From The Comics Journal #175 (March 1995)
Rick Veitch is having the sort of career that most cartoonists only dream about. He drew his first comics at home; saw his work published at the end of the underground era with Last Gasp’s Two-Fisted Zombies; was a member of the first class of the Joe Kubert School (along with longtime friend/collaborator Steve Bissette), saw his work published in the glossy science-fiction magazines of the late ’70s/early ’80s; did movie adaptations (1941); produced creator-owned limited series and graphic novels (most notably The One); worked on the acclaimed horror title Swamp Thing; made his own contribution to the reworked superhero genre (Bratpack and Maximortal); was involved with Kevin Eastman’s Tundra; became connected with Image during its early days (1963); and is now riding the new wave of self-publishing with his dream diary Roarin’ Rick’s Rare Bit Fiends.
Through it all, Veitch has maintained a remarkably consistent visual style — equally effective at communicating the quiet lush beauty of a natural setting, the power of war machinery, or the childlike clarity of abstract symbols (from advertising to trademarked super-symbols). As an artist who has become as well known as a writer, Veitch has developed his style in large part due to an admirable ability to make a clear and insightful analysis of others’ work.
The purest blend of Veitch the writer and Veitch the artist can be found in his latest work, the aforementioned Rare Bit Fiends. Veitch’s work has a bold authority; one never doubts the honesty of what is being conveyed or the unsettling “feeling” of dreaming that Veitch nails right on the head. It is his best, and most ambitious, work to date.
Jeremy Pinkham explores the depth and breadth of Rick Veitch in the following conversation. [Note: Veitch posted a comic about his experience being interviewed here.]
PINKHAM: What parts of your upbringing do you think were encouraging you to become an artist and what parts were against it?
VEITCH: From the time I was very little, I always knew, in the deepest part of my heart, that I was an artist. My environment was such that I was bombarded by a constant reinforcement that art was a dead end, that creativity was kind of suspicious, and comics, especially, were a subversive kind of thing — which is what probably drew me to it even more quickly than it would have normally. [Laughs.] I grew up in a dying mill town and my dad was a very good artist, a very creative person. He got into this situation where he had to work a regular job in a factory his whole life in order to bring up six kids. So there was a feeling I got from him that something was missing and he wasn’t connecting creatively with the deeper parts of himself. This translated in my parents relating to my art by saying, “Oh! You’ re such a good artist! It’s nice that you draw. But... you can’t make any money doing it. Forget it.” This message was reinforced all the time I was growing up. It became the great battleground of my adolescence, a fucked-up mindset I had to break out of to become a functioning adult. The town I came from was a roughneck mill town that was on the skids, was on the way down. There were a lot of poor people there, hard-drinking, hard-fighting, hard-livin’ kind of people.
PINKHAM: Which town was it?
VEITCH: Bellows Falls. Folks from other Vermont towns referred to it as “Sin City” [laughter]. There was always weird stuff going on there: police corruption, pornography. We had a gay bar.
PINKHAM: In the ’50s?
VEITCH: No, but in the late-’60s and early ’70s. And it was a big party town for all the hippies who moved to Vermont to get back to the land.
PINKHAM: Is this while you were in high school?
VEITCH: In high school and a couple of years after, too.
PINKHAM: What did the people your age around you at that time think about what you wanted to do?
VEITCH: There was a deep fear and suspicion of anything creative in my town. Very few people I met growing up understood the nature of creativity and what art was about. People looked at it like it was bad juju. It’s hard to believe it in this day and age, but you have to remember this was a little valley town in Vermont where a lot of people had never been out of the town. My dad was originally from Scotland and brought up in New York so my family had a slightly more cosmopolitan attitude towards things. When I went to high school, the guidance counselor asked me, “What do you want to be? Let’s plan a course of study for you.” Of course I said, “I want to be an artist!” The guidance counselor said: “YOU DON’T WANT TO BE AN ARTIST!” And he had this chart on the wall of how much people make and right there on the bottom it says, “Artist: $3,000 a year.” And he said, “Look at that!” Then at the top of the chart it said, “Chemical Engineer: $50,000 a year.” So he said, “Why don’t we do a course of study for you in chemical engineering.”
PINKHAM: Did you doodle in class?
VEITCH: It wasn’t allowed, but I just did it. I didn’t really have to study to get by. It wasn’t because I was really smart, but I just learned early on how to take multiple choice tests and score fairly decent. There’s a certain trick to figuring out the right answers, and I sussed it out as a little kid. Basically I breezed through all my schooling with that simple skill. All the time though, I had my own little comic-book company on the side called “Sun Comics.” I wrote and drew homemade superhero comics starting at around 6, and really getting into it around age 9 and 10, and this continued all through high school right up until the underground explosion happened and I began to draw more personal comics.
PINKHAM: Who did you share those with?
VEITCH: Very few people. It was kind of a family thing, though. My brother Tom was 10 years older, so I’d always look at everything he was doing like it was the ultimate. He could draw pretty well — could do a neat Chester Gould kind of style [laughs]. I really dug it. But he wanted to be a writer more than an artist, and he concentrated most of his energy into writing. So it was a natural connection because as I got older, my drawing style began to jell into something, and we started to work together more and more.
PINKHAM: Was he the main person you read them with?
VEITCH: No, I had some friends in town I used to buddy around with that were my age who I read comics with. But they weren’t able to make that jump to creating comics. Somehow it just didn’t fit. I’d go around to all the local stores on Tuesday when the comics came out and I’d pack the comics for the guy and I’d put them on the shelf to make sure I got the Fantastic Four and The Flash. I’d have friends that I’d do that with, but I didn’t really show them the comics I drew, or if I did, their reactions were so blasé or misunderstood that I just felt I was doing it for myself. Comics were more an organic part of me; it was just something I did without asking why.
PINKHAM: What were the Sun Comics like?
VEITCH: The main run I did was called Hero Comics and I think I did 24 or 25 issues of that on a monthly basis! It starred a character called “Radioactive Man.” [Laughter.] They’re pretty crude, and it’s me learning to draw by copying Jack Kirby’s panels and trying to write Stan Lee dialogue. But at the same time, when I go back and look at them, I’m blown away by the personal myth that I’m laying down. I couldn’t have consciously told that to you that at 12, but I’m sure that if I brought my run of Hero Comics to a psychotherapist, they could probably tell you a lot about me. It was pretty detailed.
PINKHAM: Were you trying to express the same things in essence at that time as now?
VEITCH: They were just about who I was and what I knew. I’m much different now, a more complex person than I was when I was 11.
PINKHAM: [Laughs.] I’m sure!
VEITCH: But there is something pure about Sun Comics. I treasure them. If I publish a collected works of Rick Veitch, I’ll probably inflict some of them on humanity!
PINKHAM: You said you were reading Kirby.
