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ROCK 'N' ROLL COMICS: THE INSIDE STORY - By Jay Allen Sanford
This article written by someone who worked at and became chief editor at Revolutionary Comics, gives a
unique insight into the company that could only be told by someone who was there at the time.


Todd's idea was Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics. Each issue would be about a different band, with straight biographies and Mad magazine styled parodies. A freelance writer at the time, I owned an extensive archive of research material, and Todd wanted me to research scripts for the line. I was a little confused about how he planned to pull off his proposed venture. Todd was a longtime comic book collector who'd run a series of related fan conventions, but he knew virtually nothing about publishing comics. Plus, he already had a full time job running his mail order rock memorabilia business, Musicade (with a retail outlet near the Sports Arena), where I worked for him part time.

In a self-penned bio, Todd described how he got into the business of selling T-shirts, patches, backstage passes and pop culture clutter. He was still called Stuart Shapiro then, living near Detroit and promoting comic conventions and record collector shows. "[I] printed up a few thousand black and white eight page catalogs and within six months (mid-1984) I was just barely making enough money to walk away from the convention business. Actually, I drove away. To San Diego...I changed my name to Todd Loren. I guess I thought it was a rebellious thing to do, and I always liked the name Todd."

He also once admitted that he thought the cadence of the new name, and the single hard consonant, made it sound like a name thought up by Ayn Rand, one of his favorite authors.

I was amazed when that first issue of Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics, on Guns N’ Roses, sold almost 10,000 copies in just a few short weeks. Those were big numbers, even in those days of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Todd would call me every time a big order came in, and then he'd call to tell me every time the comic was mentioned in some major mag or newspaper, which was happening almost every day. "Someday, we’ll be selling millions of comics," he’d say. I was doubtful, but I allowed room for the possibility.

It sure seemed like a long shot, however. The comic was black and white, on cheap newsprint and crudely drawn, with several factual errors and misspellings. The flimsy publication felt like a Home Depot mailer than a comic book, but collectors were snapping it up. Especially after Rolling Stone mentioned that GNR’s lawyer Peter Paterno sent Todd a cease and desist order. Todd's comic biographies were strictly unauthorized, or unbiased as Todd would say, which made his publications sound more like journalism and less like crass exploitation (as they were already being called by critics).

Todd wasn't interested in publishing illustrated press releases. He wanted Revolutionary's writers to feel free to call it like we saw it, to talk about the heroin and the illegitimate kids and the backstage gangbangs or whatever. GNR’s lawyer never filed their lawsuit, but comic collector magazines like Comics Value Monthly were already calling Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics revolutionary. Which is what Todd named his company, Revolutionary Comics.

"I wanted to do a comic that had all the sex and drugs that is rock and roll," Todd wrote. "Rock and roll is bigger than life. The stage presence these bands have...they don’t need superpowers because they’re already hero worshipped by their fans. And those fans love to spend money on anything featuring the bands they love."

The second RNR issue, on Metallica, was a little more readable and had improved artwork, and suddenly the comics were selling in the same quantities as mainstream superhero titles.

Each RevComic featured an editorial written by Todd. Many of the columns were antagonistic, some bordered on outright slander, but Todd was genuinely worked up over the topics he wrote about. His essays gave each issue an actual editorial voice, and a convincing patina of rebellion. "I helped spread the word about censorship by distributing Jello (Dead Kennedys) Biafra’s No More Censorship newsletter,” he later wrote. “But it wasn’t enough. I needed a creative outlet.”

Todd ran things from his Musicade office in Sorrento Valley, and then downtown in the heart of Hillcrest, from the entire top floor of what was then a bank building on University and Fourth.

Looming as large as our artistic hope, however, was the fact that Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics was a meal ticket that would last as long as people loved rock and roll and loved comics (which, back then, seemed like a long time indeed). He didn't talk much about the money, but it was easy to do the math. Revolutionary was fast becoming one of the top selling independent comics. The first GNR issue would sell over 175,000 copies, over multiple printings, with the second issue on Metallica doing nearly as well.

