Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Exclusive Interview with Rick Veitch about War Comics

At Bristol Comic Expo last year I managed to briefly interview one of my comic book heroes, Rick Veitch. Veitch has been at the forefront of experimental comics for over 25 years, consistently pushing the boundaries of the medium, in terms of subject matter, art and design. I first discovered his work in the pages of Epic Illustrated with his psychedelic retelling of Moby Dick, Abraxas and the Earthman. Then I devoured his “trilogy” of deconstructions of the superhero genre; The One (which predated Watchmen by a year); Brat Pack (an examination of sidekick culture); and Maximortal (a vicious Superman satire). And yet these are often unjustly forgotten and left of the lists of important graphic novels and I urge everyone interested in the comics medium to seek them out and buy them.

Another criminally overlooked book of Veitch’s is the 2007-2008 series, Army@Love and the 2008-2009 sequel, Army@Love: The Art of War, both inked by my good friend Gary Erskine, and published by Vertigo.
Above: Cover to Army@Love #1 by Veitch and Erskine
 The story told the misadventures of a unit of New Jersey National Guard in "Afbaghistan," a fictional Middle Eastern country based on Iraq/Afghanistan. It was a savage satire on the futility of war and how it could become comodified in the future and sold as a desirable, sexy career move to a US public. The title is obviously a spin on DC Comics’ Our Army at War—which became Sgt. Rock in 1977—and this war comic was a strong influence on Veitch who explained to me, “To some extent, me and war comics go back to my beginnings…”

At the time of this interview (15 May 2011) US troops were still in Iraq. Since then, the last of the armed forces have left the country, although there are still US forces active in Afghanistan and Pakistan at time of writing. I originally was looking to use the interview as part of a paper I presented at the Imperial War Museum about comic creators and personal experiences of war, but sadly it was never used. So, never wanting to waste anything, here it is…

Army@Love was a return to war comics for Veitch, who grew up reading and loving them, “[Sgt. Rock artist, Joe] Kubert’s work was incredibly important to me. I sort of understood it was on simplistic level, but his illustrations were so gritty and what he was able to do with a pen and brush was so interesting to me. I studied it and I worked from it, even before I went to his school. And Russ Heath’s work, he just knocked me out, what that guy could do. The tightness of it all, and the savage beauty he could make from a tank. Really, really great stuff.”
Above: Joe Kubert's cover to Our Army at War #107 
But Veitch was equally enamoured with the writing as well as the art, “[Robert] Kanigher was the writer of it all, of course. I got to meet him when I was at Kubert School [Kanigher taught for a year there in 1977]. He’s a really interesting hidden cultural figure, because a lot of his panels were picked up by Roy Lichtenstein and became these well-known images, but they came right out of Kanigher. So he was like this underground poet whose thoughts and images ended up out in the world. When I met him in person, I was struck by how much he was like [his DC character] Hans Von Hammer, Enemy Ace. His character was like that, and the whole schtick of Von Hammer—he doesn’t have any friends and he’s a lone wolf…he’s out there… he’s a killing machine—that’s a metaphor for Kanigher.” Coincidentally this year is the 10th anniversary of Kanigher's death.
Above: Robert Kanigher and Hans von Hammer
“Because I studied with Joe Kubert at his school [Veitch was in the first class to graduate, alongside Stephen R. Bissette and TomYeates in 1978] some of my first professional jobs were drawing back-up stories for Sgt. Rock comics. There’s a certain way that a Kubert/DC war comic is structured and I assimilated that organically at a very young age.”

Many comics historians have discussed the anti-war sub-texts in Kanigher and Kubert’s work, but Veitch remains sceptical, “I don’t know how anti-war he was. They did plenty of flag-waving, let’s-throw-ourselves-on-the-grenade-and-save-everybody type stories. I knew people in Vietnam who used the slang ‘Sgt. Rock’ for an idiot. The kind of person who’d do something stupid, like run in front of a machine gun because they’d read too many Sgt. Rock comics. They just didn’t know any better. It just seemed like ‘Well, this is what we do.’ And they’d run into the fire, because it worked for Sgt Rock.” The thought that Kanigher and Kubert may have been indirectly responsible for young, naïve men dying in a South East Asian jungle is a sobering one, to say the least.

Rick’s older brother, Tom Veitch, wrote many left-leaning, anti-Vietnam War underground comix—most notably Legion of Charlies, drawn by Greg Irons—in the late Sixties/early Seventies and was a strong influence on his younger sibling. “I was inspired by him. Interestingly enough he’s become extremely right wing in his old age. So he and I are always in conflict [laughs]. We never stop bickering!”
Above: The original cover art to Legion of Charlies by Greg Irons 
Regardless, of the misinterpreted jingoism in Our Army at War, Kanigher and Kubert’s work had an important grounding on Veitch’s own, later work, “By the time I reached Army@Love I was much more advanced, and my thinking was progressively leftist. I was outraged at how the American government had pushed the war [the 2003-2011 Iraq War] and created it out of false information. It was around 2005/2006 and the war was going really badly, there were lots of bombings, civilians being killed right and left, and I was outraged by it. So I wanted to speak to it through my art form, which is comics, and through satire. I think I was trying to do a Catch-22, but about a war that was going on, rather than doing it 10 years later, which is what most people do. So it might have been a little too early for people to digest, because the experience was just too horrible, and the political confrontation in the Untied States was still ongoing. There were these ‘cultural wars’ going on about what the ‘truth’ was… If you didn’t believe the right-wing politicians you were considered a traitor! Really strange times. So I felt I had to stand up and speak with my voice.”

