Tales From The Longbox #7 – Japer revisits Taboo #6

Every Friday, we’ll be bringing you reviews of meaningful comics found in the collections of our writers. “Long Box” refers to the lengthy, white cardboard boxes most comics find themselves stored within – bagged, alphabetized and numerically ordered.

These reviews, then, are the tales of those collections: illuminating characters, artists, writers – even eras – in addition to the personalities of the very owners of those fine collections.

Taboo # 6
Various Writers
Various Artists
Spiderbaby Graphix & Publishing

The late 1980’s saw a flurry of new comic book publishers come on the scene due to the ever-growing comic book “bubble”. Artists and writers alike were leaving the confines of the big publishers such as Marvel and DC and stretching out on their own, creating new companies and new comic books – all with new ownership directives. Spiderbaby Graphix & Publishing was one of those companies.

Founded by Stephen R. Bissette and John Totleben, the artists involved in Alan Moore’s groundbreaking and award-winning Swamp Thing run for DC Comics, the two masters of the horror genre brought their special interests to Taboo, an Eisner award-winning trade paperback anthology of adult horror comics and edgier tales for the mature reader. Taboo existed as a cooperative publishing venture, meaning that the rights to any work featured in a single issue would remain with the creators and not the company. This was a breath of fresh air for industry professionals. In Taboo, creators would have complete control over their story, their art and, ultimately, monetary gain. Hollywood, at the time, was just starting to take an interest in the fertile ground of the comic book genre and there was a strong belief that amidst all this buzz, in the single-issue-multiple-covers marketing initiative and the buy-multiple-copies-get-rich schemes, that money would finally flow to the poor creators of good comic books.

Taboo more closely followed the European model of anthology books, similar to magazines such as Heavy Metal. Each issue ran over one hundred and twenty pages and contained either self-contained or continuing-chapter stories or stand alone art by some of the industry greats. Moebius, Dave Sim, Charles Vess, Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore all found their work within Taboo.

The first major story in Taboo # 6 is Jeff Nicholson’s serialized Through The Habitrails. Its various chapters tell the nightmare narrative of a nameless man stuck in a humdrum, unending flow of worthless cubicle work at a design corporation. Any working reader can identify with this type of horror but Nicholson raises the dread and, indeed, the social commentary to another level; the employees of the corporation all work for gerbils who race through a mazelike labyrinth of habitrail tubes in the building. The rodents “feed” off of the creative juices of the workers by literally tapping into them like syrup from a maple tree. Only at home, away from work, does the protagonist actually recoup his life-force, which is the subject of this particular installment of the series.

Nicholson’s art is simple and stark – black pen lines on white background. His figures are lanky, almost ant-like and they have no pupils and no mouths. While the bitter protagonist aches to get away from work, his friends and the city, he travels to a nearby graveyard to find serenity. “It seemed odd that the trees and grass were a benefit for the dead” he states. “Couldn’t we give them the buildings to pile up in while we lived out here?” A frightening and resounding image accompanies the text: that of naked, dead bodies, piled on top of each other, inside the same office cubicles, next to the water coolers and desks we work by each and every day. This is Taboo at its most realistically numbing.

Two of the most important literary comic book stories of the last twenty years also found themselves originally serialized in Taboo and both were created by acclaimed writer Alan Moore.

Moore had left DC Comics after a much publicized falling out in the early nineties and looked for other publishers for his new slate of works. On friendly terms with Taboo’s founders, the story of Lost Girls was like nothing late twentieth-century American comics had seen – exploratory and progressive erotica that many likened to pornography. “The kind of erotica I want to do should be able to arouse on all levels that art has traditionally involved people – intellectually, emotionally,” Moore stated. Within the confines of Taboo, without editorial or corporate restraint, Moore and artist Melinda Gebbie, produced the early chapters to a 240-page graphic novel that told of the sexual exploits of a group of women against the backdrop of the First World War. Of course, nothing is straight-forward with Moore – especially not his erotica. The protagonist in this particular entry is Miss Dotty Gale, or “Dorothy” from The Wizard of Oz. The female protagonists in other chapters would follow the same template. Gebbie’s impressionistic art is perfectly suited for the time period: brightly coloured pencils with lines that ebb and flow, reminiscent of the candy tin art of the day.

From Hell, Moore and Eddie Campbell’s take on the Jack the Ripper story, was also first serialized in Taboo and proves to be, in its study of crime, the monarchy and misogyny, the polar opposite of Lost Girls. Campbell’s cross-hatched and scratchy pen work with deep shadows brings that required sense of gloom and horror to the city of London circa 1888. There is an inherent backdrop of despair here, a fear that Taboo consistently attempted to capture.

Taboo only lasted 10 issues between 1988 and 1995. The bust of the comic book bubble and, perhaps more importantly, the cooperative publishing directive ensured that the anthology book could not continue financially. It’s an interesting reality that sees the dream of many creators put to the grave because when they discover that what they believed in was, in fact, just an illusion. Many of the works found within Taboo, however, can now be found collected elsewhere, a testament to the quality of the storytelling and the art that the anthology regularly published.

Any issue of Taboo is a goldmine of mature comic art – and perfect atmospheric reading for an atmospheric month – when the leaves start to brown and fall, when the clouds get gray and heavy and a cool wind starts to rustle up.

Taboo’s perfect backdrop.

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