taboo2The SpiderBaby Archives essay series continues…

This is an occasional series of essays on the behind-the-scenes reality behind a number of the projects I’ve had a hand in since entering the comics field in 1976.

As I’m a hopeless packrat, saving every scrap of paper connected to each and every project (published and unpublished, completed and incomplete) I’ve ever been part of, the SpiderBaby Archives offer a pretty thorough account of almost every venture I was part of during my 30+ years in comics. 

These notes, files, scripts, sketches and papers are all archived at (or soon will be, if they’ve not already been sent along to) The Stephen R. Bissette Collection at HUIE Library at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. This massive collection will forever provide fellow creators, comics scholars, researchers, writers, artists, fans and everyone access to my papers, works and collections. This is a work in progress, though HUIE Library already has catalogued and archived a pretty astonishing quantity of unique materials, including much of the material I’ll be sharing in this series of essays.

Later this summer, I’ll dive back into some of the behind-the-scenes creative chemistry that fueled my collaborations with Alan Moore, John Totleben, Rick Veitch, Marty Pasko, Tom Yeates and DC editors Len Wein and Karen Berger on Saga of the Swamp Thing — but now, let’s get into the origins of the cutting-edge horror anthology Taboo that John Totleben and I co-created and began work on in 1985. [Note: Taboo 2 cover, above, ©1989, 2009 John Totleben; all rights reserved. Taboo TM 1989, 2009 Stephen R. Bissette.]

A brief chronology:

* In 1985, Cerebus creator and self-publisher Dave Sim began extending invitations to a small pool of creators he felt were ready (and needed) to make the plunge into the deep, wide waters of self-publishing. This was part of a creative community re-education process Dave was committed to, but he had some major stumbling blocks along the way — none more omnipresent than the blinders we all wore as freelancers working (and dependent upon) the mainstream comics industry. (Note: I will write at length about this period of time, and Dave’s and my growing relationship, at a later date and venue.)

* Dave extended those invitations, to the best of my knowledge, to pros like Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Bill Sienkiewicz, John Totleben and myself, among others.

* Dave in fact was hoping Alan, John and I would simply walk from DC and take all the creative energy we were pouring into Saga of the Swamp Thing and immediately reapply ourselves as a team to something new, of our own creation. For reasons I will get into later, this was probably the most unusual experiment — creative teams that pursue self-publishing are particularly fraught with potential peril, as we shall see.

* For the purposes of this publishing experiment, Dave created a new corporate entity, Aardvark One International, in December 1985 (see notes, below). 

* Dave continued this process until the summer of 1988, at which point he concluded there was no viable method of publishing others to encourage them to self-publish, and Aardvark-Vanaheim One International was quietly dissolved.

I hasten to add that Dave extended a generous cushion to ensure a smooth transition between the dissolution of A-V One In’t and the launch of SpiderBaby Grafix & Publications, the business entity my then wife Nancy O’Connor (now Marlene O’Connor) and I had to create to publish Taboo 1 in the fall of 1988. 

Back to the core issue:

One either self-published, or did not. Dave was right — and Taboo was instrumental in demonstrating that fact. 

I still have this conversation/debate/argument with young cartoonists, editors and creators today. To my mind, self-publishing means just that – you are publishing only your own work. As affirmed in personal  conversation with Jeff Smith (Bone) just last month, Jeff and Vijaya Smith have arrived at the same conclusion, based on their own experiments with publishing the works of others. It is a lesson that every generation should take to heart.

This does not preclude publishing – many (most) creators need publishers — just, please, don’t say you’re self-publishing. 

If creators/editors/publishers are publishing any work other than their own, they are publishers, not self-publishers; they are publishing, not self-publishing.

OK, the groundwork has been laid — here we go:

Taboo Origins, Part 1 –

_____________________________________________

Amid the excavations, unpacking, organizing and shelving of the massive SpiderBaby Archives project I’m now in the midst of, I’ve just turned up a clutch of original 24-year-old notes from the first months of work on Taboo!

