Stephen R Bissette – CCS instructor, monster-maker

Born in Duxbury, Vermont, Stephen R Bissette is an award-winning comic book artist, illustrator, and writer. Bissette was one of the first graduates of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, and together with writer Alan Moore and inker John Totleben, was responsible for revitalizing the DC comic series Swamp Thing into a critically acclaimed horror classic. His later work includes editing and publishing the influential anthology horror comic series Taboo, authoring the Bram Stoker Award-winning novella Aliens: Tribes, and drawing and self-publishing Tyrant, the unfinished epic biography of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
Bissette was one of the original faculty members at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Jct, and has been teaching there since its creation in 2005. This fall marks the publication of The Vermont Monster Guide, a collaboration with Vermont author Joe Citro, along with the paperback release of a book he co-authored, Prince of Stories: The Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman. He continues to actively write and draw and he maintains a blog dedicated to his ongoing creative projects, film, the horror genre, and the American comic book industry (
We spoke with Bissette as he prepared for the arrival of the new freshman class at CCS.
When did you first decide to become an artist? When did you realize that you had a passion for drawing monsters?
Four. Four years old. I drew a dinosaur that an adult, I believe it was my father, recognized as a dinosaur. It was that moment in which marks on paper became something that real grown up people recognized as being the thing that was in my head. It was an awful drawing, but just the fact it was recognizable is what I have never forgotten. That's what got me going.
After that, I had a very close friend during my early childhood when I was living in Duxbury, Vermont, my next-door neighbor Mitch Casey. We used to draw these mini-comics and mini-monster magazines and sell them at school. My mom hates it when I say we sold it for milk money, but that's what we did. We were basically selling the comics for other kids' milk money. And it wasn't that we needed money, we had enough money, it was that we were making comics that people were wanting to own and buy. So that was sort of when the bug bit me.
What was your art training like after high school? How did you get involved with the Joe Kubert school?
The first place I went was Johnson State College, and I went there for two years. I was there from '74 to '76. And that yielded a magazine format comic called Abyss that we printed at Johnson Press, and that was my portfolio into the Joe Kubert School.
I entered the Kubert School and I was in the first-ever class.
It really was the Kubert School that pushed me into doing this professionally. It was set up as a trade school, so unlike what I experienced in studying art at Johnson State College – you see, there were some amazing painters and artists that were at Johnson, they would graduate and they would have to become contractors or carpenters. There was no way for them to earn a living with their artwork. I think that's part of why I really pursued the Kubert School. Joe made it clear in the initial literature they sent out that it was essentially a trade school, and that we were going to be learning a trade and the goal was to have us working professionally in the comics or commercial art field. So that's why I went for it.
I was working professionally before the end of my first year. Part of what made that possible was the proximity to New York City. Being a Vermont boy, I had never had that kind of proximity. It was literally a short bus ride from Dover, New Jersey, where the school was, into New York, and number of my classmates and I were already hitting the pavement in New York and showing our portfolios around after we finished our first year.
By the time I graduated, in the spring of '78, I was already landing professional sales and doing my best to piece together something like a living out of it.
What did you do following graduation?
For most of us it followed two tracks. The Kubert School had a work program, and I believe they still do, where if you had your schoolwork done and if you were up to snuff on your homework assignments, you could work on freelance projects that Joe would bring into the school. And one of the jobs that Joe threw my way during my second year was a three-page horror story for Scholastic Magazines, their magazine Weird Worlds. It was a horror story, and the writer of the story and the editor of the magazine was Bob Stine, who your generation knows better as RL Stine, the man who created Goosebumps.
Most cases though, all of us were piecing together a freelance career based on our own efforts, our own job interviews and so on. I was working with Heavy Metal off and on, and Marvel Comics.
Then by 1979, I was able to move back to Vermont. By then, Federal Express had begun delivering and picking up in rural parts of Vermont, and that was really important. This was before the Internet, before fax machines, and it would been tough to continue my freelance career living in Vermont without FedEx. Thankfully, once FedEx had established routes in Vermont, I was able to move back up. I moved to Grafton, Vermont. And that's really where my independent career started.
Like most comic freelancers at that time – and I tell this to my students now, they're entering a really tough economy – when we graduated the Kubert School in 1978, it wasn’t easy. Those were hard years. The gas rationing was going on, the economy was in the toilet, and the entire comic book industry was imploding. Underground comics were gone. The head shops had all closed so there was no distribution for Robert Crumb and the big undergrounders. The mainstream publishers like DC and Marvel were going through really hard times. Most of their comics were reprints, they were firing editors and cutting back. It was hard to get our leg in, but we did it.
