I met Rick Veitch for the first time in the fall of 1999, during my stay in New York. We went together to a Dream Art exhibition and, what seemed even more unreal, we visited those phantasmagoric, gigantic toy stores in Manhattan. Even though it was the first time I'd met Rick in flesh, we'd been corresponding and collaborating for several years. In fact, what brought us together were comics and dreams. We were so fanatical about sharing an interest in comics inspired by dreams that -- even though we were living in different continents -- it seemed obvious that we would meet at some point. Before he ever saw my comics, Rick had an extraordinary lucid dream about a cartoonist living in Balkans who was working on dream comics. After he woke up, Rick was inspired to do a comic based on this dream. Before he had much chance to speak to anybody about this vivid dream or the comic he created based on it, Rick was shocked to receive a letter from me in Serbia, in which I explained my own experiences in dreaming and cartooning.
Besides pioneering dream comics, Rick is better known to a wider audience for his unorthodox comics , like Swamp Thing, The One, Brat Pack and Maximortal. In the last couple of years, together with his partner Steve Conley, he has been behind one of the most successful web sites devoted to comics, called Comicon.com. The number of visitors to this site is more than a million a month.
"I was born in the community in Vermont that was very skeptical of art or creativity in any form," Rick told me. "In early parts of my youth I knew that I wanted to be an artist, but generally I had to fight this attitude all around me. The criticism was coming to me from all directions: my parents, my school and everybody from that town saw art as a dangerous thing. With no art education, I ended up going out and finding my own art form, and what was available to me were comic books. Comics were a form of culture that I could purchase myself, and bring into my life on my own. I always loved comics, from the earliest times, and began to teach myself to draw from them. I started my own little comic book company called Sun Comics and published a number of hand made titles regularly in grade school and high school for my own amusement. I never showed them to anyone except my brothers. And it was always my thing, my secret creative passion. My parents thought that it was just a stage I was going through, and generally they didn't gave me any encouragement at all. But I knew I wanted to be a cartoonist from the very beginning.
What kind of comics did you read as a kid?
Mostly I started out with the Marvel and DC comics, so it would be "silver age" Supermans. Old Mort Weisinger Superman stuff that had a certain charm to it, and right after that Jack Kirby and Stan Lee really opened the doors with the Marvel Universe. I was at the right age, 10 or 11, so I read all those comics and taught myself to draw by copying Jack Kirby panels. I learned the basic art principles like space and shape and action from Jack Kirby. But I didn't limit just myself to that work. I was really interested in any form of cartooning, I visited the library and took out any book on cartooning or comics, and I had my eyes open for anything that was a cartoon.
Can you go back to the feelings of that kid of 10 or 11? What was it about comics that you found so attractive?
I think that what I found attractive was that it was MY artform, and I was defining my own creative space within this form, in contrast to my environment. As a vehicle for imagination comics were incomparable. I'm certain that, if I gave those comics that I did as a kid to a psychotherapist, he would have a lot to say. But I also recognized that the geniuses of the form, like Jack Kirby, delved into a deeper truth, that transcended what I was seeing on television, and what I was reading in books or being taught in school. I think through comics I recognized something about the realm of imagination. It is a place where you can begin to learn about the deeper, more subconscious parts of the self. These are the issues that I'm still dealing with in my work and in my heart and I think as a kid I intuitively understood it.
When did you start to publish your comics as a professional artist?
In my last year of high school, the first undergrounds started to come out, like Head Comics by Robert Crumb, and the first Zap comics. My older brother Tom had been in San Francisco in 1967, and I think he bought a copy of the first Zap from Crumb on the street, and brought it home. It opened my eyes about what comics could be, and I instantly stopped work on the superhero comics that I was doing, and started to do deeply personal, artistic, but painfully lame comics. I began to learn about Rapidographs and started inking pages instead of just working in pencil. The state college newspaper began running a weekly strip of mine and Tom's. Meanwhile Tom went back to San Francisco again and met Greg Irons, who was a famous underground artist, and they started collaborating on a number of comics. The first thing that they did was Light Comix, then came Legions of Charlies, and SKULL. When I
graduated from high school I knew that I wanted to be involved with comics, so I went to San Francisco. Tom introduced me to Ron Turner from Last Gasp who hired us to do complete comic book called Two-Fisted Zombies, which was a bizarre amalgam of Jack Kirby and undergrounds. It was a dark fantasy that kind of predates what we have seen in comics during the last ten years.
