Larry Steckling 10 p.m., Nov. 26
Rock 'N' Roll Comics: The Inside Story of a Local Publishing Empire
I told Todd Loren in 1988 that I thought his newest brainstorm was the dumbest idea I’d ever heard
Comic books about rock and roll bands? I'd seen it already. In the Seventies, Marvel Comics released two magazine-sized Marvel Super Specials featuring the band Kiss as cosmic powered superheroes. Alice Cooper played a character somewhat closer to his real self in a 1979 issue of Marvel Premiere, and I even remembered an unauthorized Beatles comic from years back.
None of those titles ever came close capturing any sort of rock and roll spirit. All were illustrated in the same stiff and characterless style as any issue of the Uncanny X-Men, and none ran more than a couple of issues.
Todd's idea was Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics. Each issue would be about a different band, with straight biographies and Mad magazine styled parodies. A freelance writer at the time, I owned an extensive archive of research material, and Todd wanted me to research scripts for the line. I was a little confused about how he planned to pull off his proposed venture.
Todd was a longtime comic book collector who'd run a series of related fan conventions, but he knew virtually nothing about publishing comics. Plus, he already had a full time job running his mail order rock memorabilia business, Musicade (with a retail outlet near the Sports Arena), where I worked for him part time.
In a self-penned bio, Todd described how he got into the business of selling T-shirts, patches, backstage passes and pop culture clutter. He was still called Stuart Shapiro then, living near Detroit and promoting comic conventions and record collector shows. "[I] printed up a few thousand black and white eight page catalogs and within six months (mid-1984) I was just barely making enough money to walk away from the convention business. Actually, I drove away. To San Diego...I changed my name to Todd Loren. I guess I thought it was a rebellious thing to do, and I always liked the name Todd."
He also once admitted that he thought the cadence of the new name, and the single hard consonant, made it sound like a name thought up by Ayn Rand, one of his favorite authors.
I was amazed when that first issue of Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics, on Guns N’ Roses, sold almost 10,000 copies in just a few short weeks. Those were big numbers, even in those days of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Todd would call me every time a big order came in, and then he'd call to tell me every time the comic was mentioned in some major mag or newspaper, which was happening almost every day. "Someday, we’ll be selling millions of comics," he’d say. I was doubtful, but I allowed room for the possibility.
It sure seemed like a long shot, however. The comic was black and white, on cheap newsprint and crudely drawn, with several factual errors and misspellings. The flimsy publication felt like a Home Depot mailer than a comic book, but collectors were snapping it up. Especially after Rolling Stone mentioned that GNR’s lawyer Peter Paterno sent Todd a cease and desist order. Todd's comic biographies were strictly unauthorized, or unbiased as Todd would say, which made his publications sound more like journalism and less like crass exploitation (as they were already being called by critics).
Todd wasn't interested in publishing illustrated press releases. He wanted Revolutionary's writers to feel free to call it like we saw it, to talk about the heroin and the illegitimate kids and the backstage gangbangs or whatever. GNR’s lawyer never filed their lawsuit, but comic collector magazines like Comics Value Monthly were already calling Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics revolutionary. Which is what Todd named his company, Revolutionary Comics.
"I wanted to do a comic that had all the sex and drugs that is rock and roll," Todd wrote. "Rock and roll is bigger than life. The stage presence these bands have...they don’t need superpowers because they’re already hero worshipped by their fans. And those fans love to spend money on anything featuring the bands they love."
The second RNR issue, on Metallica, was a little more readable and had improved artwork, and suddenly the comics were selling in the same quantities as mainstream superhero titles.
Each RevComic featured an editorial written by Todd. Many of the columns were antagonistic, some bordered on outright slander, but Todd was genuinely worked up over the topics he wrote about. His essays gave each issue an actual editorial voice, and a convincing patina of rebellion. "I helped spread the word about censorship by distributing Jello (Dead Kennedys) Biafra’s No More Censorship newsletter,” he later wrote. “But it wasn’t enough. I needed a creative outlet.”
Todd ran things from his Musicade office in Sorrento Valley, and then downtown in the heart of Hillcrest, from the entire top floor of what was then a bank building on University and Fourth.
We began filling stacks of milk crates full of articles and newspaper clippings from decade’s worth of rock magazines that we were buying in bulk at swap meets and record stores. We hunted down every book we could find on music and talked about how great it would be to chronicle the entire history of pop music in comic book form. About how some day our comics could be used in schools, and sold in bookstores.
(Todd’s corner office overlooking heart of Hillcrest, story conference with Spike)
Looming as large as our artistic hope, however, was the fact that Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics was a meal ticket that would last as long as people loved rock and roll and loved comics (which, back then, seemed like a long time indeed). He didn't talk much about the money, but it was easy to do the math. Revolutionary was fast becoming one of the top selling independent comics. The first GNR issue would sell over 175,000 copies, over multiple printings, with the second issue on Metallica doing nearly as well.
Issues number three and four, on Bon Jovi and Motley Crue, brought the momentum to a halt. The bands had exclusive merchandising deals with Great Southern/Winterland Productions. To their lawyer, Ken Feinswog (a very Ayn Rand-like name for an adversary), Todd's comics were bootleg merchandise, akin to an unauthorized T-shirt.
"He managed to scare most of the major comic book distributors into dropping all of our books," Todd wrote after distribution of the Bon Jovi comic was halted. "Never mind that he had no legal grounds to make his threats, never mind that licensing rights such as those which Great Southern owns do not entitle anyone to censor First Amendment protected free speech."
Todd was ecstatic to have been targeted. He wanted to go public, in a Jello Biafra-inspired blaze of rage and indignation, to rally against the fascist corporations. He did get quoted in quite a few magazines, but meanwhile the publishing machine (and the income) stopped cold. Virtually all of the major comic distributors refused to carry the Bon Jovi issue, and they were threatening to boycott the entire line for fear of performer lawsuits.
Todd's argument was simple and eloquent. If Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone don't have to pay someone every time they write about them (and show a picture), why should Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics? Todd was sure that his own unauthorized bios, like any tome by Kitty Kelly or any magazine article, were First Amendment protected free speech. "We keep hearing words like authorized, permission, sanction, approval. [I] yearn for the day when we can hear these words replaced by quality, integrity, truthfulness and objectivity. We're not merchandise. We're a communications medium just like newspapers. We shouldn’t have to have permission to write about someone."
