that was great. The surrogates is great.... GREAT!
Robert Venditti Interview
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Robert Venditti, whose hit comic, The Surrogates, from Top Shelf is currently being adapted for the big screen by no less than Disney. And to sweeten the deal, BRUCE WILLIS has been cast in the lead role.
Rob and I had a lengthy talk (get comfy, reading this may take more than one sitting). Along the way we discovered we both lived in Central Florida (He earlier, I'm still here), he almost became a teacher in the same county where I currently teach. He toiled for Border's book Stores, whereas I was endentured to Barnes & Noble. We even have mutual friends, Rick and the boys at Famous Faces & Funnies, a Brevard County comic book store. And he volunteered at Top Shelf for the same reason I volunteer here (and you thought I was making the big bucks for these, right?), which was to get out foot in the door and meet people that could help fulfill our dreams of writing comics.
Here's how his dream came true....
SEBASTIAN: I’ll start with the generic questions, and we’ll work our way in to the more specific stuff. For starters, what comics do you read?
Robert Venditti: I actually don’t read a super lot of comics. I read mostly, uhm, I don’t know. For the past few years I’ve been mostly into, you know, biographies, history books, things like that, ya know? But when I do read comics I ream mostly graphic novels, independent graphic novels, things like that. Like I just read the new Sky Scrapers of the Midwest by Josh Cotter, which was really, really good. That’s brand new, it just came out. I got it a couple weeks ago. Ya know, I read all the Top Shelf stuff, ya know, I still work for them, so I’m always reading books, proofing books, whatever, so, I'm always reading comics in that sense…
SEBASTIAN: So, the minute you knock off reading comics for work you’re not in a big rush to read some more.
RV: [laughter] yeah, no. As far as series that I really like, ASTRO CITY is one of my favorites, whenever that comes out, kind of sporadically. I liked THE NIGHTLY NEWS when that came out. That was a good series. Ya know, that’s it. Things I get at the conventions, a lot of mini-comics, things like that.
SEB: I know you’ve been running around to the Cons, but have you had a chance to sneak out? It’s been a very genre-movie laden summer, have you had a chance to see anything?
RV: Nah, man, it wasn’t really the cons, it’s because I’ve been too busy to get out to. I really want to, I mean, I heard from EVERYBODY that IRON-MAN was awesome and I have not seen it, and now I think it’s probably out of theaters by now. I want to see WANTED, I’m interested in WANTED. I want to see the INDIANA JONES movie, haven’t seen it. The last movie I saw ….let me think about this, the last movie I saw in the theater, I THINK was that GOOD LUCK CHUCK movie that had Dane Cook in it. I don’t know, man, it wasn’t that good.
SEB: [Laughs] So, you’re reading all these historical books, and biographies, but the last movie you went to see was a Dane Cook film?
RV: Yeah [laughs}, you know, my wife and I, when we go out to see a movie, we switch off whose choice it is, and so I always pick an action movie, and she always picks a romantic comedy. So she picked that one because it was the romantic comedy that was out at that time, but that was a LONG time ago. The Last comic book movie I saw in theaters was the GHOST RIDER movie, so that’s over a year.
SEB: We talked a bit about this before the interview, but for the record, now; I’m over here in Brevard County, [Central] Florida, and I see that you received your BA in Political Science and English from the University of Florida, and your MA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida, so are you from around here?
RV: Yeah, I was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida, born in Memorial Hospital, down there in Hollywood, and then I grew up up until I was 18 in Pembroke Pines, kind of just west of Hollywood. Then I moved to Gainesville to go to college, undergraduate. While I was there my folks moved up to the Port St. John, Titusville area in Brevard County. I went back down to south Florida and clerked at a Law Firm, because at the time I thought I was going to go to Law School, but I didn’t like it so I just kind of kicked around for a while. I worked on a fuel truck, pumping gas overnight to fill up post office trucks. Your whole life your parents tell you “If you don’t go to college you’ll end up pumping gas!” So I went to college and ended up pumping gas. After that I decided to go back to school, so I moved up to Brevard County and commuted over to UCF and worked at a Borders in Winter Park, So, I commuted to Orlando everyday to work and go to college, and then came back to Brevard at night. And after I graduated from Grad School is when I moved up to Atlanta, which is where I’m at now.
