'Unauthorized' Interview: The Story Behind the Story Of The 'Rock 'N' Roll Comics' Doc

Todd Loren was either a visionary or a real piece of work—depending on who you ask, that is, based on director Ilko Davidov's documentary, Unauthorized: The Story of Rock N Roll Comics, about the founder of Revolutionary Comics (and occasional writer for the line), and even if his life didn't end in a still-unexplained murder that might be linked to high-profile serial killer Andrew Cunanan, his early 90's tangles with record company executives over his unauthorized comics about popular rock and pop acts from the day would still be compelling film. Todd is painted as everything from a penny pincher, carnival barker, bane of record executives, and outlaw hero by the many talking heads who populate the doc, including fellow publisher Denis Kitchen of Kitchen Sink Press, rocker Alice Cooper, writers and artists for the line, and even his own father.

For a little background on the documentary and Todd himself, we spoke by e-mail to Davidov as well as a couple of people who worked with Loren, Jay Allen Sanford and Robert Conte, about what they thought made Todd tick, and why he was so willing to tick off the record companies with his comics. Unauthorized will be released by Wild Eye Releasing in April.

MTV Geek: How did you get involved with Todd and Rock’n’Roll Comics?

Robert Conte, writer for Rock’n’Roll Comics, owner of Manhattan Comics & More: Back in 1989 I had managed Collector's Kingdom, a comic-book store in Huntington Station, Long Island. Independent comics such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Cerebus and Faust were all the rage. The leading consumer publication at that time was the Comics Buyers Guide, and I came across an ad from Revolutionary Comics advertising its first issue of Rock’n’Roll Comics, featuring Guns and Roses. I called the company and spoke to their sales rep, Stuart Shapiro, and ordered a few copies for the shop. They sold out immediately. I reordered twice, doubling the quantity each time and all of those copies sold out too.

Eventually, "Stuart" advised me that he was actually the company's publisher, Todd Loren, and asked me to be a sales rep for the east coast. I replied that I was interested, provided he consider publishing a comic book I wrote based on the rock group, KISS. Initially, Todd was reluctant but, upon reading my story, believed I was a good writer and gave me my first creative job in the field. Rock’n’Roll Comics #9, featuring KISS, was published in December 1989 and was reprinted four times.

Geek: Based on the documentary, it seemed like you were pretty tight with Todd. Still, did the film allow you to learn anything about him you didn’t know before?

Jay Allen Sanford, former second-in-command at Revolutionary Comics: I’d never heard many of the stories told by various Revolutionary contribs about their one-on-one interactions with Todd, like Hard Rock Comics writer Spike Steffenhagen talking about how Todd tried to help Spike get over his fear of heights by confronting that which he feared. Todd was a big believer is self-actualization and realization, so that sounds very Todd-like.

I don’t think I realized Todd had so actively mentored several of the RevCom creators. With me, he just threw me in the deep end of the pool with a new deadline and page count every week, with almost no discussion about script content before, during, or after I worked on them. Todd and I talked a lot about what we wanted to accomplish with a visual history of rock music, and how best to market such a line, but my scripts or thumbnail layouts almost never came up.

So I was surprised in the documentary to see how creators like Patrick McCray related how Todd served as both instructor and muse for his own comic scripting. Patrick all but retired from the comic book biz after Todd passed away in 1992, only recently returning to the field to script some new biographical comic books for Bluewater Productions, who reprinted some graphic novel collections of Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics over the last couple of years.

Geek: Could you tell us about day-to-day life at Revolutionary in its heyday?

Sanford: I guess that ‘pends what you’d call its “heyday.” The first year was spent operating out of the old Musicade warehouse, which ALSO housed the Comicade mail order business, so there’d be three different companies’ people bumping into each other all day long, with Todd’s door-less office as both the philosophical and geographical center of the maelstrom. Hectic days to be sure, but quite exciting, especially when the truck would dump a load of the newest issue of Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics.

After RevCom moved to the upper floor of an old bank building in the heart of Hillcrest, just north of downtown San Diego, the other two businesses were liquidated in favor of Revoutionary. Around eight to ten people worked full time in production, shipping, and editorial, all of them very creative and motivated. What was odd, though, was that very few of the actual artists ever came to the office—most were freelancers based all over the globe. To this day, I’ve never met contribs like Canadian Larry Nadolsky, with whom I must’ve done at least two dozen comics. The only times I ever met artists like Greg Fox and Joe Paradise were at signings we did together at comic shops and conventions, and I only ever met each of them once, even tho we did quite a few comics together via phone, fax, and FedEx (hard to fathom now how we ever accomplished all that without the internet and email).

After Todd was killed, the day-to-day became far more subdued. In the next two years, we still had some “hurrah” moments, but nothing quite like gathering around Todd’s office TV to watch Bud Bundy on Married With Children using our Metallica comic as a prop in one episode.

Geek: In all of this, what made Todd an interesting documentary subject for you? How did you actually arrive at him and Revolutionary as a subject for a documentary?