VEITCH: I probably started out on the Julie Schwartz superheroes. That’s when I really connected with the form and began buying my own comics. Before then I had read Little Lulu, Carl Barks and all that stuff. They were comics that were brought into the house by other people. The Julie Schwartz DCs had me out there at the newsstands finding the ones I wanted. I was learning to draw the human form by copying Carmine Infantino. I’d do these perfect — or perfect as I could — pencil reproductions of the Flash covers every issue. They were really iconic. At the same time, the Big Daddy Roth phenomenon was happening, and I was loving that.
PINKHAM: Where did you find that stuff?
VEITCH: It was everywhere. It was in the back of a Hot Rod magazine. My brother Tom was a mechanic at that time, he was working at the local Chevy garage. He had an old Model-A he was working on out in the back yard. He used to get Hot Rod magazine and Car Craft magazine. I would always flip to the back where Big Daddy Roth did these amazing ads, which I think were drawn by Robert Williams. I definitely connected to the whole Weirdo phenomenon which Roth begat. In fact, one of the great moments of my tender childhood was when I won an Honorable Mention in the “Big Daddy Roth draw-the-monster contest” in the Big Daddy Roth magazine. I got my name in the magazine. This was a real turning point for me and I can remember sitting there for hours holding the magazine looking at my name! [Laughter.]
PINKHAM: But I’m sure that didn’t convince your parents that it was a good career!
VEITCH: At that age I’d already begun a T-shirt company [chuckles]. I bought a bunch of Magic Markers and I learned to draw Rat Fink and a couple of other ones, and I’d hand-draw T-shirts and sweatshirts for kids and sell them for five bucks.
PINKHAM: And that worked?
VEITCH: It worked a little. I did it more because I loved it rather than because I was getting rich.
PINKHAM: But you ‘d see people walking around with your designs on them.
VEITCH: Yeah... well, not my designs — Big Daddy Roth’s!
PINKHAM: [Laughs.] That’s true! You said your Two-Fisted Zombies work was sort of influenced by Kirby and Creepy.
VEITCH: I kind of touched all those pop culture bases that came with being a baby boomer. Archie Goodwin’s Creepy was one of those amazing revelations. I think Tom sent me a copy from New York, then I began seeing it on the newsstands. It was my first brush with the classical approach to cartooning. To see all those guys, like Williamson and Krenkel and Frazetta, it opened my eyes to what cartooning could be beyond Kirby — not that I was tired of Kirby, but I was very much interested in what to me was a new approach. I began to go to the library and dig up old books with classical illustrators. Here’s this guy, Krenkel, and he’s working in a style that’s sort of like this guy who did pen-and-inks a hundred years before. I was trying to connect it up in my mind. “How does that happen? How can you work in this guy’s style like that?” Unfortunately I didn’t have any art teachers that had a clue, either.
PINKHAM: Did you have access to the tools of cartooning?
VEITCH: Just what I could figure out myself. First it was just working with pencil, then rapidograph, which came out in the mid- ’60s. On one of my trips to New York I went into an art store and they had some framed Peanuts comic strips on the wall. Those were the first original comic strips I ever saw, and I could see how the lines for lettering were made and that there was penciling underneath the inking and Zipatone on top of that. I tried to emulate this as best I could.
PINKHAM: Was there any more reciprocal influence between you and Tom, since you were the two who were into comics?
VEITCH: Oh yeah! All the time, even when he moved out on his own. One of these days you’ve got to interview him. He’s gone through some amazing changes. One of them was he became a Benedictine monk. When I’d finish an issue of Hero Comics, I’d pop it in the mail for him to read. I think he was also learning to ink — he had found some real ink brushes at the monastery, and he’d sometimes send back an issue and have inked a panel in it.
When he left the monastery he went to California and was hanging out in San Francisco. He came back in early ’68 and he had the first issue of Zap comics that he had bought — and of course that was a whole new revelation for both of us about what comics could be.
PINKHAM: Had he started working on Underground Comix at that time?
VEITCH: He and I had started a strip called Crazy Mouse. It was a pretty lame, stupid, high-schooly attempt at underground comics. [Laughter.] But we were inspired and did a lot of it. We must have done a couple hundred pages of Crazy Mouse. Some of it actually got published in the local college newspaper, the Vermont Cynic at U.V.M. They published the whole run of the first Crazy Mouse one summer. Then in about 1970, Tom bought a printing press, and published his own poetry magazine called Tom Veitch Magazine. In that, he published one of our Crazy Mouse epics — it was about 40 pages. So we were working at it all the time. It’s weird, I’ve been thinking about this all week, how on one hand I relentlessly kept doing comics, but on the other hand I had no hope of ever becoming a professional cartoonist — it seemed impossible.
The other thing that was important at the time was that my family was coming apart. Tom lived a much different life than I did. When he grew up, the family actually kind of operated and functioned. By the time I got to age 10 or 11, when kids become aware of what’s going on, I could sense that things weren’t working right between my parents. They were drinking heavily. And my father’s years of sweating it out in the factory were really getting to him. He became really withdrawn and I didn’t understand it at the time. When he died, in 1970 I think, we found out that he had become hooked on tranquilizers. He was taking six different tranquilizers a day for many years. Now I understand why he walked around in a fog a lot of the time. I can also understand that his situation is rough — being a creative person, and yet he’s not able to express himself that way. Although he did dabble in paint, and he did a little commercial art on the side. My fondest memories of him were when he was actually painting. It seems to me that that’s when he was most content, and I think that was communicated to me on some non-verbal level which helped push me in the direction I ended up going.
PINKHAM: Did you feel like you were achieving a dream for him in some way?
VEITCH: No, I honestly didn’t do it for him, although his situation was clearly part of the motivation and inspiration. I think there’ s something deeper that connected me to comics, even before our family began to unravel. I’m not sure what it was, but at a very, very early age, I was very, very into comics.
LAST DAYS OF THE UNDERGROUNDS
PINKHAM: When did you end up going out to San Francisco?
VEITCH: I was hanging out in Bellows Falls, I graduated from high school … Hippie was big then and Vermont had become the destination of choice. All of a sudden there were hordes of hippies coming into the area and I did begin to meet interesting people. When I talked to them about doing comics, their ears and eyes would actually perk up. These were people from urban areas, who understood that creativity was important. Especially with the hippie era coming on, a lot of them saw comics as a way for the counterculture to break the hold of monolithic media. It seemed like there was a real war, a very tangible battle going on between the young and the old. I began to show more and more of these newcomers my comics. On a social level, I began to achieve some slight status, just for the fact that I was serious about doing this type of art and that was refreshing.
PINKHAM: It was Crazy Mouse that they admired?