SEB: Speaking locally, my boys over at Famous Faces & Funnies, who I understand friends of yours, as well, tell me that you’ve been working for TOP SHELF well before you started writing for them, so do want to explain how your relationship with Top Shelf began?
RV: I always wanted to be a prose writer. I never read comics growing up. Maybe a few at the barber shop, but I never read them. I don’t know why, I just never did. But when I started working at Borders, there was a guy there who read them and he kept telling me I should read them, and I thought, erroneously, what everybody thinks, “comics are for little kids,” because I was in Grad school and I was gonna be the next Hemingway. But he got me to read ASTRO CITY, and I liked it, and I decided I wasn’t going to write prose anymore, I was going to write comics. This was about 2000. Now I didn’t know anything about comics, so I had to think of a way to sorta get into the industry. When 2002 rolled around I had been to a convention and met Chris Staros from Top Shelf and somehow I got on his email list, which, you know, he put together a pretty big email list. And he sent out an email saying his distributor was going bankrupt and they were in a really tight pinch and if a bunch of people could place some orders it would help get them over the hump, because of their printing bills and what not. And so, I called him up and asked if he needed any help, just trying to meet somebody that could get me into the industry, and hes was like ‘man, I’m getting a lot of orders, I could use somebody that can pack boxes.’ And, I’d been working in the warehouse for Border’s, and new my way around a tape-gun. So I went down and worked for him, and he knew all along that I wanted to be a writer. When, I wrote the script for THE SURROGATES, this would be April 2002 that I started working for Chris, I started The Surrogates in July of 2002 and I finished in December. When I gave it to him, it was under the idea that, I know you don’t publish this kind of material, and I didn’t want there to be that sort of uncomfortable “if you don’t publish this then I’m gonna quit.” So I took that off the table right off the bat, and was more like, if there’s somebody that you know or can think of that would want to publish something like this, if you could introduce me. But They [Top Shelf] Decided to keep it for themselves. That was December of 2002. The first of issue came out in July, 2005, I think, so for 2½ years, while the book was in production, and I was just working for him. I had a book in production, it was already written, but nobody really knew about it yet.
Seb: Wow, ok,
RV: God help you, if you have to type all of that up. [laughs]
SEB: [laughs] I may just express mail the tape in and have them turn it into a podcast!
RV: [still laughing]Yeah, right.
SEB: Steve Price [at Famous Faces & Funnies]said he didn’t have any embarrassing stories on you,
RV: He doesn’t know the right people! [laughs]
SEB: yeah, right! But he did tell me to ask something about getting comics for your mother?
RV: Oh, yeah, yeah. I was living in Atlanta when the book came out. My mother, she’s in Charlotte, now, but she was still down there in Port St. John, so when The Surrogates came out, she would go down there to the comic shop and buy them new. She was a big part of me..she wasn’t a writer, but she was always a very big reader, and she instilled in me growing up, the desire to read and giving me books. I was reading her Steven King novels in 7th grade. She was always a big part of that. Now, a lot of people would be like, “Oh, what, you cheap bastard, you couldn’t mail your mom a comic!” But, I think for her, it was more this idea that she could actually go to the store and buy something that her kid did. Her whole life she would buy things for me that other people had done. So, I would call her the week a new issue would come out, and she’d go down there to Famous Faces & Funnies and pick up the new issue. Those guys were always real cool, and they got to know who she was and they would have one set aside for her. It’s still that way now, up in Charlotte she’s got a shop that she goes to whenever a new book comes out. Like, recently when I had a Marvel story come out (that story was “4F”, the CAPTAIN AMERICA short in the new MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS #6 –Seb) she went there and picked it up.
