“Superman should be done by guys like me and Alan Moore to break him out of this straitjacket,” says Rick Veitch. And he’s probably right, too.
Fans of Veitch’s Swamp Thing run might remember what happened when he pitted Superman against the green god trying to take revenge on an unsuspecting Lex Luthor.
Multiverse editor Mike Conroy, left, with Rick Veitch at Bristol International Comic and Small Press Expo
What would Jesus do?
An attentive audience at May’s Bristol International Comic and Small Press Expo heard how Veitch, under questioning from Multiverse editor Mike Conroy, was groomed as Moore’s replacement as “the next big thing” at DC. Until Swamp Thing found Jesus.
“DC knew all about what the book was going to be ahead of time and then at the last second pulled it,” Veitch said, with time being the appropriate word.
Swamp Thing meeting a white magician called Jesus did not go very well with DC execs
It was during Swamp Thing’s long crawl back from past to present where he encountered a white magician called Jesus. Then DC made the decision to pull the scene, interrupting Veitch’s careful orchestration of a character that Moore had taken from the Z-list to A-list, with Veitch keeping the vegetable one on the same path.
Veitch continued: “I still don’t know why they did it. I left for a lot of reasons but that’s the issue I went out on. I was out of work, my wife was pregnant with the baby due next month and DC cancelled my health insurance.”
Teenage Mutant Ninja Aardvark
But the move cost them a rare creative talent that had learnt comic craft in underground circles. So it was fitting that Veitch turned to the self-publishing movement sparked by Dave Sim and his sword-swinging aardvark Cerebus.
Work with the team behind cult classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles convinced Veitch that owning your creative projects from beginning to end was the way to go. And that’s where he has been ever since.
It mirrors his start in the field. “I was drawing my own comic books from the age of five,” he said. “It was a calling. But I came up against the adults, saying it was not a career. Comics were seen as juvenile. I had no art training. Art was seen as sorcery and people didn’t trust creativity.”
Early Rick Veitch on underground comic Two-Fisted Zombies
Back to school
Veitch lived in San Francisco in his twenties with his brother, becoming involved in the underground comic movement and selling his first comic, Two-Fisted Zombies. Then he joined the first class of the Kubert School of comic art with Stephen Bissette and John Totleben. By the time he graduated he had “unlearned everything I taught myself from copying Jack Kirby panels”.
He added: “The comic business in the 80s was in complete collapse. We were told to focus on some other form of graphics. We didn’t care. We were going to do comics.
“We went to Manhattan just at the right time. Heavy Metal had come out and we had a lot of underground samples, as that’s what Bissette and I were working on.”
The Heavy Metal adaptation of Spielberg's 1941
The good old days
His first job was to adapt Steven Spielberg flop 1941, which he said Heavy Metal “blew up”. “Spielberg was apparently pretty mad,” he said. “Such a thing could not happen in this day and age. It was the good old days.”
After that he joined the Epic imprint at Marvel comics, recruited for his skill in soft tones. His first stories were admittedly “pretty rough but I was teaching myself” under the watch of Archie Goodwin. Remarkably, Veitch got paid the going rate and retained copyright on material still in print today.
Epic couldn’t match the underground comics’ ability to show truly graphic violence and sex. But Veitch didn’t want to. He understood underground comics wanted to push borders, but he knew it was more powerful to suggest awful things rather than show them.
Alan Moore's Chronocops for 2000AD resulted in Swamp Thing going back in time
This leads to his story becoming entwined with then emerging talent Moore and his Marvelman for Warrior.
Veitch: “When Warrior hit in the States everyone in comics said ‘that’s it. Moore’s got it.’ Before Alan Moore got driven out by his fans, at comic expos, people were kneeling in front of him.”
Veitch drew the graphic maternity scene in the comic, but before that he was at an expo with Dave Gibbons and Bryan Talbot when Gibbons shared a 2000AD with him. Veitch said: “Inside was a story told backwards in time. Chronocops. I read it and thought someday I’m going to swipe that. It was written by Alan. One day Alan said to me on Swamp Thing, ‘I have no idea what to do next’ and I said about a story back in time and he was ‘you like that?’ It was his own story.”
