Stephen Bissette Tackles the Brat in George Romero

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It's funny how horror movies of the 1970s continue to resonate in the contemporary comics culture. This has been going on for some time, quite apart from the  most obvious examples (e.g., the entire zombie/walking dead comics phenomenon). A midnight cult film that Rick Veitch and I saw together -- at a 1978 midnight show at the Elgin in Manhattan, about the time of our graduation from the Kubert School – was George Romero’s Martin (1977). Oddly enough, though I doubt Rick remembers much about the film at all, Martin ended up having an impact on one of Rick Veitch's key 1990s comics creations, Brat Pack.

At the time, Martin was pretty rough stuff, given its unflinching depiction of the surgical blood drinking and necrophilia indulged by the apparently teenage Martin (John Amplas); Martin is a sexual predator, his sexuality intrinsically linked to his vampirism, which eschews all the familiar Gothic constructs of the horror genre to present Martin’s craving for blood as a form of mental derangement. However, Romero also invites the audience to empathize with Martin’s plight. Abandoned by his family, forced to relocate and live with his elderly immigrant Eastern European cousin Tata Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), who openly despises Martin as a ‘nosferatu’ and threatens dire punishment if he catches Martin manifesting vampire traits, Martin is profoundly unhappy.  He is confused by his nature (flashbacks that may be imagined rather than remembered imply Martin may indeed be an 84-year-old vampire, though these may be symptoms of his insanity) and his deviant sexuality, he is filled with remorse for his appetites and victims, and he aches for a normal sexual relationship with a caring partner. Like a gay teenager in a culture that reviles the sexual urges he cannot deny, Martin wants desperately to be ‘cured.’ His one chance at redemption via a “normal” sexual affair – his first ever – with a troubled middle-aged woman next door (Elayne Nadeau) ends tragically with her slashing her wrists and committing suicide. Assuming Martin was responsible for her death (since his vampirism involves the use of razors to open the veins of his victims), his puritanical cousin stakes Martin to death in the shockingly abrupt climax.

I’m sure Rick barely recalls the film, if it all; typically, Martin mattered much more to me than it ever would to Rick. At the time, it resonated for us in part due to the absolutely uncanny resemblance between Amplas, as Martin, and our Kubert School classmate Jack Forcier (at age 18, Jack was among the youngest of our Kubert School class; he was also my roommate throughout the first year)!

That said, I mention Martin and Brat Pack in conjunction here because of the way the blasted Pittsburgh neighborhoods Martin is stranded in anticipates Brat Pack’s depressed urban wasteland of Slumburg. As Linnie Blake noted in her essay on Romero’s 1970s films, “Filmed against the background of America’s most severe economic crisis since the Depression, Martin is… set in Braddock, a decaying suburban district east of Pittsburgh. Here is a city subject to galloping inflation, staggering levels of unemployment and imminent economic collapse, a city of urban decay and radio talk shows, car graveyards and bottle-hugging derelicts…”. [1]

The most striking similarity between Martin and Brat Pack is Romero’s use of a call-in radio talk show as the film’s connective tissue. As in Rick's Brat Pack, this offscreen character is a user who “at first sounds sympathetic to Martin but, in actuality, is exploiting Martin’s story to increase listener interest.” [2] Martin is only able to ‘confess’ and discuss his plight with a cynical Pittsburgh talk-radio program host, who jokingly refers to Martin as “the Count.” As the credits roll, we hear the talk show host asking where “the Count” has gone; a timid caller whispers, “I think I might know who the Count is...,” a tantalizingly open audio coda to the stark finality of Romero’s powerful ending.

When I first read Rick’s scripts to Brat Pack, I was delighted by his similar use of this narrative device, end to end: in both Martin and Brat Pack, the talk radio frames the entirety of the narrative, weaving throughout with wit, economy and skill. Of course, talk radio was a dominant force in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, moreso than it was for most of us in the ‘70s, and I don’t believe Rick consciously adopted the device from Romero’s film. Though Veitch uses it quite differently than Romero did, and in a dissimilar narrative concept and structure, the correlations and the common theme – the destructive nature of families, and the ways in which older generations prey on the vulnerabilities of their own young – remains striking.

Besides being a professional cartoonist for over twenty years, Stephen R. Bissette is also a renowned authority on horror movies.  For his comics work, he is best known for his award-winning collaboration with writer Alan Moore and inker John Totleben on DC Comics' Saga of the Swamp Thing from 1983-87, as the creator and publisher of the horror anthology Taboo and his serialized graphic novel Tyrant. You can follow Stephen R. Bissette at srbisette.com

[1] Blake, “Another One for the Fire: George A. Romero’s American Theology of the Flesh,” Shocking Cinema of the Seventies, edited by Xavier Mendik, 2002, Noir Publishing, pg. 156.
[2] Richard Lippe, “The Horror of Martin,” American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, edited by Robin Wood and Richard Lippe, 1979, Festival of Festivals, Toronto, pg. 89
All Brat Pack ©1991, 1992, 2009 Rick Veitch

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  • ripsterling

    ripsterling Oct 30, 2009 at 9:42am

    Very good article connecting my favorite creators :)
    Thank you Mr. Bissette

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