In Depth: "Surrogates'" Robert Venditti, Part 1

In early 2005, I was walking the floor of Wizard World Chicago and happened upon the Top Shelf booth, where I saw Top Shelf Publisher Chris Staros working with a customer. I didn't want to interrupt a potential sale, so I simply waved in his direction and continued on, but once Chris saw me, he motioned for me to come over and asked if I could wait for a moment while he finished up this transaction. Apparently, he wanted to show me some pages from a new comic they were going to publish that "was unlike anything they'd ever published before."

I'd been in comics long enough at this point to have heard that phrase uttered by an editor or Publisher countless times before, so I was skeptical, but I knew Chris to be a good guy with excellent taste and I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Chris came over with some color printouts of a book called "The Surrogates" by an unknown writer named Robert Venditti and artist Brett Weldele. I was familiar with Weldele's art - I was actually a fan already, so Chris had my interest, but my skepticism was still strong. He began to show me pages from "The Surrogates" and told me the story as he went along, how in this world the inhabitants were all "connected" all the time to a surrogate, a robotic representation that went out into the real world in place of actual human beings. In some cases this was a safety thing - construction workers or security personnel could operate their surrogate from the comfort and safety of their own home while the surrogate took all the risks - but for others, it was more of a vanity issue.

My skepticism began to wane while Chris went on to tell me how the story was really a murder mystery following the investigations of one Detective Harvey Greer into the murder of a handful of surrogates by another surrogate known only as Steeplejack, something unheard of in a world where murder and crime had become a thing of the past. He told me more about this futuristic world and of Greer, how he was an old timer, remembered a world without surrogates and how his investigation had implications for not just those directly involved in the crime, but for all of society in general.

It didn't take long for me to become hooked. Chris handed me a CD-Rom with a PDF of the first issue to read when I got home. Once I completed that first issue, I knew I had to get in touch with the writer, Robert Venditti, to learn more about this world and share it with CBR readers. It turns out I conducted the first interview with Robert ever about the book and learned the remarkable story about how he got his first graphic novel published and how he was first introduced to Top Shelf.

In this, the first of an in-depth, two part interview with Venditti, we discuss his early years as a writer, the initial spark of an idea that became "The Surrogates" and the remarkable beginnings for his first published comics work.

Robert, let's go back to the beginning. Not the beginning of "The Surrogates," but further back to your youth - tell us a bit about your background, in terms of writing, and whether or not you were you a comic fan growing up?

I did not read comics growing up, but I had an older brother who read them. For whatever reason, they weren't really anything I was interested in. I was obviously aware of comic book characters, through general pop culture-type stuff - the Hulk TV show, the Spider-Man TV show and cartoon - but I never got into reading comics. I actually read my first comic in 2000, when I was in Grad school; it was "Astro City" Vol. 2 #4, the beginning of the Confessor story arc.

I was sort of prodded into comics reading. I was in Grad school for writing. I figured out in high school I wanted to be a writer. I got a bachelor's degree in political science and English, but originally thought I was going to be a lawyer. I decided against that and ended up going back to Grad school to get my Master's in Creative Writing. I was working at Borders, and a buddy of mine there was a comics fan and sort of prodded me into reading comics and specifically told me to check out this "Astro City" story because he thought I would like it. And over time, he broke me down, so I went and picked up a couple of back issues at a comics shop and, as I began reading them, the scales fell from my eyes - you need strong skills as a writer to tell these complex stories and have these complex characters, and the visual aspect of the medium was very appealing to me. I had these preconceptions that most people have erroneously, even more so back then in 2000, thinking comics were just for kids, that it was a juvenile medium. It was then that I realized it could be a grown up medium. It was then that I started doing comics instead of prose.

Why did your friend think this specific "Astro City" story would draw you in?

Because of the religious aspect of it. We had a job where we worked in the inventory room at Borders, and it was just the two of us sorting books all day long, and we would just talk about everything under the sun. And I had an interest in religion - I grew up in Lutheran schools, and we had an hour each day for religion class, along with services once a week. Besides just the spiritual aspect of the Bible, I've always found the Bible very appealing as a historical document and a literary document. So we always talked about those kinds of things, and he mentioned the story was about a priest, and he didn't ruin the big reveals, but it was the religious aspect of it that he thought would suck me in.

So you wanted to become a prose writer, but once you discovered comics you turned your attentions to comics, which dovetails into what's really a remarkable journey that you took to becoming a comics pro. Let's talk about the beginnings of "The Surrogates" and your introduction to Top Shelf.