Issues number three and four, on Bon Jovi and Motley Crue, brought the momentum to a halt. The bands had exclusive merchandising deals with Great Southern/Winterland Productions. To their lawyer, Ken Feinswog (a very Ayn Rand-like name for an adversary), Todd's comics were bootleg merchandise, akin to an unauthorized T-shirt. "He managed to scare most of the major comic book distributors into dropping all of our books," Todd wrote after distribution of the Bon Jovi comic was halted. "Never mind that he had no legal grounds to make his threats, never mind that licensing rights such as those which Great Southern owns do not entitle anyone to censor First Amendment protected free speech."

Todd was ecstatic to have been targeted. He wanted to go public, in a Jello Biafra-inspired blaze of rage and indignation, to rally against the fascist corporations. He did get quoted in quite a few magazines, but meanwhile the publishing machine (and the income) stopped cold. Virtually all of the major comic distributors refused to carry the Bon Jovi issue, and they were threatening to boycott the entire line for fear of performer lawsuits.

Todd's argument was simple and eloquent. If Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone don't have to pay someone every time they write about them (and show a picture), why should Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics? Todd was sure that his own unauthorized bios, like any tome by Kitty Kelly or any magazine article, were First Amendment protected free speech. "We keep hearing words like authorized, permission, sanction, approval. [I] yearn for the day when we can hear these words replaced by quality, integrity, truthfulness and objectivity. We're not merchandise. We're a communications medium just like newspapers. We shouldn’t have to have permission to write about someone."

Slowly, shops began calling the Revolutionary to get the comics that were no longer available through their distributors. "It turns out that it was a very lucky thing that I had Musicade," Todd said. "Using Musicade’s shipping facilities, we quickly set up our own comic book distribution system." Todd felt he could win against Great Southern in court, but there was a wrinkle to contend with. He already had an adversarial history with Great Southern.

Musicade had carried unauthorized merchandise related to bands on Great Southern’s roster. Todd, to avoid a lawsuit he’d likely lose, signed an agreement that his comic books would not feature any bands on that roster. Thousands of remaining copies of the Bon Jovi and Motley Crue comics were destroyed, creating somewhat scarce collectibles. Even the upcoming issue number eight, on Skid Row, was summarily canceled, though Todd chose not to feature an alternate band in that issue. Instead, he moved right on to number nine.

No eighth issue was ever published, a fact which continues to perplex catalogers and collectors. Few know that it was actually completed. I have a Xerox of the art and it’s no great loss to the line, believe me.

Eventually, comic distributors began carrying our comics again. The demand - and profit - must have been difficult to ignore. With the income pumped up again, Todd decided to expand the line with more titles, to try publishing color comics, and even to bump RNR Comics up to twice-monthly.

I took over writing Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics, as Todd focused on new titles and closed down the mail order business (embroiling himself in another legal battle, this time against former employee Gary Whitehead, who alleged that Todd hid company assets before filing bankruptcy for Musicade in 1991).

"I had to focus my concentration on one project so Musicade had to go," Todd wrote, and he invited his father, Herb Shapiro, to work as Vice President for the growing Revolutionary Comics. "I hadn't lived with him since I was seventeen, so I’d had enough time to come to terms with him as more than just a father, but as a friend as well. I knew there'd be complications, hiring my dad and all. How often do you hear of a son and father team, in that order?"

Todd branched off from bio comics and launched a dramatic horror anthology, Tipper Gores Comics And Stories. As to its title, he wrote "We just wanted to make fun of a ridiculous person." Todd sent Mrs. Gore copies of the comic, hoping for a PR coup by provoking public condemnation from her, but she never took the bait. The stories read like venerable EC Tales From The Crypt comics, only with contemporary and even political themes (pollution, hero worship, addiction, crooked government, etc.). Painter Robert Williams - whose work graces the cover of Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction - provided artwork for the Tipper title.

