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Interview with Steve Bissette
1963 Interview by Tom Field
I caught him napping--a brief interlude, apparently, between emptying the evening's waste baskets and beginning the day's work filling blank pages with dazzling depictions of N-Man and Hypernaut.
But a quick cup of coffee and a little "pick-me-up punch" later, and he was Sturdy once more--Sturdy Steve Bissette, that is!
Tom Field: So I'm talking to Sturdy Steve. Do I have that right, Sturdy Steve?
Sturdy Steve Bissette: Yeah well that's what some people call me.
TF: Tell me how you got started at the swinging Sweatshop?
SB: Well, I used to sweep up really. That's what I used to do, and this was back in the '50s. They had a story that was either in late or Al [Moore] had left it sitting on his bin for a really long time, I'm not sure which but they needed somebody to just ink the thing, and I thought I could do it. Al let me take a shot. He didn't pay me for that first story, but he let me take a shot. He was pretty happy with the results and after inking three or four stories for no pay, he started paying me. That's how I started working at the Sweatshop. That was back before the Comics Code kicked in. That's back when we were doing books like the early incarnations of Tales of the Uncanny and Tales From Beyond, stuff like that. That's when it was pretty gruesome stuff. I remember inking a cover that had a severed head in a bowl with an apple in it's teeth and grapes in the eye sockets. It was pretty rude stuff that we were doing back then. I'm not too proud of it now, but back then, it was a job.
TF: What was your first story?
SB: Oh God, what was the first story. Let me think about it. This is the one that I inked when I was...well this is like I say I didn't get paid on the first one, but actually I think Al gave me copies of the comic and I couldn't even give them to my cousins' kids because they were so raunchy. I think the story was called "Desire for a Vampire." Yeah, that's what it was. It was pretty stupid, but I was happy to have the work at the time and we went from there.
TF: And you've been there ever since.
SB: I don't know if I should tell you this in an interview, but I have done some work for some other companies. Aw, what the hell, Al knows. He always penalizes me when he catches me. They pay better than he does, so I do it always.
TF: Tell me about your involvement in the creation of the Sweatshop characters.
SB: Really, all the characters I've worked on, I came up with the look of them. Like with N-Man Al said, "Do a character who looks good coming through a wall." That's what I did and he became the N-Man, but that was really my whole thing. On the Fury, Affable Al [Moore] had kind of a crazy idea about doing this character who wore a football helmet and had like a demon tail and all this kind of stuff. I just didn't think it worked! We did some drawings but it never really jelled. So I came up with the idea...I mean, the name The Fury suggested to me the Greek legends of the Furies, and Al said that was an idea he'd really had all along, but I came up with the basic look of the character. I tried to come up with something that would really look pretty fearsome in the dark plunging down at you. If you look at the costume of The Fury, the design of the markings on the costume suggest both flames and teeth, an open set of jaws with teeth. The idea was the red part of his costume would be the interior of the mouth and the rest would suggest the teeth, and so on. So I really came up with the look of the characters that I worked on being The Fury, N-Man--the Hypernaut, though, was mostly Al's. He actually, for the first time in his life I think, did a sketch of the character.
TF: Does this mean Affable Al can draw?
SB: He did a sketch of the character. [laughs] Yeah, he can kind of draw, but it's nothing to write home about. We had to keep in the ideas he had like the Hypernaut has this kind of lunch box kind of thing. I don't know what Al was thinking. I suppose he's got some highfalutin' idea for it. It looks like a lunch box to me, but I kept it in because he drew it. I didn't want to screw around with the concept. He's really unpleasant when you cross him, you know. So, keep the lunchbox. Big deal.
TF: You can't say screw around in a fanzine, Steve.
SB: Well, I didn't want to fuck up, then, okay?
TF: Do you have a favorite character of the ones you've worked on?
SB: Oh yeah, I love N-Man. I love the N-Man. If I get out of line, Al always threatens me with taking me off the N-Man. I pissed him off recently and so now N-Man's in the Tomorrow Syndicate so Rick draws N-Man there which sorta galls me. Rick can't draw N-Man to save his life. That's the one character I want to stay with, but he's already let Veitch work on the character, so I don't know what's going to come of it. But that's my favorite character. Too bad he let Veitch mess him up, but what can I do?