Well, I had moved from Orlando after I got out of Grad school to Atlanta, and Top Shelf was based [just outside Atlanta] in Marietta, and somehow I ended up on their email list. In April of 2002, Chris Staros [Top Shelf co-founder] sent out a mass email saying that his book distributor had gone bankrupt and owed Top Shelf a lot of money and he was asking people to order books directly from Top Shelf to help them make it through this difficult time. Instead of actually ordering books, I emailed Chris to volunteer my time. I never got a response, so I called him on the phone and he asked me to help them pack orders, and from my experience at Borders I knew how to receive stuff and pull orders, use a tape gun and all that stuff. I went up to his house and actually packed orders in his garage. I worked full time at Borders, and with my 3 days off, I would go pack orders at his garage. I did that for maybe a month or two. It was over a thousand orders he got in a 24-hour period, and it took me maybe a month or so to get through all of that.

After that first night working with Chris, he said he wanted to pay me for my time and keep me on as an employee. So, after we got through that initial wave of orders, he kept me on working one or two days a week, still doing receiving stuff and orders, but also expanding my role in the company. I started out part time, but eventually, a couple years later, went full time and left Borders altogether.

You weren't actually physically writing comic books when you started to volunteer for them, were you?

Well, I did write one script for a story that I've never shown anybody. It was going to be a miniseries, and I wrote the first issue for it. So, "The Surrogates" was my second one I had done. I started writing it in about May 2002, and I finished it by December of that year. But when I first showed up to work at Marietta, I didn't have any ideas I was working on at that specific moment. I started working for Top Shelf in April, and the ideas came to me in May. I remember it was May because I take a lot of notes before I start writing a script and I always date my notes.

When did you finally say, "Chris, hey, you know what, I want to write comics and I have this idea." How did he receive that first conversation?

That first night I was at his house, I worked a long day, I worked until it was really late and dark outside, and I ended up having dinner at his house, and we just started talking about whatever, getting to know each other. I probably mentioned to him then I wanted to be a writer, but it wasn't anything I really pressed, or I didn't try to get a script in his hands or pitch ideas to him, it was just normal conversation, but he knew it was something that was a goal of mine. I wanted to wait until the company was out of the rough patch, and I wanted to help him before I started talking about myself.

When did you pitch him the story for "The Surrogates," and how quickly did it end up getting green lit?

It was never a serious pitch I made to him. After I started working for him, we started doing conventions and making these long drives as we were taking books everywhere we go, and we were on the way to Wizardworld Chicago in 2002, so this was about July 2002.

So, shortly after you started writing it.

Yeah, maybe two and a half months after I started working for him. It wasn't like I was pitching the idea to him, because I kind of always went into it with this up front understanding between us that these ideas I have would be more mainstream than what his company normally does, so I didn't want him to ever feel like he had to publish these stories or I'd quit my job. So, in a lot of ways, I would take the opportunity to just talk about it, and if it was worth it, maybe he could introduce me to some publishers. It wasn't like I was pitching it; it was just two guys talking about a story. So on the way to Chicago, I told him what the basic concept was, and I could tell he was interested because he kept asking me questions. Not like he was quizzing me, but things he wanted to know the answers to, like "In this world how would this work?" or "What would you do if this happened?" And it was all things I had already noted out. But I never thought he actually was going to publish it. It wasn't until I had written the complete story and he read the whole thing that he made the offer to publish it, which would have been December 2002.

Was there ever any discussion along the lines of, 'Hey, you work for us, so it might not be a good idea if we publish this,' or was the fact that you worked for Top Shelf the thing that convinced all of you that this was the best fit?

I think part of it was that he and Brett Warnock [Top Shelf's co-founder] had always wanted to do a mainstream story, which was unbeknownst to me at the time, but it was something they thought would be fun to do. And I think if you were to speak to him about it, I've heard him say that, he recognized the potential in it for it to make it to film, of course that all being a long shot kind of thing. And I think another bonus for Brett was the fact that I was in-house. He knew me, and I figure he thought I was professional guy and I'd help him sell the books, and in comic books, the in house guy starting out at the low rung of the ladder and making his way up is kind of a story that is common.

So, it's December 2002, you get the green light, and at that point I imagine you three started looking for artists. How many artists did you go through and when did Brett Weldele get involved?

I don't know how many artists there were - you'd have to ask Chris, but I don't think there were that many, and I don't know if anybody but Brett Weldele got the script. Chris knew Brett from Savannah College of Art and Design where Chris goes to do editors' days once or twice a year, and he remembered Brett's portfolio and he thought Brett's style would be a good fit for the cyberpunk story that "The Surrogates" had, and the sort of noirish feel. So he sent the script to Brett, and Brett liked it and decided to come on board. I didn't know who Brett was prior to that, but that's not any fault of Brett's. Brett had done plenty of work with lots of different guys, I just had a general ignorance of the industry and creator's work because I was still new to comics.