VEITCH: Right. At the same time, the seedy, low-life guys I grew up with in Bellows Falls would actually feel threatened by the fact that I would sit around and draw comics. I was living at a crash pad at the time [laughs], and all my friends from childhood were becoming heavy-duty alcoholics and serious drug addicts. They were guys just in their early 20s, and they were going down the drain really fast. I’d have my bedroom off to the side and I’d have this crude drawing table set up, and instead of going up to the bar and boogying every night, sometimes I’d just sit and draw my comics. They would look at it, but they just couldn’t believe I would waste my party time on such shit! I can remember getting into a couple of fist fights over the fact that I drew. … If you knew the town, you’d understand.
PINKHAM: Did those guys have regular jobs, or were they hanging out?
VEITCH: They would all hang out, deal drugs, collect welfare … You know, a very low-life scene. But at the same time, I thought it was a lot of fun to be hanging around people who were flushing their lives down the toilet! [Laughs.] It’s real exciting!
I credit my art with saving me because there was a point where I really could have gone all the way in that direction. I ended up trying a lot of drugs, but they just didn’t really do that much for me and I didn’t get hooked on any of them; I never took those steps that you can’t come back from. Some of these dumb bastards were shooting drugs into their veins and there was a kind of peer pressure to give the needle a try, which I resisted. So I feel very fortunate.
About this same time, Tom, who was in San Francisco, sent me a copy of Greg Irons’ Light Comix. It was a full-color, psychedelic comic. Tom had met Greg just as he was finishing the project. He asked Tom for a quote to put in the back cover. Tom wrote an apocalyptic, wild paragraph and they published it. Out of the blue, here it comes in the mail — “Wow! Tom really connected with somebody!”
PINKHAM: All of a sudden, your brother is in comics.
VEITCH: Yeah, in a couple of months they had done The Legions of Charlie, which was this truly amazing comic book. The two of them really connected; Greg Irons and Tom Veitch were made for each other. And of course, as soon as I saw it was really happening, I said Yes! I had this old junk car and a couple of my friends hopped in and we drove across the country in four days nonstop just like in Kerouac’s On the Road. I crashed in Greg Irons’ barn and began drawing the opening sequence to what would become Two-Fisted Zombies. It was this weird sequence about these two ax-murderers and Tom showed it to Ron Turner, who runs Last Gasp, and Ron liked it. He had just come into some money and was doing a series of underground comics called All New Underground Comics which featured new artists. Tom said he’d write a script for it, and I was in — I never. even met Ron, because at that point I was pretty immature and still had a hard time showing people my art in terms of asking for a job. It seemed far beyond what I could handle emotionally at that point [laughs]. But Tom set the whole thing up and I went back to Vermont and moved back into the crash pad where all my buddies were.
PINKHAM: Why did you decide to go back?
VEITCH: Actually, because Tom and Martha had just had a baby, so they needed to do the family thing and I didn’t have any money coming in yet. So my best option was to go back to Vermont, where I could collect unemployment while I did the book.
I moved back into the hippie pad, sat down and drew Two-Fisted Zombies, which probably took me nine months. So I put it all together, shipped it back out to Tom, and bing, bing, bing, before I knew it … It was amazing how fast things happened at that point — suddenly here was the comic in my hand! All of a sudden it’s real — I am a real cartoonist. I went back and looked at Two-Fisted Zombies the other day and it’s amazing how, when it came out it seemed incredibly wrong [laughs], but how today it would fit right into mainstream comics!
PINKHAM: You mean “wrong” as in compared to any sort of comics that were out there?
VEITCH: It was politically incorrect in every way. The Kirby-esque art style and the general darkness, the fantasy … It wasn’t the peace-love thing at all.
PINKHAM: Not Fat Freddy’s Cat! [Laughs.]
VEITCH: But I guess it did pretty well. We actually sold enough copies to pay off the print bill. At this point I was still pretty confused about having a career as an artist. I didn’t understand what I had even accomplished.
PINKHAM: So you didn’t try to go further in the undergrounds?
VEITCH: I definitely did. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court came out with their landmark obscenity ruling, which gave communities the right to create local standards for obscenity. This knocked the blocks out from underground comics because the sex shops handled a lot of the comics and the head shops handled them too. You had to be careful because the cops were coming in and busting anything that smelled of counter-culture in a lot of communities. The whole underground thing was in the process of collapsing. It had been a terrific thing culturally. But it never evolved the kind of enlightened businessmen it needed to defeat the forces arrayed against it. Denis Kitchen had the right idea, I think, but the rest of the publishers seemed at a loss of what to do. Everything was drying up. Nothing was clicking. People were deserting the underground comix scene in droves.
PINKHAM: I’m sure that really encouraged you.
VEITCH: I was getting deeper and deeper in my own private crisis. I got my girlfriend pregnant and was such an asshole about it that I ended up splitting Vermont and moved back to San Francisco. I worked as a bicycle messenger. It was a terrific experience but I couldn’t get anything going in comics; there was nothing happening. I did get to meet a whole bunch of underground people when Rolling Stone put on a publishing party for the History of Underground Comics. This project was generally seen as a big shuck by most of the undergrounders who were pretty much as iconoclastic as they get. Only the big names were going to get paid, and Rolling Stone wanted everyone to sign over rights to their work, saying “This is going to make underground comics come back!” I was quite willing to let them use my work in the book because I was unpublished and I needed to get out there, but a lot of people, including Tom and Greg, refused. At that party, Ted Richards got so pissed off he punched out the author, Mark James Estran. So you can see, tensions were running real high. The whole project just drove a wedge into the comix community.
PINKHAM: Did you feel any pressure to not go into the book?
VEITCH: Yeah. I talked with Tom about it a lot and he was really militant about them not using his and Greg’s stuff. But he knew it was the best thing for me to get in there and he was willing to let his name be associated with Two-Fisted Zombies.
PINKHAM: Did you hear anything back from them?
VEITCH: The book is probably in its 20th printing now. Somebody has made a whole bunch of loot from it — and definitely not the underground artists.
PINKHAM: Well, I guess one punch out is not a large price to pay for that.
VEITCH: After that, I began to feel really guilty about leaving my girlfriend pregnant, so I moved back to Vermont. She had the baby and we got it back together and started family life together. But in terms of a career in cartooning, at this point it just seemed like I was doomed. There I was, I have a kid, I have a wife and I’ve got to have a house and a car, and pretty soon I’m working in a wood stove factory, welding wood stoves and just generally not connecting with my art in any meaningful way, shape or form. I had moved out of the Bellow Falls scene and got way out into the woods. We were doing a back to the land type of lifestyle, which I was getting a lot out of. I was maturing a lot, finally giving up my adolescence. I think parenting had a lot to do with that. Having a kid, as much as I tried to escape it, was really what opened me up and made me grow up. I know now, 20 years later, that that was the best thing that could have happened to me at that point. I probably spent three or four years living like that in Vermont. I was still drawing, and I was actually doing some commercial work once in a while like drawing logos for local rock bands. I was drawing a little comic strip here and there, but I wasn’t doing a lot of art at that point. When I turned 25 years old, I approached it like a rite of passage.
