INTERVIEW-ELIZABETH BISSETTE, RELATIVE TO THE MAN WHO CREATED THE SPIDER!
ELIZABETH BISSETTE, Writer/Performer/Relative of Pulp Icon
|Elizabeth Bissette, wearing Norvell Page’s fedora and holding his .22|
EB: I guess Southern Gothic Renaissance woman might sum it up best. I’m a music, art and culture writer and one day had the privilege of talking with Mike Seeger (http://mikeseeger.info/), a folk archivist and musician Bob Dylan credits with being the reason he wrote his own songs. It changed my life. I spent the past five years or so since then doing a Lonesome Liz (http://www.myspace.com/lonesomeliz) version of what he did; traveling and learning as much as I could from other artists and musicians I ran into; writing about them along the way.
Through the course of all this I’ve become an Outlaw Americana singer-songwriter and visual artist, with the official Outlaw nick-name Lonesome Liz. (Hellbilly Outlaw authority and filmmaker Cuzn Wildweed (http://www.myspace.com/cousinwildweed) told me Outlaws had nicknames and that was bound to be mine; I figured he knew more about it than I did and have kept it ever since.) I also play a little banjo; had the good fortune of learning a little from a man in Appalachia named Bill Garvin, who played with Bill Monroe early on.
There’s more to it than that, but that’s the backbone of it. Mr. Seeger died last year and my interview was the last he did. I can’t thank him in person anymore for how our talks were so pivotal for me and how other artists have told me since they’ve in a way been important for them to0. He centered a lot of his work academically so I’m putting together a Masters Thesis of Thank You – I’m going to put all the research, some done with his feedback, into a Public Folk Studies thesis. I majored in Religious studies so there’s going to be a Folk Belief track too. I’m the only person I’ve heard of who’s getting an MA in Hoodoo.
AP: Now, let’s get to that special connection to the Pulp field. You are related to a key figure in Pulp fiction. Would you elaborate on that, please?
|One of only two existing photos of Norvell Page|
EB: Norvell Page was my Great-Uncle and the funny thing is my family never talked about him. I grew up hearing stories about this mysterious and intriguing figure who “wrote something to do with Spider-man” ,but that’s about it. Well, one day I was sitting at home; I was about 22 I guess, and I turned to my room-mate and said, “You know, my family always said my Great-Uncle wrote something to do with Spiderman and I really don’t think they would have made that up, but I’ve not heard anything else about it, I wonder what that was?” The response to that was, “Well, if it’s really true then you could just write Stan Lee and ask him.” I said, “Well, I guess you’re right.”
At the time, Mr. Lee was still with Marvel so I just looked at the website, found what appeared to be the right e-mail for him and wrote, “Dear Mr. Lee, I’m the Great-Niece of Norvell Page and I have heard that my Great-Uncle wrote something about Spiderman, but have no idea if it’s true or even what it was.”
Well, it may not surprise you but it sure surprised me to receive an e-mail back from Mr. Lee in I think maybe 10 minutes, saying “Great Gotham! We’ve been wondering what happened to Norvell Page since 1943!” Not in those exact words of course but it was rather overwhelming to discover that, not only had I been looking for the truth behind Norvell’s Spider but Spidey apparently had been looking for the truth behind Norvell. It was every bit as life changing as that phone call to Mike Seeger.
EB: Norvell was a remarkable man. He seems to have really been like his characters in more ways than one. While writing Pulps he dressed like the Spider sometimes, drove a Dailmer, lived for a time on Riverside Drive, he was very Wentworth in day to day life. In 1943 he left Pulp writing for a government career that was pretty heavy, to say the least. He seemed, for example, to truly want to save the world and I think tried to. In some ways maybe he came close, hard to tell. Sounds incredible, but we are talking about the Spider.
He grew up in an old Southern family, the Pages arrived in Virginia very early on, 1652. Their first land grant became Williamsburg eventually and they had a lot to do with the founding of some of the major sites there, William and Mary, (which he briefly attended) and Bruton Parish Church are the main ones. A long line of revolutionaries, statesmen and writers as well. The popular Ante-Bellum novelist Thomas Nelson Page, for example, was a close relative.
Norvell started out as a journalist and wound up in New York after his writing had started taking off enough to make a move there make sense. He wrote for the Times and also the World Telegram, where Varian Fry, who spearheaded the International Rescue Committee, an operation that got a number of major artists and thinkers out of occupied Europe, was an editor at the time. Family rumor has it and considering his later government career it’s certainly plausible, that he got his start in intelligence work helping Mr. Fry. I’ve not yet been able to fully substantiate it but he was right there with Varian, was later an official intelligence worker as fellow writer Ian Fleming was and maintained a lifelong friendship with Max Ernst, the husband of Peggy Guggenheim, who funded the committee.
