Why Rick Veitch Is the Great Living American Comics Artist
My first exposure to Rick Veitch, I believe, was the first chapter of Abraxas and the Earthman in Epic Illustrated. I didn’t like it. I also didn’t like his work on Swamp Thing, and I stopped buying his The One after three issues.
I was a teenager, you see. I wasn’t ready for Rick Veitch yet.
Fast-forward to me at 39: I’ve just finished (belatedly) the three trade-paperback collections of Veitch’s Rare Bit Fiends, his dream-journal in the form of comics. This is after having read Veitch’s Can’t Get No and given the full The One another day in court.
At this point, I just want to fill a shelf with Veitch stuff, including Abraxas, my maiden voyage with him that turned me off. I wish I could say I “got” Veitch immediately, instead of having to wait until my late thirties to discover that, during the intervening years when I wasn’t looking, he became a master. (Actually, he always was; he didn’t change in that regard — my perception of him did, as did my readiness for what he was doing.)
The thing I dig most about Rick Veitch is that the dude doesn’t rest on any laurels. Shit, I doubt he knows where his laurels are. Almost alone among his contemporaries, he keeps growing and experimenting and pushing against the boundaries of what comics are “supposed” to do. Can’t Get No, which is at least as formally daring and emotionally challenging as David Mazzuchelli’s accomplished but somewhat overrated Asterios Polyp, blew my hair back. If The Comics Reporter is correct, Veitch just turned 59 on May 7. That means he was in his mid-fifties when Can’t Get No was published four years ago. No spring chicken, this man, but unlike a lot of comics creators who came to prominence in the ’80s and have become self-parodies or just plain stuck in a style or a genre, Veitch goes at the drawing board like a kid full of ideas who doesn’t know he’s breaking all the rules.
But Veitch knows all the rules. He’s a lifelong comics fan, and that comes out amusingly in his dream collections, which tend to be star-studded with cameos by fellow creators or comics idols. He knows all the rules, so he can break them. I’ve grown to love his style, which I think is part of what initially put me off. I don’t think Veitch could draw anything “pretty” if his life depended on it. Way back when Veitch drew the notorious childbirth issue of Alan Moore’s Miracleman, I think it was Heidi MacDonald in The Comics Journal who characterized Veitch’s art as having “an innate … creepiness that is hard to match.” It’s true; a lot of his drawing is creepy. But I don’t know that that’s a bad thing; you could say the same about Robert Crumb.
What I like about the dream books and Can’t Get No and the more experimental stuff is that they’re so pure. You’re getting whatever’s in Veitch’s head, and it isn’t prettied-up. And when he’s working on his own stuff, you can feel how much Veitch loves cartooning. It seems to be in his blood and bones. There’s a childlike (not childish) glee to it. Artists like Veitch (or Crumb, or Los Bros Hernandez) make me feel that there’s no other way they would even want to express themselves. Give him an Avatar budget and tell him he can make any film he wants, and I have a feeling he’d rather do it as a comic.
So, because he has been fucking with comics fanboys (like the teenage me) for something like thirty years now, and because he hasn’t been dining off of Swamp Thing¹ or doing sequels to The One or Brat Pack for years, and because he can do something like the dream books and somehow make them more spectacular and action-packed and funny and scary than any mainstream superhero comic, I hereby name Rick Veitch the great living American comics artist.
¹ When DC balked at his plan to have Swamp Thing meet Jesus Christ in 1989 — when the expensive Batman movie was about to come out and DC could ill afford any bad press (as it turned out, the flick dominated the box office and most likely would have no matter what Veitch was doing in Swamp Thing) — Veitch told DC to fuck themselves and left the book and the company until 2006, when he did Can’t Get No and Army@Love for DC’s Vertigo imprint.