SEB: Now, your book THE SURROGATES, I’m quoting from an article here, is “set in the near future, where humans live in isolation and interact vicariously through surrogate robots, who are better-looking versions of themselves.” Social commentary, much?
RV:That blurb you just read, has been truncated, I think that’s the one that gets floated around with a lot of the articles that are written about the film that’s in production. It’s actually about a lot more than just the ‘beauty on demand aspect’, for whatever reason, this is the little nugget that everybody keeps repeating. No, it’s this idea where this world we live in today where you can create this persona for yourself online, you can be whoever you want to be, but at some point you have to surrender that persona to go to work and do whatever it is that you do to get the money to keep the computer turned on. But in this world that I’ve created a surrogate is sort of an android representative of yourself that goes out into the world and does your living for you. You’re connected to it virtually, so you can experience everything it does. So yeah, one aspect is that you can have a sort of plastic surgery thing and look younger, stronger, better or what have you, but there’s also the idea that you can indulge, smoke, or, drink and get none of the side effects. But maybe you just want to have one for practical reasons, like you’re a policeman or a fireman and you don’t want to get hurt, or if you want to sky-dive, and get that feeling without any of the risk. Sort of this idea that you can be able to do whatever you want, and experience all those things, but not actually be there. You can do what you want, look how you want, all those kinds of things.
It was definitely a commentary on today’s society and the internet living, and you know, it was written back in 2002, so SECOND LIFE wasn’t even out yet, so the world is definitely starting to skew even more in that direction than it was back when I wrote it.
SEB: So it’s kind of being able to stay home while you send your avatar from myspace out to do your job.
RV: Pretty much, yeah
SEB: So, along those lines, how much of this was just an idea, and how much was your Social Science Degree kicking in and saying, ‘look, we’re more connected than ever, but we’re doing a lot less actual interacting than ever, at the same time?’
RV: Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve had that question only one other time, I don’t know how much the Poly Sci degree really played into it. I mean, I’m sure, we’re all made up of all the things that we’ve done, and read, and learned over our lives, but I don’t know that I could put my finger on it in that way. I mean, I’m not even a big sci-fi guy. I’ve read maybe 5 or 10 sci-fi novels in my whole life. It was just this idea that I had. The sci-fi stuff comes in more as you’re reading the background, the policies, the laws. We get a bit more into that in the prequel that I’ve written, it’ll be out in July of 2009. But, yeah, I think it was just this idea that I had. I read a book when I was in Grad. school about people who play online games and how much they come to identify themselves with the characters they create, where they’ll lose their job, get divorced…I believe there was one guy, his character got killed and he committed suicide, and THAT was the idea that really struck me. What is it about the basic human need that we all want to be somebody other than ourselves. No matter who we are, we all want to be somebody else. And we go to great lengths, often times, to try to achieve that. That was sort of the idea where it all came from. The idea that what if there was a world we could all be these ideal versions of ourselves that everybody wants to be.
SEB: A sort of a cautionary tale.
RV: Yeah, but, you know, I don’t even want to say that it’s a cautionary tale. What I tried to do with the book was not just present one side of it and say “this is bad”. I tried to just as much of showing the good things that surrogates provide for society as well as the bad. And sort of just leave it up to the reader. Everybody gets to decide for themselves, because I actually don’t know the answer to the question “Is technology a bad thing, is it ultimately going to be our failing?” I don’t know that answer. I think that when you write a book where you already have an answer in mind, you’re trying to provide that answer to the reader, then that’s when you get preachy. I think that writing a story and not really knowing the answer to the question, but just asking the question, I think that is where it becomes interesting reading and you leave all that up to the reader to find out for themselves.
SEB: Well, apparently you're good with questions, because I just asked you number 6 on my list and in that one answer that you just gave, you answered 6, 7, 8, 9,10, & 11.
RV: There you go. I got it with a grand slam.
SEB: You’re no joke, you’re the real deal.
