Interviews Reviews Guest Stars Fanzine Misc

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Chuck Patton talks Justice League Detroit

I've had a long-standing fascination with the Detroit Era of the Justice League of America for the last two decades now. They were a bit of an oddity as far as Justice League rosters went; while the Justice League typically contained an all-star cast of well-established characters (ex: Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Green Arrow, Hawkman, etc), this new iteration consisted of four unknown characters combined with a few lesser-known former Justice League members.

Looking back, it's hard to believe that the Detroit Era of the JLA ran for almost two and half years (from July 1984's JLA Annual #2 to April 1987's JLA #261). It's even more surprising how the team was disbanded -- not walking into the sunset with plans for reuniting someday when the world might need them again, but destroyed by a malevolent Justice League villain. To some extent, it was a very cruel ending to a team who were meant to bring a rejuvenated feel to the JLA.

We reached out to JLA artist and Justice League Detroit co-creator, Chuck Patton, with a few questions about his work on this era of the JLA and he was incredibly generous with his time and answered ALL of our questions in depth. We're very proud to publish this interview. Enjoy.

Introducing the new Justice League Detroit!
Justice League of America Annual #2 (1984). Cover illustrated by Chuck Patton and inked by Dick Giordano


Justin: You had been illustrating Justice League of America for about a year prior to the Justice League Detroit 'revamp'. What was the discussion like with editorial that brought on Justice League Detroit? Who initially suggested a NEW Justice League team for the book?

Chuck Patton: I think it was Len Wein who ultimately decided that it was time for a change in the JLA, especially when all of the other major DC books started to crack under the weight of each other’s differing storylines and changes in continuity. Also, with [writer] Gerry Conway being unsure about continuing on the book, it left the door open for a new direction, except nobody rushed in to take the job. I believe Alan Gold didn’t come in as editor until after the decision to revamp JLA had begun, but I could be wrong.

The covers of Justice League of America v1 issues #233, 234, 235 and 236. Illustrated by Chuck Patton and Dick Giordano.

Justin: In the letter column of Justice League of America Annual #2 (1984), editor Alan Gold had specifically mentioned that 2 characters from the new Justice League Detroit roster were 100% yours: Vibe and Gypsy. How did that come about? Were Vibe and Gypsy created 'on the fly'? Or were both of these characters sitting around in your head for a while? Were they inspired by any real-life people you knew (celebrities or friends)?

I also just wanted to mention that the quartet covers (issues #233, 234, 235 and 236) was a brilliant idea, and I hadn't realized they were meant to be joined together until many many years after I'd owned them. (While 'joined comic book covers' were somewhat of an everyday occurrence in the nineties, it was still rather unheard of in the early eighties.)

Chuck: It was definitely a 50/50 collaboration. And we did do it on the fly—over a long lunch at a great lil’ French restaurant in Sherman Oaks. Gerry strongly felt that a new 'JLA' needed a younger, hipper roster to reflect the times, but most important, have little to no connection with the then-current DC roster and more freedom. I enthusiastically agreed with him, wanting to capture the same youthful spirit that made hits of X-Men and Teen Titans.

We threw ideas back and forth, but the most important one that stuck out for me was Gerry really wanted to tap into breakdancing, BIG TIME, lol. And all joking aside, he wasn’t wrong, the time was right, break dancing was all over the media, from music to movies and television. I wanted whomever we came up with to have a strong, urban ethnic, "Down to Earth" feel that would reflect my own background.

However, Gerry’s inspiration was definitely more 'West Coast' oriented, so he, tapped into the spirit of the movie Electric Boogaloo and our first hero came from out of the gang element of 80’s LA.

Just two of the MANY breakdancing theatrical films released in 1984. Images courtesy of IMDB.

Chuck: I went along to get along, because I really disliked that movie and was unsure about the West Side Story gang influence, lol. But I did like the potential, so I suggested that his powers would be from what all Angelenos feared most out here—earthquakes. We later changed them into super-vibrational waves he would project thru his dance moves, hence the name 'Vibe'.

