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November 4, 2007


CR Sunday Interview: Rick Veitch

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Rick Veitch came into comics as a member of the Direct Market generation, a group of cartoonists, writers and artists with an appreciation for old-school craft and the desire of most creative people born from the mid-century on to express themselves through their chosen art. Some folks may remember him through projects at Marvel's Epic efforts like Abraxas and the Earthman and The One, others may recall his contributions to expressive fantasies like Swamp Thing or 1963, still others satirical projects like Brat Pack and Maximortal, and yet another group may know him mostly for his dream comics in the self-published Rare Bit Fiends. There's even a small chance that some out there might not think of Veitch as a cartoonist or writer at all as much as they see him as a co-founder of the comics Internet anchor site Comicon.com.

Like many past Rick Veitch comics, his latest series, Army@Love stands alone in the marketplace: a long-form satire in fictional form, brutally critical of Western military policy and motivation on several levels while respectful of the emotions and human weaknesses in play. Army@Love is set in an immediate future with the United States still at war in the Middle East and beyond while employing, exploiting and encouraging strategies and behaviors that seem completely absurd and outrageous but contain within them enough revelatory truth as to the country's state of mind they would likely surprise very few of us were they to one day become standard procedure. This series not only comes at a point when Vertigo seems sorely lacking in the kinds of high-energy titles that brought the imprint its initial success, it arrives in the midst of an ongoing Rick Veitch in-print renaissance in terms of current projects and reprints making it onto the stands. I was pleased he found the time to answer my questions.

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imageTOM SPURGEON: Rick, can I get a snapshot of what you're working on now, and what you have out? It seems like you've had a ton of material out in the last several months. Can you locate where you are exactly with Army@Love and the various King Hell projects?

RICK VEITCH: Vertigo-wise, I've just finished the pencils to Army@Love #12. I'm writing the outline to what we're calling "Season Two" which is essentially the next six issue story arc. I think #8 is in stores and the first trade shipped in October. I believe the next Swamp Thing collected volume is about to be released. Over at King Hell I've been publishing about one book a year but I'm hoping to pick up the pace a bit. I'll be soliciting Heartburst and Other Romances for the spring and I've got Bong! The Lost Undergrounds in the pipeline; hopefully for fall. I've also been working on another Nature comic for WNET.

imageSPURGEON: Do you feel as busy and productive as all of that looks? Like with Abraxas and the Earthman finally being collected, did you make a decision to simply have a lot more work out there?

VEITCH: I wish I could say it was a coherent marketing strategy to position myself as a brand, but it's more a case of just me following my interests. I love to make comics and its the way I've earned my living so I'm always productive on the commercial side. In terms of self-publishing, I've planned to put the stuff from my Epic period in print from the moment I launched King Hell. It just took a while to get the equipment and teach myself how to use it so I could achieve the color reproduction that the painted originals demanded. It probably does help to release a small press project like Shiny Beasts on the coattails of something mainstreamy like Army@Love. So maybe there is method to my madness.

SPURGEON: I think more than anyone I've spoken to in recent memory, you can remember the fallow period before this latest flush period in terms of attention and sales of some books, but you can also recall participating in the last flush period, with projects at Tundra and Image, and before that DC. What are the differences between comics right now and comics 15 and then even 20 years ago in terms of functioning as a professional in that world? Do you like it the way it is now? Are there more opportunities from your perspective?

VEITCH: Doesn't matter feast or famine, comics publishing has always been a crazy field. Comics is a place where business and creativity collide head on so there's a lot of casualties as well as amazing energy and no lack of absurdity. I came in with the Direct Sales Market and except for a brief period at the very beginning, there's always been too many comics chasing too few readers in the marketplace. Whenever anyone figures out a new angle to sell books a thousand other guys pig-pile on. It's just the nature of the beast.

imageThe trick, for me at least, has always been to find the right niche where I can follow my own muse and retain some sort of equity. That's why you see me over at Epic doing The One, or at Tundra doing Brat Pack and The Maximortal, or at Image doing 1963, or self publishing Rare Bit Fiends, or right now at Vertigo doing Can't Get No and Army@Love. Sure, I had to do a few things like Aquaman or Cy-Gor now and then to pay the rent, but for the most part I've been really lucky having the opportunity to follow my own vision while retaining either complete ownership or a big piece of most of my projects.

