Wizard #38: Steve Bissette

October 1994 (on sale date: August 1994)

Of all the unfinished comic stories from the ’90s, I think Stephen Bissette‘s Tyrant was the biggest loss. The four issues that he was able to self-publish were stunning and there was a lot of potential for the series. I mean, the concept alone was so simple and perfect: the life story of a T-Rex from birth to death.

The Kubert brothers drew their first Wizard cover for issue #38, featuring Marvel’s Wolverine (pencilled by Adam) and Sabretooth (pencilled by Andy).

But Tyrant was a massive undertaking. Aside from the beautifully-rendered comic pages, each issue included columns and columns of text—a letters page, an appendix (named the “Gizzard” because dinos didn’t have appendixes), dinosaur-themed movie reviews, editorials—all set in teeny-tiny type. You definitely got the most out of the $2.95 you plunked down for Tyrant! And all of this work (aside from a one-page recurring comic strip by Mark Martin) was done by Bissette alone, who also handled the business side of things as the book’s self-publisher. When you factor in all of the turmoil of the collapsing comics market of the mid-’90s, there was no way a book like Tyrant could have continued on a regular schedule.

After the fourth issue of Tyrant was released in 1996, Bissette switched gears with a new series, S.R. Bissette’s SpiderBaby Comix, a reprint collection of assorted odds-and-ends from throughout his career, including some stories from Taboo and his 24-hour comic “A Life in Black and White.” But this new effort was short-lived—only two issues appeared before the plug was pulled. A few years later, Bissette announced his retirement from the comics industry.

The gatefold cover for Wizard #38 could be opened to reveal…a wall being torn open. Wow. Really makes a great use of all that extra space for the artwork.

He made a return of sorts recently when he joined the faculty of the Center for Cartoon Studies in his home state of Vermont. And there might even be a glimmer of hope on the Tyrant front. Bissette drew a fun “Tyrant in Slumberland” strip in 2007 for the anthology Sundays that also appeared in color (with help from The End of the Fucking World creator Charles Forsman) for the oversized Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream collection and as a limited edition print. This one-page homage to Winsor McCay’s classic comic strip could possibly be viewed as a rough roadmap for where the Tyrant storyline might have gone, as it shows the comic’s star dreaming of a life that never happened, which mostly consists of eating: bugs, little critters and other dinosaurs. As of this writing, there’s been no sign of more Tyrant comics.

Here’s a long-lost piece of Bissette memorabilia: a small sculpted pin, around an inch and half tall, of Cardinal Syn (who appeared on the cover of Taboo #1, among other places). It was purchased from Bissette at one of the Great Eastern Conventions in New York City, around the time Taboo Especial was published. He was also selling tequila lollipops (complete with a worm inside!) at his table to promote the book.

Like last issues‘ profile of Jay Stephens, this “Palmer’s Picks” was timed to coincide with the launch of Bissette’s new series. There was a big run-up to the launch of Tyrant back in 1994, so Bissette made sure to get the word out about his new venture. He sent me a copy of the pre-publication ashcan edition of Tyrant #1 and I was able to coordinate things so that this “Picks” would be in stores before the comic launched. I contacted Bissette to set up a phone interview and everything fell into place.

Unfortunately, this column only had a few actual quotes from Bissette, and they weren’t even properly attributed. What was I thinking?! It’s a damn shame that virtually none of the interview shows up on the printed page. I was able to get some great information for this column, including the revelation that there were hundreds of pages of comics slated for Bissette’s Taboo anthology that were left without a home after the series ended. A good chunk of that work eventually saw print as two final volumes of the series published by Kitchen Sink Press in 1995.

If you’re the type that likes keeping track of unfinished comic stories from the 1990s, you’ll be pleased to note that this column also mentions the launch of Chester Brown‘s follow-up to Yummy Fur, the abandoned serialized story Underwater. Maybe there’s an alternate reality out there where Bissette and Brown were able to complete their endeavors and you can buy lavish hardcover volumes of both Tyrant and Underwater

Cartoonist Kayfabe segment on “Palmer’s Picks” from Wizard #38.