SEB: So, backtracking a little bit, the prequel, THE SURROGATES: FLESH AND BONE, how much can you tell us about that? You already said the release date was…
RV:July 2009, so it’ll be out a few months before the film. Basically, this tells the story of the original rights. 15 years prior to the current story. Originally we were calling it Surrogates 2.0, but we were like, wait a minute, it’s 2.0, but it takes place BEFORE? So, now were just calling it flesh and bone. You’ve kind of got that Star Wars thing, where the middle story is out there now, and we’re going to go back and tell the beginning. Basically, we’re 15 years before the original story, and we’re getting a look at this world, where surrogates are just starting to really sort of get their foot hold in society. They’re not as ubiquitous as they are in the current book. They’re just starting to show up and you can see the growing pains of the society as they’re adapting to the technology. You’ve got Harvey as a beat cop, and his wife brings home her surrogate for the first time. The Prophet is just starting up his church, and you see all of these characters when they are in their early stages. The whole story hinges on this crime that is committed, where these three kids are out and sort of pull a prank, so to speak, on a homeless guy, and end up killing him. It becomes this big court case, because they’re these rich kids and they killed this homeless man and there is this whole court case around that, with the surrogate technology very much a part of the crime. I won’t go too much into it. The first five preview pages are available online at the Top Shelf website, so you can read that opening scene and get a sense of what the story is about. It gives the background of what this world was like 15 years before.
Surrogates: Flesh & Bone Preview
SEB: Now is this coming out as a graphic novel or will this start with individual issues again?
RV: This will be just graphic novel, we’re going to go right to trade. The market is a different place now, and Top Shelf is primarily a trade publisher. When the original Surrogates came out as a single issue mini-series, it was something they had never done before. They publish comics, but not as a bi-monthly series, 5 issues, collect it in a trade. They’d never done that before, so it was really kind of outside their norm, so with this we’ll go back to what it is that Top Shelf does, and just do the trade right off the bat.
SEB: Now the story in FLESH AND BONE, with the kids whose prank goes wrong and they kill a homeless man, is that a LAW & ORDER-like “ripped from the headlines” kind of thing? Because we had a story like that right here in Central Florida a few years ago.
RV: Wow, where was this?
SEB: Up around where you used to live. In like, Canaveral I think.
RV: I didn’t know that. Wow, this must have been after I moved. I left in 2000.
SEB: So, this is more of an unhappy coincidence.
RV: Yeah, pretty much. In any event, I don’t think that kids beating up a homeless guy and then killing him is really a novel idea, I’m sure it’s done in TV shows and whatever else. Hopefully what I do, and the way I connect it to the surrogate technology makes it a novel story. I use that crime as a way to say something…. about another way…the surrogate technology would impact society at large. I’m trying not to give too much detail, because there are a lot of twists in the very first chapter of the new story, and I don’t want to give those away.
SEB: After FLESH AND BONE, will you be writing any more stories in The Surrogate world?
RV: I originally conceived The Surrogates as three graphic novels, the current book, one set 15 years before the current book, and one set 15 or so years after the current book. So, it’ll be three trades all together, and then lots of other ideas for one-offs, single story ideas about a single character that’s just 24 pages, but it would fill in on the skeleton of those three trades. So, it could go on and on forever. It’s not the only thing I’d like to do. I’d like to do other stories as well.
SEB: And, of course, the obvious question: BRUCE WILLIS. I mean, I realize that technically speaking, that’s not a question, but c’mon, BRUCE FREAKING WILLIS!!??
RV: Yeah, it’s crazy. When I wrote the story back in 2002, somewhere around that same time frame was when the movie deal went down for adapting 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, it was a big story, they got a pretty big payday for that one. It was in WIZARD and everything. I remember reading the article about it and talking to my wife. We were just goofing off, I don’t think Top Shelf had even bought the book yet, I think I was still in the process of writing it, and we were just like “Oh, what if they were gonna make a movie out of The Surrogates, who’d be good? And from day one her and I were like Bruce Willis wood be good. He’d be perfect for it, because he can do that tough action stuff and have that vulnerability that you have to have in the scenes with his wife. And it turns out, five years later, they end up casting him in the roll, and it’s just like ‘you gotta be kidding me’. ‘Cause everybody says “Bruce Willis will be perfect,” because everybody wants Bruce Willis. Just the fact that it actually worked out that way is just crazy. I mean, yeah, you can’t get much better than that, man.
