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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Tom Veitch interview -- part two

This is the second part of our interview with writer Tom Veitch. To read about his early work in indie comix and his first work for DC comics, check out part 1.

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Justin: Along with Jamie Delano’s World Without End, The Nazz was one of the forerunners of the Vertigo imprint. It wasn’t called ‘Vertigo’ yet, but it kinda gave a taste as to what was in store for the books being edited by Karen Berger. The stories seemed to have a Heavy Metal Magazine-esque quality to them. Did you have any clue of what was taking shape here? Or, for all you knew, this was just a one-shot? (kind of like the DC Graphic Novel collection of the mid-80s)

Tom: What was taking shape was "the British invasion". Everybody worshiped Alan Moore, of course. (His Swamp Thing was really the first Vertigo comic, in terms of mood and style.) But I am thinking especially of Neil Gaiman, with whom Karen formed a special relationship. And on the practical side, it was Karen herself and her vision of adult-level comics that took hold at DC. I remember standing in the hallway at DC talking with her and Archie Goodwin and somebody else, and she said straight out, in forceful tones, “I HATE SUPERHEROES.” The others were a bit taken aback, but you could see they understood that she was bringing something new to the world of comics publishing, and it would probably be a good thing.

Justin: Your first DC work for Karen was 'The Nazz' -- a 4-issue prestige format series published in 1990. I personally consider this as proto-Vertigo since it was published under Karen's editorial reign and there's a 'SUGGESTED FOR MATURE READERS' warning on the cover. I've read it a few times, but have never had the chance to really discuss it with anyone -- so some of my ideas about the mini-series might come off as a little offbeat, or maybe I'm totally missing the idea behind the book. So, here goes:

If I had to summarize this mini: "An arrogant New York SOB journeys to Calcutta to gain mystical knowledge and achieve self-actualization, and returns to New York as an arrogant SOB ultimate human". I'd easily categorize this as a cautionary tale about seeking mystical knowledge and the Icarus idea of flying too close to the sun and self-destructing. Am I right here? Or am I totally missing the mark? How would you summarize The Nazz?

Tom: You are pretty much on the mark. I’d add a couple of things to what you say: The Nazz is about the release of superpowers that are natural and innate to every human being. And it is about what happens if your mind (and ego) are not up to understanding and dealing with what you have unleashed and what you have become. Michael Nazareth suffers a classic ego inflation.




As the series progressed, the covers illustrated the evolution of Michael Nazareth. 
Cover art by Bryan Talbot


Justin: In The Assimilation of Yogic Religions through Pop Culture by Paul G. Hackett and David Gordon White (p 184 - 185), The Nazz is mentioned as "...readers are introduced to an alternate interpretation of tantra through the anti-hero Michael Nazareth.", "...when he returns from India the siddhis that he has acquired through tantric initiation lead him down a dark path." and "...Nazareth sinks into an indulgence of man's lowest urges, reflecting a deconstruction of the hero which offer no redemption. Within this narrative arc, tantra appears as the device that leads to decline, mirroring representations of black magic from much earlier comics (like The Phantom)."

Based on your experiences with spirituality, I don't think any of this was a total coincidence. Was this a cautionary tale about Buddhism based on anecdotal experiences (apparently Zen ideals were pretty big with the counter-cultural poets of the 60s)? Or just a story you wanted to tell that seemed to tie-in to the relevancy of the time (i.e., the Buddhism movement was gaining a lot of speed in United States during the late 80s/early 90s -- some may even call it a 'fad')?

Tom: I don’t quite agree with Hackett & Gordon's interpretation the The Nazz. First of all, the 'left hand path' of tantra yoga is well known in the East. And the cults of dark goddesses (like Kali) transgress all the boundaries of civilized society. (e.g. see the movie The Deceivers w/ Pierce Brosnan).

The Nazz is definitely a cautionary tale – but it's a message to Westerners to watch your ass if you get involved with the mystical paths of the East. (Hinduism more than Buddhism) It’s not all the happy hippy light & consciousness you think it is. In fact, it’s profoundly dangerous and a test of your whole being. (A good book to read in this regard is Living With Kundalini, by Gopi Krishna.)

Now, after The Nazz came out some readers complained that I made him "turn bad" – they wanted him to become the standard fulfillment of their adolescent power fantasies – a kind of earth-born superman, using his powers to fight evil, and so forth. (That’s what the Retaliators, in the comic, wanted as well.)

panels from The Nazz #1 (1990). Art by Bryan Talbot.


The book is also very much about Michael’s arrogant relationship to women, and in that it’s probably more current than we know!

Justin: I can't help but comment on some of the more obvious references in this work: the main protagonist is Michael Nazareth -- Nazareth (childhood home of Jesus) -- hence, the reader might identify Michael as a martyr or savior.