Palmer’s Picks

Bissette’s Behemoth

By Tom Palmer Jr.

Steve Bissette has finally taken the plunge into the world of self-publishing with Tyrant, a comic that chronicles the birth, life, and death of a Tyrannosaurus rex. Tyrant also marks the first outing as both the writer and artist of a regular series for Bissette, who is best known for his work on DC’s Swamp Thing and as the editor and publisher of the horror anthology Taboo.

A 1978 graduate of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, Bissette won acclaim in 1984 as part of the revitalization of DC’s floundering Swamp Thing. Along with writer Alan Moore and inker John Totleben, Bissette revived DC’s muck creature, at the same time bringing a new sophistication and maturity to mainstream comic books. In stories like “The Anatomy Lesson,” “Love and Death,” and “American Gothic,” the team energized the modern horror comic, bringing a fresh approach to the conventions of traditional horror stories.

Despite all of the accolades he received for Swamp Thing, Bissette left the book feeling burned out by the pressures of a monthly series and “the business practices of this industry.” He then stretched the boundaries of horror fiction and comic books even further as the publisher of the ground-breaking controversial anthology Taboo, which he co-created with Totleben. Taboo serialized Through the Habitrails by Jeff Nicholson and From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. It also showcased the work of Moebius, Bernie Mireault, Rick Grimes, Charles Burns, and others. Despite its impressive lineup of creators, Taboo ran into problems with distributors and printers. Some volumes of the series were banned in several countries due to its content.

Bissette was able to publish four volumes of Taboo through his own SpiderBaby Grafix & Publications between 1988 and 1990. He then reached a co-publishing agreement with Tundra Publishing that eventually soured in 1992, leaving almost 400 pages of artwork slated for future volumes of Taboo without a home. Taboo is effectively dead, but some of its scheduled material has already appeared in other venues. Hopefully, most of the stories will eventually see print.

Bissette gave up the hassles of publishing and returned to the drawing board last year for 1963, Image Comics’ six-issue homage to the comics of yesteryear. The success of 1963 gave Bissette enough time and money to launch Tyrant on the right foot. Unfettered by the legal and bureaucratic entanglements of publishing companies, Bissette is currently producing the most satisfying work of his career.

Tyrant is a very ambitious series that will last for at least 10 years, chronicling just about every aspect of the life of Tyrant, a Tyrannosaurus rex. Bissette’s story, which features an intriguing combination of illustrations and prose, will run between 20 and 24 pages every other month. It will be supported by a wide range of backup features. Every issue will contain Bissette’s editorial comments in a section called “Myrant,” letters from readers will be printed in “‘Rant,” footnotes to the main story will be detailed in “The Gizzard” (because “dinosaurs didn’t have appendixes”), and the “Tyrant Media Guide” will review various dinosaur movies, comics, models, trading cards, and books. Occasionally, Bissette will even print a short comic feature. The serious tone of Tyrant will also be balanced in every issue by Mark Martin’s “Bless The Beasts,” a humorous one-page strip about two Tyrannosaurs on Noah’s Ark.

The details of Tyrant, right down to the insects and plants that the dinosaurs tromp over, are backed by research Bissette has been doing since he was a little kid. He blends the fanciful notions of dinosaur fiction with the educated conjecture of respected paleontologists. While the story will be as accurate as possible, glaring errors will be corrected in “The Gizzard” and trade paperback collections of the story. Bissette hopes his representation of dinosaur life will provoke a healthy debate among readers: since most of the scholarly knowledge is based on different interpretations of paleontological findings, he will settle on the version that best suits his story.