One rival publisher, Gary Groth at Fantagraphics, saw it differently. "Actually, Loren's legal problems (and losses) have nothing to do with First Amendment freedoms,” he wrote in an editorial. “They are civil suits based upon property rights such as copyright and trademarks. The First Amendment theoretically protects the freedom to publish something as long as someone else doesn’t own it - a fine distinction that has escaped Loren's brilliant legal mind.”
Slowly, shops began calling the Revolutionary to get the comics that were no longer available through their distributors. "It turns out that it was a very lucky thing that I had Musicade," Todd said. "Using Musicade’s shipping facilities, we quickly set up our own comic book distribution system." Todd felt he could win against Great Southern in court, but there was a wrinkle to contend with. He already had an adversarial history with Great Southern.
Musicade had carried unauthorized merchandise related to bands on Great Southern’s roster. Todd, to avoid a lawsuit he’d likely lose, signed an agreement that his comic books would not feature any bands on that roster. Thousands of remaining copies of the Bon Jovi and Motley Crue comics were destroyed, creating somewhat scarce collectibles. Even the upcoming issue number eight, on Skid Row, was summarily canceled, though Todd chose not to feature an alternate band in that issue. Instead, he moved right on to number nine.
Rock 'N' Roll Comics number 8 on Skid Row was never published, a fact which continues to perplex catalogers and collectors. Few know that it was actually completed. I have a Xerox of the art and it’s no great loss to the line, believe me. So those of you who thought you still needeed number 8 for a complete set of RnR Comics, sorry - number 8 doesn't exist (despite it being listed for sale on several clearly specious websites).
(Motorhead comic page, along with my original thumbnail sketch the artist worked from…hey, it was 1989, and I hadn’t drawn any comics since my old high school newspaper! Note that the final comic was the first artwork ever published by Stuart Immonen, who later became very well known for his work on DC's flagship Superman comic)
Eventually, comic distributors began carrying our comics again. The demand - and profit - must have been difficult to ignore. With the income pumped up again, Todd decided to expand the line with more titles, to try publishing color comics, and even to bump RNR Comics up to twice-monthly.
(AC/DC comic, along with my own original thumbnail sketch)
I took over writing Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics, as Todd focused on new titles and closed down the mail order business (embroiling himself in another legal battle, this time against former employee Gary Whitehead, who alleged that Todd hid company assets before filing bankruptcy for Musicade in 1991).
(Queen comic cover, with working sketches)
"I had to focus my concentration on one project so Musicade had to go," Todd wrote, and he invited his father, Herb Shapiro, to work as Vice President for the growing Revolutionary Comics.
"I hadn't lived with him since I was seventeen, so I’d had enough time to come to terms with him as more than just a father, but as a friend as well. I knew there'd be complications, hiring my dad and all. How often do you hear of a son and father team, in that order?"
Todd branched off from bio comics and launched a dramatic horror anthology, Tipper Gores Comics And Stories. As to its title, he wrote "We just wanted to make fun of a ridiculous person." Todd sent Mrs. Gore copies of the comic, hoping for a PR coup by provoking public condemnation from her, but she never took the bait. The stories read like venerable EC Tales From The Crypt comics, only with contemporary and even political themes (pollution, hero worship, addiction, crooked government, etc.). Painter Robert Williams - whose work graces the cover of Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction - provided artwork for the Tipper title.
One Tipper Gore writer was Spike Steffenhagen, who'd met Todd at a San Diego Comic Convention. Among his earliest Gore stories was one about child abuse. "Todd surprised me by asking if a child was being raped behind closed doors in a particular panel,” he says. “I had originally shown the actual rape happening. No penetration or anything like that, just a few panels with the kid crying out with the perpetrators large hand holding the child’s smaller hand down. I changed to the closed door because I thought the scene was too much. Todd told me that if I was going to have the balls to take that subject on, then I needed to have the balls to put it right in the readers face and leave them no room for denial. He assured me that he wouldn’t censor me, and that I shouldn't censor myself."
"Then," says Spike, "he did something very Todd-like. He didn't actually censor me, but he did keep bugging me for a happy ending. I killed the main character and he just didn’t like it. He said it was too depressing. Todd also insisted on telling people I was seventeen for some reason. I was twenty or twenty-one at the time."
Artist Mike Clift has drawn gory, zombie-heavy record covers for bands like GutRot, Nocturnus, DiamondHead, and Skinlab. He’s probably best known for his sleeve artwork for long-gone locals Psychotic Waltz. “I used to put my phone number on my flyers, and I got a call about doing [Psychotic Waltz] artwork. They also contacted the infamous artist Pushead, but luckily my design beat his out.”
Clift describes how he went from Psychotic Waltz covers to drawing the comic book Tipper Gore’s Comics and Stories. “I met Todd in 1989 through a guy named Vinnie, who worked in Todd's rock merchandise mail order business, and Todd and I hit it off. His sexual orientation may've played a part in this, as I was young and cute at the time, but he showed a real enthusiasm for my art and told me about his upcoming horror comics that he planned to do, specifically to piss off Tipper Gore.”
“I was all for it, man. I was stoked, because all this was hitting at the same time as Psychotic Waltz for me. He offered me 80 dollars per page, and we wrote the stories together and met quite a bit at his place, or he'd take me out to eat and stuff. He was living in the UTC area back then, and he got kinda weird at home, showing me his safe. He was paying me cash as I turned in each page of artwork, and one time he tricked me into watching a porno tape - yikes! - but please do not think I’m trying to disparage Todd. He was one of the sweetest guys, and very polite and apologetic when he noticed my discomfort. I am so grateful to Providence that he and I connected and had that time. He had a huge hand in launching my career; He licensed a line of t-shirts of my work, he let me do the horror comics, and he brokered a couple painting sales for me. He was awesome.”
In early 1990, RNR issue number twelve, on New Kids On The Block, got us sued again by Great Southern/Winterland.
