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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

An Interview with Rick Veitch (by Mark Belkin)

This interview conducted, transcribed and copy-edited by Mark Belkin.

Rick Veitch is one of my five favorite creators in comic books. My first experience with Rick's work was on The One published by Epic Comics in 1984. It was mind-blowingly weird and the first "alternative" comic I ever bought. The very first issue of Swamp Thing I ever bought was Swamp Thing #37 (1985), which shared the co distinction of being the first appearance of John Constantine, and the first issue I would purchase of Swamp Thing that Rick Veitch would work on.

I thought she was going to say "Don't Stand So Close To Me".

I was very excited when I discovered he would be taking over illustrating AND writing with issue #65 (1987). Swamp Thing #65 until #87 is one of my favorite runs in all of comic book history, and if you don’t have it, please do yourself a favor and get some issues. He had this way of taking established characters and giving them a subversive and dark, psychedelic twist. There was something about his characters that were separated from their reality, something sad, but also yearning for direction. They yearned for purpose as they manically moved through the story. It always felt like there was some climax that everything twisted was building towards. Something very ancient and cosmic boiling over and waiting to tell you it’s secrets, than laugh at your discomfort after you discover "That’s kind of sick". Everything felt connected on an unconscious level and symbolism was pervasive in every issue. I wasn't completely surprised that we both shared a love for Carl Jung, and I imagine his work pushed me into that direction.

There was an unfortunate end of his run on Swamp Thing. It left me devastated and obsessed for many years. Number 88 would not come out because of behind-the-scenes issues. I dream of one day having the ability to finally release #88, and the 3 or so issues that follow, to complete the story. But that may just be a dream that will never become a reality. The loss of #88 did lead to Rick creating [King Hell Press'Brat Pack and Maximortal, two classic indie limited series', that did as much to entertain as well as comment on the comic book industry.

Rick spoke with DC in the 80s during an appearance at Baltimore Comic Con. The first half an hour we discussed Carl Jung. This is a transcript of the second half, discussing the Joe Kubert school, his days at Epic, Swamp Thing, and what happened at the end.

Mark Belkin: What I first wanted to talk about was your time at the Joe Kubert School and your roommates at the time. Any interesting stories from living with Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, and Tom Yeates?

Rick Veitch: There are so many stories I couldn’t even begin to tell you. But we were very fortunate in 1976 to go to the Kubert school, which not only gave us the training to be cartoonists, but put us right in the geographical area where comics were made at a time when the business of comics was going through a huge transition. The metaphor I often use is that someone who was into folk music in 1962 was lucky enough to end up in Greenwich Village. When we started school, the comics business was in a state of collapse, distribution had failed and many people were saying the business was cooked. We didn’t believe it, we were just young guys who said “Yeah! We’re gonna do comics!” What ended up happening was that comics rebooted itself, by creating a more modern distribution system. A lot of the old guard had left before that happened, so the doors had opened up to us in 1978/1979. We were young guys that right out of art school got gigs with the biggest companies.

Mark: So how did you start living with Yeates, Totleben, and Bissette?

RV: We were very committed and had this great creative and friendly relationship. We knew we had to stay in New Jersey after we graduated to build our careers. So we rented a house which was sort of an art crash pad, and we all helped each other with whatever jobs we could get. Tom Yeates had the most commercial style, and so he got the first job at DC Comics, as regular artist on the newly rebooted Swamp Thing comic. Even though the house broke up I still lived with Tom, his girlfriend and my girlfriend, on Lake Hopatcong in North Jersey. Since I was right there, I would help Tom meet his deadlines. And when John and Steve were in Jersey, they would pitch in and help on Swamp Thing too. So from the start it was sort of like this communal thing. When it was time for Tom to leave the book, he suggested John and Steve. They really wanted to work together as a team, especially on a horror book. They both loved horror comics. Steve especially, he’s like a historian of horror comics, and he wanted to reinvigorate horror comics in America.

I personally at that point was not as enthralled with regular comic books, it just wasn’t what was happening. I was working for Epic Comics and Heavy Metal. I was more interested in Moebius and visionary guys like that. But Steve and John saw the potential and got into it. Both Steve and I ended up back in Vermont, so, I would help him out, just as we’d always done. Fortunes of the book were not looking good, sales kept going down and down, and it looked like Swamp Thing was going to get canceled. As a last ditch effort, DC decided the hire this unknown British writer, Alan Moore. Now that’s the kind of luck Steve is famous for. He came over to my place with the first script he did from Alan, "The Anatomy Lesson", and I got to read it. It was a revelation. Alan had created a new way to work with an artist. His scripts were insanely detailed, but so beautifully realized it didn’t matter. He wrote them like love letters to the artist, he knew everything you’ve ever done and analyzed it brilliantly. He would make light of his own obsession with detail and then toss off something like "don’t worry about all this, you don’t have to do this, do what you think is best". And you’d end up busting your ass to give him exactly what he wants because he’s so clear in how he writes his panel descriptions.

