Steve Bissette’s Tyrant should have been a classic. His phenomenal art, solid writing and fascinating concept might well have led to what comic critics would have cited as essential reading. Circumstances, however, prevented this. The initial conceit of Tyrant was to tell the story, from birth to death, of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Bissette was planning to spend “decades” writing this story. The only thing really resembling this idea is Dave Sim’s Cerebus, but even that, comparatively, starts in medias res. We do not witness Cerebus’ birth, childhood, or even all of his adulthood. Steve Bissette wanted to tell the story of this T-Rex’s entire life. Ultimately Tyrant was cancelled due to a combination of delays and lack of profit. This massive undertaking was sadly short lived; only four issues were published. Tyrant, the titular T-Rex, doesn’t even hatch until the end of the third issue. Consequently, the nature of the story can only be intuited from limited information and interviews. For instance, Tyrant appears to speak at the end of issue three, yet the other dinosaurs up until, and after that moment, do no such thing. Bissette’s use of third person narration to convey the internal workings of these creatures is particularly effective, but it seems possible the dinosaurs would have spoken later in the story; unfortunately this question is hard to answer. Because this work is not nearly as well-known as it deserves to be, many people will be unfamiliar with it. Contained within the letter pages are interesting clues to the nature of the story, as well as handy evidence of this work’s potential.
First a little background information is needed. Steve Bissette is clearly a smart guy. He writes well throughout the comic and even writes a decent critique of Jurassic Park in the back of the first issue. He is also a phenomenal artist, best known for his art on Swamp Thing. His pen and ink art was so richly detailed and took so long to produce, that almost every issue of Tyrant, originally supposed to be bi-monthly, was late. This must have played no small part in the early cancellation of the series. The comic was published by Bissette himself, through his Spider-Baby company, which was also in part responsible for publishing Alan Moore’s From Hell. Alan Moore and Steve Bissette had worked together before on Swamp Thing and Bissette’s narration seems to reveal the heavy influence Moore had on Tyrant. Bissette described their working relationship as a “completely synchronistic chemistry of this three-person team” (Bissette even influenced several of the plot points throughout the story). Artists almost adopting the style practised by writers they’ve worked with is a common phenomenon, for example Dave McKean openly admits to the massive influence Neil Gaiman had on his writing. Bissette’s narration has a cadence similar to Moore’s, he dramatically contrasts words with pictures in a similar way, generally his writing feels a lot like a Swamp Thing issue. This isn’t a criticism on my part, just a comment. I adore Dave McKean’s Cages, and that book is, without a doubt, heavily influenced by Gaiman’s writing style. Steve Bisette may be writing in a style influenced by Moore, but his story and subject matter are entirely his own. Bissette also credits Moore with giving him the breakthrough he needed to pick an approach for writing Tyrant: “Alan gave me the gift of what I needed to get my hands around how to write Tyrant.” The writing on a Tyrant works and is both enjoyable and reasonably well-written. It is a pity that the series ended before Bissette had a chance to evolve a more individual style.
Now, looking at some of the letters and additional material in the Tyrant books might seem like a cheap ploy on my part to sell the comic’s worth, and yes, yes it is. This comic is not still in print and while it seems to have a fan base, it’s hardly a prevalent comic. It’s consequently slightly hard to find (though typically not pricey). As the vast majority of people will be unable to find or read Tyrant, cheap ploys become handy. Allow me to convince you that this comic is interesting by quoting the letters, talking about some of the additional materials, as well as pieces of Steve Bissette’s “Rants”. Steve Bissette opens the first letter page by laying out his rules and then inviting corrections of any scientific inaccuracies appearing in that comic. The first interesting letter is from none other than the aforementioned Neil Gaiman, he praises the feeling of “Utter Rightness” the comic gave him and compares it to children’s books featuring animal protagonists in “the sense of being plunged into another species’ head.” Bissette’s response is both thankful and joke-ridden. Steve Bissette is an artist who moves in important circles, he quotes a portion of a letter he wrote to Howard Cruse who at that point was still finishing up his comic Stuck Rubber Baby. Following the letters is a few pages devoted to what Bissette calls “Myrant.” This is essentially his mission statement for the comic and is fairly important. Here Steve Bissette writes:
Tyrant is the tale of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. You haven’t met him yet; he doesn’t make his appearance until the third issue of the series, when you will witness his birth.
For the next decade or more, I will tell you the story of his life in bimonthly chapters, from his first tentative steps to his prime hunting years, through middle age and on towards his demise. And, yes, you will witness his death, too, if you stay with me for the whole story.
Sadly, as we know, Bissette never managed to finish this potentially fascinating undertaking so much of his intent will remain mysterious. Bissette explains in his “Myrant” the approach on scientific accuracy he planned to take:
In order to create Tyrant’s world on the comic-book page, I am saturating myself in research, I am reading every book, article, and scholarly text I can find that is in any way relevant to Tyrant… No matter how much science I apply, Tyrant will never be a scientific text.
Tyrant is, after all, a fantasy.
A few interesting side notes on this first issue: Bissette makes mention of three comic-book creators’ passing, Albert Giolitti, Ross Andru, and Jack Kirby. Steve Bissette writes a fairly apt review of Jurassic Park. Bissette thanks Rick Veitch and Dave Sim, and cites Ray Harryhausen and Joe Kubert as inspirations. He also makes special mention of the fact that Cerebus’ Gerhard coloured the first issue’s cover.
In the second issue, Howard Cruse writes a letter complimenting Steve Bissette’s art as being “some of the most delicious nature art” he’s seen. Bissette also publishes someone else’s critique of Jurassic Park from an archeological stand-point. In the third issue, Bissette recommends dinosaur movies and books. In the fourth issue Will Eisner writes a letter saying:
BRAVO!! BRAVO!! Your new work, Tyrant, is excellent. The art lives up to the promise of the concept and your daring layout. Very, very imaginative. You have not wasted your time these past years; you’re bringing something really good to the table now.
I wish you the best of good luck with this!
Steve Bissette jokes he’ll “never fit [his] head through the door.” A compliment from Will Eisner is a powerful one in the comic-book world and really shows the interest Tyrant was rightfully creating amongst fellow creators.