As you and your readers know, he became a tremendously influential and prolific Pulp writer; ‘the Batman’ first appeared in a Spider story (editor’s note-A character, different from the later, more famous one, named ‘Bat-Man’ appeared in the Spider Novel DEATH REIGN OF THE VAMPIRE KING, published approximately six years prior to the debut of DC Comics’ Batman) and he later also wrote two ‘Black Bat’ tales. He also wrote what’s considered a classic, ‘But Without Horns’, a story that explores the concept of a ‘superman’ but this time as a villain, and, of course, he created the Spider. It’s hard to imagine what comics would be like today without the vast imagination of Norvell Page playing such a heavy role in Pulp Fiction.
His career with the Government would probably be boring to read in an outline but he moved from Committee to Committee, clearly trying to make the world a better place as best he could; you can find an outline of that in his obituaries at my Norvell Page blog. He was one of the only members of these committee who remained in the Executive Offices of the President which I guess translates to real close to where all the action was. At the time of his death he was the Editor in Chief for the Atomic Energy Commission, and he was also one of the first six people appointed to that Commission. He died, unquestionably suspiciously, around the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Another tells of him rescuing all of them again from certain destruction. He was home for Christmas from college and it was back in the days when candles were still used for the trees. Well, I guess everyone had too much eggnog and someone forgot to put the candles out. The house caught on fire and Norvell somehow woke up. He didn’t panic but instead threw his mattress out his window, ran and grabbed my grandmother and my Great-Uncle Roger, then infants, shouted through the halls to wake everyone up and jumped with one of them under each arm out the window.
Last but not least, by the next Christmas he couldn’t bear to be away from Audrey, his high school sweetheart who the family didn’t approve of. He left William and Mary to elope with her. To keep his parents in the dark about what they’d done, he left letters with his room-mate describing how he was doing in college to be mailed, one a week, over the remainder of the semester. He then went to nearby Norfolk and told the editor of the paper there that he was 18 and had already been writing for the Times Dispatch in Richmond. They gave him, I believe, an editing job. And so his writing career began.
EB: As far as I can tell he WAS the Spider.
AP: Was Page’s connection to THE SPIDER and to pulp in general an overall positive or were there any negative things as well?
EB: Positively positive! He seems to have made such wonderful friends and had such a fantastic time. It was probably also a huge outlet for all of the stress he must have been under, considering his probable role in the IRC and who knows what else; (he was, for example, on a German liner on its way to Austria when WWII broke out.)
The family, however, did not approve of Pulp Fiction or consider it a worthwhile use of his writing ability; that’s part of the reason no one ever talked about it. His father had wanted him to be the next Poe (who was also from Richmond and who had worked with my Great-Great Uncle, Lawrence Page on the Southern Literary Messenger), and seems to have been disappointed. He was too close to it to realize he actually sort of was the next Poe I suppose. So, in a way, that was probably a negative.
AP: How are you involved with THE SPIDER? How are you working to further the legacy of this character that you have a family tie to?
Norvell’s Ken Carter stories were released at that time and they included my favorite tale of his, ‘Satan’s Sideshow’ and also one called ‘Hell’s Music’, which I thought touched in an odd way my connection with the Hellbillies, (and I had the good fortune of having Hellbilly artists Cuzn Wildweed and J.B. Beverley (http://www.myspace.com/waywarddrifters) as performers). It wasn’t a play of his stories but inspired by the way both of our imaginations unwittingly went in the same direction. The play was a Southern folklore interpretation of ‘Faust’ at its core, with the ghosts of Sideshow workers and historic figures, including Norvell, playing a part in my (the ‘Faust’) damnation.
There was an accompanying visual art exhibit to the Sideshow, which featured artists from all over the world, everywhere from Hazard, Kentucky to London! I was fortunate to have some amazing people participate – including Molly Crabapple (http://www.mollycrabapple.com), a visual artist and entrepreneur who founded Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, (she’s also done some work with ‘Weird Tales’ and Marvel, the earth shattering ‘Scarlet Takes Manhattan’, for example), Katelan Foisy (http://www.katelanfoisy.com), another New York artist, painted me as ‘Faust’ for the exhibit, Wes Freed (http://www.wesfreed.com), who’s best known for his Drive by Truckers album and poster art was part of it; and many others. It was fantastic. A local sculptor contributed a giant black widow spider they hung from the ceiling with a banjo instead of a violin.
All of those remarkable creative minds, and many others, joined together in what was, I think a remarkable tribute to him. What’s so lasting about Norvell isn’t just his work but his influence on other artists and what I love most about the show is that it reflected that, albeit in perhaps an unexpected way.
I’d love to write Pulp stories or comics myself, maybe something that included 5 stories in 5 genres as a tribute to him. I’ve been turning ideas over for a while. The characters are there though. There’s a Lonesome Liz Hoodoo Detective, Katelan Foisy inspired a character named Penny Dreadful, a Western based on the Dodge City Gang; I’m sure it will happen in time.