SEB: Along those same lines, Disney? Touchstone? Disney’s making a film out of your story and they’ve cast Bruce Willis. Do you wake up thinking, “Oh My God, was it a dream?"
RV:YES! This is beyond anything you’d ever expect. And this is my first book! The first thing I ever wrote. Where do I go now, ya know? I had this idea to write this story and use it as a resume piece. To have something be published that I’d show to other publishers to try to get more writing gigs, that was as far as I thought this was ever gonna go. I never…I mean, I never thought…I’m incredibly lucky! There’s a lot of guys out there that went out a lot longer than I have. I keep that in mind. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and all it came together. I never expected it. I CERTAINLY don’t expect it ever again. Whatever happens is gravy at this point, ya know?
SEB: Does it put any pressure on, say, the new book, FLESH AND BONE? Do you feel, you have to compete with yourself?
RV: You do worry about that. I guess it’s natural to worry about not living up to it. I do feel like FLESH AND BONE came out real well. It was an idea that I had for a real long time, and I just sat on it until one day it just struck me how to make a really good story. So I held off on writing it. Because, with the Surrogates you had this mystery element driving the story. But in Flesh and Bone, you already know what’s going to happen. It was told to you in chapter three of The Surrogates book. So what was going to give this story it’s driving force? What would be the mystery? And until I had that figured out I didn’t write it. I wanted it to come out and be as good as the first book. And I’m really happy with how it came out. Chris [Staros], at Top Shelf is really happy with it. I think it’s something the readers are going to really enjoy.
SEB: You’re living exactly what they tell the rest of us NOT to expect, ya know? They always say “Now don’t expect to get your first story published, and don’t expect your first published story to be a success.”
RV: I know what you mean. It’s funny, because I had in my application to teach in Brevard County, I had my application in, I was all set to go, and then like, six months before I was gonna move down there was when I ended up hooking up with Top Shelf. I ended up telling my wife, what I really want to be is a writer, and one way or another, by the end of me working with this guy, I’m going to know if I can do it. Either I’m going to be good enough to do it, or I’m going to be not good enough to do it because he’s the guy that can open all the doors. I was this close to teaching where you do. I mean, we could have been at the same school.
SEB: I was gonna say, you’re living my dream and I’m living your “Plan B”.
RV: [laughs a lot] I guess so.
SEB: That’s going to be my new signature when I post these: “Living Robert Venditti’s Plan B”
SEB: Back to the movie, how involved do get you get to be? Do you get to be on set?
RV: Yeah, I’ve visited the set, and I’ll visit the set again. I do have all kinds of photos. I can’t post them. It’s a very secretive set. I guess it’s because it’s a big budget sci-fi movie, and everything looks different, cool, kind of future-y looking, and they want to save all that for their own reviews. I was a consultant on the screenplay, but I mostly just tried to stay out of people’s way. I have complete faith in the director, the screenwriters, and everybody involved. I could tell from talking to them that they really enjoy the book and they really got what I was trying to say. Like what we were talking about earlier, the social commentary of the book, and what not. Again, this is my first book coming out of the gate, these guys have been making movies, they’ve built a career on it. I didn’t feel like I was the kind of guy who should be directing people and telling them what to do, you know? They wanted to do what they want to do, just let them do it, and I support them. When I visited the set and saw the things they were working on. The size of it. 200 people just in Boston working on it, plus however many people they have back in LA. At that point, when it gets to be that many people involved, it’s bigger than you. It’s enough of a compliment for me that all these people want to invest their time and energy and money into something that came out of my head. They keep me very in the loop. The producers and I have become good friends and all that. I just let those guys do what they do best.
