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BY BILL WEHMANN 

Obsession runs deep in the world of American comics. You can find it in the collector of rare back issues, the cosplayer who crafts a perfect costume re-creation or the fanzine writer who meticulously chronicles their favorite creator’s work. It was a driving force for artist Rocco Versace, who in 1979 killed his writing partner Guy Van and his editor Stan Woodman. All his life Versace was consumed with the desire to become a famous comic book artist, a course which unexpectedly led to double homicide. 

Rocco Versace self-portrait from the Heston Guide to Drawing Comics-1978. Colorist Morgan Marie provided original hand colored production art from her collection for this article.

To Versace’s fans, he is a cult figure who created work that was ahead of it’s time. For those who knew him personally his legacy is less clear. Some of his former colleagues support the view offered by the tabloids, that he killed Van and Woodman in a fit of jealousy. Others assert that he was driven to murder by an epic betrayal. Even after almost forty years many still question how the artist’s passion was able to transform into something so sinister. Recently some of his closest colleagues agreed to share their memories in order to set the record straight. 

THE WAYWARD ARTIST 

In the summer of 1976, the thirty-eight-year-old Versace had just finished a stint penciling a superhero feature titled “Star-Master” in the pages of Weird Space Tales. The book failed to sell and was promptly canceled. A notorious hothead, he lambasted the series’ editor for the tight plot constraints and cliché writing. He punctuated his criticism by spilling a container of ink on the editor's desk and was promptly fired. 

Original art from Weird Space Tales #163 -1976.

From the collection of Cal Hart.

To many people working in the field, comics were simply another gig, but to Versace, they were an underappreciated art form. His life centered around his work, and as a result, he had few friends, no girlfriend, and lived in a run-down apartment in the East Village. Though he had burned the last of his bridges at the major publishing companies he was still unwilling to give up on his dream. 

Rocco Versace at his desk in the Heston Comics Offices in 1977. Photograph from the collection of Morgan Marie.

 

To continue his goal, Versace went knocking on the door of cut-rate publisher Heston Comics. The company's titles could easily be spotted by their cheap paper and poor color registration. Heston editor Stan Woodman knew of Versace’s reputation for fighting with colleagues, but he was also aware of his talent and ability to create work at a prolific rate.
 
Woodman offered him a job under a strict set of conditions: he would have to take any assignment given, the writer's script must be followed exactly, and most importantly his famous temper must be kept in check. Having nowhere else to go he reluctantly agreed.  


For the next six months, he churned out masterful pencils for dozens of hackneyed stories, including several by Guy Van. He disliked the novice writer, believing that Van only got his job because his uncle Marvin Weber was the publisher. It seemed likely that Versace would burn out, but in early 1977 a new staff member joined the company that would have a profound effect on him.

 

Morgan Marie was a talented and upbeat thirty-three-year-old artist who had previously worked as a penciler and inker in the late 60’s. She then moved onto a burgeoning freelance illustration career, until a family crisis forced her to seek more steady employment. The staff colorist job at Heston had regular hours, allowing her to help her recently widowed sister care for her nephew. 

 

Uncharacteristically, the sullen Versace and cheerful Marie hit it off. Versace was impressed with the care and craft that she put into her coloring. The two would engage in long discussions about their appreciation for the artistry of comics. Their friendship grew outside the office until they spent most of their free time together.

Guy Van in 1977.

Photograph provided by the Heston Archives.

Rocco Versace and Morgan Marie on a trip to the Met in 1977.

From the collection of Morgan Marie.

For the next year, Versace moved from one fill-in assignment to the next. When he would get frustrated by the poor quality stories, Marie would remind him to bide his time and wait for his opportunity. Together they began formulating the idea for their dream project about a character called “The Notion” who could alter reality as he saw fit.​

Polaroids of Rocco and Morgan from the collection of Morgan Marie

ENTER: ROSCOE DOLITTLE

Finally, in September of 1977, Woodman called Versace, Van, and inker Charlie Ebert into his office and informed them that they would be the new creative team on the struggling series Roscoe Dolittle. The long-running title featured a tough but kind woodsman reminiscent of Daniel Boone. After a year of toiling on throwaway back-up stories, Versace thought he was entitled to be given a better assignment.

Roscoe Dolittle as he was drawn by Silver Age artist Jerry Gee. Promotional material from the Heston Archives.

