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End of Summer
 

Rick Veitch Interview

conducted by D.J. LoTempio

"Roarin'" Rick Veitch is a husband, father, graduate of the Kubert School of Art ('74), professional dreamer, defender of rights for comic creators, and, least we forget, an influential writer and artist. He gained wide attention with work on the DC series, Swamp Thing, in the mid-80s with Alan Moore and fellow Kubert School alumni, Steve Bissette and John Totleben. Veitch's popularity rose when he took over the reins of the series and successfully continued its exploration into horror. Unfortunately, his excellent run was cut by a dramatic resignation with DC comics over the non-publication of Swamp Thing #88; the publisher was worried that Christian groups would take offence over Veitch's depiction of Swamp Thing's encounter with Jesus Christ during the crisis on the Mount of Olives. Upset, Veitch left the publisher, vowing never to return until DC published the issue. He was one of the original signers of the Creator's Bill of Rights in 1986.

His most important and visceral work has been done outside of the mainstream, first finding expression with the vitriolic Bratpack mini-series and continuing into Maximortal, published under his own line called King Hell. Maximortal, in particular, charts the birth of the hero True-Man, a variant of Superman, from the 30s to the 50s, and examines the unity and interrelationship between higher ideas, like the Superman archetype, and humanity's consciousness. The two series are part of a larger work called the King Hell Heroica, a profound mediation on the comic industry, which offers a new perspective on images and creativity.

This personal and professional exploration also led him to create a sequential dream diary called Rare Bit Fiends. The excellence in these stories led Alan Moore to claim "Rick Veitch, unconscious, is worth ten other men, awake!" A statement that I'm sure Mr. Veitch has used to get out of many household chores.

In the early 90s, Moore and Veitch joined forces again to re-tool the early Marvel Comics universe in the pleasantly vibrant and fun 1963, published by Image. They continued their resuscitation of comic creativity with Supreme from Image and Awesome Comics and the crafty serial Greyshirt. Whether with Moore or alone, Rick Veitch continues to expand how comics work and what topics can be discussed.

Rick Veitch was able to take some time out of his busy schedule to discuss his evolution as an artist and the significance of the Superman idea. This interview was conducted on October 8, 2001, and the Afghanistan initiative had just begun. This transcript was reviewed and edited by Rick Veitch.

Where do you live?

I live in Vermont, towards the southern part of the State.

I've always been curious as to the influence of place or home environment into a creator's work. You obviously place a certain amount of meditation into your work; does your locale come into the equation at all?

Of course. I live in a very remote locale; we live on a mountaintop and dont see a lot of people. I think that effects things, especially when youre a writer and you tend to rely on your imagination to create characters than if you live in a city or urban environment, where youre constantly meeting people, and youre drawing from that resource to create the idiosyncrasies of characters.

So thats part of it, but there is another aspect to local in my work, and that is the dream work, notably RARE BIT FIENDS. The landscape of the town I was born in became central to the symbolism in my dreams and that became part of that comic. As I did more and more dream art I began to understand that if I was shown certain events or scenes within this landscape that it symbolized different things just by its location.

This is something I just evolved; I never read about it in a book or anything. It evolved from observation in the dreams, but later on I learned that it is a shamanic practice. Aboriginal cultures had psychological or spiritual links to their landscapes; in a sense, they saw the Earth around them as sacred and full of symbolism. And I think a part of me picked up on that. Werent expecting that were you?

(general laughter)

I've noticed that in your work, the characters, particularly the side characters, seem to be down-to-earth. I thought perhaps that your locale, Vermont, played a part in their development. The State itself has a certain aura. Where as other authors have taken the city landscape, and its grittiness, elegance, or aloofness and incorporated that into their characters.

I see what you mean. Its nothing that I did consciously. But I think youre right; there are certain characteristics to people born in Vermont. Vermonters have always been different in their approach to honesty and truth. The general Vermonter is a type of person who will trust anyone immediately, and essentially share anything they have, or believe anything until their trust is proven false. Once proven false, its like forget it - its done. And that is kind of how I am as a person. If it comes through in my work, than its nothing Ive consciously tried to insert there.