Do you know how soon after the project was green light that Brett got involved?

I want to say it wasn't until 2003. I think that was when he was finally under contract.

The first issue of "The Surrogates" saw publication in 2005 - why did it take two and half years for the book to comic together? Is that just how long it takes to complete five issues of an indy comic?

I don't think it's that long in every case, but for Top Shelf there were a lot of factors involved that weren't typical for them. One was finding an artist and paying a page rate and putting that expense up front. They never had to do that before. They had done books with writer/artist combos, but those were guys who came together to pitch a book, so they were already there from the beginning. This was a situation where they had to go find an artist and pay a page rate and advance all this money up front before the book even came out. And Brett was also working on other projects at the time as well, and Top Shelf didn't want to solicit anything until we had three issues in the can, so we could make sure everything was on schedule. It was kind of all those things together that caused that two and half year gap there.

When Brett finally did come on board, what kind of conversations did you guys have initially about the book?

Very minimal actual conversation. I think we spoke on the phone maybe one time, and we exchanged emails very rarely. Usually it consisted of him saying "Here's the next batch of pages, tell me what you think," and Chris and I would say, "These look great."

I wrote the script sort of in a vacuum. I didn't know a lot about comics or know any comic book artists, and back then, there weren't really any resources you could pick up to find out about comics scripting. Of course now you can go to the bookstore and find a bunch of them, but back in 2002 when I wrote the script it was very, very heavy on detail. The panel descriptions were very long. I think that had a lot to do with, two things, 1) my background being in prose, and I was always an expository writer in prose, much more so than dialogue, and 2) it was just my way of not being an artist and sort of working everything out in my head and trying to really visualize what a story in comics form would be. All the information that I think Brett needed was right there in the script, so I don't think there was a lot of stuff we needed to talk about on the phone.

Did he have much room to improvise, or did he stick pretty close to the script?

I told him up front that I realized I wasn't an artist, so if he had a better way of doing something, just do it, I'd just appreciate him telling me first - not to justify his changes, but because I still had a lot to learn. So yeah, he definitely changed up some layouts and angles, and things like that, to heighten the drama, but for the most part, if it was scripted to be a seven-panel page, it was a seven-panel page. Also, I should say his style, in and of itself, really rendered a lot of my scripting irrelevant in some ways because I was so heavy on detail, and he ended up being an artist that was so sketchy in style that a lot of that detail got lost in the translation. That was not to the detriment of the book in any way! I mean, Brett's style is absolutely perfect and the book looks gorgeous; it was just me writing the book without knowing who the artist was going to be.

Talk about some of that initial spark of an idea and some of the early influences on "The Surrogates?"

Back in Grad school I was in a class, Literature of the Internet, that studied a lot of texts, both fiction and non-fiction, and I only read maybe 10 sci-fi books in my life and most have been from this class. We read "Neuromancer" and "Snow Crash," and we also watched movies like "Johnny Mnemonic" and "The Matrix." We also read this non-fiction book where this writer spent a lot of time with people who are addicted to the internet and online games and chat rooms, and in this book, these people would create these personas for themselves, and would spend so much time maintaining these personas that they would lose their jobs or get divorced, or any of these kinds of things because they couldn't tear themselves away from the machine. It was just sort of a thought that stuck with me, this sort of, this basic human need we all seem to have to be something other than what we are.

Also in this class, we talked a lot about how technology, and specifically the internet, was changing our perceptions of race, and gender, and age, and those kinds of factors that are so integral to the idea of identity as we know it. The internet is taking all those things and turning it on its head, and now you're looking at a screen, and you don't know who the other person is on the other end, you're not seeing them, you're drawing a picture in your head based on the details they give you.

In 2002, when I was first writing out notes on "The Surrogates," I started seeing a lot of those "makeover" shows like "Extreme Makeover" or "Doctor 90210," where people were getting radical surgeries just for the sake of appearance. I think it was a crashing together of those two ideas. One, people using the internet to redefine their identity and create alternate personas for themselves, and two, people using plastic surgery in a way to provide beauty on demand. I suddenly thought that, what if instead of you creating a persona in the computer and making people think of you in a certain way, what if the technology existed for you to appear however you want to, you could send it out into the world and live through that? You would no longer have to worry about losing your job or getting a divorce because you could do all the things you need to do to get through life and still maintain this persona at the same time.

