Vincent Farnsworth 2:38 p.m., Sept. 26
Komplete KISStory Kronicles, and Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics: Inside Story
Essays on working for Kiss, Lost & Unpublished Artwork, & Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics: The Inside Story
Essays on working for Kiss, lost & unpublished artwork, & Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics: The Inside Story
With Ace Frehley appearing at the House of Blues on March 24th, I decided to compile a bunch 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 on the same events I describe in my essay below ------- following all that is a repost of “Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics: The Inside Story,” some rare unpublished artwork, and film reviews of the documentary “Todd Loren’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics” from Variety magazine and the Internet Movie Database.
ON WORKING FOR KISS – JAS
The first song my first band ever played in public was Kiss' "Cold Gin" and I've never been embarrassed to admit that.
Even during the years when I frankly wasn't listening to anything old or new by them, just catching a glimpse of the stylized Kiss logo could send my mind spinning back...sixteen years old, drunk for only the second time and urinating into a boot, hiding in my girlfriend's closet and waiting for her dad to go to bed! To drown us out later, we turned up "Destroyer" loud enough so that Gene, Paul, Ace and Peter were winking accomplices in our carnal crime.
That nearly perfect rock 'n' roll high, marred only by the bummer of a ruined boot, was years behind me when I found myself working at Revolutionary on Rock 'N' Roll Comics, published by the late Todd Loren.
Kiss was featured in Rock 'N' Roll #9, but the company was going through unexpected growth at the time and some pretty bad work slipped past everyone. Todd mentioned that the new freelance writer, Spike Steffenhagen, a virtual Kiss freak, hated the issue. "He has some big hairy balls," Todd told me. "He read me the riot act about how the comic should have been done and then he begged me for his next assignment!"
In 1991, Revolutionary launched new titles like Starjam and Hard Rock Comics, which I was writing and drawing thumbnails for as well as doing the flagship book Rock 'N' Roll. I was also taking on more research and editorial work, so I let Spike, whose big hairy balls had so impressed Todd, take over the Hard Rock title.
Shortly after that, Kiss offered Revolutionary an exclusive interview for an issue of the title. Hard Rock #5, titled "Kiss: Tales From The Tours," came out in June '92, a time when most people would have been hard pressed to name the current members of Kiss - if they even knew the band still existed. Still, the issue sold a little better than the average Hard Rock comic, proving Kiss fans were still out there.
Gene Simmons seemed supportive of the book, turning up in videos, magazine photos and on the cover of "Kiss Alive III" wearing our Hard Rock Comics and Rock 'N' Roll Comics T-shirts.
Shortly after the issue's release, publisher Todd Loren was found dead in his Hillcrest condo, the victim of a still-unsolved murder.
Todd's father Herb Shapiro hired me to replace Todd and it was a turbulent, emotionally charged time for everyone, to be sure. Focusing on the business of publishing left me little time for creative work so I reluctantly doled out assignments for projects I'd rather have done myself. I'd gotten to know Spike - turns out he grew up just six miles from my own Connecticut hometown - and one of the first things he pitched to me as his new boss was "More Kiss."
From a boss' POV, my own balls didn't feel very big and hairy. All comic publishers were experiencing a precipitous sales slump. Also, Herb and I were still in shock over Todd's death and operating on professional and personal autopilot. We weren't looking for risks, and Spike was asking us to commit a lot of time, money and effort to do a lengthy series about a group at the nadir of its reputation and career.
I dug into Todd's Rolodex to find Gene Simmons' fax number and sent a couple of notes asking if the group would participate in such a project, telling Spike that, if Kiss agreed, we'd do three issues and see how they sell. Herb reluctantly went along and Spike made his own calls to the band's label.
I was surprised but pleased when Gene agreed to give interview access exclusively for the comics. The sixteen year old fan inside me was pretty jazzed to pencil the project I called "Kiss Pre-History" onto the Spring '93 schedule, even as the businessman I'd become sweated the sales potential since part of my job now involved making sure everyone got paid.
(Kiss bio comic page from KISStory, drawn by Hard Rock Comics artist Scott Pentzer)
We re-hired the artist from Hard Rock #5, Scott Pentzer, who was supernaturally skilled at capturing Kiss' likenesses down to the last stroke of eyeliner. As Spike and I rewrote each other's script drafts, we discovered that we both liked Kiss' obscure sword and sorcery concept album Music From The Elder, and agreed it'd make a great comic story.
