Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Rick Veitch: "Brat Pack" Origins

Brat Pack (Tundra / King Hell, 1992)
by Rick Veitch

In Teen Angels & New Mutants (Black Coat Press, 2011) Steve Bissette explores the landmark Brat Pack graphic novel by writer/artist Rick Veitch and the self-publishing revolution of the 1980s and 1990s. En route, Teen Angels offers a crash-course on teen pop culture and superhero sidekick history, fresh analysis of Dr. Fredric Wertham's seminal books, ponders real-world "new mutants" like Michael Jackson, The Olsen Twins, and Justin Bieber, and charts the 1980s comicbook explosion and 1990s implosion -- and more.

(from 'Chapter 11: Packaging The Pack' in Teen Angels & New Mutants, 2011)
...in 1987-88, [Dave] Sim's nominal role as publisher of Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli's Puma Blues prompted an unexpected backlash, which in turn proved a volatile catalyst in advancing the cause of self-publishing. After direct market distributors initially refused in principle the expanded format and pricing of Sim's first (then) oversized trade paperback collection of Cerebus, the so-called $25 "phonebook" format of 500+ pages, Sim chose to publish it nonetheless, bypassing direct market distributors to instead selling the book via credit card transactions and a toll-free phone number for ordering (amazing as it may seem today), this was an innovation in comics at the time. The first printing, sans any middleman distributor, was a great success. Distributors realised they had missed a golden opportunity. Taking no responsibility for their role in Sim's decision to self-distribute, Diamond Distributors chose to retaliate by refusing to continue to list or sell Puma Blues. Though this failed to punish Sim, and in fact only penalised Murphy and Zulli -- who were in no way involved in the dispute over the distribution of the Cerebus collection -- it did prove to be the catalyst for a group of New England-based creators to immediately begin meeting.

Sparked by Diamond's targeting of Puma Blues, "...we began what we called the 'Blacklist Group'," Veitch recalled in 1995.

"It began as these really informal meetings between Eastman and Laird, and Bissette, and myself, and Steve Murphy and Michael Zulli, and whoever happened to be in our local Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire area... we would just sort of go to a diner... and talk about what was wrong with comics, what was wrong for work-for-hire, what was right in self-publishing, and I was beginning to think more about 'Yeah, yeah, this self-publishing thing can work.' And it all sort of evolved into the 'summit meetings' which I think began with the Kitchener meeting sponsored by Sim..."

Actually, the first was in Massachusetts, as Kevin Eastman noted: "There was one in Springfield and then we drove to Toronto to do another one with Bissette, Zulli, Pete and Murphy -- Steve Murphy -- and most of the Mirage guys...", followed by what was actually the third. This third and final November 1988 summit meeting "...in Northampton was sponsored by the Turtle guys. And they brought in Scott McCloud, Larry Marder, and myself, Sim, Gerhard... Mark Martin was there, Richard Pini, a bunch of guys at the Mirage Studios, which was really starting to grow..."

At that summit, Scott McCloud presented his initial draft of the Creator's Bill Of Rights, a declaration of the rights of all creators inherently owned regarding their own original work, which was ratified at the end of the two-day summit by all attending. "It sounds slightly absurd, but believe me, a lot of those thing were not defined in those days, especially by the big companies," Rick said, speaking from hard experience.

"A lot of rights were assumed by the big companies without so much as an eye blink... It was much more difficult than it sounds, to get correct wording, and I think we all agreed on the final document, although certain people objected to certain clauses in the document... I was happy with the whole thing... At the same time, of course, Sim and Eastman and Laird are beginning to work on me to self-publish..."

As noted, this summit was the last. After extensive discussion, minor revision and ultimate ratification of the Creator's Bill Of Rights, the Northampton summit closed with frank discussion and mounting friction between some participants over the business ethics of studio-based enterprises -- like Wendy and Richard Pini's WaRP Graphics (originally self-publishers of the Pini's own Elfquest, which had by this time become a studio-produced series of spin-off titles by multiple creative hands) and Eastman and Laird's Mirage Studios. Sim argued that such studio-based creative ventures were "a dead-end road," Veitch noted: "He laid it all out. He thought they were getting away from being self-publishers. And it got really intense, and Eastman and Laird took it very personal, and didn't want to hear it. The meeting kind of broke up on that sour note..."

Thus, the coalition that had sponsored the ongoing discussion of creator rights, having embraced McCloud's proposed Creators' Bill Of Rights, fragmented and pursued multiple paths. "After that it faded away," Eastman recalled, "although a copy [of the Creators' Bill Of Rights] hung on my office wall at Tundra. As far as the group went, everybody sort of went on to different things, and even the though we still sort of believe in it, and those thoughts were put down for what we thought were good reasons, like a wish list, it never went any further, it was just like, 'These are the rights that I think you should have.' End of story."...

Stephen R. Bissette is best known for his collaboration with Alan Moore on Saga of the Swamp Thing from 1983-87, and for his self-published Tyrant comic, the portrait of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the late Cretaceous period. He also edited the ground-breaking horror comics anthology Taboo, which launched From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. He co-authored the books Comic Book Rebels and The Monster Book: Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and his novella Aliens: Tribes, illustrated by Dave Dorman, won a Bram Stoker Award in 1993. More recently his articles on horror films have been collected in the Blur series published by Black Coat Press and Steve currently serves on the faculty of The Center For Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. 


Travis Pelkie said...

While I'm not well traveled, I've actually been to Springfield MA, Toronto, and Northampton MA! Wowie cool! I actually went to the Words and Pictures Museum gift shop in the latter town, slightly before that closed (but after the museum part closed, unfortunately), having gotten a pamphlet about it on the Turnpike.

It was bugging me where that "Love Hard. Live Fast. Die with your Mask On." tagline was stolen by someone else, but iirc, My Chemical Romance used it for the Danger Days...Fabulous Killjoys album. I think. Good album, ok comic, but now I'm a little annoyed that he stole the tagline (if this is indeed the case and not that my memory is faulty).

Jeff Seiler said...

Also, IIRC, wasn't "High Society" (and not "Cerebus") the first "expanded format and pricing" phonebook?

Look at how far we've come since then.

UPDATE: The proofreading of "Reads", better known as "correcting the corrected corrections", is in its last stage. The booster rocket dropped off long ago, I've made the long drift towards the sun, and now (literally just minutes from now) am going to slingshot around the sun to finish up the last text section, for the fourth time. (About 10 pages to go).