Starting With B’oxes – An Interview with Comic Writer and Novelist Robert Venditti

GameStop, Inc.

31ulo3ZiJaL._UX250_If you want to get into comics, usually you have to be a talented artist or if you’re lucky you are a talented artist and a fantastic writer. If you’re a writer, however, it’s more difficult to break into the industry. Robert Venditti wanted to write comics, but he got his start by fulfilling orders for Top Shelf Productions. It goes to show that one can start anywhere on the comics pipeline and have a creative career.

 

Whitney Grace (WG): I was reading a little bit into your background and it’s amazing that you didn’t read comics when you were younger. In your own words, how did you get into comics?

Robert Venditti (RV): I didn’t read comics growing up, but my original childhood ambition was to be an animated artist. My highest calling in life was to draw Bigs Bunny and Tom and Jerry cartoons. I could tell at a very young age I wasn’t that good at it, so I wrote stories in elementary school and as far back as I can remember. Looking at it now, I was describing in words what I couldn’t draw with my hands. I got my bachelors in English with a focus on creative writing and then a Master’s in creative writing all with the intent of doing prose style of drawing.

When I was in college a friend of mine worked at Borders and he was interested in comics. He always tried to get me into them, but it wasn’t until I heard about this series called Astro City and the story arc in particular about the Confessor. It was a story about a priest who succumbed to temptation with a woman who turned out to be a vampire, she turned him into a vampire, and his costume was inspired by priestly garb, and he wore a crucifix on his chest even though it physically pained him. It was a reminder that sort of breaking of his vows he committed. It appealed to me on a real conceptual level and I really liked it.

I started reading the rest of Astro City, then there was only twenty-two issues, and I loved how it was so character focused and the concepts were very new reader friendly. Each arc began with a new character and it had a lot of nice jumping on points. From there I went out and found other stories I could connect with. By coincidence, America’s Best Comics from Alan Moore was just starting out and they had a lot of new books on the shelves, so I picked up issue Tom Strong #1 and it had a cover that really appealed to me. I recognized the art by Alex Ross, he’d done some work for Astro City. I really enjoyed Tom Strong and thought this Alan Moore guy is pretty good, what else has he written? I found Watchmen, read it, and then I discovered more of Alan Moore’s work, from there it spiraled out into more comics.

surrogatesWG: That story from Astro City is one of my favorites as well. It’s obvious you have good taste in comics from what you’ve told me and I can see how that helped inspire you to write The Surrogates. Can you also name some other pieces that inspired The Surrogates?

RV: Oh boy! In grad school, I wrote a non-fiction book called the Cyber Gypsies for a class called literature of the Internet. Doesn’t that sound like a grad school level class? It was about a writer who spent time with people addicted to online gaming and chatrooms. It was a factual account and it mentioned how the gamers would become so attached to their characters that if the character died they would kill themselves, or play so much they would lose their jobs, get divorced. It struck me how we were using computers to define a notion of ourselves, and yet it’s limiting how you can create this persona of yourself online but you surrender it when you have to interact with real life. What if there was a technology that existed that instead of being bound to a computer it could go out into the world and lived your life for you, while you experienced it vicariously through virtual reality? You got all the sensations of doing everything, but you weren’t actually present. How would society work? That is where the idea came from.

WG: I like that. There are other comics, movies, and anime that that focus on that now.

RV: I wrote this in 2002, so pre Second Life, pre Twitter, pre anything. They had online games at that point, but the idea of creating an online persona wasn’t as mainstream as it is now. It’s something that’s pretty commonplace. The world is changing pretty fast.

WG: I know. Some people think the Internet is their real life and in some ways for a lot of people it is.

RV: Yes for a lot of people it is. You can work there, play there, and socialize there. It’s interesting and we’ll see how it all goes.

WG: You are a prose writer by trade. How did you approach writing you first comic script?

surrogates3_lgRV: This was back in 2002, so it was real different landscape with graphic novels and their popularity. There weren’t a lot of graphic novels available back then, so I wrote it in a vacuum. I started writing a story by breaking it into panels and if you go back and look at my early scripts they are very text heavy and had a lot of descriptions. This goes back to my childhood dream of drawing, so I described in words what I couldn’t draw with my hands. What I was doing felt right. It had a basic five-act structure and I broke it down into the scenes that would fit into a five issue comic book series. I turned it into my friend Chris Staros, who was the editor of Top Shelf Comics at the time, to get his advice. I didn’t think he would want to publish it, but he loved it and it’s been there ever since.