So you were involved in mixing these two types of comics very early in your career?
Well, I can't say I knew what I was doing, I was just operating with what I taught myself. So the Two-Fisted Zombies comic book came out just when the underground publishing kind of collapsed, and there were no more opportunities. So I lived the hippie life in Vermont, married and had a kid. I got to be about 25 years old and I said to myself: I don't want to work a normal job, I want to be a cartoonist, and I started to look for the art schools even though I had no money. Lo and behold, Joe Kubert, the famous American cartoonist was starting a cartooning school in New Jersey. I went to visit him, and he said, "You are just a guy we want for this school." Miraculously I got a government grant to pay for my education and that's really where my professional cartooning career began. Learning from Joe, I had to began to understand what makes a good illustration and unlearn many of the techniques I had taught myself. I how to work with writers and learn lettering and coloring and production. And just as importantly the school is located not far from New York City, which in 1976-77 was the center of the American comic book publishing. DC and Marvel were there, and Heavy Metal was just starting. So as well as learning, I was able to make inroads and connections with the New York publishing market. So as I left school in 1978 or 1979, it wasn't very long before I was working professionally in comics. Some of my first gigs were in Heavy Metal and Epic magazine.
What was the atmosphere at the offices of the major magazines at that time?
Very negative. I was still possessed of my childish wonder of what comics were, and of course when you walk into their offices the last thing you feel is the childish wonder... The people in there looked like extremely unhappy middle aged guys, operating within a system that they didn't like, but had to perpetuate. Everybody seemed to recognized this attitude was aimed at making money and very bad for the artform and the culture, but everyone seemed powerless to change things. My generation was a part of a group that helped to change it a little bit, although we haven't saved it completely. The wave of creators that were arriving at the publishing houses in America in the early 1980's: Frank Miller, Howard Chaykin, Alan Moore, Steve Bissette were people who just saw things in a different way and had a huge impact, which helped force change in the economics of comic books publishing . We went through a very powerful renaissance in America starting in the early 80's and it peeked out probably in 1989 or so. The industry still kept growing into the early 90's, but then it just exploded in a glut from which it hasn't recovered.
But did people realize right from the start that your ideas were a little bit different from what was usual for the mainstream stuff?
They did, but I was fortunate to arrive at a moment when they were open to the new ideas. One of the issues that came up while we were being taught at Kubert School was how new ideas were treated suspiciously, and, of course, this pushed a lot of my old buttons from my childhood experiences. We met a lot of old and middle aged cartoonists whose spirits had been broken by trying to bring new ideas in, because the infrastructures of the business was such that it just smashed them back. So we were aware of the problems, but the direct sales market was just beginning in the early 80's and it opened up a lot of possibilities. All of a sudden Moebius was like a cult figure, and Marvel went, "Hey, we can do Heavy Metal stuff too!" Some creators were using the mechanism of direct sales market, to self publish. Marvel and DC were definitely taking notice about this, so the corporate cultures began to change and they were looking for people with new and wacky ideas and styles. I was very fortunate to meet up early on with Archie Goodman, who was the legendary editor at Marvel, DC and Creepy magazine. I met him in 1979, when he ran the Epic comics line, and he used a lot of my work and encouraged many cartoonists to start new directions.
What was the sequence of events that brought you from drawing superhero comics to experimenting with dream comics?