TF: How about the people you've worked with? You've worked with Veitch, and you've worked with Chester Brown and some of these other people. Do you have a favorite inker?
SB: I've had the pleasures of working with John Totleben and I was happy with what John did.
TF: The inker without fear.
SB: Yeah exactly, the inker without fear, and as long as you make sure that he's got the brush in his hand bristles-end down, it's alright. He drinks the ink water by accident, sometimes, though.
TF: Do you have to physically help him?
SB: No, I just make sure his dog's fed and it works out alright. I draw with an HB pencil, really dig into the paper, and John can ink it, sorta like pencils in Braille. Dave Gibbons is great. I wish he'd stop with the Cary Grant imitation, but you know he's a heck of an inker. Dapper fellow, really. I think the British accent is a put-on, though. The ladies love it. Chester Brown is kind of an odd guy. Weird haircut. I don't know if you've ever seen that show Dobie Gillis? He's kind of like Maynard G. Krebs. He's a good guy though, but Chester comes in with some pretty odd ideas. He wanted to do this story that Affable Al wouldn't let him do that involved an unmentionable part of the human anatomy actually being the President of the United States, and he wanted to do...
TF: Not Kennedy?
SB: ...and Affable Al just went through the roof.
TF: Well there are some standards in the Sweatshop.
SB: Yeah we have a lot of standards in the Sweatshop. It's standard that I empty the baskets every night.
TF: You kept your old job as well as drawing?
SB: Again, if I don't have the baskets emptied, I may not get to do N-Man in following issue. An artist has got to know his place.
TF: It's part of the family atmosphere then that everybody chips in.
SB: Al doesn't chip in. Wait, sorry--I mean, I didn't say that.
TF: No, we'll strike that. There have been some times I've noticed like on Johnny Beyond and the Hypernaut that you haven't been there consistently every issue. Do you take time off or are deadlines a problem for you?
SB: I'm just slow. It takes time to empty those baskets.
TF: There are a lot of them?
SB: Well they're all full of our artwork. I mean it's kind of a painful process, I'll be honest with you. I don't like doing it. I have snuck some of my pages out, but that's when Rick first got to start drawing N-Man because Al checks the dumpsters before he goes home.
TF: He's got to say goodnight to Ed the Emperor.
SB: I guess.
TF: What are the other Sweatshoppers like?
SB: Well we don't know each other too well because we just have to just sit there and draw all day. Now and again one of us will talk about the wife at home or something, but if Al catches us not inking there's heck to pay. And Rick's kinda touchy about the wife thing, you know.
TF: So what's Al like?
SB: He's a sweetheart. [laughs]
TF: Do you have a favorite Affable Al story that will help illustrate what kind of character he is?
SB: I can't repeat it. I had to clean up after, though, I'll tell you that. It's when he first brought his...no I can't, I can't go into it. It's awful. Maybe he'll tell the story in one of his pages, but I doubt it. It's a pretty embarrassing story, really, and we had to take him to the hospital that night to get the cellophane off his head.
TF: [laughs] This doesn't involve Kandi Devine, does it?
SB: This is when Kandi first joined the Sweatshop. Like I said, I had to clean up after. I don't like to think about it. Suffice to say that for a few months, I wasn't threatened with losing N-Man. I knew, I knew some things, but by now you know...
TF: ...one day all the stories will come out.
SB: Maybe, we'll see. Some day this industry will change but I don't know when.
TF: What do you see happening in the industry?
SB: Al wants to put this pop art thing on the book. That must indicate something. I don't know what it's all about.
TF: Well everybody's noticing what you're doing.
SB: You think so?
SB: Like who?
TF: You read the names yourself in Affable Al's column.
SB: I don't read that claptrap, that's all made up. None of that's real.
TF: Those are real names.
SB: They're real names, but none of that happened. None of it.
TF: It's in print. It has to be true. What's it really like at the Sweatshop? I mean can people go there and see you working? Can people visit?
SB: Sure, come on up. We'll give you artwork. It's better than throwing it in the basket, I'll tell you. Come on up. I wish people would come up because Al acts decent to us when people are up there, but when nobody's up there...
TF: What are your plans for the future? Any secret story ideas that you can give away?