Todd set up a 900 # Nuke the New Kids to raise money for our defense ($10.00 per call, billed by the phone company). Famed Boston attorney Robert Dushman commented "It's a fascinating case that fits in between the cracks of a lot of other cases. You clearly cannot prohibit an unauthorized biography even if it has some pictures. But is it primarily the pictures that are being sold? It comes down to this question: is a comic more like a statue of Elvis, or more like an unauthorized book? That's what the judge will have to decide."
Todd: "Comics are an expression that is a form of speech. Look...if I wanted to make money, I would have become a lawyer, not a comic book publisher. But...I want to document the history of rock and roll in comics. What’s wrong with that?"
In mid-April 1990, U.S. District Judge John S. Rhoades declared that RNR #12 could legally be distributed, because it was part biography and part satire. His twelve page ruling stated "Bookstores are filled with biographies - both authorized and unauthorized - of public figures. And, while the subjects of such biographies may be offended by the publication of their life stories, they generally have no claim for trademark infringement." He added that "It appears that the First Amendment may trump any claim that the plaintiffs have for trademark infringement."
The order stated that Winterland Concessions failed to show that the case met the standards required to issue a preliminary injunction. This dissolved the temporary restraining order issued in early April 1990. The New Kids respond by filing suit for trademark infringement, since their logo appeared in the comic.
With the help of longtime RevCom lawyer Andy Verne, a settlement between The New Kids and Revolutionary was reached in August. It permanently enjoined Revolutionary from advertising, manufacturing, distributing and/or selling or otherwise commercially exploiting any publication displaying the trademark and/or logo of the New Kids On The Block, either as a group or individually. In other words, Todd was found to have (ab)used the band's logo, with the rest of the comic being deemed as permissible.
Todd had to destroy 12,000 copies of the original comic printing, creating a rare collectible which now goes for around $20.00 in comic shops. He spent over $18,000.00 in legal fees.
He promptly reprinted the New Kids story in magazine format, without depicting the bands logo anywhere in the story. The Kids lawyer, David Phillips, was mad. "My clients are absolutely furious about this,” he said in a press statement. “We’re considering whether or not we’re actually going to go through with this agreement [to settle for destruction of RNR #12 and not seek monetary damages]."
Todd on the New Kids settlement: "It has never been proven that I violated the New Kids property rights by using their logos, nor did I admit that I had violated them. I was willing to stop using their logos in order to settle the case. This does not mean that what I was doing was illegal...we did not get a chance to argue that point in court because it never got that far."
Several months later, Todd decided to poke the bear again by announcing a New Kids Hate Comic. Sales came in startlingly low, so he put out a press release claiming the art had been stolen from his car, hinting that the culprits were agents of the New Kids. Some of the unpublished material later turned up a Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics issue called Fall Of The New Kids, which I wrote.
Capital City Distribution, one of the two main comic distributors, refused to carry The Fall Of The New Kids, sight unseen. Spokesman John Davis said "Whenever there is litigation, we like to back off and let the parties settle their dispute."
Todd's reply: "Capital should be supporting us and saying 'Here's somebody who stood up for comic books as literature and as communication. Instead, they're acting like we lost. To me, that's a totalitarian attitude."
You can imagine my surprise when I read that Capital was already calling the comic "inflammatory and incendiary," given that I hadn’t written one word of the script yet.
Competitor Gary Groth at Fantagraphics Publishing wasn’t happy with Revolutionary Comics. "Todd Loren is the latest in a long line of vulgar, self-promoting buffoons that makes the comics profession such a sinkhole of shoddiness and opportunism,” he wrote in an editorial. “Since Loren and his ilk are an inexhaustible and permanent part of American life - indeed, the very definition of American life – it’s worth wasting little space documenting the wide-ranging immensity of his delusions and cupidity."
(Robert Smith meets Death in the Cure comic)
In October 1990, The Comics Journal, a critical magazine published by Groth, ran an article entitled Todd Loren: First Amendment Or Lying Sack Of [expletive]? In it, Groth complained about "Loren's deranged communiqués - filled with paranoid conspiracy theories and testimonials to his grandeur."
Another rival publisher, Denis Kitchen, had an even more specific reason to grouse. His company, Kitchen Sink Press, had purchased an official license to publish comic books featuring the Grateful Dead. His series mostly featured illustrated lyrics and short fictions. He was decidedly unhappy with the unauthorized three issue Dead biography which I wrote and Canadian cult artist Blackwell illustrated. By most distributor accounts, Revolutionary’s Dead comics far outsold Kitchen’s.
(Unpublished Grateful Dead comic art, by original Dead album cover painter Phil Garris, famed for his skeleton fiddler on “Blues For Allah”)
In February 1992, Grateful Dead Merchandising Corporation attorney Joseph A. Yanni sent us a cease and desist letter. The Dead had the same merchandising agent as New Kids - MCA/Winterland Productions. Denis Kitchen: "Weve gotten a lot of good publicity and reviews for our Grateful Dead Comix. The argument is going to come down to confusion in the marketplace...were not saying he can't do unauthorized biographies. He just can't do it with the band's name so dominant on the cover that it's creating confusion with our series." Winterland was also cracking down on other producers of unlicensed Dead merchandise, like T-shirts and jewelry.
Todd wrote a letter to Comics Journal, stating "What will it take before you acknowledge that comic books have the same rights as any other form of communication? What will it take before you realize that integrity and credibility cannot be bought for the price of a licensing fee?"
In a faxed letter to Todd (later published in one of our own Dead comics), Kitchen said that Todd had shown himself to be "at best, an ill-informed jerk. Everything I hear about you from other professionals is negative. My opinion of your product I’ve seen is negative. You appear to be an arrogant, confrontational loudmouth...I think you were smart enough to see a vacuum in the market for rock comics and filled the void with quantity at least, and so there's something to be said for your business acumen. And you certainly have enough chutzpah, if that's a favorable observation. I guess, in summary, I think of you as the comics counterpart to Larry Flint: he also has, thankfully, a First Amendment right to produce Hustler and is often the one obnoxious enough to be on the visible cutting edge of the law, but no one respects him or his product or takes him seriously."
Todd loved the Flynt comparison. "Just about every innovator, every visionary since the dawn of time experienced this," he said. "The man who discovered fire was probably burned at the stake. Did you see the movie Tucker? Have you read The Fountainhead? In fact, I would go as far to say, show me a man who is hated by his peers, and Ill show you a fearless innovator."