Bissette uses his skill as a writer to keep the information packed into the story from being dry and tedious. He doesn’t resort to using talking dinosaurs or time-traveling humans to carry his story. Instead, Tyrant is told through lush panels and expository captions that bring life to the various inhabitants of Tyrant’s world. Bissette’s detailed prose presents a great deal of information while moving the story along at a brisk pace.

Bissette’s artwork shines in Tyrant. His vibrant pen and brushwork bring a sense of liveliness and motion to the beautiful prehistoric landscape. While dinosaurs are typically represented as unfeeling, ferocious beasts, Bissette draws his creatures with definite expressions and emotions. You can see the surprise, fear, and anger on the faces of the dinosaurs in Tyrant. These gestures and expressions carry Bissette’s story and enhance his prose.

A definite departure from Bissette’s work on horror comics like Swamp Thing and Taboo, Tyrant is also unlike anything else being done in comics, movies, or books. If you are familiar with Bissette’s previous work, or if you are just looking for a new reading experience, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of Tyrant.

Pick Of The Month

Underwater: Yummy Fur‘s Chester Brown returns with this long-awaited new series that promises to take his work in a new direction. The story examines events that transpire over several weeks in the life of a woman. Drawn & Quarterly publishes this comic, which should be in comic stores right now.

Tom Palmer Jr. is a New Jersey-based freelance writer who can’t be expected to come up with a snappy bio every month, dammit!

Tom’s Recommended Reading

Tyrant: The first issue of Steve Bissette’s new comic series will be out this September. Bissette plans to publish the series for at least 10 years on a bimonthly schedule, releasing paperback collections every year. If you can’t find Tyrant, you can write SpiderBaby Grafix at P.O. Box 442, Wilmington, VT 05363, for subscription info.

Taboo: Bissette’s legendary horror anthology was published by SpiderBaby Grafix and Tundra. Issue #4 is available from SpiderBaby at the above address, and issues #5 and #7 and Taboo Especial are still available from Kitchen Sink. For a catalog, write to Kitchen Sink, 320 Riverside Dr., Northampton, MA 01060.

Swamp Thing: Bissette penciled the majority of DC’s Swamp Thing between issues #16 and #50. Issues #21-#27 were collected in the Saga of the Swamp Thing trade paperback and issues #28-#34 and Annual #2 were reprinted in the Swamp Thing: Love and Death TPB.

Bedlam: In 1985, Eclipse published this two-issue collection of short stories by Bissette and Rick Veitch from Heavy Metal, Epic, and other anthologies. Check your local retailer’s back issue boxes for this series, which reprinted such gems as Bissette’s “Pick of the Litter” and Veitch’s classic Peanuts parody, “Nutpeas.”

SpiderBaby Grafix & Publications: Bissette’s company is also the co-publisher with Borderlands Press of From Hell: The Compleat Scripts, a series of four books that features a rare look at Alan Moore’s original scripts for From Hell. The first volume is out in hardcover for $95; a softcover version is forthcoming. For more information, contact Borderlands at P.O. Box 146, Brooklandville, MD 21022.

Miscellaneous: Steve Bissette helped create 1963 for Image and worked on issues #2-#4 of the mini-series. Bissette has also written many critical essays for film and horror magazines, and is the co-author (with Stanley Wiater) of Comic Book Rebels, a selection of interviews with Scott McCloud, Dave Sim, Todd McFarlane, and others. He also wrote Aliens: Tribes, a novella with color paintings by Dave Dorman that won him the Horror Writers Association’s 1993 Bram Stoker Award.

Steve Bissette’s Recommended Reading: Here’s a quick look at some of the stuff that Sturdy Steve thinks you should read:

Very Vicky by John Mitchell and Jana Christy; Sin City by Frank Miller; Deadface, Alec, From Hell, and others by Eddie Campbell; Vengeance of the Aztecs by Mitch Waxman; Through the Habitrails by Jeff Nicholson; Jar of Fools by Jason Lutes; and True Swamp by Jon Lewis.


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