The Retaliators look very much like Judge Dredd -- and anyone familiar with the Judges from 2000 A.D. would be quick to associate them as fascists. Ironically, it's Nazz's followers -- his disciples that are imbued with super powers -- that are called the 'judges'. I'm aware that Bryan Talbot has previously illustrated Judge Dredd comics, and actually got his start as an underground comix illustrator in the 60s, so he may have integrated his own ideas in there...

panel from The Nazz #2 (1991). Art by Bryan Talbot.

Tom: Strangely enough, I am just remembering that The Nazz is based on a story I wrote in the 1970s about a Jesus-like character who was as ugly as the Elephant Man. He was just horrible to look at, but people found themselves helplessly attracted to him. …It’s also a homage to the great Lord Buckley skit “The Nazz”.

Justin: Was your story ever published? If so, where did it appear?

Tom: Yes, it was published in a small press mag, as I recall. I probably have a copy in storage – but I don’t remember the name of the publication.

Justin: After The Nazz was when you went over to Animal Man. You picked up after Peter Milligan and Chas Truog’s 6-issue run in which Buddy Baker awakes from a coma, only to discover he was in another coma this whole time. So it more or less picks up right after Morrison’s run, since Milligan’s run had the “it was all a dream” feel to it. Was it your idea to end Millligan’s story arc like that? Or was it Milligan’s?

panels from Animal Man #32 (1991). Art by Chas Truog.


Tom: I think it was the combined idea of editor Art Young and Pete Milligan. My understanding was they were actively looking for a long-term writer and Milligan was filling in.

Justin: Slightly off topic – issue #32 has the most disturbing ‘big reveal’ I’ve ever seen in a comic book... and it wasn’t even a 'mature audience' title yet! It felt like proto-Vertigo was REALLY pushing the envelope there. I guess asking why would be a question for Milligan and Truog – but it was establishing Animal Man as title that was going to have some horrific imagery in it. [I guess also as bad as a chimpanzee with its eyelids sewn shut.] Going into this, did you understand the bar you were going to have to uphold (in terms of ‘weird’ and ‘horrifying’)?

Tom: Not sure what you mean by “disturbing big reveal” – I just read #32 over and it all seems pretty tame to me … especially considering what they do in movies these days.

Justin: Ah, I'm specifically referring to this scene. [click to view panel - NSFW]

Tom: I guess it looked too unreal to have much effect on my brain! I saw the image as being a doll of some kind.

In any case, my proposal for my run on the series was submitted and approved months before #32 was written and drawn. And there was no “bar to uphold” that I recall. Animal Man was one of those books where creators made their own rules.

Justin: So how did you become the Animal Man writer? Did you approach the editor when it was revealed that Milligan was leaving after six issues? Or were you approached by DC to pick up the series?

Tom: I was invited by [editor] Art Young, to submit a proposal for continuing the series. I don't know where he is today, but I do know he moved to the UK.

As I recall, Art liked The Nazz a lot. But he also said to me "You’re getting famous right now, so you should do a series for us."

Justin: Were you a fan of Animal Man before receiving this assignment -- as in, were you reading Animal Man’s Silver Age adventures back when you were younger? How much did you already know about the character?

Strange Adventures #195 (1966). Cover art by Jack Sparling.


Tom: I’m sure you understand that, like many comics creators, I read comic books my whole life! Comics were very cheap to buy and we bought tons of them right through high school. The real kicker, of course, was the Marvel revolution, beginning with The Fantastic Four in 1961 and right through the 1970s. I was reading those – especially [JackKirby – even while devouring everything Robert Crumb extruded.

In the 1980s I was excited by Heavy MetalMoebius, then Alan Moore and Swamp Thing. Also all the Frank Miller stuff, which I collected.

I had read Morrison's Animal Man, and the main reason I read it was [because] I found Grant to be an interesting writer. Another reason was that DC, at that time, used to send all the “talent” a big bag of new comics every two weeks!

I loved Grant’s use of the "M-field" and I saw right away how it would fit in with my concept of super-powers as part of our nature.

[If it's been a while since you've read Animal Man and need a refresher, Tom graciously provided his notes on his entire 18-issue Animal Man run. You can view them here.]

Justin: On that fun note of Morrison, one of the first pages in Animal Man #33 has someone shattering a clay effigy of Grant Morrison – kinda reiterating that this was YOUR series now. Was that intentional? (laughs)

panels from Animal Man #33 (1991). Art by Steve Dillon.

Tom: Yeah, that was a bit of in-joke. But Grant didn’t appreciate it, so I was told. And when I introduced myself to him later, at a comic convention in London, he wouldn’t even speak to me. Imagine that!

Justin: Was anyone in the DC editorial raising concern that Animal Man's origin kept getting retconned? This felt like the second time in three years that he was given a new origin (or a revised explanation of his powers).

