Beat Reviews: Putting the Creepy in Comics with Dan Goldman and Stephen Bissette

In December of 2012, I dove in and started doing reviews for the Beat. Though I was just starting to find my way when it came to reviewing comics, I was helped along by the willingness of creators to provide interviews with insights into their creative process. My first two review-interviews dealt with one of my favorite comics subjects: the uncanny and weird. I grew up reading Edgar Allen Poe, and always loved it when the stalwart Nathaniel Hawthorne delved into the mystical. In my religious school upbringing, I noticed my teachers were always a little uncomfortable when things got truly weird in these great short stories, but I couldn’t have been happier. Pushing the limits of the imagination in creative works is one of the most noble aspects of any artistic endeavor, in my opinion.

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Dan Goldman, longtime indie creator, has worked on his comic RED LIGHT PROPERTIES for seven years but is now more than pleased that it’s been picked up by Monkeybrain Comics for digital publication. I reviewed his first five issues of the entirely self-created comic and asked him a few questions about the uncanny and bizarre elements of his stories about a flawed but intriguing character, Jude Tobin, who “cleanses” real estate properties in Miami of the lingering effects of violence and pain. One choice quote from Goldman includes:

I’ve been researching the occult/paranormal since I was a boy. My grandfather died right after my fifth birthday and I used to see him around the house for years. After he passed, my mother shared with me something she’d read about Peter Seller’s death experiences during a heart attack and it just sunk down into my consciousness, emerging again around the time I got a library card. I think it was the same summer GHOSTBUSTERS came out. I was a weird little nerdling then; I used to ride my bike to the library during the summer (they had cold A/C) and I stayed mostly in the back aisle of the library, poring over musty old spirit photography books.

One of the things I found truly compelling was the way in which Goldman clearly connects personally with his subject matter. Each issue is also totally unique in its vibe and storytelling. Visually, Goldman is a fantastic artist, blending digital technology, photographs, and traditional artwork to create a twenty-first century ripping yarn. Check out my full review and extensive interview with Goldman here.

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For my second review with The Beat, I found myself engaged with the work of a comics legend, Stephen Bissette. Not only is Bissette a committed scholar and author of works on comics, but he pays his experience drawing comics forward by teaching at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. His lifelong passion has been horror, from comics to films, and his recent works continue to conjure awe in his readers. I reviewed his Vermont Monster Guide as well as his truly old-school ‘Zine Monster Pie, and got the bask in the glow of some of his thoughts on the horror medium. Of course I was in awe, it’s Stephen Bissette! As a big fan of his work on SWAMP THING and a general weird tales junkie, this was one of those moments where you realize that you love what you do writing about comics. When I asked Stephen what he enjoyed most about the encyclopedia of the weird that is the Monster Guide (and it’ll make you want to leave the lights on no matter whether you’re anywhere near Vermont or not), he said:

It was just a pleasure to draw, period. It was great working with the art director and team at UPNE, but nothing was as much fun as just drawing the creatures. It was a path to getting my own drawing chops back up to speed after a lengthy period in which I really didn’t do much drawing, save for my work in the classroom at the Center for Cartoon Studies.

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Bissette is nothing if not a masterful visual storyteller and an incredibly dedicated artist and author. He preserves the ambience of monster ‘Zine culture beautifully in Monster Pie with collaborator Denis St. John. It’s a compendium of the unpredictable and mood-laden, a full art gallery exhibition in a few folded pages. Bissette credited some of his return to ‘Zines to his experiences working at the Center for Cartoon Studies:

Zine culture was part and parcel of my experience growing up; some of my first published artwork appeared in 1970s genre movie fanzines like CRYPT OF TERROR, JAPANESE FANTASY FILM JOURNAL, and Ted Rypel’s OUTER LIMITS fanzine, and I contributed a fair amount to comics zines of the late 1970s and early 1980s, too. Zine culture was also central to Denis’s generation, via other kinds of comics and media zines; CCS’s first Fellow who became a fellow instructor, Robyn Chapman, rekindled my own enthusiasm for zines of all kinds with her sheer passion for zines. Robyn’s love for zines was absolute and genuine, and fueled the whole CCS zine culture in many ways. CCS is a zine and comic factory in its own right, its incredible what comes out of the basement production lab on a monthly basis.