“I remember him just sitting there staring daggers at Woodman,” recounts Ebert. “Rocco did this thing where he breathed really loudly through his nose, and it always intensified when he was upset. Well, you could probably hear him breathing down the hall at that point!” 

 

He was ready to quit altogether, but Marie convinced him that doing a good job on the series would impress Woodman enough to give him the assignment he wanted. The following Friday, he met with the new creative team at a local bar.

 

“(Guy) was drunk as a skunk, and just kept talking about how he was going to move to L.A. to become a screenwriter,” said Ebert. Versace then made a proposal to the inebriated writer. He would pencil and plot out the stories, then hand them over to Van with notes, who would fill in the dialogue. It was a fairly routine arrangement at many publishers, but much different from the strictly segregated assignments common at Heston. Van readily agreed. “After that, Rocco just got up, threw down money for the bill, and left. I guess he got what he came for,” said Ebert. 

Panel from Roscoe Dolittle #125.

Color guide from the collection of Morgan Marie.

The next Monday Versace returned to the office with twelve complete pages of a new story and deposited them on the desk of a surprised Van. “I’m not sure he even remembered making the agreement,” said  Ebert. “Still, he seemed happy he didn’t have to do the work!”

Cover of Roscoe Dolittle #120, Versace's first issue as series artist.

 Color guide from the collection of Morgan Marie. The codes written on these guides were used to let the color separators know exactly which colors to use.

The cover of the issue featured the title “Apocalypse Punks from the Future!” and sported bold colors from Marie. The insides were similarly sensational and featured Roscoe stumbling upon a group of time-traveling mutants.

 

“It was pretty crazy!” said Ebert. “Rocco lived above this venue that had a lot of punk shows in the Village and they would always shout stuff at him. It made sense that they became his villains.”

Over the course of the next few issues, Roscoe battled demons, robots, a shadowy version of himself, and the returned Apocalypse Punks. Versace’s notes became more detailed to the point where he eventually started to loosely pencil in the dialogue. He snidely came up with the by-line “brought to you by Raging Rocco Versace and Genius Guy Van” in order to obscure the exact division of duties.

Heston Comics Bullpen 1977. From the Heston Archives.

While Marie provided inventive colors for the series her name was left off of the credits, as was often the case with colorists. She also regularly discussed story ideas with Versace, many of which he incorporated. In one of the classic issues of the run, Roscoe gains the ability to alter reality much like “The Notion”, and magically transforms an armadillo into a creature that can walk upright and talk. The new character nick-named Army by Marie became Roscoe’s regular traveling companion. Versace insisted that her name be added to the credits but Van strongly protested. He quickly backed off however when the temperamental artist threatened to not write the next issue. 

Spread from Roscoe Dolittle #134.

Color guide from the collection of Morgan Marie.

According to staff letterer Julie Smith, Marie was thrilled with the work she was doing on the book. “Morgan would rush through the rest of her assignments,  then spend hours making sure every page of Roscoe was perfect,” she said.

Sales of the title started to tick upward. At the same time, it began receiving positive reviews in the pages of comic fanzines like the Nostalgia Notebook, which praised “Rocco’s superb art” and (what they believed were) “Guy’s endlessly inventive plot lines.”  Versace reveled in the praise but bristled every time someone complimented Van. “I knew it must have driven him crazy to not get credit for his own ideas,” said Ebert. “But he was so pleased with the book's success, he didn’t let it get to him.”

Nostalgia Notebook #33 one of the many fanzines that praised Roscoe Dolittle.

COLLISION COURSE WITH RUIN 

In the fall of 1978, Roscoe Dolittle became Heston’s best selling title. Emboldened by their success, Versace and Marie decided to pitch “The Notion” to Woodman. They began tirelessly working on the story in between their other assignments. 

These two items hung above Versace's desk at Heston: a clipped house ad for Roscoe Dolittle and his concept drawing for "The Notion". 

From the collection of Morgan Marie.

The weekend before Halloween, Heston staffers threw a costume party at a local bar. Marie convinced the anti-social penciler that they should take a break from their work and attend. She crafted an Apocalypse Punk costume for herself and bought a Daniel Boone costume for him. Versace spent the party drinking at the bar while Van used it as an opportunity to schmooze with Woodman. The editor congratulated the young writer on his success and asked if he’d be up to start writing scripts for some licensed movie adaptations. Van was ecstatic as he thought this was the next best thing to being a screenwriter. As the night went on Van continued to brag about his writing prowess. To the amazement of Ebert, he took full credit for the success of Roscoe Dolittle.