One Tipper Gore writer was Spike Steffenhagen, who'd met Todd at a San Diego Comic Convention. Among his earliest Gore stories was one about child abuse. "Todd surprised me by asking if a child was being raped behind closed doors in a particular panel,” he says. “I had originally shown the actual rape happening. No penetration or anything like that, just a few panels with the kid crying out with the perpetrators large hand holding the child’s smaller hand down. I changed to the closed door because I thought the scene was too much. Todd told me that if I was going to have the balls to take that subject on, then I needed to have the balls to put it right in the readers face and leave them no room for denial. He assured me that he wouldn’t censor me, and that I shouldn't censor myself."

"Then," says Spike, "he did something very Todd-like. He didn't actually censor me, but he did keep bugging me for a happy ending. I killed the main character and he just didn’t like it. He said it was too depressing. Todd also insisted on telling people I was seventeen for some reason. I was twenty or twenty-one at the time."

In early 1990, RNR issue number twelve, on New Kids On The Block, got us sued again by Great Southern/Winterland. Todd set up a 900 # Nuke the New Kids to raise money for our defense ($10.00 per call, billed by the phone company). Famed Boston attorney Robert Dushman commented "It's a fascinating case that fits in between the cracks of a lot of other cases. You clearly cannot prohibit an unauthorized biography even if it has some pictures. But is it primarily the pictures that are being sold? It comes down to this question: is a comic more like a statue of Elvis, or more like an unauthorized book? That's what the judge will have to decide."

Todd: "Comics are an expression that is a form of speech. Look...if I wanted to make money, I would have become a lawyer, not a comic book publisher. But...I want to document the history of rock and roll in comics. What’s wrong with that?"

In mid-April 1990, U.S. District Judge John S. Rhoades declared that RNR #12 could legally be distributed, because it was part biography and part satire. His twelve page ruling stated "Bookstores are filled with biographies - both authorized and unauthorized - of public figures. And, while the subjects of such biographies may be offended by the publication of their life stories, they generally have no claim for trademark infringement." He added that "It appears that the First Amendment may trump any claim that the plaintiffs have for trademark infringement."

The order stated that Winterland Concessions failed to show that the case met the standards required to issue a preliminary injunction. This dissolved the temporary restraining order issued in early April 1990. The New Kids respond by filing suit for trademark infringement, since their logo appeared in the comic.

A settlement between The New Kids and Revolutionary was reached in August. It permanently enjoined Revolutionary from advertising, manufacturing, distributing and/or selling or otherwise commercially exploiting any publication displaying the trademark and/or logo of the New Kids On The Block, either as a group or individually. In other words, Todd was found to have (ab)used the band's logo, with the rest of the comic being deemed as permissible. Todd had to destroy 12,000 copies of the original comic printing, creating a rare collectible which now goes for around $20.00 in comic shops. He spent over $18,000.00 in legal fees.

He promptly reprinted the New Kids story in magazine format, without depicting the bands logo anywhere in the story. The Kids lawyer, David Phillips, was mad. "My clients are absolutely furious about this,” he said in a press statement. “We’re considering whether or not we’re actually going to go through with this agreement [to settle for destruction of RNR #12 and not seek monetary damages]."

Todd on the New Kids settlement: "It has never been proven that I violated the New Kids property rights by using their logos, nor did I admit that I had violated them. I was willing to stop using their logos in order to settle the case. This does not mean that what I was doing was illegal...we did not get a chance to argue that point in court because it never got that far."

Several months later, Todd decided to poke the bear again by announcing a New Kids Hate Comic. Sales came in startlingly low, so he put out a press release claiming the art had been stolen from his car, hinting that the culprits were agents of the New Kids. Some of the unpublished material later turned up a Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics issue called Fall Of The New Kids, which I wrote.

