Originally published in Arthur No. 33 (January 2013)
Accompanied in print by “Cartographer of the American Dreamtime,” a tribute to Rick Veitch by Alan Moore
The Universe, the Planet, This One Spot
A conversation with dreamer/cartoonist Rick Veitch
by Jay Babcock
Born in 1951 in Bellow Falls, Vermont, Rick Veitch experienced the psychedelic late 1960s as a teenager. After overcoming some profound self-inflicted difficulties as a young adult in the early ‘70s—detailed in the following Q & A—he got serious about becoming a professional cartoonist. He succeeded. In the last three decades, Veitch has navigated the comics industry’s ups and downs while creating a singular, deeply weird and challenging body of work: sometimes raw, rough and outrageous in an old-school underground comix way, but more often clever and fantastically imaginative, with moments of startling cosmic beauty. My personal Rick Veitch highest highlights are his visionary run as Alan Moore’s handpicked writer-artist successor on Swamp Thing in the ‘80s; The One, his deeply anti-superhero comics series, somehow published by a Marvel Comics subdivision, that in a better world would have been the final word on the superhero concept; and Can’t Get No, a daring, dialogue-less graphic novel drawn in landscape format that builds from the story of corporate drone’s post-9/11 roadtrip into something truly poignant and profound. (Not for nothing did Fug/poet/historian Ed Sanders himself salute that work with a rare blurb—as did Neil Gaiman.)
Rick Veitch’s most unlikely and enduring triumph, though, has got to be Roarin’ Rick’s Rare Bit Fiends, a black-and-white comic book series he self-published under his King Hell imprint for 22 issues starting in 1994. Rare Bit featured no continuing characters or stories—its entire subject matter, issue after issue, was Veitch presenting his dreams in comics narrative form. It was a remarkable run that continued to resonate long after it finished, due to its enduring, mysterious subject matter.
A few winters ago, suffering from two decades of persistent, distressing nightmares, I visited Roarin’ Rick in his rural Vermont home. Here is our after-lunch conversation.
Arthur: So Rick, when did you start dreaming?
Rick Veitch: [laughter] From the time I was a little kid I was a big dreamer. There were normal everyday dreams but then were these big dreams that seemed like movies. I think that my fascination with dreaming was kicked off by a series of recurring nightmares. I would wake up in sheer terror from this recurring dream of a little girl trying to pick a flower below a skyscraper that was being built, and something happens, and the whole skyscraper starts collapsing. The girders start landing around the little girl, and the sound is COSMIC. I dreaded that dream. I had it again and again and again. I credit it with making me pay attention to my dreams.
Arthur: Did your parents know what was going on with your recurring nightmares, terror?
Not really. I grew up in an odd situation. We were a big Catholic family, I was the fourth kid. My parents had sort of ran out of gas running herd on my older siblings. So I pretty much did what I wanted, with not a lot of input from my folks.
I paid attention to dreams in general, just because this terrifying experience kept coming back. I think that’s how nightmares work. They want you to pay attention. That’s what they’re saying: Pay attention to what this phenomenon of dreaming is.
My older brother, Tom Veitch, who also writes comics and is well known as a poet, had an early interest in dreams and spirituality too. He was ten years older than me. We grew up very differently. He grew up with a normal family, while our folks were still paying attention. I grew up when no one was paying attention anymore. By the time I started becoming aware, he was out of the house already, living in New York, so it isn’t like I saw him a lot, but when I did, I would learn interesting things about the culture, about art, and about dreaming. I was telling him some of my big dreams. He was interested in them. And from listening to him I began to understand that there was a system to analyze the symbolism of dreams, that dreams WERE symbols.
Was there a turning point when you started to pay serious attention to your dreams?
When I was about 20 years old, I went through a personal crisis. I had just sort of ran my life into the ground as 20-year-olds tend to do. I went into a deep depression. I couldn’t even get out of bed in the morning, that’s how bad it was. And in those days you didn’t go to a psychologist. You just sort of suffered these things. And somebody gave me a copy of The Portable Jung, a big fat paperback that collects a lot of Jung’s writings. I read the whole damn thing, kind of obsessively. I didn’t really understand it, but I went through the whole 700-page thing and began to see correlations in the dreams I was having, which were apocalyptic. That’s what was going on with me at the time. I couldn’t get out of bed. But at night my dreams were just unbelievably strong, really vivid. I began to sense that they were trying to direct me to heal myself. I can’t say I sensed all this consciously, but unconsciously, through the assimilation of all of Jung’s writings and the focus on the dreams themselves, I began to see a way out of my depression. And it worked.