It was something that I assumed would have been unconscious, but as someone who has done so much work about the unconscious, I thought you might have noticed. Certainly, you recognize it.

I would say that one of the things that comes through in my work is I tend to explore a certain type of sleazy person. There is something about a Veitch comic that leaves with your hands feeling a little slimy when you get done with it.

Yes, Sidney Wallace in particular. Everytime I finished reading a MAXIMORTAL I felt uncomfortable. (laughter)

I think that comes from the other part of my growing up. It might sound like I grew up in Vermont, an idyllic situation, but it was quite the opposite. I grew up in a dying mill town, in which there was little opportunity for education or learning about the arts. I was part of a group of seedy, hippie types who were always scrounging around. If I hadnt had my art, the Rick Veitch story could have easily been kind of tragic. A lot of my friends made the wrong decisions, and had a lot of problems in life - medical and legal - based on the choices they made. And that tends to come out in my work.

And I assume you probably still see these people.

The ones who are still alive!

What does the concept of Superman mean to you? There was enough to it that you were willing to dedicate a significant portion of your time to this Superman idea. I was wondering what attracted you to it?

Obviously, it is the prime archetype of the superhero. My whole life has been about superheroes, going back to the time when I was a little kid. I wasnt getting an education in the arts, and I went out and I found an art-form, which I could buy with my own money, bring into my home, and make my own. Even thought my parents and the people around me tended to look at it with suspicion. I completely connected with this.

So, did it give you a sense of empowerment then?

I dont know if it was empowerment, because socially it was seen as a negative thing. In the 60s, there were still vestiges of Dr. Wertham around. You were seen as a moron if you read comic books. But I was just connecting to them, and getting this intense fantasy and imaginative hit, as well as learning the basics of drawing. I can remember being very young and looking at a Jack Kirby panel and suddenly understanding how deep space was created in an illustration.

And it was like (Bam!) thats what this is! Then I copyed it and tought myself from that. So, to me, coming through the superhero genre was how I got into art. Of course, the superhero is one of the main archetypes of the 20th century. You can go back to Nietzsche, where the word Superman first gains credence, and then into the 20th century which became obsessed with the word 'Super'. Sure, its all fantasy, but I think the Superman is the perfect embodiment of a state of being that is heightened or above that of normal people.

It's above the past too. I remember reading Nietzsche and encountering the idea about being above morals. Making your own destiny.

Right, thats what Superman does. If you look into the back of MAXIMORTAL, I kind of go into that. I try to make the point that the Germanic cultures used the Superman archetype one way and the American cultures used it in another way, and the American culture ended up triumphant. One used it as pure mind control propaganda, and the other used it as imaginative fantasy tinged with propaganda.

So, I think that not only is the superman a prime archetype for our civilization, but it is also ground zero for comic books.

Right. 1939. Boom and then a ripple effect.

And then, with my experience of working with the major publishers, I was always struck by, on the one hand, how they were turning out stories that glorified high moral caliber, but that the individuals involved and the corporate cultures surrounding them acted just the opposite. It was something that struck in my craw; that the business itself was completely dishonest while selling 'Truth, justice and the American way.'

By any chance, have you read THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY? The publisher Anapol reminded me of your character, Sidney Wallace, publisher of the Tru-Man comics. Although, Chabon paints Anapol in a sympathetic light; he even gives Kavalier and Clay a percentage of the profits.

Well, they have to fight for it.

Yes. Well I contrasted the two characters as I read the book.

Anapol is probably closer to the truth. Sidney Wallace was powered by a personal animosity I built up after being jerked around and having to deal with comics' corporate unconscious. The template for the comics biz is a corporate organization that has its roots in 1939. The very existence of the firm is based on struggle with creators over rights and ownership of the character that launched the comic book craze. The rest of the world looks at the deal and thinks the company took an immoral position and profited highly from it. But the company has had to rationalize their actions over all these years.

Right. The Corporation tells them "This is the way things are done. This is the reality of the situation." And the creators little realizing that the idea of the Superman is that you can make the situation however you want it. In this case, the creators [Siegel and Shuster] brought Superman to the corporation. The corporation didn't create it.

