Virtual Life: Venditti, Weldele & Staros talk Top Shelf's Sci-Fi Series "The Surrogates"

If you were to ask your casual comics fan what kind of books Top Shelf Productions publishes, they'd mention award winning and critically lauded graphic novels like "Blankets," "Creature Tech" and "Owly." Their catalog of titles is unique and focused on original graphic novels, forgoing the monthly comics format so popular within the US comics industry. This July, Top Shelf will experiment with the standard comics format in the bi-monthly sci-fi series "The Surrogates." Written by newcomer Robert Venditti with art by Brett Weldele, the five-issue mini-series will launch July 13th and debut during Comic-Con International in San Diego. CBR News caught up with Venditti, Weldele and Top Shelf Publisher Chris Staros to learn more about this series and why Staros believes this is a book with great mainstream potential.

"'The Surrogates' is a sci-fi story set fifty years from now, where society has been transformed by the personal surrogate, a new technology that blends virtual reality and cybernetics, allowing people to experience the world without ever leaving their homes," writer Robert Venditti told CBR News. "There's also a bit of mystery, as the story follows a police investigation into a string of anti-surrogate crimes committed by a techno-terrorist whose agenda isn't always clear."

As the story begins we're introduced to two detectives with the police department in the Central Georgia Metropolis, better known as Atlanta today. The main character is Lieutenant Harvey Greer. "He's a veteran cop who, like all police officers, operates a surrogate to protect himself against the hazards of his job," explained Venditti. "But he comes from a time when people actually lived their lives instead of just experiencing them through their surrogates units, and as such, he isn't completely sold on the extent to which surrogates have pervaded society."

Joining Harvey is his partner, Detective Pete Ford, who doesn't quite share his Lieutenant's more traditional view of the world. "Pete is a young, brash detective, who likes the freedom afforded by surrogates, not only on the job, but in his personal life as well, where he can indulge himself in whatever he likes without having to worry about any of the risks," said Venditti.

Joining those two is a supporting cast of characters that include Harvey's wife, Margaret, whose continuous use of her surrogate, even while at home, has taken a very real toll on their marriage. There's also The Prophet, a cult leader who preaches that surrogates and their use are an offense to God, and SteepleJack, an elusive techno-terrorist with his own agenda.

"I began working on ['The Surrogates'] in May of 2002, but the genesis of the idea goes back farther than that," Venditti explained. "As part of a college class, I read a book called 'The Cybergypsies' by Indra Sinha. Written in the late-90s, it's a true story about people addicted to the Internet and cyberspace. Something about the characters -- people who were willing to jeopardize everything, even their careers and families, to maintain their virtual personas -- stuck with me. These people were limited, however, because no matter how much they may have wanted to don their virtual personas at all times, they were forced at some point to revert to their real selves, if for no other reason that to go to work and earn the money needed to keep their computers turned on. I began thinking about what it would be like if people could send their virtual selves out into the real world. Then they could work, date, get the groceries, and do everything else without ever having to drop the façade. What would that world be like? That's where 'The Surrogates' began."

Venditti says he's a pretty avid reader, but admits he's not read much science fiction literature. Those he has read such as classics like "1984," "Brave New World," "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" (which was the basis for the film "Blade Runner") and "Neuromancer" were all influences on "The Surrogates." "This is true not just because some of them deal with the question of identity in the virtual world, but also because they all possess the qualities of what I think makes good sci-fi," said Venditti. "That is, instead of being just action stories with flying cars, these books use futuristic settings to raise serious questions about today's world. This is something I consciously strived for with 'The Surrogates.'

"As such, the story is certainly a reaction to contemporary culture. It's about how technology is affecting our connection to each other and our world. It's also about the continuously growing obsession with physical appearance, and the extreme lengths to which some will go to tailor how they look. Ultimately it's about progress, and whether there exists a point at which technology will stop enhancing and start hindering our lives."