I started this really detailed dream diary, writing down every damned thing I could, which I’ve still got, and bit by bit I began to understand the shadow side of my own personality, what was causing me to fail at growing up. I began to see that I had to ally myself with the deeper parts of myself, I had to trust that. I began to understand the nature of the structure of the psyche, which is one of the great things that Jung brought us. And I began to pull myself out of the hole. That was the beginning of my dreamwork.
What had happened? What hole were you stuck in?
It was a whole bunch of stuff. It was just being a teenaged lunatic. I was never a big druggie but I hung out with druggies. Relationship problems with my girlfriend, unable to hold a job, all kinds of stuff.
Focusing on my dreams, looking at them, trying to understand what they meant, I slowly began to heal myself. Got a job, started to make money, pulled my whole life together. Took responsibility for the things I’d screwed up with the people I had alienated. More importantly, I began to realize the reason I was broken, was that I needed to be an artist. I’d known from the time I was a little kid that I was an artist. But except for my brother Tom, the environment around me, my parents, friends, the education system had all basically said ‘No, you can’t do this.’ That was a constant growing up. So there was a real deep and dangerous conflict in me.
I began to understand that if I really wanted to spend my life making art and being an artist, that I could. But it was up to me to make it happen. That’s when my real life began.
This process of dream journaling and study turned me around. I found a school that taught comics, the Joe Kubert School. Even though I was poor, I canvassed the state of Vermont and got a grant to go to school. Within a few years I’d put together a career drawing comic books for the major comic book companies. It really was a case of me making the right moves based on how dreaming was helping me organize my life.
Keeping the dream diary, how did that start?
First it was a series of indelible dreams, just cataclysmic.
The girl with the falling girders?
Yeah, they were on that level. But I was older now.
So they were uglier…?
I think ‘archetypal’ is the best word. They were pointing out both the nature and structure of the psyche. Many were all based upon a borderline, demonstrating how there’s this psychological border you cross, On this side, it’s your personal stuff you’re dealing with. and on the other side things are more archaic and symbolic. The dreams began to map a landscape in my mind of my psychological state. What was extraordinary about this was that the landscape was based on a REAL landscape in my hometown. Naturally you would think of course your psychological landscape is going to be based on where you grew up; what’s familiar. But it just so happened that part of this landscape in my hometown, I discovered much later, had been a place where Indian shamans from the Abenaki tribe used to gather and take magic mushrooms. Shamans and shamanism began to come up in the dreams spontaneously.
In my forties I began drawing these very early dreams as comics and began researching the shamanic connection. There are these petroglyphs in my home town that were left by Abenaki shaman and they’re right on the map in my dreaming! I began to come to understand that information itself had a certain life-like quality. The information that shamans worked with was ALIVE, and this could all be accessed via our dreaming unconscious. That became a focus of my dreamwork and my art while I was doing my series, Rare Bit Fiends.
Where did you get the idea to keep a dream diary?
I probably got the idea to do it from my brother Tom, because I know he was doing it. And he’s the guy who gave me the copy of Jung as well, at that key point. I think he could see what was going on. He handed me the tools I needed, rather than try to teach me himself. He knew that it’s something you’ve got to assimilate on your own.
How does keeping a dream diary work?
You have a little notebook by the side of your bed and you teach yourself to remember what you’ve dreamt. In the beginning I’d write every detail I could, nine or ten pages, whatever. Now I don’t do it so much. When I wake up in the morning now, even before I open my eyes, I try move the dream imagery from the dreaming part of the brain into the part where there are memory cells. That’s the key trick. You don’t want to open your eyes because once light comes into your eyes, you’ll lose a lot of those dream memories. Once they’re in the memory side, you got it. So then I’ll get up and have breakfast and stuff and then I’ll sit down and make little notes. That night, I’ll re-read the notes, and usually upon re-reading the notes, more from the dream comes up.