During one research interview with Gene, done on a speaker phone with Spike, Herb and myself on our end, Spike asked Gene how he'd feel about letting him write an Elder comic script. Gene's casual "Sure, go for it" reply didn't constitute a legal licensing agreement but he seemed to be inviting Revolutionary to at least pitch ideas and a business plan to him.
A project such as this was close to my own goal for the company, to get more bands to work WITH us, and share the marketing and profits, so I wrote a few more informal letters to Gene pitching a cooperative publishing effort.
I'd heard that Gene is a hands-on guy when it comes to Kiss business but I was startled when the secretary buzzed to say he was on the line. Herb joined in and I took notes:
"You know I could sue your company over the comics but I haven't," Gene said, "they're not really authorized like a license. And I've really had to hold the lawyers back, they're sure we could own you. We're suing some other comic companies. When you drew us in makeup, we own the trademarks on the makeup."
Herb pointed out that Kiss had not only approved of "Pre-History" but had participated in its creation, with the comic clearly mentioned in all the taped interviews.
"That doesn't alter my point," Gene said. " However, I like you guys, I like what you do and maybe we can talk about something we can all work together on."
He didn't have to open with a (highly improbable) lawsuit threat to get us interested in talking more.
What evolved over several discussions was an outline for production of an oversized hardcover book tentatively called "Kiss 20th Anniversary Book" and then simply "KISStory." Gene and Paul had already given a lot of thought to what they wanted included in such a book and Kiss lawyer Jess Hilsen firmed up the subsequent plans with reams of memos and contract drafts.
What they seemed to want from us was production guidance, to help them with what technically and graphically could be achieved, and a creative team to help put it all together into a comic-heavy package.
It also quickly became clear that they wanted someone to foot the bill for the elaborate production.
One of their early written offers stated "Kiss will agree to the concept of an equal division of profits, although consideration must be given to a minimum guarantee to Kiss by Revolutionary," but nothing specific was ever confirmed about what our profit share would be or where it would come from.
Memos I have that are dated November 1993 from Kiss' lawyers estimate "contemplated production costs of approximately $300,000" which Revolutionary was expected to cover, though we wouldn't retain any copyrights or ownership connected to the book we'd be publishing, marketing and co-creating. Nobody at Revolutionary would get paid until - and unless - the proposed four pound, 300 page book made a profit.
We were interested, yes, but we were also mighty wary.
(Gene wearing Hard Rock Comics shirt)
We scheduled a meeting with Gene and Paul, who wanted us to send details in advance of all participants including job descriptions and home phone numbers. Our list included myself, Herb, Spike and a potential investor we'll call Paulie, whose promised capital never came through and who never actually became a company partner. His soon-to-be-bankrupt company did help us produce a stunning 3-D mockup of the KISStory book, with its die-cut leather cover and raised embossed Kiss logo.
We met over breakfast in L.A. and Gene and Paul told us about then-secret plans they had, like the "Kiss My Ass" tribute CD and upcoming TV appearances. They were confident they'd be able to secure the rights to have a CD of rare songs included with the book. When we showed them art samples, Gene, a comic book scholar, compared rendering techniques to those of other creators, both famous and obscure.
As we wrapped up, I gave Gene a video of rare cartoons by Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising. He recognized their names and mentioned a few of their other shorts and we stood around talking about cartoons for another ten minutes, long after Paul Stanley picked up the tab on his credit card.
They clearly wanted us to feel we were being welcomed to a team as sure to win as the Harlem Globetrotters. Gene invited several of us to his birthday party, to mingle with a-list (Roseanne and Tom) to z-list (porn star Ron Jeremy) celebs.
Paul Stanley seemed to go out of his way to make us feel welcome, waving and calling us over to introduce us around while Gene prowled from photo op to photo op.
(Kiss Comic Kraziness with the band and fans in LA)
We were treated like VIPs behind the velvet ropes when Kiss put their handprints in cement on the Rock Walk Of Fame. Their fans rushed the barricade when we tossed comics into the crowd and, for a moment, some of Kiss' considerable fame actually seemed to rub off on us. Which I suspect was the purpose of inviting us.
