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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Tom Veitch interview -- part one

While I was familiar with Animal Man as a member of The Forgotten Heroes, the very first issue of Animal Man that I bought with my own money was issue #33 (published in 1991) which bore a striking cover of a bloody eagle by Brian Bolland. This was a pretty risqué cover for a DC comic and told me they weren't messing around. About a year and a half later, Animal Man would be sporting the "Suggested for Mature Readers" label on the cover and be officially absorbed into the Vertigo imprint.

Animal Man v1 #33 (1991). Cover by Brian Bolland.
How's that for impact?

Animal Man v1 issues #33 to #50 (written by Tom Veitch) wove an intricate storyline that added new chapters to the Animal Man mythos. While most die-hard Animal Man fans will tell you that Grant Morrison's run (issues #1 to #26) completely revitalized the character and got fans talking about him again, I'd proclaim that Veitch's run did some fascinating things with Buddy Baker and fleshed out new ideas to build upon in regards to the evolution of the character.

When I discovered a way to contact Tom Veitch, I jumped at the opportunity to interview him. He happily agreed. As I was doing my research, I discovered a few surprising things. First, Tom Veitch is Rick Veitch's older brother. Second, Tom Veitch got his start as a comic book writer in the late 1960s underground comix movement. Third, Tom Veitch is the godfather/architect of the Dark Horse Star Wars Extended Universe. This last detail blew my mind. I owned those Star Wars Dark Empire comic books, I collected those Star Wars Tales of the Jedi comics, I threw a fit when Disney decided to retcon the Star Wars Extended Universe out of existence. Discovering Veitch was the writer for Dark Empire and Tales of the Jedi is a kin to just discovering that your uncle co-starred with Chuck Norris in a few 80s action films. Incredible.

Hey Star Wars fans of the early nineties... remember these? Tom Veitch wrote 'em!

I figured the best way to dive in to this interview was to start all the way back to his first published work...

Justin: I'm going to be frank; my knowledge of the late 1950s Beat Generation scene is weak to non-existent. I mean, I've read Jack Kerouac's On The Road Again while I was going through a phase in college (and really, who hasn't), but that's the most I seem to remember of it.

From what I've researched, at the age of twenty you published your first novel: The Transfigured. Three years later, in 1963, you moved from your hometown of Vermont to New York City. You wrote another novel called WHATS, and befriended William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg shortly after moving to NYC. This was near the end of the Beat Generation -- which was slowly morphing into the hippie and counter-culture movement. What was that like? This must've been a pretty exciting time...

Tom: I'm going to quote myself from an excerpt I wrote for an upcoming project. This answers your question perfectly:
The New York poetry scene, as it existed back in the 1960s, sometimes claimed to be dealing with matters profound and spiritual, but it wasn’t really. With the exception of the beats and a few academics, most of what was being written was "look at me" and "aren’t I clever" stuff. The poets wrote for each other, to impress each other, and to launch witty one-liners into the literary aether.

Tom Clark, a very fine poet, once said to me, "Where are the Dantes and the Virgils and the Miltons and Blakes of our group? They don’t exist." And he was right. In fact there was simply nobody among the New York Poets on the level of Verlaine, Rimbaud, Rilke or Paul Eluard either — to name just a few transcendent poetic luminaries.

Maybe it was the ethos of the times — pop art had supplanted abstract expressionism, after all. Everybody was jazzed with fame and notoriety. (Andy Warhol being the Guru for the whole movement, both art and poetry.) Nobody dealt with spiritual matters anymore, certainly not at a level that could be called profound or wise. Just about everything being published by the New York Poets at that time was word-play and autobiographical with a frosting of smart-ass thinking.

There are exceptions, of course. But they are almost accidental, because at its core, this was a social movement, not an engagement with the deep psyche or the archetypal layers of the mind and the unconscious. Even the so-called "personal unconscious" of neurotic thinking and behavior was grist for poems and the public self — not for self-examination and transformation.

