Rick Remender: The Secret Origin of Black Heart Billy

In May of 1984 I bought my first skateboard, a Sims Billy Ruff. Iʼd never enjoyed anything as much and spent every waking moment that summer skating; within a month it had consumed my life. Thrasher and Transworld magazines became intermingled with the X-Men and Spider-Man comics piled next to my bed. Powell Peralta and Vision skate videos took the place of MTV. Over time I met other kids in my neighborhood that skated; we built ramps, skated curbs, hunted new parking garages to bomb, and, eventually, we found punk rock.

I found it after one of my new buddies learned Van Halen was my most favorite band. He told me heʼd come over later to copy me some of his punk records. I insisted nothing would ever replace Diamond Dave, but he was adamant I give these albums a shot. The five tapes he recorded for me from his vinyl collection that fateful afternoon included Minor Threat, The Exploited, Suicidal Tendencies, Agent Orange, and The Vandals. Looking back I commend him, it was a good starting lineup for a virgin. In the next year, by the time I was thirteen, it became a way of life. I voraciously consumed every punk rock record I could find and soon began sneaking out to go to all-ages punk shows. Loosing me as their number one fan also lead to Van Halen disbanding.

Punk rock was more to us than just passionate DIY music with something to say, it was energy infused with a feeling of camaraderie—it was ours. It wasn’t concocted to sell records to millions of teens. It didnʼt reinforce the great American pass time of alcohol-fueled misogyny and the celebration of the homogenized meaningless music that dominated the radio and MTV. It was kids, not much older than us, saying exactly what they wanted, doing it without outside help or money. In no other place could an adolescent get identifiable honesty that reflected his or her own observations and sense of right and wrong. Punk offered us rational emotional reactions, conveyed exactly how the writer conceived of them, with no outside influence.

I can now see punk musicʼs lasting corruptive influence over me—it made me demand this personal voice and freedom in all aspects of life. As they say—punk rock changed my life. I canʼt remember a time I was happier than when I was thirteen years old. Reading comic books, listening to records, pining over girls and skating—it was a delicious soup full of good-taste stuffs. My adult life has been spent trying to recapture it, “stunned adolescence” I believe they call it. This book is certainly a symptom of that pursuit. A love letter to those formative years and the impressions they left on me.

Black Heart Billy began as a sketch on some duo-shade board in 1998, a design Iʼd done for a local bandʼs tee shirts. I threw around the idea of doing a BHB comic with a buddy of mine, writer/artist Harper Jaten, but nothing ever materialized. It wasnʼt until a year later, when I moved to San Francisco and began working with Kieron Dwyer that BHB became a reality. I didnʼt have any ideas how to handle the book so Kieron and I began doing writing sessions at a local dinner. The idea that inspired us was to simply do a stream-of-consciousness story that would be whatever we wanted it to be, pure fun, no pretence or self seriousness.

That opened up the gates and the entire first story came together in one coffee-fueled evening. We got to work drawing it that week. Not long after we finished the first few pages Harper saw what he was missing and got inspired to contribute.

Over the next few months the three of us did a couple of issues before the financial realities of selling a black and white humor book about a skate punk in the superhero-dominated comic industry made it impossible to keep Billy going. Given how unconsciously focused Iʼd become on the goal of making a living doing the book, this became a sour point in the production of BHB. I felt as if Iʼd failed.

What I couldn’t see through my financial problems was the initial motivation in doing BHB, to do something because I wanted to—to do it for the love of it—not for the money. Once you focus on sales you change the intention of your art, you risk altering your creation in hopes of making it more accessible to a wider audience—you risk pandering. After declining a purchase offer from a local animation studio we set BHB aside, content with letting the book rest.

Some time later, the BHB comics found their way to Fat Mike, NOFX sing-songer and owner of San Francisco based record label Fat Wreck Chords. Mike called us to see about doing covers and BHB stories in a new comic/catalogue. I was thrilled; it was a big deal to me. An opportunity to see Billy live again while reaching a wider audience of like-minded people, a perfect scenario. Under Fat Wreck we did three comics with new BHB stories that we cooked up with Mike and the guys at Fat. I even ended up doing an album cover for NOFX and No Use for a Name.

I got my hopes back that weʼd be able to now sell enough copies of BHB to keep it going. We did a collection of all the stories at another publisher and though we sold a decent amount of books we didn’t make enough to buy a load of groceries. We pitched the book to a few other publishers as an ongoing series but no one could get behind it. Realizing we were back to trying to get the book to break through in the cold, uncaring comic industry, we submitted, and again laid the book to rest and moved on.

The Ramones gave birth to punk rock. They watched it grow into a movement but they never enjoyed as much financial success from their work as they’d have liked, or earned. When you love something and pour your time, energy, and life into it, it can be hard to accept that it won’t find a wider audience or pay your bills. It can corrupt the love you have for it. Looking at the new IDW master edition of Black Heart Billy shipping this week, with its gorgeous new color work by Nerve Agent and Pitch Black front man Kevin Cross, I feel incredibly proud of what this book is. If it never reaches a wider audience or makes me a single dollar, the hundreds of hours invested in producing it are well spent as I remind myself that ultimately—we made this book for us.

A group of friends, doing whatever we wanted, making a comic without outside support. One that weʼd have enjoyed, say, back in 1984…

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