It was announced a few weeks ago that Vertigo’s award-winning series “Unknown Soldier” would be ending in October with issue #25, though series writer Joshua Dysart has said he was given sufficient advance warning and has been able to write what he feels is an appropriate conclusion to the book. Before that happens, however, this month’s issue takes a unique look at the history of the region in a standalone tale from the perspective of a Kalashnikov machine gun.
Drawing this special standalone tale is industry veteran Rick Veitch, who is probably best known as the writer and artist of books like “The One,” “Brat Pack,” “Maximortal” and the dream comics “Rare Bit Fiends.” Veitch has worked for Vertigo at several points in his career, writing and illustrating a long and controversial run on “Swamp Thing” and more recently the graphic novel “Can’t Get No” and the series “Army@Love.” Veitch rarely illustrates projects he’s not also writing, and when he does, it’s traditionally been collaborations with Alan Moore (“Miracleman,” “1963,” “Supreme,” “Tomorrow Stories”).
Veitch spoke with CBR about what drew him to this particular project and gave us a look at his process in crafting this special issue.
CBR News: You have a long relationship with Vertigo, but generally, it’s been with you both writing and illustrating your comics. How did this particular project come about?
Rick Veitch: I think it started with a call from Pornsak Pichetshote, who I’d worked with extensively on “Army@Love.” This particular issue presented some storytelling challenges, since basically it’s told by a machine gun, and he thought I would be a good choice to make that work.
You’re not someone who draws fill-in issues for books, you’re generally creating your own projects. Were you a fan of series before this? Was it the concept of the issue that attracted you?
Doing my own stuff is great, but I like to work with other people, too. Sometimes a fill-in can stretch you out of your comfort zone, you know? I had been following the series and I did like it a lot. I tend to really enjoy comics that explore political reality issues, so I was attracted on that basic level. Also I was interested in pencilling and inking my own stuff, because usually I just pencil. That was part of the the opportunity that Pornsak offered me, so I jumped at it.
I want to return to the subject of inking later, but I’m curious – how detailed was the script that Josh Dysart sent you and how much research was involved in this project?
There was a ton of research. [Laughs] The story follows the historical arc of armed conflicts in Africa over the last forty years. That involves a lot of different armies and a lot of different tribal peoples. As the artist, you want to get that right. War comics in general tend to require research. Josh, of course, is a fanatic about reference, and he sent me a Word document just chock-a-block full of the stuff I needed. And these days, research isn’t as difficult as it used to be because you can just get on Google and find reference for pretty much everything you need.
So Dysart sent you a script and lots of documentation. From there, what’s your process and, besides inking yourself, how did it differ from past collaborations, or did it differ at all?
You mean when I’m working on someone else’s script? Mostly when I’ve worked with other people it’s been Alan Moore, whose scripts tend to be extremely detailed. Alan doesn’t just give the artist a story, he describes a complete in-depth vision of every panel. And if he somehow leaves something out, we’ve been at it so long I can sort of intuit what he wants. Josh’s scripting style is stripped down to very basic instructions. He gives you the building blocks you need to create your own vision. On first reading of Josh’s script, I had a lot of questions. What I found was that, as I started to work on it, it gave me exactly what I needed and allowed me the freedom to expand a bit, which I think was a really cool way to work.
How does that differ from when you work from your own scripts?
It’s much more organic when I write from my own scripts. I go through a long process of working in my sketchbook, but it isn’t until I finally pencil the page that I find the final groove. When you’re pencilling for someone else’s vision, you’re trying to find their groove, so it’s quite a bit different.
Are you a thumbnailer? Do you start out by doing a lot of sketches and designs?
Sure. I go through the process that I learned at the Kubert school. You start with your thumbnails. Then you get your tracing paper out. I will probably do four or five complete tracing versions of a pencilled page. Getting figures right. Getting sizes and shapes and negative space right. Planning the lettering. It’s all done pretty quickly, with as much energy as I can bring to it. When I’m happy, I trace it down on the regular board and do the finished pencils. I made a little animation of the process of a commission I did last year. It can be viewed at rickveitch.com/commissions.
It’s been a while since you inked yourself, as you said. I tried to find last time you did so, and I think it was in “Tomorrow Stories…”
Yeah, and on “Greyshirt: Indigo Sunset.” I also inked myself on “Can’t Get No,” although I was going for a simpler look on that one. War comics require a certain level of reality. You try to make people look like real people and the folds in their uniforms look like real folds. Of course, the guns and gear have to come across as real things. It’s quite a difficult genre to work in. As I mentioned on the thing I wrote for the DC website, it’s in my DNA, having gone to the Kubert school and grown up on all those great war artists like Joe Kubert’ and Russ Heath.
You worked on “Sgt. Rock” back in the ’70s, right?
Yeah. Joe was editing the book and he lined up backup stories for some of the students at his school. I did a whole bunch of those from Kanigher scripts. Wrote a few myself, too. That was my first work in the New York market.
Joe Kubert – in his role as your teacher or your editor, did he have any specific advice for addressing war comics and the issues that arise with them that have stayed with you.
You betcha! While Joe was teacher by day at Kubert School, he was editor by night when we worked on those “Sgt. Rock” back-up stories. Like any DC editor, he expected a lot more out of us doing work for his books than he did on our school assignments. He’d been one of the pillars on which the war comics genre was built and knew better than anyone of the special challenges. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to learn that stuff from.
Did inking yourself change how you pencilled or was it just an additional step?
I penciled these [pages] pretty tight simply because I was used to doing tight pencils for Gary Erksine’s inks for “Army@Love.” I’ll never be a Gary Erskine with a brush, but I was quite happy with how these pages came out. They’ve got a hi-res level of detail for me. After finishing, I got thinking how I really want to ink myself for a while. I can see a lot of stuff I want to explore.
It’s interesting that you say you pencilled tighter because you were inking yourself instead of looser, which is how most penciler-inkers I’ve talked with tend to work.
Normally, that’s how I would do it. In this case, it was because I’d just come off three years of “Army@Love” and was very tightly pencilling all those pages. I just naturally took that approach for “Unknown Soldier.” I would imagine if I started penciling and inking a regular series, I would loosen up as each issue went by. It’s sort of like playing music, if that makes sense, where the more you play, the more in tune you get with what you’re looking for.
But you go through that many steps of breaking it down and working it out like in drafts…
Yeah. On the tracing level you’re working incredibly loose. Your arm is moving in big wide circles and you’re trying to get that energy going in the drawings. And the,n as you make it through the successive layers of tracing, you can hone it and maybe find some of those really subtle things that make comics interesting.
It’s like doing multiple drafts.
Yeah. It doesn’t come in a single flash. It slowly comes into focus. It’s like sculpting.
A question of whittling it down until you have a better sense of the shape of it.
And then, at the end of the day, you have the finished page of pencils and you’re like, “Wow, where did that come from?” [Laughs]
You did this project in order to have the opportunity ink yourself. Is it clear, now, that this is what how you want to work for the foreseeable future?
Yeah. The last ten years I’ve been writing and penciling, which was really great, but right now I feel like I can almost attain the inking style I’ve always imagined. Fifty-nine years old and I think I’m finally getting it. [Laughs]