Rick Veitch and John Totleben around this time. Stephen not pictured.

So, based on Alan’s scripts, I became more interested in Swamp Thing and regular comic books as well. There was a great potential future for the art form in Alan’s breakthrough and I wanted to learn as much as I could from it. Steve started to draw Anatomy Lesson, but was running up against the deadline and I helped him out with that first issue. I did about a third of the Anatomy Lesson. And then each subsequent issue Steve would call me in when he needed me to help. Then later, when DC needed someone to do a fill in issue to give Steve a breather, I was one of the guys they would call. My involvement was really a secondary career, I had a really great thing going at Marvel, writing and drawing a creator owned series at Epic. So I didn’t think of it as my money-making career, I really wanted to learn more about this... magic... Alan was conjuring. In the process I got to know the editor, Karen Berger, so it seemed natural that when Steve and John left, that I would become the regular penciller on the book.

Mark: How did that happen?

RV: I think I finished The One and I was looking for work. I was at the DC offices, hanging with Karen (Berger) and said “Why don’t I do Swamp Thing?” and she said “No, no someone else has that.” And she called me a few days later and said “Hey, you got it if you want it”, because I guess whatever they had fell apart. So I picked up as penciller. Totleben, unfortunately, was burned out inking and wanted to leave the book. They brought in Alfredo Alcala, who is fabulous inker, but Totleben had brought this amazing element to it that I would have loved to explore. Alan also decided to take Swamp Thing in a different direction and it became more sci-fi. We started mining the golden age and silver age DC characters.

Mark: Adam Strange…

I felt really bad for Adam. As an adult, I get it so much more.

RV: We both grew up on all those early Silver Age characters, those were our first comics. Bringing them into Swamp Thing was a lot of fun and really formed the beginning of our extensive retro collaborations over the decades.

Mark: So you guys connected, and Swamp Thing has been killed by Luthor and sent through space. He comes back, and there was that issue that was psychedelic, that Totleben did. Then you take over with number 65 as the writer and penciller.

RV: Alan was becoming less and less interested in Swamp Thing. At that point he was also writing The Watchmen and [Eclipse's] Miracleman.

Mark: Which you illustrated for.

I am picturing Kid Miracleman doing horrible things.

RV: He was getting behind on the scripts for Swamp Thing, and I would call Karen (Berger), because I didn’t have a script. And Alan would call the next day with 8 pages written. Over the phone he would give me the first page and then Fed Ex the rest of the pages to me. But he was right up to the deadline for all the things he was handling. I think his main creative thrust at that point was what he was doing with The Watchmen (1986), even more than Miracleman. The Watchmen was his main thing right then.

Mark: Yeah, I imagine so.

RV: So his Swamp Thing tank was kind of running low, but the book was doing well and everyone was happy with it. And, when he left, no one wanted to write it.

Mark: Moore is a hard act to follow.

What a writer must do when following Moore on a book. 

RV: It’s hard following the best. It’s like getting up on stage after the Beatles, what’s the point? But both he and Karen decided I was the person to do it, so they kind of worked on me to consider it. Once I got thinking about it, there were all these things I could do that hadn’t been done yet. So I took it on, thankless job that it was, and I think I did a pretty good book.

Mark: Absolutely, it is one of my favorite comic books runs of all time. So at first you were doing some horror, but you really started exploring the DC Universe. You included Killer Croc, Solomon Grundy, what was the inspiration or what were you thinking at the time, that those were the elements you wanted to explore in Swamp Thing?

Croc really giving Batman the business in Swamp Thing #66.


RV: Well in the late 80’s we were all re-inventing what a commercial comic book could be. It was fun to take an old character who was stale and give them a new dimension. I was actively asking for certain characters, but other writers were doing the same. I really wanted to do Blackhawk but someone else got him.

Mark: Howard Chaykin.

RV: He did a fantastic job too. But since I was finding it difficult to get my mitts on their modern characters, I decided to focus on the really obscure DC characters that were set back in time. I crafted a story arc where Swamp Thing falls back in time, and I was able to play with the war characters, the cowboy characters, the Roman characters, and all the way back.

