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Remembering the life and work of Vermont poet and comic book writer Tom Veitch

A man poses for a portrait with a woman.
Angelica Veitch and Rick Veitch
Tom Veitch with wife Martha Veitch

We turn now to a remembrance of the life and legacy of a Vermonter who left a lasting mark on the comics industry.

Tom Veitch was revered for his underground comics with Greg Irons and perhaps best known for his launch of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, which some say helped propel the reboot of the Star Wars legacy franchise.

Veitch was born in Walpole, New Hampshire and was a long time resident of Bellows Falls, Vermont.

He passed away last week due to complications related to COVID-19. He was 80 years old. We spoke with his longtime friend and fellow comics collaborator Steve Bissette, one of the founders of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, about Veitch’s influence on a generation of graphic novelists who grew up admiring his work.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Steve Bissette about the life and legacy of poet, comic book writer, and longtime Vermont resident Tom Vietch.  Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb began by asking how Steve and Tom first met.

comic book photo of Two-Fisted Zombie
Art by Rick Veitch, written by Tom Veitch. Photo courtesy of Steve Bissette
Two-Fisted Zombies cover written by Tom Veitch with art by Rick Veitch

Steve Bissette: I had met and become instant friends with Tom's younger brother, Rick Veitch. And part of what prompted Rick and I bonding immediately is one of the things that had played a key role in my even choosing to pursue the path of being a cartoonist: a comic that Rick had drawn, and his brother Tom had written, called Two-Fisted Zombies. It was published by Last Gasp out of San Francisco. Tom was amazing. He was soft-spoken, beatific, very funny and had a very puckish sense of humor. Tom kind of took me under his wing.

He told me I had to meet Gary Arlington. And Gary Arlington was one of the founding gurus of the underground comics movement in the late 1960s. And Gary Arlington had a comic shop in Berkeley. And Tom took me right down there and told me to show Gary my artwork. And that's the kind of person Tom was. He seemed to thrive on making connections for other creative people. And it was really that visit where I became aware of Tom's pre-comics creative life as a poet. He was a New York City poet. He was part of the 1960s scene. And I got to read some of that poetry and handle those books during that visit. And since then, I've tracked down everything I could find of Tom’s.

I want to go back to that title of the first comic that you saw that he and Rick had produced: Two-Fisted Zombies. What a wonderful title. What was it about that comic that stood out to you, that said, "There is something really, really cool going on here?"

I was already addicted to Tom’s comics, and I'll tell you about reading Skull No. 6 after we talk about Two-Fisted Zombies. There was this bizarre staccato rhythm to Two-Fisted Zombies. And Rick and Tom explained to me during that visit that the way they had designed the book is that Tom had written a script, Rick had drawn the page, and then they shuffled the pages. They spread it out on the floor and shuffled the pages until the random shuffling arrived at a storytelling mosaic that they both thought worked. It was also the clarity of Tom's writing. He was always an incredibly crisp, lucid, engaging writer and I would just get sucked into any of the comics material that he wrote.

Steve, what can you tell us about Dark Empire that Tom was connected to? Because I understand that you introduced Tom to Cam Kennedy, who he collaborated with on Dark Empire?

image of the light and darkness comic by Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy
Steve Bissette/Courtesy
The Light and Darkness comic by Cam Kennedy and Tom Veitch

If memory serves, the first project they worked on was called The Light and Darkness War. It was an original comic series that Tom wrote and Cam illustrated. And they did it for the Epic Comics line. And not being shy, Tom sent, through the mail, a set of The Light and Darkness Wars to George Lucas. And I believe that's what led to Tom being able to pitch and land the gig of writing the Star Wars series that he wrote for Dark Horse Comics. And Tom really had thought through what were the primal aspects of the Star Wars mythology that had not been illuminated in the films. And that meant, what could he bring to the mythos that would be original, and yet part of the fabric already of the mythology that the film's had spun out there? And Tom knocked it out of the park.

One of the fascinating things about Tom Veitch is that I understand he lived as a Benedictine monk in Vermont. What can you tell us about that time? And how did it shape him in his work?

Tom would occasionally refer to it. But he never really discussed it with me. I remember asking him about it once and he basically docked that conversation. I have to say, though, I had known about that but I didn't really learn much about that time as a monk. I will say that it seemed to inform how he carried himself. Tom held his hands like and walked like a monk at times. He was soft spoken. Sometimes you would have to lean in toward Tom to really hear what he was saying. Part of it was a device; he wanted you to slow down and really listen to him when he was talking. It also made him a very unique figure in the comics community, where so many people tend to be more flamboyant or outspoken or demonstrative about their emotions. Tom was very reserved, and I always associated that with, well, I guess that's part of a person who would want to be living in a monastery. Or it might be a characteristic that they came out of the monastery with. But again, I'm just conjecturing on this.

If somebody came up to you and said, "I want to find out about Tom Veitch’s creative work," what are a couple of things that you would say, "You’ve got to read this," or "You’ve got to look at this?"

I would first try to gauge the person's sensibility who was asking me that question. Maybe I'll give you answers if you'll bear with me. For people who are timid or squeamish with their appetite for pop culture, I would steer them toward The Light and Darkness War. It was reprinted complete as a graphic novel by Titan Books a number of years ago. Tom approached me to write an afterword. That's probably one of the most mainstream, accessible works that Tom has done in the comics field. I would also steer them toward his poetry. Tom was primarily a poet. For those who have stronger stomachs, I would steer them to the work that made me want to be a cartoonist. Tom scripted a two-part story in Skull No. 6, published by Last Gasp, and it was a story called A Gothic Tale. Part one was illustrated by Tom's frequent creative partner in comics, Greg Irons, and part two was illustrated by Richard Corben. It builds up at the end of part one to a page turn. And when I turned the page, I dropped the comic in panic, like I didn't want it in my hands when I saw what was on the page. And the minute I did that, my first thought was, "I want to do this. I want to make work that's going to have this impact." From that moment on, doing comics was what I wanted to do with my life.

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Karen is Vermont Public's Managing Producer of Morning News. She manages the morning news content on broadcast and digital platforms, and works with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb to bring listeners the latest news and information, along with relevant interviews. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She produces the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke. Karen recently worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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