A Conversation With Robert Venditti . . . . .
Will the bright lights harden Robert Venditti? Or, will the intense heat of exposure cause a melt-down? Neither seems to be unreasonable assumptions. After all, if the first graphic novel you scripted received critical acclaim and then became a movie you would be entitled to a little pride and increased confidence. Maybe you would need a larger hat to contain your swelling head.
On the other hand, the increased attention sometimes causes artists to become more self-conscious and they never seem to equal their earlier works. Sometimes they get bogged down or burdened by trying too hard to create for their new audience and end up being their own reviewers and critics, which can cause paralysis.
In addition, a common fear among the close tight-knit fan base of popular culture like comics, music and genre literature is that success will spoil or change their favorites. I don’t think we need to worry about any of those things when it comes to Robert Venditti.
When I arrived at the Top Shelf Comix exhibit at the Baltimore Comics Con on Sunday, I found him unpacking boxes and helping to organize the table displays, acting less like a new celebrity and more like any other employee spending a day at the office. He is very polite and down-to-earth, as were all the friendly members of Top Shelf that I met there.
After talking to him during a short interview I came away with the overall impression that he won’t be influenced by any of the concerns mentioned in the first three paragraphs above. Venditti seems to be a very centered individual who is happy to be given the opportunity to write and be published. It also appears that he’s been afforded more time now to create at the still-young age of 35, and his best works are yet to come as he becomes more comfortable writing in the comics medium. Because, in addition to being a very likeable and approachable person he’s still new to comics and learning more as he goes.
Rob has always been an avid reader, but never really explored comics. He majored in English and Political Science while earning his B.A. degree from the University of Florida in 1997. He’s also wanted to be a writer since childhood, and pursued that further by obtaining his M.B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida in 2000. He then moved to the Atlanta, GA. area after graduation. While working at a Borders he was introduced to comics by a friend and fellow employee.
The first title he read was ASTRO CITY, which he described as a good example of super-hero genre literature that distinguished itself through thoroughly developed and complex characters and themes that elevated it to a higher level. Rob enjoyed the series and loved the visual aspects that comics made possible. Having wet his appetite, he sought out more works to explore.
Because he didn’t have a deep background in comic continuity, he didn’t want to try any established titles but sought out books that were newer. Coincidentally, at this time the ABC line of books spearheaded by Alan Moore had recently debuted at DC. After consuming all he could of Tom Strong, Promethea, Top Ten, etc. he moved on to the classic works by Alan Moore, including WATCHMEN.
In literature Rob is “big on short fiction” and older classic works including those by O. Henry, Clemens and Hemingway. He is not a fan of the contemporary post-modern fiction that features lengthy paragraphs and/or stream-of-consciousness writing. He prefers fiction written more in a straightforward story-telling fashion, and cites Ernest Hemingway as a major influence. Short stories are his preferred area to create in and Rob continued to write - - - getting his first work, a short story titled “Dads” published in the Berkeley Fiction Review. In hindsight, he says that writing short stories felt more like “work” and scripting in the comics medium became more enjoyable. He decided to pursue working for a comic publisher.
He investigated local comics companies for employment, and was willing to do whatever was needed. “I just wanted to learn, and get in locally”, he explained. That led him to Top Shelf where he actually began not as an employee but as a volunteer in the mailroom picking and packing orders for shipment. He later became a part-time employee, splitting time between Borders and Top Shelf until later when co-publisher Chris Staros offered him a full time position.
It took him six months to turn his ideas and outlines into the story of THE SURROGATES and he turned to his employer and friend, Chris Staros, for advice on companies to approach to market the book. Staros saw the potential in the work and decided to publish it, marking a first for Top Shelf as well because this was their very first venture into more “main-stream” works. Staros also helped search for the appropriate artist to illustrate the book, deciding on Brett Weldele. It took Weldele almost two years to complete the series due to other commitments and obligations. THE SURROGATES was first published as a five-issue mini-series from 2005-2006 and was welcomed with critical acclaim.
Then Venditti was approached by Hollywood, where there was interest in developing THE SURROGATES as a film property. Venditti did not write the screenplay for the movie, but did act as consultant during filming. He took a “hands-off” approach to final details of the script and movie itself, feeling “honored” that a movie company was interested enough in his story to want to develop it. “They are creators as well,” he explained. “So let them invest their time and energy and take the story in whatever direction they want.”
I mentioned that the local Philadelphia newspapers were not kind to the film in their reviews, and asked for a comment. And while I haven’t seen it, I have watched the trailers and got an impression that the producers were trying to inject a little more action to make the film more appealing to mass audiences.
Rob has seen the film and mentioned that it has been favorably reviewed in other areas of the country. He considers “action movies” to be closer to what occurs in DIE HARD rather than THE SURROGATES. He is comfortable with the film version of his work, and believes that the film still retained the core concepts and themes although many of the secondary story lines and sub plots are not included in the movie. He feels that the husband-wife relationship that was a secondary theme in the comics version translated to film very well. He also believes THE SURROGATES movie has a sub-text beyond its’ primary theme. The troubled marriage that detective Greer attempts to revive was Venditti’s favorite part of the book because it humanizes the effect surrogate technology would have on interpersonal relationships. He was pleased that it translated so well to the screen. He commented that if THE SURROGATES is to be considered an action movie, then it’s “an action movie with heart.”
Venditti would like to write three more stories that take place in the world of surrogate technology, beginning with two that would both occur between the time of the FLESH AND BONES prequel and THE SURROGATES. They would center around Harry Greer obtaining his detective badge and shield and tell episodic stories, with Greer using his skills to solve various crimes during his early years on the job. The third book would detail events that occur after THE SURROGATES and concentrate on what happened after that book concludes.
He’s also working on another graphic novel/mini-series for Top Shelf, THE HOMELAND DIRECTIVE, a medical detective thriller. This week, October 14, marks his debut with Marvel in THE IRON MAN PROTOCOLS one-shot, which includes a short story he wrote in January 2008. Venditti is also in the process of working out the details with Hyperion Books to adapt the popular Percy Jackson & Olympians series (a teen-oriented, five-book series based on Greek mythology). He is currently working on the translation with a tentative target date of February 2010.
Rob has three key words of advice for aspiring comics writers and artists - - - “just get in” . . . . . “Take the opportunity and build on it,” He’s convinced that today’s generation doesn’t understand the work ethic and isn’t willing to “pay dues” in order to attain goals. He’s seen too many attendees at conventions take an attitude after asking him for advice. After hearing his answer, they roll their eyes or shake their heads in disbelief. One person commented to him: “I’m an artist. I don’t pack boxes.” Unfortunately, we live in the age of instant gratification and “on demand” entertainment. Too many fresh entries into the job market believe that employment will occur in the same fashion, without requiring them to spend any time working up to a future promotion.