Having fun doing what he was born to do: Cartoonist Rick Veitch

Photo: Cartoonist Rick Veitch. Photo: Randy T. Holhut.

by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine How does a self-described delinquent kid from Bellows Falls become a revered comics master with a profound effect on American popular culture?

Ask Rick Veitch, who last month finished his three-year term as the fourth Cartoonist Laureate of the State of Vermont.

As an aside, the cartooning world adores Vermont precisely because it has a cartoonist laureate; it's the only state in the union that honors the art in this way. The state is cartoon-rich, also having the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) in White River Junction, as well as being the home of celebrated cartoonists (and past laureates) like the late New Yorker cartoonist Ed Koren and cartoonist and playwright Alison Bechdel; graphic novelist Tillie Walden is now the state's fifth cartoonist laureate.

The CCS proudly states on its website: “Despite its small size, Vermont has had a disproportionately large impact on contemporary cartooning where many celebrated cartoonists call the state home.”

Richard Ian Veitch, 71, is one of them.

“In any cultural medium, as scholars know, there are the household names, and there are the artists’ artists: the influencers, the ones who set the pace and transcend it,” said Columbia University Professor Jeremy Dauber, the author of “American Comics: A History.”

“While the former grab the headlines — sometimes deservedly so — the latter are the secret troves so necessary to historians and critics: the ones whose work really helps to explain the evolution of the form,” Dauber continued. “Rick Veitch has been an essential voice, and pen, in the history of comics for half a century now and his work, and traces, are everywhere: from the underground of the Sixties to the revolutionary transformation of mainstream comics in the Eighties to the deconstructive and even scholarly turn in the last quarter-century, Veitch has been a figure that people look to in order to know What’s Going On.”

Veitch's work sits at the center of the universe of American popular culture — and by extension, the world's popular culture, since cartoon characters have taken over the film world now.

Veitch did underground comics when “overground” comics were being censored. He entered the corporate comic world when it began exploding in the 1980s. He drew Superman. He's drawn Star Wars comics.

Stephen Spielberg entrusted the graphic novel version of his 1979 film “1941” to him and his frequent collaborator, fellow Vermont cartoonist Stephen Bissette.

He's had a hand in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He took the DC character Swamp Thing to a whole new level before being censored and quitting in high dudgeon.

He now writes and publishes his own comics.

He publishes popular comics versions of his dreams. He does educational comics. He does single-panel, single-word cartoons. His work sells as art to be framed and hung on walls. And he does all this from the woods of West Townshend.

According to Professor Karen Green, Curator for Comics and Cartoons at Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, who teaches courses on comics, the use of sequential panels can be dated all the way back to the caves of Lascaux.

Then it runs through the Bayeux Tapestry to the stained glass windows of Medieval Europe to the “funny papers“ of the Sunday newspapers, to the underground comics of the hippie scene, and from the subversive Mad magazine to the upscale pages of The New Yorker, and onward and upward.

There are many, many types of comics: gag comics, science fiction, horror, political, espionage, fantasy, crime, mystery, romance, teenage comics, to name just some.

For a long time, comics could not earn any respect. They've been accused of fostering juvenile delinquency, being a tool of the devil, and being designed to corrupt young minds. Once they were burned all over America.

Beginning in 1954, they were actually censored by the publishers themselves before the government stepped in and did the job.

The code specifically said no vampires, no werewolves, no monsters, no words like “weird” or “creepy.” Horror comics were outlawed. This spurred the growth of “underground” comics in the Sixties that gleefully broke all the rules. But the code still lasted until 1969.

Cartoonists have been killed for their art. (Remember the 2015 tragedy of the seven cartoonists killed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris?) And because the more things change, the more they remain the same, cartoons are still being censored.

Recently in Florida, a graphic novel taken from “The Diary of Anne Frank” — but, oddly, not the original book — was banned in a school.

Speaking of the Holocaust, one might think that cartoons were first taken seriously by the culture when Art Spiegelman's “Maus” books won the first Pulitzer Prize for a graphic novel in 1992. But by then, the term “graphic novel” had already entered the lexicon.

“Comics were serious literature before they had a name for them,” said Bissette, who has written a book analyzing his friend Veitch's work,

They met when they joined the first class ever of the famous Kubert School (then called the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art) in New Jersey.