Vibe in action.
Panels from Justice League of America Annual #2 (1984).
Pencilled by Chuck Patton, inked by Dave Hunt.

Chuck: Gypsy came about in the same way except we wanted a ninja-like character but more exotic, and some how the subject of gypsies came up. Being from Detroit, I’ve seen encounters with a few Romany people (aka gypsies), who came into our neighborhood up from the South, and they always carried a certain cultural mystique I thought would be interesting to portray other then the usual cliché. So I suggested her powers were camouflage stealth abilities and Gerry liked that and dubbed her Gypsy.

Panels from Justice League of America Annual #2 (1984).
Pencilled by Chuck Patton, inked by Dave Hunt.

Chuck: We decided to make Detroit instead of LA the team’s new base because it would better fit the series’ 'Down to Earth' approach and, personally, it was my way of paying respect back to my old hometown which had a very negative image, contrary to how I felt about it growing up. As for the neighborhood’s cast and Vibe’s family, most were inspired by youthful memories of folks I knew.

Now about those joined covers, I think they were all Len Wein’s idea. They were a challenge to conceive but I was so very proud of how it came out. It’s the only art piece that my mentor Dick Giordano and I have done which I still own.

Justin: As part of the Justice League Detroit creative team, did you get any input into the stories and character development (especially since two of the characters were created by you)? For instance, Gypsy being a runaway -- was that your idea or something Conway built on? Are there any elements of the Justice League Detroit you were particularly proud of?

Chuck: I did at first, on Annual #2 and the follow up four issues introducing the team and their new adversaries, the Cadre. I provided the rough backstory for Vibe and Gypsy, while Gerry already had Vixen’s and Hank/Commander Steel’s bios done. I came up with Dale Gunn on my own, as the team’s "Tony Stark" like tech support and Hank’s father figure.

The Cadre, their powers, origins and looks all came from me too, except for the conception of the Overmaster’s origin, which was all Gerry’s.

Justice League Detroit battles The Cadre.
Double-page spread from Justice League of America #237 (1985).
Pencilled by Chuck Patton, inked by Rick Magyar.

Chuck: I think at the start, we really had a lot of fun coming up with the dynamics of how the new team would interact with the veteran Leaguers. Where we really were in sync was in reintroducing Aquaman as a major league bad ass. Gerry was always adamant about making him the leader and I was an Aquaman fan from way back so was totally down for it. We hinted at his potential during the Beasts trilogy, but when he steps up and takes over the team, that became the shining moment that made me proudest of the book.

Justin: Justice League Detroit ran for about two and half years before the series became re-tooled to become Justice League (the Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis version). You left the book about two years into it. Was there any particular reason you left? What was going on in the background (editorially-speaking)?

Chuck: Justice League of America was my first regular series and, like Vibe and Gypsy, I was the incoming fresh-off-the-street newbie with Gerry’s venerable vet on a book that he had steered for a helluva long. I think he wanted to leave before I came in on the book but was going back and forth about whether to go or not.

Originally the Beasts trilogy was to be our first book together, which I had started penciling when suddenly Gerry stopped, went on hiatus, shelving that issue and I had to continue with multiple fill-in writers. It was rough going at first, as I had enjoyed the beginning of the trilogy and now I had to cruise until a direction for Justice League of America was figured out. But Len Wein kept me on course until Gerry decided to return and we restarted with Beasts again. By then I was feeling a little more confident about what I wanted to do visually and made suggestions on the Beasts script that I found rubbed Gerry wrong. But Len smoothed things over for us. He and Gerry were old friends plus he knew how to get the most out of us, so changes were made that was comfortable for both and somehow we got a much better product in the end. That opened the door to Gerry and I communicating a little better. I owe a lot of our creative synergy to Len. He really helped in encouraging my sense of storytelling, plotting and character development that went into collaborating with Gerry.

The first two issues of the Beasts trilogy. Covers by Chuck Patton and Dick Giordano.