Capital City Distribution, one of the two main comic distributors, refused to carry The Fall Of The New Kids, sight unseen. Spokesman John Davis said "Whenever there is litigation, we like to back off and let the parties settle their dispute." Todd's reply: "Capital should be supporting us and saying 'Here's somebody who stood up for comic books as literature and as communication. Instead, they're acting like we lost. To me, that's a totalitarian attitude."

In October 1990, The Comics Journal, a critical magazine published by Groth, ran an article entitled Todd Loren: First Amendment Or Lying Sack Of [expletive]? In it, Groth complained about "Loren's deranged communiqués - filled with paranoid conspiracy theories and testimonials to his grandeur."

One rival publisher, Denis Kitchen, had an even more specific reason to grouse. His company, Kitchen Sink Press, had purchased an official license to publish comic books featuring the Grateful Dead. His series mostly featured illustrated lyrics and short fictions. He was decidedly unhappy with the unauthorized three issue Dead biography which I wrote and Canadian cult artist Blackwell illustrated. By most distributor accounts, Revolutionary’s Dead comics far outsold Kitchen’s.

In February 1992, Grateful Dead Merchandising Corporation attorney Joseph A. Yanni sent us a cease and desist letter. The Dead had the same merchandising agent as New Kids - MCA/Winterland Productions. Denis Kitchen: "Weve gotten a lot of good publicity and reviews for our Grateful Dead Comix. The argument is going to come down to confusion in the marketplace...were not saying he can't do unauthorized biographies. He just can't do it with the band's name so dominant on the cover that it's creating confusion with our series." Winterland was also cracking down on other producers of unlicensed Dead merchandise, like T-shirts and jewelry.

Todd wrote a letter to Comics Journal, stating "What will it take before you acknowledge that comic books have the same rights as any other form of communication? What will it take before you realize that integrity and credibility cannot be bought for the price of a licensing fee?"

In a faxed letter to Todd (later published in one of our own Dead comics), Kitchen said that Todd had shown himself to be "at best, an ill-informed jerk. Everything I hear about you from other professionals is negative. My opinion of your product I’ve seen is negative. You appear to be an arrogant, confrontational loudmouth...I think you were smart enough to see a vacuum in the market for rock comics and filled the void with quantity at least, and so there's something to be said for your business acumen. And you certainly have enough chutzpah, if that's a favorable observation. I guess, in summary, I think of you as the comics counterpart to Larry Flint: he also has, thankfully, a First Amendment right to produce Hustler and is often the one obnoxious enough to be on the visible cutting edge of the law, but no one respects him or his product or takes him seriously."

Todd loved the Flynt comparison. "Just about every innovator, every visionary since the dawn of time experienced this," he said. "The man who discovered fire was probably burned at the stake. Did you see the movie Tucker? Have you read The Fountainhead? In fact, I would go as far to say, show me a man who is hated by his peers, and Ill show you a fearless innovator."

Spin Magazine accused us of "ripping of rock and rollers with relative ease...selling standard biography material in the form of cheesy comics."

Todd wrote in reply "How can Spin be objective? They depend on the record companies to provide them with the materials, the information, the access and the advertising which keeps Spin in business."

I was meeting a lot of band members and talking to their managers and press people. More and more performers were making positive comments about the comics, and even asking when we'd be covering them. It was becoming a sort of status symbol, being immortalized in a comic book!

Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top raved about their issue, and both Ice-T and NWA called the office to compliment the research done on their respective comics.

Anthrax offered our comic about them through their fan club. Frank Zappa's wife Gail mentioned that her husband had a copy of the cover of his comic mounted on his office wall, and we even began getting positive notices and media coverage (Entertainment Tonight, numerous MTV News spots, etc.).

Todd was ecstatic when he called to tell me that the Metallica comic had been used as a prop on Married...With Children, and he was really dancing on air when Kiss Gene Simmons turned up in several published photos and on the cover of “Kiss Alive III” wearing a Revolutionary Comics t-shirt!