[Note: At the time, this anthology proposed by John Totleben and I in response to Dave Sim's invitation to publish anything we wanted to do didn't have a title. My referring to it here as 'Taboo' is historically inaccurate; we essentially had no title for at least two years. This was called, for a time, The October Project. It was comics writer/retailer Mark Askwith (now a journalist, who had worked for over two decades now in Canadian television) who suggested the name 'Taboo,' and Mark's title won the day, winning my undying gratitude.]

I’ve always recalled our having discussed this with Dave at the Mid-Ohio Con of November 1985; these notes clearly indicate the invitation was months extended before the Mid-Ohio Con, and it looks like Dave’s response to our proposal was accepted by telephone conversation before Mid-Ohio Con, which tended to fall on or about Thanksgiving week in November.

srbtaboonotes1

Based on these notes, it looks like John Totleben and I had intensively powwowed with Dave at the Mid-Ohio Con in November 1985. Before mid-December, we’d already begun lining up our initial wish-list of contributors.

srbtaboonotes2

Things were moving quickly.

On December 12, 1985, Dave called me to go over the concept and specifics of his new corporate plan — Aardvark-Vanaheim would not be financing or publishing our project, a new entity called Aardvark-Vanaheim One International (eventually Aarvark One International) would serve that function.
srbtaboonotes3

Within two weeks of that conversation, the following list of initial contributors and stories had been drawn up, and methodology worked out for monthly contact with A-V One International:
srbtaboonotes4

Of that initial list, only two stories — Eddie Campbell‘s “The Pyjama Girl” (his first sale to an American publisher, though a subsequent sale to another US publisher beat this story into print) and Jack Butterworth‘s “Eyes Without a Face” (vividly realized in comics form by the great Cam Kennedy, then best-known for his work on Judge Dredd) — were in Taboo 1 when that finally saw print in the fall of 1988:
taboo-1

To be continued… coming up:

First letters; The Taboo Manifesto; A Manifesto For Creators; the Puma Blues/Diamond Comics debacle!


Discussion (12) ¬

  1. Mark Masztal

    NIce to see my buddy Tom Sniegoski on the creators list. Great story and Taboo is what brought us together to create some good funnybooks .

  2. James Robert Smith

    TABOO was a neat experiment and historically important in horror comics specifically, and horror fiction in general.

    I don’t know why anyone would have called it “self-publishing”, though. I never put up any money. (I got PAID for my work.) I never had to struggle with printers, binders, distributors, retailers. Spdyderbabies/Steve Bissette was the publisher. I never looked at any of the work I had in its pages as self-publishing. TABOO was a market. Albeit a far more liberal market than any other…but still a market for my work.

    TYRANT was self-publishing. CEREBUS was self-publishing. Strangely, nothing, as far as I can recall, by Alan Moore was ever self-published. (Well, I’m rambling. Time to stop.)

  3. Larry Shell

    Re: Alan Moore being self published, Alan and his now ex-wife whose name I can’t remember for the life of me, self-published the first 2 issues of BIG NUMBERS if I’m not mistaken.

  4. srbissette

    Oh, man, that’s one of the can of worms that got me in eternal deep shit for TCJ interview I did back in the 1990s…

    Alan’s wife’s name was Phyllis.

    Alan, technically, published — he did not DRAW the work he’d written. Mad Love was a publisher/packager; Alan collaborated on the work published in BIG NUMBERS. No writer can, truly, self-publish their own comics, unless they’re drawing them as well.

  5. Jason Moore

    I love this stuff Steve! Keep it coming! :)

  6. Roger Green

    Re: Jason Moore’s comment: Ditto.

  7. James Robert Smith

    Ah, yes. BIG NUMBERS. I’d forgotten that project. Easy to do, since not enough of it was published for one to be able to form much of an opinion about it.