Big things were happening in the psyche. The poets just didn’t seem to recognize or pick up on them, even when they were doing so-called "mind-opening" drugs. Very few even thought exploring the psyche was a worthwhile thing to do. As long as you are making the scene, getting lots of sex, making it into print, maybe going on to a teaching job at a University…then you have fulfilled your calling as a poet.

Back in the 60s and 70s you could stand in awe before a Vermeer painting, but you knew damn well that you couldn’t access that level of spirit in yourself. Same with Rimbaud. Everybody was jealous and worshipful of Rimbaud. But nobody found the key in themselves that would release the "inner Rimbaud", or the "inner Rilke", or even the "inner Byron or Shelley." That’s because they all lived in the superficial layers of the personality, and had lost touch with the deep Self.

Now some of the attitude of the poets might have had to do with the fact that many of them were taking "diet pills", or pharmaceutical speed. These prescription amphetamines were easy to obtain back in those days. The whole New York advertising business ran on them, so we were told. I saw first-hand that the poetry scene subsisted on speed. Guys would get a prescription from a diet doctor, “pop a few pills” and then stay up for two or three days, their minds motoring at a hundred miles per hour, turning out poems and novels, writing collaborations, talking talking talking, filling the air with words… Then they would crash for 24 hours and get up and have breakfast and start the cycle over again.

Justin: Wow. Well said. Interestingly, in 1965 you left New York City to join a Benedictine monastery in Weston, Vermont. This is where you got your source material for your book The Visions of Elias. What happened in New York City that made you want to leave everything behind and join a monastery? As it appears, you spent some time at the monastery brushing up on your inking abilities and familiarizing yourself with the teachings of Carl Jung.  

Tom: The Visions of Elias describes what went down. It wasn’t a reaction to the literary scene or even to the world around me. The book is about a friend of mine who became a Trappist monk. But in many ways we lived parallel lives, with similar experiences. Mine weren’t as intense as his, perhaps, but they were real enough and they came from inside. Certainly they were powerful enough to make me rejoin the Catholic Church and enter a monastery!

Justin: Nevertheless, at some point you did leave the monastery and moved to San Francisco, California. From there, you became a major contributor to the underground comix movement of the late sixties and early seventies. In 1970 you purchased a printing press, and began self-publishing Tom Veitch Magazine.

cover of Tom Veitch Magazine #3 (1971). Illustrated by Greg Irons.

Justin: Again, while I know a bit about Undergound Comix, my knowledge is mainly limited to Wimmen's Comix and It Ain't Me, Babe. I'm slightly familiar with your underground comix work with Greg Irons. To date, I've read snippets from a few Deviant Slice and Slow Death issues.

Page from "Vince Shazam" from Deviant Slice #2 (1973)
Illustrated by Greg Irons 
Justin: On a side note, I could only find two issues of Deviant Slice. Were there more than two issues published?

Tom: There were just 2 issues of Deviant Slice. I'm not sure why only two ... both published by Print Mint as I recall. But as you may know the market for undergrounds collapsed suddenly (I believe it was 1973) when the Supreme Court ruled that every community could make their own obscenity judgements: Miller_v._California (See the section on effects of the ruling. Curiously this hasn't had much if any effect on the internet!) And...another blow to the underground distribution was the closing of headshops via "paraphernalia" laws.

Justin: Back to your underground comix stories -- the stuff I'd seen were mainly anti-war or dealing with Vietnam vets struggling back into everyday life -- which was pretty heavy stuff. Your writings had appeared in a few publications around this time: Eat This, Death College and Other Poems and The Luis Armed Story. What were the more memorable experiences that came out of these underground comix years? Do you have a favorite work (or story) that you keep coming back to?

Tom: Well, I got to hang out with the Jefferson Airplane, when Greg Irons and I did some comix for them. But just living in San Francisco at that time was a wonderful experience. There were a bunch of us – poets, musicians, artists – sharing a house on Potrero Hill. Every day was an adventure.

cover of Grunt Comix #1 (1972). Illustrated by Greg Irons.
Grunt Comix was a full-color promotional indie comic distributed by Grunt Records
Grunt Records was founded by members of Jefferson Airplane

Tom: As for my favorite work from that period, what stands out is the time in Stinson Beach, when Greg and I lived on the same street and saw each other every day for almost two years. It was that creative relationship I remember most.