Tom: No. I need to keep reminding you that “DC editorial”, such as it was, didn’t have any concerns – at least none that were passed on to me. The fact of the matter is that animal powers leave a lot of room for exploration and expansion. They aren’t as limiting as mutant powers and the specialized super-powers that define most superheroes.

Justin: Was Animal Man selling really well as a title? Was editorial watching what kind of fan mail readers were sending?

Tom: We were selling ok and getting great fan mail. But there was a problem in that Tom Peyer (the editor) got fixated on the idea that he should print all of the negative letters in the letters columns. Of course it’s traditional in comics for the letters pages to be upbeat and promotional, not self-defeating. So his idea was a bit daft, in my opinion, especially since there were more than enough plaudits to fill a letters page! …Unfortunately Karen [Berger] was away on maternity leave, so I wasn’t able to take the matter up with her.

Justin: Animal Man became a mystical character -- and began rubbing shoulders with Phantom Stranger and Dr Fate -- which pretty much solidified his position as a member of the DCU (because for a while fans weren't too sure which world he belonged to). He was even part of the War of the Gods cross-over (although the cross-over issue in your series didn't really deal much with it). He makes a trip out to Rosewood (of Swamp Thing notoriety). He became an Animal Master and his daughter's powers were also developing. This seems like something that was done to shift Buddy into the Vertigo universe. He was now getting more bizarre with mystical God-like powers. Was this your plan/direction? Or DC editorial's?

Tom: It was all my idea. And really, as I said, it’s totally related to The Nazz and the idea that the life force is a well of infinite energy and power. As I said, they gave me my head and I ran with it.

panels from Animal Man #40 (1991). Art by Steve Dillon.

Justin: So, the chain of command went something like: you’d propose an Animal Man story idea or plot direction to Art Young (and later Tom Peyer), and they’d give it the ‘yay’ or ‘nay’. From there, it was escalated to Karen if it was anything needed to be verified? Was there ever a unified vision (ex: "we’d like Animal Man to become a god-like being", or "we’d like Animal Man to contain more animal activism messaging", or "we’d really like to set up Maxine to be his successor") or fore-planning? Or were you each [creative team] working in your own creative sandboxes?

Tom: Your last sentence is closest to the truth. Vertigo was like a jazz club where the owners hire musicians for their talents and then just sit back and let them blow.

Justin: So how did it work when you wanted to ‘borrow’ characters from other books? Prime example being Vixen/Tabu, who – if I recall correctly – was a member of the Suicide Squad and/or Justice League. Granted she wasn’t appearing in any titles at that time, but you did add a bit more exposition to the origin of her powers and altered her a bit. Obviously you couldn’t “borrow” characters from other high-selling books. Was there a DON’T TOUCH list?

Tom: As I recall, we went through the DC Universe looking for characters that could be connected to the concept of animal powers. In that regard, I would have loved to ‘borrow’ Batman and do a bat-powers story. But Batman editor Denny O’Neil kept a very tight lid on the character.

panels from Animal Man #47 (1992). Steve Dillon art.


Justin: Another thing – you killed off B’Wanna Beast. Now, I realize that nobody was begging for a B’Wanna Beast limited series. He’s a D-list character, at best. But still, he’s got some legacy. But was it just as simple as that? “I want to kill B’Wanna Beast.” Could you have killed off a tertiary Teen Titans character like Red Star? Or one of those lesser-known L.E.G.I.O.N. ‘92 characters? What were the rules there?

Tom: I don’t remember how we decided to link B’Wanna Beast and the ultimate evil. It might have been Tom Peyer’s idea. Once the link was created, he was doomed, obviously.

Justin: And The Penalizer – the ‘Punisher homage' – never saw its limited series. He kinda looked like J. Jonah Jameson (of Marvel's Spider-Man comics) – was The Penalizer meant to be lampooning any real person in the comics industry?

Tom: Both Tom Peyer and I wanted to do a limited The Penalizer series, although as I recall Karen wasn’t into it. I think Steve Dillon based the character visually on somebody he knew. But we weren’t lampooning anybody in particular in the business. That said, I did plan to have him become a superhero editor at DC Comics.

Page from Animal Man #38 (1991). Steve Dillon art. 

Justin: So, moving back to recurring themes in your work...

I'm seeing that a lot of your work -- in some way or another -- reflects on self-actualization and man's journey within himself to be the best he can be (or at least the pursuit of this). I'm also aware of your time spent as a Benedictine monk and your book The Visions of Elias: A True Story of Life in the Spirit. These are all intertwined, aren't they?

Tom: Bingo. But you know, a lot of that intertwining was unconscious — it was something that was emerging from my imagination, rather that a set of fixed ideas. Of course for the Animal Man comics, there was a conscious influence of the Carlos Castaneda books, which I was heavily into at the time.