 

“Guy started telling Woodman these crazy stories about having to go to Rocco’s apartment and beg him to finish the pencils on time,” said  Ebert. “He took credit for every story detail, all the layout concepts, everything! I’m surprised he didn’t claim he inked the damn book as well!”  

Heston Staffers at a costume party in 1978. Featured are Rocco Versace (Roscoe Dolittle), Morgan Marie (Apocalypse Punk), Guy Van (vampire), Charlie Ebert (costume), Julie Smith (witch), and Jonathan Smolder (mummy). Polaroids from the collection of Morgan Marie.

As the party wore down, Ebert approached Versace and Marie and told them about the conversation. “I tried to frame it by telling Rocco this probably meant Guy would be moving onto other books, ” said Ebert. “ I should have just kept my big mouth shut.”

The next Monday Versace arrived early to the offices and waited in the hall. When Van stepped out of the elevator Versace slammed him against the wall spilling his coffee. The two began to loudly yell at each other and a number of staffers rushed out to see what all the commotion was about. They had to be physically separated, and Woodman ordered Versace into his office. “I remember the smirk on Guy’s face as Rocco slunk away. He was like some high school bully who knew he got away with something,” said Julie Smith.

Panel from Roscoe Dolittle #139.

Color guide from the collection of Morgan Marie.

Despite the closed doors, the Heston staffers could hear every word of the heated conversation. Versace told Woodman the truth about his role as writer and demanded that he fire Van. In response, the annoyed editor demanded he apologize. Woodman reminded Versace that Van was the nephew of the publisher and “a hell of a lot more important around here than you.”

Charlie Ebert and Rocco Versace at the Heston offices in 1978. Aside from Marie, Ebert was Versace's closest friend at Heston.

From the collection of Morgan Marie.

“That was just too much for old Rocco,” said Ebert. “He couldn’t stand that all his hard work meant nothing, and that Guy was going to skate right past him simply because of who he was related to.” Versace slammed his fist down on Woodman’s desk which caused his coffee mug to fall and shatter. Woodman fired him on the spot.

 

When Marie arrived, she attempted to calm Versace down. Ignoring her, he headed for the flat files that housed the production artwork and began pulling out his original art. “Stan rushed over and slammed the file shut,” said Smith. “When he told Rocco the pages belonged to Heston I thought he was going to lose it, but instead he just stared at him for a second, then turned and left.”

 

Marie glanced around the room of shocked staffers, before settling her gaze on Van who was waving goodbye to Versace. “She calmly walked over to him and slapped him before heading after Rocco,” said Smith. “Guy certainly deserved it.”

Rocco and Morgan at the Heston Offices in 1978. From the collection of Morgan Marie.

The next month, the final issue of Roscoe Dolittle featuring Versace’s contributions hit the newsstands. It was bizarre even by his standards and contained an extended conversation between Roscoe and Army about the possibility of them being characters in a story. Though considered odd at the time, the issue became a cult classic. According to alternative comic artist Cal Hart, it had a profound influence on many creators of his generation. “It really pulled you out of the fantasy and made you think about the medium. I remember being kind of freaked out by it as a kid” said Cal.

Spread from Roscoe Dolittle #142 1978.

Color guide from the collection of Morgan Marie.

After that, Van took over as writer while the art duties fell to Heston Comics stalwart Jonathan Smolder. Missing the brazen artwork and eccentric writing that had defined the series the next two issues sold poorly. 

OBJECTIVE: REVENGE!

Ebert and Marie attempted to reach out to Versace but he repeatedly pushed them away, calling them traitors for continuing to work at Heston. With his comics career over, Versace had nowhere to channel the obsession which had always fueled him. He focused all of his energy on Van  and began writing letters to fanzines denouncing him as a “talentless hack.” Ebert and Marie were exasperated but assumed Versace would eventually calm down. They were not prepared for what happened next.

Panel from Roscoe Dolittle #138.

The Apocalypse Punks always seemed to get the upper hand on Roscoe.