Chuck: I believe [Len] was a huge part of the enthusiasm Gerry and I generated at the beginning of Justice League Detroit. But once he left the book, whatever cohesion Gerry and I started with came apart. Gerry went from talking over plots to just turning in full scripted stories that left me feeling disengaged from the process. I missed the Marvel-style plot outlines that allowed room for back and forth discussion and was told to stick with the art and he with the stories. So from there, I quickly grew very bored, disillusioned and dissatisfied with the series and my own work and wanted off. It was definitely a case of creative differences, and that sums it up neatly.

Without Len’s input, we lost his tremendous ability as a sounding board, arbitrator and BS detector, and the book seemed to rub everybody wrong. Nevertheless, I really missed the initial idea of what Justice League Detroit set out to do. For that time period of comics, a younger, newer Justice League of America made a lot of sense and I’m very grateful to Len and Gerry to have been a part of that.

Vibe's last stand.
Justice League of America #258 (1987). Cover by Luke Mc Donnell.

Justin: When J.M. DeMatteis took over Justice League of America, he needed to clear the roster for the newly aforementioned Justice League team. Ultimately, Vibe was killed off. Was this a unanimous decision? Or did you just find out 'after the fact'?

Chuck: I found out after the fact. I had done a few Justice League of America covers after giving up the book but when that obligation ended, I stopped looking at it and washed my hands of Vibe and Justice League Detroit. Even after I had moved on to Teen Titans then Vigilante, I’d read some vitrol over the series or Vibe in particular, from either a fan or pro who despised it for one thing or another. I did check out the last issue where everyone died. It didn’t make me feel any better, but it was not my watch anymore, so I turned away to other pursuits.

Jump to years and years later, and I’m finishing work on the Batman: Brave and the Bold animated series, when one of the directors, who was a big Vibe/JLD fan, talked me into doing a Vibe segment for WB’s DC Nation shorts. That was the first time I heard there was a "cult of popularity" around him, it truly surprised the hell out of me, lol! The short came off well and got everybody talking, suddenly Vibe becomes popular due to Geoff Jones’ support and then the CW swooped in and the rest is history.

Gave me a big big smile.

Carlos Valdes as Cisco Ramon (aka 'Vibe') in CW's The Flash. (2017)

Justin: What are your final thoughts on your Justice League Detroit run from 1984/1985? Any lessons learned? Things you would've done differently? Things you'd repeat in a heartbeat?

Chuck: Tough question! But as I stated earlier, I really believed in what we wanted to do initially, that a younger Justice League of America was a good idea so no regrets about that. However I really really wished we had avoided a lot of the gimmickry or played them a lot less clichéd from the jump.

I do share responsibility in my part of that, but I always felt uncomfortable with Vibe’s accent. It was meant to be a blind, something he hid behind to keep people from knowing he wasn’t that "streetwise", but it was handled clumsily and we took our lumps for it.

Panels from Justice League of America Annual #2 (1984).
Pencilled by Chuck Patton, inked by Dave Hunt.

Art-wise, I felt I wasn’t as polished as I wanted to be, although it was a hard book to start your career on. It still taught me so much about group dynamics, and storytelling. Plus I was going through a revolving pool of inkers as well as writers, so it was very hard to settle in and hit a stride even after Justice League Detroit started. Then again, if that [had] not happened, I wouldn’t had been motivated to find what I was looking for elsewhere. As for things I would repeat in a heartbeat? Lol, honestly, I’m a big believer in things going the way they should have despite the ups and downs, and I’d had followed this same path anyway! Considering where I ended up, I am and have been very fortunate.

Page from Teen Titans Spotlight #13 (1987).
Pencilled by Chuck Patton, inked by Romeo Tanghal.

Justin: Any new projects you are working on or would like to talk about? I'm all ears.