Opportunities are always there for folks who really want (or need) to pursue this form of art. But the business models behind the opportunities seem to rely less and less on selling actual comics and more on creating intellectual properties for other media. And there seem to be a lot of folks making comics out there who aren't getting paid very much for their creative labors. Last year I was approached by a fairly well-known publisher who asked me to pitch a graphic novel. When we started to talk deal, their whole offer was $500 to write and illustrate a complete 64 page color book! On top of that they wanted 51% of the rights. Their rationale was that my real payoff would come when they got a movie deal for the property. I can only wonder how many young artists and writers are slaving away under such terms just to get published.

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SPURGEON: Army@Love feels like one of those projects that came together rather than one that came in a bolt out of the blue. Was there a long genesis with the project? Where did you start and at what point did it cohere into something that resembles what's been published?

VEITCH: The very first thing that came to me was the title, which originally was Army at Love. I dug the way it evoked the old war and romance comics while the impossible grammar made it strangely surreal and subversive.

I let the title roll around in the back of my mind for maybe a year just giving my intuition free reign to play with what the project wanted to be. The war part came through as a satire of the Iraq mess; that was pretty much a no-brainer. But the romance side was what really caught my interest. Mature Reader titles had evolved to the point where it was okay to show people having sex. But most of those titles used sex in a demented context. Sex is such an important part of being human, I wanted to use it to build character naturally, rather than push those horror movie buttons.

At that point I ran the raw concept by Karen [Berger] and she seemed to like the basic premise. We batted it back and forth a little bit which really helped me zero in the tone. Then I set about creating the large cast of characters, mapping out who was sleeping with whom and who was stabbing whom in the back. She read the outline and suggested a few additions to the cast to round it out and pretty soon we had a deal. DC was a little reticent of the Army at Love title at first, feeling like it was too much a parody of Our Army at War. So I substituted the @ sign which I think sets it apart in a more modern sense.

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SPURGEON: It's hard for me to think of antecedents in comics form to this project. Was there anything in comics that inspired you? Am I right in thinking it's more the popular satirical anti-war movies and even the more frank-about-sex popular books and movies of the late '60s into the '70s which inform the work?

VEITCH: I'm sure whatever I soaked up in my formative years comes through anything I do. But I'm not overtly copping or vamping that stuff. Army@Love has a very distinct soap opera rhythm. The plot unfolds like an origami rather than straightforward like a film or cop show. It isn't as formally challenging as Can't Get No, but there's a lot of information packed into each panel and you need to pay attention to the drawings to get some of the gags and story points. I hope Army@Love is its own thing.

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SPURGEON: Is there anything that informs Army@Love that might surprise its readers? Now that you've completed a fair chunk of work, is there anything that you find in the work that surprises you?

VEITCH: The characters aren't heroes or villains, but complicated people acting in their own self interests. They make unexpected choices, just like we all do in real life. That might be a little difficult for readers who are trained to expect good guy/bad guy set ups in comics. What's surprised me is how these characters have come alive in my head, not only when writing them, but when I'm drawing too. They seem to really want to "act" in the panels, rather than stand around looking pretty.

SPURGEON: You've mentioned in a couple of interviews a couple of the more serious, cable-ready television shows as a comparison to what you're doing. Is that convenient shorthand for you to describe what you're doing, and did you draw on those shows for your approach as well, say with the ensemble casting?

VEITCH: It kind of contradicts what I said above about not echoing other media, but I really do enjoy shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. And mentioning them in the course of doing PR helps potential readers get some sort of handle on what I'm trying to do. There are no proverbial three acts in an episode of The Sopranos. They drop you down in the middle of a dynamic community of characters and before you know it you are rooting for career criminals and murderers. I'd love to pull that off in Army@Love.