Spin Magazine accused us of "ripping of rock and rollers with relative ease...selling standard biography material in the form of cheesy comics."
Todd wrote in reply "How can Spin be objective? They depend on the record companies to provide them with the materials, the information, the access and the advertising which keeps Spin in business."
I was meeting a lot of band members and talking to their managers and press people. More and more performers were making positive comments about the comics, and even asking when we'd be covering them. It was becoming a sort of status symbol, being immortalized in a comic book!
Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top raved about their issue, and both Ice-T and NWA called the office to compliment the research done on their respective comics.
Anthrax offered our comic about them through their fan club. Frank Zappa's wife Gail mentioned that her husband had a copy of the cover of his comic mounted on his office wall, and we even began getting positive notices and media coverage (Entertainment Tonight, numerous MTV News spots, etc.).
Todd was ecstatic when he called to tell me that the Metallica comic had been used as a prop on Married...With Children, and he was really dancing on air when Kiss Gene Simmons turned up in several published photos and on the cover of “Kiss Alive III” wearing a Revolutionary Comics t-shirt!
(Revolutionary Kiss comics autographed by Kiss)
Others were singing our praises. Professor Deena Weinstein began using the comics in her sociology class at De Paul University. "The history of the bands is detailed very accurately in the books, even though they are in comic form. They are really well researched and insightful." She feels unauthorized is the way to go. "Every rock group has an image they want to project or protect and they have a whole staff of people working on that. An authorized biography can never get beyond that."
(De Paul University Professor Deena Weinstein, with Revolutionary’s Megadeth/Motorhead comic poster in background)
June 18, 1992: "I called the office in Hillcrest," says Spike, "and the secretary told me he hadn't come in all day and that his father went over to check on him. I knew something was way out of line."
Herb drove over and found the door to Todd's Canyon Woods condo was locked. Concerned, he called a locksmith to open the door. He found Todd upstairs, dead, in his own bed. He'd been repeatedly stabbed. He was 32, the same age as me.
When I got the phone call, I thought it was another of Todd's jokes. It would be just like him, to circulate a press release faking his own death. However, when homicide detectives called to ask me questions about who might want to kill him (yes, Axl Rose and all the New Kids had alibis), the reality began to hit me.
Both Herb and Todd's mom, Marylin, were devastated. I assumed the company would be closing. I was surprised when Herb told me that there would be an office staff meeting after the funeral, to discuss upcoming plans. What upcoming plans, I wondered?
"At the funeral," remembers Spike, "Elvis Costello’s What's So Funny About Peace Love And Understanding was played over and over. It was Todd’s favorite song. Herb read an editorial of Todd’s...it was a history of Todd's founding of Revolutionary and everything that led up to it. He had shown it to me and I'd said it was a bit self-congratulatory. He said no one else was tooting his horn so he might as well do it."
The fact that Todd had been gay had never really affected the way Spike and I interacted with Todd. I soon found out that few others seemed to know about it, however, including his immediate office staff. At the wake, the first thing I was asked by all three woman employees (none of whom I'd met before) was "Is it true Todd was gay?"
The murder investigation never seemed to go anywhere. They only interviewed a few of Todd's friends and associates. His car, a convertible Chrysler Le Baron, had been stolen from the condo parking lot and was found a few days later in parking lot at a junior college in Hayward CA.
Homicide Lt. John Welter said "Whomever took the car is probably the one who killed him." Since Todd's house keys were on same keychain as car keys, Police think his killer walked out front door, locked it and went to take the car. "There was nothing taken that we could tell. Stereo and VCR equipment and a big screen TV were still there. As of yet, there is nothing that links any one person to the crime."
Gary Groth at Fantagraphics had a theory. "I don’t think anyone in our industry hated him enough to kill him...but it wouldn’t surprise me if someone in the music industry did. There is a lot more money at stake in the music business, and he was publishing all those unlicensed biographies."
Denis Kitchen of Kitchen Sink Press says he immediately announced to friends and comic biz associates that "I have an alibi." Kitchen’s company has since gone out of business, reportedly due in part to losses related to their license to produce authorized Grateful Dead comics.
A week after the funeral, the office reopened. Herb announced that he’d decided to keep Revolutionary open. "Todd had indicated to me with some sort of prescience that if anything ever happened to him, that he would like his dream fulfilled,” he said in a press release, “and that is what we are going to do."
The logistics of taking over the operation were hard enough. I literally lived in Todd’s office for the first few weeks, sleeping on the couch, reading all his files, and calling everyone in his phone book while piecing together where we were and where Todd had planned on taking us. Dozens of people’s livelihoods depended on me keeping the machine humming and well oiled. Longtime contributors like cover artist Scott Jackson made a substantial part of their living doing work for Revolutionary ---
The most difficult thing, though, was sitting behind Todd’s desk. The job was getting done and we barely missed a beat with our publication schedule, but the psychic toll on myself and on the staff was enormous.
We ended up moving our office from Hillcrest to Miramar. There was just far too much Todd in the old office, and at various turns every one of us felt haunted there. Not too mention the murderer was still on the loose and nobody knew the motivation for the killing. You can imagine how jumpy I'd be, sitting alone in his office at ten p.m., and suddenly hearing a scritching noise outside the balcony window (“It’s only a pigeon, only a pigeon...”)
(Me with Tom Potts at the then-new Miramar office)
We put out over a hundred comics over the next two years. More than Revolutionary had released during Todd's lifetime. We hired a slew of well-known illustrators and improved the quality and reputation of the entire line.
We were one of the first and only independent comic companies on newsstands, in places like 7-11 and in bookstores. We went full color on many titles and, for the first time, we began getting positive press coverage, on TV, in mainstream magazines and, shock of all shocks, even in the comic book trade press.
We worked directly with Kiss on an acclaimed three issue series called Kiss Pre-History, that became a top seller of the era. Jimi Hendrix bassist Noel Redding called me to compliment our Hendrix comic, and we struck up a friendship we maintained through his death a few years ago.
Doors drummer John Densmore favorably reviewed our two issue Doors series. King Diamond, Soundgarden, Prong, Mojo Nixon and others worked directly with us on various comic related projects, while Motley Crue licensed our Crue comic for their CD box set “Music To Crash Your Car To II.”
