that the following is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his level of expertise.
Let’s start with the most obvious question, how would you define horror?
You know, ‘Taboo” is sort of my dictionary for that one. I really tried — when I was co-creating and editing ‘Taboo’ — to demonstrate by the selections I made how expansive I believe ‘horror’ to really be.
Horror is a genre founded on emotion. There’s many such genres. Romance is a genre founded completely on emotion. Comedy is a genre completely founded on an emotional state. Horror is in that same nebulous realm.
To me, the keystones are not the artifacts and the archetypes that people tend to associate with horror, but the unconscious well springs that are touched by horror. There are the obvious negative ones: fear, dread, the feeling of being profoundly disturbed, frightened. But I think there’s also an expansive and very positive side to horror, which is usually ignored. There’s a very real feeling of awe and wonder that is tapped in some of the best exercises in horror. A couple of examples I can cite that anybody would recognize: H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker.
You know, Lovecraft’s work often depended on cultivating this almost atavistic feeling that we have that there’s something much bigger than us out there (though Lovecraft usually twisted it towards ‘something much bigger out there’ that was going to consume us or somehow feed on us). That’s what almost all religion is founded on; there’s a great deal of crossover between religion and horror.
Are there essential elements that should be included in all horror stories?
No, no, no. Again, I steer people to “Taboo.” I really tried to reach out for material that demonstrated ‘common elements’ weren’t necessary for something to be considered horror or horrific. To me “Maus” is one of the great horror comics. “Jimmy Corrigan” is the best horror comic right now. I mean, that comic fucking terrifies me! When you plunge into the world that Chris Ware has so beautifully detailed and rendered, the emotions that it pulls out of the reader touches on things that we’ve all experienced in one way or another in our life and we’ve either buried or gotten ourselves past because you almost can’t function if that’s in your face day-to-day. Most people laugh when I bring those up as examples of horror comics. I think “Barefoot Gen,” the classic auto-biographical manga about the Hiroshima bombings, is an incredible landmark in horror comics.
In literature, Jerzy Kosinki’s “The Painted Bird” and most of Franz Kafka’s work is horrific in nature. It goes way beyond Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft or the “Scream” trilogy. Each generation finds the language that it prefers or that it’s most comfortable with. Once you become comfortable with certain artifacts associated with horror, they cease to function as horror, because you’re comfortable with them; the whole premise of true horror is discomfort. You’re not supposed to be comfortable with it.
It’s fascinating to me to see all these remakes right now. My son and I went and saw “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” the remake. It was interesting on the one hand in that it was as mean-spirited as it was. It did pack a punch, it was a very suspenseful ride. I was certainly grabbed from beginning to end. But it’s also interesting to look at all this work and there’s no real teeth to it. These are rich men’s fantasies. I’ll focus on ‘Texas Chainsaw’ for a minute. The original film that Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel put together with a bunch of their Texan friends back in 1973 (it was released in 1974), that was a genuinely angry, insane, frightened and frightening movie. It was fueled by the very real hunger and desperation of the film makers. The same was
What we tend to be permitted to see in the cinema these days are films created by rich, comfortable people. So, the trappings or horror components are there. Certainly ‘Texas Chainsaw” the remake still functions as a survival story, but there’s no cannibalism element to it. It’s no longer about these desperate, crazed, jobless clans that have reverted to cannibalism to continue to feel like they’re working and to feed themselves. It’s now a story about Leatherface, who we see unmasked at one point; he has a degenerative skin condition, so it’s suddenly a movie about cosmetic surgery! (laughs) He’s no longer killing travelers and hanging them on meat hooks to feed on them. In fact, when we see the family’s house, it’s crawling with pigs and chickens; there’s plenty of food around.
All these current remakes are made by rich people and their fears are not particularly primal. All the trappings are there referencing the horror films of the seventies, but none of the bone and gristle and spine is there. They’re not films that are being made by angry, frightened, desperate people — now, those folks create the best horror films!
You brought up the remake of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” There was the recent “Freddy vs. Jason” which is something of a rehash of older stuff. We’ve got a remake of “Dawn of the Dead” coming out next year. Do you think this constant reworking of old material is ultimately bad for horror or is it just part of the cycle that horror goes through?
