CCI, Day 2: Rick Veitch is a One-Man "Army@Love"

Sure, love and war don't quite seem like they'd always fit together, but the more you think about it, the more you realize that they may not just be so far apart. Heck, they're both the subjects of "Army@Love," a new series from Vertigo, announced at the Comic-Con International in San Diego earlier today. The series launches in 2007, but with fans already talking about the book, CBR News decided to catch up with series writer & artist Veitch to learn more about the book he describes as "'M*A*S*H' meets 'Six Feet Under' five years in the future."

"In 2010, a National Guard unit from Edgefield Township, New Jersey, is deployed indefinitely to a never-ending series of wars in the Middle East," explained Veitch. "These are citizen soldiers; men and women, fathers and mothers, bankers and teachers, kids fresh out of high school and 50-year-old farts. Adapting to the pressure cooker of extended conflict, the military of 2010 has developed a code of conduct that encourages wild, hedonistic lifestyles for its front-line troops as a way to maximize performance. These men and women fight hard and party even harder. All is done under the watchful eyes of the army's Motivation and Moral Office ('MoMo'), whose job is to monitor every soldier for psychological problems and use any means necessary to get them straightened out and fit for combat. The unit's home town, Edgefield Township, is experiencing upheaval as well. Extreme forms of behavior are the norm, with spouses engaging in affairs, kids living without guidance and once honest business people turning criminal to exploit the military situation for profit. Even more severe pathologies are mushrooming in the shadows. The soldiers take turns being furloughed home to Edgefield for a short R&R every six weeks, bouncing back and forth between combat and serious domestic problems. And Edgefield civilians can fly into the war zone bringing domestic problems to the front unexpectedly. With modern communications providing near instant access to all parts of the globe, this is a war in which families, lovers and business partners separated by vast physical distances struggle to keep up complicated relationships over cell phone and e-mail. 'Army@Love' is not a gung-ho war story with heroes and villains. It's essentially about flawed human beings trying to cope with events on a battlefield that bleeds into civilian life like no war before it. It is built around a classic (but not corny) soap opera complexity and set against a satirical big picture of what wars might become in the near future."

Those flawed human beings come in a number of varieties, and the cast of characters in "Army@Love" reflects that diversity. "We've got Healey, a mid-level officer in the Motivation and Moral Office. He's a veteran who incongruously speaks in new age psycho-babble (he worked for Polka Cola back in Edgefield). It's Healey's job to monitor the emotional health of his troops and step in if a situation calls for it. Most of the troops like him because he listens to their concerns and he knows how to push their buttons. They aren't aware that he observes them clinically from a distance, utilizing the many secret methods that the military has to keep tabs on its soldiers and deftly manipulating events to solve problem situations. He also advises his commanders upstairs on how to motivate troops using modern deep-psych marketing techniques. He has a wife, Allie, back in Edgefield but for years has engaged in a chaste relationship with Jenan, an Afbaghi widow. Healey's a cornerstone of the story; the character who must solve the central mystery while connecting us to each new set of characters and conflicts.

"Jenan is the widow whom Healey has had a long friendship with. She is an educated upper middle class Afbaghi with three children who lost her husband in the wars. Healey supports her with gifts of food and money and visits regularly for dinner and talk. She needs the relationship to survive but is confused by Healey's motives. He doesn't seem to expect sex from her in return for his help. Even though its a taboo in her culture, she wishes he would maybe sleep with her but doesn't know how to broach the subject. She is obsessed with finding out everything she can about Healey's wife, Allie, back in Edgefield. As the series develops we learn her older children are involved with the insurgency.

"Allie is the wife of Healey. With her husband in Afbaghistan six weeks out of every eight, Allie's been fishing for another real relationship, figuring if she finds the right guy she'll end her marriage. So far all she's had are one night stands with the kind of losers drawn to the action at Casino Night. The closest she's come to a regular affair is with Loman, but he's obviously got serious problems too. Then Jenan makes sure Allie discovers Healey is visiting her regularly back in Afbaghistan. Still cheating with Loman, Allie decides she's going to get her husband back. She begins to obsess about Jenan and a strange and ultimately deadly long distance competition for Healey develops.

"Switzer is the daughter of an Edgefield minister, valedictorian of her graduating class, who married her high school sweetheart, Loman. But war has changed her 'good girl' persona. Discovering that she enjoys the thrill of combat and the act of killing the enemy, Switzer transferred from Healey's MoMo office into the infantry which allows her entry into the ribald 'training seminars' of the combat troops. She's become hooked on adrenaline both in her job and her personal life. But her strong conservative upbringing leaves her conflicted. She enjoys unleashing her wild side in Afbaghistan but back home she continues to act like the 'good girl' everyone there expects her to be.