What the corporation didnt realize was that, if they cut a fair 50/50 deal with these guys, and allowed them to evolve the character, they would have been a much more potent cultural force. Because what ended up happening was, once that got Siegel and Shuster out of the way, the thing essentially became machine-work. There were a few high points, like when they brought Siegel back to work as a grunt writer in the 60s, during what is normally called the Mort Weisinger era, but other than that, Superman is a piece of s***. Its a miracle that it stuck around, because it is so bad. And then they have to stage things like the Death of Superman which was meaningless.

If Jerry Siegel had written the Death of Superman, then it would have mattered.

On that note, do you think that Superman will survive the 21st century?

Its questionable whether comic books will survive. We're at a crossroads here. Part of the problem is that print is under threat. Personally, I would hate to see print disappear, but we are moving into an age where information will be created and delivered electronically, and whether or not comics can translate into that medium is questionable right now. I dont have any answers.

But the Superman concept could possibly transfer over, since it is a concept. It's one of the things I've been wondering about. I agree with your assessment of the 20th Century being a Super Century. The Superman idea came at a great time for America. It really galvanized the idea that America was the Super-country; we have the atomic bomb and we're going to the moon. And now, I see a certain amount of confusion and direction. There is a short term direction right now.

But there's no single enemy.

Right.

I think the biggest unrecognized aspect of superheroes is that as we move into the 21st century, our children will be enhanced physically. In a sense, made super! Not to the point where theyll have x-ray vision or fly to other planets. But gene therapy will change human beings. Interfacing our minds and bodies with electronic components will change humans. And maybe three centuries from now, people will look back on our popular culture and say that it was an echo of what was coming.

I agree. That is one of the concerns my wife and I have discussed because we are expecting our first child. Any minute now. In fact, I completely forgot my cell phone!

Uh oh!

Seems I've lost touch with the mother base. We've been concerned about where scientific advances will take us? What will our child become subjected to - gene therapy? There may be some great pros to it, like the use of vaccinations to eradicate polio, or it could be worse.

Or it could be terrific. One of the things Ive been following is stem cell therapy. Theyre taking about regenerating organs. That might actually impact our own life spans.

Or resuscitate the brain. Helping to remove the amyloid plaque deposits that cause Alzheimers.

Exactly. So I think popular culture tends to reflect these things before they happen; in the sense that before there was the atomic bomb there was a lot of science fiction stories about atomic bombs.

Well, there's so much talk going on about how the 9-11 attack was prefigured by comics. You've probably seen that on the Internet. That was one of the first thoughts I had - this was right out of a comic.

We'll probably find out that bin Laden reads SPIDER-MAN or something.

(general laughter)

Or the AUTHORITY.

MAXIMORTAL was a bold, provocative and ambitious meditation on the Superman concept. Was this book then a glimpse of the superman behind the four-color veil?

The central theme is that ideas are alive. I chose the Superman archetype to address that theme and illustrate it. To me superheroes are an industrial age version of the gods. So I'm using them to explore the concept that ideas are living entities, and that there is a dimension for where these ideas exist outside of time and space, from which they impact human flesh and minds.

One of my other questions touches upon that. I'm noticed that Alan Moore is talking about a similar topic in PROMETHEA, and Grant Morrison has talked about it in the INVISIBLES. There seems to be a synchronicity going on, with creators, on this topic. Do you think there is a rationale for that?

I dont think its coincidence. What Alan and Grant and I are coming at from different directions is attempting to define an underlying physics of consciousness. Today there is no scientific explanation for what consciousness is. Some people approach the problem through magic and I come at it through my dream work. Ive been working with Alan [Moore] through the SWAMP THING era after which we went off in different directions and did different things. When we came back, and we started talking about what we were into, we realized that we had built a similar personal philosophy about ideas as life forms; both of us had reached the same point.

Was that scary or exhilarating?