Back at the office, the KISStory book deal was in the lawyers' hands. Spike pitched a comic project to Revolutionary, Kiss: The Elder, as if he somehow owned the official license for the property. I wasn't particularly offended by this, even though Kiss had called Revolutionary, not Spike, and he'd only been afforded the opportunity to ask Gene about an Elder comic while on paid assignment for Revolutionary.
I told Spike to write a preliminary draft which I then rewrote, and we gave the finished script and art designs (again by Scott Pentzer) to Gene while Kiss was in San Diego to sign at Tower Records near SDSU.
Gene called the office about a week later to say "Everything looks great but let's just sit on this because there are big things happening," hinting none too subtly about the impending reunion of the original four Kiss members.
One afternoon, Herb came into my office to tell me "Gene called and said Goldmine magazine is doing an all-Kiss issue. He said the ad deadline is in two days and we'll be missing the boat if we don't get something in there to create a buzz about the KISStory book."
Our shortlived partner Paulie offered to rush out a full page ad, which promoted our Pre-History comics and included a small drawing of the KISStory cover and a blurb saying the book was "coming soon" and would include a CD of rare songs, with our 800 phone number in the ad as well.
The day the issue came out, Gene called my direct line. "What the Hell is this, I can't believe you put this out without showing us! We own that 800 number as of now, everybody who calls it, your mailing list, it's ours now, those are our customers!"
He accused me of covering for Herb and Paulie when I honestly said neither were in the office and seemed enraged that I had no answer to his frequent shouts of "How did this happen?"
I got Paulie on another line for a phone conference, with both Gene and Paul Stanley on their end accusing us of taking their 20 years' hard labor and ripping them off by prematurely announcing the book. Gene insisted that Herb had misinterpreted what he'd said about the Goldmine special (obviously) and that somebody in our "amateur hour organization" should have thought to run the ad by them (not so obvious with the tight deadline and Herb's assumption that Gene's instruction and consent is always the final word from Kiss).
That ended Revolutionary's involvement in publishing KISStory, though Kiss hired the Pre-History creative team to do a comic section for the book which finally came out two years later.
(Poster drawn by Revolutionary’s Kiss comic crew, for the band’s official KISStory book)
Gene and I occasionally talked and bumped into each other (at comic conventions, parties, backstage, clubs, etc.). Gene hooked my publishing company up with Pamela DeBarres - aka the world's most famous groupie, and author of "I'm With The Band." At one point, he mentioned that he could get me a job working directly for Kiss.
This carrot-on-a-stick was preceded by a "friendly warning - if you ever reprint your Kiss comics, we'll sue you for everything you own down to your underpants."
I said I was doing fine with the publishing company I'd come to own, Re-Visionary Press.
(Revolutionary Kiss comics autographed by Kiss)
Herb retired in 1994, selling all the Kiss artwork and reprint rights to Gene (the purchase seemed to belie Gene's original claim that Kiss automatically owned our comics by virtue of their trademarks on the makeup).
In late 1999, I was working on a lengthy book called "Rock 'N' Roll: A Cartoon History - The 70s." I faxed Gene a note asking for permission to show Kiss, in makeup, in a section about theatrical rock.
Only a couple of hours passed before my answer machine picked up and Gene's voice was saying "Jay, we have a problem here, I don't think this is something you want to do and I'll tell you why."
I still marvel that Gene Simmons had nothing better to do in the middle of the Second Coming Of Kiss than to call me at home to say "I can't tell you what to do but Todd [McFarlane, "Psycho Circus" publisher] will probably sue the pants off you if you show Kiss in your book."
I was relieved to hear that at least this potential lawsuit would leave me with my underpants.
"Do what you want though and good luck," he finished, and Kiss ended up not being mentioned or shown. In a book about 70s rock. When I think about Kiss now, my old urine-stained boot isn't the only bummer that comes to mind.
In Spring 2007, Gene was working with local comic publisher IDW on a horror anthology comic titled Gene Simmons House Of Horror. “Think Chiller meets the Twilight Zone,” said publisher Chris Ryall of the series.