Mark: And of course this leads into what your interviewer’s most important moment of his childhood was, and its Swamp Thing # 88 never coming out. I was obsessed with your run, and when it didn’t come out, I went to find out why. Someone explained to me that you were not allowed to tell this story you wanted to tell, because of what had happened with The Last Temptation of Christ, and that scared Warner Brothers, so there was nervousness about putting something like that out. I stopped reading Swamp Thing, and honestly comic books in general, which I have started reading again since. Then you yourself did not want to return to DC comics. Could you talk about that for a bit?

RV: Swamp Thing #88 was planned way ahead. The basic idea was Swamp Thing meeting Jesus. DC realized it was a dicey idea to bring in a religious icon. So they asked me to write an outline, which Karen gave to our managing editor Dick Giordano and our publisher, Jeanette Khan. We got the 'ok' to go ahead, but they said they also wanted to see the script in progress. So I wrote the script, they got to see that, and we got the 'ok' again. The story itself doesn’t really do anything outrageous with the figure of Jesus, quite the opposite. Swamp Thing meets him, and gets to be the angel in the Garden of Getsemane. The main thrust of #88 was about The Golden Gladiator and the birth of The Demon. Michael Zulli penciled the book, it was lettered, Tom Sutton started to ink it. It was about a third ways inked when I turned in the cover. The cover was a crucifix with Swamp Thing’s head growing on it, with his head sort of keeled back like a suffering saint on a holy card. A very striking cover.

My comic book holy grail, pun intended.

Mark: It was my background image on my computer for years.

RV: I didn’t know this at the time, but apparently there were a couple of people in the DC offices who were religious and personally objected to that image. They went to Jeanette Khan and Paul Levitz and complained. All I got was a phone call out of the blue from Karen saying “We are not doing that issue, I need a new script in 3 days". And I said "Wait, wait. What’s going on? Whatever is wrong with it, I can fix it". I offered to do whatever it took to fix the issue. And Karen just said "No". And everyone was angry at me. Even Karen.

Mark: Angry?

Rick: I realized later she was angry at her bosses about the situation, and when she talked to me she was angry about that. I thought she was mad at me. I tried every possible ploy to get them to let me fix the script or change the cover. I actually had a conversation with Jeannette Khan, and she just was completely unsupportive. Her attitude was that I was responsible for this big mistake.

I just couldn’t win. I now wish I had been more professional, and asked for a few more months to finish a new script, and finish the whole time travel run. It’s a big hole in my life [Interviewer’s note: Mine too], I had this beautiful ending co-plotted with Neil Gaiman, who was going to take over Swamp Thing after my run. But the whole thing blew up in everybody’s face.

Mark: It’s hard not to respect someone being offended by it. What can you do?

RV: Yeah. Of course.

Mark: I know the issue that the issue will never come out, buttttt do you think the issue will ever come out?

RV: I really hope so! I would happy if it did. More so if I could finish the time travel story!

Mark: Who do I need to petition? Dan Didio? Jim Lee?

RV: Jim Lee and Dan Didio, yeah. They just did a series of other stuff they had originally refused to publish, but not #88. It seems to be the third rail of comics. The sad thing is that Swamp Thing and Abby were such great characters, I had so much more I wanted to do with them. I blame myself that the heart was taken out of those great characters.

Mark: What if #88 had come out? What if Neil Gaiman had taken over the book? Where would things have gone? Certainly would have affected my life because I would have continued reading comics, instead of just being so disappointed I just moved onto other things. I can only imagine how history would have been different.

RV: Its one of my big life regrets. Is that I quit and I didn’t finish that run. We had a heck of a great ending.

Mark: And you moved you on to Brat Pack and Maximortal.

RV: My anger at the situation powered those books. Which helped make them a success. I kind of blew the lid off of what super heroes could be.

One of the most disturbing stories I've ever read.


Mark: Well I think I could spend about 20 years talking to you, but I want to thank you for joining us today.

RV: My pleasure.

You can check out more of what Rick is up to at: http://www.rickveitch.com/

-Mark
Alchemy.

2 comments:

  1. It's not often I like a new team on a very well-regarded book but Rick's take was different than what preceded it and fantastic. And it still holds up. Thanks so much for this interview.

    I'd love to know who was offended by the religious story on the DC side of things. Funny how nowadays that story probably wouldn't even make anyone there bat an eye ...

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  2. Posted on Dan didios wall 👍😁

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