At that point I was actually mature enough to say, “I don’t want to weld woodstoves. I want to be a cartoonist, and yes, I can do it.” I was able to actually think about what steps I had to take in order to pull it off. The first step was to go to art school and learn to really draw. So I began to look around at art schools; I was a complete pauper, I had no money at all, but I didn’t let it stop me. Then I was flipping through The New York Times one day and there was a little, tiny ad down in the corner for the Joe Kubert School of Cartoons and Graphic Arts, opening that September. Somehow I managed to actually write a letter to him and mailed it off. He sent me back a postcard saying, “Yes, it’s going to happen. If you want to come down and show me your stuff …” I didn’t know anything about having a portfolio, but I put all these weird little comics I had drawn over the years into a little package and on top of it I put Two-Fisted Zombies — I was real proud of that — and down I went to Dover, New Jersey, and met Joe Kubert, who was one of the artists I had been following since I was a little kid. He looked at Two-Fisted Zombies and pointed at me and said, “You’ re just the kind of person I want in this school!”
So I was real excited — but of course I didn’t have a dime. But I got this terrific break: The government started a program called CETA, which was the Comprehensive Employment Training Act. They actually had training money for artists! This is unheard of today. Sure enough, they paid to send me to school for two years and gave me a monthly stipend which supported my family and myself. Bingo! It was really happening for me!
KUBERT YEAR ONE
PINKHAM: So you’re a member of the first class at Kubert’s school.
VEITCH: Yes. Joe had this dream for many years to teach cartooning. Not only is he a brilliant artist, but he’s got a good enough business head to really start and run his own school. I don’t have to tell anyone reading the Journal who Joe Kubert is — he’s one of the greats. He had found this old mansion, the Baker Mansion, in Dover, New Jersey and bought it for a song because no one else wanted it, and started his school. There were only about 20 or 22 of us in that first class, and five or six of those dropped out real soon. So we had this really small class, in this beautiful, old building — even though Dover, New Jersey is the armpit of the East Coast. We were off to the side on our own little five-acre estate with this old mansion with a swimming pool. It was just amazing how it all fell together.
PINKHAM: Were you and your family staying there?
VEITCH: No, my wife and child stayed in Vermont, but we were still together at that point, I was just off at school trying to learn a trade, going home on weekends. It was an amazing group of kids that came in; and they weren’t all kids, there were some older guys there too. I was one of the older people at age 26, but there was a fellow named Ben Ruiz who was in his 50s, and there were a few others my age. Most of the students were 22 or 23. So it was a pretty good cross-section of society. The neat thing was, almost all of us were really into it, and we had been out in the hinterlands all over the country floundering about, not knowing how to connect with it, and here it was. We were thrown into this school environment and just lapped it up! [Laughs.] Joe hadn’t spent a lot of time creating a curriculum because everything was being thrown together on the fly. But we just created it as we went along that first year.
PINKHAM: In a way it sounds like you got a better experience than maybe what’s available now.
VEITCH: It was real raw. I don’t think Joe was ready for it — he had been dreaming about this for so many years and all of a sudden here it was, and he was trying to juggle 15 or 20 students, some of whom were really fireballs. The emotions ran high a lot of the time — which I actually think is a really good environment for learning. It’s almost like a cauldron that you willingly get tossed into and you come out harder and sharper than you were before. We had a great bunch: Bissette was there and Tom Yeates was there that first year, and a whole bunch of other really interesting people. I learned a lot from that experience. We were at it night and day, day and night, comics, comics, comics!
PINKHAM: What sort of teachers were there?
VEITCH: We had some really interesting ones: Dick Giordano taught that first year, he was just great; Rick Estrada was a terrific cartoonist for DC, and I really connected with him, he really knew how to teach, and he had a curriculum ready. I guess he had had some actual teaching experience. He really gave a lot to all of us and pushed us all to new levels and heights each week. We had Hy Eisman, who taught humor, and we had Kelly Harris there teaching production and mechanicals so we’d learn how to do paste ups; Lee Elias, and then there was Joe, who was really the heart and soul of the school. He would teach three classes a week on top of editing books at D.C. and doing covers, all at that same time. He was amazing. I have this memory of sitting at my table in the main studio room, and I could see into Joe’s office where he had his drawing board and he was doing a cover or something, and there was this incredible intensity of attention that he was giving the board that I had never witnessed before. One of the problems I always had in my own life in drawing was that I’d start drawing, then jump up and walk around — I just couldn’t really focus on it. I watched him giving his board this complete and total focus, so much that he seemed to be in a trance state! So I began to imitate and emulate that and my art started to really happen.
PINKHAM: Did you start drawing more?
VEITCH: Well, it just started to come together right in front of my eyes, and I began to get a lot more out of it, I began to enjoy it more and look forward to it. I tried to organize my life so that there was a specific time set aside just for drawing; I tried to make sure I wasn’t going to be interrupted and dragged away, just so I could experience this … It’s like a deep meditation, I guess … There were lessons you got in Kubert’s school like that which were nonverbal. Joe himself had magnificent cartooning skills, and, if anything, was trying not to come on too heavy so that we all wouldn’t turn into little Joe Kubert clones — he was very afraid of that. But he took it personally when people didn’t do their assignments. There was a lot of tension and anger in his classes when it would come time to show an assignment and some of the people hadn’t gotten it together. He would really be pissed off at people. We lost a lot of precious time that should have been spent on drawing, just working out that anger that he had in him. I’m sure that after a couple of years he learned that at a college level it’s a waste of time to hassle people about doing their assignments. At that age, it’s got to be sink or swim. But when we were there, he was a real hard-ass about it.
PINKHAM: That’s where you met Steve Bissette.
VEITCH: Yeah. He was from Vermont, and had heard about me and Tom. In fact his style at that point was very much influenced by Greg Iron’s. He had read all the Skull comix, and he had read Two-Fisted Zombies, and knew we were in Vermont and that kind of inspired him to do his own self-published, small press comic called Abyss. I can remember the first day we met: It was like meeting my long-lost brother. He is that kind of guy. I didn’t get his name, even though we shook hands — I was stoned or something — but he did hand me a copy of his comic, Abyss, which I brought home that night and flipped through. There were these two strips in there: “Cries of the Vegetable Kingdom,” and “Rudy Dreams,” and they were astounding strips. They just knocked me for a loop. I didn’t realize he had done them, so when I saw him again I said, “Hey, great comic — who did this ‘Rudy Dreams’ and ‘Cries of the Vegetable Kingdom’?” He sheepishly said, “That’s my stuff.” We were into a lot of the same things—comics and music and everything, and of course we were from Vermont — so we started hanging out and doing crude collaborations. At this point we’re still children playing with toys — we don’t really know what we’re up to yet. I began to get a lot from him in terms of how to create a story. I had always done comics as pure expression, how I felt. Bissette was the first person I met who consciously understood story structure, from films, and how important it is to place certain things in stories to create rhythm and resonance, and this was all a revelation to me. Even then he was famous for not finishing his assignments [laughter].