Not scary. Reinforcing. Alan had actually worked out a terminology. He saw ideas being made of stuff called 'ideoplasm'. And he had a name for the dimension it inhabited, Ideaspace. He came to it because he was teaching himself the disciplines of magic: kabbalah and European traditions of consciousness, referred to as magic. It was just a way of exploring these levels beyond time and space. I was doing the same thing with dream work. I was writing down my dreams. I was looking at them. What are these things telling to me? I could see that on one level they were just illustrating relationship problems and things I was facing in my life, but on another level they were describing this higher level of physics.

That was one of the things I'm really exhilarated and encouraged by comics, like the work you've done, Moore and Morrison. It seems that comics are poised to talk about it in a very direct fashion - with the marriage of text and image - it can be really powerful sometimes. Particularly, I'm thinking of PROMETHEA. It's been pretty profound. I see some analogs in the talk about String Theory. Have you read The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene?

Yep.

Elegant Universe

I found it really intriguing, because Greene kept touching on the idea of consciousness of ideas. That at some point, reality reaches a physical limit and everything becomes ideas and concepts. I especially liked that String theorists had five different theories how string theory should work, and then realize they have five points on some greater idea. They all work, and you can get to all of them if you really want to.

My theory is that consciousness is a dimension, like time and space, and once the physicists realize it they are going to re-look at relativity and string theory. Consciousness is the missing piece. If you look at the quantum level, where all events happen at once, what defines the event is the consciousness of the observer. Consciousness is what were experiencing as reality. Our scientists havent gotten there yet, so right now its still the realm for the artist to explore intuitively.

Interesting how you brought up Morrison, Alan and myself. I think all of us got to a point in our work where we used the same device of a character that appears outside of time and space, and intersects the story from many different levels of time and space. At the end of MAXIMORTAL, I do it. Alan did it in FROM HELL, and Morrison did in THE INVISIBLES.

Let's talk about GREYSHIRT, it's a new miniseries coming from the ABC imprint. What can you tell me about the series?

What were trying to do is get the backstory of Greyshirt. We did a dozen short stories of Greyshirt in the TOMORROW STORIES comic. But Greyshirt was essentially a deus ex machina, appearing at the end of stories as a force of nature arather than a real in depth character. Alan was getting a kick out of that, but what we were hearing is "Well, who is this guy, Greyshirt? We want to know more. " So we thought we would do the miniseries and define who he was and his whole backstory. Although, we'll also be including some of the more Eisner-esque short stories in the series as well.

When it came out, I enjoyed its ambitious take on the comic format, but why do you think GREYSHIRT can succeed? It seems he is such an unusual character.

GREYSHIRT and the whole ABC line were a reaction to the collapse of comics in 97 and 98. Both Alan and myself were feeling it. Wed been working our tailbones off since the mid-80s. Wed watched this thing evolve into something that was pretty sick. In light of the World Trade Center attack, there has been a lot of discussion that this grim and gritty thing had gone too far. I think Alan and I, and a number of other people, were already there in the early nineties. 1963 was a reaction to the grim and gritty, but ABC is even more so, because when we conceived them we were concerned that comics were in a death spiral that they werent going to come out of. Many people were out of work in 97 and 98. Alan has one of the few surviving brand names in comics, and he took it upon himself to try and turn things around. Part of that was doing a whole line of comics, but also creating material that got away from this horrible cliché that had its fangs in comics. So, GREYSHIRT is part of that--a kinder, gentler form of superhero without a lot the modern trappings that have become so absurd.

In MAXIMORTAL 2, you responded to a reader that one of the problems you had working with mainstream characters was that "I couldn't seem to write them with the sugarcoated veneer of nobility that the companies required of their masked vigilantes. Maybe it's just me, but I tend to see all forms of vigilantism as something quite a bit less than heroic. I equate taking the law into your own hands as a form of anarchy, and to glorify such action by costumed characters as heroic is essentially a lie that cynically plays on people's fear and impotence in the face of real world problems." But now you're working on a vigilante.

Well, were talking ten years later. One of the things BRAT PACK and MAXIMORTAL tried to do was pop the pimple (laughter) and drain the pus from this thing that was actively denied by the superhero industrial complex, and make a point. Now the points have been made. So its a different time.

I figured it was something like that.

