Posted by: Joe McCulloch on August 30, 2007
Infamy is a tricky thing.
It has a way of making your work slightly immortal, in that a title’s mention might cause a listener’s ears to perk, and their mind to wander through all the books they’ve ever read, searching for the source of that scratchy feeling they’ve suddenly got. For years, if someone were to utter the words Boiled Angel in front of me at my junior year winter formal or my younger sister’s Holy Confirmation or something, I’d react. Internally, but instantly. They are trigger words. But I’d hardly read ten panels of Mike Diana’s work in those years. It was only the infamy that hit me.
Stephen R. Bissette once wrote of his infamous horror anthology, Taboo, in its next-to-last volume:
“I’m glad Taboo was gutted like an organ bank while it was still walking, that it was heartlessly abandoned by its creators. Taboo demanded so much, more than I could continue to give. No longer possessed like a madman, no longer wishing to be a thankless midwife and proprietor to its insatiable needs, I, too, abandoned it, leaving it as everyone else had: unwanted, dismembered and exsanguinated, its rank heat dissipating in an unforgiving night.
Immortal, undead… but what is the character of these mad and dreadful things? It’s easy to shock yourself on the internet – why, just yesterday I visited a popular anime review site, and treated myself to a summary of a new rape/humiliation porno production, with a surgical experimentation theme. Brain transplant bestiality, a forced sex change operation… shocks come so easy these days. But infamy carries the weight of history, and captures a bit of time it was born in. I often find my response to infamy is superficial – I react only to the prior reactions of others, in that I react to the charge of infamy itself. It’s better to get up close, and really rub my face in notorious comics. Right in the store parking lot! I don’t care if they all stare! They can’t hurt me with their eyes and laughs. My car will snuggle me like Mother.
Anyway, Taboo makes for a perfect study, being a pretty infamous series, and one rich in history. The most infamous of all of its ten volumes is the second one, cleverly titled Taboo 2, but some background will also help.
Taboo was first published in 1988, though it was conceived years prior, while Bissette and John Totleben worked on DC’s The Saga of the Swamp Thing, which most of you know became a very popular horror series with the addition of writer Alan Moore in 1984. Perhaps fired up by this success, the two artists cooked up the idea of a whole anthology of new horror comics, one that would press the form toward the horror frontiers explored by other arts.
Mark Askwith (comics writer and event producer) provided the title, and Dave Sim initially planned to fund and publish it under his Aardvark One International line of comics-that-aren’t-Cerebus, an effort that would actually only produce one title, the 1986-89 Stephen Murphy/Michael Zulli series the Puma Blues, which eventually became embroiled in a distribution controversy between Sim and Diamond, the scintillating details of which I shall save for my multi-part Puma Blues coverage at some point in the future. The important part is that Sim got out of the business of publishing anything other than Cerebus, and Bissette opted to publish the book under his and then-wife Nancy O’Connor’s SpiderBaby Grafix & Publishing; by that time Totleben had backed away from active participation, although he retained co-creator credit.
That first volume of Taboo, released in 1988, has some nice stuff in it. There’s a nice introduction by Clive Barker, who was later supposed to be a bit more present in the series, in that Bissette had planned to serialize a comics adaptation of Barker’s short story Rawhead Rex with the aforementioned Mr. Zulli collaborating on the visuals. That project had originated at Arcane Publishing with rights holder Steve Niles; however, after Arcane’s option expired (and Arcane went out of publishing), it was purchased by Eclipse, a publisher Bissette & Zulli opted not to work with. The adaptation was eventually published by Eclipse in 1993, written by Niles himself, with art by Les Edwards.
As for the actual comics in that first Taboo (ah, comics, yes yes…), there was a surreal Alan Moore/Bill Wray piece, about a woman who finds the energy to feel alive while sitting in the studio audience of a suicide game show. Eddie Campbell provided some reportage on the strange Australian case of The Pyjama Girl. Charles Burns presented Contagious, the first iteration of his teen sex plague idea that would culminate in Black Hole. Some interesting stuff.
But Taboo 2 is where the infamy really began.
After the ordeal of publication was over, Bissette recounted the history of Taboo 2 in the 1990 debut issue of Gauntlet. This tale would later be reprinted in Taboo itself, as the last thing in its final issue. A parting bow.
Having assembled the contents for Taboo 2, Bissette sensed there might be trouble due to three features: one from underground comics veteran S. Clay Wilson (who’d also appeared in the first Taboo), one from Cara Sherman-Tereno, and one from Zulli. Wilson’s piece proved especially contentious – enough so that co-publisher/spouse O’Connor declined her editing credit on the volume, receiving instead an “assistant editor” credit with Totleben.
