Cropped, low-resolution version of the famous Bat Boy cover. Original image is property of Weekly World News
Every supermarket check-out stand in America is boring and prosaic these days. Sure, there's plenty of news about Lindsay Lohan and Brangelina, but in the 80s, 90s, and early aughts there was an outlet for ridiculous, made-up stories: Weekly World News. Early on, its headlines were just fake enough to not be considered fraud but just true enough to grab your attention.
They often relied on existing myths and conspiracies, like the lumberjack who kept Bigfoot as a love slave. Sometimes they would co-opt religious imagery, as when a giant Jesus went all Godzilla on the UN. But nothing had the staying power of Bat Boy.
Bat Boy was easily the paper's greatest contribution to pop culture. According to a Washington Post article titled "All the News That Seemed Unfit to Print," the writer Bob Lind was inspired to write the headline "Bat Child Found in Cave" when he saw an image that artist Dick Kulpa had created almost by accident. But the Post didn't talk to Kulpa about what was in his head when he accidentally birthed part of America's cultural imagination. So I did.
I wanted to know why he inserted this ghoul into the nightmares of every American who shopped for groceries in the late 20th century. Instead of a feisty old retired yellow journalist, he turned out to be a friendly cartoonist who still occasionally puts Bat Boy into his work. He did have some choice words for the Onion, though.
VICE: Hi, Dick. How did you get a job at Weekly World News?
Dick Kulpa: I started out as a freelance illustrator working long-distance from Akron, Illinois, and I produced drawings for these guys. Nine artists were in contention for this, and they all fell by the wayside. I did something like 85 drawings over the course of a year, many of them with under 24 hours notice. When they discovered I could write headlines, I was invited to try out for the staff, and I did, and within two days I was hired full-time.
What were your contributions, other than Bat Boy?
My natural capabilities are in story editing and editorial. I used that throughout my life as my tool to express myself. But there’s a difference between artists and editorial artists. I used to rewrite scripts sent to me by comics magazines years ago, and it was something because I had to pop up the punch lines, etc., and make it so a reader, when they read it, gets a payoff. That was my calling, basically. I could come up with all sorts of story ideas of this nature, and did. That was my value. Those people on that staff were top-notch people.
So how did you create Bat Boy?
One of the editors needed an image of a space-alien baby, and so I designed it, and when everybody saw it they said, “Wait a minute, this is more powerful than we’d thought.” I’d drawn a Star Trek comic strip years before, so I loved the pointy ears on Mr. Spock. And I also did another comic strip featuring a character, Officer Jaws, and I loved his teeth. I had total leeway. I don’t think staff knew what I was doing at the time. In this particular case, it took almost a whole day, because the computer kept crashing. That was 1992. The fifth time it crashed, I’d vowed to end the project if it crashed again. Fortunately it didn’t.
It looks like it's made of clippings of an adult in a costume, plus animal parts and a baby head. Am I right?
The image is all baby. We enlarged the eyes and did wonders in these computer programs. Even then, in 1992, there were no add-ons. I worked in concert with the retouch department and designed this character. In this specific case, it was absolute and they followed my detailed instructions to the letter. So that’s where Bat Boy was born, but it wasn’t called Bat Boy originally.
Drawing courtesy of Dick Kulpa
Did you put part of yourself into Bat Boy?
I was here for four years, and the only place I drove was from home to work and back. I changed from being an out-and-out party animal at congressmen's homes to almost a recluse here. Bat Boy says what I was thinking. Like, What the hell am I doing here? Not intentional, but it just came out that way subconsciously.
Did that primal expression stay alive as the character of Bat Boy developed over time?
I have no connection with Bat Boy anymore. The character was handled differently as the paper went through phases. And the new ownership handled it differently than I would have expected. More power to them, if that’s what people take an interest in. To me, Bat Boy was a brat who wanted to bite the head off anyone who came close to him.
Do you resent what it became?
It’s a corporate character. And they’re gonna do with it what they please. Bat Boy in its heyday was immensely popular and sold thousands of T-shirts.
Why do you think Bat Boy became so influential?
The face just connects. People see themselves in him. I imagine millions of people who may feel the same way that I do. They see emotion in the face. When you look at Pixar movies, which are so wildly popular, you see the emotion. They really capitalize on characters. And Bat Boy does that with his face. It says, “Get me out of here!” Look at the shape the world is in. Maybe it needs Bat Boy to straighten it out. Maybe he reflects the deep-down feelings of millions, if not billions, of people on this planet. With everything, we’re slaves. I think it’s more true than it was then. I see these kids suffering, working these nickel-and-dime jobs with no insurance. In my day, we could move up. I see these kids working these same jobs five years later. I worked at restaurants too. I’m a caricature artist. I appear at restaurants.
Are you influenced by the fine arts?
The Scream, that famous scream artwork, from umpteen centuries ago or whatever. Bat Boy could be compared to that, but the scream picture didn’t enter into my mind.
Did you ever feel bad about creating hoaxes?
We never did treasure hunts or treasure maps, for example, because someone would go spend half their fortune trying to find it. What we did was, in its own way, political. We didn’t really want to capitalize on any hoax. But if we wanted to run a story about Osama bin Laden and his love affair with his goats... what did that do?
We want to feel good about something, and Weekly World News made people feel good.
So you were genuinely proud to work there?
It was a marvelous experience, for a number of reasons. It wasn't just whether [people] believed the stories, but [that] they enjoyed the stories. We had newspapermen who were respected in their own industries. They weren’t kids, they were real reporters. So many people looked at Weekly World News and just assumed things. The bells and whistles were the sellers and enablers—the substance is what counts, and everybody wants substance.
But take me, for example: I still have nightmares about the Weekly World News issue where Satan's face appeared above the White House.
Satan’s face above the White House? That was attributed to Jim Johnson, the re-toucher in residence there. He did some great stuff.
But he scared me.
As a kid, when was the first time you watched The Wizard of Oz with Margaret Hamilton as the witch? She said she felt bad that she terrified kids. Young kids are extremely impressionable because they’re seeing things for the first time. Now they see blood, murder, violence, gore, and all kinds of stuff on TV that they shouldn’t see.
Fair enough. What do you think of the Onion?
You’ve got Coca-Cola and you’ve got Sam’s Club coke. Weekly World News was Coca-Cola, and the Onion is Sam’s Club. Maybe I should say it was Discount Beverage. The trouble with satire politics is this: If you take a side, if you are a progressive, if you are a liberal, if you are conservative, you wipe out half your readership immediately. So me, I’m not partisan. That’s what I grew up with. I might click on John Boehner, or I might click on Obama. I don’t care who.
What are you up to these days?
My greatest character ever was created six years before Bat Boy. And it was known as Gangbuster. The new book that I’m working on, which is a graphic novel, features Gangbuster at his finest. It says, “Well, why is Gangbuster picking on gangs? Street gangs? There’s all kinds of gangs out there!” And it was originally planned, when I first released it, that I would do just that. I was gonna sic Gangbuster on the Ku Klux Klan.
Are you worried about the DC Comics character with the same name, and the same overall mission?
Theirs appeared in 1987. My Gangbuster appeared in 1986. We don’t see that Gangbubster anymore, do we? Let’s just say, two phone calls and a letter. And when you can prove first use with [the dates on] newspaper articles, that pretty much sums it up.
Note: We weren't able to confirm Kulpa's implication that DC Comics surrendered the trademark of its Gangbuster character.
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