The Stephen R. Bissette Collection, housed in Henderson State University’s Huie Library, is an overlooked treasure of comics history.
In 2003, Huie Library acquired the papers of artist, writer, publisher, critic, and teacher Stephen R. Bissette. A graduate of the first class of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, Bissette is probably best known to comics fans and scholars as the artist who worked with writer Alan Moore and inker John Totleben on an innovative and influential run of Saga of the Swamp Thing in the 1980s.
In the late 1980s, Bissette formed SpiderBaby Grafix & Publications and began publishing the horror anthology Taboo. In Taboo he serialized work by Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell, Chester Brown, S. Clay Wilson, Moebius, Elaine Lee, Scott McCloud, Melinda Gebbie, P. Craig Russell, and Neil Gaiman, among others.
Bissette has also been a prolific writer. His novella Aliens: Tribes won the Bram Stoker Award for horror writing in 1992. For years he wrote a weekly “Video Watch” column and has produced a large, and still growing, body of film criticism published in venues such as The Video Watchdog and Fangoria. His Teen Angels & New Mutants (2011) is an insightful piece of superhero scholarship that, unfortunately, fell through the cracks between the fan and academic markets.
Bissette now teaches at the Center for Cartoon Studies in his native Vermont and still writes about horror comics and cult films. He also continues to clean out sections of his garage and attic and send boxes of popular culture history to the archives at Henderson State University. For virtually every item he has sent to HSU Bissette has written an explanatory note. In some instances the notes are terse descriptions, but often he includes a great deal of context, including very personal information. For example: “By December, I was working with the new BIZARRE ADVENTURES editor Denny O’Neil (see Dec. 1981 Express Mail receipt enclosed), for whom I illustrated “A Frog is a Frog,” a story conceived with and scripted by my friend Steve Perry – the story was completed and delivered ON TIME against a very tight deadline during the horrific miscarriage Nancy and I endured. We lost our child mere days after the job was turned in – my reward being Marvel claiming the copyright to that story with a single phone call, though it was supposed to be our copyright (see that issue of BIZARRE ADV., wherein all other contributors retained copyright). As Steve Perry never signed a contract on the job, and Marvel was dubiously claiming ownership based on the blanket work-for-hire contract I had been coerced into signing in 1978 . . . Embittered, I never really gave a shit about another deadline in my life.—S.B.”
The Special Collection contains the core research for a substantial biography of Bissette. With his accomplishments as an artist, publisher, critic, and teacher he is certainly a worthy subject for a critical biography. It is clear that the training he received and the connections he made at the Kubert School were major factors in Bissette’s comics career, and thus, the Collection is also a great starting point for anyone interested in studying the impact Kubert’s school has had on the American comics industry.
The following sampling of information about Kubert School alums is an indication of the variety of holdings in the Bissette Collection:
A bank book and cancelled checks that help to document how Bissette stayed on in Dover for a year after graduating from the Kubert School “building the professional contacts necessary to continue working in comics.” He shared a house, dubbed Flying Dutchman Studios, with Kubert alums Rich Veitch, John Totleben, and Tom Yeates. In the Finding Aid notes Bissette documents how those contacts paid off: “Tom Yeates was another first-class-first-year Kubert School classmate, and he went on to draw SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING #1-15, opening the door for John Totleben and I to take over the art chores with #16 in 1983! We’re still good friends, though we hardly get to see one another.—S.B.”
A copy of the Faces of Fear portfolio (1987) self-published by Bissette and Kubert alum Steve Warrick.
A convention invitation and handwritten I.O.U. from Kubert alum Fred Greenberg, who organized the Great Eastern Conventions and published Inside Comics.
Two binders of sketches, “The Marnick Manias,” done by Dennis Ellefson (editor of CARtoons, BIKERtoons, etc.) for Kubert alum Tom Foxmarnick.
Scripts and artwork for some of Kubert alum Cara Sherman-Tereno’s Life with the Vampire stories about bisexual vampire Ivan Koliath.
A fold-out cover painting by Kubert alum Dave Dorman for Bissette’s Aliens: Tribes novella.
Script, by Kubert alum and former NYC cab-driver Art Raveson, and tight page layouts, by Bissette, for the uncompleted and unpublished “Scud Vetch” story (circa 1984).
Supreme Court of California documents from the Edgar Winter et al. v. DC Comics et al. defamation case about Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such, which was penciled by Kubert alum Timothy Truman.
The Collection contains interesting items and information even for those with little interest in comics. Bissette’s work connects to wider popular culture. The Constantine movie starring Keanu Reeves and the subsequent television series were based on the John Constantine character Bissette co-created for the Saga of the Swamp Thing comic book series. Because Bissette and writer Alan Moore were so critically acclaimed for that series there have been two Swamp Thing movies, a television series, a cartoon, and a recent streaming series. The From Hell movie, with Johnny Depp in the lead, was an adaptation of a comics series first serialized in Bissette’s horror anthology Taboo (1988-1995). The Collections contains not only materials related to the business and creative aspects of those comic books, but also insights into the frustrations involved with the comics being adapted to other mediums.
The Special Collection also contains a cornucopia of dinosaur-related material (books, sketches, models, etc.). Bissette has had a nearly life-long obsession with dinosaurs, and many of these materials were gathered to aid in the creation of his self-published comic book series Tyrant (1994 – 1996), an ambitious but aborted project that would have told the life story of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
If you come to Arkadelphia to visit the archive, contact The Center for Comics Studies at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will give you a warm Southern hospitality welcome, and then we will find a way to put you to work talking to one of the comics classes offered at HSU.
Prepare for your on-site research by using the Finding Aid: https://www.hsu.edu/pages/academics/huie-library/resources/special-collections/stephen-r-bissette-collection/bissette-finding-aid/
You might want to consider staying at the lovely and historic Captain Henderson House bed & breakfast just across the street from the library that houses the Bissette Collection.