Chuck: As we speak an animated series I directed just premiered on Netflix, called Kulipari Dreamwalker. It’s the second season of Kulipari Army of Frogs, that I worked on before, but now I’m at the helm, and excited to see it finally out there. The other thing I just completed is still a secret, but I can say this much, it’ll be my first comic book work I’ve done in many years and I’m very thrilled about it. So it’s been a quite an interesting time for me.

...and thus concludes our interview with the talented Chuck Patton. Back in 2009, Chuck was interviewed by our friends at the Aquaman Shrine about his time at DC comics, which you can read here. If you want to read more about the exploits of Justice League Detroit (and really, who doesn't?), I strongly encourage you to peruse the Justice League Detroit blog

An additional reminder that almost ALL of Justice League Detroit's adventures have been collected in the Justice League: The Detroit Era omnibus that can be purchased wherever better comic books are sold.

We're going to end this interview on a high note and leave you with a terrific 2-page spread of Vibe doing what he does best: breakin'! 


From Justice League of America #233 (1984). Pencilled by Chuck Patton, inked by Bill Anderson.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Tom Veitch's notes on his Animal Man run

DC in the 80s was incredibly lucky to have Tom Veitch's notes on the issues he wrote of Animal Man v1 back in the early 90s (issues #33 - #50).  For your viewing pleasure, we've also included the cover of the issues (all covers illustrated by Brain Bolland).


#33: "I am the man of deep ungodly powers!"

Awakened from his Pete Milligan-induced coma, Animal Man is restored to status quo – he’s Animal Man with the family and the job as a stuntman. However his powers are not working as they should. And Maxine is acting rather feral. We also begin to realize that there is a shamanistic/mystical element to Animal Man’s powers – a connection to a Native American shaman living in a house trailer. Apparently this old Indian gives Animal Man his animal powers by connecting him to the Morphogenic field (the M-field) from which all animal instinct and power comes from.

#34: "Requiem for a Bird of Prey"

Maxine, because of her connection to her father, is also connected with the M-field. And when her dad feels aggressive animal instincts, she shares them, growling like an animal and tearing her toys apart with her teeth. Animal Man finally realizes that his powers are not under control and he is hurting living things – when he flies, birds of prey mysteriously die.

#35: "Dead Dogs on Ice" (Day of Dread II cover)

Story starts to kick in. Animal Man and Travis Cody, who shot Animal Man’s son Cliff with an arrow, become friends. Travis (educated at M.I.T.) is building an M-Field Meter:

TRAVIS: Ever hear of the morphogenetic field?

ANIMAL MAN: Uh … yeah.

TRAVIS: Of course you have … Sheldrakes’ theory. Animal essences, modalities, genetic templates … all meshing over a great vat of life energy. …It’s like earth is one big animal … and you and me are like leeches on the big animal, ya dig?

ANIMAL MAN: Uh…yeah. I…uh…dig. … Somebody once explained Sheldrake’s theory to me. I accept it … but it’s just a theory … I mean, theories are nice, but I work with feelings and energies I can sense. There’s no words involved in what I do.

TRAVIS: I’m hip to that. I have super powers myself, ya know?

ANIMAL MAN: Oh, really?

TRAVIS: Yeah, but let’s talk about you. Your link to the M-field is all screwed up right now. And when ya fly, the nice birdies drop from the skies …

They argue a bit, then Travis lays an interesting idea on ANIMAL MAN:

TRAVIS: Have you ever asked yourself this? How come the birds use aerodynamic wings to fly, but Animal Man flies without lifting a finger? What’s this so-called “bird power” you talk about? The birds don’t have it! The poor creatures have to flap their wings!

ANIMAL MAN: Uh … you’ve got a point.

TRAVIS: Damn right I do … Now who’s the smartest, me or you?

So they become buddies and experiment with drawing electrical energy off an electric eel. This leads to Animal Man, via his connection to the eel, drawing lightning from a storm …

#36: "The Call of the Wild"

Animal Man, in a moment of clarity while watching a humpbacked whale breech the ocean surface off San Diego, feels “that great freedom and power at the heart of animal consciousness”

TRAVIS: "You're going to be the most powerful being on the planet."