WG:
When I first read Surrogates, I found the book at a library and it looked like it had a trashcan on the cover.   Around the same time, I read that Top Shelf was going through a little trouble.

RV: That was how I started working with them. I wanted to break into the industry, but it’s very hard when you’re a writer and all you have is a script. I was on Top Shelf’s email list and when I read they were in trouble, I called them up and asked how I could help.   Other fans responded as well, so Top Shelf had a huge amount of orders come in. They had me packing and shipping the orders.

WG: How and when did Surrogates gain a lot of popularity?

RV: When the first issue came out it, it received a lot of reviews. Comicbook Resources was the first to interview me before it even came out. Wizard Magazine wrote about in their “Secret Stash” column. It was in other magazines as well. It got really nice reviews, but in some ways it was a mainstream book from an arthouse publisher. Mainstream fans didn’t know how to find it and regular Top Shelf fans didn’t know how to respond to it. The people who did read it liked it and the press helped producers in Hollywood notice it. From there, the film deal developed.

bw

WG: Were you responsible for Bruce Willis’ comb over in the movie?

RV: No, I was not. I was actually responsible for very little of the movie. I actually didn’t want to be involved in any of it, not in a bad way. Directors and producers are artists in their own right and they don’t need me to tell them how to handle their processes. The idea behind the wig was pretty good. Sometimes people have toupees and they don’t know how bad they look in them, like his character in the movie. In a way, a surrogate is a toupee for the entire body. Sometimes people would get it really right and other times it doesn’t.

WG: Do you think real life will ever be taken over by robots?

RV: I don’t know. I think it’s a lot farther at this time than I thought it would be. At the beginning of the movie where they show robot footage, a lot of that is real.

WG: Do you have any thoughts about the robot apocalypse?

RV: Do you mean robots gaining sentience and destroying humanity?

WG: Along those lines, people are always talking about the robot apocalypse.

RV: Honestly I’m not a student of that to understand all of it, but I’m not looking forward to that day. You never know, though, the robot overlords could come any day. It’s interesting the glee we have trying to make ourselves obsolete.

WG: Did you like the film overall?

RV: I did. They made some changes I didn’t do in the book, but I don’t think they were bad. They had their own way of doing things and they needed to make their investment back. I enjoyed watching the movie process and gaining visibility in the comics industry.

WG: What has happened to your career since Surrogates?

XO_ZERO_COVER-A_DJURDJEVICRV: I went over to the Marvel offices and met with an editor I knew, John Barber, who is over at IDW now. He shared a cubicle with other people, one of them was Warren Simons. I brought along some copies of Surrogates to pass around and said if you have any work laying around this is what I can do. I really only thought of Surrogates as something I could use to get other work, never more than that. Years later Warren Simons became the executive editor of Valiant Comics and he had read Surrogates. He reached out to me about writing a pitch for one of their new properties and it ended up being my entry into serialized comic book writing. I still write X-O Manowar and now I write Flash and Green Lantern for DC Comics. It’s hard to draw a straight line between correlation of events, but the movie didn’t hurt me in anyway.

WG: What is XO-Manowar about and what stories for Flash and Green Lantern are you writing?

RV: I write the main Green Lantern title starring Hal Jordan and I co-write the Flash with my friend Ben Jensen. X-O Manowar is a story about a fifth century Visigoth who is kidnapped by aliens and taken into space. He returns to Earth after being a slave for a certain number of years and when he does return it’s modern day. He’s escaped with the aliens’ advanced suit of armor. He’s the most advanced person on the planet as well as the most primitive. It’s a mash-up of historical and science-fiction, two genres I’ve always enjoyed.

Green_Lantern_Vol_5-32_Cover-1WG: What direction have you been told to take the Green Lantern stories?

RV: It’s work for hire, so you know they want connectivity between characters and other storylines. It’s a writer’s room, where we develop concepts and ideas to make things come together. It’s the only cosmic division part of the Green Lantern universe, so it’s nice to build those storylines in a universe that wouldn’t otherwise have them.