A big part of my career was connected with doing mainstream, superhero comics, but, again, I was really fortunate to work with excellent writers like Alan Moore. I'm not a natural writer, but, working with people like Alan taught me very quickly how to do mainstream comics and how to produce quality written material on a schedule. Alan came from England and just kind of blew everybody's mind by showing what a comic book script could be. He was one of the first people in America to seriously approach comic book writing, and take it to the same level as if you would do with a fantasy or a horror novel. I was very fortunate to work with him on several different projects. When he left Swamp Thing, I became the writer and the artist, and my writing for it became a bit different: more prose heavy.
But I guess your question was how did I move to dream comics. I had a gigantic battle with DC Comics over Swamp Thing and left the company [for more on this check out Mourned Magician Resurrected in our Archives. -- yhed.]?. At the same time, Scott McCloud issued a challenge to a number of other artists to do a 24 page comic in 24 hours. I thought I would do it differently -- I would do 10 minutes a day, and I'd been thinking for a while about doing a dream comic. So within a couple of months, I filled this huge notebook with dream comics! The results just astounded me. Even though they were quick and sketchy, the end result was this incredible information that came through, and the deep patterns woven into the dreams that I could suddenly see. When the market exploded in the 90's, I was able to do a successful Image comics miniseries that made enough of a profit to bankroll something as non-commercial as a dream comic, so I just decided that I would throw caution in the wind and devote myself to Rare Bit Fiends .
Was it in Maximortal that you first introduced Rare Bit Fiends panels?
Those were from the "24 hour" sketchbook. I made three "24 hour" home made comic books of those material, and each book would have about 50 strips in it. Connecting with dream art was like revelation for me. As much as I enjoy doing mainstream comics, in the end they are a form of commercial entertainment. Dream comics are real art. The 3 or 4 years that I did Rare Bit Fiends were probably the best art years for me in my whole life, in terms of what I think I personally accomplished. I doubt anybody ELSE thinks that (laughs). I am thankful that I had my time to do it, and I hope that I'll be able to duplicate it at some point. Dream art is my art, and it is a thing that I could very easily devote my life to, if I can organize my life around it...
From reading a letters section of Rare Bit Fiends monthly comic book edition, I get the impression that a lot of people write to you to tell you about their own experiences or to send you their own dream art.
If Rare Bit Fiends hadn't happened, someone else would have to create it. I think that there was a large group of dreamers and other people just doing dreamwork, who were looking to get published and to get a community going. And even though I swore I will not publish work by other people in Rare Bit Fiends, I HAD to, because the response was so great and the quality of the work was so great. It just seems to me that comics and dreams are coming together in a really wonderful way. And that comics might actually be the best artform to get the dream down. I think that the cool thing about comics is that they give you time between panels to play around with what the symbolism of a dream might be. When people do dreams on film there is no time to intellectually grasp the multilevel meanings encoded in dreams. In comics, you can always stop in the middle and think, "What is this?" The actual creating of dream comics was an extraordinary experience to me. In a way it amplified my dreaming and brought more wonderful information forward, and forced me to grasp that information. As I would draw the images my sleeping mind had generated, the possibilities inherent in the symbolism would start to surface, so that I gained incredible insight into who and what I am.
But I also began to see how information was coming to me, intuitively, from outside of myself. I found that many times the most boring dreams are actually the best ones! I would wake up in the morning, trying not to move, and I would try to take the information that was in the dreaming side of my brain moving over to the side with the memory cells. But you know the feeling.
Yes, I do exactly the same thing. I try also not to look towards a window or some other source of light, because when your eyes fill with light while waking up, you tend to forget the details from your dreams...
And sometimes there would be something that either was embarrassing or boring or nonsensical, and you feel urges like, "don't bother with that Rick, no one's gonna get that one Rick," or "leave that out Rick," and I learned that, whenever I had that reaction, to make a point of writing it down and drawing it because there was something great in it!
Again, it works the same with me!!!
And then, when I would turn those dreams into comics, the top of my head would explode, because there would be some incredible piece of information that I had missed.
Seems like there is something inside us that is preventing us from letting this information out... Maybe it's the logical part of our self that is building a kind of a dam...
What I know is that some of the best strips I ever did were based on boring dreams.