SB: I got some ideas for N-Man, but I don't want to give them away because Al will use them. [laughs] I had some ideas with The Fury. I had this idea of doing this whole series of issues where he gets pinned under the Statue of Liberty, see, and he's trying to lift it off of himself but Al didn't think that that would sustain. I think it'd make a good story. We'll wait until he runs out of ideas of his own, he'll start using more of the stuff that we come up with. Al's one of those guys where you come up with a story idea and he completely shoots it down. He humiliates you in front of everybody if it's during a story conference, and then lo and behold two months later, it's his idea and you use it. We all know the routine. None of us take it personally. It's the way it is, especially since Kandi's been up at the office. But that's just how it is and we make an okay living at it.
TF: Do you think you'll ever write stories?
SB: I have been, but you won't see my name on it. I've been thinking about it. We'll see, we'll see.
TF: What did you do for the other companies?
SB: I did some super-hero stuff recently, The Black Lizard and a couple fill-ins on odd titles. I did these giant monster books. In fact, I got the jobs because of the stories that I was doing for Tales From Beyond back before we brought in all the super-hero claptrap. I got some gig from a little outfit in Massachusetts. They used to print a lot of comics in Holyoke, Massachusetts, you know. There's a publisher down there that's got some kind of distribution racket going up in New England, and he got the licensing to a couple of low budget movies. So I drew a few of those books. I did a pretty good job on those and I ended up doing a whole series of them, but I'd have to pencil and ink a whole book like in a night, one night. I did one where it was this monster...one of the books we have this monster Tabonga or Kabonga or something like that. They showed me the movie, I got to see the movie...well they didn't show me the movie, I caught it on the late show, I'll be honest with you. It's such a bad movie it's already on television. They don't even name the monster the same way twice. It's this tree, it's this tree monster and they keep calling him a different name in the movie. They couldn't even get it right there. But anyway I did an issue of that, and it was called From Heck It Came. The movie is called From Hell It Came, but we couldn't do that in comics, so it's From Heck It Came. The first issue came out great, so we did a series because it sold pretty well. I did a whole...I mean I got to do these issues over night, and I got to be ready the next day to keep drawing for Al. So I did one whole issue where Tabonga is just buried in a sand dune, right up to his stump and the whole issue has these characters tapping him for maple syrup and stuff. I mean nothing happens really in that whole issue, but it came out okay. I did another book for them, another one of these schlocky monsters, but I have fun with it, it's fun.
TF: Now when you do the work for the other company, do you use the same name?
SB: I can't use the Sturdy. I just use "S. Bissette."
TF: "Sturdy" is not your first name?
SB: No, Al just sticks that to us. Actually the original moniker I had around the shop I can't even repeat to you. That's how it is with all of us. Like it wasn't originally Roarin' Rick, it was Rippin' Rick because...we don't make a lot of money, so Rick would go down to the corner and get those hot dogs they sell and I tell you, especially the hot days in the city, the after-effects were awful. You know, gas. Actually the winters are worse because you can't open the windows, so it was Rippin' Rick and then when he started this thing in the comics it became Roarin' Rick. You guys don't know what all this stuff is. I can't even repeat what mine was. For awhile while the thing with his wife was happening, he was Ripshit Rick--
TF: [laughing] Apparently it's not just a Sweatshop.
SB: No. And I'm telling you, cleaning those baskets, it's foul some of the stuff I've got take out of there.
TF: What advice do you give to someone that wants to get into the business?
SB: Don't work for Al! That would be one piece of advice, but it's an honorable business. I've been at this now since the early-'50s. I don't own a damn thing, but I've made a pretty good living drawing these characters and I have fun with it. Some day I'll do my own stuff.
What advise do I give to someone wanting to get into this business? Well, you got to learn how to draw everything. Living in New York is good because the New York Public Library is right here. You can go right down there and find reference for anything. I used to draw some war stories in the old days, and it's pretty hard when you get a script and you got to draw a scope for a sniper fighting in the World War I trenches and you've got to get the right scope for the German soldier and for the American soldier. I cared about that stuff. Most of the guys didn't. They would just take the paper towels off the roll and just prop up the roll and that would be the scope, but I would actually go to the library and figure it all out. You got to do your homework, but you got to learn how to draw everything. So that's my first bit of advice--draw everything. Draw everything around you, draw everybody, draw everything that's out there because you're going to have to draw it some time or another while you're doing the comics anyway.
