From died in the wool Top Cow comics fans to the occasional gaggle of 14-year-old girls attempting to snap his picture with their camera phones, the crowd at Top Cow's Sunday panel at the 2009 New York Comic Con saw a different side to actor Milo Ventimiglia than that of his meek Peter character on the NBC drama "Heroes."
While the screen above the panelists featured a rather ripped and rage-filled version of a character with more than a passing resemblance to the actor, drawn by Dale Keown and covered in blood, Ventimiglia spent the hour pitching the crowd on the book the image came from: "Berserker," which debuts as a six-issue miniseries in June, with a zero issue given away for free at the show.
Joining in on the panel were Russ Cundiff, Ventimiglia's partner in his DiVide Pictures production company, series writer Rick Loverd, artist Jeremy Haun and Top Cow Publisher Filip Sablik.
Ventimiglia kick started the action by showing a video teaser he and Cundiff had prepared for "Berserker," featuring a wild character flipping out and throwing a car, but soon turned to telling the story of how his production company brought the story to Top Cow (in a very similar way to their setting up of "Rest" at Devil's Due Productions). "It all started at a breakfast with Rick Loverd," Ventimiglia said. "Russ and I had read some of his stuff. He of course is a writer on the TV show 'Friday Night Lights,' and he had these two scripts that Russ and I died over. They were great. One was about zombies and one was 'Berserker,' and when Russ and I went to the meeting, we pretty much said, 'Oh my God. No one's ever going to make this. Let's get it.'"
Loverd explained that writing the ultra-violent script worked in part as a cathartic writing exercise after dealing with Hollywood red tape. "It's funny, because I don't think anything phases you after you rip a man's face off on paper," he joked, before spelling out the series' core concept: "'Berserker' is about a bunch of people in contemporary times discovering they have this ancient Norse power, and this discovery is the opposite of pleasant. When they wake up from blind rages, the people they love around them are dead. It's all about the people being tortured by this and how they have to deal with it."
Ventimigia added of the lead players, "You've got these two characters - one is a returning vet from Afghanistan and the other is a high school athlete - and they basically find themselves in this compromising position where they come out of this blind rage and people around them are ripped in half. Cars are shredded and there's destruction, mayhem and death, and they don't know where it's coming from. As you get deeper into the book, you find out these guys have ties to Norse mythology, and they're being basically recruited by two warring families to fight in this big battle called Ragnarok.
"That's where our story goes, and if you know anything about Norse mythology and how huge and epic it is, then you know the kinds of stories you can tell with this premise. I think that was something that Russ and I absolutely gravitated towards - this is huge, this is epic, and you've got a great story. It's just these guys who are struggling with this carnage they don't want, and it's all put into a plot of a big, big battle."
When asked by an audience member whether or not "Berserker" would feature appearances by the fully fledged gods of Norse myth, Loverd explained, "You're not going to see a direct reference to Odin or anyone, but it's all in there. For people who know the mythology, it'll be another layer they get out of the book, but for people who don't know the mythology it's not something that will interfere with them getting inside the story that you'll see."
The team rounded out with Haun on art, and Sablik noted that the penciler best known for his work on independent series like "Battle Hymn" earned a spot on the team when Cundiff and Ventimiglia saw his work on the Top Cow Pilot Season comic "Alibi," which also put forth a somewhat dark perspective on life. "The funniest thing about all of this is that Rick and Jeremy are probably two of the most mellow, nice guys you will ever meet in your life," said the publisher, before praising the team's violent collaboration. "Rick has taken to comic books like a duck to water, and it's been really cool to watch him find the best way to write comics. And Jeremy, for you guys who aren't familiar, has been in the industry for a number of years and has done some really cool work on titles you should check out like 'Leading Man' and 'Chuck' recently."
Ventimiglia agreed. "You should really see the art Jeremy does because the blood is so prevalent and so black that you're just like, 'Wow, man. Is that all blood?' And he's just, 'Yeah, it's all blood.'
"I got the call, and basically it was 'Here's the germ of an idea. I think you're going to like it. It's real world, but it's also a little bit fantastic with a lot of violence, and we're not going to ask you to hold back,'" Haun explained. "One thing you find when you draw a lot of comic books is that you're constantly being asked, 'Look, you can pull out that guy's spine... that's not cool' And these guys were like, 'Can you pull out his spine? Can you do it twice?'"
Sablik made special note of the fact that Cundiff and Ventimiglia had a stronger hand in the creation of the comic book than the average screenplay-to-comics deal, a fact supported by their interest in both the property and the medium. "Russ and Milo are involved every step of the way... when all the art comes through and the scripts come through. Usually, the feedback is, 'I want more blood' or 'Fuck yes, that's awesome!'"
"I sat in the same room that we're in right now," Ventimiglia mused. "When I was a little kid - I know I've said this before - but my dad took me to comic shops. So to be able to give back one book with 'Rest' that we did last year and now to have a second one, it's like 'Fuck! That's awesome!' We like to tell good stories, and there's no better platform than with comics."