It’s part of the cycle, but it’s also the nature of the beast. How far back do we want to go? If we named any of the best films from any era, or — sticking with comics — if we named any of the best horror comics from any particular era, they’re drawing from earlier work. Part of this is the fact that the more resonant archetypes are always re-embraced and reinvented to suit a new generation’s needs. If we’re talking about the film aspect of the genre, a large part of it is pre-sale. The ad in the New York Times this past Sunday stated, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre is America’s #1 movie.” That never fucking happened with the first movie! (laughs) I always look to the woodwork. The really potent, powerful, disturbing stuff usually creeps out of nowhere. Occasionally something will come out of the studio systems that will work. “The Sixth Sense” was a revelation when it came out and it was a real return to an approach to the genre that had been abandoned for a time. It appeared within a matter of months, I think, of “The Blair With Project“, both reflecting a more Lewtonesque — you know, producer Val
In terms of comics, there are a lot of comics out there with the trappings of horror comics. You know, there seem to be tons of vampire comics; the imagery of the more recent permutations reflect not so much classical Bram Stoker imagery as the more ‘punk’ oriented vampire fiction of the 1980s and ’90s, borrowing from Nancy Collins’ “Sonja Blue” novels. There’s a great deal of that. That’s why I find Chris Ware and “Jimmy Corrigan,” or Charles Burns and “Black Hole,” the more interesting stuff. That’s more personal, coming from darker places and not dealing with the usual trappings of the genre — and thus, much more effective.
You’ve already named a number of names in comics, but I’d like to ask who you consider to be at the best in their horror game with comics, film or literature?
I’ve got to say I’m out of the loop with horror literature these days. I haven’t read a lot of contemporary horror fiction in some time. In the early nineties, I saturated myself in what was available, reading a lot of horror fiction. Working on “Taboo” really steeped me in that material. It got to a point where I wasn’t desensitized, I didn’t feel jaded, but I just wasn’t finding anything there that was affecting or stimulating me. So, I’ll back away from the literature question.
In terms, of films I think some of the most exciting work I’ve seen has been on DVD of late — the various restorations and revivals of older work I’m finally able to see for the first time in their original form, often in their original languages, sub-titled. That’s what I have found most interesting of late. I just began watching the boxed set of the “Mondo” films that Blue Underground put out last week: “Mondo Cane,” “Africa Addio,” and so on. I hate to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but that’s the stuff that’s keeping my interest right now. I mean, “House of 1000 Corpses” was fun, you know. I see where Rob Zombie is coming from, and that got me to finally listen to his music and check out what he was doing. I find that fun as a die-hard horror fan. It’s great getting the new CD/DVD combo with a cover by Basil Gogos (who used to paint all the “Famous Monsters of Filmland” covers). But Rob’s film didn’t scare me, and there was no point where I was really in suspense. I enjoyed it as this weird fusion of ’70s American horror movies, ’80s Italian zombie movies, and Pre-Code horror comics.
I think the film that most affected me is the one that most critics and fans seem to belittle, “Wrong Turn.” It really worked for me. There were no pretensions. It was a very efficient suspense piece. It was genuinely affecting on a gut-level, and it gave me a hell of ride. It worked on me the way that Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes” worked on me back in ’77 when I saw that for the first time. So, I guess I’m respond more to that pragmatic level of horror film making right now.
I haven’t seen much adventurous work coming out of America over the past couple of years: “Donnie Darko” comes to mind, that was an original. I’m enjoying many of the recent Japanese horror films, I really love Takashi Miike’s outrageous films (“Ichi the Killer,” “Audition”), and have enjoyed many of the contemporary Japanese ghost films such as “Ringu” and the like. I’m sure there’s some truly original work out there, I’m sure it’s being done. I’m certainly open to looking at it and if anybody cares to share a sample, send it my way! (laughs). But the renewed access my all-region DVD player has given me to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films, and Lars Von Triers’ “The Kingdom” parts 1 and 2, and the complete Roman Polanski canon, Nigel Kneale’s remarkable work for British television, Mario Bava’s work — that’s what’s holding my attention right now. Truly transgressive films like “Viva la Muerte” and “In A Glass Cage” or “Begotten” are rare, and there’s nothing like those being made right now, or being shown theatrically.