The dreams you present in your comics are not prosaic. They have cosmic stuff happening. You must have a very vivid and super-charged dreamlife.
I think that everybody does. It’s just a case of paying attention and learning a few tricks. There are different levels of dreaming. One level is the totally cosmic, that seems to happen in the middle of the night. On the other end is the totally mundane which happens nearer to morning. One trick I learned early on was to drink a couple of glasses of water before I went to bed, so I’d have to get up and piss, maybe about 1, 2 o’clock in the morning. That’s when you’re in the deep sleep and the really cosmic stuff happens. Usually we don’t remember that because we sleep right through it.
The dreams that we tend to remember are the ones we are having as we wake….
Yeah. They’re the ones about having to deal with the postman or the boss and stuff like that. And I had plenty of those. And when doing the dream comics, I tried to mix them in too. But what really attracts me to dreamwork is that it seems to be a way to get a handle on what’s really going on. Dreams are like a dialogue between the Ego and the deepest part of the psyche which Jung calls the Self. What the Self is, is no one really knows. You can only see pieces of it. But, using Jung’s model of the Psyche, the Self is the center, and the Ego just sort of floats on it. The ego, our conscious awareness, is maybe like ten percent of the totality of what we are. So I’ve come to see dreaming as a dialogue between those two parts: the floating conscious Ego and the deep, unconscious mystical Self. Once you realize that that dialogue exists, it actually becomes more real, and the characters can actually take on a life of their own. So sometimes you recognize that you’re talking to the deepest part of yourself because there’s just that certain awareness of the character you’re dreaming of.
The “Self” contains the personal unconscious, the collective unconscious…and beyond. I think it’s a way to understand nature too. Like say, you wanted to get a handle on the quantum, you might be able to do it through dreaming because on the deepest level, we are made up of quantum bits, so why wouldn’t we be able to dream about how we interact in the quantum realm. Or at a deeper, even more mystical level, there is Afterlife. Couldn’t we contact that? Wouldn’t it be through dreams?
So, I approach my dreams with an open mind, in that sense. I’m always like, Hmm that dream I had of that guy who’s dead—was I VISITING that guy, or was he visiting me in my dreams, trying to give me a message? You hold that in your mind, after you have the dream, you just try to suss it out. Is that’s what really happening, or am I fooling myself, or…?
Your journaling technique is necessarily different since you are also a visual artist. You can replicate the visual component of the dream, physically. Your description is a bit richer cuz you can use text to describe it – and art.
Yeah. What happens is, when you create art from your dream, you re-inhabit it in a way that you don’t do when you write it in a journal. When you write it in a journal, you’re using the reasoning, linear side of your mind. When you start drawing, the part of the brain that channels symbolism comes into focus. Your artistic intuition comes into play. Writing the dream, you’ve got the facts of the action, like: ‘Here I was on this day, this thing happens, that thing happens.’ But when you begin drawing them, your intuition starts playing with what they might mean, and it starts juggling the potential: it could be this, it could be that, it could be related to this other thing. As you’re drawing the dream, you’re waiting for that moment when you go, ‘Aha!’ and your intuition tells you it’s right. And so by the time you’ve drawn something as complicated as a comic book page of a dream, you’ve got a real handle on what it is your unconscious is talking about.
Was there a moment when you realized it was working?
I knew a couple months into my first major journal—which I still have!—that this was exactly what I needed, that this was healing me, that I was on the right track in my life. One of the key things I had to learn as a young man, was to tell the truth. Part of me wanted to lie about everything. [laughs] In conversation, for some reason, I would make up stories, with the end result being that people didn’t trust what I said. Dreaming helped me understand that. As I began to force myself to tell the truth even when I really wanted to lie, my life came together.
Were you sharing this with other people?
Not really, no. I was a very private person. My friends knew that I worked on dreams but didn’t really understand it. To them it probably seemed like one of those odd things some people did back in the hippy days. To me, it’s been my ongoing spiritual practice.
What happened with the nightmares?
Oh, they toned down. I began to realize that nightmares were cool. The material in nightmares just has to be processed. It’s scary and it’s frightening because it’s a part of the unconscious that we haven’t dealt with yet. And there’s always more in there. It’s always gonna keep coming. The repetitive nightmares are the issues that we’ve GOTTA face, that we’ve gotta deal with. So I became really adept at that, I think. I would look forward to something that wasn’t normal, that was odd and crazy.