WG: What do you think of the Green Lantern that’s a squirrel or a ferret?

RV: There are actually two of them.

WG: Two?!

RV: There was originally Ch’p and I believe poor Ch’p was killed sometime in the 1990s, when the Green Lanterns were still vulnerable to the color yellow. He was run over by a yellow Ryder truck. B’dg, another member of his race, has replaced him. I don’t write for him a lot. I love the idea of the marine corp. having a lot of strange cultures and aliens. It represents the soul, cosmic division of the DC universe. There’s a lot of fun things to do with that.

WG: What is the strangest Green Lantern you’ve ever encountered?


RV:
The one I like the most and I tend to use him as an Easter egg in the books. You have to look for him hanging out in the background. He’s a Green Lantern shaped like a box. He doesn’t have any arms or legs. He’s just a box with a Green Lantern symbol and he flies around. I like him.

b'oxWG: Does he have a name?

RV: it’s actually Box, spelled B’ox.

WG: What is the name of his planet?

RV: None of the backstory has been developed. It actually took me a while to find out what his name was. He doesn’t speak. He’s just a box. I found him the background of an old Green Lantern issue and I asked around about him, but no one could tell me. Finally I found his name looking online. The backstory is pretty wide open now for B’ox.

WG: You know you’re now obligated to do something about that.

RV: There’s plans. Don’t worry about that.

WG: You were tapped to write the Percy Jackson graphic novel series. How difficult was it adapting a previous work?

lightningthiefRV: I actually did that after the Surrogates movie process. I wanted to see what the process was like on the other end after seeing my own work adapted. I tried to be as faithful to the source material as possible. I spent a lot of time planning out and outlining on how to do the adaptation. I read all the books before I even wrote the first graphic novel, the fifth one wasn’t even out yet. They sent it to me as a Word document, so I could know if I changed anything or if I had to edit a scene the ripple effect wouldn’t undo something that had to happen. After I had all the details, I wrote the outlines and sent them to Rick Riordan for approval, then I would do the script.

I had to adapt a book with over three hundred pages into one hundred twenty-five pages of comics. Every page in the comic had to be three from the prose novel give or take.

WG: Who set the parameters for one hundred twenty-five pages, was it Hyperion?

RV: Yes, it was Hyperion the publisher. When an editor wants to get funding for a book, they have to come up with a publishing plan: including how many pages, how much it will cost, etc. When you’re given a target like that you have to hit it, it’s not fluid.

WG: What are some of the differences you found writing for children’s comics and adult comics?

RV: I don’t think my adult comics are very adult in terms of content, but they are more mature in themes. For me, it comes down to themes that kids can relate to as opposed to dumbing down the content. Kids are very intelligent and they can follow stories very well.

WG: Would you like to create your own series for kids?

RV: I’m actually working on a series with Simon & Schuster, which will be out in June 2015 and the other in June 2016.

WG: Are they prose novels?

mylesRV: Yes and the first book is called Myles Taylor and the Golden Cape. It’s about a little boy, who inherits a cape that gives him super powers but it comes with a catch, but it’s not the “great power comes great responsibility” catch. It’s for intermediate readers.

WG: How did you score that awesome deal?

RV: My editor on the Percy Jackson books knew my work and he asked if I had any original ideas. I told him my idea, he liked it, and then I wrote it on spec, showed it to him, and he liked the draft.

WG: I love it when comic writers and other artists can use their talents for more than one medium.

RV: It’s like I say, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do and it’s what I started to do, so a career can bring someone full circle. I’m still working on comics and I plan to write more creator-owned comics.

WG: Please do.

RV: I plan on it and I have ideas for other creator-owned comics I want to get to someday.

WG: What are some ideas you’re playing around with?

RV: Without giving too much away, I’m have an idea for a western and another sci-fi comic. The Surrogates series was always supposed to be three graphic novels, but there are only two in print right now. The third still has to be written and I have the ideas for it, I just need to get the time to sit down and write them.

WG: I hope you do as well, because I like what you’ve done so far. Now it’s time for the last question I ask everyone, do you have anything to declare?

RV: I’m terrible at these type of questions. I’m not a declarative person, I suppose. I declare I’m not declarative.

 

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