“The term 'graphic novel' was a term coined by pioneer comic book artist Will Eisner,” Bissette told me. “It was used a couple of times before, but then Will Eisner did an essentially self-published graphic novel called 'A Contract with God.' It came out in 1977 or 1978. So that's the ground zero of graphic novels being accepted as a market term in the book industry. Rick and I first heard the term from the master's own mouth. Will Eisner was one of the guest artists who spoke at the Kubert School. He told us he was working on a secret project that turned out to be 'A Contract with God.' So I guess Rick and I were in on the ground floor of graphic novels.”

Comics are taken very seriously now, as an art form and as a profit center, as well as something adolescent boys read in their bedrooms.

“There are lots of comics that have won National Book Awards and Critics Circle Awards now,” Green said. “Five cartoonists so far have been awarded MacArthur Fellowships. So it's about finding out what genre appeals to you. And it's important to be able to make that distinction between the medium, which is how the story is told, and a genre, which is what kind of story is being told.”

According to Bissette, he knew a comic explosion had begun around the year 2000.

“That's when I first began getting phone calls out of the blue from local parents who knew I work on comics,” Bissette said. “They would say, 'Do you tutor? My kids loves to draw and there is no program for them.' When I started getting those calls, I knew that something in our culture had changed, that we had outgrown the two or three generations that had had grown up thinking comics were bad, or that comics were just for kids. Something was changing. And by the year 2001, one school down in Southern Vermont put together funds for me to come in to work one-on- one with kids. And that's when I realized, 'Wow, something has changed in American culture.'”

Veitch remains unimpressed.

“When my generation started out, we all kind of knew instinctually that once we threw off the yolk of censorship, comics would flower,” he said.

Cartooning is now all around us. An actor can hardly be in a film unless they are wearing spandex.

“Twenty years ago, the big summer movie wasn't a Marvel comic book movie, right?” Bissette said. “It would be a musical or an adventure film or something. Graphic novels weren't in every bookstore. Japanese comic manga weren't in every bookstore. Now there is a place like the Center for Cartoon Studies. And Rick Veitch is writing and drawing his own graphic novels. He's able to put them out through print-on-demand via amazon.com. As soon as Rick is done with it, it's available. So things have changed in so many ways. For kids in their teens, as well as adults in their 20s and early 30s, comics and graphic novels are as much a part of their media diet as TV and radio used to be.”

The prolific Veitch is a gifted artist as well as a storyteller. In the comics mainstream, he has worked for the big corporations like DC Comics — the home of “the world's greatest superheroes” like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern.

DC is the oldest of the nation's corporate comics giants, and now it is the flagship unit of DC Entertainment, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. He's also worked for Marvel, home of Spiderman, Iron Man, The Hulk, Black Panther, etc.

Veitch works in a variety of styles, from trippy horror to educational comics drawn so clearly they read like textbooks.

Tall, bald, gangly and looking more like a farmer going out to milk some cows than an artist who has been working in comics since he was 7 years old, he now lives in the woods with his lovely wife Cindy, a master gardener, and works on high-tech computers in a refitted mobile home behind his house. His two adult sons are also cartoonists and often work with their dad.

And while he is creating new art in the woods, his work is being taught to college students in New York City.

“One of the things that's really extraordinary about Rick is that he has succeeded in the mainstream, he succeeded in self-publishing, he succeeded in the indie world,” Green said. “He's worked with a number of publishers. He has also self-published. And now he's doing educational comics. So he has kind of existed in every aspect of the industry that exists. And that's not something a lot of people can say.”

Veitch has had a long, successful and busy career.

“He always finds a place,” Green said. “Some people may not know him. The mainstream will only maybe know him from Swamp Thing, which was a massive success, and some of the later superhero things. But then he moved on to do a self-publishing thing. And then the fans are going to know the stuff that he did as an indie person. So because he has succeeded in so many different areas, he has perhaps eluded overall success. But the people who have found him in any one of those areas are inevitably massive fans, because he's really, really good at what he does.”

Veitch is quiet, gentle, soft-spoken, funny and humble. He doesn't have to brag because others do it for him.

Take Alan Moore, for example. Moore is widely considered one of the best comics writers in the English language. He created the indelible character of the Watchman and brought Swamp Thing to life after it had been created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson. (All these comics characters are trademarked, by the way, and owned by the corporations that employ the writers, the draftsmen, the inkers, the letterers and the editors.)

After doing 40 issues of Swamp Thing, Moore turned the series over to Veitch.