The comic was originally to be published by the Kiss bassist’s own Simmons Comic Group last year, but an apparent falling out with co-creator (and fellow musician) Jazan Wild led to the two announced issues being canceled.
“We all agreed and listed the books to come out on Halloween and even had a collector's book that was going to be in Barnes and Noble and Borders,” according to Wild on his website; he says he spent five months working with Simmons on the comic. “But, Gene Simmons has a ton of things going at any given time, and sadly this one seemed to not be the right time for him…since I own the story and all of the art, I decided to change the title to Jazan Wild's Funhouse Of Horrors and let everyone see this terrific story…I know thousands of people ordered this book.”
The second Simmons Comic Group issue remains unpublished, though some of the unused material may turn up in IDW’s comics. “We originally planned to do a comic with Iron Maiden, until Gene’s comic came along,” says IDW creator Tom Waltz, whose locally-created “Children Of The Grave comic series is loosely based on a Black Sabbath song. “The band was totally up for it, but then all these middlemen got involved with licensing and permissions, and it became really difficult to get simple yes or no answers.”
Ryall says the Gene Simmons House Of Horror 64-page quarterly anthology is looking for contributors and paying $250 for scripts (“plus five comp copies”), albeit with the caveat that, this time, “Gene Simmons will own the copyright to all the stories that appear in this comic.”
(Unpublished cover and art from Gene Simmons’ shortlived comic line)
SPIKE’S STORY: ON WORKING FOR KISS
Spike Steffenhagen was the writer of the bioigraphical Kiss comic books published by Revolutionary Comics. Here’s his alternate account, told from the creator’s point of view, which differs ala Roshoman from my own description of the very same sequence of events…
Spike says: I became a Kiss fan in 1976 when I saw them on The Paul Lynde Halloween special. They lip-synched "King Of The Night Time World" and "Beth." I watched because Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch from "The Wizard Of Oz") was on the show, but when Kiss came on my stepfather called them f-gs, making them seem even cooler to me. Kiss became an obsession for me, the reference point to everything in my life from my sexual awakening (when the lyrics to "Take Me" made sense, I knew I'd hit puberty), through high school, my marriage, etc.
Kiss was the one thing that could be counted on - that, and getting s--t for being a Kiss fan. I didn't see them in concert until 1983, their last tour with make-up before the reunion. They weren't allowed to use fire, but they were still the greatest band in the world.
When I started writing about bands for Revolutionary Comics, working with publisher Todd Loren was an adversarial existence. He would match me up against the company's main writer, Jay Allen Sanford, playing us against each other. He gave me a series on Pink Floyd, which Jay had wanted, and he gave Jay the Black Sabbath project that I'd been begging for. He would call and tell me that I sucked and Jay was great. I told him to have Jay write the f-ing books then and hung up on him.
He called back and apologized and I got a raise. Todd offered Jay the Hard Rock Comics series even though I was more of a metal fan but Jay turned it down. My agreement to do it hinged on doing a Kiss book [Hard Rock Comics #5: Kiss – Tales From The Tours]. Todd said yes and while I was doing the research, Kiss' manager called Todd to invite both of us to the recording studio for a one-on-one with Gene and Paul.
Todd held the Kiss meeting over my head until I told him to go f--k himself again. When we got to the studio he told me that he may not even be able to go in. Apparently they only wanted to talk to the comic's writer. We both ended up going in to meet with Gene and Paul.
When I gave Gene the Alice Cooper comic I'd done, I was floored when he told me that he already had a copy! They'd read a lot of Revolutionary's stuff. They were legends and they knew it so they didn't have to act like d-cks to prove it.
The interview went great and, on the way back to San Diego , we stopped at a comic book shop and told the owner who we were and that we'd just met with Kiss. He didn't care. We also went to a Dennys where we told a waitress the same thing and she was much more impressed. Shortly after that everything hit the fan when Todd was murdered. I still miss him as a friend, and as the guy who gave me my first professional break.
When Jay took over Todd's job, I was going to quit. Todd had always pitted Jay and I against each other and now my rival was my boss. It turned out that everything Todd had said to me, he'd said to Jay using me against him! Jay told me that he wanted me to keep writing Hard Rock Comics and we discussed what bands we could cover. I suggested Pantera, because they were ready to break and had a loyal following, and to my amazement he agreed!