Sometimes, for folks your age, as hard as it looks out there, oftentimes that's a great time for the next generation to be entering and inventing new venues and markets. The old rules cease to apply – you find or create new niches, new markets.
It turned out to be, despite how horrible the economy was at the time, a pretty good time to be making our mark on the world. By the time I was working on Swamp Thing it was 1983 – there we were working on a comic book that had some of the lowest sales DC had, and it was much like fellow Vermonter, Frank Miller, who was a real inspiration at the time. Frank had taken Daredevil, at Marvel, which was a second or third-tier character no one cared about, and Frank turned it into a phenomenal series. That was kind of our wellspring when John Totleben, who was another Kubert School classmate, and I started work on Swamp Thing. And once editor Len Wein brought in writer Alan Moore, we became the core team, working with my friend and fellow Vermonter Rick Veitch. It all went from there.
What, among your many projects, is the work that you're most proud of?
Two things - I'm really proud of the work we did on Swamp Thing and Taboo.
My personal goal – as a young man, I had a silly goal. My goal was to change horror comics. I loved horror comics. And my goal, as a young, aspiring cartoonist, was I wanted to change horror comics for the better. To me, the horror genre could be about anything, any aspect of the human experience. Most people think it's just “boogey-boogey,” scary, bloody movies, and to me, horror is one of the great literary genres. In all media – in music, in art, in film, in literature – it's one of the great genres, and yet every critic that was active during my formative years loathed the genre. Hated it. Treated it like a retarded, hunchbacked brother that was locked up in the attic.
To me, horror was capable of anything. I thought it was a really important genre because it was the one genre of fiction and the arts intent upon confronting the very things we fear and that are taboo, culturally. So I'm really proud of what we did with Swamp Thing and what John Totleben and I were able to do with Taboo, because we really did change things.
The thing I'm happiest with though, is Tyrant. That's the one thing I would like to get back to. I feel like with Swamp Thing and Taboo, I did what I wanted to do. I feel no need to revisit either of those ever again. But I would love to get back to work on Tyrant and find a way to take that to the next stage. And hopefully, if I've got enough time on the earth, and if there's a market for it, I'll be able to find a way to do it.
How did you first get involved with the Center for Cartoon Studies?
James Sturm and I had been in touch via the mail, off and on over the years, in the late 1990s and between 2000 and 2005. In 2004, 2005, James got a hold of me and said that he was thinking about starting a cartooning school in White River Junction, Vermont. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I at the time had shifted gears. I was the co-manager and buyer at video super-store in southern Vermont, First Run Video, and that was my bread and butter. I continued writing and drawing. I illustrated a book a year for the horror market and I was very happy as a writer for magazines. I also completed a number books that I solo-authored and co-authored.
But I had gotten out of comics, and when James got a hold of me he was putting feelers out to see who he might want to bring in as the core faculty for the Center for Cartoon Studies. He invited me up to White River and I have very fond memories of eating at the local diner with James and walking around downtown White River Junction while he pointed out the possible venues among the empty storefronts where the school might end up. At that time, James was working hard with the town. The co-founder of the school, Michelle Ollie, James' partner in this endeavor, was in the area and they we were doing all the nuts and bolts work of pulling together a board of directors, and financiers, and finances, and everything.
How could I resist? I was a student in the first-ever class of the Joe Kubert School, first class to go through the school. Now, almost three decades later, here's James asking me to participate working the other end of the classroom as a teacher at the first-ever class of a brand new school. And in my home state!
It was a no-brainer. I had to do it.
There's nothing I can think of that would be more worthwhile then what I'm doing now. I'm 54 and it's very important to me to pass on what I've learned. And of course, as with any institution like this, I learn more from the students then I could possibly pass on to them. For me it's been really reinvigorating, creatively and personally.
What kind of things do you teach at the Center for Cartoon Studies?
My primary function there at the school is I teach the Drawing Workshop class with the freshman students and I teach, and now co-teach, a comics history course, which we rather pretentiously call “Survey of The Drawn Story.” But it is a comics history course, and I've been teaching both of those since the first year, first semester.
With the seniors it's different ballgame. The seniors – it's a two-year program, so all we have are freshmen and seniors – the seniors have a tough row to hoe. Their year is based around their thesis project, so they really got to be self-motivated. They've really got to be as productive as they can, because it's all about them and their work that second year. It's not the same class structure that the first year has.
Do you assist students with their thesis projects?
The way it's set up is we have a light class schedule – we've got classes like “Professional Practices” that Alec Longstreth is teaching now, and I guest teach and lecture in that class about aspects of contracts and copyrights – but by and large, my job is to work one- on-one with the students as they need me on their thesis projects.