(Comics autographed by Motley Crue, Paul McCartney, Queensryche, Slash, and Metallica)
We began publishing more music titles, covering everything from rap to punk to disco, plus we expanded the lines Todd had just launched featuring sports, film, and television figures as well.
This period, while rewarding and productive, was hard on Todd's parents, both of whom worked at the office full time. "The first six or seven months after Todd’s death were a lot of chaos," says Herb. "It took me a good six months to get refocused so that I could fully concentrate on what was going on."
Many RevCom contribs, like Elvis Shrugged scripter Patrick McCray, were finding their talents in demand elsewhere - Patrick went to work on the Babylon 5 TV series, artists Stuart Immonen and Len Kirk got mainstream comic gigs like Superman and Star Trek, and Demi the Demoness creator SS Crompton signed a deal with Rip Off Press to publish his cult comic character.
Unfortunately, what was going on was that sales for all comics, from all publishers, began to drop in late 1993, including our own books. Dozens of new publishers had sprung up to flood the market with over six hundred titles per month, up from only a couple hundred in 1990.
The niche we'd pioneered - comics based on real people- become crowded with imitations from companies like Personality Comics, Rock Fantasy, and First Amendment press. Even the big mainstream publishers began publishing rock comics. Harvey (Casper, etc.) had an authorized New Kids comic (it quickly flopped). A press kit for Trixter had comic art by legendary illustrator Neal Adams. Marvel did a Cheap Trick comic that almost nobody seems to have seen.
DC Comics – home of Superman - put out two Prince comics, with fictional storylines about the musician’s own super-powered alter-ego. DC’s Andy Helfer said at the time that "Revolutionary is just making excuses because they don’t want to go through the expense and time consuming process of authorization. That's why they were out there first. We had the idea [for rock comics] but we were still tied up in authorization."
Marvel later announced their own Marvel Rocks line, which was canceled after just a few issues. Malibu tried something called Rock-It Comics (also soon canceled), run by RevCom defector Rob Conte. All these poor sellers and failures made store owners reluctant to carry any biographical comics, and our own sales slipped further.
Behind the scenes at RevCom, a merger with a company in L.A. called Sportstime cost us a lot of time and money when the merger was called off after several unproductive, troubled months. The capital they promised never appeared and they racked up several sizable bills which were difficult to pay off after so many weeks of having things on hold.
(Unpublished cover for a Meatloaf/Lenny Kravitz issue)
Herb and his wife grew increasingly tired of the grind of putting out comics each and every month. Profits were down and the excitement and adrenaline we’d once been infused with had long since drained. With several production bills still outstanding, Herb declared bankruptcy for the company in June 1994, and we all moved on to other endeavors.
It was strange, in July 1997, as I began hearing the reports about Andrew Cunanan and his killing spree. He targeted well off gay businessmen who were prominent in their communities. Brutally murdering them. Sometimes stole their car. And he hung out in Hillcrest at the same places as Todd. Plus, Cunanan collected home-made voyeuristic videotapes, which Todd also bought and traded through local adult newspaper ads.
Could Todd have known Cunanan?
I got a call from Herb and Marylin, who were wondering the same thing. "Prior to his death," Herb told one reporter, "he talked to us about a fellow who sounds a lot like [Cunanan]. He said he met a younger man at a gay bar in Hillcrest and had a brief affair. He said he was very taken with him. He was young, with dark hair, active in financial circles and might have been living with an older guy in La Jolla."
Local police and the FBI were looking into the Todd/Cunanan link as well. All I could confirm for them was that Todd was an intensely private individual. He rarely told anyone where he lived, and only someone very close to him could get access to his condo, let alone his bedroom.
Since there were no signs of forced entry, and no evidence of kidnapping, Todd’s killer would have to be a good friend or lover. Could Todd have been Cunanan’s first victim?
Cunanan's suicide in a Florida houseboat effectively ended the investigation, as no physical evidence could ever be found linking the two. At the time, homicide Lt. Jim Collins held out very little hope for any resolution. "It's a real long shot. I don't want to get the [family's] hopes up. But we'd be remiss if we didn't compare the evidence."
Around 2001, Chicago-based BulletProof Film began production on a documentary film, “Unauthorized and Proud Of It: Todd Loren’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics.” They shot interviews with Todd's family and surviving Revolutionaries, comic book colleagues, adversaries and supporters, even past and present rock 'n' roll stars featured in Revolutionary Comics, as well as spending an afternoon at my place in La Mesa...
(World Premiere of “Unauthorized & Proud Of It” documentary, during 2005 San Diego Comic-Con: Me with Mojo Nixon, and with Revolutionary co-creators SS Crompton, Scott Jackson and Spike Speffenhagen kneeling)
Filmmakers also confronted San Diego police about their supposed "investigation" into Todd's murder, interspersed with clips of friends who say they weren't even interviewed, or who had to force feed evidence and information to investigators who seemed uninterested.
“They looked at it as just another fag murder,” says local underground cartoonist Mary Fleener.
The documentary debuted in San Diego in 2005, in conjunction with that year’s Comic-Con. The fact that "Unauthorized And Proud Of It" is told by those who lived it gives the docu the same kind of "You Were There" feel as Todd’s own comics. Video footage of Todd from the late ‘80s shows him giving a tour of his office, just as he was forming the rock comic line. Outtakes show both his humor and his controlling presence ("It's my video and we'll shoot it my way").
(Rarity from the archives – unpublished Beatles cover! Tryin’ to make this blog worth yer while, dontcha know…)
Edited alongside recollections of the few people who were close to him, it's a fascinating insight into a guy whose death, coming just a few days after Mad founder William Gaines, was overlooked by the comic industry that Todd helped Revolutionize.
Interviewees include Alice Cooper (who pitches a Keith Moon comic; "There could fifty issues") and others kindly disposed to Loren's unauthorized biographies. Cynthia Plaster Caster checks out a comic scene of her casting Jimi Hendrix's penis in plaster, and praises its accuracy.......
Gene Simmons refused to be interviewed on camera, saying he considered Loren's comics "bootlegs" even though he and Paul Stanley worked with Revolutionary on four true-life Kiss Comics.