Do you use any other technique to remember your dreams?
One thing I've been doing a last couple of years is making sure I drink a big glass of water before I go to bed, so that I'll wake up in the middle of the night to piss. The dreams that I have in the middle of the night are of much different quality then the ones that I usually have when I wake up in the morning. I'm working under the theory right now, that at different times of night we are dreaming on different levels of reality, and that deepest levels are in the middle of the night, during the deep dream sleep. I think that's when we are closest to God. While on the surface, these dreams still might look like normal nonsensical dreams I think they represent a communication with a higher level.
Do you make sketch of a dream just after you wake up?
Sometimes, but usually I just try to get it down in writing, including any detail anything I can remember no matter how trivial. If there's a symbol or anything that needs to be drawn I quickly make a sketch. If I see a piece of art in a dream, I try to sketch it as quickly as I can. The next evening before I go to bed, I take 10 minutes to read notes again, and more memories arise and I complete the notes. At the end of the week I would take all the notes and begin to make scripts from them. I would try to make one dream for a script, but I soon learned that sometimes 2 or 3 dreams in a week would be addressing the same subject, so I would bring all 3 of them into a script and get more complete picture.
One of the things that I like in Rare Bit Fiends was when you do reconstruction of the comics that you actually read in a dream...
Yes, the few times that I've dreamed a complete comic page and translated it into the real world, it was like performing some sort of magic or something.
There are also a lot of references to popular culture in your dream comics...
I think our popular culture tends to sublimate and create its own symbolic layer in our sub-consciousness. In the early days of Rare Bit Fiends I tended to focus on popular culture, because I knew that it was a link to the audience. Symbolism of popular culture is something we share. In real life, I tend to ignore as much popular culture as I can. I never watch television, I listen to very little popular music, I read a few comics. Most of my reading is on the scientific nature of consciousness and reality. I tend to think that popular culture replaces the dream function in a bad way for a big percentage of the masses.
How do you see the relation between popular culture and our subconscience?
So do you think that modern people, who are so much drawn to popular culture, are using it as a substitute for being more concentrated on their dream life?
Yes, I think that it kind of tricks the brain in thinking that it's had a real dream. Dreaming is a sacred discourse with the spirit, and if you sit around and watch television all night your ego thinks that you had this communication with the soul when actually you've only connected with NBC and Proctor & Gamble!
It also makes sense because I was thinking how the commonly used term American Dream does not have much to do with dreaming, actually it's about popular culture.
(Laughs) That's a good point. About 15 years ago I stopped going to movies and it became so obvious that everybody I knew was obsessed, and to them movies were like a religion. Movie experiences are one of the main ways that people communicate, and it kind of gives me eerie feeling since there is the element of programming involved. I know that every time I watch television my dream recall goes down.
How about other dream artists? Did working on Rare Bit Fiends inspire you to study work by other artists who were into dreams?
It worked on a number of interesting levels. It seemed to me that my dreaming found other artists that I wasn't aware of who were doing dream art. For instance, I wasn't aware that Akiro Kurosawa has done a film called Dreams. But one of the first dreams in Rare Bit Fiends was about Akiro Kurosawa. It was called "Fightin' Artist!" Strangely enough, when Life Magazine did an article about dreaming, they placed the cover of Rare Bit Fiends right next to a photo from Kurosawa's Dreams! I'd been listening to Bob Dylan for years before it was clearly shown to me in a dream state that he is operating and creating out of his dream life.
I think I have also seen pieces of art by Magritte in my dreams, even though I wasn't that familiar with his paintings, but that made me go out and search for his work. I think that dream artists are not only working FROM dreams, they are operating IN dreams, and in a way that we don't understand yet. I think it's related to shamanism, in the sense that it's individuals operating in the dream world, and building intellectual artifacts in the realm of the imagination. Popular culture and high art are operating on a similar track.