Animal Man adds unusual powers by focusing on different animals. (I did a lot of research on animals at this time.) So, for instance, by focusing on a lizard that shoots venom from its skin, Animal Man can shoot powerful toxin from his hands. Then he buys a van “to carry all the special animals I’ll be taking with me on jobs.” Meanwhile Travis is initiated by “Mr. Rainbow” – the old shaman’s mystic messenger.

#37: "The Zoo At World’s End"

ANIMAL MAN (in captions): “I’m the only superhuman with the powers of every animal that ever lived … And I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of the possible. For awhile I thought I’d lost it … but by using the individual creature as a power lens, I bypass the negative effects I experience when I touch the M-Field directly…”

But the old Shaman has other ideas for Animal Man. He breaks the clay Animal Man statue with a hammer, and Buddy gets a huge influx of M-Field energy … which unfortunately kills every animal in the San Diego Zoo!

#38: "The Penalizer"

A comic book within a comic book, Penalizer is introduced. This is Cliff’s favorite comic, and it’s a parody of Marvel’s Punisher. I was told the editor of Punisher taped the cover of Penalizer to his office door! Meanwhile Travis has a wild theory he has been “contacted by angels” and there’s a giant starship buried somewhere in upstate New York. He believes that after he finds and boards the starship, the end of the world will begin! Issue climaxes with a battle between Animal Man and Mr. Rainbow, who takes the form of a monster.

#39: "Master of Wolves"

Travis arrives at the old shaman’s trailer in upstate N.Y. Meanwhile wolves attack the San Diego Comicbook Convention. And Animal Man rips off his clothes and runs with the wolves through San Diego.

#40: "Bear Claw Soup”

War of the Gods cross-over issue. Not a lot of connection to the other DC tie-in series. But an interesting story about the reappearance of the vampire town of Rosewood, Illinois, which drowned in Swamp Thing #37-39. And Buddy battles bear poachers as he is initiated to “the center of morphogenetic power”…

#41: "The Stone That Cracked Open the Earth Like An Egg"

Rereading the series now, I see that with #41 the writing shifts into high gear. There are a couple of reasons for that:

-One, I was getting a better internal sense of the characters.
-Two, we were getting tremendous positive feedback from the readers.
-And three, I was learning a lot from watching David Lynch’s Twin Peaks show. Lynch knows how to tell a character-driven story. As a writer, he helps you break the old story-telling patterns that Hollywood (and comics) have burned into your brain since you were a kid.

In this issue the old Indian shaman is revealed to have done six years at Attica for killing a white cop. “He just looked the cop straight in the eye and said one word and the guy exploded like there was a bomb in his stomach.” The shaman’s nickname is “The Stone”. His full Indian name is “Stone That Cracked Open the Earth like an Egg.” We find out on page 18 that he is also called “The Stone Who Sits at the Heart of the World.”

Another story point in this issue is that “the bad guys” are mapping superhuman DNA. I’m not sure if this had come up in other comics at this point, but it’s one of those “inevitable” ideas – you know, the cloning of Superman, the GMO-ing of human embryos, etc. And one of my favorite parts is when Animal Man describes to his wife Ellen (who is nicely shirtless) his inner experience of animal powers: “My power took on a whole new dimension. There was light … ecstasy … I knew things. … There was meaning in the power … like truth … you know, like seeing how everything is connected. Like there’s an eye that watches over everything … a great intelligence … and I merged with it. For an hour I became that intelligence … this god-like intelligence at the heart of nature.”

#42: "Men Without Eyes"

A good action story involving genetic clones who are fitted with cyborg brains. Also introduced “the knacker man”, a guy who collects roadkills and dead farm animals and sells them to the gene lab.

The head of S.T.A.R. labs, Buck Samson, is a sort of “government villain” type, who believes the old Indian shaman is leading “a conspiracy to destroy the world masked as sacred ritual and belief.”

Last but by no means least, Animal Man takes the form of a bear. In the next issue he will mate with a young shamaness who also takes the form of a bear.

