Thursday, 8 November 2012

Taboo: "A Creative Reaction Against The Status Quo"

Taboo #1-4 (SpiderBaby Grafix, 1988-1990)
Cover art by Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Michael Zulli & Moebius
(from 'Taboo Is Taboo', Gauntlet Magazine #1, 1990, reprinted in Taboo #9, 1995)
...Taboo was created four years ago by John Totleben and myself as a creative reaction against the "status quo" of the American comic book industry's perception and exploitation of the "horror comic" genre. Despite the outlet we were enjoying in the pages of Swamp Thing, and the resurfacing of the horror  anthology comics format (Twisted Tales, Tales Of Terror and House Of Mystery), none of the new breed of horror anthology comics were emulating, or even acknowledging, the progress the genre had made in every other media and medium. It was as if Stephen King and Clive Barker didn't exist, as if Night Of The Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Eraserhead had never been made. Worse still, it was as if the underground comix revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s had never happened, with none of the 1980s independents showing a fraction of the creative excess and inventiveness of the underground horrors like Skull, Slow Death, and Death Rattle (whose revival in the mid-1980s had many high points, but lacked any real focus or impact) had revelled in. Even the best of the new horror comics were still regurgitating the themes and formulas of the infamous 1950s pre-Code EC horror comics.

John and I were finding no fertile ground for our own efforts in these "new" anthologies, despite our attempts, and found it frustrating that the genuinely innovative horror comic stories were appearing sporadically in non-genre anthologies like RAW or the self-published titles like Chester Brown's Yummy Fur. There was no focal point for these creators and sensibilities to come together; no publisher willing to take the risks necessary to do a genuinely adult horror comic for the 1990s; no title with a point of view or understanding  of the genre willing to explore, rather than exploit, its often dangerous potential.

We were audacious enough to think it could be done and that we might be the ones to do it.

Enter self-publisher and friend Dave Sim, whose tenacity in writing, drawing, and publishing the monthly Cerebus for over a decade had earned him enough  of a private financial stronghold to accurately proclaim his true artistic independence. Dave had begun to selectively offer creators he felt a kinship with the opportunity to "self-publish" their own creations  under the wing of a corporation Dave had formed to bankroll their ventures, without any creative interferences.

When the offer was extended to John, Alan [Moore] and me, we chose to take advantage of it, though not as a trio, and not in the manner Dave had expected. John and I proposed our anthology title, with Alan as one of the contributors, and although Dave was uncomfortable with suddenly having to, by proxy, deal with many more creators than he had dreamed of, he finally gave the go-ahead. Taboo began to take shape.

Dave's "creator-ownership" corporation, Aardvark One International, would only spawn one periodical, Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli's Puma Blues, before Dave's decision to dissolve the corporation in September 1988. Taboo would have been the second title published under its umbrella.

Dave's reason for dissolving the corporation had nothing to do with Taboo itself. The corporation had problems with Diamond Distribution, one of the largest comic distributors in the U.S., which he felt would undermine future venture, and taint work such as ours by our being associated with his corporation. Dave dissolved Aardvark One in August 1988, mere weeks before Taboo 1 was to be printed, after almost three years of work and considerable monetary investment from Aardvark One.

At the time of Dave's call we had only two choices: to publish, or not to publish. The former, really, was the only feasible alternative: the creators, Dave, and John, and I, had poured too much work into the book to simply deep-six it on the eve of its publication. Publishing it, however, meant forming our own company... a necessity John did not care to get involved in.

As a result, my wife, Nancy O'Connor, stepped into the fray, and together she and I created SpiderBaby Grafix & Publications. Though the initial torrent of work and responsibilities was daunting, we persevered and - with Dave's help in retaining his own printer's services - Taboo 1 shipped in November 1988. Selling for $9.95 retail, we were able to sell over 15,000 copies, earning solid royalties for our creators and laying financial bedrock under SpiderBaby.

For a first issue from a new company, Taboo 1 was a phenomenal success. Though we had no paid advertising to promote the book, we took full advantage of all the "guerrilla advertising" possible, yielding illustrated articles and press releases in as many comic book and horror-related periodicals as we could interest. Though we're still proud of our first issue, barely a third of it lived up to what we saw as its potential. With our second issue, we would have to push the parameters of what was possible and permissible even further.

I suppose what was to follow was proof of our "success"...

Taboo #5, Especial, #6-7 (SpiderBaby Grafix / Tundra Publishing, 1991-1992)
Cover art by Jeff Jones, Jeff K. Potter, Cru Zen & Joe Coleman

As a comics-artist, Steve Bissette is best known for his collaboration with Alan Moore and John Totleben on DC Comics' Swamp Thing in the 1980s, as well as his own self-published Tyrant. As editor of Taboo, he published the first serialised appearances of From Hell (by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell), Lost Girls (by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie) and the still-born Sweeney Todd (by Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli). The text of this article is © Steve Bissette, and all Taboo cover artwork is © the respective artists.


Slumbering Agartha said...

I always loved the Taboo logo and the name "Spider Baby", and the entire vibe that emanated from the project; the horror genre had/has never been so cool. I think it was before its time on a number of levels.

Dominick Grace said...

There was a lot of great stuff in Taboo, though it had its share of misses as well. I wass orry to see ti die.