Steve Bissette is one of the few horror comics artists who can truly be called a living legend. As the principal artist on the classic Saga of the Swamp Thing, Bissette (working with writer Alan Moore and inker John Totleben) was responsible for the first truly modern horror comic, infusing the medium in the mid-80s with the same dimensions of dread and strangeness that David Cronenberg and John Carpenter brought to film. Bissette went on to write the Bram Stoker Award-winning Aliens: Tribes and edit and publish Taboo, the groundbreaking horror anthology in which From Hell first saw print, alongside work by Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman and other leading lights of the genre. These days Bissette teaches at the Center for Cartoon Art Studies in his home state of Vermont. And Vermont is also the subject of his latest work, The Vermont Monster Guide (written by noted horror author Joseph Citro, with whom Bissette produced The Vermont Ghost Guide) -- for which Bissette provided over eighty illustrations. We chatted with the artist a few days ago about how The Vermont Monster Guide came to be, and about his hope to explore the folk legends of the other forty-nine states. Read the interview and check out Bissette's full cover for The Vermont Monster Guide after the jump.
Note: Copies of The Vermont Monster Guide are available on Steve Bissette's fun, eclectic and art-packed website SRBissette.com for only 20 dollars. An outrageously low price considering Bissette signs and draws an original sketch in each copy of the book ordered on the site.
Does your new project begin with The Vermont Ghost Guide?
Yeah, actually it begins a little bit earlier. Joe Citro is one of my best friends in the world. Joe is a fellow Vermonter and we met about 20 years ago. We were introduced by a mutual friend, Stanley Wiater. Stanley thought Joe and I should connect since we were both Vermonters, and he thought we had a lot of shared interests. Stanley connected Joe and I, and we immediately hit it off. It was almost like we had grown up together, because we had read the same stuff, we had liked the same stuff. We had known some of the same people in a few cases. And it wasn't too long before we started talking about how we should do something together. Joe was of a generation of horror novelists that includes Rick Hautala and a number of other novelists that were very active in the late 80s early 90s, where mainstream publishing kind of abandoned them for a time. Joe's novels were originally coming out through Zebra, which at that time was a very low-end paperback publisher, but they were one of the few publishers that would take on new writers. Then Joe got picked up by Warner Books, which was a huge step up in the market. Warner Books fired the editor of their horror line and brought in the editor of their science-fiction line to handle their horror line. I can see the bureaucratic thinking there – "Oh, science fiction's just like horror." [Laughs.] But the science-fiction editor hated it. And if you really understand horror the way you do and I do... It's very different from science fiction. To put it in the simplest terms, science fiction is a rational genre and horror is very much an irrational genre. It's an irrational genre in that it's driven entirely by emotion; it's like romance or comedy. The new editor at Warner who was the head of the horror line proceeded to gut the horror line, because he didn't like any of what he was reading. And the problem of course was that he didn't like horror.
Joe ended up getting treated very shoddily by Warner and this coincided with my stepping away from comics. I was putting all of my energy into self publishing by that time. I had had it with work-for-hire and working for outfits like DC, also owned by Warner. So Joe and I decided, "Well, why don't we go after a regional printer?" This is my arriving to the point of your question. [Laughs.] We started doing projects where we were targeting regional publishers. Yes it's less money and yes it's a smaller geographic reach with a potential audience, but you tend to work with nicer people, they tend to keep their promises; and if they're keeping their promises, you're happier as a creator. We self-published a map called Vermont's Haunts, and it was a ghost map of Vermont. I did a cartoon map of the state and drew in all the different aspects of ghost stories, UFOs, Bigfoot, treasure stories, and so on and so forth. We had a lot of fun with that, and we sold a fair number of them here in the state; and then we tackled The Vermont Ghost Guide, and we sold it to the University Press of New England.
We had some fun with it. We were happy with how the book came out. I was not in a particularly good space in my life at that time – my marriage was falling apart and I wasn't happy with the situation in the comics industry. But we ended up having a good time with that project; and I also illustrated Joe's last novel to date, which is a terrific horror novel called Deus-X. The first edition of that was a signed and limited hardcover edition, and I did a fair number of illustrations for that. And after that, we kept our eyes open for an opportunity to do something else together. We had a couple of attempts, nothing would ever quite pan out. And about a year and a half ago I started leaning on Joe saying, "Look, we've really got to do a Vermont Monster Guide."
Joe didn't think there was enough material. And I've got all of Joe's books – he's written well over half a dozen books about Vermont, New England Folklore, and other weird shit. I said Joe, "Just go through your books, make a list. I bet you we have enough." We kind of set an arbitrary number of fifty; we want to make sure we could get at least fifty stories to make a book. Joe put together the list, and there was about forty. So I started doing drawings, which I posted on my website during work on the project. We got that list up to sixty-two; I think there's sixty-two or sixty-three monsters in the book. I was contracted to do fifty illustrations, but I ended up doing over eighty black-and-white illustrations. I worked with my good friend Cat Garza Jr. Cat just won the 2009 Ignatz Award for Best Online Comic, for his Year of the Rat. Cat and I worked together on the cover material; we did the painted together for the front, and Kat designed all the covers work for the Vermont Monster Guide. We wrapped it up in May of this year, got it in on time, and the book came out this September. It seems to be doing well locally. It's available nationally on places like Amazon and so on; and I'm now selling it on my website. We're pretty happy with it. And now Joe and I are out there pitching a companion project. Our working title is 50 States, 50 Monsters; and we're hoping to find a publisher for that.
Does Vermont have a higher number of monsters than other states or could this sort of project be done in other parts of the country?
I think it could be done in every other state. I mean, let's face it – a state like California, or especially a state like Texas, would clean our clock in numbers of monsters. [Laughs.] The publishers, on the back of the book – we didn't write the cover copy – they claim Vermont has more monsters than anywhere, but I think that's only because we're doing the first state-centric book of monsters. We don't have as many lakes as a lot of states do, and almost every lake in Vermont seems to have a monster. Even some of the ponds seem to have monsters. So if we were doing a similar book about New Hampshire or some of the Midwest states that have a lot of bodies of water, I'm sure they'd beat us in monster count. It really comes down to [the fact that] we paid close attention to it and did some digging.
One of the hardest things to find was a werewolf. One of the things I insisted Joe find was a werewolf story. I wanted to draw a werewolf. We're on the border of Quebec, and Quebec culture is full of stories of loup garou. If as nasty a dish as poutine has made it across the border than certainly at least one werewolf has crossed the border at some point. Sure enough, he finally found a story that was in the strangest place. It was in National Geographic magazine. There was, I think, a 1950s issue of National Geographic with an article on logging in Vermont. And that's where the werewolf story that we ended up using came from. It was right under our noses, but who thinks to look in National Geographic for monster stories? No, I think any state you lived in, if you did due diligence, you'd find a ton of monster stories. That's where we're gonna go with this new project.
Any idea of when we would be able to see this new project in print?
Hey, if you can find us a publisher it'll happen faster! [Laughs.] We're shopping it around right now. We've got interest from a couple of publishers. But I worked professionally in all capacities, as a cartoonist, writer, editor, publisher, and co-publisher; and until you have a contract it's not real, and until the book actually gets published, even if you got paid and there was a contract, it's not out in the world. So there's many a mile between the cup and the lip as they say. We're hopeful, but we'll see what happens.