When he greenlighted an issue about the birth of punk rock that named the Ramones, MC5 and Iggy Pop as forefathers, I knew it was going to be different from working with Todd, who'd watched the charts to decide which bands to cover.
I suggested a 6 issue series detailing Kiss' career which Todd's father Herb Shapiro (then the publisher) nixed, saying they were has-beens and not worth the paper. Jay intervened and I got a contract to write a 3 issue series which would cover about half of their career.
The comic's artist Scott Pentzer and I approached the project like a holy war. We wanted to create the comic book we'd always wanted to see, acknowledging Kiss as the greatest band while giving the finger to the critics who hated them, splicing together the legend with the reality without compromising either.
I did lengthy interviews with people like Kenny Kerner, who produced the first Kiss album, went through hundreds of published interviews and I got a hold of a ton of bootleg CDs, tapes and videos. A lot of the work was done before I even talked to Gene because I knew he was busy and that my access to him would be limited.
(Revolutionary Comic-Con booth, Gene Simmons wearing Hard Rock Comics shirt in concert)
During one of these interviews, I asked him for permission to adapt Kiss' album The Elder into a comic script. Gene said "Go for it," and that was that. Or so I thought. Herb had decided that, even though I had negotiated quite a bit, even though I was the main contact with the band, I might f-ck it up. This guy who constantly bagged on Kiss was suddenly concerned that I might ruin his golden opportunity.
When the Pre-History comics came out, Revolutionary was entering its schizo period. Jay confided to me that someone named Paulie wanted to invest in the company, but that he didn't trust the guy. At the time, Kiss were really plugging our comics, and this is part of what attracted Paulie's interest.
All through the new Kiss tour, Gene wore the Hard Rock Comics T-shirt I'd given him. The first time I saw him with it was when I caught a new Kiss video at 2 AM. I ran through the house screaming "My shirt! He's wearing my f-ing shirt!", waking my soon-to-be wife and roommates, none of whom cared enough to get up and watch the video with me.
Jay told me one day that Kiss was interested in working with us on something. It was a warning as much as an invitation. Herb and Paulie didn't seem to understand that the comics Pentzer and I had done were what got us noticed by Kiss to begin with. Jay explained this to them at least twice in front of me, and who knows how many times behind closed doors. I was less than impressed by Paulie and my mood was not improved when Herb told me to stay out of the situation I'd had a big part in creating. I told Jay that I could take The Elder project elsewhere as well and we had a rare heated discussion.
For our meeting with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, Paulie helped put together a mock-up based on my suggestions about what a KISS book should look like. Big, intimidating, leather and steel. When we got there, I introduced myself to Paul Stanley and he told me to stop that, he knew who I was, and bought me a cappuccino. He wasn't being rude, it was funny actually.
Gene threw my cigarettes on the ground - he hates smoking. Paul opened a package from the Australian Kiss fan club and there was a Pre-History comic inside with an autograph request.
This was right after Herb had just been saying that we didn't sell as many comic books as Kiss had assumed. F-ing priceless. Paulie and Herb acted as if they were the masterminds behind Pre-History. Paulie was coming off like the big money man, Herb was practically pleading poverty, Jay was holding things together and I was wishing someone would sign something so I could get to work. I never liked business meetings.
No one at Revolutionary asked me what I needed to start the book, which ended up being called KISStory. I thought this was odd since I was told that I'd be the main writer. Jay assured me that, once contracts were done, I would get whatever I needed for the project, not to stress, so I thought things were fine.
Then, Herb told me one day that the writer didn't matter, saying "I could write this thing myself. You should be paying us for the privilege of having your name attached!" I was f-ing furious! I told Pentzer about this and he told me there was no way he'd work on anything Kiss-related without me. Jay told me again not to worry, that if there was a book to be written, I would be the writer. I was tempted to call the band to tell them that Herb and Paulie were both d--kheads, but I didn't. I was prepared to do this if I thought Kiss might get screwed, though.
Jay called to say we were invited to a party Gene was throwing and, when I checked the date, I almost s--t. It was his birthday party!
We went up to a bowling alley in Topanga Canyon and gave our names to the security guy, who let us in with a smile even! I told Gene "happy birthday", talked to him a bit and hung out.