Justin: In your last issue, you revealed that Carlos Castaneda and his theory of the "realm of the Second Attention" heavily influenced this series. You cited that the story of Animal Man, right from issue #1, was about the awakening of this “second attention”. Buddy didn’t consider himself to be a self-important superhero. I was wondering if you’d care to expound on this? Something you also mentioned was that the average comics reader is looking for familiar/repetitive comics experiences (ex: violent opposition of good and evil), and you attempted to challenge this status quo.

Tom: Yeah, Castaneda is a subtext for the series. And frankly, despite the fact he’s lost a lot of credibility since those days, I still think his idea of “the second attention” is still important. The second attention is basically intuition — non-verbal awareness including animal instinct. It occurred to me that Animal Man would operate in that state beyond the mind, in tune with the forces of nature. His powers and his consciousness are ultimately non-human, and in that way directly related to Native American shamanism.

How does this challenge “the average comics reader”? Well, the readers of comics are mostly looking for images of power they can identify with. Isn’t that the standard fantasy life of the adolescent? To be physically powerful and attract big-breasted women? ☺

Justin: It seemed like there was a lot of little sub-plots included into the over-arching story (one of which being The Penalizer that we just spoke about, another was about Cliff being abducted by his crazy uncle) that didn’t really see a resolution. Did you have an end game of where the story arc was going (i.e., Animal Masters, Antagon)? Or were you just letting the story ‘lead you’ and letting it happen organically (akin to real life)? Or was this story arc ended prematurely and actually had plans for beyond issue #50? I know you left for Star Wars: Dark Empire after that....

Tom: I did have more plans for the book. But I left because I wasn’t happy doing it. The art would generally be late or arrive at the last minute and I would have to rush the final dialoguing. And to top it off, after about 8 issues nobody was really editing the book. I would send in a script and it would go unedited to Steve Dillon. I would have loved to get more suggestions and interaction with the editor, but Tom was distracted by the huge workload they laid on him while Karen was on leave.

When I was going to quit, Mike Carlin said to me “You should never quit a book – just keep going until they take it away from you.” But I quit anyway.

Justin: Overall, when you look back on your Animal Man run – how do you feel about it? Is there anything you wish you had done differently? Was there an issue you were particularly proud of? [I noticed a lot of factoids about animals in your work. It was very educational. I sense that you’re an animal lover.] Coincidentally, artist Steve Dillon left the series as soon as you did...

Tom: I liked doing research on the animals. I built up a huge library on the subject. (This was before the internet.) I like all the issues but especially from #41 on. I liked putting Travis into cyberspace and doing all the stuff with genetics. (My daughter was studying genetics at the time, and helped me out on that.)

panels from Animal Man #37 (1991). Steve Dillon art.

Justin: So, in summary, I'd have to say that your story-arc dealt with Buddy's spiritual and philosophical growth (via the shamans). A line that stuck out for me was from one character talking to another: "you figured out the big secret, didn't you, Travis? With the power of the mind, a human being can do anything." -- this culminates with the Animal Masters creating a new universe which traps Antagon (a collection of the world's "dark side" energy). Was the Antagon created in relation to your views of Carl Jung's psychological views of the "shadow side"? Or just a plot device to keep the book going? Every story arc needs a big powerful villain to conclude with...

Tom: The Antagon is an ancient concept, actually. It goes back to the Gnostics and is a pre-Christian idea of evil. So, like my idea that superpowers are part of our nature, ultimate evil is also part of us. Yes, that can be called 'Jungian', but only because Jung also got in touch with that in his explorations.

Justin: After reading your series notes, I was caught completely unaware that you'd inserted yourself in to the story. In fact, you got me taking another look at that whole "writer" subplot. That ending doesn't really add up -- I'm wondering if you were trying to go for a David Lynch/Twin Peaks "there is no real meaning here, it's just a series of unconnected circumstances" type of thing, but I'm actually suspecting there was another message here...

Tom: As for the ending of my series, I wouldn't read too much into it -- I had no great message other than the droll idea of the writer entering the story, becoming a comic book character and getting the hots for Ellen, who is only a comic book character. Animal Man beating me up is a similar idea. But altogether the message is that characters operate autonomously in the brains of writers -- they aren't "made up" so much as having a real life of their own!


panels from Animal Man #50 (1992). Steve Dillon art.

It's worth noting that, in addition to Tom Veitch's writing and Steve Dillon's interior art, Brian Bolland illustrated every comic book cover of Veitch's Animal Man run -- which no doubt contributed to the fan affection for this series. You can view the cover gallery here.

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In part 3 of our Tom Veitch interview, Tom discusses Clash, Kamandi and his one and only Superman story.

Justin




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