On another level, by publishing Rare Bit Fiends a lot of wonderful dreamwork was sent by my readers, and some of them seem to be dreaming about me, so I became a character of some of their dreams. It was always amazing to read a comic where I was a character in someone else's dream, and I would learn some amazing thing about myself. Somehow these dreams had information that was important to me.
When I was serving the Army in the early 80's, it was a horrible experience. And I had to spend a lot of time with all those other people who were serving for 15 months. But there was something interesting that I noticed: other soldiers would occasionally tell me that they had dreams in which I appeared. I started to make notes and had a whole collection of dreams by the other people, with me as a guest character... It was weird.... Anyway, isn't it interesting that we are discussing dreams as a form of communication, because for the most part when people think about dreams they don't suppose it has anything to do with communication. They think about dreaming as a fantasy or as a mere brain function. But what if dreams also do have communicational potential ?
Yes, sure. Or in dreams we might be exploring the landscape of life after death! I think the greatest gift that I bring from doing dreamwork, is an absolute conviction that we live on after physical death, and that it's similar to dreaming.
What are your feelings about the traditional culture of Native Americans, which is very dream friendly?
I think that American Indian culture is everything that modern American culture is lacking. Unfortunately, it's been virtually destroyed in last four centuries. In my own personal dreamwork I've felt very close connections to Native American culture, especially in areas close to where I lived as a child. Again, I connect it to classical shamanism, which Native Americans practiced just like every other aboriginal culture, and in which the spirit world is contacted through dreams and visions. It's a place where ideas can be constructed, and have some sort of life and permanency outside of time and space. This is what I'm exploring right now in my own personal dreamwork. Something happened, I don't know what, that took out the spiritual component of American life, and what's left of it is used as a commercial tool, to bind people to products, rather then to allow people to come to grips with the sacred mystery of what is it to be alive.
I was thinking that skyscrapers, which are for many people a symbol of modern America, are kind of exactly opposite to the Native American idea of living close to nature... But when I think about Native American culture, I think about the fact that these nations lived for thousands of years separated from the Old World, and (even though there are obviously some similarities with European, Asian or African cultures) they built up something unique and wonderful and worth preserving. Do you think that some of the values inherent in Native culture could be in any way revived in modern America?
Some people that I meet yearn for it, but it seems to develop in this tacky kind of commercial way. There are a lot of books in American bookstores that are supposed to be about those values, but they only touch on the surface of it, and really only play with people's desires and their lack of connectives. As far as I know, there is no structure that really teach people what that stuff is, and the Native Americans I've met don't want to lose that part of their culture to the white man like everything else. In my own life I have no teacher. I'm just exploring this stuff through the power of my own intuition, and focus. It seems to me that the nature of dreams, dreamwork and the dream world is such that if you pay attention, the answers are there. It requires care and patience, and fearlessness. It means you have to look at yourself very closely, since all the information you receive is interpreted through your fears and your desires. So you have to work through all that to perceive what the real information is about. I think there are really profound entities, who are not of the physical world any more, but who might once have been of the physical world; and they are available to us.
I think that the best way to bring any changes to the culture is to make changes from within. And I see you as somebody who is trying to apply the values of those lost cultures by searching for the information, which is within you. I can understand that it can't be something that you just buy in a shop.
It's also linked to comics, in a sense that as a child, holding those 4 color comics in my hand and inhabiting them with my imagination, I just sensed that they were linked to dreaming, and magic. It wasn't just mindless fantasy, although there was plenty of that! At its best other things were going on that were linking me directly to the realm of the imagination, and if I followed that through, there would be something bigger and better and greater and more profound to be learned there.
Do you believe that there are some sort of mystical layers inherent in comics, even in the trashiest kids comics?
It seems to, because I think any of the imaginative arts tend to express things that are free floating around in the other world. I think comics reflect that a lot. If you go back to the Mort Weisinger Superman, that was probably from 1958 or 1962, on the surface it's a wacky and entertaining bit of fluff, but seen through the lense of modern physics it can be seen as an intuitive view of multidimensional existence.