Ilko Davidov, Director of Unauthorized: In the mid-90s, I met one of the cover art artists, Scott Jackson, in Chicago, and he told me a bit about the Rock’n’Roll Comics story, which I thought was fascinating–Rock’n’Roll, First Amendment, comic books, and a murder mystery–how can this be boring? At Bulletproof Film, we are continually pitching story ideas to each other. I pitched the Rock’n’Roll Comics story to Chris Swider and Carmine Cervi who confirmed my instincts about the story and came on board as co-producers.

A few days later, I went back with a camera and recorded the whole story as Scott remembered it. Unfortunately, the leads he had for contacting the rest of the people involved didn’t pan out until a few years later, when I got a call from a British journalist, Ian Shirley, who was writing a book about Rock’n’roll and comics. He had already spoken with Herb Shapiro, Todd’s father and gave me his contact info. A week later, we were in production, and the whole mad process started.

Loren in a self-produced video, agitating for comics

Geek: What was the narrative hook or “story” you were looking for when you started filming?

Davidov: I discussed many with Chris, Carmine, and Eric Burton, our cameraman, designer and animator. Certainly, the First Amendment angle in connection with music and art and the unsolved murder were strong enough to follow up on. We started gathering the pieces, making initial arrangements of the material and then examining how they added up. Then we’d reshuffle the pieces and discuss that approach. It’s the way we make documentaries. A lot of it came together in the editing process with the help of my editor, Vedran Residbegovic.

Geek: What was it like getting people in the film to talk about Todd, working with him, or Rock N Roll Comics?

Davidov: Most of the artists and writers agreed to talk. Most of the musicians and music business people thought he ripped them off. They usually did not respond to our interview requests, or wouldn’t talk to us on camera.

Geek: In the piece you sent along, you talk about Todd creating his new last name. Reinvention seemed like an ongoing interest for him. Did you ever have a sense of what that was about?

Sanford: Only kind of. His father Herb Shapiro later told me Todd had been a pudgy kid, and that may have affected his later determination to reshape himself. The things he accomplished while still Stu Shapiro, though, were impressive by ANY measure, with his successful pop culture trade shows and various business endeavors, so it wasn’t like he had a reason to distance himself from a former persona that had suffered the taint of failure or non-accomplishment.

I actually think much of the name change was simply about the name itself. He loved when people’s names reflected who they are, what they’re like, in both fiction and real life. Characters by authors he liked such as Ayn Rand always had that kind of name. So I think he chose a new name with that intent.

When real life brought him an adversary in the form of a trademark lawyer named Kenneth Feinswog, who sued Revolutionary on behalf of New Kids on the Block, it made Todd literally giggle to set headlines in type like “Loren VS Feinswog.”

From the KISS issue

Geek: Were you ever anxious at all about all of the legal attention the company received? Did you ever get letters from bands or labels’ lawyers?

Conte: My second writing job for Revolutionary Comics was Rock’n’Roll Comics #12, featuring New Kids on the Block. Todd was clear he didn't want to write it; to him NKOTB was a fad that he wanted to quickly capitalize upon. Todd said that if I wrote the issue, I could write a comic about Led Zeppelin. I loved classic rock and heavy metal music, so I agreed.

Soon after its release, news hit that NKOTB filed suit against Revolutionary for infringement and more. VH-1 had somehow learned that I was living on 23rd Street in Manhattan and had a camera crew outside my apartment one morning. Someone asked me if I cared to comment on the lawsuit placed against "me" and I replied, "What the hell are you talking about?" before shooing the camera out of my face. A day or two later, Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren of MTV ran the story. For a while I thought my burgeoning writing career was kaput. Thankfully, First Amendment rights prevailed.

Geek: Todd sounded almost energized working under siege.

Sanford: You’re correct, Todd relished any and all adversaries. As people discuss in the film, he would sometimes take a POV utterly opposed to his own, simply for the pleasure of debating the point with someone. He truly believed in his First Amendment rights to do bio comics, and was only too happy to defend his passion (and, by that point, his sole livelihood).

Even after we won that first-ever court case establishing First Amendment rights for true-life comics via the New Kids suit, there were still several celebs who tied us up in court over likeness rights, mostly sports stars like Joe Montana (who thought we should be prohibited from drawing his face recognizably!) or teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins (who objected to their team logo being drawn onto their players’ uniforms in the comics, though they don’t sue Sports Illustrated for every photo depicting a team logo).

Todd’s father and I were far less enthused about court battles, and luckily such hurdles eventually decreased in frequency. When I started my own bio line of Carnal Comics in 1994, I took an opposite approach and worked out licenses with everyone we featured, most of them porn stars and producers/directors.

Truth to tell, Todd would have gladly worked hand in hand with rock bands. He tried many times, but only succeeded in wooing Kiss, Mojo Nixon, Anthrax, and a couple of others into comic partnerships before he died. Instead, licensing companies and/or managers would get in the way and ruin the deal.