I remember Jay asking what I thought and I said "This is f-ing cool!" There were all kinds of journalists I'd grown up reading, guys whose work I'd admired in magazines like Kerrang and Rip, and this was a major rush for me too.
The hard reality of what was happening behind the scenes hit me for the first time at the San Diego Comic Convention in 1993. Paulie was still in the picture and he told Pentzer that he should be kissing -ss if he wanted to be on the Kiss project. Herb had been doing the same thing with me. Jay told Paulie never to even talk to any of his artists again and it was a mess.
We finally did an autograph signing and people were spilling out into the aisles, all telling us what a great job we'd done and wanting their comics signed. It was the best signing we ever did, the strongest response we ever had, even as everything else was turning to s--t.
Around the same time, I was figuring out what to do with the Elder comic when Jay and I got into it again. He felt that, if it was approved by Kiss, it was a Revolutionary property because I'd gotten permission during a Revolutionary interview. I wanted to be able to work without Herb constantly threatening to take it away from me. We agreed that Herb would stay out of it and that Jay and I would work on it together.
I did an outline for The Elder which Jay kicked back with his notes, and we invited ideas from other contributors like writer Cherie Bucheim - all of which were out of whack with what I wanted. I wanted the script to embody what Kiss meant to me. Belief in self, reaching for the stars, all that. Jay wanted a Princess Bride-type spoof. Cherie wanted something else altogether.
The Elder got as far as a second draft when we found out the KISStory book was off. I didn't know who to blame, but I called Herb and Paulie a couple of d-cks anyway.
I wish Revolutionary would have gone out with some grace. Our last issues were sh---ty reprints. Jay was paying the creators out of his own pocket while Herb was going to Florida once a month and claiming poverty.
After Herb closed down Revolutionary, Pentzer and I were contracted to do a thirty page comic for the KISStory book.
The Elder, in a different form than the project begun at Revolutionary, saw publication a few years later in a Kiss tour magazine. My mom bought hers in a grocery store in Maryland , so I thought that was pretty awesome!
I've seen Kiss four times since they reunited and I plan to see them at least once more. They deliver the goods like no other band.
I've never asked for anything from Kiss except the pay we agreed on. No free tix, no CDs. They never asked me to write for free, so why should I ask them to do their job for free? I paid 90 something clams to see Kiss when they played San Diego in March and it was worth it.
I'm grateful for the opportunity Kiss gave me, but I never wanted to ride their coattails. I have my own career and if it intertwines with theirs again, great!
Till then, I still wake up at night, heart pounding a mile a minute, and I look at my Kiss posters and think "D-mn! I worked with those guys!"
ROCK ‘N’ ROLL COMICS: THE INSIDE STORY – by JAS
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.
No eighth issue was ever 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.
(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."
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 2000, 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.
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!
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."
I took over Todd’s job as Managing Editor, while Herb would continue on as company President.
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.
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.”
(Motley comic autographed by the Crue, and Beatles comic signed by Paul McCartney)
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."
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.
(World Premiere of “Unauthorized & Proud Of It” documentary, during 2005 San Diego Comic-Con: Me with Mojo Nixon, and me 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 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.
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.
Crimestoppers is offering a $1,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest in the murder of Todd Loren.
"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
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.
• #1. Do you think that reality show with Gene Simmons shows him the way he really is, in real life? Or, is it typical of most reality shows? By joshb 9:39 a.m., Jan 23, 2008 > Report it
• #2. I think it shows HIM as he really is - but everything he and his family says or does seems scripted. It's like watching him thru funhouse mirrors, ie reflecting reality all right, but with some slight warping, for entertainment purposes ----
By jayallen 3:01 p.m., Jan 26, 2008 > Report it
More like this:
- The History of Comic Books In San Diego: The ‘90s — Sept. 22, 2008
- Carnal Comics: The Inside Story, plus Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics, and the Komplete KISStory Kronicles — May 28, 2008
- Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics: The Inside Story, and the Komplete KISStory Kronicles — April 16, 2008
- Komplete KISStory Kronicles, plus Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics: The Inside Story — March 21, 2008
- Komplete Kiss Komix Kronicles - Local Company's Kiss Comic Books — Sept. 12, 2007