Others were singing our praises. Professor Deena Weinstein began using the comics in her sociology class at De Paul University. "The history of the bands is detailed very accurately in the books, even though they are in comic form. They are really well researched and insightful." She feels unauthorized is the way to go. "Every rock group has an image they want to project or protect and they have a whole staff of people working on that. An authorized biography can never get beyond that."

June 18, 1992: "I called the office in Hillcrest," says Spike, "and the secretary told me he hadn't come in all day and that his father went over to check on him. I knew something was way out of line."

Herb drove over and found the door to Todd's Canyon Woods condo was locked. Concerned, he called a locksmith to open the door. He found Todd upstairs, dead, in his own bed. He'd been repeatedly stabbed. He was 32, the same age as me.

When I got the phone call, I thought it was another of Todd's jokes. It would be just like him, to circulate a press release faking his own death. However, when homicide detectives called to ask me questions about who might want to kill him (yes, Axl Rose and all the New Kids had alibis), the reality began to hit me.

Both Herb and Todd's mom, Marylin, were devastated. I assumed the company would be closing. I was surprised when Herb told me that there would be an office staff meeting after the funeral, to discuss upcoming plans. What upcoming plans, I wondered?

"At the funeral," remembers Spike, "Elvis Costello’s What's So Funny About Peace Love And Understanding was played over and over. It was Todd’s favorite song. Herb read an editorial of Todd’s...it was a history of Todd's founding of Revolutionary and everything that led up to it. He had shown it to me and I'd said it was a bit self-congratulatory. He said no one else was tooting his horn so he might as well do it."

The fact that Todd had been gay had never really affected the way Spike and I interacted with Todd. I soon found out that few others seemed to know about it, however, including his immediate office staff. At the wake, the first thing I was asked by all three woman employees (none of whom I'd met before) was "Is it true Todd was gay?"

The murder investigation never seemed to go anywhere. They only interviewed a few of Todd's friends and associates. His car, a convertible Chrysler Le Baron, had been stolen from the condo parking lot and was found a few days later in parking lot at a junior college in Hayward CA.

Homicide Lt. John Welter said "Whomever took the car is probably the one who killed him." Since Todd's house keys were on same keychain as car keys, Police think his killer walked out front door, locked it and went to take the car. "There was nothing taken that we could tell. Stereo and VCR equipment and a big screen TV were still there. As of yet, there is nothing that links any one person to the crime."

Gary Groth at Fantagraphics had a theory. "I don’t think anyone in our industry hated him enough to kill him...but it wouldn’t surprise me if someone in the music industry did. There is a lot more money at stake in the music business, and he was publishing all those unlicensed biographies."

Denis Kitchen of Kitchen Sink Press says he immediately announced to friends and comic biz associates that "I have an alibi." Kitchen’s company has since gone out of business, reportedly due in part to losses related to their license to produce authorized Grateful Dead comics.

A week after the funeral, the office reopened. Herb announced that he’d decided to keep Revolutionary open. "Todd had indicated to me with some sort of prescience that if anything ever happened to him, that he would like his dream fulfilled,” he said in a press release, “and that is what we are going to do."

I took over Todd’s job as Managing Editor, while Herb would continue on as company President.

The logistics of taking over the operation were hard enough. I literally lived in Todd’s office for the first few weeks, sleeping on the couch, reading all his files, and calling everyone in his phone book while piecing together where we were and where Todd had planned on taking us. Dozens of people’s livelihoods depended on me keeping the machine humming and well oiled.

The most difficult thing, though, was sitting behind Todd’s desk. The job was getting done and we barely missed a beat with our publication schedule, but the psychic toll on myself and on the staff was enormous.