Certainly, this climate of ‘My country, right or wrong’ succeeded in drowning out many liberal, more temperate, voices at the time, and almost certainly affected Army@Love’s sales. No one wanted to look at the current situation and ask the awkward question, ‘Is this war justified?’ when it was so evidently not.

How Veitch started exploring the modern military and the war in Iraq was typically unconventional. “I started researching the weapons themselves and the research that was being done into weapons of the future—because Army@Love was actually set five years in the future, that’s the schtick. So I thought it would be interesting to imagine how those weapons would change combat and the culture of people who were in it. It also looked, at the time, as if no one would ever join the army again, because it was such a mess in 2005, so I was imagining what kind of marketing the military would have to do, to bring young people into it. So Army@Love is as much about public relations and marketing as it is about combat.”
Above: Army@Love #9 cover. Name that homage! 
As the series progressed troops serving in Iraq started contacting Veitch, “I got letters from people who were serving there. They would say I somehow caught exactly what they were feeling. I don’t know how I did that, because I hadn’t spoken to any of them, it was all imaginary, it came out of me! At one point I was contacted by the guys who publish the U.S. military’s newspaper, Army Times, who said, ‘This is exactly what’s going on over there. You really caught it! I don’t know how you did it!’ They did a whole write-up of me. They sent it to Joe Kubert and I don’t think he liked it. He’s a staunch believer in the Government. When we were all at school [another classmate was John Totleben], we were young and didn’t believe what the government was telling us, whereas he [Kubert] was staunchly establishment, so there was that conflict. Not that it destroyed our friendship or anything, but there was always a friendly conflict of ideas and I’m sure he wondered what he let loose by sending us out to do war comics!” [Laughs]
Above: Cover to Army@Love #2 parodying Abu Ghraib prison
I queried whether Veitch had enough information to be able to write accurately about a war that was happening thousands of miles away, and whether he’d considered visiting, as Joe Sacco did. “I’m sure it would’ve been a much deeper piece of work if I’d be out there, and at the same time I might have come back traumatised and unable to work it up. Army@Love is a work of the imagination by a civilian looking in horror at what we were seeing at the time. Literally, everyday there would be these bombings of civilians—hundreds of people being killed. I still don’t understand what it was all about. Who these guys were who were fighting for power and using the civilian population as innocent victims? But I wish the people who started the war, the Bush Administration, had thought about that. Or if they had thought about it, and still let it happen, then I consider that a war crime. I think the lower estimates of civilian deaths in Iraq are 100,000. Some of the higher estimates are half a million people.” [Note: The Iraq Body Count and Iraq War Logs combined give a figure of 128,842, whereas the British medical journal, The Lancet put the figure at 654,965 civilians dead.]

Yet, however critical Veitch is of the architects of the Iraq War, he is more respectful of those that actually had to fight it, “I wasn’t trying to criticise the soldiers or the military itself, rather the situation that I found intolerable, and how we got there.”
Above: Army@Love: The Art of War #3's cover parodies Manet's classic Le déjeuner sur l'herbe  painting
The writer/artist mused of the nature of conflict in general, and tying in with the theme of the second series, Army@Love: The Art of War, “War is the ultimate surrealism in a modern civilisation, because it takes all these things we’ve built—these products and these architectural structures—and it blows them to shit. And so, to walk into a city square that’s just been bombed and all the products thrown and ripped all over it, it’s surreal. It is surreal.”

“It’s outside the ‘norm’,” I ventured.

“Except the ‘norm’ is false. It’s consumer products. These structures, that are not organic, are false and then it all gets blown up. Maybe it’s the ultimate art form, I dunno.” We both paused to consider the massive ramifications of that statement, that war could be the final nihilistic/artistic endeavour, and sadly we realised that we didn’t have the time to fully explore it.

There’s a much-lauded phrase “Never meet your heroes, they’ll only disappoint you.” However, just like his comics work, I’m very glad that Rick flew in the face of this, and so many other perceived wisdoms. He was an absolute gent and a friendly, intelligent and fascinating interviewee, and I only wish we’d had more time and that I was better prepared! His latest attack on the Neo-Cons of America, The Big Lie, published in September 2011, is an interesting examination of the 9/11 conspiracy theories. Here’s hoping well see a lot more intriguing and groundbreaking work from Mr Veitch in the next few years.
Above: Thomas Yeates' cover to The Big Lie


Arion said...

I'm a big fan of Rick Veitch. I wrote a review about The Big Lie, and also about Brat Pack. I feel ashamed to admit this, but I still haven't read his Vertigo titles.

TimTrue said...

Aha! Then I've done my job! Add Army@Love to your wish list!

Great review of Enigma, BTW, although I think you big me up a tad too much! Need to tell Duncan about it. Will let him know.

Arion said...

Oh, how modest of you!

It'd be great if Duncan reads my Enigma review.