Steve Bissette’s Tyrant leaves us with more questions than it does answers. The series came to a crashing conclusion with its fourth issue, ending abruptly in the middle of a story. Bissette was planning on publishing a collected volume after issue five and he has wondered since if rushing a collected volume of the first four issues would have made him enough money to continue. According to Bissette, Tyrant is not completely dead, he still hopes to publish more someday. Given that the series as he left it seems ripe with possibilities- one could easily imagine Bissette reshaping Tyrant to fit new topics of interest to him. Tyrant seems concerned with the ideas of parenting; it constantly contrasts motherly love with violence, as well as with interconnectedness and instinct. A return to Tyrant might very well stay the same, but one could easily imagine the series being altered to fit the author’s growing concerns.
Not everything about the future of Tyrant needs to be speculated on though.
Steve Bissette has already explained some of his short and long term plans for the series. For instance, the hatchling left hanging on Eggsucker’s tongue at the end of issue four was going to be eaten. Tyrant’s Dad was going to turn up in the near future. Longer reaching plans include a scene where an adult Tyrant recognizes his Mum, but his Mum doesn’t recognize him. Bissette was even planning ahead to Tyrant’s eventual downfall: Tyrant was going to stray too close to a volcano, inhale the ash, and permanently damage his lungs. This injury was to plague Tyrant throughout the comic, eventually killing him. This all seems very in keeping with Bissette’s gritty nature documentary approach to the comic. What we really can’t predict about Tyrant are the possible future experiments. Issue three of Tyrant is a bold experiment; the issue takes place almost entirely inside Tyrant’s egg. It seems very likely that the “years” Tyrant was planned to span would have featured further experimentation. It also seems likely these experiments would have been fascinating. It is sad we can only speculate what they might’ve looked like.
Perhaps the biggest question Tyrant raises comes with the ending of issue three: Would Tyrant have spoken? At the end of issue three, Tyrant growls the word: “hngry.” Every time I reread Tyrant this little sound completely takes me aback. One of the comic’s strengths is how Steve Bissette communicates the inner thoughts of these dinosaurs without anthropomorphizing them. His excellent use of third person narration skillfully conveys the instinctual way these dinosaurs operate. Having Tyrant speak would have worked against this. Tyrant may be the main character, but having him speak would have raised too many questions and problems. Why can only Tyrant talk? Is he somehow more evolved and intelligent than the other dinosaurs? Can the other dinosaurs understand Tyrant? Can the other dinosaurs speak, and if so why can’t we understand them? Is Tyrant addressing the reader directly? Are we psychically bonded to Tyrant? To quote Jeff Winger: “what’s up?” It seems to me there is a likely explanation for the crude piece of dialogue. Throughout Tyrant, up until this point, no two dinosaurs have really interacted. Here Tyrant is directly crying for his Mum. It seems likely that Steve Bissette is translating the simple sentiment Tyrant is expressing. His entire take on writing dinosaurs was built around one emotion- hunger. Bissette is showing us what Tyrant’s Mum is hearing. She hears the cries of her children and knows they’re hungry. That’s it. No implied intellect or language skills. This is all guess-work of course, unless Bissette says something, or publishes more Tyrant, we won’t really know what his intent was.
Don’t let this idle speculation fool you; Tyrant is not just interesting because of what could’ve been, it’s interesting because of what was. The four issues of Tyrant, when viewed as a whole, are surprisingly satisfying. If you ignore the sudden ending, it’s a fairly complete story (granted a story that only covers the birth of a character whose entire life was meant to be documented). The first four issues are generally consistent in quality too. If anything, the only real variation in quality is issue two, and I would say it’s because that issue is superior to the rest. His strongly infused theme could seem cloying to some, but I find it effective. The theme is obvious and ever-present. One could easily denounce this issue as crude; however the theme is clearly intended to be the focus. Issue four doesn’t claim to be about Tyrant, or Tyrant’s Mum, it’s about the intertwined nature of the forest. This overt use of theme creates a really strong issue. Steve Bissette is so forthcoming with his theme that it seems to have helped him utilize it. Every portion of the issue builds from the theme; the plot, the narration, and the layouts all reflect the way this prehistoric jungle is interconnected.
What else can be said about Tyrant? The series is so skillfully realized. Conceptually it’s strong, artistically it’s phenomenal, and the writing is great. The concepts of this comic, from the overarching themes to individual issues’ concerns, are ever present. This is not just a great piece of entertainment, there is clear, significant, artistic forethought being put into the series. If you haven’t seen Steve Bissette’s art since Swamp Thing, I suggest visiting his website. Bissette has only grown as an artist and Tyrant is a wonderful example of his work. His writing is serviceable, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. His writing works. It also conveys the information he wants. It conveys the themes, and it skillfully characterizes the dinosaurs without humanizing them. There is not really a weak point to Tyrant. Perhaps time would’ve revealed one, however I’m inclined to think the opposite. I think Tyrant could’ve grown, and that it would’ve been breathtaking if it had. But the four issues that did get published? Phenomenal. More people should read it.