“Rick Veitch has provided a clear and consistent light,” Moore wrote in his introduction to Veitch's book “The One.” “That is not to say his work has not been without its moments of dazzling brilliance; merely to remark that such flashes have perhaps seemed less startling, as a result of being set against a continuous brightness. Unswayed by the fashions and transient hysterias of his medium... they burn for weeks or months in the mind and more often than not they are extraordinarily beautiful.”

Charles Brownstein is the past director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and a long-time comics journalist. He called Veitch a “maverick and an innovator.”

“Rick's committed to an uncompromising personal vision,” Brownstein said. “His body of work centers on self-actualization to the extent that even his business choices illustrate a drive towards liberation and independence. It's an American story reflecting the earthy values many in his creative generation cast aside, and a model for future creators looking to diligently create a body of work on their own terms. He's a quiet, steady worker with an unshakable vision and unwavering moral compass.”

Bissette said he was inspired to draw comics when he found out about Veitch and his older brother, the late Tom Veitch, who wrote Star Wars comics for decades.

“I was one of those weird kids like Rick who in childhood decided this is what I want to do,” Bissette said. “And it made no sense to my parents. I grew up in Duxbury, in the Waterbury area of Vermont. I might as well have said I wanted to live on the planet Jupiter. I went to Johnson State College back when it was still Johnson State College, and there were no programs for comic books. But Rick did a comic with his older brother, Tom, called 'Two-fisted Zombies.' And I bought that comic before I ever met Rick. And it was that comic book that convinced me, while I was at Johnson State College, that I should go to the Kubert School.”

It wasn't just loving the comic.

“It was that somewhere I read that Rick and Tom Veitch were from Bellows Falls, Vermont,” Bissette said. “And I knew that Bellows Falls was pretty rough-scrabble town. And I thought, 'If these guys can do it, then I can do it.' I don't know if I would have pursued it, to be honest with you, if it hadn't been for that. I owe it to Rick and Tom for giving me the courage to even attempt it.”

Photo: Cartoonist Rick Veitch. Photo: Randy T. Holhut.

Veitch was a hippie with hair down past his shoulders when he first met Bissette at the Kubert School.

“Now he looks like Dwight Eisenhower,” Bissette joked. “But I make that point not to be a wiseacre, or to make fun of Rick, but to note that this is a time where I'm seeing more and more of my age group — and I just turned 68 — became cynical and crusty and conservative. And Rick has not gone down that road. Rick is just as young now in spirit, in outlook, in his philosophy, as he was when I first met him when we were both in our 20s. All the crazy stuff he's gone through has not crushed his spirit. He's remained true to himself through thick and thin.”

Veitch has ridden every cartoon wave that came along; he is now in “a sweet spot,” Bissette said.

“Through the educational graphic novels he does with his partner, Steve Conley, he earns enough that he only has to work about half of every year on one of those projects,” Bissette said. “The rest of the year he can work on his own projects. And that's a pretty sweet spot to be in. I mean, he's living the dream. The young Rick Veitch I met in late August 1976? His dream was to make a living doing exactly what Rick Veitch in his 70s is doing right now. And I can't think of a better way to put it.”

Comics master Denis Kitchen, who is sometimes called the “Stan Lee of underground comics,” emphasized how respected Veitch is in his field.

“I would say Rick is widely admired by his peers,” Kitchen said. “He has been somebody who's been a bit of a gadfly. He does things his way. He self-publishes books that vary in theme, but one of the things he's best known for these days is books about dreams. And that's not a topic that you typically see. Also, he's just a swell guy. He's always popular at conventions. I would say Rick is respected both for what he creates with his hand and his mind, but also respected and loved for being a really good and generous person.”

Early Life

Veitch was born in Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Bellows Falls, and his family lived just across the river for a few years. But as the family grew — he is the fourth of six children — they needed a larger house and they moved permanently to Bellows Falls.

“My mother was from this area, Veitch said. “And my father was originally from Scotland. He emigrated to New York when he was 12, with his family. And he worked his way through Colombia University. He studied commercial art, but was convinced that you couldn't make a living as an artist. Somehow, he ended up here in 1937, and got a job at a local wax paper mill as an artist of some kind.”

Veitch's father ended up as the vice president of the Robertson Paper Mill in Bellows Falls.

“But by, say, the fourth or fifth grade, he was starting to go downhill,” Veitch said. “I mean drinking and tranquilizers. He died in my senior year of high school. He had been a big smoker, and so he just got riddled with cancer. But he was he was kind of checking out by the time I became aware. He had kind of given up.”