"Loman is the civilian husband of Switzer living back in Edgefield. He appears initially as a cuckold, but as the series develops we find he is up to his neck in the town's shocking financial dealings. He's a banker but his real job, done with the approval of his employers, is laundering the mountains of cash that are generated by Casino Night. The thing is, Loman freelances on the side, secretly laundering money for the car smugglers, pimps, drug dealers, etc that make up the growing subculture of dirty dealings growing like weeds in Edgefield. He's gotten hooked on drugs and become unreliable, angering some very dangerous people in the process. Switzer, with her own secrets to keep, doesn't have a clue that her husband is in so deep. He's a reckless, nervous guy, always sweating and looking over his shoulder. He has a remote starter for his car because he's worried someone will wire a bomb to it.

"Flabbergast is a professional stage magician back in Edgefield. Now a front-line grunt in Afbaghistan, Flabbergast is known for his dextrous sleight of hand and ability to slip any sort of cuffs or chains. His favorite trick is removing a woman's bra and panties without her knowing it. Like many of the other young soldiers, Flabbergast embraces his service in Afbaghistan as a sort of spring break with guns. He parties and fights with equal intensity. Flabbergast and Switzer will establish a relationship in the first issue that will grow into something much more than casual sex over time.

"Wiggins is Flabbergast's current Edgefield girlfriend. A poised and highly intelligent political history major, working on her doctorate at Farleigh Dickenson, Wiggins is destined for a job in the Pentagon. But whenever Flabbergast calls asking her to perform as his on-stage assistant, she'll drop everything; foregoing exams or job interviews for the chance to dress up in a revealing outfit and be sawed in half. Her friends and family can't figure out why someone with so much going for them can be so hung up on an untrustworthy and erratic stage magician. Flabbergast is actually using hypnotism on her; a girl-getting technique he developed while still in high school. Wiggins will struggle to figure out what she's responding to; is it true love or the power of suggestion?"

While many movies subscribe to either the "War Is Hell" or "War is Fun" doctrines, "Army@Love" aims to be something different. "I don't want to use the comic as a platform to preach about how terrible war is; we've got television images showing us that every night," said Veitch. "And the world is already chock-a-block full of propaganda. What I want to do is riff on the unexpected ways characters might adapt to the surreal merging of modern combat and modern society based on a strange but plausible evolution of military culture. The characters and situations in 'Army@Love' will reflect moral ambiguity and be as funny as I can make them. I'm not talking being goofy here, but of using irony to appeal to readers who enjoy 'Preacher,' 'Hellblazer,' 'The Authority,' 'Brat Pack' and other dark satires."

No matter how a writer may plan a story, sometimes characters can take a life of their own and veer the story down a different path. "I've got the basic structure figured out through issue 12, but the characters, bless their little hearts, are taking on lives of their own. A lot of things are surprising me as we go along," said Veitch.

With books as topically relevant as "Army@Love," the fear is that the creators might use the book as a pulpit from which to preach their own values, instead of letting the story take its own course. "I think folks are so sick of seeing the horrible imagery from the war on their TV screens they are tuning it out. That disconnection is at the heart of the series, exaggerated and stretched out in a darkly humorous way. In times of peace you see the same thing in a 'Catch 22' or 'M*A*S*H,' but it's gentler because the violence and outrage is long past.

"I'm intent on providing an edgy piece of pop cult entertainment, but of course it's all a reflection and commentary on current war practices, especially those areas, like corporate business, that we tend to ignore."

"Army@Love" is an ongoing series, while Veitch's recent "Can't Get No?" was an original graphic novel. "'Can't Get No' is a literary graphic novel; a new approach to the form that tries to challenge the reader in a way no one ever has before. It makes sense to follow CGN with something more straightforward and entertaining. Since at Vertigo 'straightforward and entertaining' means something outside the boring old mainstream box, I can be entertaining and still edgy."

Finally, Veitch isn't going to let you finish this article without making sure you know about another important person from Army@Love. "I'm a raving lunatic for Gary Erskine's inks on the first issue. Gary brings the whole thing into the kind of realistic focus that you need for a great war comic. He tightens me up and adds unbelievable levels of detail to things while still getting the human expressions I'm after. Fabulous stuff."

CBR Staff Writer Arune@Singh contributed to this story.

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