This latest multi-chapter account of the formative years of Taboo is another SpiderBaby Archives series of documented posts offering snapshots of my personal and professional comics history.
Per usual, this is proffered as being my own memory (which is fallible) of and perspective on long-past events; others who were directly involved or kept abreast of events back then no doubt have different recollections, though I do my utmost to verify these accounts via artwork, dated documents, published accounts, and so on. I at all times welcome and encourage corrections, revisions, and always further documentation. Thanks!
[Taboo 3 cover ©1989, 2009 Michael Zulli; Taboo TM Stephen R. Bissette and SpiderBaby Grafix & Publications.]
[Above: John Totleben and yours truly, signing and sketching our asses off at Mid-Ohio Con, November 1985; below: Frank Miller signing at the same convention, a few seats away from us. Photos ©1985, 2009 Eric Geggus, posted with permission -- Thanks, Eric!]
As previously noted, the 1985 Mid-Ohio Convention was the critical juncture of time/place/events where what became Taboo really took shape. At this point in our narrative, it’s necessary to provide a bit more back story — bear with me, please. It’s all part and parcel of what became Taboo, and why it became what it was.
That Mid-Ohio Con was likely the best John Totleben and I ever had. Saga of the Swamp Thing was peaking — for fans, and for us (as you’ll see, in terms of our drawing board time, we were now past peak, though those issues wouldn’t become apparent to readers until 1986). We had long lines of eager fans, and John and I had been working the cons together for about three years now, and loved doing ‘em. John was a seasoned pro at doing sketches, and taught me the ins and outs of it all — pacing, pricing, and so on. I was an apt pupil, and by this con we were cooking.
The fans have fond memories of that particular convention, too. By sheer coincidence, I’ve exchanged emails this week with Eric Geggus; we’d previously crossed paths in life once before — at the 1985 Mid-Ohio Con! Eric graced me yesterday with the two photos posted here (with his very kind permission); Eric says, “Great show! My buddy Paul and I still talk to this day about how great that show was. They don’t have shows like that any more. A shame.”
It was also a momentous convention for me because this was the convention where I finally met Frank Miller.
As teenagers, we’d grown up and had been drawing our own comics for ourselves living only about 20-25 miles from one another. Frank graduated from Montpelier, Vermont’s Union 32, I graduated from Harwood Union High School in Duxbury — and once we began comparing notes discovered we’d frequented the same movie theaters, art stores (Capital Stationers in Montpelier), book shops, and even had common teachers between us (!). Still, we’d never met.
(I do have a vague recollection of Fred Greenberg once trying to get us together in 1978-79, before either of us had done much of anything of note; “There’s another Vermont cartoonist you’ve got to meet,” Fred said, noting Frank was living in New York City and trying to make inroads with publishers. Fred mentioned Frank by name then, the first time I’d ever heard of Frank, but as best I can remember that meeting never took place. Hey, Fred? Frank? Am I wrong?). [Update: Also see my ol' Kubert School classmate Sam Kujava's comment below -- man, I may be suffering from brain farts or early senility. Sam, that I don't remember!]
This past April, when multi-award-winning editorial cartoonist Jeff Danziger came to speak at the Center for Cartoon Studies, I found out Frank and I had another common link: while Jeff’s set-and-published-in-Vermont Teed family saga Out in the Sticks comic strip for the Times-Argus newspaper had played a key role in inspiring me to do my own comics, Jeff had in fact been one of Frank’s teachers — Frank’s social studies/history teacher at Union 32, to be exact. It’s a small world.
Anyhoot, back to Mid-Ohio Con, 1985: Frank hit it off immediately with John and I. Thankfully, that was also the first year that Mid-Ohio provided a trailer for guests to retreat to now and again, which afforded us time to chat with one another away from the convention floor. Sweet.
This was the year, via conversations comparing notes with Frank Miller and intensive conversations with Dave Sim, that John and I realized what a bum deal we were getting with DC. While our comic was winning awards on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, we were still earning DC’s lowest page rates. While Alan could script an issue in a week and was free to work on a multitude of other DC projects — including what was to be Watchmen — and DC touted his accomplishments and made him a rising star, John and I labored like the plantation workers we had just drawn for SOTST #41 and 42. We weren’t envious, greedy or mercenary — we were just being pragmatic, and felt increasingly like we were giving our best endlessly with precious few, if any, rewards from our publisher.