Veitch saw comics regularly in the newspapers. Cartoonist Kitchen described the transition.

“When Rick and I were growing up, comics were a bigger part of people's lives,” Kitchen said. “And I think, a lot of kids avidly bought comic books when they were cheaper. The newspapers back then flourished. And the papers would have a full page or two of comic strips. It was easy to get hooked on that genre, and to fantasize that you could do that yourself. And depending on your inherent talent and stubbornness, you could teach yourself to draw to various degrees of proficiency. And those who really stuck with it and had the passion became cartoonists.”

Veitch started drawing almost as soon as he could walk. While still in high school, he and his brother, Tom Veitch, created a comic strip Crazymouse, which ran regularly in The Vermont Cynic.

Veitch remembers himself as a stubborn and rebellious kid.

“Even though I was making art every day of my life, there was a constant, 'You can't do I. You can't do it. You can't do it,'” Veitch said. “So on a really deep level I was fighting my parents and basically all the adults around me. The teachers would say the same thing. 'Oh, you're an artist. Yeah, you can't make a living at it.' And, of course, there was no family money to send me to school. No generational wealth. So out of high school I couldn't go to art school, even though I knew it was what I wanted. There just wasn't money.”

Veitch described himself as a delinquent during that time.

“My dad didn't really pay a lot of attention, but his advice to me was to join the Navy,” Veitch said. “This was at the height of the Vietnam War. So being drafted was a big thing. And so I kind of acted out. You know, I was kind of like a juvenile delinquent for a couple of years.”

Drugs played a part in it. And bad jobs. But luckily, not jail.

“My friends and I were the throwaway kids,” he said. “It's Bellows Falls, remember? These were the kids that didn't go to college. The parents couldn't afford it. At the time, all the industry in the Connecticut River Valley and Springfield was quickly heading to Asia, so there was no work. It was very difficult just to pay rent and stuff. There was an infusion of hippies coming in from out of state. They could afford to pay the rising rents, where people like myself, we worked all day at Whitney-Blake and I could just barely afford to get a room in a local ghetto with my friends. So we're behind the eight ball financially right out the gate.”

Leaving Bellows Falls

As soon as he could, Veitch headed out to San Francisco.

“There was the underground comics movement,” Veitch said. “R. Crumb, Zap Comics and stuff like that. I actually caught the end of it. And I published a comic for Last Gasp, one of the big underground comic publishers.”

That was Two-Fisted Zombies, which he illustrated and his brother Tom wrote, and which was published with Last Gasp in 1973.

And then the underground comics industry collapsed.

In the mid-1970s, sale of drug paraphernalia was outlawed in many places. Head shops, where underground comics and newspapers were sold, had to close. And without the head shops, the distribution network for these comics dried up.

“All those kind of counter-culture newspapers that have the ads in the back, the sex ads and stuff?” Veitch said. “All of a sudden, they didn't know if they put them out on the street if they were gonna get arrested. Because the local authorities could decide what was pornographic and what was not. So I got caught in that.”

Veitch returned to Bellows Falls and worked in a wood stove factory and for Grafton Cheese. He was making comics, but he knew he needed an art education.

“I had no one to look at what I was doing and say, 'Rick, you should look at this painter,'” Veitch said. “Or 'You should pick up oils.' There was none of that. Quite the opposite. It was like, 'Don't do it!' The only art that I could get on my own were comic books. Some of the stuff was highly imaginative, beautifully designed work. As we now know that stuff is considered classic. The whole superhero genre has become a cultural touchstone of America in 2023. Those were the seeds of it back then. So I would teach myself to draw by copying panels from those published comics. I was like Hunter Thompson teaching himself to write by retyping 'The Great Gatsby.'”

His life changed forever when he qualified for a Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) grant from the government in the mid 1970s.

“By CETA sending me to school, I got out of school with no debt,” he said. “I got the training I needed. I built the network I needed, I was able to work. I was able to get to New York City where the business was. It was all due to the government giving me that grant. Without it I would have just been a working guy from BF like the other guys from BF. There's a lot of zombies walking around. A lot of them were highly creative, talented, intelligent people that didn't get a break. I was the lucky guy. I got the lottery ticket out.”

In 1976 Veitch enrolled in the first class of the famous Joe Kubert School in New Jersey. That is where he met Bissette.

