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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

TEEN ANGELS & NEW MUTANTS by Stephen R. Bissette

TEEN ANGELS & NEW MUTANTS is a recently published book by Stephen R. Bissette which examines in depth (as in 400 pages in depth) the early 1990s series BRAT PACK by Rick Veitch and later related works in Veitch's "King Hell Heroica" (which I discussed briefly over here after re-reading a few months ago prior to reading TEEN ANGELS).  The book began as a supplemental essay to appear in a planned but unrealized deluxe edition of BRAT PACK, but grew far beyond that as an independent publication.

Bissette places BRAT PACK in the middle of a web of historical contexts, tracing the strands further back than you'd expect, into some dark recesses of pop culture and history, and also tracing them forward into the present day and the types of work that have followed, either directly or as independent spawns of the zeitgeist it reflected. Bissette is probably uniquely qualified to author such a study, with an encyclopedic knowledge of the key aspects of pop culture threads (in particular exploitation cinema and comic book history) and a first-hand knowledge of the personal threads, thanks to his long personal and professional connections with Veitch.  That connection comes in especially useful in the most interesting aspect of the book to me, the long gestation and evolution period for the book, in particular a look at the initial proposals for the series and negotiations for it to be published by DC.

Overall it's a very enjoyable book for anyone interested in comics history, whether they've read BRAT PACK or not (though you definitely should). It's a fascinating read which will add dozens of movies and books to your list of what to watch and read and might make you look at some old favourites in a different light.

(for those who haven't read BRAT PACK, or need a refresher, an appendix helpfully supplies a synopsis of it and the rest of the Heroica, including notes on changes made between the original serialization and the subsequent collections.  You can also download a free PDF of the first issue here)

As you'd expect if you've read BRAT PACK, one of the major strands to trace involves comic book history, in particular the history of the teen side-kick in comics.  Bissette goes into that in depth, including several characters even I've never heard of before (some of whom, fortunately, are in the public domain so I should be able to check out a sample of their adventures when I have the time). The other major aspect of comic book history that Bissette explores is the controversy in 1950s comics embodied by Fredric Wertham and leading the the self-censoring of the industry via the Comics Code.  Bissette looks at the full range of Wertham's writing, both before and after his most famous work SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, and presents an even-handed assessment of the Wertham's methodology, aims and conclusions that you don't always get from a more casual look at comics history.

In addition to comics history, the book also looks at the wider evolution of the teenager in pop culture iconography in the 20th century, with an emphasis on cinema. As you'd expect if you're familiar with Bissette's film writing, he doesn't restrict himself to the Hollywood mainstream (although that's all thoroughly covered), but includes key examples from international and underground works as well, examining key breakthroughs in those areas and how they paved the way for later mainstream exploitation of the same themes. There are also similar examinations of key works in prose, and most surprisingly to me were the extensive notes on the pop music industry and how the use and exploitation of teen and younger celebrities in that field echo the aspects of comic book culture that Veitch was parodying in BRAT PACK.

To me, the most fascinating thread that Bissette follows is the personal one, tracing Veitch's own journey in comics and how it informed the eventual creation of the "Heroica". As Bissette explains, Veitch has had a unique career trajectory which has very much made him a nexus of many of the key events in comic book history for the last few decades, with work in the undergrounds, breaking into the mainstream while one of the students in the first class of Joe Kubert's school, working on some of the first fully creator-owned books published by Marvel, then as one of the key creators in the innovative DC books of the 1980s which led to the creation of Vertigo, and then in the 1990s having a variety of roles in things like Tundra, the self-publishing movement and more.  Bissette was, of course, alongside Veitch for many of these events, either as an active participant or an observer, so he can speak about them as an insider, adding a lot of colour and detail to the events. Especially interesting is the look at the evolution of BRAT PACK, thanks to Bissette's examination of some early proposals and documents in the negotiations which almost led to it being published by DC's Piranha Press imprint. Of course Veitch's later problems with DC made that arrangement impossible, and very much informed how the series changed from those proposals.

Bissette absolutely makes the case for BRAT PACK as a major (and unfortunately under-rated) work, and uses it as a hook to examine many other interesting aspects of pop culture.  Hopefully this will be only the first of many books of comic book history and criticism that he publishes.

(Bissette also has a helpful page of supplemental information, ordering info, reviews and comments on the book over here)

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