PINKHAM: You got some of Joe Kubert’s anger there?
VEITCH: No — this was the amazing thing about Bissette. He could talk his way out of it! I can see him standing up in front of a class holding a page of his imaginary pencils and in one millimicron of the corner is a bit of ink, and he’s supposed to be turning in a finished assignment — but he could make up great stories about what it was going to be and why he didn’t finish it and how it connected to this film and this book and this record … Somehow he was able to snow his way through it! [Laughter.] He’s an incredible natural artist. People instantly loved his style. I saw it happen with many, many people throughout the years. Probably more than any of us, he picked up working with a brush and thinking as an inker. He developed a slashing brush style that was sort of based on Joe’s, but it had its own sharp edge to it, and was quite original. I think even Joe was impressed with how Bissette was turning out in the first year. Joe was editor of Sgt. Rock comics and cut some deal with DC so that he could publish the student’s work in the back of Sgt Rock. We all started to do what were called the “back-up stories,” which were these two-, three-, four-, and five-pager war comics that were done outside of the school curriculum, with Joe acting as editor — and we got actual money for those. Of course the stuff we were learning was much richer, much more powerful, much more to the point.
PINKHAM: So he'd respond to you as an editor.
VEITCH: Right, no bullshit, this was it. You got to do it and do it right or we’re going to throw it out. That kind of pressure makes you do your best job. My nickname at that point was Veitch-a-matic because I just drew all the time. Joe didn’t make it easy by any means, but I finished every assignment and I did more of those back-up stories than anybody because I just loved it. I bet I did 15 or 20 backup stories for Sgt. Rock comics, in two years.
PINKHAM: Did you get any response from DC over what you were doing?
VEITCH: They hated it. It was all tied up in the hideous DC politics which Joe and every other artist has been suffering through for decades. My whole life I had imagined how great it would be to work for DC Comics, and you go up there and it’s just horrible, everybody’s bummed out and projecting these negative job-sweat vibes, everybody hates the work they’re doing. The other weird thing about that time, for those of us on a student level who were totally into comics and really loved them, was a lot of the professionals we were beginning to meet were telling us that comics were dead. They’ d say that cartoon graphics were going to be important, but comic books were dead. They had every reason to believe it because the distribution network at that time was in the process of collapsing big-time.
PINKHAM: Sounds familiar.
VEITCH: Yeah. But on a bigger scale. It was something that had worked for 40 years and was in the process of coming apart. They were losing money right and left, nothing was working for anybody. This was about the time that Mike Friedrich came to speak at the school.
PINKHAM: He was working on Star Reach at that time?
VEITCH: He was also working as a consultant for Marvel.
PINKHAM: On the direct market?
VEITCH: It was just being born. He was the first person I ever heard lay out what the direct market was, and had a vision for what it would be. As it turned out, he was reasonably correct, too. He kind of inspired me to think in new ways about what I could accomplish as a cartoonist, rather than just becoming the next person to do Fantastic Four.
PINKHAM: Was it being discussed that it might help cartoonists to be able to do more mature work?
VEITCH: Yeah. Joe had been to Europe and met a lot of the Europeans like Hugo Pratt and Moebius and Drulliet, and everybody was impressed with what they were doing. Europe was really where comics were happening in the world at that point.
PINKHAM: Were you seeing any of this stuff?
VEITCH: Bissette was the first person to give me a copy of Metal Hurlant. Of course as soon as I read that stuff, it was like, WOW! This is it! It was right after that that National Lampoon bought the rights to this stuff and started Heavy Metal. All of a sudden, it seemed like there were real possibilities here; comics were really trying to make a jump. But none of us realized how limited it was. In hindsight you can see its limitations. At the time, it was exciting and we were all trying to connect with it. We’d met enough middle-aged cartoonists who had become sad, broken and poor working for DC and Marvel, and we didn’t want it to be like that!
PINKHAM: Did you ever think about Mad?
VEITCH: It wasn’t really my style. I wasn’t really a humor cartoonist. I was more science fiction, horror and even superheroes. At school, we were sitting around every night, talking, talking, talking, and we began to talk about superheroes. We all sort of vaguely sensed that there was a potential for superheroes that hadn’t been met as yet. We’d look at what Moebius was doing, and we’d ask each other, “Man, can we do this with superheroes? If we could just bring this new intensity to it … ” Although we couldn’t really formulate a new direction, we just intuitively knew there could be more to it. It wasn’t until years later that that would happen. But we were playing around with it back then.
PINKHAM: Were there any other publications that you were working on while you were in school?
VEITCH: Yeah, I got a letter from a guy named Cliff Neal who was doing a book called Dr. Wertham’s Comics and Stories, and he had seen Two-Fisted Zombies and somehow had tracked me down. On one of my trips back home, there waiting for me was this letter from Cliff Neal. He said he had liked Two-Fisted Zombies and wanted me to do something for him. This was the first time it had ever happened to me. So I brought that back to school, and we sent him a bunch of samples; I included a bunch of stuff Bissette had done, and he loved Bissette’s work too, and he started to give us a regular berth in his book. Steve and I did a story called “The Tell-Tale Fart.”
[Laughs.] It was this humorous horror story, a retelling of The Tell-Tale Heart. That was kind of cool. We also were contacted by a guy named Larry Shell who was putting out a comic called Fifties Funnies. He lived right there in New Jersey and contacted the school and started feeding us work here and there. We also put together a book called Manticore. We did everything ourselves, edited it, printed it, collated it by hand, the whole thing. That was pretty cool. Then the year after that we did another one called Parade of Gore [laughter].
PINKHAM: What did Kubert think about this stuff?
VEITCH: Well, we were all feeling like we couldn’t do our wildest shit if it had Kubert’s name attached to it, so Parade of Gore was a reaction to that. We pooled our money and did it outside of school and tried to be as weird and outrageous as we could. One of the ongoing debates at Kubert’s school was about good taste. Cartoonists from Joe’s generation couldn’t understand the humor of our generation which was based on bad taste. Things like Saturday Night Live were just beginning to happen. It was just all so natural to us that we didn’t want to be restrained, and there were many debates about it. Sometimes you had to be able to defend something you had drawn as being worthwhile — and that was a good thing to have to do.
PINKHAM: Did you ever worry about expressing yourself in that way in terms of hurting your chances of having a career in comics?