We ended up moving our office from Hillcrest to Miramar. There was just far too much Todd in the old office, and at various turns every one of us felt haunted there. Not too mention the murderer was still on the loose and nobody knew the motivation for the killing. You can imagine how jumpy I'd be, sitting alone in his office at ten p.m., and suddenly hearing a scritching noise outside the balcony window (“It’s only a pigeon, only a pigeon...”)

We put out over a hundred comics over the next two years. More than Revolutionary had released during Todd's lifetime. We hired a slew of well-known illustrators and improved the quality and reputation of the entire line.

We were one of the first and only independent comic companies on newsstands, in places like 7-11 and in bookstores. We went full color on many titles and, for the first time, we began getting positive press coverage, on TV, in mainstream magazines and, shock of all shocks, even in the comic book trade press.

We worked directly with Kiss on an acclaimed three issue series called Kiss Pre-History, that became a top seller of the era. Jimi Hendrix bassist Noel Redding called me to compliment our Hendrix comic, and we struck up a friendship we maintained through his death a few years ago.

Doors drummer John Densmore favorably reviewed our two issue Doors series. King Diamond, Soundgarden, Prong, Mojo Nixon and others worked directly with us on various comic related projects, while Motley Crue licensed our Crue comic for their CD box set “Music To Crash Your Car To II.”

We began publishing more music titles, covering everything from rap to punk to disco, plus we expanded the lines Todd had just launched featuring sports, film, and television figures as well.

This period, while rewarding and productive, was hard on Todd's parents, both of whom worked at the office full time. "The first six or seven months after Todd’s death were a lot of chaos," says Herb. "It took me a good six months to get refocused so that I could fully concentrate on what was going on."

Unfortunately, what was going on was that sales for all comics, from all publishers, began to drop in late 1993, including our own books. Dozens of new publishers had sprung up to flood the market with over six hundred titles per month, up from only a couple hundred in 1990.

The niche we'd pioneered - comics based on real people- become crowded with imitations from companies like Personality Comics, Rock Fantasy, and First Amendment press. Even the big mainstream publishers began publishing rock comics. Harvey (Casper, etc.) had an authorized New Kids comic (it quickly flopped). A press kit for Trixter had comic art by legendary illustrator Neal Adams. Marvel did a Cheap Trick comic that almost nobody seems to have seen.

DC Comics – home of Superman - put out two Prince comics, with fictional storylines about the musician’s own super-powered alter-ego. DC’s Andy Helfer said at the time that "Revolutionary is just making excuses because they don’t want to go through the expense and time consuming process of authorization. That's why they were out there first. We had the idea [for rock comics] but we were still tied up in authorization."

Marvel later announced their own Marvel Rocks line, which was canceled after just a few issues. Malibu tried something called Rock-It Comics (also soon canceled), run by RevCom defector Rob Conte. All these poor sellers and failures made store owners reluctant to carry any biographical comics, and our own sales slipped further.

Behind the scenes at RevCom, a merger with a company in L.A. called Sportstime cost us a lot of time and money when the merger was called off after several unproductive, troubled months. The capital they promised never appeared and they racked up several sizable bills which were difficult to pay off after so many weeks of having things on hold.

Herb and his wife grew increasingly tired of the grind of putting out comics each and every month. Profits were down and the excitement and adrenaline we’d once been infused with had long since drained. With several production bills still outstanding, Herb declared bankruptcy for the company in June 1994, and we all moved on to other endeavors.

See the article about Todd Loren to read about his murder and the aftermath...

"Todd was a visionary," says Spike Steffenhagen, "with a solid belief and a stubborn willingness to stick to that belief, when changing it would have been more convenient. He took a lot of [expletive], and he dished a lot out as well. They say that having a common enemy makes people closer. At Revolutionary, we had a lot of enemies. It was very much an us-against-the-world attitude. We were almost like family. A dysfunctional family, but family all the same."

The Dysfunctional Family

Article Copyright 2006 by Jay Allen Sanford, Used with permission

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