The book was sent for printing at the Canadian house that handled the first Taboo. It refused to print the material, perhaps owing to the political climate in Canada at the time (so Bissette mused). The materials were then sent to a US printer, which declined the job on grounds of sexual content. A third printer agreed to take the job.
But you know, you’re never quite aware of how many steps it takes to create and release a finished book (circa 1989) until you read a litany of troubles like the one that followed. A typesetting house refused the project, as did two copy shops. As did a color separation outfit. A different separation outfit, approached to handle the back and inside covers, had to be assured that certain symbols on display were not Satanic. Upon approaching a bindery, the book was refused because the people there believed incorrectly that John Totleben had drawn a vagina somewhere in his front cover art. Nine binderies refused the book in sum.
Finally, the damned thing was released in the Autumn of 1989, all 10,000 copies. Some of which were then seized and destroyed in customs busts in Canada and the UK. At the end of 1989, Bissette was refused a business loan by his bank, which had handled the prior issue’s money, for the purposes of reprinting the volume.
That is infamy.
But what is in this infamous book? How do the controversial pages work?
It’s easy enough to start with Wilson, who provided four full-page drawings, tucked away in a section called S. Clay Wilson’s Black Pages, festooned with skulls and CAUTION AVOID EYE CONTACT! stamps, thoughts from underground ally Tom Veitch printed on both sides.
I’m going to get a bit graphic for the next four paragraphs.
Drawing #1 is titled Rebel Reject Robots Dally with the Bastard Daughters of Corrupt Technocrats. It depicts robots (really metal-flesh cyborg things) waging war against naked or near-naked women, setting hair on fire with lasers, choking and raping, etc.
Drawing #2 is titled Rotting Zombie Harpies Dispatch a Vampire. In it, several nude women with rotten, torn flesh hold a naked vampire aloft, one of them stretching and tearing his penis with her teeth while another thrusts a stake through his heart. Dual phallic power seized, you see.
Drawing #3 is titled The Checkered Demon and a Vampire messmate “Race to the Bottom.” A vampire with a thin mustache and glasses sucks blood from a (mostly naked) woman’s neck with a straw, while Wilson’s signature lil’ devil creation snorts something out of the woman’s vagina via glass apparatus. A bottle of Fuck You Beer sits on the floor, for those who choose to look.
Drawing #4 is titled The Merry Makers Parade By… Oblivious to the Odious Acts in the Alley. This scene presents a man standing in a filthy alley, holding a club in one hand and his grotesquely engorged S. Clay Wilson-type penis in the other, a woman laying on the ground bloodied and with her face caved in. Off to the side stands another man, clutching a smaller naked girl, a finger pressed into her mouth. The merry makers indeed parade by in the background, appropriately oblivious.
On one hand, it’s easy to see why many might balk at this material. It wouldn’t be any easier a sell today, I suspect.
But on the other hand, I can’t say it’s all that unexpected as per its place in the S. Clay Wilson catalog. He’d been doing that sort of stuff for a long time by 1989. And more pertinently, his presence in Taboo establishes a link to the past, a sort of continuity between what was taboo then, and what is taboo now (meaning 1989). While a wholly new reader might indeed by stunned by the garish drive of Wilson’s vision — all wild detail and goony faces and nervous energy — other readers may not react at all beyond the understanding of Wilson’s place in comics history. The prior issue of Taboo ran a drawing by the late Greg Irons, another underground artist – it would later run a story by horror magazine stalwart Jack Butterworth, and the first English translation of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s and Moebius’ debut collaboration, Les yeux du chat.
Does this mean the Wilson material isn’t in here for nasty shocks? Oh heavens, no. I remind you: skulls and CAUTION stamps. But the distance we’re allowed by time affords us a greater chance of looking at this potent material, and seeing its place in Taboo as part of chain of horrors, a tradition the series reflected on and carried forward. This is among the benefits of examining infamy, this distance.
What of the other stories Bissette suspected as shocking? Well, Cara Sherman-Tereno’s story (actually a two-chapter serial set back-to-back, the first half dating back to 1978) is an overwrought bisexual vampire saga, notable mainly for some outrageous phallic symbols and a straightforward interest in addressing topics like AIDS. It’s a middling piece of socially aware subgenre horror, although I suspect the semi-graphic gay sex bits set off a few alarms somewhere. Its presence in Taboo indicates an egalitarian approach to sexual subject matter, as well as a desire to apply horror tropes to then-contemporary pressing subjects. Quite simple.
And then, there’s Zulli’s Mercy. Plotwise, it’s nothing striking. A sleeping man is haunted by plenty of ye olde Catholic guilt, sexual shame mixing with punishment, and so he wakes up and snips off his penis with a pair of scissors. Th’ end!
No, this story’s importance to the Taboo tapestry is that it demonstrates the series’ devotion to exploring the graphic capabilities of the comics form. Anyone who’s read the Puma Blues knows that Zulli is very capable of smartly handling bold and complicated visual concepts, on top of his obvious ability to render delicate, precise realist characters, as often seen in his works with Neil Gaiman.