#43: "Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright"

Not so much a “retcon” of Animal Man’s origin as an attempt to integrate the previous stories with my “deeper” view of animal powers and the morphogenetic field. “In the safety of bounded awareness he toys with reality … he plays the games of children … he tries to understand … he invents authority figures … alien … unhuman … he tries to explain everything until the fear is gone … he dreams his own ‘origin story’ … he dreams sickly yellow magicians and tricksters to explain everything that occurs outside his tiny awareness …everything he is not permitted to know. Everything he is not permitted to see … fanciful images to describe what cannot even be looked at.”

Then Animal Man is standing in space with old Stone, the shaman, who welcomes him to the innermost realm of animal power … “Greetings my son. Welcome to the hidden place, where the old men of the beginning dwell forever…” This, of course, is me plugging the whole series into my metaphysics and mystical ideas about the nature of bodily consciousness! (Considering the liberties Peter Milligan took with his Burroughsian superheroes – Notional Man, Front Page, and Nowhere Man – I figured I could kick out the jams, metaphysically speaking.)

#44: "Who Is That Masked Woman?"

Ellen goes to work for Wonderful Publishing Company, where Les Decker writes and edits Penalizer Comics. Includes a great little amateur Penalizer story written and drawn by Animal Man’s son, Cliff. The animal-powered DC superheroine Vixen appears and battles Animal Man. For the moment, she’s plugged in to the whole shaman story-arc. (Her connection to the morphogenetic field has been explored by other writers in other DC comics.)

#45: "Penalizer Gets Real"

"The Beat of Darkness" in which we learn that Les Decker, writer-editor of Penalizer Comics, is a crime fighter who puts on a Penalizer costume and hunts down drug dealers and such. All tongue-in-cheek, of course, and a send-up of the comics biz.

I meant this story to be a template for the possible series about Penalizer, which I never got around to writing and proposing. (Tom Peyer was definitely into the idea too.) We also learn how Decker shamelessly steals ideas from Cliff’s amateur submission, including the name of the villain, “Doctor Darkness”. Last but not least, a new character is introduced – “the screenwriter” who will script a movie about Animal Man. Another send-up – this character is myself, based on photos I sent to Steve Dillon.

#46: "A Rage of Fathers"

With 1950s DC character Tomahawk on the cover. The art by Steve Pugh I find awesome.

Page one scene of teen Buddy Baker puking on front lawn is based on something that actually happened to me – I came home drunk, got out of car and threw up on the lawn, and my dad was sitting on the front porch reading a newspaper! (Fortunately my father was nicer than Buddy’s.)

Here we learn that Buddy, as a youth, met old Stone, the shaman, while on a hunting trip with his father. He calls Stone “my real father” and together they find a giant metallic “cocoon” that contains Stone’s enemy, the Antagon.

#47: "The Shining Man" (in three parts)

Maxine in the power of B’Wanna Beast. Great scene of Travis Cody in cyberspace, where he learns that Buck Samson is turning himself into a superhero by manipulating his DNA. B’Wanna Beast merges with Antagon and battles Animal Man.

#48: "The Meaning of Flesh"

Rainey Fox, the movie director, gets fried by the Antagon.

B’Wanna channels the Antagon: “I am sent forth from the unitary aeon … to bring judgment upon all that dares to live. I am the self-begotten, the source of incomprehensible undoing.” Then he takes a bite from an apple.

Buddy carries Maxine to join the Animal Masters. (She is one herself.)

…More Cody in cyberspace. Buck Samson’s hitman, Moonlight Jackson, kills Cody’s friend, the woman Kami.

Sweat lodge scenes, Stone shows up to announce the coming battle between the Antagon and the Animal Masters. And then Stone takes his friends into the micro-universe to hide from the Antagon.