However, Gene Simmons manages to get a film cameo via a recording of a phone conference, during which he both threatens us with a lawsuit over our earlier unauthorized comic AND praises us ("the work is excellent") with an offer to "do something together" (later resulting in the aforementioned Kiss bio comics).
When we’re heard telling Simmons "and hopefully we'll all make some MONEY," and he cheerfully pipes in with "That's the MAIN thing!", it provides fascinating insight into exactly HOW comic books and rock and roll were intertwined by Todd's ingenious antics.
(After Simmons hangs up, you can hear us at RevCom all whooping and hollering, patting each other on the back for having apparently made a deal with the devil-tongue.)
(Another rarity: never-published Howard Stern Fartman comic page…someday, I’ll write about our falling out with Howard, and why someone else ended up doing the comic insert for his second book…)
Publisher Gary Groth at Fantagraphics is interviewed, appearing clearly nonplussed as he discusses a rival whose "shoddy and exploitative" comics broke most sales records for indie comics. The fact that, so many years after his death, Todd Loren is the topic filmmakers are asking him about, seems to bemuse and pester Groth.
Artist Robert Williams - famed for his painting on the cover of Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction - says of working for Todd at Revolutionary "I warned him that he didn't really know what he was getting into."
"Stickboy" creator Dennis Worden balances the Todd-bashing by praising his former publisher, revealing that Todd paid him four times as much as Gary Groth at Fantagraphics. Mary Fleener and Rock 'N' Roll Comics creators Steve Crompton and Spike Steffenhagen share revealing and moving stories about what Todd was like behind-the-scenes.
Gonzo rocker Mojo Nixon - who helped create Todd's first AUTHORIZED rock comic – is shown explaining that Todd's outspoken willingness to be "outlaw" was not only the secret but the purpose of his success.
(Mojo Nixon playing at Revolutionary’s San Diego Comic-Con booth)
The documentary later concentrates on Todd's unsolved murder, and the possible links to Andrew Cunanan. It makes a compelling case that Todd may have been Cunanan's first victim, years before the killing spree "officially" started.
San Diego police recently reopened the investigation into Todd Loren’s murder. Evidence is being examined again, some of which could provide new clues via forensic technology unavailable in 1992. Details of the crime are posted on a new cold case website, in hopes that new leads may come in:
CBS News affiliate KFMB channel 8 ran a report on August 8, interviewing Todd’s parents at their home. "It would mean a great deal to us to see the person who murdered our son…brought to justice," Herb Shapiro told the news crew.
"Todd was a visionary," says Spike Steffenhagen, "with a solid belief and a stubborn willingness to stick to that belief, when changing it would have been more convenient. He took a lot of [expletive], and he dished a lot out as well. They say that having a common enemy makes people closer. At Revolutionary, we had a lot of enemies. It was very much an us-against-the-world attitude. We were almost like family. A dysfunctional family, but family all the same."
(Bart Mendoza and the Shambles and Collage Menage performing at Revolutionary Comic-Con booths, and Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee drops by the booth to sign the bio comic I wrote about him)
3-19-07: The Rock 'N' Roll Comics documentary screens at New York City's famed Pioneer Theater
(Ad for unpublished issues)
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK VS REVOLUTIONARY COMICS
(Here's one of the very first published comic stories ever drawn by superstar artist Stuart Immonen, later famed for his work on Superman, Supergirl, etc.)
Film trailer for "Unauthorized & Proud Of It: Todd Loren's Rock 'N' Roll Comics"
IMDB.COM FILM REVIEW: Unauthorized and Proud Of It - Todd Loren's Rock 'N' Roll Comics
In 1989, Todd Loren's Revolutionary Comics ("Unauthorized And Proud Of It") launched Rock N Roll Comics to spin unlicensed biographies of rock stars. Some, like Frank Zappa and Kiss, were supportive, while others like The New Kids On The Block considered his comics akin to bootlegs and sued. Loren was convinced the First Amendment protected the journalistic rights of his "illustrated articles" and he took the matter to the California Supreme Court, who agreed.
In June 1992, at 32, Loren was found dead in his San Diego condo, brutally murdered --- the case remains unsolved, though recent clues researched by the FBI link his death to serial killer Andrew Cunanan.
BulletProof Film spent years interviewing Loren's family and surviving Revolutionaries, comic book colleagues, adversaries and supporters and even past and present rock 'n' roll stars featured in Revolutionary Comics.
The filmmakers also confront San Diego police about their supposed "investigation" into Loren's murder, in clips interspersed with those closest to Loren who say they weren't even interviewed and/or who had to forcefeed possibly vital evidence and information to investigators who seemed uninterested (police disinterest is explained in the film, tho I won't reveal here). A lot of people disliked Loren and his comics, with initial suspects including Axl Rose and members of the New Kids On The Block.
The fact that "Unauthorized And Proud Of It" is told by those who lived it gives the docu the same kind of "You Were There" feel as Loren's own comics. Video footage of Loren from the late 80s shows him giving a tour of his office, just as he was forming the rock comic line. Outtakes show both Loren's humor and his apparent controlling presence ("It's my video and we'll shoot it my way").
Edited alongside recollections of the few people who were close to the private Loren, it's a fascinating insight into a guy whose death, coming just a few days after Mad founder William Gaines, was overlooked by the comic industry that Loren helped Revolutionize (his win against the New Kids established, among other things, First Amendment rights for comics for the first time).
The film uses actual drawn scenes from Revolutionary's comics to illustrate some segments, animating pages to great comic effect (spit flying outta Axl Rose's mouth as he threatens to sue, Pete Rose angrily chasing Loren's minions from an autograph convention, backstage groupie foreplay, etc.)
Interviewees include Alice Cooper (who pitches a Keith Moon comic - "there could be 100 issues") and others who weren't as enthused about Loren's unauthorized biographies. Gene Simmons refused to be interviewed on camera, saying he considered Loren's comics "bootlegs" even though he and Paul Stanley worked with Revolutionary on four true-life Kiss Comics.
(Gene Simmons with “Unauthorized & Proud Of It” director Ilko)
However, Simmons manages a cameo via a recording of a phone conference with Revolutionary's crew, during which he both threatens them with a lawsuit over their earlier unauthorized comic AND praises them ("the work is excellent") with an offer to "do something together" (later resulting in the aforementioned Kiss bio comics).