Geek: The documentary kind of paints him as a complicated, maybe difficult guy. What was your experience like working with him?

Davidov: According to everyone I talked to that worked for him, he was very driven and truly loved music and comic books. His love of what he did was contagious; his excitement was contagious.

Conte: I made Revolutionary a lot of money selling comics to fellow comic book shops, head shops, record stores, and specialty shops. Todd was quite happy with me during that time and we once discussed me joining his other company, Musicade, by opening a New York office. Musicade and Revolutionary operated out of the same office in San Diego, CA.

However, when #13 (Led Zeppelin) was in production, Todd and I had a financial disagreement. He promised me increased pay and a royalty structure and reneged on it. I told him he couldn't publish #13 until the dispute was resolved. Todd decided to literally cut my name from the comic and invited me to sue him if I "had the balls and money to do so." I was lucky to have the support of the comic-book industry. One trade publication in particular, The Comics Journal, exposed Todd for his unruly business practices. I was about to file a lawsuit against Revolutionary but, shortly after Todd was killed, decided the financial expense wasn't worth it. As such, I still own the copyright to that script.

Geek: Given the manner of his sudden death and the circumstances around it, do you think that maybe dulled some of the knives his critics had for him? Denis Kitchen, in particular, seemed like he had a pretty acrimonious relationship with Todd, but even there, some of the hostility was burned away.

Davidov: Well, yes, I’ve heard far harsher comments from people who wouldn’t speak on camera, because “they didn’t want to speak ill of the dead.”

Geek: Was there anything you discovered about Todd after assembling the film that you didn’t know originally?

Davidov: Yes, Todd was a very complicated and fascinating character, with a very unique perspective on life. I had a chance to listen to some audiotapes he recorded of his thoughts on different issues – politics, school, government, freedom of speech, etc., and those were in some cases, quite extreme sounding to me. He was his own brand of a libertarian, and he believed in an Ayn Rand type of philosophy. I also didn’t expect quite the level of controversy he had stirred up in both the comics industry and the music industry.

Geek: What do you think your best or most memorable piece of work was while on Rock’n’Roll Comics Comics?

Conte: I wrote KISS (#9), New Kids on the Block (#12) and Led Zeppelin (#13) for Revolutionary. I'm proud of all three of them as they sold in the tens of thousands and were reprinted more than once. I also edited Aerosmith (#11) and a few others that were uncredited. Before Revolutionary hired me, Todd was the series' sole writer and editor and primarily used an artist named Larry Nadolsky for each issue. Greg Fox, an artist whom regularly visited my store and had shared my love for classic rock, illustrated my stories. Greg's art was more appealing to comic book collectors. We made a great team.

Geek: What do you think Todd’s legacy is the comic industry?

Conte: Todd's concept of a monthly comic book based on musicians was ahead of its time. There were certainly comics published in the genre since the 1940s but Revolutionary was the first to offer a regular series. Later the company expanded its line to include sports figures and other celebrities. Todd would have earned the respect of his peers if he had a) treated his creators properly and b) improved the quality of his publications to have equaled or surpassed the standard of work being published by Marvel, DC and leading independent companies of the day. Instead, Todd is remembered by most as a schlock businessman who took advantage of those around him and used the First Amendment as an opportunity to capitalize for himself.

Geek: Although it seems like he enjoyed antagonizing bands more than anything else, were there times when he was happy when a band or artist was thrilled with their portrayal? Was there ever anyone he was starstruck by or was that even in his DNA?

Sanford: You’re mistaken that he “enjoyed antagonizing bands.” He LOVED the bands! Todd lived for rock ‘n’ roll music. He enjoyed antagonizing the marketing reps who held licensing rights to the bands’ merchandise. He liked thumbing his nose at fellow publishers who criticized his comics. And he openly mocked the music media for allowing themselves to become vehicles for puppet press releases instead of practicing actual objective journalism, as the Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics writers were doing.

But when it came to the performers themselves, there’s nothing that thrilled Todd more than one of them giving a “thumbs up” that one of his comics did a good (and truthful and thorough) job telling their story. He was so jazzed about Billy Gibbons praising our ZZ Top comic that he mentioned it in at least two editorials.

One of Todd’s biggest musical heroes was Frank Zappa. When Todd found out that Zappa told an L.A. paper that he liked the comic we did on him, calling it “strangely parallel to reality,” Todd sent Zappa the actual cover painting by Scott Jackson, framed with a copy of the comic itself. This was shortly before Todd died, and I don’t know if he ever heard back from Zappa directly.

But, a few years later, I had a phone conversation with Zappa’s wife Gail, and she said Frank had the art and comic hanging in his office when he too passed away, around a year and a half after Todd.

That, for Todd, would have been one of the greatest tributes to what he wanted to accomplish with Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics. Frank Zappa liked our Viva La Bizarre comic book enough to hang the cover art in his office.

You can find out more about Unauthorized: The Story of Rock N

Roll Comics, including stills, art, and the trailer, on its official site before its DVD release on April 24th (you can preorder it here).

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