  8. Mauricio Matamoros

    Yeah! Steve, we want to read this story. I’m 34 years old, and in the last 10 years I have gather amost all the volumes of Taboo: when this was out it was much more difficult to get and to pay from Mexico, so well… you could imagine the effort and the interest to hear this. Thanks.

  9. Mark Masztal

    As the detail involved in the series was so intense, artist Sienkiewicz had problems keeping up the workload,[2] and withdrew from the project after two issues. Moore and his publishers asked Siekniewicz’ assistant, the teenage Al Columbia, to become the series’ sole artist. After working on the artwork for the next two issues, Columbia also withdrew from the series for reasons that remain unclear; Big Numbers #3 and #4 were never published, and the series remains unfinished to this day.[1] A thinly fictionalized version of these events is portrayed in Eddie Campbell’s 2001 graphic novel How to Be an Artist.
    In 1999, ten pages of art by Sienkiewicz made for Big Numbers #3 were published in the first (and only) issue of the magazine Submedia.[3]
    In 2009, a photocopy of the complete lettered art for Big Numbers #3 surfaced on eBay. The purchaser contacted Moore, and with his permission published scans of the art on LiveJournal.[4]

  10. Sam Kujava

    I remember being on the phone with you one night back then, Steve. I was still writing
    for Archie Comics, and you were all excited about your upcoming self-publishing project.
    You were trying to think of the perfect title for it, and I was tired and groggy but struggling
    to remember an old paperback I had…somewhere…that I knew was just the perfect title choice. But I couldn’t recall it and I said good night and good luck.
    The next day I did a little digging/searching and found the paperback. The title was…
    TABOO.

  11. Matt Kennedy

    Finding this archived here guarantees that I will accomplish nothing else today. For that I am eternally grateful, as all work and no play, etc.

    As the 16 year old kid working in the shop that Sniggy used to work at, it was very exciting to know of this project ahead of time, and to get to read some fiction from Lynn Item crime reporter, Jack Butterworth. The first piece of artwork I ever bought from anybody was a SwampThing pin-up that we had on consignment in that shop (and which took me months to pay off). In those days, the idea that you and John would be branching out and doing your own thing was incredibly powerful. This was after the false challenge to Diamand Comics Distribution by Capital Distribution (it would be great to get Glen’s first hand account of that, but I digress) and those of us in the trenches were praying that you guys would get a Hollywood Ending. We’d long heard the stories about DC becoming something of a sweatshop (unless you happened to be British), but more importantly the original pitches for some of the great stories ideas you and Rick (and to a lesser extent, Alan) came up with would reach us. Months would pass and they’d never see the light of day, or if they did they were so incredibly watered down that they hardly resembled the source. In short, news that our favorite “madmen” had taken over an asylum –any asylum– was music to our ears.

    It wouldn’t be until 2003 that I opened my own shop (DVDs not comics) and people just don’t know what’s involved. And I had it a lot easier than you did. Meeting deadlines back in those days before the worldwide web must have involved steep Fed Ex bills. Getting anyone to deliver is generally difficult, but when you’re separated by time zones, and lengthy gasp in contact, it’s a whole new level of frustration. The finished work of Taboo stands as a document to greatness, and for that you should be proud, but you should also be compensated. The thing that sucks about being first to the dance, is that you’re dancing alone. It’s always the guys that arrive second or third that benefit from the groundwork that’s already been laid.

    This is an incredibly valuable document you’ve put together, Steve.

  12. srbissette

    Thanks for the very kind words, Matt, and the personal recall of that era. I also appreciate your last three sentences—and oddly enough, I was compensated, by the US Federal Gov’t.

    I’d personally lost SO MUCH MONEY over the TABOO years that when my windfall came in 1993, with the publication of the 1963 Image series, my accountant used the massive losses of TABOO to offset the massive income of that single year (the most I ever, ever earned in comics, all in one year!).

    I recall Rick Veitch saying, “Bissette! How did you DO that?” “Simple, Rick—lose a fortune and starve doing a project like TABOO first!”

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