Gaze into the Past with S.R. Bissette's Tyrant

Stephen R. Bissette’s Tyrant lived a short but glorious life. With just four issues published over two years (1994-1996,) Bissette’s comics explored life from the perspective of a dinosaur egg, laid in the first issue, and (spoilers I guess) hatched in the fourth issue. These four issues were just supposed to be the beginning of the life story of a Tyrannosaurus Rex named Tyrant. Today we view the early 2000s as the birth of decompressed storytelling but Bissette was playing for the long game with the launch of this title.  Unfortunately between 1994 and 1996, the comics landscape was turned upside down with the collapse of a diverse distribution system and Bissette’s own admitted mistakes with navigating the emerging collection market. In 2006, he told the A.V. Club, “My goal was to get to Tyrant #6 and put out my first collection. And that was the big mistake I made. I should have collected #1, #2, and #3 in trade paperback, and I might have had enough to get over the market hurdles when distribution collapsed.”

So with these first four issues, we get just a glimpse of what could have been and maybe what should have been as Bissette viewed his comic as a life story. We only got to see the very beginning of that life. But even in those four issues, Bissette peeled back the mystery of life and birth through the strangest point of view, a T-Rex. Coming at this after the black and white explosion/implosion and a 2nd age of anthropomorphized animals, Bissette builds off of both to tell a meticulously researched and surprisingly human story about a mother’s protectiveness, the dangers the lurk all around us even before we’re born, and the amazing way the world both endangers and supports life.  

Ultimately, Bissette may be best known for his work during the Alan Moore Swamp Thing run. Often inked by John Totleben, Swamp Thing demonstrated two artistic skills that Bissette would continue to employ through his work on Tyrant. The first is the way that he drew nature; Swamp Thing was a creature of nature and inhabited nature.  From those earliest issues, Swamp Thing told a story about threats to and in that natural world. Going from rural Louisiana to the prehistoric lands of Tyrant, Bissette found home drawing the emerging and still-developing world. From the dinosaurs to the ground that Tyrant’s egg was buried in, Bissette reveals a world that is unformed and brutal. But it is also a system of cycles and lives. Bissette’s prehistoric setting is frightening and engaging.  He shows the savageness of it even as he draws this precious balancing act of predator and prey.  

The other balance Bissette developed on Swamp Thing was the push and pull between the monstrosity of the main character and also the humanity that it had. Swamp Thing was a character that could have been at home among the Universal monsters but was also a being dealing with his wants and desires. It sounds odd to talk about a comic about dinosaurs in the same way, without them having been turned into some kind of a walking, talking cartoon character (TMNT, anyone?) As he tells the story of the birth of Tyrant, Bissette is almost translating this story into language that we’ll understand, imbuing it with the kind of struggles that we deal with. He frames the dangers of this world in ways that we understand it but he does the same for the instinctual actions of these dinosaurs as well. There are the protective maternal instincts driving Tyrant’s mother or the conniving schemes of a small, predatory scavenger Eggsucker. In these four issues, these are the two main characters that Bissette comes back to and they make this story about animals into a tale where we understand the drives and motivations of these creatures.

So Tyrant #1-4 ends up telling a story about birth and how there are elements in the world that conspire against it.  Bissette tries to be as scientifically accurate about this as possible-- he redrew the whole third issue after reading an article that changed his understanding of the story he was telling in that issue. In the letter pages, he talks about how much research went into each issue and it shows on every page without ever turning the comic into a clinical dissertation on cold facts. Bissette is concerned about the truth, both the scientific and more importantly the emotional truth of his story.  

It’s interesting to see how Bissette humanizes this story. There’s probably some room where this is either a silent story or one where the text is more purely descriptive and not trying to develop a perspective for the characters but it would probably lose the uniqueness of it. Through the narration, Bissette tries to frame these creatures’ experiences in language that we would understand. “The elder brood mother cocks he head, judging the final echo,” he writes in the first issue about Tyrant's mother. “She has always been confused by echoes.  She can never make sense of their many directions… She can no longer bear her own litter and will suffer no male’s advances. Still, she is the elder and has her role. She knows and is known.”

We get into the “minds” of Tyrant, his mother, and the predatory Eggsucker. There’s an implicit understanding that Bissette writes this way partly to bring out the drama of the story but to also help us enter into it.  These aren’t just animals, these are characters and they have lives.  It takes this from being some kind of supposition about what the lives of dinosaurs may have been like and gives us these unique points of view about the struggles of life. It’s easy to say that Tyrant is a comic about dinosaurs but that only gets to a surface-level reading of what Bissette accomplished here. With these four issues, Bissette opened up a world that is alienating and distant but with characters that make everything understandable and relatable.

S.R. Bissette's Tyrant #1-4 (1994-1996)
Written and Drawn Stephen R. Bissette
Published by SpiderBaby Graphix