Were you experiencing lucid dreaming?
Lucid dreaming really didn’t happen to me until probably 1985. Sometime around then, in the space of a month or so, I had a series of powerful lucid dreams—visionary dreams of waking up and seeing faces actually floating in front of me. Once I woke up on the ceiling and saw myself and my wife down below. But the biggest one was where I rose out of my body, became aware that I was dreaming and had a body, a dreaming body that was made of energy. As I became aware of that, something started to come out of my chest. [chuckles] The week leading up to this dream, I had been dreaming about going to the gym and building my arms up until they were like The Hulk. And that’s what happened in the lucid dream. My Hulk arm grabbed the thing that was coming out of my chest. When that happened, I took off at super-speed down the stairs, out the door and across the landscape at a 100,000 miles an hour. Visited certain people, saw them in their beds, and came back. I’m sure there might be some odd scientific explanation for it, but to me it was a real experience.
The lucid dreaming—once it happened, did that change how you approached dreaming…?
No. But I was sharing some of these experiences with some of my friends.
So…1985? That would be around the time you were doing…
The One. And Swamp Thing. It just seemed like my whole life was accelerating again: not only had I made a career in comics, but I ended up working with Alan [Moore], and the whole nature of what a comic book could be was changing. I was somehow linked to that, to Alan and Steve [Bissette] and John [Totleben]. Swamp Thing was really their project, but I was sort of like the side guy, helping Steve out. So I got to read the scripts, and meet Alan when he came to the States, and he and I collaborated on an Epic story and then on Swamp Thing. Seemed like I was right there on this fulcrum as comics, which pretty much had been left for dead as an art form, all of a sudden was coming back to life.
Around 1990 or 1991, Scott McCloud came up with this comic book challenge called the 24-Hour Comic. Scott challenged Steve Bissette and me and a few others to do a 24-page comic in 24 hours. The reason Steve and Scott came up with the idea is because both of them were sort of perennially blocked. They needed to break through their creative blockage. I didn’t need that, I was pumping out comics right and left, so I decided at that point, to approach the challenge a little differently. I drew my dreams, one each day, so that over the course of a month, I had a 24-page comic.
I loved what I did so much that I just kept it going in my sketchbooks for I think three months straight. Once I had three months of comics, I began to see the patterns. It was so clear. None of the dreams were a single dream. It was a pattern of dreams, interwoven over time, and there were these extraordinary aspects of it. Sometimes the pattern of a dream came backwards in time. You’d see the ending first, and then the middle, and then the beginning of it, over the course of three weeks. It’s a thing I had never noticed before but there it was in the comic strips. I got really excited about it at that point, and as the potential opened up for me to self-publish my own work, I decided, even though it was commercial suicide, [chuckles] to focus on dream comics. I knew I was onto something that hadn’t been done before.
How did you build the narratives for Rare Bit Fiends?
What I would do is I would take my little notes from my notepad and scotch tape them across the top of my board and look at everything I had for that week, or if it was two weeks, whatever. I’d begin to see patterns. The one I had on Monday is REALLY part of the dream I had on Wednesday. And it’s also part of the dream that came the next Sunday. And so I’d bring those together into a single dream continuity-wise. I’d always pull out the most interesting ones. What I learned early on was there would be dreams that I didn’t want to share: I would feel weird, uptight about putting them in the magazine. But I slowly began to realize that if I got beyond that, and got it down, I felt great. It felt great to get it out, it made the work much more authentic, that I wasn’t censoring it, I was just laying it all out there as much as I could. There are some things in the dream journals that I didn’t share, but 99.9 percent I did.
The Rare Bit Fiends series was well-respected by other cartoonists, but did the general public have any interest in it?
Not really. People seemed to relate most to the first 12 issues which were focused on other cartoonists. I made a point of drawing the dreams I was having of my friends so I’ve got Bissette and Alan and Dave Sim and Gerhard and Neil Gaiman and all these people starring in my comic! Those guys were all great about it, too. I was learning how to self-publish at that point and it’s difficult, there’s a lot of stuff you’ve gotta learn very quickly, so the dreams reflected that aspect of my daily life. I knew that by drawing comics that were obviously about self-publishing I would learn more about myself and create this weird infinite loop with my readership, if they were hip enough to figure it out…
With Rare Bit, other people eventually got involved.
