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Andrew Vachss: Warrior

By Christopher Golden
Originally published in Combo Magazine, July 1996

You may know him as the author of the eight successful "Burke" novels, including Flood, Strega, Down in the Zero, and Footsteps of the Hawk. Or from his Dark Horse comic books: Hard Looks, Underground, and Cross. Perhaps you've seen his extraordinary "children's book for adults," Another Chance to Get it Right. If you've heard of him, chances are Andrew Vachss has entertained you.

But that isn't his real goal.

Andrew Vachss is a warrior. As an attorney and an author, he dedicates every waking moment to the fight against child abuse. Though he is amiable and polite, it is impossible not to be aware that he is a creature of furious humanity. He seems stripped bare of any of the pretensions or frivolous pursuits that cloud so many of our lives.

We'll say no more. It would betray our respect for Andrew Vachss were we to let that respect overshadow the message. No matter what else we talk about, keep that in mind: it's all about the message.

Vachss wrote the novel (and comic book adaptation) Batman: The Ultimate Evil, which exposed the child sex tourism industry in Thailand, perhaps the most vile perversion thriving on a planet full of them. Pedophiles from around the world visit Thailand as if it were some Disneyland of child sexual abuse. Children are taken or bought from parents and made into sex slaves for these tourists, all with the tacit approval of the government. Interestingly, using the Batman was not Vachss' idea, but he made full use of the tools.

"I was approached by [DC] with the idea that I could borrow Batman to use in my particular war," Vachss recalls. "Then they wanted all kinds of proposals and consultations. I wasn't interested in a lot of fan-boy pontification about the Batman and his role in that world. So I risked it all and wrote the entire book. I essentially said, 'Take it or leave it.' And they took it."

The book offered Vachss the opportunity to lead a boycott of Thailand, called Don't! Buy! Thai!. [Note: The boycott ended 12/20/00. For the complete story, click here.] While Dark Horse Comics, with whom Vachss has had a long and fruitful relationship, has fully supported this boycott, DC was less enthusiastic.

"As far as DC's corporate reaction to the book, my sense of it is that it was economic, that they believed the book would sell well, and that was the end of it," Vachss says. "To compare DC Comics to Dark Horse Comics in terms of how they've responded to the boycott, it's beyond night and day.

"I feel like I'm part of Dark Horse, like I'm a partner in the enterprise," Vachss says. "I don't feel like I work for them, or they for me. I can't speak for Mike Richardson, but I suspect that a primary motivation for wanting to do my stuff was a way of supporting what I do with it. They have backed that commitment time and again, financially, socially, and emotionally."

Vachss isn't kidding. While his Hard Looks comic did a little better than break even, Underground crashed on takeoff. Dark Horse stayed in the game. Then came Another Chance to Get It Right, a book of stories and poems about children and abuse that Vachss wrote for parents to read with their kids.

"Another Chance to Get it Right has been an extraordinary success," Vachss happily reports. "I'm astounded at how well they did with it, how many places it's been picked up, and how many ways it's been reprinted. The biggest risk that they took financially actually got them the biggest reward."

But back to the boycott. Dark Horse has backed Vachss to the point where it will not do business with Thailand, a major source of cheap manufacturing. What other results have come of the boycott?

"The support's been unreal," Vachss says. "There are school teachers that have made this part of their lesson, there are debate teams taking on the issue, there are biker groups handing out the literature. There are all kinds of ground zero folks sending letters to catalog companies saying, 'I won't buy from your catalog anymore.' The Don't! Buy! Thai! home page [has] hundreds of other pages linked to it. There's even a group inside Thailand—which is an act of great courage—now supporting this.

"I don't know how you'd actually measure the support, but when you have the royal Thai government writing letters to the State Department complaining about me, I think you're already hearing the footsteps."

On the other hand, readers may be surprised to learn that not everyone is supportive of Vachss' war against the ultimate evil.

"There's been hate mail," he reports. "There've been letters from pedophile groups, which I expect and is certainly not new in my business. There have been people saying things about me on the Internet, everything from that I committed suicide to that I'm a hardened murderer. Essentially, the backlash has been the carefully calculated attempt to say that by boycotting Thailand, we're forcing more people into the sex trade because we're cutting out legitimate sources of income.