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SPURGEON: We're a fairly satire-heavy culture, what with the prominence of things like The Onion and The Daily Show -- what can you do with a fictional narrative like Army@Love that these more reactive sources can't do? What do you think the strengths in general are to your approach?

VEITCH: The Daily Show tends to focus on immediate issues in the news, while Army@Love goes after the underlying structures of a society that has allowed something like the war in Iraq to happen. Satire-wise, I think I'm getting at stuff that you're never going to see on commercial TV. Like how the military industrial complex has merged with the entertainment industry. How 21st century people live inside a Skinner Box of media-generated ideas. How deeply marketing permeates our lives, virtually dictating our thoughts and actions. I agree though, that The Onion does a great job of playing with those kinds of ideas.

SPURGEON: Can you talk about your decision to fictionalize certain future elements, like Afbaghistan, as opposed to making more elements strictly observant of reality? Is the ambiguity of the term Afbaghistan intentional?

VEITCH: The naming is done to give the satire a little room to breath. After all, hundreds of thousands of people have died over there already and who knows how many have been physically and mentally wounded. In Army@Love it's left ambiguous if "Afbaghistan" is meant to be a fictional country, or if it's a slang term for a much expanded area of combat operations in the Middle East.

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SPURGEON: Do you feel like we're headed to an expansion of the Afghani and Iraqi conflicts?

VEITCH: I fervently hope the war is ended immediately, but looking at the strategic situation, I'm really worried its become such a clusterfuck that it will be impossible for the next President to get out.

SPURGEON: Have you heard anything from soldiers?

VEITCH: After Military Times did a write-up I got a bunch of e-mails from soldiers serving in Iraq who wanted to know how they could buy the book. From what I could glean from their e-mails they weren't in the slightest bit offended and seemed to dig the idea. I wasn't able to find any on-line comics sites that would ship to an APO though, which was unfortunate. I'd love to get the book over there.

SPURGEON: How about magicians or PR people?

VEITCH: Yesterday was Halloween and I received a coded message from Harry Houdini. Nothing from Funky Flashman yet.

SPURGEON: Has there been any backlash given you're doing this within the publishing efforts of such a big multi-national corporation?

VEITCH: Nothing that I've seen beyond a few political kerfluffles on message boards; but you know how that goes. Even though Vertigo is owned by Time Warner, I think comics are perceived as being somehow outside the greater culture wars that have been raging in America for the last few decades. Comics have such small audiences compared to mass media that no one seems worried about their propaganda impact which makes them attractive to someone subversive like me.

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SPURGEON: My favorite satirical element in Army@Love is the pushing of fighting on the front lines as a peak experience in order to better attract the adrenaline junkie teens. Can you talk about developing that line of satire specifically? For instance, was this something that you extrapolated from the "Army of One" advertising, or something you read about, or did it seem like a leap that made sense to you?

VEITCH: I'm not an expert on marketing and advertising, but I'm interested in how it has been refined and how it works on the mind. As a culture we've had almost a century now of product marketing aimed directly at the subconscious. Did you know that Sigmund Freud's son-in-law is recognized as the founder of modern advertising? Selling something as hideous as a war uses the same techniques of psychological manipulation that keep us buying Pepsi and Twinkies. In Iraq right now we have a professional army fighting a war that most people back home are happy to turn up their iPods and ignore. But if it keeps going badly over there then the military is going to have to figure out how to sell the idea of a draft, just like they did in World War Two. That's when the marketing barrage will really hit and you can bet it will be perfectly shaped and aimed to get its target audience in the mood to fight.

SPURGEON: How do you find the balance between presenting notions that have a strong sense of reality and others that might be more out there?

VEITCH: I'm shooting for something that when first read will come across as comically absurd, but that might begin to make creepy sense with a little consideration. I'm not sure how I zone in on that balance. It just seems to be there for the taking since modern life is so bizarre to begin with.