Tom Veitch (left) and Greg Irons (right) circa 1970s.
photo source: Patrick Rosenkranz

Tom: At the same time I was writing poetry and stories and giving readings in San Francisco. And the core ideas that later became The Nazz and The Light and Darkness War were already taking shape in me.

Justin: Your story is unique -- unlike the typical cartoonist origin story (ex: "I liked comics as a kid and enjoyed drawing my own comic strips, so I decided to pursue it further"), you were an active member of the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s and early 70s who had novels published, collaborated on underground comix and even self-published your own poetry zines. You've rubbed shoulders with Burroughs and Ginsberg, and actively embraced the anti-establishment/anti-war/pro-life ideals. You also left to join a Benedictine monastery in your mid-20s -- to pursue a more 'personal' religious journey. All of these past experiences influence your ideologies and the thought-processes of the stories you tell.

Re-reading your past comic book work, I can't help but look for traces of these ideologies in your work. After all, it was Carl Jung who stated "Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation". I've got to ask, how did you get your first DC assignment? If memory serves me correctly, it was a 6-page story you wrote for Sgt Rock #356 (1981) which was illustrated by your brother Rick. You were a counter-culture cartoonist based out of San Francisco, and suddenly you're writing for DC comics? I'm sure there's a story there.

page from Sgt Rock #356 (1981)

Tom: As you may know, my brother Rick was in the first graduating class from the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in Dover New Jersey. That was back in 1978 as I recall.

I visited Rick at the school a couple of times, and met and talked to Joe [Kubert]. It turned out he knew the undergrounds and liked my work with Greg Irons. (Later I was to learn that Archie Goodwin also knew my Irons/Veitch work. "Everybody at Marvel reads the undergrounds," Archie told me.)

Anyway, Joe had started publishing back-up stories by his students in DC's Sgt. Rock. My brother Rick drew several of them and consulted with me on the stories he wrote. The obvious next step was for me to do a full-script for one of these back-up yarns. And that's the story you read in Sgt. Rock #356. I believe we completed it in 1979, but it didn't see print until 1981.

Justin: Following Sgt Rock, your next comic book work for the ‘Big Two’ was with Marvel’s Epic imprint. I'm seeing a mix of your counter-culture and anti-war ideologies mixed in with some Carl Jung philosophies within your first major Marvel work.

cover of 1988's The Light & Darkness War #1
illustrated by Cam Kennedy

Justin: I’m suspecting The Light & Darkness War (1988) was your commentary on Vietnam and the negative affects it had on an entire generation, and how the main character's psyche was not confined to live in that time and present, and allowed him to join his comrade-in-arms in fighting a 10,000 year war against the forces of darkness -- essentially re-enforcing Jung's theory that death is not the end and the psyche can live on forever. Was this the big take-away from this mini-series? Or am I totally missing it here?

[FUN FACT: The Light & Darkness War would be sent to George Lucas, and this helped Tom secure his first Star Wars project: Dark Empire.]

Tom: You are closer than you know to the Jungian connection. In the late 1970s I actually did 2 ½ years in Jungian analysis, going toe-to-toe with the dark side in myself.

But the "big take-away" from The Light & Darkness War is, once again, the relationship that I developed with the artist, Cam Kennedy. He's a certified genius at depicting the technology of war. Combine that with my own mystical tendencies, and you have a brew guaranteed to tear the mind apart and stimulate the depths of the imagination!

page from The Light and Darkness War #2 (1988)
Illustrated by Cam Kennedy

Justin: In an interview with The Star Wars Underworld you mentioned "Back in the 1980s when Marvel was doing the comics, there was a very complicated approval process. They made it very difficult to do anything really interesting." I thought this was a pretty interesting comment and keyed in on it. If I recall correctly, Marvel's Epic imprint was meant to be its 'creator-owned imprint' that was to allow total freedom by bypassing the Comics Code Authority -- so hearing that they made writers jump through hoops to have material published left me very curious for details (as you can imagine). What was the general atmosphere like around the Marvel EPIC offices in the late eighties? I feel like it was hearing the death knell to its imprint around this time... Is this why you moved over to DC?