“The minute we met, I said, 'Would you be the guy who did 'Two-fisted Zombies?” Bissette said. “And Rick kind of sheepishly said 'Yeah.' And we hit it off.”

While still in school, Veitch began his professional career in mainstream comics, contributing over a dozen short stories to DC's combat comic, 'Our Army At War.'

A Fine Line

Comics may be an art, but they are a commercial art, Veitch points out.

“You have to work for companies that have distribution and printing presses and everything set up,” Veitch said. “So on one hand, it's wildly creative. You're mining your fantasies to have Superman and Swamp Thing and these other characters running around and doing stuff. But on the other hand, what you're doing is restricted to the needs of the corporation. But I was able to earn a living and have fun doing what I was born to do. Cindy and I were able to buy a home and send two kids to college. And in the process, you know, I made money for other people as well. The grant that pulled me out of being poor helped me create intellectual properties that made money for publishers, theater owners, film producers, toymakers, and a whole bunch of different things up and down the line. So in capitalist terms, the CETA grant really worked.”

Comics are hardly ever the work of just one man.

“It breaks down to four or five moving parts,” cartoonist Kitchen said. “One is telling a story. So one is writing. One is drawing. Then you get coloring, then you get lettering. If you work for a big company like Marvel Comics, each of those components would be done by a different individual. But some individuals can do all of it. And that's what I call a full-fledged cartoonist. Rick would be one of those.”

After school, Veitch put together a portfolio, went to Manhattan, called on the art directors, and looked for work.

“Sometimes you assisted other artists who had a gig and needed help,” Veitch said. “So I lettered for this one guy, you know, or I ghost penciled for this other guy, anything to pay the rent and keep moving forward until you get a regular gig. Cindy and I had met at that point, and we decided to move back to Vermont because I had regular work that I could count on.”

Veitch calls it “climbing into the middle class.”

“I was able to climb up the economic ladder, but I never had the huge payoff like, say, the guys who created the Ninja Turtles,” Veitch said. “They had the huge payoff where they made hundreds of millions of dollars. I never had one of those. I didn't own something. I was a hired hand.”

Veitch quickly found work at DC Comics.

“I was a penciller for Superman,” he said. “A guy writes the script. Then I take the script and pencil it in. Then a letterer letters it in India ink. And then an inker comes in, and based on the pencils, inks those lines to give them that hard black. The color comes later. It's complicated, but there's a machinery that gets it gone. It kind of rolls forward. And you're part of that. It's just like newspapers. Deadlines. Lots of deadlines.”

Veitch was in the right place when comics exploded in the 1980s.

“The 1980s for comics are kind of like the 1960s for music,” Veitch said. “It was this decade where people like me got into the corporate environment. There were so many of us, and the distribution model was changing, so we were able to kind of blow it up.”

What does that mean?

“Comics were still being censored at the time,” Veitch said. “So my generation of baby boomers got in there in the '80s and we just kept pushing, pushing, pushing. It kind of broke that open. And comics as an art form really kind of flowered.”


Superheroes were already big by the 1980s.

Superman, in fact, was created by two Jewish men, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, and was first published in 1938 by DC Comics.

“They wanted to defeat Hitler,” Veitch said. “Superman was their answer to Adolf Hitler, and the Blitzkrieg and all of that.”

From the beginning, Superman was a big success.

“He was a very progressive character,” Veitch said. “His politics were progressive. He didn't beat up bad guys so much as he went after corrupt senators, people who built weapons, and wife beaters. That was what Superman was in the beginning. But when World War Two hit, he got turned into a real propaganda character that was used very effectively to make people believe that they could fight and be invulnerable.”

The American soldiers were fighting, as the catch phrase goes, for truth, justice, and the American way. And as hard as it is to understand today, people really believed that if Superman could survive a hail of bullets, they could, too.

“There's a YouTube interview with Jack Kirby, who was one of the greatest cartoonists,” Veitch said. “He pretty much invented the Marvel Universe. And he talks about being a soldier. He landed at Omaha Beach and fought his way all across Europe. And he said, 'I read Superman and I thought I was bulletproof.' So it's kind of interesting that the country that created the Ubermensch and used it to kind of enslave people's minds, lost the war to the country that created the Ubermensch that was this crazy, bright colored character who ran around and jumped and flew. It's weird that's what happened.”