When Revolutionary Managing Editor Jay Allen Sanford tells Simmons "and hopefully we'll all make some MONEY," and Simmons cheerfully pipes in with "That's the MAIN thing!", it provides a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of exactly HOW comic books and rock and roll were intertwined by Loren's ingenious antics. (after Simmons hangs up, you can hear the Revolutionary crew whooping and hollering and patting each other on the back for having apparently made a deal with the devil-tongue).
Comic biz celebs include underground publisher Denis Kitchen. The middle aged Kitchen comes across very professional compared to the shaggy looking, proudly DIY Revolutionary crew (none of whom look to have had a haircut in decades). However, we find Kitchen's disparaging comments about Loren ("I have to say I did not like the man...") are sour grapes when it's revealed that his own company Kitchen Sink had paid for the OFFICIAL rights to do Grateful Dead comics, while Loren's "bootleg" bios of the Dead pummeled Kitchen's in the marketplace.
Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth is clearly nonplussed over a rival whose "shoddy and exploitative" comics broke most sales records for indie comics in an era when Groth's own company had to launch a porno line just, by his own admission, in order to survive.
The fact that, so many years after his death, Todd Loren is the topic filmmakers are asking him about, seems to bemuse and pester Groth (who once wrote an editorial for Comics Journal entitled "Todd Loren: First Amendment Advocate Or Lying Sack Of S***?").
"Stickboy" creator Dennis Worden balances the Loren-bashing by praising his former publisher and saying Loren paid him four times as much as Gary Groth at Fantagraphics. Underground artist Mary Fleener and Rock 'N' Roll Comics creators Jay Allen Sanford, Steve Crompton and Spike Steffenhagen share revealing and moving stories about what Loren was like behind-the-scenes.
Gonzo San Diego rocker Mojo Nixon - who helped create Loren's first AUTHORIZED rock comic and was a guest at this film's world premier during the 2005 San Diego Comic-Con - stresses that Loren's outspoken willingness to be "outlaw" was not only the secret but the purpose of his success.
The documentary later concentrates on Loren's unsolved murder and growing links to Andrew Cunanan. It makes a compelling case for Loren possibly being Cunanan's first victim, years before the killing spree "officially" started.
The film never quite answers the question "Who Killed Todd Loren?" and it paints a picture that is clearly yet to be completed, but the story that unfolds is memorable. With an ending yet to be written - - - -
VARIETY MAGAZINE REVIEW - Unauthorized and Proud of It: Todd Loren’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics, 6-5-06
“Unauthorized and Proud of It" chronicles the brief life of Todd Loren, whose San Diego-based Revolutionary Comics made a feisty early 1990s low-end cultural contribution while infuriating those mainstream comics and music industryites it thumbed its nose at. A clever if unscrupulous businessman, self-righteous First Amendment crusader, die-hard fanboy and oft-obnoxious personality, Loren is a problematic subject. Details of the private life he kept well-hidden seem to have died with him, and, since they likely factored in his (still unsolved) 1992 murder, docu suffers from their lack. Rep-house theatrical exposure is possible, boutique cable and DVD likelier.
In love with rock music and comics from an early age, Loren, nee Stuart Shapiro, the driven entrepreneur had bought a house from his profits in the comics convention trade by age 19. He later built up a successful storefront and mail-order biz hawking "import" (i.e. bootleg) rock memorabilia, then abandoned it to start the comics publishing label whose primary focus on rock star "biocomics" flaunted their "unauthorized" nature.
Recording companies, agents, managers and sometimes musicians themselves were not at all happy about these unaffiliated products; Revolutionary was hit with myriad lawsuits.
The often shrilly combative Loren cried censorship, but settled out of court -- until he decided to fight one case filed on behalf of boy-band New Kids on the Block. Surprising many, a federal judge ruled in his favor, basically saying that commenting on acts who'd permeated the greater public consciousness fell within freedom-of-speech guidelines.
While media corporations took exception to Loren's run-around merchandizing of their properties, musicians were often delighted at becoming "comic book heroes" --most notably KISS' Gene Simmons.
At the same time, Loren remained widely despised by the established comics industry. Many considered his artistic standards shoddy. Others saw his low-balling payments and hardball contracts for graphic artists and writers as exploitive. Opinions from former confreres run a very wide gamut.Old video clips where he jokingly plays the bad-boy bizman reveal less than the interviews with past collaborators both loyal and bitter. After an hour, the pic suddenly springs the fact that Todd was gay -- something he evidently kept from everyone, save "other friends" pointedly not interviewed here. Docu doesn't even address the irony of an attention-thirsty man who cashed in on the scandalous lives of celebrities while keeping his own life deep in the closet.
Sense of rich psychological veins passed up is furthered when it's noted that Loren's 1992 murder from 15 stab wounds -- which many feel was under-investigated as "just another homosexual murder" by San Diego police -- might well have been committed by free-traveling party boy Andrew Cunanan, who'd later notoriously killed Gianni Versace and other well-connected gay men.
As a result of these dangling threads, "Unauthorized" doesn't justify its feature length in terms of emotional and intellectual depth. Still, its plentiful visual energy is well-exploited in (occasionally animated) comic book imagery, and interviewees are a colorful lot.
Editing and use of music is a little too in-your-face snarky at times, but the approach undoubtedly echoes the subject's sensibility. A stronger directorial stamp would have been welcome.
THE RETURN OF ROCK 'N' ROLL COMICS!
The Pink Floyd Experience: All five issues of the Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics series The Pink Floyd Experience have been out of print and in demand for over fifteen years. As showcased in Pink Floyd’s own official box CD set Shine On, the Floyd comics chronicle rock’s most enigmatic psychedelic warriors, from their early dayz with stoner icon Syd Barrett, through their split (and later reformation). With art by Marvel and DC star Ken Landgraf (Wolverine, Hawkman, Nightwing & Flamebird, etc.), the collection also includes update material, bringing the saga up to 2010.
