Drawn and quartered
By DANIEL BARLOW Herald Staff | September 28,2006
MARLBORO — When George Walker, the protagonist of the new horror film "Head Trauma," finds a religious comic book at a phone booth near his home, the drawings might as well have "Made in Vermont" stamped across them.
That's because the comic book — which is essential to the plot of the brooding and dark independent horror feature — was drawn and assembled by renowned Marlboro cartoonist Stephen Bissette and his son, Danny, more than two years ago.
The film, written and directed by Lance Weiler of Bucks County, Pa., was released on DVD this week, along with "The Last Broadcast," a 1998 horror film also by Weiler. "The Last Broadcast" features a seven-page comic drawn by students at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction.
Bissette, who retired from the comics industry in 1999 after more than two decades of work, said he agreed to return to the drawing board because the project involved film making — his other passion — and because of his friendship with Weiler and fellow "Last Broadcast" writer and director, Stefan Avalos.
"The script called for a comic as a prop in the film," Bissette explained. "It was to be a Christian comic, similar to and emulating the look of the Jack T. Chick mini-comics."
But the role of the comic book and its themes quickly shifted throughout the movie's filming and production, Bissette said.
The plot of the film centers on a series of nightmares experienced by Walker, who has returned to his childhood home for the first time in 20 years. The nightmares seem to be intruding on his waking life. The visions Walker sees were inspired by dreams Weiler experienced following a car crash several years ago.
Bissette, who made a career out of drawing and writing horror comics such as "Swamp Thing" for DC Comics and "Taboo" for his own imprint, SpiderBaby Grafix, said the comics he and his son were drawing affected the visuals of the film almost as much as the visuals in the film affected the comics they were commissioned to create.
"As with many truly independent features, this was an organic creative process," he said.
If creating the accompanying panels for "Head Trauma" was a drawn-out, back-and-forth creative enterprise, creating the "The Last Broadcast" comic hearkened back to the assembly-line days of the 1940s and '50s when groups of artists pulled all-nighters.
Nearly a half dozen students at CCS, the two-year school dedicated to comic art founded by Vermont cartoonist James Sturm, spent the past few weeks of the school's first full semester this year pulling together a jam comic that accompanies the new DVD.
"The Last Broadcast" is a horror mockumentary about a cable access team searching the Pine Barrens in New Jersey for the legendary monster called the Jersey Devil. The film was groundbreaking for being photographed digitally, but was overshadowed a year later by the similar and more successful, "Blair Witch Project."
The comic, which features some writing and art by Bissette, chronicles the numerous and occasionally contradicting, urban legends surrounding the Jersey Devil.
"A small team of the students there really stepped up to the plate and pulled the whole thing together from scratch in three and a half weeks," Bissette said.
Bissette said he is excited that the films are getting a wide DVD release. Both films transcend the genre they are set in, he said, but particularly "Head Trauma" is relevant to the current national political discourse.
"The film is about being traumatized and that's a timely subject matter because it reflects the condition of the national unconsciousness since Sept. 11," Bissette said. "In many ways we've been traumatized as a country in the years that have followed."
Contact Daniel Barlow at firstname.lastname@example.org.