Comics legend Stephen R. Bissette talks about his new book, 'Teen Angels and New Mutants'
There aren’t many books which name check Batman, David Cassidy, Naomi Wolf, Arthur Rimbaud, Lindsay Lohan, and Justin Bieber. But then, there aren’t many books like Teen Angels & New Mutants. Penned by comics artist Stephen R. Bissette (Saga of the Swamp Thing) the 400 page-long tome is partly a history of the ways entertainment has exploited teenagers, both fictional and actual, and partly a critical analysis of the early ’90s comics series Brat Pack. Written and illustrated by Bissette’s friend Rick Veitch, the dystopian Brat Pack is, amongst other things, an indictment of the comic industry’s penchant for killing off superhero sidekicks, albeit one that itself systematically slays or otherwise persecutes its own cast of young costumed heroes.
EW spoke to Bissette about Teen Angels & New Mutants and his legendary collaboration with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you decide to write Teen Angels & New Mutants?
STEPHEN R. BISSETTE: Rick Veitch and I met in ’76. We were both graduates of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, a wonderful comics trade college that’s still operating in Dover, New Jersey. About three years ago, Rick was planning a deluxe, hardcover, anniversary edition of Brat Pack and said, “Steve, I want a definitive essay on how Brat Pack came about.” Rick paid me $1,000 to write the piece, and it grew. But the direct sales market, the comic market, imploded so badly Rick ultimately decided he wasn’t doing a hardcover edition of Brat Pack and he gave me his blessing to publish the full manuscript, which he would not have had room for in any case. This is a book I never would have written without Rick coming to me. But once I got the second draft done, I realized there should be books like this about almost every graphic novel out there that’s had any lasting impact. And only a couple of them, like Maus, have had that kind of scrutiny.
Brat Pack is not a graphic novel that tends to get mentioned in the same breath as, say, Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, when people talk about all-time great comics. Do you think it’s of a comparable quality?
I think so. It was, if you will, the underground answer to Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. I would also say that Kevin O’Neill’s Marshal Law is another of that same breed, same time period. Does it get as much attention? Of course not. It’s under the radar for most people. And that was another reason for seeing through this book project, to be honest. I think Brat Pack does deserve the attention.
Is it fair to equate the murder of fictional superhero sidekicks with the real-life exploitation of teen stars, as your book seems to do?
That’s one way to summarize it. I would say, to my mind more accurately, that it’s really about the adult exploitation of teenagers being a form of flesh trade, whether as fictional archetypes or in real life. And we need to be honest about that and take a look at how it actually functions. That is the intent of Brat Pack, as a fictional work. Rick Veitch was trying to honestly extrapolate from what he was seeing in the pop culture and what he had experienced working professionally in the comics industry. I try to not levy any moral judgments, but clearly there’s a sense of outrage that drives Teen Angels.
Call me naïve, but I had no idea that killing superhero sidekicks is such an important part of the comic industry business model.
Well, it has become that. And it had become that enough when Rick first put together the proposal for Brat Pack that it rang a bell of familiarity. By the late 70s, early 80s, that’s probably when the comic industry began to really rely on death as a way to boost sales. And who are the most expendable comic characters? It tends to be the teenage sidekicks. Because you can invent another one. By the time Rick was doing Brat Pack, that’s around the time when DC had that 900 number people could call to vote on whether Robin lives or dies. At that point, it’s four-color bread and circuses, certainly.
The mid-to-late ‘80s was such an amazing time for comics, with Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Swamp Thing and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Could you put your finger on why that happened?
The mainstream publishers were so desperate for a hit they were willing to turn over the keys of the kingdom to these young Turks that were coming in the door, like Frank Miller and Alan Moore. As Frank Miller said at the time, “The inmates have taken over the asylum.” We knew it was going to be a limited window of opportunity. As in any corporate enterprise, once it begins to earn money, once it becomes recognized as something of value, they want to run the ship. When we were doing Swamp Thing I remember (artist and inker) John Totleben saying in one phone conversation, “Yeah, we put the car on the road and now they want us to get in the back seat.” That’s a pretty good analogy. When we got to run with Swamp Thing, and take it in the direction we wanted to go, it was when no one was paying attention except our editor. Because the sales were in the toilet when we were given the book, we couldn’t hurt it. It was already a dead franchise. We reinvigorated it and once it was something of value to the company again the imperative was to get us out of the way. [Laughs] But, yes, it was a golden age, we knew it at the time, and we were very aware that that window would close any minute. We were just going to make the best of it while we could.
What was it like getting the Swamp Thing scripts from Alan Moore?
Oh god, it was magic. The day the package came with the script to Swamp Thing 21, “The Anatomy Lesson,” the first of our Swamp Things, literally the hair went up on the back of my neck. It was the most exciting comic script I had ever read in my life. I had grown up watching underground movies — Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger — and my favorite theatrical films were Nicolas Roeg films like Performance and Don’t Look Now. Here was a script for Swamp Thing, a 23 page DC comic, that was as good and as exciting as any of those films I loved so much. I still probably think that was the best issue we ever did. Alan distilled into a little over 20 pages of comic script everything that Rick Veitch, and John Totleben and all of us had been talking about what we ached to do in comics, and we didn’t know how to do it because we weren’t good enough writers and Alan was. [Laughs] And we got to draw it!
What’s next for you?
I’m working with co-editor Tim Stout on Tales of the Uncanny, a faux-history of the quartet of characters—N-Man, the Fury, Hypernaut, and Sky Solo and Her Screamin’ Skydogs—that I legally inherited from 1963, the project I did with Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, Dave Gibbons, John Totleben, Chester Brown and others back in 1993 for Image. That will be out in the next year. I’m also working with Black Coat Press on a number of books on comics. I’m doing a career-length interview right now, with Bryan Talbot. You’re familiar with his work?
He did the Adventures of Luther Arkwright.
And Luther Arkwright predated everything that you and I have just talked about. Bryan was doing it before Swamp Thing, before Watchmen, before Dark Knight Returns. To me, Bryan is an amazing comics pioneer, who’s still doing wonderful work. His Grandville graphic novels with these anthropomorphized animals as Sherlock Holmes characters, they’re brilliant, they’re wonderful. So the next big book having to do with comics will be focusing on Bryan Talbot. And I’m almost done with a book about Curtis Harrington, the filmmaker. Hopefully that will be out later this year.