Hard Rock Heroes: What goes together better than comics and rock music? With almost 300 pages of Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics, Hard Rock Heroes goes WAY beyond Behind the Music, to tell the real life, behind-the-scenes stories of rock’s most heavy hitters. Creators include Stuart Immonen (Superman: End of the Century), Ken Landgraf (Wolverine), Jay Allen Sanford (Overheard in San Diego..), Todd Loren (Beatles Experience), Scott Pentzer (Razor), Mike Sagara (Ninja High School), and many others.
Hard Rock Heroes is a book-length pictorial history, covering bands like Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne, Van Halen, Motley Crue, Poison, Megadeth, Pantera, Anthrax, Motorhead, Sammy Hagar, and more. The cinematic stories are realistically drawn, researched from countless photo and video archives, with an encyclopedic eye toward visual accuracy, dramatic flair, and journalistic depth.
Also includes the never-before published “missing” Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics #8 from 1990, on Skid Row. The lack of an eighth issue has vexed collectors and catalogers for years – exactly 20 years later, the story can finally be told, and collectors can finally own ALL the Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics!
As a bonus treat, Hard Rock Heroes also features the Motley Crue comic story from their official box CD set Music To Crash Your Car To II, released in 2004 and written and drawn by original Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics creators Lyndal Ferguson and Larry Nadolsky. Shipping February 2010.
"Great ideas, like the marriage of rock 'n' roll and comics, have the half-life of Uranium and will always be popular," says series co-creator Jay Allen Sanford, who has worked on over 200 reality-based comic books and thousands of similar cartoon strips for the San Diego Reader, as well as for magazines like Rip, Spin, and Oui. "The folks at Bluewater clearly have their fingers on the same pop culture pulse that enabled the original Rock 'N' Roll Comics to become one of the top-selling indie comics of the '90s. Truth is often stranger than fiction...and certainly much more interesting!"
The Beatles are bigger than ever, now available online for the first time digitally, on the Vegas stage in “Love,” and in the new Beatles: Rock Band video game. Now comes the most comprehensive and encyclopedic illustrated Beatles story ever, the Beatles Experience! Over 200 pages, dramatizing one of the most compelling tales in pop culture history, drawn from thousands of photos and interviews, meticulously researched and featuring stunning art by Mike Sagara (Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics) and Stuart Immonen (Legion of Super Heroes, Ultimate X-Men).
Covering the Beatles’ lives from birth and beyond their breakup, dramatized in dialogue and scene recreations more akin to a film bio than a mere documentary, the Beatles Experience also includes a Chronolog timeline going down each page, with encyclopedia background and footnotes detailing related events happening at the same time in the world, in music, and in the Beatles’ own tumultuous and extraordinary lives.
The Led Zeppelin Experience:
The Led Zeppelin saga is one of the wildest in rock history, and this graphic novel pulls no punches in dramatizing the backstage, behind-the-scenes story. From their early days as the New Yardbirds on through their rise to superstardom (and controversy), all five issues of the original Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics series are collected in one rockin’ volume, with art by Scott Pentzer (Razor), Marshall Ross (Deepest Dimension), David Neer (Sports Superstars), Francois Escalmel (Frank Zappa: Viva La Bizarre), and others. The collection also includes update material, bringing the saga up to 2010.
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK VS REVOLUTIONARY COMICS - The inside story of how a hugely successful boy band tried to sue local-based Rock 'N' Roll Comics over an unauthorized biography of the group, sparking a court case that established, for the very first time, first amendment rights for comic books. Illustrated by comic superstar Stuart Immonen (Superman, etc.)...
THE KOMPLETE KISS KOMIX KRONICLES - Comprehensive collection of stuff I’ve done about working with Kiss on a comic book series, along with a bunch of never-before-seen artifacts from the Kiss Komix archives AND an article by Kiss comic author Spike Steffenhagen, offering his own very-different take, ala Rashomon, on the same events I describe in my essay...
OVER A MILLION CARNAL COMICS ARE IN PRINT - Here's how and why we made some of the top-selling erotic comics of all time, right here in San Diego, including what Gene Simmons has to do with it all, backstage tales of porn stars, and more confessions of a comic pornographer...
THE ROCKETEER AND OTHER FAMOUS '80S COMICS BEGAN RIGHT HERE IN SAN DIEGO - Here's a detailed history of local Pacific Comics, who recruited comic superstars like Jack Kirby to create one of the first successful indie comic book lines. Pioneers in the fight for comic creators' rights and royalties, former employees and operators reveal how they did it, and what went so terribly wrong...
COMICS AND CENSORSHIP - DON'T BE AFRAID, IT'S ONLY A COMIC BOOK - A local-centric history of comic book censorship, and the fight for the rights of comic creators...
TWILIGHT ZONE AND STAR TREK WRITER GEORGE CLAYTON JOHNSON PRESENTS - The inside story of a local horror comic book series featuring Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, plus sci-fi king Larry Niven, Zap Comix co-founder Spain Rodriguez, Matthew Alice artist Rick Geary, Vampire Lestat painter Daerick Gross, yours truly JAS, and many more...
THE BIRTH OF IMAGE COMICS: INSIDE STORY OF A LOCAL PUBLISHING POWERHOUSE - Illustrated tale revealing how Spawn creator Todd McFarlane and local comic artist Jim Lee (the Punisher, etc.) conspired to create the ultimate creator-owned comic books...
Like this blog? Here are some related links:
OVERHEARD IN SAN DIEGO - Several years' worth of this comic strip, which debuted in the Reader in 1996: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/galleries/overheard-san-diego/
FAMOUS FORMER NEIGHBORS - Over 100 comic strips online, with mini-bios of famous San Diegans: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/galleries/famous-former-neighbors/
SAN DIEGO READER MUSIC MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/sandiegoreadermusic
JAY ALLEN SANFORD MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/jayallensanford
More like this:
- RIP Reader cover artist and underground comix legend Spain Rodriguez — Nov. 28, 2012
- The History of Comic Books In San Diego: The ‘90s — Sept. 22, 2008
- Painting Rock Stars, plus Behind the Scenes: Overheard in San Diego & Famous Former Neighbors — May 8, 2008
- 25 Local Musicians Reveal “My Favorite Twilight Zone,” plus Local-Produced Zone Comic Books — April 3, 2008
- Secrets of Overheard in San Diego & Famous Former Neighbors, Mojo & Zappa Comix, [Paint]Brushes With Fame — April 2, 2008