In terms of comics, I’ve already named the work that I’ve really stayed with. I look forward every year to the new issue of “Black Hole.” I think it’s tremendous that Charles Burns has kept to it. I love the series; it continues to explore the many themes that thread through much of his earlier work, the obsessions that clearly remain “meat and potatoes” to Charles. Chris Ware’s work I find very affecting. There’s a lot of self-published work that pops into my house via the mail, or is handed to me by the individuals who do it, that I quite enjoy. I can’t name any of it off the top of my head, but I’ve seen some beautiful stuff being self-published, still. The more personal, the more intimate, the more powerful in my mind.
I’m beginning to get into Junji Ito’s manga: “Tomie,” “Flesh-Colored Horror,” “Uzumaki,” and “Gyo” are now in my hands, and I love ’em all. Tremendous, genuinely unsettling and transgressive work; thanks to the marvelous folks who post on my discussion board, my eyes have been opened to all kinds of work I might have otherwise never seen.
You used to do a presentation on horror comics, didn’t you?
I still do!
Tell us a bit about that.
“Journeys Into Fear” offers is a complete overview — as complete as I can make it — of the horror comic genre, beginning with the Japanese Ghost Scrolls of the twelfth and thirteenth century, and continuing all the way up to the contemporary scene. At that time I was concluding it with the Mike Diana bust, which for me really kind of put a book-end to what was happening with post-modern and contemporary horror comics. To my mind, an era ended with the the bust of the Oklahoma City comic shop — which ended in a draw, a settlement was agreed upon, the case never came to trial — and the Mike Diana case — which was tried in Florida, and Mike was found guilty of obscenity for his drawings and comic narratives. That that verdict was upheld when the Supreme Court refused to hear the case for whatever reason, which was a tragedy; whether that decision was due to mis-management or over-ambition on the CBLDF’s part, or because comics were still considered so beneath the scrutiny of the Supreme Court that they chose not to take it, we’ll never know, but the Florida obscenity verdict stands. That, to my mind, broke the back of the industry in more ways than we still comprehend. The dangers are still very real for retailers in comic shops who choose to carry — not necessarily display, just simply carry for subscription purposes — provocative or taboo-busting work. In Mike Diana’s case, he’s still the only artist ever found guilty of obscenity in the United States, and I consider that the obscenity.
Share some specifics about your presentation. What do you highlight?
I’ll walk you through the five sessions. Session one covers the roots of the horror comics, concluding with Winsor McCay’s comic strip work in the early 1900s, specifically “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend.”
The second session covers the beginning of the comic book as a form, launched in 1933 and ’34 with Max Gaines publishing the first giveaway comic books. The lecture then traces the growth of the industry, and the horror genre’s role in that development up to 1953, the boom years.
The third session is the one I tend to do most often as a ‘self-standing’ lecture presentation because it works beautifully as a single unit, and it is still the most relevant to our times. It’s the section on the 1954 Senate Subcommittee investigations, the so-called “Kefauver hearings,” Dr. Wertham, the institution of the Comics Code Authority, and the purging of horror from comics in 1954. That lecture works, particularly with college crowds, because they’ve seen similar events in their own lifetimes with the attacks on the recording industry and video games. It’s still going on; it’s just that comics aren’t at the center of that controversy or debate any longer, certainly not in as public an arena as they were in the 1950s.
The fourth session covers the resurrection of the horror comics, tracing its incarnations from 1954 up to the launch of “Creepy” and “Eerie” in 1965.
The final presentation analyzes the contemporary horror comic scenes, beginning in 1966 and “the Warren years,” up through the undergrounds and post-modern horror comics, right on up to the present day. The final session is a bit out-of-date now; almost a decade has passed since I initially compiled the slides and prepared my lectures. I put all this together back in ’91, before the Vertigo line and all that has followed. I really should do an overhaul of that portion, but just have never have the means, time, or inclination.
It’s my goal to transfer this to book form at some point, but I don’t have a publisher at present, and there’s been nary a ripple of interest from that quarter, though the lecture continues to endure.
