Cover artwork: “Self-Portrait in Six Dimensions” by Rick Veitch (2012)
The Universe, the Planet, This One Spot
A conversation with dreamer/cartoonist Rick Veitch
by Jay Babcock
As published in Arthur No. 33 (Jan. 2013)
Interview follows this introduction…
Rick Veitch: Cartographer of the American Dreamtime
by Alan Moore
The Julia Set, unique and intricately beautiful, is an exquisite fractal outgrowth from the mother Mandelbrot arrangement, a specific form dictated by the mathematical peculiarities of its precise location in the overall continuum, the jeweled continent of numbers charted and explored by Benoit Mandelbrot during the 1980s. The Julia Sets are, if you will, distinct and individual entities which nonetheless arise from the unique conditions at their point of origin. As such, they offer us a splendid metaphor; a new way to consider the relationship between ourselves as human beings and the landscapes that we grew from. We are Julia Sets, and our specific natures and distinct psychologies are an elaborate extension of the maze of streets where we were born; the valleys, hills and rivers that defined our world and the topographies that we grew up amongst.
If some supporting evidence is needed in defense of this hypothesis, then we need look no further than Rick Veitch. Born out of Vermont, he spent childhood and youth unaware of the powerful significance of his surroundings, as most of us do. In attempting to find the right path for himself, an endeavor that might lead him past the constraints of his life, he pursued both a passion for comic-book artistry and an increasing involvement with his own tumultuous dream-life. While these two preoccupations have greatly enabled and enriched each other in Rick’s subsequent career, I suggest it is the dreampath that is of the primary importance in that it is somehow closer to the center of his being, closer to the source of his artistic inspiration than the marvelously illustrated pages that grow out of it. By following the shadowy and lunar trail of his oneiric explorations, mapping his own route as he made his way further out into uncharted territories, it would seem that he’s been led back to the very point at which he started out, but with a greater understanding and appreciation of its meaning and its majesty: Vermont. The river and the bridge. The petroglyphs.
This was the landscape that another vocal and prolific dreamer, H.P. Lovecraft, had described after a visit to Vermont, the flooded river and its cargo of gas-bloated cattle lending local color to his tale of ghastly and unfathomable alien abduction. Brains in copper cylinders, extraordinary rendition, bound for Yuggoth. Funnily enough, the isolated cabin where Lovecraft’s protagonist is subject to the conversation of its human-mimicking inhabitant was based upon the residence that stands a little way from the Veitch homestead, owned once and perhaps still by a neighbor with experience of alien abduction who had published books upon the subject. Or at least, something that looked like him had published books upon the subject.
As Rick started to investigate the place that he was raised in, he began to get a sense of its geography as it related to his personal history, to the history of the area and to his own ongoing archaeology of dreams. He learned about the Abenaki, whose own cultural perspectives had informed the landscape once, before the vision of the settlers had been ruthlessly imposed. They’d been the ones who’d scratched those strange horned stick-figures into the rocks down by the river, the same ones that Lovecraft mentioned, with the ancient markings partly smothered by the concrete of the bridge foundations. That would be the bridge across the river to New Hampshire that in Rick’s dreams seemed to symbolize a bridge across the centuries, jet fighters sparring with pteranodons above the central span. The Abenakis’ hilltop burial ground, with bodies customarily interred sat upright, had been razed by bulldozers… decapitations and bisections of Native American deceased… in order to erect the paper-mill where Rick’s own father would slave out his days. America, ignoring the advice of its own horror movies, is entirely built upon the site of an old Indian graveyard and must take its ghosts and hauntings as they come.
While he deepened his inquiries into the rich history of his birthplace, Veitch’s waking life and dream life seemed to synchronize with his material world, seemed to connect with narratives that were those of the streets and soil themselves. He dreamed about a native shaman with a magic bow, his features masked at first by a carved pumpkin head but then revealed as those of an unusually tall man with a goofy and distinctive overbite, a face that was entirely unforgettable. A few days later, in the waking world, he took a walk down by the riverside in search of either inspiration or some new clue to the innate puzzle of the area. Floating in the water was an orange globe that seemed from several feet away to be a pumpkin like the shaman’s headpiece in his dream. Venturing nearer he discovered that it was in fact a punctured child’s ball, thrown away somewhere upstream, upon some previous occasion. Fished out of the water, on the other side was a crude, childish drawing of the same distinctive face with the same goofy overbite. The last I heard, Rick had it perched above the doorway of his studio.
The synchronicities came thick and fast, as they will tend to do when one embarks upon investigations of this nature. At one point, researching his own genealogy he came across a tantalizing reference to a long dead ancestor, a female member of the Veitch clan who had intermarried with the local Abenaki, taking as her bridegroom an unusually tall man if the story was to be believed. Was this the reason for his serial dreams about the petroglyphs, about the Abenaki, some unlikely but convincing blood connection?
Whether the descent be biological or otherwise, it seems that Rick Veitch has been pressed into continuing the role of his shamanic Abenaki forebears, of the ones that walked the land before him, who grew out of it as he did. Through his studies, his experiences and the splendid comic pages that resulted from the same, Rick has fearlessly explored and mapped the dreamtime of his native landscape just as thoroughly as did his psilocybin-entranced predecessors. And let there be no mistake, it is that dreamtime that all our reality is founded on, the mythic bedrock upon which we build our paper-mills, the modem structures of our modem lives.
Also, in Veitch’s case, in should be noted that we are exposed to an authentic vision of the true American dreamtime rather than another dissertation on the American Dream. The latter would seem to have been of questionable use in the development of the United States, too often held up like a brightly painted backdrop to conceal a less agreeable American reality; the promise of a photogenic destiny, of realizing lifestyles that in truth only exist on celluloid, a retro-fitted continuity. The former, the American Dreamtime, is the sustaining, nourishing, neglected panorama that is still there, underneath the muddle of contemporary detritus that has piled up in the cellar-rooms of our unconscious, and Rick Veitch is its cartographer.
And in the sempiternal and unchanging Mandelbrot of spacetime, that is who and what he is forever: a unique and fascinating outgrowth of his place, his time and circumstances, an inimitable Julia Set grown from that cemetery dirt, that riverside, those petroglyphs. Or, if that’s not the case, then somewhere in another world there is a butterfly that’s having the most unbelievably strange dream.
* * *
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 a few visionary issues from his run as Alan Moore’s handpicked writer-artist successor on the Swamp Thing series 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 a 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?
RV: [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?
RV: 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.
Arthur: Was there a turning point when you started to pay serious attention to your dreams?
RV: 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.