Die With Your Mask On: The Grim Superheroics of Rick Veitch

With the recent Hollywood productions of Watchmen and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, current mainstream audiences are being exposed to the idea that superheroes need not be two-dimensional or cornball. This new generation of silver-screen heroes can stand on their own as strong characters with deeper motivations than the passé ‘truth, justice, and the American way’. But audiences that fill movie theaters for the summer blockbusters are a little behind the curve. Comicbook readers have been aware of such superhero stories for at least the past few decades.

It is hoped (especially after DC’s “After Watchmen, What’s Next?” marketing campaign) that after seeing these movies, more non-comics readers sought out superhero comics. Particularly the superheroes that diverged from what the average non-comics reader may expect from the genre. One such DC book to really receive the full treatment was Alan Moore’s early work on Swamp Thing. This was certainly a smart move since it was here American readers were really exposed to Moore’s talent and the new ideas he was bringing to a then-flagging medium.

Perhaps ironically, it was one of the regular pencillers who eventually took over scripting duties for this book with Moore’s departure from the title. This penciller would continue to take the character as well as the genre itself into new territories. Rick Veitch, a Joe Kubert School alumnus, would land Swamp Thing as his first high-profile gig in professional comics. He rotated art duties with fellow classmates John Totleben and Steve Bissette. Veitch’s art went over well with audiences, but taking over for Moore’s scripting duties left him some pretty big shoes to fill.

Veitch, as it happened, did not deviate at all from the darker tone that Moore had established. Yet, there is no reason to think that this was merely to offset fan criticism. If one reads Veitch’s work on Swamp Thing closely, one can see that Veitch was simply using the groundwork Moore had set–itself being far from the beaten path–in order to explore different ideas within the genre.

In Swamp Thing #66, Veitch introduces the character of Dr. Robert “Piggy” Huntoon, chief psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum. Huntoon’s role within the storyline from this point forward is mostly to serve as torture victim for John Constantine. But it is through this character that Veitch begins to pose some of his own theories as to the appeal of superheroes, theories that he will explore in greater depth in other works.

In an extended passage from Huntoon’s book on the psychology of the superhero phenomenon, the opening of issue #66 basically asks why we as a society so dearly cling to those gaily-colored “Übermenschen”, and answers that it is indicative of humankind’s displeasure with the achingly slow progress of evolution, a displeasure stoked by being consistently ‘confronted with an endless stream of examples of our own worthlessness’. Huntoon claims that it should come as no surprise that people so desperately hew to the stark right-or-wrong, love-it-or-leave-it brand of justice meted out by superheroes, for ‘is it any wonder that modern man has grown lazy and despondent?’

Huntoon remains a minor character throughout Veitch’s run. But when he does periodically crop up, it is often to the tune of these sorts of excerpts. Veitch makes this little of the character go a long way by characterizing him as largely impotent. A grubby little man in a grubby little world, and ever at the mercy of the sadistic whims of Constantine. It would seem, then, that though Veitch puts some rather brilliant words into the mouth of this character, Huntoon himself would be at very great pains to move on his ideas, to act on them. So then, is Veitch saying that those who question the motives of superheroes within the field are impotent, incompetent, unable to act and must therefore merely criticize? Or is this same type of person simply unfortunate in his role, his words taking center stage more than the man himself?

In Veitch’s 1985 mini-series for Epic, The One, these ideas very much take center-stage. In this series, World War III has begun and the U.S.A. and the Soviets unleash their nukes. But a mysterious figure appears and renders all these weapons useless. So, the governmental superpowers take the next step toward mutually assured destruction: superheroes. The healthy, white and clean-cut American superheroes, Charlie and Amelia, are put into action against the Russians’ big, blonde hope for workers the world over, Comrade Bog. But these superheroes are far from the typical, as they are nearly paralyzed by contrasting feelings of doubt, nationalism, charity, and lust—all too human emotions not at all superseded by these vast powers.

By the story’s end, it is revealed that the dark and mysterious figure is the end result of all humankind’s next step in evolution. The spindly, Wally Cox-looking character called ‘the One’ explains that by rushing headlong into the nuclear apocalypse, mankind forced its own evolution. This is an evolution that includes all, and is not simply projected onto a single man or woman, no matter how heroic he or she may be. What Veitch seems to be getting at here is that superheroes as a cultural phenomenon are giving vent to a collective unconscious wish to grow beyond these weighty mortal bonds. But this desire is still far too short-sighted, focusing on individuals as individuals instead of parts of a collective whole. We as a people should not look to one man, or even one small group of men and women, to help us overcome the next step into civilization. We need only to look to ourselves.

While the depth of such stories is clear, Veitch never loses his sense of humor. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his self-published Bratpack, a fairly vicious send-up of the idea of kid sidekicks. From Dr. Fredric Wertham to Michael Chabon, writers of all stripes have delved into this phenomenon, which seems particular to the genre, and they have all come to varying conclusions. But most seem to find the idea of the crime-fighting coalition of a grown man and a young boy both dressed in garish costumes just beyond acceptable.

Bratpack hyper-exaggerates this discomfort. The sidekicks of Midnight Mink, King Rad, Moon Mistress, and Judge Jury have all been gruesomely murdered. A new group of eager youngsters have been recruited to replace these sidekicks, including the chaste Cody (who serves as the reader’s guide throughout the depraved world these superheroes inhabit). Pure in intention, Cody becomes the Mink’s ward, soon to find out just how cynical and greed-filled this world of vigilante justice truly is.

As Cody confesses to Father Dunn by story’s end, ‘there’s a lot more to this vigilante business than good-guys chasing bad-guys’. In the course of his training, Cody has been injected with a kind of super-serum, a plot point which will come to be echoed in Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s own controversial super-satire, The Boys. Cody tells Father Dunn, ‘I don’t think I’m human anymore’. On the surface Cody’s biology has been evolved to what would be considered super-human. But Cody is not talking so much about evolution, as de-evolution. He has lost his humanity, sacrificed it at the altar of cape-adorned overlords.

The superhero genre has evolved, but often remained mired in the tired old formula of good versus evil. Superhero comics have been published regularly for nearly three-quarters of a century. Only within the last third of this time have writers and artists begun to explore some of the complexity the genre holds. As Rick Veitch has shown, the trip along these paths may lead us past some deeply unpleasant sights. But the journey’s end, that step toward enlightenment that signifies true culture, remains.