SEB: And look at this way, you’re doing your part for our floundering economy. Just look at the jobs that have been created just to put your vision on the big screen!
RV: Yeah, I read an article that was in one of the Boston papers, which is where they’re filming the movie, and that’s what it talked about, just the impact that this film alone was going to have on the Boston economy. I mean, when the papers start talking about some dopey idea that you thought of and the impact it’s going to have on the economy, it’s beyond you at that point. Just sit back and enjoy it.
SEB: Ok, you had said you wanted to do other things, outside of The Surrogates world. So, what’s next?
RV: I did a little intro story for MARVEL, a CAPTAIN AMERICA story for MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS, and I’m sort of getting in the system over there. I’m working on some things, fill-in issues, stuff like that. I’ve got another graphic novel that’ll be out in 2010 called THE HOMELAND DIRECTIVE, with Top Shelf. That’s more of a modern day political thriller, not Sci-Fi. That definitely touches a little but on the Political Science background. I’ve got a lot of my own ideas, but I’d like to do a little bit of both. Do my own ideas and at the same time work on some of the established characters. I was real happy to be working over at Marvel. Even though I didn’t grow up on comics, the characters that they’ve got in their stable are just beyond the comic format. They’re Icons. Just to be able to make Captain America jump over a foxhole in World War II, that’s pretty cool. I’m looking forward to doing all that stuff. I’m just like anybody else, I’ve only got one book under my belt, so I’m out there trying to get work just like everybody else is.
SEB: But that belt comes with a buckle that says “BRUCE FREAKING WILLIS” so that’s one hell of a belt.
SEB: What advice would you give to other struggling creators, other than “Don’t become a teacher!”
RV: [laughs] I still would like to teach at some point, so I’m not knocking the profession.
SEB: I’ll trade with you in another four years, You can have my students, and I’ll write some comics.
RV: [laughs] yeah, we’ll do that “Prince & the Pauper thing” No, just get involved, that’s the thing. All this came about because I volunteered to pack boxes. A lot of guys, I think, say to themselves, “Well, I’m an artist. I don’t pack boxes.” Or any of these kinds of things. If you sit in your house and wait for the world to come discover your genius, that’s never gonna happen. You have to find a way to get out there and become a part of the industry and the community and get your work out to people, Whatever you can do to do that, whether it’s packing boxes like I’m doing or being a journalist like you’re doing, or going to a convention, any of these kinds of things, you HAVE to go out and do that. People are not going to come and throw contracts at you and ask you to come write for them. You have to get involved to do that. Whatever you gotta do, do it.
SEB: I guess, to wrap it up, any parting words, Rob?
RV: Uhm, no. I think we pretty much covered everything.
SEB: Alright, thanks for talking to me.
RV: Cool, bud. And I’ll be down there at MegaCon next year, so if you get out there, make sure you come by the table and say “Hi.”
SEB: Ok, man, will do.
Last edited by SebastianPiccione; Monday, November 24, 2008 at 04:22 AM.
that was great. The surrogates is great.... GREAT!
GREAT interview Sebastian! The was an awesome read man!
I'm sooooo glad that Seb did this one... The personal/local connections, all that... make for a really insightful interview.
I appreciate the kind words. Rob's a cool guy, and as Matt says, with all the commonalities between us, we really hit off and just started talking. There's another 4 or 5 minutes of us just talking about Florida, book stores, writing, how my dad owns a few candy stores whereas his uncle owns one. He even interviewed me a bit about my background and how I got to where I am. After i stopped the tape, we still talked for a bit, about cons, and the gang at FF&F.
He's like Midas, everything he touches, this interview included, turns to solid gold.
I can't even find in my bitter, jaded, twisted little heart to begrudge him his success.
.....but, I'm tryin'!!
Nice job. You can tell that you guys hit it off by the way the interview flows.
Rob's pretty easy to get on with.
Combine that with my inablity to shut up, and VOILA instant interview.