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I couldn’t have asked for two better guides into reviewing than Dan Goldman and Stephen Bissette. Their willingness to share their ideas and experiences made all the difference in opening my eyes to all that lies behind the production of such great weird tales. Check out my full review of The Vermont Monster Guide and Monster Pie here at the Beat, complete with Bissette’s discussion of their genesis and influences. A big thanks to both Dan Goldman and Stephen Bissette for their thought-provoking and truly creepy books, and also for taking the time to talk to their readers.

Off-Again, On-Again Artistic Endeavors

I recently wrote an essay for the digital literary arts salon TRIP CITY about my recent attempts to return to creating artwork. I had to delve pretty deep to try to explain why it was such a struggle for me, but given some time, I started to remember more interesting anecdotes and more reassuring stories to tell about art in my life.

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Any discussion of art for me starts with my grandmother Cleo, a beautiful, elegant, and very fashionable lady who, at the age of 14, bobbed and bleached her hair in a drug-store bathroom to keep her parents from stopping her. She wanted to be like the movie stars. At the age of 16, she went away to commercial art school in Washington D.C. with her father, a master cabinet-maker’s, support. The increasing pressures of the Great Depression brought her home again after only a year. She was devastated by the setback in pursuing her passion, but tried to move on with her life, even doing freelance work for local businesses at home. She married young, and traveled the world in the wake of World War II, collecting beautiful objects from Paris, London, and Rome, and even from the capitols of Asia. But her husband didn’t approve of her artwork and over time she set her easel aside. Maybe it was the nude sketching- it was a conservative world she moved in.

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Visiting her house as a kid was totally mesmerizing. In her later years, she had become a consummate gardener and her gardens were like enchanted kingdoms full of every kind of flowering tree and shrub. Inside the house was just as intriguing- you could get lost even in smaller rooms in the mazes of antique and exotic furniture. Crystal and china jangled everywhere and it was a gauntlet not to break anything (but if you did, she glued it back together perfectly without a single harsh word).

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It took quite a few years of observation to realize that her ritual of showing me her stacks of paintings and sketches (modest but sizable) had a deeper meaning for her. Each piece was infused with memories of a time she wished she could recapture before she gave up art. As a kid, I’d hand her my pencils and try to get her to draw with me, but arthritis had made it too difficult for her and she shied away from trying. All of this influenced me at a time when I still treated art and writing as a connected thing. All my books were illustrated and if I found a book that wasn’t, I thought it was some indicator of laziness on the part of the author (“There aren’t even any pictures!”, I’d say disapprovingly). When I looked through Cleo’s old, fine turn of the century books, they were illustrated, too, in whatever language they appeared, further confirming my suspicion that those were “proper” books.

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So when I wrote stories, mainly heavily influenced by the fairy-tales and mythology I was reading at the time, for each page of words there’d be a full-page illustration. It was slow work, but when it was done you had an actual book. I’d punch holes, tie or sew them together and there you had it. Sometimes if I was feeling particularly generous, I’d give them to other people for Christmas. But mostly I kept them for myself.

As I mention in the TRIP CITY essay “To Draw or Not to Draw”, I had a big falling out with art as a teenager. It was knock-down drag-out and we went our separate ways. Ironically, it was at a time when I was actually getting fairly proficient by art-class standards, but I felt it was a definitive break and took off in favor of writing instead. One of the many factors that led to this break was the idea growing in my mind that art had to be perfect, and singular, whereas writing was more malleable and reproduceable (in an age of photo-copiers and PCs) and I didn’t like that constraint. Well, to learn more about my thoughts on the matter, you can read the essay.

In short, I returned to artwork through comics, first dabbling with producing thumbnails, then cautiously taking a comics anatomy class that pretty much confirmed my terrible conviction that I still wanted to draw, and maybe had always wanted to. Cleo regretted not using her more able years to draw, draw, draw, (and paint), and while I’m not 100 percent certain I’ll ever achieve her degree of charm and virtuosity on the page, I’m trying to keep her lesson in mind. On that note, and since writing “To Draw or Not to Draw”, I’ve taken another step and signed up for another art class, this time Basic Drawing, at the Kubert School. It seems like a shockingly big step to take in the context of my many years away from drawing, but I know for sure that Cleo would be delighted. You have to do what you can in the time that you have.

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