When I started self-publishing I swore I wasn’t going to publish anyone else. But there was so much material that came my way that was so great. There were so many other artists out there that were doing this kind of stuff that I de facto became became the guy. Rare Bit Fiends became the only communal dream art magazine in the world. Just extraordinary stuff came in. Also, the guys I was dreaming about, my crew—Steve and Sim and all those guys—they picked up the challenge and started doing their dreams as comics as well. That was extraordinary, because every one of them, to a man came back to me and went “This is unbelievable!” The experience of drawing their dream as a comic, and they’d all drawn a bazillion comics, somehow stood out as an extraordinary artistic experience.
What also happened while I was out on the road promoting Rare Bit Fiends, was everybody would come up to me and go, “Hey man I had the weirdest dream.” [laughs]
They wanted you to be the interpreter?
Or just a sympathetic witness, I guess. Some would want an interpretation if they were going through some kind of life crisis, which I’d do to the best of my ability. But a lot of people just wanted to tell me a wacky dream. I became this weird conduit for the unconscious of comics fandom, where it was all pouring into me. [laughs]
You were at the dream switchboard!
[laughs] When I did Rare Bit Fiends, I was less a professional cartoonist and more like a painter. Even though all my comics are in some sense an allegory of me, the dream stuff is right-in-your-face allegory. I’m laying it all out, as bare as it can be. It’s a great feeling to do that. I don’t think the worth of it is understood by most people yet, or even by myself yet. I know that, to this day, if I open one of those old comics and read those dreams again, whole new levels of meaning come to me. Or I’ll see how they were foretelling the future.
What other studies about dreams and dreamwork did you do?
I read everything. I got as many of Jung’s collected works as I could, and over time, read them all, once or twice. I tried to steep myself in the work. I think it’s key to what’s going on. Also, all the other modern dreamworking guys, like Jeremy Taylor, I love his work. And Robert Moss too. He really gets the shamanic side of things.
What was your experience with the dreamwork community at large like?
In trying to market Rare Bit Fiends I would send copies of the comic out to whatever small-press magazines might discuss this. I got a letter back from Jeremy Taylor who is one of the great dreamwork writers and who was writing a dream column for one of the magazines I hit with my PR package. He loved it. We started corresponding. He seemed to think I was the first person t actually translate dreams into an artform that could be assimilated. I wanted to hear that. [laughs] And so he started to draw me into the Association for the Study of Dreams, of which he was one of the founding members. I attended one of their conventions, ’94 or ’95, I found it a bit dry and a bit academic and a bit Balkanized. There were very few artists there. There were a few people doing dream paintings. But it wasn’t really like it was happening, like there was a real movement there. It was much more intellectual and literary approach to it.
And scientific too. They were bringing in all the information that scientists were getting about the dreaming mind. But their approach kind of removed the mystery. The real kick about a dream is that maybe somehow you’re plugging into THE mystery. I don’t wanna hear from some scientist telling me that my left brain hyperglobulal thing is firing randomly. That doesn’t mean anything to me. What’s interesting to me is that I’m in touch with the deepest, most secret parts of myself, or even something of a collective nature.
Even this landscape you’re talking about, that’s a collective space…
Yeah. That’s a symbolic space, though. The things that make up the landscape like the river, and the mountain are extremely potent collective symbols. I analyze my dreams by what part of the landscape they happen on. You begin to put together a much better psychological picture of yourself by just having that little bit of extra information.
Have you drawn an actual map?
In the dream journals, I did. In the trade paperback Crypto Zoo. It’s pretty clear where the basic landmarks are. It still goes on to this day. When I go back to the real landscape that it’s based on, it’s a lot like walking in a dream. It’s not a lucid dream, but it has that magical sense that anything that might happen in reality also has a symbolic weight to it that you wouldn’t normally notice. If you assimilate a landscape as your personal dream landscape, then the psycho-geography of the actual landscape will start to come up, through the dreams. Because, somehow, this information is all alive and within our reach.