Superman catches the incorporeal Swamp Thing with his X-ray vision
The Moore/Veitch team-up has its roots in Moore’s early Swamp Thing story, The Anatomy Lesson. Bissette called on Veitch’s help to meet a deadline in danger of being missed and the pair worked round the clock to get it done.
“Steve came to my house in Vermont with the script and it was incredible,” said Veitch. “Moore had figured it out. It was like a love letter to the artist. In the script he is completely self depreciating. The Anatomy Lesson was brilliant.
“We just banged the book out over three days. I did it as a friend, my names not on the book and didn’t get paid. But it was like making music with a great musician. So I got sucked into Swamp Thing.
“I did backgrounds and panels for Steve up to issue 50. Karen Berger became aware of me and I did a few fill ins. When Steve left I was the anointed one. Moore was familiar with my writing and saw me as the person to follow him. He talked me in to it and I joked about committing career suicide.”
And then Jesus happened.
Dr Blasphemy torments the Brat Pack
Brat Pack - 20 years ahead of its time
Following Sims’ self publishing inspiration, Veitch set up his own comics’ line: King Hell Press. His first work was The One – an abortive nuclear war between the USA and USSR instead that saw superheroes battling it out for supremacy. Then there was the satirical side kick romp Brat Pack, doing everything Garth Ennis’ The Boys does back in 1991.
Veitch said: “I was parodying the genre and taking swipes. But there are lovely people that work in the industry. You imagine the offices of Marvel are a fun place. It’s quite the opposite. The people I worked with were cynical and happy to see themselves as exploiting kids. They were aware of the subliminal impact of comics on kids.
“Then I made a bunch of money on 1963. Dealers were buying cases of comics like stocks. We sold 8,000 copies of a creator-owned book. I had enough money to do whatever I wanted for a couple of years and that was something for my artistic sensibilities.”
Those sensibilities turned into his dream-inspired books Rabid Eye, Pocket Universe and Crypto Zoo. But the superhero-verse came knocking when Veitch was brought into America’s Best Comics by Moore to work on masked private eye Greyshirt inTomorrow Stories.
The iconic Abbey Road cover by The Beatles, as seen in Army@Love
After DC bought ABC, Moore’s belief that there was a “firewall” between creators and publisher was doused and while Moore left, Veitch found doors opening for him at Vertigo.
“My first Vertigo graphic novel was Can’t Get No,” he said. “But Army@Love was a little outrageous. I was not waiting 15 years to do a satire on the Iraq war. I was doing it in the worst part in 2006. There were bombings every day, civilians being slaughtered. Full props to DC and Karen Berger for publishing it, it was a bit over the top.”
But Veitch had not forgiven and forgotten the comics’ industries darker side. He hooked up with web designer Steve Conley to create Comicon.com – what he calls the internet’s first comics’ website in the late 90s.
Veitch said: “I got a message from a friend laid off by Marvel during the bankruptcy. There were 500 people from Marvel being sued. So we put it on the website. I was getting emails from ‘moles’ in every comic company in America wanting to tell the truth. We caused a lot of people high blood pressure.”
Back to the future
More recently, Veitch has seen Brat Pack optioned by ARS Nova and being guided to the big screen by Metropia director Tarik Saleh. He’s also working on a September 11 series about the “Truthers” asking all the right questions about the terrorist attack while the World Trade Centre comes down around their ears, and a project for the University of Chicago to help kids with social issues through comics.
But if Veitch could do anything, he admitted he’d like to have a stab at a Jack Kirby style of space opera in the Fourth World vein.
But as the 60s were kind to music, he believes the 80s were the same for comics and laments the loss of anything goes style of creativity missing from modern comics where annual sagas are carefully choreographed to avoid sister titles stepping on each other’s toes.
“It’s way too tight right now,” he says. “Green Lantern does not have to be totally controlling and American. I think I’m the guy to do Superman if there were no corporations.”