Things have changed in the superhero world, Veitch said. Superheroes have become fascistic. Even Superman has gotten much darker.

“Superheroes can be transcendent,” Veitch said. “They can be about the most divine part of ourselves. And in fact, I think they should be. But because of corporate control of them, they're used in a specific manner which is very dark and violent. They fight abstract evils. They don't stand up for the little guy. They don't fix the ecological problems. They don't point in a direction of being a better person. You look at photos of him in the latest movie, and he's dark. He isn't bright blue anymore. It's like this dark grey thing. And he's grizzled and he kills people. Batman was supposed to be dark at the beginning. But Superman was supposed to be just the opposite. He's the light. He gets his power from the sun.”

Photo: Boy Maximortal comic book cover. Courtesy photo.

The One

Originally published as a six-issue comic book series between 1985 and 1986, Veitch's “The One” is a different take on superheroes.

“I was complaining that superheroes were only about this sort of fascist ideal,” Veitch said. “'The One' is a good example of me attempting to bring a higher concept to what a superhero can be. When you read the book, you see there are big musclebound superheroes beating on each other. But there's also this other superhero character called The One who is a collective being that all people on Earth end up bringing their consciousness into at the end of the world. It's a transcendent kind of thing.”

The character of The One is the embodiment of the world's collective unconscious, Veitch said.

“As the world goes into nuclear Armageddon, people spontaneously start joining it,” Veitch said. “So part of the story is the American and the Russian superhero finishing off the destruction of the world. And part of it is what happens to those people that join this collective being that ends up taking all the souls of Earth off into space, that sort of higher realm.

“Is that heaven? I don't think I ever defined it, but it's really the idea that superheroes can be more than these big musclebound guys killing each other.”

Swamp Thing

Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson created the swamp monster superhero Swamp Thing for DC Comics in 1971. It has since been turned into several films, television shows and video games.

Alan Moore turned Swamp Thing into a monster and successfully did the cartoon for years before turning it over to first Bissette and then to Veitch for 24 issues. It became Veitch's best-known comic and his biggest success.

Swamp Thing is a benevolent young scientist named Alec Holland who is trying to create a formula that will speed up the growth of plant life.

Photo: Example of Veitch's work. A commissioned piece featuring DC Comics John Constantine and Swamp Thing. Courtesy photo.

“His belief is that if he can come up with a formula to grow bigger crops, it will benefit mankind and maybe solve world hunger,” Bissette said. “A competing corporation, however, wants to steal the formula. And when they attack Alec in his lab, there's an explosion. He runs out of the burning lab on fire, and leaps into the swamp. And what emerges from the swamp, because his body was saturated with his secret formula, is this plant man, Swamp Thing.”

In the beginning, the plot centered on Swamp Thing wanting to become a man again. He even has a love interest.

“When I started working on Swamp Thing, and Rick helped me with that first issue, we changed the character,” Bissette said. “We changed it that he was never a man; that when Alec Holland jumped into that swamp, he was dead. And all the plant life that was in the swamp tried to replicate him. Our version of Swamp Thing was more like the Celtic Green Man, the sort of floral plant man that you'll see in fences and on stone buildings and carved in different parts of the United Kingdom. So we kind of took the character — no pun intended — back to his roots. “We made him into the embodiment of the entire plant kingdom. He is sort of the friend of Mother Earth, if you will. He looks creepy but he's a good guy. Trust me.”

Veitch carried on in this vein for quite a while.

“Swamp Thing is a swamp monster who thought that he was a man turned into a swamp monster,” Veitch said. “But it turned out that he was actually a plant that took information from the dead guy and created this humanoid form. It's kind of made up of roots and dirt and moss and stuff. And if his body is destroyed, he can grow a new one. And he goes around fighting bad monsters.”

It seems that there are dozens of bad monsters.

“There's a universe,” Veitch said. “There are other swamp monsters and elementals and stuff. He tends to battle evil magicians and techno sorcerers. He can dematerialize and pop up somewhere else. He can also pick what kind of plant he is going to be. So if he's in a desert, he could be Cactus Man. You get to play with that. That's kind of fun. Or sometimes we've had him on another planet and he's been alien vegetation.”

Veitch was on his way to being one of the golden boys of DC comics when he got into trouble with issue #88. He had begun a series of stories allowing Swamp Thing to time travel.

“It was over a number of issues, and Swamp Thing was falling backwards in time,” Veitch said. “He was meeting various DC characters from the old days, like Tomahawk, and the Golden Gladiator and stuff like that. And I had this idea of having him meet Jesus.”