Here, he provides several tight arrangements of vertical and horizontal panels, whipping from childhood flashbacks to images of Christ being scourged without warning, varying panel height and width to control the impact of specific moments. And all atop everything — not confined to caption boxes but spilling across bunches of panels at once — are all of the story’s words, all of them being heard in the main character’s head, fonts galore and sizes varying. The subtlest thoughts are squirreled away between panels, almost too out of the way for the reader to find – this is fitting, since they are the thoughts that lay deepest in the slumbering character’s psyche. They are also the only ones to carry over to the otherwise wordless waking action, punctuating the gory finale with the aftershock of nightmare.
It’s simply excellent work. Zulli would handle a fine, if more stylistically subdued adaptation of Ramsey Campbell’s Again in Taboo 5. But he would also become something of a phantom of lost projects; along with his and Bissette’s Rawhead Rex project, Zulli would also get involved in perhaps ‘the’ big unfinished Taboo project: his and Gaiman’s Sweeny Todd, which only appeared in volumes 6 and 7 (and the volume 6 entry was actually a preview book that only came wrapped with the preordered segment of vol. 6’s print run – good luck finding it today).
Still, other graphic experiments were present. Taboo 2 also featured a story by writer Tim Lucas and Simonida Perica-Uth, a fascinating little piece of words and pictures going off in two directions. Lucas’ words, set out in plain typeface against blocks of white, tells of a metaphorical domestic drama about a wife who can only conceive when her distant husband speaks to her during lovemaking, though his silence is imprinted on their children. It’s strange, gently surreal, and more disquieting than anything. Meanwhile, Perica-Uth presents each page as a collage, heavy on ancient Egyptian images and little flights of whimsy, like cartoon sperm floating in the sky. The arrangements of Perica-Uth’s human figures do generally match what Lucas is writing about, but the approach dislodges the plot from a magical realist houshold world, and plunges it into an imaginary space of cosmic forces fucking and posing, pinning myth on workings of love.
Lucas was perhaps the most effective of Taboo’s relative comics novices; he was (and remains) primarily a film critic, one who innovated the now-common approach of considering video and print quality while reviewing movies released for home viewing. He later founded Video Watchdog, and recently published Mario Bava – All the Colors of the Dark, an 1128-page, full-color hardcover monster with over 1000 images and a manuscript running nearly 800,000 words in length.
In Taboo, he primarily wrote a serial called Throat Sprockets, a sort of non-vampire story about a mysterious sexploitation film that pops up in a grindhouse, its images prompting an intense fetish for neck-biting in viewers. The best chapter was in Taboo 3, a wildly veering piece of reflection on ephemeral relationships, so jarring in its transitions and pace that it teeters right on the line of pressing ambition and simple incompetence – a little like the best exploitation films! The project was never finished in Taboo, or in the comics form at all, though Lucas eventually revised it all into a prose novel.
Indeed, that might be the last quality of Taboo, one discernable through the infamy – leaving things undone. Another serial debuted in Taboo 2: a little something called From Hell, which teamed two the prior issue’s seperate contributors, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. It wouldn’t finish in Taboo. Not a lot did.
Taboo kept running into money troubles. Moebius’ Starwatcher Graphics kicked in a little money. For Taboo 4, Kevin Eastman’s Tundra kicked in a lot. It was needed – as of Taboo 5, Canadian and UK distributors would no longer solicit orders, essentially limiting the book’s readership to the US. By that time, Taboo was being published in association with Tundra, and Bissette became involved in other matters with the company. A special issue came out. Taboo 6 and 7, last one in 1992.
Bissette had many problems with Tundra, not the least of them his feeling that its decision to publish From Hell as a standalone comic in addition to its Taboo serialization effectively crippled his sales. And then nothing. Bissette left Tundra. And then Tundra melted into Kitchen Sink. And in 1995, Bissette came to Kitchen Sink and released Taboo 8 and 9, two ‘coda’ volumes stitched together from the remains of an unpublished sexual abuse awareness special, unseen bits of since-completed serials like Throat Sprockets and Jeff Nicholson’s Through the Habitrails, and other paid-for odds ‘n ends. Kitchen Sink didn’t publish comics for much longer. Taboo was never seen again.
But I can still recall seeing images from Taboo. From the Kitchen Sink catalog I got by dialing the telephone number in the collected edition of The Crow. I heard stories about it, somehow. Hell, some of them probably went around for the purposes of selling some back copies. But it worked, you know? The stories. I’d hear ‘Taboo,’ and I’d know it was something bad. It’d get me like that. I know it better now, and I’m glad. I can feel the history on it. The life experience of the old ghost, still haunting.