SPURGEON: In addition to the very strong sex/violence dialectic and the well-portrayed delineation between home front and front line, are there other dichotomies you think are important to note in the story?

VEITCH: One of the subtexts is that the war is essentially a conflict to the death between a religious society, with a medieval vision of God, and a secular civilization, whose god is Mammon.

SPURGEON: Have you been green-lit for more than 12 issues yet? When will you know if this is to be an ongoing or a limited series? Do you have an ending in mind?

VEITCH: We've been green-lit through #18. So I'm shaping #13-18 as a distinct arc subtitled "The War That Time Misplaced." From there it will depend on sales of the trades, since sales have been lousy in the floppies. There will be a delay between #12 and 13 to help me catch up on the schedule, with possibly the second trade released in the interim. And yes, I've got an ending in mind, but it can pretty much work anywhere I want to bring it in.

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SPURGEON: Now that you've had time to step back from what I know was a major project for you, Can't Get No, was there anything particularly edifying or even frustrating about the reaction that the book received? How do you look on that project yourself at this point?

VEITCH: The cliche is you write poetry for the echo and Can't Get No got more intelligent response than anything I've ever put out there. DC did a great job getting review copies out to a broad selection of literary critics and I was delighted how many of them really seemed to understand what I was doing with Can't Get No and responded favorably.

The way the book uses word and image is challenging, but I think it rewards with a completely original reading experience. In terms of my life's work it's probably the thing I'm most proud of.

SPURGEON: How are things with Comicon.com? I ask only because it's stayed pretty much with its basic functions which is a really rare thing in the Internet world. Do you have plans to do anything different with the site in future years, or are you happy with the way things are right now?

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VEITCH: Comicon.com is chugging along happily. There's plenty of on-line advertising money these days so we always have our dance card filled. Traffic continues to grow every month and we're at the top of just about any comics related Google search. Steve [Conley] and I aren't bloodthirsty business types, so we haven't leveraged what we have to make a killing. We still see it as our way of serving the community of comics. I don't even promote myself with the site, which is kind of crazy when I think about it. We can see that the internet is morphing and at some point we'll need to reshape Comicon.com to fit that, but right now why fix what ain't broke?

imageSPURGEON: Was it your idea to put all those quotes on the first trade of Army@Love [pictured at the top of this article]? Assuming it's yours, do you have a general approach to design or do you look at things project to project? The Army@Love covers kind of remind me of Brat Pack in that a human figure or two tends to be portrayed front and center but in addition to being a typical character-based comic book cover the image embodies some sort of satirical point.

VEITCH: It was my idea to try and mimic a Cosmopolitan cover for the trade, but I didn't do the actual design. My general approach to cover design on the comic has been to mash up fashion and recruiting advertising. It was one of those approaches that seemed so absurd when we began, but now isn't all that far-fetched. In fact, Vogue Italia just did a fashion spread in which every photo could be an Army@Love cover!

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* cover to new Army@Love trade, art by Gary Erskine
* cover image for issue #7 of the ongoing Army@Love comic book, art by Gary Erskine
* cover to new Abraxas collection
* cover to an issue of the self-published Roarin' Rick's Rare Bit Fiends
* four images from new Army@Love trade, art by Gary Erskine
* cover image for issue #10 of the ongoing Army@Love comic book, art by Gary Erskine
* sequence spotlighting my favorite bit of satire from the series, art by Gary Erskine
* cover image from Can't Get No
* Comicon.com logo
* cover image for issue #8 of the ongoing Army@Love comic book, art by Gary Erskine

*****

Army@Love Volume One: The Hot Zone Club, Rick Veitch and Gary Erskine, Vertigo, soft cover, 128 pages, 9781401214746 (ISBN13), October 2007, $9.99.

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[PS -- if any retailer out there is willing to work with Rick to get Army@Love to US military personnel as he talks about above, I have to imagine -- without being able to guarantee it -- Rick would love to hear from you; send a note to me through this site if you don't have Rick's contact information and I'll pass your e-mail along]

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