Second's The Best: Rich Bernatovech talks 'Sentinels'

December is a month known for many festive occasions, from Chanukah to Christmas, and while the gifts that comic book fans receive usually come in the form of special holiday themed superhero comics, writer Rich Bernatovech decided to give fans something different: a brand spankin new set of superheroes in his first original graphic novel (OGN). CBR News spoke with the author of "Sentinels" and learned everything you need to know about this planned series of OGNs.

"Sentinels is about a second generation superhero team whose parents disappeared when they were young," Bernatovech explains. "The story begins with the team already separated over the lost of one of their members. A force connected to their parents past sets in motion events that regroup them and lead them on a journey that starts to answer the secrets of their past."

If you're sighing because you feel that "Sentinels" is yet another superhero comic or you think it might be another "needless" deconstruction of the superhero genre, cast those thoughts aside ye comic fan: Bernatovech is here to have fun. "Comics, in general, are the main inspiration for 'Sentinels.' I grew up reading a lot of the team books of the 80s and miss that feeling of new that I don't see in comic anymore. I wanted to have that feeling of being interested in something new and liking characters that anything could happen to. That you couldn't predict where the story was going and you just went along for the ride. I hope readers will discover that in 'Sentinels' and as far as filling a niche, I can see people interested in superheroes liking the book as well as sci-fi fans, mystic fans and fans of manga-style art. Even though I think our art is more detailed than a lot of manga. Luciano's style is heavily influenced by it and I think very unique in execution."

No story is quite complete without a compelling set of characters and while the cast is fairly large, Bernatovech explains the defined roles for the characters in the OGN. "The Sentinels are 10 members strong. In brief, the team includes:

"TEMPLAR: Payens Molay is the team leader. The last of the historical Templar Knights, Payens carries the burden of ancient responsibilities, mystic weaponry and guilt over his brother's death.

"HARLETTE: Kelly Cardy is second-in-command and challenges most of Templar's decisions. After years of living on the street, Harlette relies on her enhanced senses and trusts no one.

"GOSPEL and SIN: Michelle and Maurice Williams are siblings linked to the forces of light and darkness. Trained together their whole lives, they will soon have to learn to stand alone.

"SPLASH: A thirst for fame makes the water-controlling Kristin Gustines a less then reliable team member. If it was not for Electron, her life would be perfect.

"ELECTRON: Pedro Perez is a man of many commitments: to the team, to his family's well-being, to his father's memory. Perhaps if he saw his own self-worth, Splash would too.

"PHAZER: Cass Harvey is arguably the best adjusted of the team. He came to terms with who he is years ago. But if he's so content, why is he haunted by fiery images of the original Sentinels?

"SERPENTA: Eve Chevillion's appearance necessitated a sheltered upbringing - one in front of a TV. But her tireless enthusiasm inspires the team to stay together. Well, except for Crusher.

"CRUSHER: Robert Beck is filled with rage: at his parents, his size and those who may threaten his sister, Firebomb. Protecting her - and smashing things - are two of his favorite pastimes.

"FIREBOMB: Samantha Beck longs to find her own identity and neither her insecurities nor her overprotective brother make it easy. But a recent event will change everything about her.

"All the characters were inspired by different family or friends of mine, as well as characters in comics and books, that I loved growing up. In some cases they were even inspired by each other. Splash was originally just a background character and when I connected her to Electron she just took on a life of her own and has become one of my favorite characters to write. Each character is nothing like they were when I create them, they became something different when I put them all together. I love that."

There is a vocal group of fans on the Internet who believe that the OGN format is better for modern comics and while Bernatovech might not go that far, his own experiences with the medium necessitated this "complete" format. "Originally, I was going to publish 'Sentinels' as a regular monthly comic. But that was in 2000 and I started to watch the market change. At that time I was doing both the art and the writing and it was taking forever. Of course, then 9/11 happened and living in NYC and working at the New York Times I went through a lot of soul-searching, like everyone else who was moved by the event. I decided a while after that that I wanted to get this book out and had to stop being so damn proud and admit that I couldn't do it all. I was introduced to Luciano and we started over from the beginning. As we worked, I noticed how the book got better with each chapter (issue) and worried that people might only pick up the first or second issue, which was hardly the whole story. Deciding to publish 'Sentinels' as an original graphic novel is really risky, but I think that is what is best for us. We priced the book pretty moderately and I am definitely in a little debt because of this, but at least the first part of the story is being told complete. I think/hope people will like that. I know I did with books like 'Sandman,' 'Preacher' and even 'Elfquest' which I didn't read until I discovered them in trade form."