It's surprising to hear is that you say you have only read 10 sci-fi stories in your entire life, yet there still seems to be influences from the likes of Philip K Dick, Wiliam Gibson, maybe even a little Robert Heinlen. Those writers' qualities can be found in this book.

I've never read Robert Heinlen. I did read "Neuromancer" by Gibson, and I had read three Philip K Dick stories, "The Man in the High Castle," "Slow my Tears the Policeman Said," and "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," because I had always been a really big fan of "Blade Runner." I think of all those things, "Blade Runner" is the one that correlates the most, especially the noirish aspects, but I think most of the influences come much more heavily from detective stories, because that has always been an interest of mine. I think "The Surrogates" is a sci-fi story because it has to be, since the technology doesn't exist yet, but beyond that, I think it's just a story about a mystery and a couple detetives who have to solve it. I'd say the majority of my artistic influences came from the crime side more than the sci-fi side.

Is there a specific Crime or Noir author that you would cite as a huge influence on your work?

Not really. It doesn't even have to be an author. It could also just be shows like "NYPD Blue."

Let's switch gears here and talk about the characters that inhabit "The Surrogates." The main character of the book is Detective Harvey Greer. Who is Harvey to you?

Harvey is just a guy who's maybe a bit of a throwback to an earlier, simpler time. I'm similar in this way. I sort of have these romanticized ideas of bygone eras that I never lived in myself, sort of a traditional guy, I guess, in a lot of ways, and Harvey is very much that way, too. He's a guy living in a time, who has romanticized ideals, but is caught up in the time he is living in and has to live by certain rules that he doesn't necessarily like.

Is there anyone in the real world that was an influence on who Harvey is, a friend maybe?

No, not so much that, but that aspect of my personality I think I get from my Grandfather telling me stories about the Depression era and his experiences in World War II, so I always had these romanticized ideas, even though I'm sure they weren't very much fun for him at the time, but it seemed like such a cool time to be alive. That's where that aspect comes from, but Harvey is nothing at all like my grandfather was.

So, you're saying Harvey is not you?

No he's not, but I do think everything you write is in some way autobiographical. He's not me, but that aspect of me is reflective in him.

Another important character related to Harvey, though she is in the graphic novel very little, is his wife Margaret. She plays a really important role in grounding him, yet I think she is in maybe only 10 pages of the entire book. Talk about that a little bit and who she is.

She's not in it very much, but to me, Margaret as a character and her relationship to Harvey are really the heart of the story and what really grounds the story and drives home to the reader, I hope, what the affect of surrogate technology would be in this future world. It's the most important aspect of the book to me. She's someone who buys into the surrogate technology much more than Harvey does, to the extent that she not only has a surrogate and operates it all the time, but the line has really started to gray for her and she can't differentiate where the surrogate stops and she begins. She is the surrogate and it is her identity. She has taken it to the extreme, and it has put this strain on their marriage because Harvey is a guy who has a surrogate for tactical reasons to do his job as a cop, but when he comes home he is himself. She will only interact with him as her surrogate, even in the home, and so she has really taken it to the nth degree.

And the other main character we see most often is sort of the villain, though maybe not really the villain by the time you get to the end of the book, is Zaire Powell III, AKA "The Prophet." Talk about him a little; what kind of real world characters were an influence on him?

With Zaire, I wanted to create a character that was in a gray area, and this is very much what I wanted to do with the book in general. I didn't ever really want to, as the writer, definitively answer any of the questions I was posing as far as "Would surrogate technology be good or bad, where's the line between good technology and bad technology get drawn." I didn't want to answer those questions.

I tried to do that with the Prophet. I wanted him to be a character - is this guy a con man using religion to gain power or wield influence, or is he really doing all these things out of a deep and abiding faith because this is what god wants him to do? And even though it sounds like a cop out because you hear writers say this all the time, I don't even know where he comes down on that divide, which is maybe what makes the character work on the page, I don't even know if the character is a prophet or a con man, either. I haven't figured it out for myself, and so, a lot of times, when I think I know where he's headed, an idea will come to me and the character will surprise me and do something else. He's a really fun character to write, and again, I'm very rooted in my early upbringing and my experiences reading the Bible, and I wanted to bring a lot of that to bear in his character, and sort of specifically pick Bible passages and phrases and use them in a certain way, where you could interpret them as him saying it as a con man or really as a prophet. Everything he says can cut both ways.

There's one other character I really enjoyed a lot, the forensic investigator Screws. Talk about him a little bit and his creation.