He submitted a script with the title “Morning of the Magician.”

The plot was initially approved, but then DC President Jenette Kahn called it “inflammatory.” She scrapped the comic.

“The subject was handled with integrity and respect but we believe that the story concept itself would be offensive to many of our readers,” Kahn wrote at the time.

Furious, Veitch quit and vowed never to work for DC again until the story saw print.

The vow did not last long. Although he did not return to Swamp Thing, he did return to DC.

“This was before Obamacare,” Veitch said. “You could not get health insurance if you had a previous condition. I was 50 years old and I had a family. The only way I could get health insurance was to work for one of these corporations. So we ended up back at DC Comics for benefits and a paycheck.”

Luckily, he did not have to work for the same people that had censored him.

“They realized that they had made a mistake, but because of their corporation, they couldn't admit it,” Veitch said. “But the people within the corporation understood.”

And again in the more-things-change-the-more they-remain-the-same department, Veitch might get to introduce Swamp Thing to Jesus after all.

“Over the years I’ve had a number of discussions with DC Comics about printing Swamp Thing 88 and finishing my story arc,” Veitch said. “In fact discussions are going on right now, but I don’t have anything concrete I can report.”


Veitch, a student of Jung, has been recording his dreams for many, many years.

“When I was about 20, I was sort of a juvenile delinquent,” Veitch said. “I just sort of ran my life into the ground. I didn't go to jail, but I could hardly get out of bed, I was so depressed. And I had a series of really powerful dreams. They were so powerful that I had to write them down and to draw pictures of them. Something about that felt right. And so I started paying attention to my dreams and drawing pictures of them.”

And so began a lifelong discipline of monitoring his dreams and using them as a self-help method for self-improvement.

“I think that's the function of dreaming,” Veitch said. “It's like the keel of a boat. It keeps us from tipping over into the seas of our mind.”

Rather than having a therapist, Veitch listened to his dreams and paid attention to the symbolism of them and what they seemed to be saying.

“At the beginning of this, I was a liar,” Veitch said. “I lied to everybody, and to myself about everything. There was a series of dreams that left me with an impression that telling the truth is important. And as soon as I started disciplining myself to not lie, and to tell the truth, not only to other people but to myself, my life came right back into focus. So that's the simplest example.”

The current thinking about dreams is that they are a way of processing your day, but Veitch disagrees.

“That's the way science tries to define dreaming, and science is based on rationalism,” Veitch said. “Scientific rationalism is really only about 300 years old. Before that, dreaming was seen as a way of connecting to the divine, and to the gods, and, in a way, to the earth spirits. So if you pay attention to your dreams, that level of it comes back — the connection to nature. It's called dream working, and there's a whole New Age discipline of it.”

In the 1990s, Veitch decided to make comics out of his dream diaries and self-publish them. He estimates that he now has a dedicated readership of about 800 people who have been following him since he started.

“I'm up to the 25th issue with four collected volumes,” Veitch said. “And once I started publishing it, other people came out of the woodwork and started sending me their dream art as well. So I started publishing other people's dreams and the comic became almost like a journal of dreamers from all around the world. I've never made any money. It's obviously esoteric. But art-wise, creative-wise, I think it was really cool thing.”

The dream comics series are titled Roarin’ Rick’s Rarebit Fiends. They are collected in trade paperback and hardcover form.

Educational Comics

Veitch was first introduced to educational comics at the Kubert School.

“My own first educational project was in 2012, for the University of Quebec at Montreal,” Veitch said. “A friend passed on the tip that they were looking for a writer/artist. Inspired by that, I launched Eureka Comics with my partner, Steve Conley, in 2015, with the idea of focusing on that segment.”

Gone are the monsters dripping in a swamp. Instead, you'll find clearly drawn — but still beautiful — farmers and cows and forests and bees.

“Working with educators, there's a big problem with what phones and computers have done to reading skills,” Veitch said. “So they're looking for new ways to interact with and teach kids. And so I started a company called Eureka Comics that works with publishers. McGraw Hill is our biggest account. And we do textbooks that are essentially graphic novels.”

Photo: Example of Veitch's work. An educational comic, 'Messengers of the Inca Empire.' Courtesy photo.