It's funny how you can discuss that mystical side of creativity with people from the comics world, even though comics are usually seen as mere entertainment. While on the other hand I found that official culture is lacking almost any interest in that aspect of the creative process.
I think that one of the great potentials of comics is to put together these complex ideas from outside of any sort of mainstream structure. Anybody can make a comic. And it's an authentic way of getting into these indefinable things.
What do you think is the future of dream comics?
Dream comics are as pure an artform as comics have ever produced. To do a dream comic is to be in an intense dialogue with the deepest part of yourself, and after all, that is the basis of all art. In terms of the business, dream comics are an authentic genre that kind of constellated in last 10 years. I don't think that it's ever going to be genre that will make anyone money, so the commercial guys aren't gonna to come in and turn it into a joke. But until we connect with an audience that can read a comic book for things other then mindless entertainment, we're gonna be struggling, because we need outside funds to support doing this kind of work. I have hopes that the internet will provide an linkage to an audience, since the internet seems to be moving very quickly toward "creator to consumer" model, which means making art and getting it to the viewer without any middle men mucking things up.
I had the opportunity to speak to artists from different countries, like David B from France and Max from Spain, and we discovered that we were doing comics based on dreams, independently of each other. We didn't even know of each other at that time, and even though in our countries there was nothing quite similar going on at the local scene. It seems that there was some point, maybe in the early 90's, when the artists from different countries simultaneously were getting more or less the same idea.
It'll be interesting to list all those people. There certainly seems to be a "movement" afoot for dream comics.
More prosaically speaking, how is Rare Bit Fiends functioning? It must be a hell of a job to create and self-publish a book on dreams each month. Was it you who made contracts with printers and distributors?
Yes, I did everything myself. It is difficult, but it's not that difficult. Once you got your system set up, and you've gone through the learning curve, then you know every month when you've got to do this and that to make it work really smoothly. I did everything myself except for the separation of the colors for the cover. And getting of these boxes of books in, and seeing the comic all printed for the first time, it was one of the peak life experiences! But again, I would have loved for somebody to give me a giant grant to put together a big fat magazine full of dream comics every month. There are certainly enough creators to fill an 80 page giant every month!
Would you recommend the self-publishing experience to others?
I would, if you asked me 5 years ago. The nature of the business in America right now is making it impossible. So you basically lose all your money and work for nothing. But what I would suggest to anyone is to watch what's happening on the internet, because I would predict that within the next year or two a new system is going to appear, that will allow people to sell comics through the internet, and sell enough to stay alive. Once that happens, then I think you are going to see an explosion in alternative comics. Now everything that is happening with comics in America is controlled by the same people who control Superman and Spiderman, and their audience is a very small group of diehard fans. But the potential for us to do comics about real human experience and connect with everybody else in the world is suddenly possible with the Internet.
When I started Rare Bit Fiends I was selling 7000 copies a month which, even though it was more work, made as much money as if I had been writing and pencilling the Swamp Thing. But unfortunately when the business fell apart sales went down, and I wasn't able to keep it going without subsidizing it.
Anyway, you were able to live on dream comics for a while?
Yes, about 2 years before I had to subsidize it.
What is the story behind Comicon.com?
I met Steve Conley , who created a strip called Astounding Space Thrills, and who also built web sites, and we were kicking around ideas in doing a comics site on the internet, when he asked, "What are you going to do with it?" I said that I'd use it just like a comics convention, where I sell my art, I sell my books, and talk to people. And from that came the concept of Comicon.com. We put everything together in August of 1998, and since then we seen 15% growth every month. We've been adding components to it, like a daily news site that is reporting on all aspects of publishing comics and the message boards are always hopping.
How do you think it will develop in the future?
That's the big question, but what we are hoping for is that a format for comics will be embraced by the audience on the Internet, so that we all can make a living by doing comics. It hasn't happened yet. We are in a transition stage, and people are trying to sell the old pamphlets that worked on newsstands. What's got to happen is that comics need to find their right format for the Internet. We might be looking at the new era of daily comic strip. And I bet dream comics would fit that format perfectly!