It's a staple of detective fiction, where you always have the forensic examiner or the coroner or whatever, casually eating a ham sandwich as he stands over a dead body or something, so I wanted to play with that archetype, and have this character who really can eat a ham sandwich over a "dead body" if he wants to because it is just a machine. He isn't callous; he is more of an auto mechanic and eating lunch, even though that doesn't actually happen in story. I wanted him to be that kind of guy who can talk about these "murder victims," these destroyed surrogate machines in a way that is a little more flippant, and is awed by them and these crimes and what has been done to these machines, and would be creepy if they were real people and not machines.

When longtime comic readers take a look at "The Surrogates," I think they would be surprised to find out this is your first comic book. It's a fairly lengthy first foray into comics.

Yeah. The stories were all 24 pages each, then 4 pages of supplemental material, and a few pages here and there, so they all ended being 32 page comic books, except for the final issue which ended up as just 32 pages of story.

You really went all out with "The Surrogates" and the supplemental material. Each issue has additional information that's presented in a variety of different ways, whether it was a transcript of a news program, or a technical examination of what the world is like, or a brochure for this surrogate technology. Why do those lengthy text pieces? What was the thinking behind that?

I wanted to do them from the beginning, because, one thing about the story is that I think it was a world that needed a lot of fleshing out, but I really only had a five act plot, so I didn't want to bog down the dialogue with all of these things that I felt needed to be conveyed to the reader to show, really, what this world was like and how surrogate technology affected it. But also, just being a first time writer, the most I ever hoped to have happen with this book was that somebody would publish it, nobody would ever read it, but I would have a resume piece to show to other editors as "here's work I have done, give me some more work so I can write some stories." One of the things I wanted to do was showcase my abilities as best as possible, and I think the supplements were another way to do tha. I'm not only writing this comic book, but I'm also writing a fake promotional brochure and newspaper articles, and an editor might look at it and see that I'm a guy who can do a lot of different things. I really just wanted to put as much as I could into this one book, and make it as good as a resume piece as I could.

As this is your first comic, and I imagine you have learned an awful lot about writing comics since you first started "The Surrogates," when you look back on it and the choices you made, is there anything that makes you cringe?

The worst part about a book for me, [is] when it comes from a printer for the first time and you crack it open. I always feel like you have to read it, because I want to know if there's a page out of order or something like that, and I always see something I wish I had done differently. But I think it will always be that way. That isn't to say I want to disown the story or anything. I'm very proud and happy with it, as far as first efforts go, I've been very fortunate with it. But I think there will always be things about every issue I write that as I get further in my career and hopefully continue to grow as a writer I'll wish I could go back and do things differently.

Is there a particular page or panel that upsets you?

I should have done my research on this, should have known you'd ask me this. I think some of the pacing in some of the scenes didn't work as good as it could have. One of the things I learned working at Marvel with [Editor] John Barber... at first, I sort of really did not want to use sound effects at all. I felt a lot of sound effects in comics were extraneous. We all know what a gun sounds like, we don't need to see "bang bang" on the page. To me, sound effects always seemed like one of the things that make the medium seem a little juvenile, and while I think it is still true in some cases, there are parts in, particularly some of the actions scenes in "The Surrogates," that would have benefitted from them. In the prequel, "Flesh and Bone," I have incorporated some sound effects.

The remarkable circumstances surrounding your introduction to Top Shelf, all these chance meetings make it a rather unusual first foray into comics, but if I'm remembering correctly, you were on your way out of Atlanta when all of this stuff went down.

That's true. My wife and I had already decided we were going to move back to Florida. I had put in an application for a teaching position down there, and we were left with a couple of months before moving, when all these things started to happen with Top Shelf with me helping them out. I remember calling her on the phone on the way home one night, telling her that I thought we should stick around and see what happens because I don't know if I'm good enough to be a writer, but I could tell already that if I stick by Chris, I'd find out one way or the other. He was a guy I knew and respected and could trust, and I knew he was a guy who could open some doors for me if I was good enough. And if I wasn't, I could move on and put the writing thing away. It was a way to answer the question, "Do I have what it takes to be a writer in this world?" So, I told her I thought we should stay in Atlanta to see this thing through, and she was really good about it, and supported me the whole way, and if she hadn't, I would have moved back to Florida.

Kudos to your wife. What makes your story even more incredible is that in 2005 the book sees first publication and finishes in 2006, and here we are, only four years later, it's been made into a movie starring one of the biggest actors in Hollywood, Bruce Willis. How quick was the initial interest from Hollywood?

Return tomorrow for the answer to that question and much more, as we discuss the journey "The Surrogates" took from printed page to that initial option, the story changes made for the film, and what it's like to visit the set of a movie based on your own property.

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