VEITCH: Something like that did get handed down. The plantation mentality that permeated DC and Marvel says that if the editor or publisher gets it in his head that you are an “underground artist,” you just won’t get work. It sounds crazy, but that’s the way it was. So there were a lot of guys working under pseudonyms so that the powers that be wouldn’t find out what they were really doing.
PINKHAM: Was Kubert’s school where you first picked up the airbrush?
VEITCH: No, actually I had gotten that just before Kubert’s school. I had done a sign-painting job where they paid me with an airbrush. So I was struggling to learn it. I remember some of my samples to get into Kubert’s school were airbrush samples. I figured out a few of the tricks, although I definitely wasn’t good at it at all. Joe especially encouraged me to learn it and play with it in assignments because he thought it was a valuable tool. You could see that airbrush was an emerging look at that time, especially in color work, so I kept working at it. I did an airbrush story for Sgt. Rock, believe it or not. It was written by Bill Kelly and was a prose story that I illustrated. We broke up the type — this was before you had computers and you had to cut all the type out by hand — and put the illustrations all around it. I airbrushed them and we screened them, and it actually got published.
PINKHAM: So it actually looked decent on that paper and everything?
VEITCH: A lot of people complimented me on that story, although by today’s standards I’m sure it looks like shit.
PINKHAM: In Archie Goodwin’s introduction to the story “Monkey See,” in Epic, he said you and Bissette did everything on it: you both did the writing, designing, and finished art on it. Is that the way you worked together?
VEITCH: Yeah. That was probably a year or two later. By then, we were both somewhat capable in all levels of comics, although it became really obvious that he was a lot better at inking than I was. I was better at engineering pages, whereas he would sit around and think about it for weeks before he’d even start! [Laughs.] So I’d really get it going. We were simpatico on many levels, but on work ethic levels we were complete opposites. This was a source of much conflict between us. [Laughs.] But that’s his nature. I learned to work around it, and it was simply worth it because I think the collaborations would produce consistently higher work than what either of us was able to produce alone at that point in time. And it just felt good. I probably connected with him on a creative level better than anyone I ever had before. Still to this day, he and I will go sit down somewhere and start making up stories, just for the sheer creative joy of it. We used to do that all the time, we’d just be hanging out and we’d say, “Let’s... write a movie!” [Laughs.] And we’d just start creating a scenario and these characters and scenes. There is a real true energy between us that I really like a lot. I haven’t found that with very many other people, and it’s something I really value.
PINKHAM: What was the second year like?
VEITCH: The second year was a lot different than the first in the sense that all of a sudden we had another class of maniacs showing up at our idyllic mansion. There were suddenly 35 or 40 of them and the place was all of a sudden crawling with cartoonists. We felt our noses were out of joint because we were used to having the run of the place. They jammed a lot of people into the dorms, so life just wasn’t as comfortable, and it was a real hard adjustment in the first month. But here was Tim Truman and here’s John Totleben, Ron Randall, Jan Duursema, Tom Mandrake, and a whole bunch of other guys — amazing, raw talent. And each of them brought something to the mix. Totleben especially was very shy, didn’t like to talk to people, but within a few days everybody knew there was this weird-looking guy in the corner room on the second floor endlessly sketching these brilliant Frank Frazetta-style monster sketches. It’s all he’d do. We were all flabbergasted by his work. Smaller groups started to form of the people who were really serious. When we graduated, we rented a big house in New Jersey and started hustling our portfolios in New York, getting any kind of drawing jobs we could. Somebody tagged the house the “Flying Dutchman Studios,” — Totleben, Yeates, Bissette and myself. Other groups from Kubert’s school did the same thing, formed these little bands and rented houses and apartments and began running a same game plan.
PINKHAM: Was there any sense of competition?
VEITCH: We all felt part of the same, big thing. There might have been something like competition between certain people but nothing turned ugly. It was a healthy competition. If I found an editor who responded well to my stuff, I would try to bring in as many of my friends as I could. Wherever we could find a door to stick our foot in, we would do it. At the beginning it was [difficult]. Yeates and I both had to work for Beaver magazine.
PINKHAM: [Laughs.] I assume that was a porno magazine.
VEITCH: Yeah. DC had imploded, canceling dozens of titles, so there was no work at DC. We had thought, coming out of Kubert’s school, we were all set to work for DC. But there was no work, and the political situation that was all part of Joe’s life at DC was so bad at that point that it was just no use. We all went up there, but none of us got any work from them at all. So we said, “OK, let’s go over to Marvel!” Bing, bing, bing, we all started to get work at Marvel, mostly through Rick Marschall. He was editing the Marvel Magazine line then and these were mostly creepy magazines like Dracula and weird science fiction. I had the airbrush samples and I went in there and bingo, got a job. Bissette got a 20-page script, and I ended up helping him by airbrushing his backgrounds. So all of a sudden it was happening. Somebody, I think it was Bissette, found a way to get into Heavy Metal. All of a sudden they’re buying one-pagers from all of us. We’re not making a lot of money, but we’re doing enough to make our rent and buy some Fritos. [Laughs.] We all tried to get in at Warren’s, but didn’t have any luck. I came close by actually doing a couple of sample stories, but couldn’t make the grade. We were sort of cooking along when all of a sudden word comes along that Rick Marschall has convinced Marvel to do a Heavy Metal-style, full-color magazine which evolved into Epic magazine.
PINKHAM: When did Archie Goodwin get involved?
VEITCH: Before the first issue was actually published, I think Marschall got bounced out. But he had bought enough for two or three issues. He bought “Monkey See” from Bissette and me and he bought a script from me called “Solar Plexus,” which I was in the process of actually doing. The interesting story about “Solar Plexus” was it was one of these kind of vague, Heavy Metal-type stories that didn’t really have a firm story structure, and word came down that Stan liked it but decided it needed a story structure. So he cooked up this one-page plot that I had to stick in the middle of it. I go off and do the story and word comes that Rick Marschall’s gone and Archie’s in. So I visit Archie and show him the story and he reads it and says, “It’s a good story, except for this one page ... ” and it was the page that Stan had written! [Laughter.]
PINKHAM: So you didn’t get to “collaborate” then.
VEITCH: At the same time, I was working as a sometimes assistant to Al Williamson. It wasn’t so much for the money as getting to know Al, immersing myself in what Al knew about comics, and the history of comics that Al was a part of. Al had a massive collection of books and old newspapers. So I was doing backgrounds and lettering for him, and at night I would go down to a little apartment he had where he had his old Prince Valiant collection, and within a couple of months I got to read the whole Prince Valiant, and the whole Flash Gordon. This was before they were collected. Al’s just a wonderful guy, he helped me out a lot, very patient. I became part of the family for a while. It’s a time I really treasure.
PINKHAM: Was Al working on Star Wars at that time?