Color Guide from the collection of Morgan Marie

Around 2:30 PM on February 13, 1979, Versace left his apartment dressed in the Daniel Boone costume he had worn to the Halloween party. Notable additions to the outfit were a Remington 870 shotgun slung over his shoulder and a medium sized leather satchel at his waist. The first people he encountered were musicians from the punk band Toilet Duck who were waiting in front of the club below. Seeing his ridiculous getup, they began to heckle him. Without hesitation, Versace turned and bludgeoned singer Brian Bender with the butt of his gun fracturing his skull. After fleeing the scene, he was not seen again until he burst into the Heston offices thirty minutes later. The startled staff immediately recognized him. Versace moved slowly towards Van’s desk and told him to get up. He then walked over to Woodman’s door and smashed the glass out of the window. He instructed Woodman and Van to remove all of his Roscoe Dolittle artwork from the flat files and placed them in his leather satchel. Versace pulled out one piece of paper and deposited it on Woodman’s desk before backing away from the frightened pair.

Guy Van at the Heston offices-1978

From the collection of Morgan Marie.

Before he left, he turned towards Van with a smile and said: “Hey Guy, let’s see you take credit for this”. He then shot the writer in the chest. Woodman ran towards the gunman in an attempt to disarm him, but Versace fired first, hitting him in the stomach. According to several staffers, his expression then became distraught. As everyone screamed, the panicked gunman fled down the hallway. Van died instantly. Woodman would survive for another few hours before dying in the hospital.

​The tabloids picked up the story and ran with it, while the police performed an extensive search and investigation. All that remained in Versace’s apartment were pages from his pitch “The Notion”. The single sheet of paper he had left on Woodman’s desk was from the same comic. It contained the ominous line: “DENY ME AT YOUR OWN PERIL!”

Page from Rocco and Morgan's proposed comic "The Notion". Color Guide from the collection of Morgan Marie.

Marie attended the funerals but then left the comic book industry indefinitely. She returned to her freelance career, eventually becoming a highly sought-after illustrator.

 

Though in the past Marie had refused all requests to be interviewed, she made it known through Ebert that she had relics from her time at Heston she would like to share. The photographs, original drawings, and hand-colored production art presented in this article are a small fraction of her collection.

Rocco and Morgan enjoying a fall day in the park. One of Morgan's fondest memories of their friendship. 

From the collection of Morgan Marie.

“I’m getting old,” Marie said laughing as she puffed away on a cigarette. “I figure if I die, this stuff will probably just be dumped in the trash by my nephews.” While Marie was unwilling to sit down for a full interview, she was still proud of the work she had done and thought it deserved to be shared. “It’s funny,” she said “I was an illustrator a lot longer than I worked in comics, and was a great deal more successful at it, but the only people who come asking questions want to know about Rocco. What is it about those old books that make you people so damned obsessive?”

Marie requested that all of the artwork be donated to “whoever the hell would want this stuff” after it had been scanned for the article. “It just makes me sad to look at it anymore,” she said. “I think about all the work and thought that went into it that was completely wiped out by the selfishness and vanity of that man. Have you ever had a friend that completely let you down?”

Some of the many photographs that Morgan Marie took during her time at Heston Comics in the late 70's.

As for Versace, he was never heard from again. The police gave up searching for him as the headlines went away. Rumors persisted for years that he was creating comics under assumed names, and even submitting pages of “The Notion” to publishers anonymously. In the decade after the murders, his work was rarely discussed. Van’s uncle took every opportunity to tout the writer’s genius but never spoke his murderer’s name.  

 

In recent years, a new generation has begun to embrace Versace’s work. Stories about his role as the writer of Roscoe Dolittle were spread by former Heston staffers. The tale of Versace reclaiming original artwork from his publisher had a romantic quality for some artists. Some even consider him to be a symbol of creators’ rights. To Charlie Ebert, this claim seems outlandish and insulting. “I don’t think Rocco cared about anyone’s rights but his own,” said Ebert. “It’s not like he killed Guy for some cause, he killed him because he hated him.”

Panel from Roscoe Dolittle #142 1978.

Color guide from the collection of Morgan Marie.

Most people assumed that Versace was living in seclusion somewhere off the grid. “I don’t know,” mused Ebert in response to this suggestion. “Rocco was a real New York City guy, I really can’t imagine him living out in the sticks somewhere. If he didn’t off himself, I’ll bet he’s still hanging around. In a way, that would almost be worse than death for Rocco, to still be here so close to where he almost made it, yet completely anonymous.” Ebert paused for a moment and then offered a final thought.  “If he is alive, I’ll bet he’s sitting on a stack of pages ten miles high.”