Venditti is joined on "The Surrogates" by artist Brett Weldele whom Publisher Chris Staros suggested. "Chris mailed Brett the script, and he liked the story and was able to fit in into his schedule, which has been an incredible boon because his talents as both artist and colorist lend the perfect atmosphere to the story."

For Weldele, this is the second time he's worked with a first time comics writer and says it's been a breeze so far as Rob's scripts are very fully realized.

"The art process is equal parts analog and digital," artist Brett Weldele told CBR News. "It all starts with old school pencil and paper, then moves into Photoshop and Painter for finish.

"The major difference between this and my previous work is simply colour," continued Weldele. "This is the most work I've ever done on a book, not to mention this is also my longest project to date. To do a fully painted book has been the goal all along though and I'm pleased with the results."

"I should also mention that the efforts of graphic design firm Bissel & Titus have been crucial to the book's creation," added Venditti. "Their unifying design concept adds a visual element to the story's supplemental material that goes a long way toward bringing the world of 'The Surrogates' to life. The book wouldn't be the same without them."

Venditti came to the attention of Top Shelf back in April of 2002 when, in the wake of the bankruptcy of the publisher's book store distributor, Top Shelf found itself in a very tough spot. If Top Shelf didn't raise some cash fast to cover the money owed them by their distributor, there was a very serious possibility the company would go under due to no fault of their own. Word spread fast and when Venditti read the news he called Top Shelf to see how he might be able to help. With the overwhelming response that came from the comics community, Staros put Venditti to work packing up the over 1,000 orders that came in which helped save the company from the brink of extinction. This eventually led to a full-time position with the company. That introduction was the first step for Venditti breaking in to the comics industry, literally starting in the mailroom and working his way up.

At the same time, Venditti had only been reading comics for about two years, but knew he wanted to try his hand at writing them. He had no practical knowledge of the industry and not a clue where to begin. Once things settled down at Top Shelf, Venditti approached Staros to see if he'd look over the script for "The Surrogates." Originally his intention was to have Staros edit the project and help him market it to more mainstream publishers like DC and Dark Horse, thinking Top Shelf wouldn't be interested in publishing his book. "But once I read the script, I wasn't going to let this gem of an idea go anywhere else," Publisher Chris Staros told CBR News. "It was just that cool."

"It never occurred to me that they might actually want to keep it for themselves," added Venditti. "But they did, and the result has been the best possible scenario. Chris and Brett Warnock are so dedicated and knowledgeable and their patience has helped me learn the ropes. It's been a surprisingly easy process for me. And working with Brett Weldele, seeing how he translates my script into comics, has helped me better understand what does and doesn't work on the page. All in all, it's been a real learning experience that I'll take with me on future projects."

"The Surrogates" is Top Shelf's first bi-monthly comic series. Starros said "The Surrogates" demanded monthly publication as it's designed to be a five-issue miniseries with cliffhangers and compelling endings each issue.

"It's very episodic and cleverly crafted, so it was important to not only publish it in the form it was intended, but to also get the book out on a regular basis," explained Staros. "Brett Weldele is already close to completing the entire series, so it's going to be a breeze to keep that bi-monthly schedule on track."

Staros believes that "The Surrogates" is the most mainstream publication they've offered so far and explained his reasoning. "Well, it's the first book we've ever done that we know would appeal to just about every mainstream comics fan out there," said Staros. "From Batman and X-Men fans, to Bendis and Ellis fans, this book is going to have a far-reaching appeal. I guess our only concern was that people might miss it entirely, as they wouldn't expect it to come from Top Shelf. But with the press this book is getting, it looks like 'The Surrogates' will get a great launch."

"The Surrogates" is a five-issue, bi-monthly series with a definite conclusion, but Venditti already has ideas for additional story arcs and is hopefully fans will react positively enough to justify further stories. Venditti said, "I've got my fingers crossed!"

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