“Who Farms,” for example, is a product of the University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture, in partnership with the UVM Humanities Center, the Vermont Folklife Center, Vermont's Farm to School Network and the Vermont Historical Society. The book itself if an illustrated oral history “from Vermont's diverse community of farmers.”

It begins with a prayer from Chief Don Stevens of the Abenaki People, asking for respect and protection of their homeland. It goes on to illustrate — in their own words — the farming life of various Vermont farmers. There are African American farmers, Latino farmers, older farmers, young couples who are farming — it's the whole world of Vermont farming.

Right now Eureka is working on a project to capture the children who lost three years of reading skills during the pandemic.

“We're working with McGraw Hill,” Veitch said. “You get kids going into third grade who don't have any reading skills. We're putting together a pilot program right now that uses comics to involve them to learn basic things, really simple reading skills, or even to just enjoy reading. What they're finding is that now that the kids didn't learn it, they're in third grade, they don't have the skill, so they hate it. How do we get over that?”

Veitch is starting out with a list of simple words and creating something that is fun to look at in a digital environment.

“Like a dog with a big slurping tongue,” Veitch said. “And he's slurping up a kid and getting him off the bed. And there's a word balloon and the kid clicks on it. The words start appearing, very simple words like 'Get off the bed.' We're doing textbooks that are essentially graphic novels.”

He added, “The educational stuff, you know, pays well. So I'm able to do more creative artistic stuff on my own.”

The Laureate

The honor of being Vermont's fourth Cartoonist Laureate meant a great deal to Veitch.

“It's a really neat thing that the state of Vermont honors cartoonists with this laureate program,” he said. “It'd be really neat if they also honored singer-songwriters and other kinds of other artists.”

Veitch's term overlapped with COVID-19, so he didn't get to visit schools and give talks.

“But I'm really honored and really proud of my state that they would do such a thing,” he said. “It elevated my status in people's minds, from being the scruffy underground cartoonist to being the laureate. And to be spoken of in the same sentence as Ed Koren is pretty amazing.”

In his speech before the Legislature last month, when he stepped down as Cartoonist Laureate, he said, “I grew up in Bellows Falls with a dream of drawing comic books. And I’m delighted to have this opportunity, 45 years after I received that CETA grant, to stand before you as the outgoing Vermont Cartoonist Laureate and express heartfelt gratitude to my government, both on the federal and state level, for investing in me and believing in the viability of the arts.”

The Future

The future just seems to be getting brighter for Veitch.

“When I was working as a cartoonist, I would go to conventions,” he said. “We would have a big stack of art, you know, and we would sell it for 50 bucks a page. But now it's going for $5,000 a page. I sell art online, through my website. And people know how to get hold of me if they want to buy a piece of original art. And I've saved a lot of stuff over the years.”

There is the real possibility that his archive will go to a university library. The educational comics are going well. Ideas of his that were once farfetched are now in the mainstream. Bissette even credits his and Veitch's Swamp Thing with being the inspiration for the film “The Shape of Water,” which won an Academy Award for director Guillermo del Toro.

“The relationship between the girl and the monster is what we did in Swamp Thing,” Bissette said.

Still, Veitch and Bissette did not receive any credit for it, or any Hollywood checks.

“But I do get royalties on books,” Veitch said. “On Swamp Thing books, they do give me a small royalty.”

John Constantine was a character in Swamp Thing who was created by Moore.

“I was the midwife,” Veitch said. “Constantine was originally conceived by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben but I was the first guy to draw him in an actual comic book, Swamp Thing #37. And I do own a tiny, tiny, tiny little piece of John Constantine, who they made into a movie. They're talking about making another movie. So when they made the movie, we got a nice check. But it's not like I have any control over the character.”

Several of Veitch's characters have been optioned for films, but none of the films so far have been made.

And he's in negotiation with DC to finish Swamp Thing with issue #88.

“Back then I was climbing the corporate ladder,” Veitch said. “I was going to be their golden boy. And the whole thing exploded. But part of it was that my vision of superheroes didn't fit with theirs. If I'd stayed there, I would have been a journeyman the rest of my life. I never would have done dream work. I never would have had my own publishing company. I never would have had an educational company. It made me go out there and reinvent myself. And I think I'm a better person for it. There were some stressful moments just keeping the mortgage paid. And the whole health insurance thing was a nightmare in those days. But as long as my eyes continue to operate and my wrists work, I'm gonna keep doing this until I croak.”

Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017, she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publishers. She is married to Randy Holhut, the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.