VEITCH: It was the first thing I helped him on. I lettered The Empire Strikes Back, and I drew the Walkers because he doesn’t like drawing machinery. Also they didn’t have any photos of the walker, only two crude photos of the model. So once a month I’d go up there and we’d goof off a lot. We had a really good time. I met my wife-to-be — I left out the part how I had broken with my first wife —
PINKHAM: I was wondering, when you were in the Flying Dutchman house …
VEITCH: My first marriage ended then, but it was a long time coming. I met my wife-to-be, Cindy, who was working at the art store. That was a turning point in my life. I was in a really strong, positive relationship for the first time ever.
PINKHAM: Was she an artist too?
VEITCH: She’s a fabric artist. And we moved to Vermont. I didn’t make a lot of money because I’d spend a whole week on a page because I’d hear that’s how the Europeans did it. I wasn’t rich, but after all the bullshit I went through in my life, finally here it was, I had finally pulled it off. I was a cartoonist. Then I did a whole bunch of shit for Epic and Heavy Metal, hundreds of pages. I did a full-color graphic novel called Abraxas and the Earthman, which was 80 pages; I did a whole shitload of short stories. It was neat; I owned all the material.
PINKHAM: That must have been new for Marvel.
VEITCH: It would be a pretty new thing today! The contract was one page, and it only purchased one-time rights! It paid pretty well, and working with Archie Goodwin was a fantastic experience. I did another graphic novel for Archie Goodwin called Heartburst, but I was never too proud of that one.
PINKHAM: You’re not proud of that?
VEITCH: Well … I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. The reason I’m not proud of it is because when I had just finished it, I met Alan Moore. [Laughs.] He was doing everything that I needed to learn, and doing it brilliantly. The art was OK, but in terms of story structure, I was falling back into trying to express my feelings unconsciously rather than really thinking the writing end of it through. That is probably one of my weaknesses — if I don’t really push myself, I tend to approach things simplistically and I don’t think the reading experience is as powerful as it should be.
PINKHAM: You’re proud of Abraxas and the Earthman?
VEITCH: Yeah, I am actually proud of that. If I ever reprint it, there are certain things I’m going to go back and fix. But that’s a pretty neat story and it also — at least I thought at the time — it had a real original hook, although it turned out they were doing the same damn thing X-Men comics.
VEITCH: [Laughs.] Yeah, mystical space whales. Kind of became its own genre thing!
PINKHAM: You did a graphic novel for Heavy Metal; the 1941 adaptation?
VEITCH: Yeah, Alex Toth was supposed to do the adaptation and he backed out at the last minute and they were absolutely desperate to get somebody, and someone said, “Well, there’s Veitch and Bissette!” [Laughs.]
PINKHAM: He was part way through it at that point, wasn’t he?
VEITCH: Yeah. But what he had done was try to make sense out of the shooting script, which wasn’t even funny. Spielberg’s people were pretty obnoxious, they didn’t trust us with anything, they didn’t want to give us reference photos; we actually had to steal them.
PINKHAM: How did you do that?
VEITCH: Spielberg’s people gave us this slide presentation. They went out to lunch and John Workman brought the slides down to the stat room and had them shot on the sly. [Pinkham laughs.] They were actually afraid we were going to take the photos and sell them to Time magazine. So anyway, we did the samples and got the gig and started work. Or at least I did. Bissette instantly got one of his famous artist blocks! I just threw myself into it and got the thing up and rolling. There was a lot of tension between him and me just because he couldn’t get his ass in gear. By about the second half of the book, he began to catch on and plug into it. He also at that point began to work on the editors at Heavy Metal. He was really good at that, so he got us another two weeks. And we got the goddamn thing done on the day we promised. We put it all on the floor of his cabin — actually it was the second half of the book because we’d already delivered the first half. We were just completely frazzled and exhausted and about ready to strangle each other, but at the same time we felt relieved to get it done. So we’re sitting there, and his neighbor’s dog runs in, completely soaking wet, and lies down on the pages.
PINKHAM: [Laughs.] That’s unbelievable.
VEITCH: We just went, “AHHHHH!” threw the dog out, and began sopping up mud from the pages, and then we realized it really didn’t matter [laughter]. If you go back and look through the book, there are certain pages with big water marks, but it’s lost in all the craziness.
PINKHAM: Did you have anybody watching over you saying, “No, you can’t do that”?
VEITCH: They were desperate to get if done but we were also fighting all the time with the editor. We just couldn’t connect with her. Steve has always been much better at dealing with that end of it than I was. John Workman was just terrific though; he helped out with a lot of problems, and smoothed a lot of ruffled feathers. Bottom line was, we delivered the book on time so they could get it out before the movie came out. The only bummer was that the movie bombed. We came out of that whole experience kind of shell-shocked. We had also made a good chunk of money — I think they paid us $12,000 for the whole book, which doesn’t sound like a lot for that kind of work now, but at the time it was more than we’d ever made. We were able to have money in the bank and take a break for a while.
PINKHAM: Do you know if Spielberg saw it?
VEITCH: Yeah, he saw it — and was completely pissed off. He wrote a letter to our editor, which I actually have a copy of, saying that “Bissette and Veitch are savagely talented but demented.” [Laughs.]
PINKHAM: But he said that in a negative way?
VEITCH: It was a backhanded compliment. We thought it was hilarious! Of course I’ m sure he was feeling even more shell-shocked than we were. 1941 set new Hollywood standards for how bad a big movie could bomb.
PINKHAM: Is it true that before you started The One, you worked with Alan Moore?
VEITCH: No, that came after. Actually with the last issue of The One, I was doing both at once. It was crazy.
PINKHAM: Is that how you met Alan, via working together?
VEITCH: It’s a whole convoluted thing. I hadn’t met Alan when I conceived of The One, but I had read the first issues of Warrior that had Marvelman in them. He was kicking the gong with things I had rolling around in the back of my mind for years, about the possibilities inherent in superheroes — he had realized it on the printed page, and I was intrigued and excited by the accomplishment. I recognized a potential — but I wasn’t a good enough writer to follow through with what that potential might become at that point. I wasn’t a real thinker either; I was a doer.
PINKHAM: You said you didn’t like Heartburst because you weren’t a writer. How have you developed that?
VEITCH: Growing up as a kid, doing comics all the time, and having them as my main form of expression for my unconscious feelings and yearnings, comics became an organic part of life, right from the time I was a little guy. I never had schooling to be a writer. Beyond what I got in high school, anything I learned about writing comics, I learned on my own, from reading other writers or drawing their scripts.
PINKHAM: They have any courses at Kubert’s?