Paul McCartney famously got the melody for Yesterday from a dream, and Keith Richard apparently got the riff to Satisfaction from a dream. What does that say about authorship?
It comes from the unconscious. McCartney gets the melody to Yesterday, it’s still his, but he got it in a really interesting intuitive way. Instead of sitting at a piano and working it out, he heard it in a dream. Now I’ve heard melodies in dreams but I’m not a musician enough to write them down. If Keith Richards got the base riff for Satisfaction in a dream, he’s still the author. Now there’s a couple possibilities there. One is it’s something he heard a bazillion years ago and it just sort of surfaced, it came back. The other possibility is that music is a mystic realm, where this stuff all exists. I like to think of its that way. [laughs]
So if you’re a visual artist, you can work through dreams using your artmaking skills. A musician could…
I bet if you started talking to them, you’d find more musicians do get bits from dreams. Maybe not melodies, maybe just thoughts, or couplets, or rhymes, imagery, that ends up in their dreams.. There are people who do stage plays based in dreams. There are films like Kurosawa’s Dreams. It’d be interesting to know if guys like Mozart, Beethoven or Bach got their symphonies in dreams.
My theory is that information is somehow alive. I think consciousness is like a dimension and information inhabits it. When we die, and give up our bodies, all we are is information. Maybe that’s what the afterlife is, eh?
Do you “use” dreams to solve personal problems, work problems…? To break through on something that’s proving difficult.
Oh yeah. Essentially any kind of personal issue I’m dealing with, I’ll start monitoring my dreams, trying to figure it out. I will sometimes just ask myself, before going to bed, “What’s going on with this? I don’t understand it. I want to know more.” And I begin to interpret dream imagery in the context of whatever problem I’m dealing with.
The nature of dreams is that they are healing. They tend to compensate for when you’re off-kilter. They want to get you back, centered, and, y’know, feeling right with the world. So when you’re really screwed up, that’s when they start screaming the loudest at you.
That’s a great way to approach them—if you have a really scary dream, or a really upsetting dream… Some people, their first response is “Oh, it’s affirmation that I’m crazy, or something terrible is going to happen to me.” It’s just the opposite. If your own psychology is bringing you these mental pictures, it’s because it wants to get you healthy. Pay a little attention, just listen to what it’s got to say, and over the course of time those horrible pictures will tone down and get you right back to where you need to be. It’s a skill that really should be taught, and something I think that’s missing in our culture.
How would you teach it?
Well, first off you need to get people collecting their dreams, sharing their dreams—and this is something that tribal cultures have always done—but our rational, industrial culture kind of pooh-poohs all this stuff. Or they see it as Freudian mumbo-jumbo, but it’s not—it’s how we’re wired. We should teach people about how the structure of their own psyches just like we teach them about their bodies.
Dreams really are regarded to consciousness or well-being in the way that ‘junk DNA’ is regarded to DNA… they exist, but they are irrelevant.
Our society is based on rationalism and scientism and it downplays intuition. But intuition is GREAT.
When did you find out about the local Native Americans?
RV: Well they started to appear in that first important series of dreams that I was telling you about. What I learned later on as I began to research the history of that area in 1994 or 95, when this stuff really began to come together, in ways that astounded me… I was getting bits and places of it… You know, Indians camped out at this one spot up the river. There was this one bridge downtown—right below this bridge there were these old Indian carvings. What I didn’t realize was those Indian carvings were the classic shaman symbols… the circle with two horns, the eyes and the mouth. There were dozens of them down there. A lot of ‘em got destroyed in colonial times.
What I found out when I began to research it in libraries was this was the place where all the tribes gathered, because the salmon got caught there—there were falls up above—so at certain times of the year the chad and the salmon would come in. All the tribes would come. All the shamans would get together and start doing mushrooms. The carvings they left are records of the visions. [chuckles]
I found this extraordinary…I was having cosmic dreams about this area, as all this was coming up…
One time in a dream, I was looking down on this place where the carvings are and I raised my line of vision and I saw the globe of Earth floating above it with all the ley lines illuminated on it.
And then I looked up above that and there was a globe of the Cosmos, the whole universe, with more glowing lines connecting stars.
Showing me that there was a connection: the universe—the planet—this one spot.
Special thanks to Arthur’s Man in Manchester, John Coulthart.