Let’s talk about your own contributions to horror in comics. Looking over your career and what you’ve contributed, what single piece are you most proud of? I’m going to guess that with horror it’s going to be “Taboo,” so for now I’d like to have you focus on some of the product you’ve illustrated or written and we’ll get to “Taboo” a little later.
Well, out of the work that I actually had my hands in, I’d have to say “Swamp Thing.” When Alan wrote the script for “Swamp Thing” #29 in justtwo days, and John [Totleben] and I got the script from Karen Berger… that was heaven. I vividly recall the whole situation behind that; I noted in that recent interview book with Alan that he and the interviewer were vague on the details. That time remains quite vivid to me, in part because I’ve been going through my files of late.
So, when we got to work drawing that issue, we knew what the game was. Alan set up a story in which what was implicit — which had been implicit in the series for about three issues at that point — suddenly was made explicit: Abby’s husband was possessed by the spirit of her dead Uncle Arcane. For any number of reasons that was a real unsavory conceit. John and I went right to town with the imagery. The issue opened with Abby running nude through her house, almost insane with the need to scrub the taint of Arcane from her body. We worked with that; we knew what the boundaries were, we knew the parameters we had to work within, and we tread that tightwire as best we could.
What finally provoked the code with that issue — the reason we lost the code initially — was the climactic double-page spread with the reanimated dead (who worked at her husband’s realty agency) standing around Abby as Arcane revealed that he was indeed the possessing spirit. Now, Alan had worked into the script the notion that the reanimating agent, what was making the corpses move, were insects within the bodies. So, we had to draw all these fly-blown ambulatory corpses. It was a story point, it wasn’t just John and Steve being gruesome. We really had to fight for that imagery to remain intact. I remember the week that all this tension came to a head: we were getting desperate calls form Karen Berger, she was freaking out. The Comic Code had refused the issue, and if I remember correctly, Dick Giordano was out of the office at that period. They didn’t know what to do, and Karen was in the frying pan. There was also the fact that the book was behind schedule. Bear in mind that when we came onto the title, the book was behind schedule. The book was always treading the edge of being late right from the beginning; when Tom Yeates started as artist on “Saga of the Swamp Thing” #1 it started behind schedule, because DC had dragged their feet about getting Tom and writer Marty Pasko started on the project.
So this was an uphill battle for you the entire time.
Yeah, I don’t want to digress too far, but it’s interesting now that I’m hearing from friends of mine who are still cartoonists — including John Totleben by the way — now that they have kids, they’re like, “Oh man, I don’t have time to do anything.” I’m like, “Hey guys, I was penciling “Swamp Thing” the whole time that my kids were babies and I was the Dad at home.” My first wife went to work every day (working at a school for autistic kids), so I was the house-keeper most of the day… and pencilled “Swamp Thing.” So I don’t want to fucking hear about it! (laughs) It’s interesting how suddenly they have a renewed respect that I ever made the schedules that I made.
What am I proudest of? I think that moment, that issue of “Swamp Thing.” It really represented Alan, John and I doing the best work that we possibly could. It was also the fact that Alan had crafted a script which embodied precisely what John and I had been aching for: a horror comic that worked, that shattered to old ‘EC Comics’ mold, that was comparable to the best horror literature and films of its time. The urge to create such work was what had gotten me into comics. It was my hope — not a great achievement for the ages or mankind, I know — to get into comics and make some difference within the horror genre. I wanted to shatter the molds, break loose from the strait-jackets; I wanted to do in comics what the cartoonists who had done “Skull” and “Slow Death” had done. I wanted to break some fresh ground, or at least have a hand in that process.
The end result was very positive. Everything happening today with Vertigo is due in large part to “Swamp Thing” #29. It all started there. The whole ‘Mature’ line of comics from the mainstream comics publishers, the direction DC went, we played a part in that development, along with Frank Miller and other key creators. Now, it wasn’t just “Swamp Thing.” There was “Jem, Son of Saturn” — illustrated by Gene Colan — that came out around that same time without the code because, I believe, there was a drug element in that mini-series. There was also “Camelot 3000,” which Brian Bolland had illustrated; that was a key book at that time. Historically, if you look back, I think the three balls out of the park were “Camelot 3000,” “Jem” — which went out without the Code seal of approval and the world did not end — and the fact that “Swamp Thing” #29 went out without the Code. Frank’s “Ronin” also hit the stands during this heady period; it was an exciting time, really. For those of us working on “Swamp Thing,” with the success of #29, sales not only continued to climb, but went through the roof soon after.
