“The Story of Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics”: A fascinating DIY-style documentary about controversial comic book publisher Todd Loren

By on March 24, 2016

Rock ‘n’ Roll, comic books and murder! The Story of Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics — available now on our Night Flight Plus channel — is a fascinating DIY-style documentary from 2005 about the troubled life of controversial comic book publisher Todd Loren, whose unauthorized biographical rock ‘n’ roll-related comic book series made him an outspoken advocate for free speech, but that life was tragically cut short at age 32 when Loren was found stabbed to death on June 18, 1992, in his San Diego, CA condominium.

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Director Ilko Davidov provides us with a variety of points-of-view during the film all of it combining to provide a complete picture of the complex person everyone agrees Todd Loren was, along with their anecdotal recollections and assessments of the legacy he left behind.

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Along the way we hear from people and a few of the artists and writers who were inspired and exploited by Loren, comic book colleagues, adversaries and supporters like rockers Alice Cooper (who pitches a Keith Moon comic – “there could be 100 issues”) and Mojo Nixon (who provides several original tunes for the film’s soundtrack, including “You Can’t Kill Me,” which plays over the end credits); underground artist Mary Fleener: Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics creators — writers Steve Crompton and Spike Steffenhagen, and managing editor, writer Jay Allen Sanford, who all share interesting stories about what Loren was like behind-the-scenes; Denis Kitchen (Kitchen Sink Press); Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth (who once wrote an editorial for Comics Journal entitled “Todd Loren: First Amendment Advocate Or Lying Sack Of Shit?”), British music critic Ian Shirley (author of Can Rock and Roll Save the World?), groupie artist Cynthia Plaster Caster, writer Steve Crompton; underground painter and RevCom cover artist Robert Williams (known for his controversial album art for the first Guns N’ Roses LP); and Todd’s father Herb Shapiro. There’s quite a variety of opinions here, and many of those who appear on camera actually talk about how unlikable Loren was, even though they each became close to him in their own way.

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It’s Todd’s father, by the way, who tells us that Loren was born Stuart Loren Shapiro in 1960, but after deciding to call himself Todd, he refused to answer to the name Stuart (Stuart Shapiro is also the name of Night Flight’s founder, of course). We see later in the film that Loren’s headstone at San Diego’s El Camino Memorial Park lists his name as “Todd Stuart Shapiro.” It also lists the words “Infinite One,” which just happens to be the name of the company that had operated Revolutionary Comics (Stuart L. Shapiro was the VP of that company).

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Towards the end of the doc we also get to see interviews conducted with the San Diego police about their investigation of Loren’s murder, interspersed with interviews with those close to Loren who claim they weren’t interviewed by the SDPD and some who further claim to have provided information to them that might have proved important and might have possibly been evidence they could have used, but we’re told the police seemed uninterested in solving his murder.

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His murder is still an open case, although FBI investigators now believe he may have been killed by Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer who murdered clothing designer Gianni Versace — the documentary says that Loren might have actually been Cunanan’s first victim, years before his killing spree “officially” started. The fact that Loren’s car was stolen was also consistent with Cunanan’s FBI profile, which indicated that he had tendency to target affluent men. Loren — who was gay — also bought and sold explicit videos through ads in gay newspapers, which was also Cunanan’s hobby. Police theorize that Loren and Cunanan could have met through such ads.

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In the late 1980s, Loren had founded a a mail-order music memorabilia company called Musicade, but in 1989, he decided to make a change in his life and sold his company, starting up the Revolutionary Comics company (“Unauthorized And Proud Of It”), which specialized in sports-related biographical comic books, as well as his own Rock N Roll Comics, a series of unlicensed rock star comic books (an idea based, in part, to the success of an unauthorized Bruce Springsteen parody comic called Hey Boss). The first issue, which featured Guns N’ Roses, was drawn by the same artist who’d drawn Hey Boss, Larry Nadolsky.

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Loren planned for each issue thereafter to be about a different band, with biographies along with Mad magazine-styled parodies — even though he knew virtually nothing about the publishing business at the time (he was, however, a longtime comic book collector who had promoted comic conventions and record collector shows in the Detroit area before moving to the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego.

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Despite the fact that comic book stores weren’t that interested in comics about rock stars (at least not any of those who weren’t wearing capes onstage), and record stores weren’t that interested in carrying comic books in their periodical sections, his Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics eventually took off and began to sell, a fact that certainly didn’t go unnoticed by those being portrayed between their pages.

We learn in the doc that some of those artists — people like Frank Zappa, Jerry Garcia and the rest of the Grateful Dead, and the four members of Kiss — were all supportive of his efforts, although Gene Simmons refused to be interviewed on camera for the doc, saying he considered Loren’s comics “bootlegs” even though he and Paul Stanley provided material used on four of Revolutionary’s Kiss Comics.

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Regardless of this, Gene Simmons still makes an appearance in the film, in a scene where — on a taped recording from a phone conference — he simultaneously praises Revolutionary for their excellent work and then threatens to sue them over an earlier published comic, before offering to work with Revolutionary on a future project, which led to design and subsequent publication of those four Kiss comics.

Others, meanwhile — like Axl Rose of Guns ‘n’ Roses, Skid Row and Bon Jovi— threatened lawsuits against Loren because they considered his rock comics series an infringement on their rights.

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Loren, meanwhile, became a strong believer in the freedom of the press, and was convinced the First Amendment protected the journalistic rights of his “illustrated articles.” His case was put before California Supreme Court, who sided with him (the First Amendment guarantees the news media are not subject to censorship by the government.  In other words, the government does not have the right to try to control or block certain things from being published by the press).

We also learn that Loren published a horror comic that savagely mocked Tipper Gore and her vehement pro-censorship stance.

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The documentary — filmed in 2005, but not released on DVD, by Wild Eye Releasing, under the title Unauthorized: The Story of Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics, until 2012 — also mixes hilarious animation sequences, including actual drawn scenes from Revolutionary’s rock comics, and home movie footage, at one point showing Loren sometime in the late 80s, giving us a tour of his office.

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After Loren’s death, Revolutionary Comics continued publishing for two more years with Loren’s father, Herb Shapiro, acting as publisher. When he decided to retire, Revolutionary staff and freelancers regrouped and founded Re-Visionary Press, which specializes in adult comics sold outside the direct market, such as Carnal Comics. Re-Visonary also repackages comic book and comic strip projects for groups such as Oui magazine, Rhino Records, The San Diego Reader and more.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.