When Antagon (aka: B’Wanna Beast) shows up and finds them gone, he is seriously angry – “And when the darkness saw their infamy, his mind mingled with the dark root of his incorruptible anger, and he was like a whirlwind upon the face of creation …”

#49: "The Hot Heart of Abstract Reality"

Screenwriter (me) eats a piece of pie in Ellen Baker’s kitchen while she washes dishes. He writes in his notebook: “The Animal Man movie will get made, if I have to kill everybody in Hollywood to get it done! …Yesterday I saw (director) Rainey Fox get wasted by that dark power. It was beyond belief. It cooked my brains…” (The pie is a reference to Agent Cooper and Twin Peaks.)

In the microworld we see that grotesque dust mites are the “guardians of the threshold” … Tristess, shamaness and Animal Master, says something that cuts to the core of Buddy’s search for himself – “A warrior must awaken to a true identity … an identity that cannot be contained in mirrors and costumes and names … Stone has been trying to get that across to you … you have failed nearly every step of the way.” This triggers something in Buddy, as he confront the gigantic dustmite: “I can feel everything going wide open … no fanfare, no explosions, no shouts of conquest … suddenly I am not focused in a body. Fear vanishes, my eyes open in the great vastness of the M-field … I am as wide as all the worlds, deep as the whole field of living energy from which all forms appear …” And so forth.

If you read my other DC series, you will see this kind of awakening to “natural superman consciousness” is my main theme – in Clash, The Nazz, and My Name is Chaos. My plan was to do that with Superman himself, but as I recall editor Mike Carlin resisted the idea.

Now Travis is dead, and trapped in cyberspace. Buck Samson has had his own superhero apotheosis, awakening to the power of mind-over-matter and giving himself the name Metaman. “Metaman” is a character I invented for a comic my brother Rick was doing for DC. I decided to add substance to the name and reincarnated him here, in Animal Man, and I destroyed him as well.

Now the Animal Masters gather in Labrador. Old Stone tells the story of the origin of the Antagon, who is a kind of anti-creator and annihilator … “even the anti-Christ”. The Animal Masters, on the other hand, are given the power to create animals! The struggle between the Animal Masters and the Antagon has been going on for millions of years!

#50: "Journal of a Plague Year"

The whole 18-issue story is an impossibly vast yarn of light vs darkness, good vs evil, creation vs destruction … And it comes to a head is #50, a double-issue, with myself as a main character and voice-over.

Here, in “real life”, the writer meets the Antagon and witnesses the destruction of half of Vermont! We see Metaman vs. the Antagon, we see Moonlight Jackson die, we see the Animal Masters rally and destroy Antagon, we see Maxine get her powers under control, and oh by the way we see Tom Veitch hit on Ellen Baker, who says “I don’t know what it is about you … I feel that somehow I am contained in you. But that that’s all it is. I could never love a person like you …” And enter Buddy Baker aka Animal Man, who proceeds to beat up the writer (me)…

ELLEN: Buddy … please, just tell him to leave.

ANIMAL MAN: Right. Pack your toothbrush and get out of my life, creep!

Veitch tries to get physical with A-Man, even kicks him in the balls. Next thing you know Veitch is sailing through a window and ending up face-down on the front lawn.

ANIMAL MAN: Cheer up, pal. It could have been a lot worse. Now get up. You and I are going to be friends.

Closing narration in which I describe working on the screenplay with Buddy, and then Buddy sharing some of his secret thoughts …

ANIMAL MAN: I’m still sort of ordinary, you know. But when I lay down at night and close my eyes I see the world … the animals … men … from a place that can’t actually be described … an uncreated place that’s not of time and space … I’m not alone there. There are others. Stone is there, living on… And then something dark surface in the well of thought … a feeling of great dread… I see him, the Antagon, the one who cannot be destroyed because he is destruction. He can only be contained. …For the moment he is our prisoner … but I sense he’ll find a way back into the world. He’ll take a new form, a new name. He’ll become something we don’t recognize, something we can’t control.


Again, a big thanks to Tom for sharing his notes on his Animal Man run -- which included a few items that I completely overlooked the first time.


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.


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 and Tom's notes on each issue here.