Let’s finally move to “Taboo.” I’m afraid that most of today’s contemporary readers probably don’t know what “Taboo” is, so why don’t you go ahead an introduce it.
Ah, yes, most folks probably don’t know about the book. “Taboo” was the result of Dave Sim extending an invitation to John Totleben and I at Mid-Ohio Con in the mid-1980s, saying “I will publish whatever you guys want to do.” Dave was thinking self-publishing. He though John and I would pull away from the reins of DC, write and draw our own thing, and run with it. When we came back to Dave and said we wanted to do this anthology book, he was kind of mortified and horrified, but said, “Okay, I’ll support it.” And he did. Even though it never came out with the Aardvark One International or Aardvark-Vanaheim logo on it, Dave’s support was unstinting. He followed through with everything he promised, and that’s what led to “Taboo” #1 coming out (and bankrolled much of “Taboo” #2).
John and I were cooking on “Swamp Thing,” and we had this invite from Dave Sim, and we felt that nobody was pulling together the most disturbing and horrific stuff that we were seeing from time to time in various nooks and crannies of the comics market. We found inspiring work in European comics that was exciting. There was work we found in magazines like “Raw” that was exciting — Charles Burns’ early work, Gary Panter, and so on. No one was touching the underground cartoonists like S. Clay Wilson with a 12-foot-fucking-pole. Their work just wasn’t visible anymore, because it was too horrific.
So, John and I thought there needed to be a book that stopped re-treading the E.C. horror formula — the short story with a twist ending, the O. Henry archetype. We wanted to put together something that wasn’t going to be slavishly dependent on all the horror comics iconography we’d grown up with. Much as we dug what we were doing on “Swamp Thing,” it was really tied to the super-hero universe of DC Comics, and that was a direction that Alan wanted to move into more and more. So, “Taboo” was forged out of that odd wedding of frustration and desire. We wanted to put under common covers a collective of all the truly cutting-edge comic work that we saw out there; comics conceived to provoke, disturb or terrify the reader. That was our real goal. To that end, we put together a manifesto, which I still have copies of — there was a written “Taboo” manifesto that we circulated. We set up the business model according to the ideals that we had evolved from being screwed as cartoonists: “Taboo” would be a collective project. The profits would be divided amongst the contributors equitably, and everybody would be paid the same page-rate up-front. We adhered to that edict to the bitter end. Everyone in “Taboo” was paid $100 a page. If it was a writer/artist team, they split that as they saw fit. Moebius was paid just as much as the folks in there who were being published for the first time. We did not play the game in which “the bigger name gets the bigger bucks.” That excluded a lot of people who we wanted in or wanted in, but it made the entire project affordable for a time.
Out of “Taboo” came “From Hell.” I mean, “From Hell” was not just serialized in “Taboo” — it was conceived for “Taboo.” I was the person who actively put Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore together. Jeff Nicholson’s “Through the Habitrails” came out of “Taboo.” His work was brilliant and I think it’s a key graphic novel. It’s a brilliant piece of work. If all the “Taboo” contributors had interacted with me on the level that Jeff had, I’d still be doing the book. Jeff was just amazing. He’s always been very honorable in his dealings. Let’s see, “Lost Girls” came out of “Taboo.” Most people first saw Rolf Stark’s work in “Taboo.” Rolf later did the graphic novel “Rain” — involving the Holocaust and his memories around the World War II concentration camps and his experiences there. A lot of very strong work came out of “Taboo” and I’m still very proud of it. It had its day. It was never a viable financial institution. I lost a fucking fortune on “Taboo,” as did Dave Sim, as did Kevin Eastman. It just was not a workable fiscal institution. But I think we did establish some new ground rules for what was possible in horror comics.
I think the influence of “Taboo” is still being felt today. It’s very telling for me when I get the occasional order from people for back issues of “Taboo.” When I hear back from them they say, “Wow, this stuff still packs a punch.”
We thank Stephen Bissette for his time. Steve Niles Week continues on Thursday with a look at his upcoming books from IDW Publishing.