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CSN Spotlight: Andrew Vachss

By Charles Rutledge
Originally published in Comic Shop News #231, November 27, 1991

Andrew Vachss didn't originally intend to write fiction; his first book, The Life-Style Violent Juvenile, was a sobering non-fiction work dealing with the motivations of violent youths and outlining possible treatments for them. Vachss is an attorney whose practice deals entirely with the protection of children from those who would abuse and exploit them. He is also the author of six novels and numerous short stories all dealing, to some extent, with crimes against children.

In 1965, while working as an investigator for the US Public Health Service, Vachss was shocked to find children who had been infected with sexually transmitted diseases by their own parents. His outrage at his findings started Vachss on what would become a life-long crusade to protect children.

In 1992, Vachss' crusade reaches comic books thanks to Dark Horse. Dark Horse is assembling an anthology comic, Hard Looks, featuring adaptations of Vachss' work by such noteworthy creators as Joe R. Lansdale, Neal Barrett Jr., Dave Gibbons, Geof Darrow, Chris Warner, Timothy Bradstreet, and Tim Truman, along with editorial material by Vachss himself.

Vachss uses his novels to reach people who might otherwise never be aware of the plight of abused and neglected children. Now, through Dark Horse Comics' upcoming adaptations of his work, Vachss hopes to reach a whole new section of the public. (As it turns out, he already has, even before the comic book ever appeared; one CSN reader, herself a victim of abuse, contacted Vachss' office to seek help after seeing the initial article about Vachss in Comic Shop News #223.) Vachss was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to talk to CSN's Charles Rutledge.

CSN: The majority of the comics audience is probably unfamiliar with your work. Could you explain what it is you're trying to get across in your novels and in the upcoming comics?

AV: Unfortunately, it doesn't lend itself very well to epigrams; there aren't a lot of slogans in my business. What I am trying to get across is that we make our own monsters. The serial killers, the multiple rapists, the arsonists who giggle when people burn—they are created, not born. There is no biogenetic code for any of it. The price of ignoring today's abused child is tomorrow's predator. Obviously, that is a very truncated version of what I'm trying to get across.

CSN: Dark Horse has already published an adaptation of one of your stories, "Placebo." Will they be adapting others?

AV: Dark Horse has purchased a number of my shorter pieces; these appeared in publications that range from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine to Cemetery Dance. There is almost no kind of publication I haven't written for. I don't write about anything except crime, violence, and child abuse, so they are all about that in one way or another, but with different formats and different settings. There are stories involving incest or child prostitution, or a story about a baby being beaten to death, but they contain the same basic themes that are in my novels.

CSN: How did you get involved with Dark Horse?

AV: Dark Horse approached me out of the blue—and I was big-time suspicious when they did. But they sent me a whole cubic ton of stuff, and they made a lot of promises to me—all of which they've kept. That includes panel-by-panel approval of the work. Then I went and visited them and saw their shop. They certainly persuaded me—and I'm not all that easy to persuade. These guys struck me as being completely sincere, and they capped the deal for me by agreeing to donate one percent of the cover price to the child protective agency of my choice. If the people doing the movie were as respectful of my work and as plugged in to what I'm trying to do as the people at Dark Horse are, I would be very happy.

CSN: Do you see comic books as a good opportunity to reach a wider audience?

AV: It's an incredible opportunity because it's a different market. As far as I'm concerned, I'm just an itinerant preacher, and I'm looking for as big a congregation as I can get. The books have gone as far as they can. They're in sixteen different languages now; I'm not going to get any more out of that. I can sell more books as time goes on, but it's not a new audience, and that's what I want. Comics have a huge audience, and it's a different one than the audience that reads novels.

CSN: Dark Horse is adapting your existing stories; do you have any plans to write material specifically for comics?

AV: The only honest answer is "I don't know." I don't claim to have that particular skill; there is a certain skill involved in writing for comics. I have looked at some scripts that Dark Horse was kind enough to send me, and I have worked my way through the adaptation process with Joe Lansdale—Joe is a genius, as far as I'm concerned. He and I worked together on the adaptation, and I learned a lot from that. But I don't know if I'm ready to swim in that river yet. It's a particular kind of skill that I have too much respect for to say, "Yeah, sure, I can do that."

CSN: How much of your fiction is pulled from real life?

AV: I don't know any of it that is not. There's a limit to that, obviously; if I take characteristics of various people and make them into a character, then is that real life or not? I think that really depends on a person's definition of it. But the crimes against children are not only taken from real life, they are taken from the work that I do and have been doing since forever...

CSN: There are a lot of almost supernatural elements in your latest novel, Sacrifice. Have you considered writing any horror fiction?

AV: Sacrifice is horror fiction. I'm not talking about Stephen King sort of work; when I say horror fiction, I am talking about monsters—but the kind we make. Human monsters, not the kind we dream up.

CSN: So your entire purpose for becoming a writer was to bring the realities of child abuse to people's attention in the guise of fiction?

AV: The whole idea was a Trojan horse from the beginning. I wrote nonfiction textbooks before the novels. I've also had twenty or so nonfiction articles published. I turned to the novel simply because I wanted to get a bigger audience than I was getting from the so-called professionals. It's the same material without the footnotes. Yeah, there's a narrative and characters and such, but the material is exactly the same. If the writing is well received, that's fortuitous, but what I set out to do was to educate and hopefully anger folks, not to entertain them. I don't have any inner compulsion to write. I have not written about anything else; I have no plans to write westerns or science fiction. This is what I do, and I don't apologize for it. You can say I don't write good books, but don't say I don't write them for a good reason, because I do.

If you want to find out what you can do about child abuse, write
Child Welfare League of America, 440 First Street NW #310, Washington DC 20077-0175.


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