The other piece of advise I would give is don't ever clean your brush. Ever. I got this brush, I tell you, I can kill a dog with this brush. But it's a great brush. I can do pretty good ink lines with it and you just look at the inks that I'm doing on Jim Valentino's stuff for Johnny Beyond, and that's a brush that I haven't washed once in eight years. There's a lot of these guys out there that have this namby-pamby attitude that they got to clean their brush. You got to clean your brush. Forget it. Don't ever clean your brush. Why clean rat hair, y'know?
TF: So what if somebody has some ideas for some of the Sweatshop characters? What should they do?
SB: Send them in. Just write 'em to Al, he'll take 'em. He'll use 'em, you won't get nothing for it. Well you get this what's this thing he calls--the Anti Award. You'll get one of those in the mail, and it's just an empty envelope, if you even get that. I think they play it up like it is something, and these kids are licking this stuff up. I'll tell you. Just send it to Al, just make sure it's something you don't have any plans for later in your life, because I've given Al a few and I kind of regret it now, but that's just how it goes. So if you got any ideas, just send them to Al, kids! Pick out the books you're going to write. It doesn't matter because if he doesn't get enough letters on one issue, he just steals them from another book. I probably shouldn't tell you this, but he makes up most of them letters anyway.
TF: He makes up the letters too?
SB: Some of them, sometimes. Not too often, but he makes up some of the letters. There's a couple nights where he made Rick and I write a bunch of letters, but I probably shouldn't be telling you this stuff.
TF: Are you going to still be working when this interview comes out?
SB: I don't know. Al can't read. I ain't too worried about it. He can't even read. He just recites all this stuff to us, you know. Kandi does all the typing. Al will just sit there on his...he doesn't even have a chair. He's got a piano stool and he just puts his feet up on this shoe box that he's got, and he just rattles that stuff out, and Kandi types it all up. He can't read. He ain't going to read this interview. The only way he'll find out is if that kid that keeps writing in, writes into him about this interview. That's how he'll find out.
TF: Which kid is that?
SB: I don't remember. There's this kid who writes in letters, named "Hutty," I think. He wrote in a letter about Roarin' Rick's interview. Rick was in hot water for five weeks because of that letter. I got to draw N-Man again for a while. The kid wrote in about Rick did this interview with this little rag, I mean, they just do these things on mimeo, and this kid wrote in asking about it. Rick tips the bottle sometimes, and he was a little snockered when he did this interview. He talked about the contracts and Al dismissed it by calling them the "wacky gag contracts" and all that, but Rick was in pretty deep trouble there for about five weeks. He didn't make any money for awhile. Al kind of docked his pay. I don't want to go into it. The only way I'll get in trouble if this interview comes out is if that little son-of-a-bitch that wrote that letter that got Veitch into trouble writes into Al again. You'd think these kids would learn, but they don't, they don't know. How could they? Al has them believing we're some kind of big, happy family or something. Ha!
TF: Hey, if you weren't working for Affable Al, what would you be doing?
SB: I'd be drawing Tabonga on a more regular basis probably, but I only get about fifteen bucks a page for Tabonga. I make about twenty a page doing this stuff with The Fury and N-Man and stuff. That's pretty good.
TF: You mean The Fury and the N-Man together.
SB: No, no, no. Twenty bucks a page on each one. I got to do a lot more than just draw, but I probably shouldn't talk too much about that.
TF: Well just remember a lot of people would like to be where you are.
SB: They probably wouldn't if they knew what Roarin' Rick's reputation really rested on, where he got the name. I don't think they'd want to be right here. I'll tell you, the air gets ripe up here.
TF: You better hope the kid doesn't write a letter to Roarin' Rick. [laughs]
SB: It's a good thing that Kandi doesn't have a sense of smell or anything. Al doesn't seem to care. He thinks it's funny. Roarin' Rick lets one roar and Al thinks it funny.
TF: You better hope that kid doesn't write to Rick.
SB: Rick doesn't care. Rick knows all this stuff. Rick and I talk about stuff you wouldn't believe because we got to. God, all we've got is each other some days!
TF: I think we'll cut it there. SB: Cut it there? Is that a joke? TF: [laughing] Anything else you can add to this? SB: No, I think we got enough. I've got to finish these pin-up pages tonight before cleaning the floors.
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