"Of course that's an incredibly racist statement. Nobody claims that poverty's forcing other nations into prostituting their children. It's a hollow argument. The same argument we heard in South Africa. The poor, indigenous people who were allegedly being hurt by the boycott of South Africa are now voting. I'm not saying it's a painless method, but my response to everyone who starts whining about how the boycott's going to hurt people is a two-part question: Do you agree that there's a kiddie sex tourism industry in Thailand? 'Yes.' What are you doing to stop it? The answer's, 'Hmmm, umm, aaah. If you can show me a better way, I'll join your group.'"

"I'm not a boycott freak, but we're trying to economically strangle the beast. Since they're selling their babies for money, we don't know any other way than to cut off their money supply. Without the government's endorsement and support, this could not occur."

Both Dark Horse and Vachss have included clauses in their movie contracts which bar any dealings with Thailand. Other writers, including Joe R. Lansdale, have the clause as well.

Everything Vachss does is another step toward fulfilling his purpose.

"It's an old marital arts principle," he says. "You put every ounce of power you have into the narrowest concentration, you get the biggest impact. For me, it's a war. I just see myself as a soldier, not a general. It's clearly a guerrilla war, because we don't have the big weapon. Propaganda, especially subversive propaganda, is a major element in social change. I absolutely believe that there are people who, exposed to the truth, will react."

What's coming up on the Vachss horizon?

Fans will be saddened to hear that once the latest Burke novel is published in November, Vachss has no plans for another.

"The title is False Allegations, which I guess is sort of self-explanatory," he notes. "It's an area I've needed to explore for a long time, because it's one of the most hot-button topics in the media, yet there's almost no truth being printed about the phenomenon.

"Whether it's the last [Burke novel] or not, I don't know. It's designed so that it could be. As I sit here right now, for the first time in at least a decade, I do not have another book in mind."

On the other hand, there are the Cross novels, which have been a headache for Vachss for several years now. Partially to combat the work for hire proliferation, Vachss created a plan for a series of novels based on the Cross material that first appeared in his short story collection, Born Bad. Vachss and James Colbert would write the first two novels in third person—something Vachss never does—and future books would be written by the two authors, as well as by a third author who would choose one of the characters and write in first person. The books would be paperback originals, published twice a year.

"That was the concept. My brother, Jim Colbert, and I wrote two of the books, completely. We got the infamous Rex Miller to write the third book, Crossover, wherein his [serial killer character] Chaingang meets Cross. It's just an unbelievable book."

With three books done, a deal was struck with Warner Books, which fell through as soon as Vachss saw the contract. "I wouldn't have let a client sign that contract, so I refused," he says.

That led to the decision to publish Cross as a comic book, in hopes that once audiences saw what a great story it was, publishers would be more interested. Vachss considers the effort a failure.

"Cross is an abysmal flop as far as I'm concerned, because it's got the worst artwork I've ever seen in a comic," he notes. "The endless comments we get are from people who loved the story and hated the artwork. Comics being an art-driven medium, that was a disaster. I was gambling on the comic helping, but it hasn't, and now we're back to square one. We're not giving up, but it's question of finding the right publisher."

Vachss has had more success recently in moving his war to the next level: the movie theaters. Originally, Paramount was slated to do one of his Burke novels, but Vachss thought the scripts were "abominable." Then New Line stepped in.

"New Line is moving ahead with Flood [the first Burke novel]. They want to do a whole series of movies, so they want to start with the first book. We'll know within the next few months. The director is Harold Becker, who did City Hall, Sea of Love, and more importantly, The Onion Field. Onion Field is what persuaded me. The screenwriter did Last Exit to Brooklyn."

Not that his disappointment with Cross means Vachss is giving up on comic books. Not at all.

"I've got a project with Dark Horse that is almost impossible to explain," he says. "It's not a book, and it's not a comic. It's almost an illustrated book. I'm also working on a superhero project for them that won't resemble any superhero anybody's ever seen."

That's a sure bet. A Vachss-created superhero is not likely to have an arch-enemy as colorful as Magneto or Dr. Doom, but chances are the enemy will be even more frightening.

Any guesses?


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