Self-publishing a book is definitely not an easy task, so why did Bernatovech decide to go the self publishing route? Did he shop it around to various publishers? "This has got to be the hardest part of doing this book. Getting people to take you seriously and even look at your work is the hardest part of the comic business. I had contacted a few 'established' publishers, but none of them ever even looked at the book. Only two people at DC, Bob Schrek and Frank Miller, ever took me seriously. Both of them offered me great advice and really encouraged me to keep going. It was Frank that convinced me to try self-publishing after hearing his stories of working in the industry and it was Bob who told me a lot of the ins and outs of actually doing it. I think the best promotion is actually word of mouth. You can invest thousands in doing color ads in magazines or other comics and if the work isn't liked you've lost. But with the Internet and all the great fans site out there, buzz can be generate better press I think. …I did do a mass mailing of postcards to comic book stores and also handed them out at conventions. The postcards advertised the website which I think is kind of key in our promotion too. We have a great flash animated trailer for the book on there that really tells and shows what 'Sentinels' is about. I also had longtime comic idol, George Perez, do a bunch of illustrations for me. George is the best in the biz. I've know him since I was about 15 and he has always been nothing but encouraging. Having him do some pinups for the book has really been helpful in getting us some attention, too."

Switching gears, "Sentinels" deals with the blossoming maturity of these young heroes and their place in the world, two concepts full of potential but often perceived to be executed with too much angst or preaching. "The way the story of the 'Sentinels' happens there is really not a lot of time for being too preachy or too angst," explains Bernatovech. "Besides I hate being preached to. Even through there is a lot of religious themes that will show up later in 'Sentinels,' I don't preach them. Same with sexuality. One of the characters is openly gay and it's not really focused on and he is probably the most well adjusted of the group. But that's just who he is, no reason it dwell on it. Readers will either pick up on it or they won't. I think that the way to do things. Let the readers fill in some the gaps themselves. There's a full page near the end of the book that has no text on it at all. I had planned to write this really long description of what the character had gone through and why they came to the moment that the page shows, but Luciano drew the page so well that I decided to leave it blank and let the readers just read the emotion on the characters face which tells them everything right there. Doing things like that, I believe save you from crossing that line."

Though fans of "Legion" or "JSA" may scoff at the idea of ten characters constituting a large cast, it did prove to be a challenging experience for Bernatovech, but he's always had one thing consistent throughout his life: he overcomes all challenges. "I think most of the character's personalities are well established by the end of the book. Since the entire story is already plotted out, I know that eventually every character will shine and has their own story. The first book is really about the team aspect of the Sentinels and their relationship to each other. While the second book focuses more on the individual members."

Mixed in with the characterization and deep themes, there's the mystery of who kills who: but the scribe isn't about to give that away quite yet. "Knowing what happens at the end of the series, the hardest part is not telling people. I don't think it's been done before, at least not that I've read. Second generation superheroes are nothing new, but when the series is finished people will definitely be surprised at the final outcome."

As he mentioned earlier, Bernatovech works at the New York Times and with the broad perspective and experiences he's accrued there, it's interesting to learn how those impacted his comic book writing. "I've been at the New York Times for 12 years and when I first started I was really young and don't think I realized how important working in the news industry really was. Working there has definitely influenced my writing. The people there don't really get the respect they deserve. With the recent scandal regarding a former writer, I worried about mention working there but it's just too important for me not to. Watching reporters and editors put together a paper in a matter of hours teaches you how to focus and watch deadlines. At the same time we deal with world news which can be pretty depressing at times. All of that fuels my fantasy life and gives me ideas which I use in my writing. 'Sentinels' is pure escapism and is something I would read if I was looking to just escape into another world.

"The hardest part has definitely been promoting the book. Everything else has been pure pleasure. Writing something I love and having an incredible artist who brings it all to life is what keeps me going."

While you can call Bernatovech an artist, he uses words as his palette and needed a visual artist with similar passions to bring the project to life, something he found in Luciano Vecchio. "Luciano and I met through a mutual friend on the Internet. Gotta love the Internet. When people see Luciano's work they will understand how unique he is. Luciano adds so much emotion to the characters he draws that you could almost learn the story without reading the text. He's one of those artist who gives their characters movement in each panel, not poses. At the same time his characters are superheroic and energetic. I could go on and on about his art but I think once people see it I won't have to say a thing. He's truly gifted."

"Sentinels" may continue in additional graphic novels, but it doesn't mean this one will end with a cliffhanger or unsatisfying conclusion. "The first graphic novel does not end with a cliff hanger. It completes the first part of the 'Sentinels' story while leading into the next one. Without giving too much away, yes there will still be lots of questions to be answered, but I don't think readers will be left feeling like they have to buy the next book. There is a complete story here. Hopefully, they will want to see the complete series because they liked the characters and story.

"The main mystery of the series won't be fully answered until the fourth book. But there are major changes in store for each character as the books come out and clues as to what happened to their parents. We are a third of the way finished on book 2. It is a little slower paced and focused more on the personal life of the characters and starts to connect all the different elements introduced in book 1. Everything in book 1 is there for a reason, that's been the best part of doing this as a trade and having a definite ending planned, I can slow explain things and let the reader try to figure things out."

If you're unsure about reading the series and haven't checked out www.sentinelsonline.com, then Bernatovech has one more reason for you to check out the series: "Because it's fun! It's the kind of book that doesn't insult readers intelligence or talk down to them. It just tells a story and takes you along for the ride."

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