Each of them gets to choose a thesis advisor or mentor -- choose your word -- and for that they tap the pool of professional cartoonists and working professionals in the book, magazine, graphic novel and comics industry. Some of the students have worked with some tremendous creators who have turned out to be great mentors and advisors... It's a great opportunity and they each make the best of it that they can...By and large, this system has worked out very well.
I am sort of the on-campus faculty advisor working with the thesis projects...It's pretty amazing. I'm very glad to be a part of it. As a native Vermonter, I love being part of an institution that's helping to reinvigorate a town like White River Junction.
Do you think something like the Center for Cartoon Studies could have emerged anywhere else?
It could have popped up anywhere, that's a good question. James Sturm said that winter in Vermont is really good cartooning weather and I've built a career out of that. Not being particularly in love with skiing, one of the best sports of winter is staying indoors and writing and drawing.
Do many of the students at the Center for Cartoon Studies go on to publish their thesis projects?
As a matter of fact, publishing their thesis project is part of their thesis project. They have to present it in some form as a published book or collection.
The basement production lab at the Center for Cartoon Studies is geared so that completed, published books can be created down there – everything from photocopied mini-comics to more elaborate personal comics. Many of them have silk screened covers, die-cut covers – it's amazing what comes out of that production lab – right up to hand-bound books. I myself put together my first ever hand-bound book at a workshop that one of the students gave on hand-making books this past spring and it was really cool! That's the kind of sharing that goes on.
With the thesis project, part of their requirement is to present it in some sort of finished, published form. That runs the gamut from mini-comics to very professionally bound books. Everything from black and white to hand silk-screened to full color. That's part of what they do.
Now, how many of these books are actually out there in the world that you can order online? I would say, probably about a quarter or third our of graduating classes so far have either published their thesis projects for public consumption or ultimately found a home for it in the book market and comic market.
Can you tell me about the Vermont Monster Guide you recently completed with Vermont author Joe Citro?
Joe and I are old friends. We've known each other quite a number of years. He's one my best friends in the world, we're both native Vermonters, we both love weird stuff, and we really hit it off. We did The Vermont Ghost Guide with University Press of New England. We did that back in 1999-2000. The Vermont Ghost Guide was a little paperback of true Vermont ghost stories that I did illustrations for, and we prepared a map that appeared on the back of the book. We numbered each of the stories and put the corresponding number spots on the map so people could use it as kind of a little tour-guide of the state, just in case you wanted to check out some of the locations and some of the haunts.
For years we wanted to follow it up with a monster guide. It seemed so natural. The stars aligned properly last year and we sold University Press of New England on doing a larger format companion book, and that became The Vermont Monster Guide.
Joe and I grew up loving those kinds of books about flying saucers and true monsters and ghosts and the like, and that's how we conceived and designed and executed The Vermont Monster Guide. We did it for the 10-year-old in each of us – it’s an all-ages book. It’s the kind of book we would have loved.
You've done Vermont Haunts, and the Vermont Ghost Guide and now The Vermont Monster Guide - what is it about Vermont that makes it such a weird state?
That's a good question! What do you think?
Well, I had a friend who once told me that the thing about Vermont was that all the hills trapped things in....
That makes sense to me. During my traveling years, in my early to mid-20s, I met my first wife out in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I had a lot of friends who, for some reason, all ended up in Santa Fe. I spent a lot of time out there, off and on, for two years. I always felt bare naked when I was out in New Mexico because the landscape – the sky just goes on forever! Here in Vermont, we kind of live in this bowl, we're kind of in this fishbowl. I think that, combined with the extremes of weather, that invites a certain insularity. We have really tough winters sometimes and that brings neighbors closer together and people help one another, but it also means that really awful stuff happens sometimes to people during the extreme weather of the winter months. I think the extremes of the season fuel weird stories and weird phenomena.
And these are really old woods. I've got a lot of friends -- and now students and colleagues – who come from all over the world and all over the country. Guys from Colorado or gals from the state of Washington will say, “These aren't mountains! These are goosebumps!” Well, that's because these are older mountains than those out West. These mountains have been eroded down and broken down by years and centuries and millennia of glacier actions and erosion and it feels like old country around here because it is old country.
I think it's just fertile soil for a lot of odd stuff out here. I brought up my kids here in my home state, and part of it is, it's pretty safe around here. We don't have any truly venomous animals. There are not a lot of dangerous animals in Vermont. And yet, we have all these monsters that people see and talk about. Man, that’s half the fun!
What kind of music are you listening to right now?
I don't have an iPod or any such thing, but I've been spinning Ennio Morricone soundtrack CDs, Captain Beefheart, and Bruce Arnston's excellent EXISTO soundtrack CD this week while drawing and working on CCS chores.