VEITCH: No. Joe had talked about putting a writing course together but it wasn’t easy to do. Once he realized what was involved, I think he felt, “We’ll need a whole ’nother school!” [Laughs.] I was fortunate enough to work with Joe, writing scripts for him acting as editor. Also some of the first professional scripts he had given me to work on in Sgt. Rock comics were by Robert Kanigher, who had one of the great classic comic-book writing styles. I began to work from there, developing a thinking process about how to build a story. But I was nowhere in Alan’s class — he’s one of the great comic book thinkers of all time! By the early ’80s, the comic-book shops were opening and I was reading everything that I could get my hands on, and here comes this black-and-white magazine from England, Warrior, with Marvelman in it. I read it, and the proverbial lightbulb went off in my head. I began to conceive of The One, not as a shameless rip-off of Marvelman, but as something to shoot for, to see how much depth I could bring to a semi-traditional comic book story. Marvel Comics was beginning to realize there was life in the direct sales market, and I think they were looking at books like Cerebus and Elfquest, and they were thinking, “Hey, we can do that!”
PINKHAM: You said you saw potential in superheroes. Reading The One, I’m picking out a lot of uses you made of them: adolescent virgins out of control; the object of a woman’s yearning for pure sex; military weapons; descendants of human heroes like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart; Adam and Eve ... Were you using superheroes because you thought they played an important part in these themes? Or was it that the only way you could express such themes in the comics market is through superheroes?
VEITCH: Although I probably couldn’t have articulated it in that day and age, I think what I was doing was trying to touch on the archetypal nature of superheroes. “Archetype” is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot and it tends to lose its precise meaning. But in the classic, psychoanalytical sense, archetypes are instinctual collective ideas often expressed as symbols. I was beginning to understand that superheroes represented something deeply ingrained in 20th century political culture. One of the subtexts of The One is the political confrontation between American superheroes and Russian superheroes. At the time The One was created, it was one of the things I was really worrying about. The nuclear showdown was getting heavier and heavier every day — our wonderful president Ronald Reagan was out there talking about the Evil Empire —
PINKHAM: Making jokes about bombing.
VEITCH: Yeah, and they were shooting down civilian aircraft and all kinds of horrible stuff. It just seemed like things were beginning to spin out of control. As a creative person and an artist, this stuff becomes part of the mix as you’re conceiving stories. So I began to try to explore the nature of power on a political scale, and how it might be deformed by the existence of superheroes. It sounds kind of corny, but in 1984 and ’85, it really hadn’t been explored that much.
PINKHAM: Do you think adults are separated from these archetypes, or do they take a different form?
VEITCH: First let me try to define the archetypal nature of superheroes. Take a look at psychoanalysis in the 20th century, starting with Freud, who tends to concentrate on the repressed sexual nature of society. After Freud comes Jung, who I guess probably coined the term “archetype,” whose approach would tend to see the mythical — or mystical — aspects of the unconscious though processes. After Jung comes Adler, whose theory is based around the will to power. If you take those three main currents of 20th century psychoanalytic thought — sex, myth, power — you define what a superhero is. When you get right down to the bottom of it, that’s what I’m trying to bring out to the foreground. Superheroes boil down incredibly complex ideas, thoughts, feelings, yearnings, that are essentially collective in the general populace, and projected upon these little cartoons. As we come to the end of the 20th century, superheroes have taken on a real worth all their own and large parts of the capitalist system are actually driven by them. So I think it’s a little too early to say that they’re just worthless by-products of a culture gone mad [laughs]. Superheroes really flowered in America at the time that our political power in the world grew to the point were we were called a Superpower. This is not a coincidence. Beyond that, there are the futuristic aspects of superheroes. We live in a time when it’s not absurd to say that we will enhance our physical being through scientific means — either through having new parts put onto us, through integrating our thought processes with machinery —
VEITCH: Genetic experimentation — all these things are coming. The human race is going to mutate.
PINKHAM: Or even just meditation.
VEITCH: Yeah, but that’s always been with us. 20th century industrial society has got us very close to the point where it’s going to be possible for you and I to have enhanced physical and mental powers by using new technology.
PINKHAM: And we’ll have the same awareness, and we need to develop a new one, I guess.
VEITCH: Yeah, obviously we’re going to have to develop an awareness to keep up with the potential of technology. So as crummy as all these superhero comics are, they tend to be exploring — in their own ridiculous adolescent way — these futures for us, kind of feeling around out there what’s good, what’s bad, what’s popular, what’s not. So these are the kinds of things that now I can try to describe, but in the early ’80s I didn’t really have words for it. I was just groping. Alan, more than anybody, got it down on paper. I think he was the first comic-book writer I ran into that really took the writing seriously. Even early on in his career I think he was casting a long shadow across comics. He definitely pointed a direction for where I wanted to go.
PINKHAM: You began The One with a news story you had found on the McCluhan Center, saying, “The shared myth of imminent destruction has physically changed the manner in which the billions of synapses connect in people’s brains. These changes will create a new attitude that will insure that the bomb will not be used, the certainty of continuing to hang on the edge of the precipice is necessary for the new attitude to emerge.” Had you read that before you wrote The One, and was it part of the inspiration, or was it a coincidence?
VEITCH: Probably I ran into it while I was conceiving the book, or was halfway through the first book, and it seemed like the perfect thing to express the esoteric nature of what I was trying to get at. Anyone who lived through the ’80s couldn’t conceive of what was coming: the collapse of the Soviet Union? I mean, whew! Now that it’s happened, we’re just blasé about it, but at the time it was a big thing.
PINKHAM: So you took this idea of the bomb and the clash of the superpowers, and you made the psychological force a physical one.
VEITCH: Right — the collective consciousness of the planet is a character in The One.
PINKHAM: The nukes could not actually be detonated because of the mass consciousness.
VEITCH: And that is an evolutionary step in the sense that we’re all part of a larger organism that is in the process of forming — which in the book actually forms, and the people on Earth end up living a sort of dreamlike existence within it. I played around with sequels that would have had The One going off and having adventures while all the characters still lived inside his head — but I never got around to doing it.
PINKHAM: Do you think that makes the impact of the story on the reader more or less suggestive to the reader, thinking about having this power? Or do you think they’re going to think, “Well, it would be nice if there was a superhero?”
VEITCH: What I’m trying to get at it is the superhero within us, and for readers to get in touch with the parts of themselves that right now they are projecting onto popular culture.
PINKHAM: You make it explicit: the characters rip off their faces and there is the hero within.
VEITCH: Right. I think the trick with pulling this kind of stuff off is to not really come out and say it, but to just show it as imagery.
PINKHAM: What were you getting at with the mass culture imagery on the covers?
VEITCH: Superheroes are a form a mass culture, and of consumer culture — little did I know how bad it was going to get! [Laughs.] I was trying to point that out, and of course I’ve just always loved logos and signs and weird packaging, and it seemed like a neat way to skewer those things, as well as Andy Warhol, on a comic-book cover. The times kind of demanded it as well. There were tons and tons of comic books then, although not as many as there are now. Every variation of a regular superhero comic-book cover had already been tried 10 times over, so it seemed it was time to try new graphic ideas, to spread it out a little bit.