Tom: The quote you cite refers to the approval process for Star Wars comics after the success of A New Hope (the first Star Wars film). Epic, by contrast, was very free and easy, under the wise direction of Archie Goodwin, writer and editor supreme. This creative freedom was compounded when I sent copies of The Light & Darkness War to George Lucas and he invited Cam and myself to take on the franchise of doing new Star Wars comics. "You have carte blanche to do anything you want," he told us. (Of course he had to see and approve of our plans – which he did with only a few caveats. My new book, which is finished and will be published soon, tells about those fun years.)

circa 1988

Tom: I didn’t 'move over to DC'. I was working both companies simultaneously as a freelancer. Before meeting Archie and giving him The Light & Darkness War, Steve Bissette introduced me to Karen Berger, she asked for proposals, and I did a try-out on her title Amethyst.

The 'death knell' for Epic – if that’s what you can call it – came when Archie Goodwin was fired by Marvel and moved to DC. I’m not sure why they let him go, but I heard some stories.

Justin: What was the transition like from Marvel EPIC to DC comics? I'm jumping to the conclusion that Karen Berger recognized your talent and recruited you to DC for her line of 'Berger-verse' books...

Tom: I got to know Karen in 1984 or 1985. She phoned me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to write some comics. It turned out that Steve Bissette had given her a pile of my undergrounds and she liked them. (Thanks, Steve!)

She needed to break in a new writer on Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld. Why she picked me, I didn't know, but guessed it might be because I had a teenage daughter who could serve as a model for the character.

Amethyst Special #1 (1986). Cover by Ernie Colon
Tom: So I labored mightily on sample scripts, but never figured out that Karen had called me because she was hoping for something off-beat. I assumed she wanted stories like the ones that had already been done with the character!

That was o.k., because we really hit it off, and as time went along she revealed her innate receptivity to my weirdest ideas.

Ask me about Umbra.

Justin: Ok, I'll bite -- I'm asking about 'Umbra'. I'm going to take a wild guess that you are NOT referring to Shadow Lass of the Legion of Super-Heroes?

Tom: There was a period in the late 1980s when I was "hot" at DC – largely because Jenette Kahn & Karen both liked my Nazz proposal. (Dick Giordano liked it as well.) So the proposals that I submitted at that time were Clash, My Name Is Chaos, and Umbra. All were approved.

Umbra -- the story of a young woman with psychic powers -- was much beloved by Jenette. However, the series did not get made because DC got a 'cease and desist' letter from a comics creator who had copyrighted a superhero named "Umbra". Karen asked me to come up with a new name for the character, and I worked on that for awhile … Then I learned Jenette was, without my knowing it, showing Umbra around Hollywood as a proposed movie or TV series. I thought that was a terrible idea, for the simple reason that once you release these things into the wild – without an existing book or comic series – you risk having your ideas and plots pilfered. And indeed, to significant degree, the television series, Ghost Whisperer , is a variation on the Umbra concept. An accident? We’ll never know.

Since that time, I believe the name "Umbra" has been used more than once as a character name.

Justin: I'm actually a pretty big Amethyst enthusiast -- and this is the first I'm hearing of your potential involvement in the series! Ultimately, Gary Cohn and Dan Mishkin (co-creators and writers of Amethyst) were succeeded by Mindy Newell and Keith Giffen in 1985, and if I recall correctly, started to build stronger ties to her DCU connection with the 'Chaos and Order' stuff... and then in 1987 they took it to a really elevated level. I'm curious to hear what you were planning on doing with the continuing saga of Amethyst?

Tom: I can’t help you on that, because I can’t find my old Amethyst notes and scripts. The best I recall is that I tried to come up with really scary monsters.


Part two of The Tom Veitch interview -- where we delve into The Nazz and Tom's work on Animal Man -- can be found here.


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