Weve had ten years of the darkest vigilantes imaginable. Thats what the 90s have been about. Now, Alan and I and some others have been moving in the other direction. Whether an audience is willing to follow us, or if we have to find a way to build a new audience, I dont really know.

What have the sales been like for the ABC line?

Theyre good in terms of modern sales of comics. 40,000 is a hit now. Theyre also conceived as collected graphic novels, so theres a whole other food chain of economics to make money.

Yesterday, we were talking about the experiments in format that you and Alan Moore did in GREYSHIRT. Specifically, I'm thinking of the second issue of TOMORROW STORIES, in which you can read the story any which way, up and down, back and forth, etc., and "Greyshirt the Muscial" in TOMORROW STORIES #9. In a conversation with a friend, who had read the stories, he had a comment for which I was unprepared: he said "Those are really entertaining, but they seem to be more of a trick that enslaves the narrative."

Thats a good point, but I think you have to take those stories in the context of TOMORROW STORIES, which is an anthology. Alan had goals for the anthology, and if you look at TOMORROW STORIES its a bit anarchic. GREYSHIRT is the most grounded out of all that stuff, some of which is really kind of nutty. The limitations of GREYSHIRT are that its a six-page story. Try to write a six-page story with a beginning, middle and an end. You need a trick to make it work, or youll have something that is completely boring.

There is a connotation to 'trick' that can be bad.

Maybe trick is not the right word, maybe hook.

That might be a better word. Like a song, you have three minutes to write a song that is popular. You don't have the time frame or attention span to write an epic. So you've got to have a nice hook, whether it's the riff or backbeat or something.

Its a heck of a challenge. If you look at the GREYSHIRT stuff, there is probably only three or four that reach that height of an accomplished trick that is conceived and executed correctly.

Although the rest of the series holds up well. Your assessment of TOMORROW STORIES is right; it is anarchy. You've got the Jack Quick character whose wrecking scientific havoc, you have the Cobweb that jumps all over the place, it doesn't have any real time or place, it's as if the character is...

Out of time or space.

And can morph itself into anything. You have almost the same thing with First American, which is (hah) irreverent.

I like the book. Alan's talking about reformatting it as a quarterly 80 page giant.

This doesn't seem to be the right climate for an anthology, unfortunately.

It's always been that way. Anthologies are a tough sell. Like the ABC 64-page Giant, I thought that was really great.

That was a nice product, and I know several people who enjoyed it. Actually, most of the people who were real fans were happy with it.

If you can get something like that down to a couple of bucks, 64 pages of comics that come from every direction at once, boy, I think youd get a lot more readers.

Prices are a big thing. You have short stories and may have hooks, but if the people don't feel they're getting a lot out of it then they might not pay for it. Yet, some people are still paying high prices for comics that offer them very little.

My last question is my fanboy question. You did an issue of SWAMP THING where you brought Solomon Grundy into the mythos, which was a nifty narrative idea. What was the genesis of that? Did someone come up to you and say they want to bring Solomon Grundy back?

Solomon Grundy

I honestly can't remember the genesis of that. I think it came out of talks I had with Alan as I became writer. We just sort of talked about stuff that he hadnt touched on yet, and one of them was probably Solomon Grundy. He probably mentioned to me "Oh yeah, I never did anything with Solomon Grundy. " I think at the time that Roy Thomas was using Solomon Grundy [in INFINITY INC.], so we thought - what the heck, stick him in there.

I had dropped SWAMP THING for a year, at that point, and picked up that issue. I read it and thought that was really interesting. That was a little hook that got me to stick around. You gave him a backstory...

That was built-in there already.

Really.

Yeah. In WHO'S WHO, they described who Solomon Grundy is, so basically I was working with source material. I played up the pulp mills and all that. Of course, the other trick was to get to do a cover that looked like the Hulk had SWAMP THING in an arm hold.

(general laughter)

Well, that's all I've got. Thanks a lot, Mr. Veitch.

It's been really interesting.

Links

Rick Veitch's website: www.comicon.com/veitch

You can also purchase trade paperbacks at Veitch's site.

Shamanism link: www.deoxy.org/shaman.htm

 
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