After writing this article I got a chance to meet Steve Bissette and he actually took the time to answer some of my questions:
SEQUART: In issue three of Tyrant you depict Tyrant speaking. After he hatches he says “hngry.” Were you planning on having dinosaurs speak later in the series? What would that have been like?
STEVE BISSETTE: Attentive of you, this.
“Speak,” no. “Think,” yes—but only Tyrant’s thoughts would be shared or expressed.
If you study the integration of text and art more closely in the entire TYRANT® run to that point, I made sure the captions never cut into illustrative art—the plan was, only the thought balloons of Tyrant himself would intrude into illustrative space, and only Tyrant’s fleeting, partially-intelligible thoughts would be shared with the reader. They would be fleeting and fragmentary, at best.
The “big plan” was: young Tyrant’s thoughts would be occasionally expressed, as you noted, in fragmented, partially-readable thought balloons. As Tyrant matured, what were singular, fragmented “words” would become compound fragment words—more complex thought patterns—and as he aged, the regression to singular word fragments would reassert itself. In the end, Tyrant’s first word (which you noticed) would also be his last.
SEQUART: What were your chief sources of inspiration and influence when you worked on Tyrant?
BISSETTE: Well, you can see me working them out of my system, really, in the first two issues. Visually, they’re the dinosaurs from pop culture I grew up with, in order of exposure: pioneer paleo artists Charles R. Knight and Rudolph Zallinger, comics artist Sam Glanzman, stop-motion animation pioneers/experts Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen, my childhood readings of Ernest Thompson Seton (who was also an excellent cartoonist and artist), and the amazing Czech artist Zdenek Burian.
There are others, for sure—Joe Kubert, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Andru & Esposito, Karel Zeman, and so on—but the formative and truly essential influences are those I’ve just cited: artists, all. In terms of my writing, Seton would be the real catalyst for aching, just aching for a book that put the reader into the mindset of a dinosaur, as an experiential reading: Seton’s books about animals (“Wild Animals I Have Known,” and so on) were and remain favorites, and I’d also have to cite Jack London in that regard (“Call of the Wild,” etc.). My reading of science-fiction over the decades also informed the work in countless ways, with London again a touchstone (his “Before Adam” was the first mature prehistoric fiction work I ever devoured) from my youth. I was and remain a ravenous reader, and I’m presently editing, illustrating, and packaging a book series of prehistoric sf that will more fully cover my influences in that regard, Harry. Eric Temple Bell, who wrote sf under the nom de plume “John Taine,” wrote one of my favorite sf dinosaur novels, “Before the Dawn,” in the early 1930s, and that, too, had in impact on TYRANT®.
I also have to cite the influence of working with Alan Moore, and our ten-year friendship, on TYRANT®—if you compare my writings (comics scripts, my own comics, articles, etc.) pre-1986 to what I was doing after 1987, you’ll see the impact. I didn’t imitate or emulate Alan’s style, but I learned so, so much working with Alan. Our conversations about how I might approach the writing of TYRANT® back in 1989-91—before I was really working up any pages—were vital and absolutely necessary, and I see those discussions embodied in key passages of the work you’ve read to date.
For a hoped-for collected edition, I’m having to redraw almost all the dinosaurs in what was TYRANT #1 and 2 because the influences are so naked, the dinosaurs themselves don’t look like the creatures I came to know (and express) more fully by the final pages of #3 and #4. I’m not having to rewrite much—that wasn’t as painful and slow a process of “shedding influences,” if you will.
SEQUART: If you revisited Tyrant now how, if at all, would you change the series?
BISSETTE: I don’t have to speculate about that, Harry. I’m DOING it. In fact, I’m bringing a reworked thumbnailed TYRANT® #1-3 draft into a week-long crit workshop at CCS next week, under Paul Karasik’s sure hand. I’ll have a proper answer for you after that!
Superficially, the key changes are to bring the work up-to-date to current paleontological science. I made a lot of errors, particularly in TYRANT® #1, that I’ve got to correct and / or revise completely. I’m also reworking the introductory pages considerably—the lead-in from the first aerial view of the pterosaur up to the revelation of Tyrant’s mother laying her eggs—and I’m expanding the more meditative environment-explorative passages. It’s a a more leisurely read, in one way, at present.
SEQUART: Can you give us any tidbits about your long term plans for Tyrant?
BISSETTE: I’m working toward a revised/expanded first volume—the original collected edition I was hoping to have out in 1997, but didn’t make it to before the entire Direct Sales market collapsed in 1996—that would be comprised of what was TYRANT® #1-3, ending with the hatching.
I know that’s not what vet readers of the original series would want to see, but let’s face it, TYRANT® was published between 1994-96. I’ve got a whole generation that never heard of it, much less read it. It’s a new work to most of planet Earth. I’ve got to work myself back up to the chops I had in 1996, too—I never drew a better comic, solo, than TYRANT® #4, and that’s a skill level I’ve got to work myself back up to.
I’ve also got to start somewhere, and that’s a complete graphic novel in and of itself—there’s still nothing else like it in any media. So, we’ll see if that flies.