For John and I, it was a zero-sum, dead-end game, staying with Swamp Thing, and our few attempts to discuss future or alternative plans with DC yielded zip: there would be no Demon mini-series (that already belonged to Matt Wagner), a possible graphic novel with Julie Schwartz was shot down, there would be no nothing.
Dave Sim was also talking up Frank at Mid-Ohio, working on convincing Frank and Bill Sienkiewicz to bail from the majors and self-publish their own work. This was also the year and the con where Frank’s celebrity was beginning to hit critical mass. John and I had to flank Frank and essentially run ‘interference’ for him on Sunday to get him to his ride to the airport — my first brush with such intense fan adoration (of Frank, mind you), and one John and I would see again at UKAK in London, focussed on Alan Moore, the following year.
As I’ve already detailed, it was just prior to this Mid-Ohio Con that Dave Sim had extended the invitation to John and I to published anything we wanted to do together.
Dave’s hope was that Alan Moore, John and I would just pull up stakes from Saga of the Swamp Thing and jump ship, rerouting all that creative energy into something of our own, lock, stock and barrel.
[My Floronic Man portrait drawn for DC the first days of September 1985, two months before the Mid-Ohio Con cited here; from DC Who's Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe, Volume VIII, cover dated October 1985 -- man, that must have been a tight deadline!]
He was certainly reading the cards correctly: I was particularly disenchanted with DC Comics, given their abominable behavior at that time — which I legally can’t discuss publicly, contractually, based on our ultimate settlement of a major greivence.
This was a situation aggravated further (though no fault of our own) by the theft of Swamp Thing original art from the DC offices and DC’s subsequent ire at John and I for publicizing that theft, despite the fact we carefully coordinated those announcements with DC management and followed their instructions to the letter.
I was in fact losing interest in the collaboration, as the chemistry Alan, John and I had so completely immersed ourselves in and savored was continually being disrupted by DC policies and insanity and my ongoing, never-ending struggles with the always-crushing monthly deadlines (which was in no way helped by DC’s bullshit).
Editor Karen Berger had in fact that very spring yanked me off an issue I was pencilling — SOTST #38, the first part of the ‘water vampire’ two-parter — but allowed me to pencil part two of that story (SOTST #39) completely. I gave it my all. As it was a story John and I had co-plotted with Alan, it was among the last couple of issues I felt personally invested in; having also co-plotted our lycanthropy story (SOTST #40) — which was based in part on an idea I’d had in 1979-80 for an imaginary ‘Curtis Slarch‘ novel (part of a pitch to Heavy Metal‘s art director John Workman, which I’ll write about here one day) — I also felt a strong bond with that issue.
Happily, that issue turned out well and had kicked up some dust in the market when it came out in the summer of 1985, pissing off Marvel honcho Jim Shooter (who publicly objected to the menstruation theme and imagery) while delighting Swamp Thing readers and fans.
While at Mid-Ohio, John and I were beginning work on SOTST #46, the Goddamned ‘Special Crisis Cross-Over,’ forcing Alan to derail his plans for the serialized “American Gothic” for one issue to cater to the all-DC-comics Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover edicts.
This was, for me, the last straw as penciller; I only worked on a couple more issues of Saga of the Swamp Thing as penciller, concluding this run with an agonizing SOTST #50 marathon with Rick Veitch co-pencilling.
Amid the usual deadline hammer, we had some fun, some solid pages were done, but my heart was no longer in it.
I’d emotionally left the series with SOTST #46, truth to tell. As the splash page put it, “Thuh-thuh-thuh-that’s all, folks.”
More and more, I was personally invested in the plans for John’s and my new horror anthology — what became Taboo.
Part and parcel of the process was getting to know Dave Sim better, and learning the ropes about how the Direct Sales Market really worked — how to solicit a comic, what distributors were all about, and how the business truly functioned, nuts and bolts and all. This education was a steep learning curve spread over two years — 1986-1988, when Taboo‘s ambitious expansive (100+ pages) was finally was published.
En route, a major blow-up and blow-out between Dave Sim and the distributors provided a sobering series of lessons in how it all worked…
Tomorrow: How It All Worked (and Didn’t)