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    Robert Venditti on The Surrogates

    By Tim Leong

    CF: In the beginning, how did you start writing the series? Did you write it all at once? What format did you use?

    VENDITTI: Once the idea for The Surrogates hit me, I spent a few weeks jotting down notes on paper, everything from character descriptions to scraps of dialogue to entire scenes. I carried paper with me everywhere I went, so I was always prepared if something came to mind.

    When I felt like the characters and the entire story arc were adequately mapped out, I started writing the first issue. When the issue was finished, I went back and revised it, tightening dialogue and removing redundancies, etc. Then I moved on to the second issue, working with the plot outline I created in the note-taking phase. After the second issue was finished, I went back and reread 1 and 2 in conjunction, making sure they fit together and revising the places where they didn’t. And so on, until all five issues were completed. I should add, though, that the final story deviated from the original plot outline in some respects, so I did allow things to develop organically. The outline was more a guide than something that was carved in stone.

    For my scripting, I used the full-script format. I like to have a more hands-on approach with my stories. This probably comes from my background in prose writing (my college major was creative writing), where the writer is involved in every aspect of the story. Plus, when I wrote the script I wasn’t working with an artist, and I didn’t even know one that I could bounce ideas off of. I was new to comics, and I was writing a script as an exercise, to see if I could do it. So writing plot-first wouldn’t have provided me with the experience I was looking for.

    CF: There’s ample amounts of theology and philosophy in the story. How do you walk the fine line between subtext and smashing the reader over the head with it?

    VENDITTI: My basic rule is this: If the theology/philosophy/whatever serves the story, then it’s subtext. If it serves you, then it’s preaching. We’ve all read stories or seen movies where the audience was being preached to, so we know what it feels like. As a writer, you have to be able to recognize when you’re falling into the same trap.

    CF: Why did you decide to include supplemental reading in the back of the issues? How does that help aid storytelling?

    VENDITTI: For me, writing is all about immersing the reader in the fictional world. I wanted to make the world of The Surrogates as convincing as possible, and including things like supplemental articles and mock advertisements seemed like a good way to accomplish this. It gave me an opportunity to provide some deep background without intruding on the plot. I mean, the journal supplement at the back of the first issue is something like 2,000 words. Imagine trying to convey all of that information with captions and balloons! Instead of having the characters talk to each other, they’d end up talking to the reader – another trap to watch out for.

    CF: How did you use the futuristic world in The Surrogates to relate back to questions and events of today?

    VENDITTI: It was the other way around, really. I wanted to bring some of the issues facing contemporary society – the notion of identity, the obsession with physical appearance, the downside of technological advancement – to a possible conclusion. To make this happen I needed a futuristic setting, so I created one that would let me explore the things I felt needed exploring. After all, this is the purpose of science fiction, but more on that later.

    CF: Knowing that the book was going to run as a five-issue miniseries, how did you plot scripts and endings to sustain readership?

    VENDITTI: From the beginning, I knew I wanted the series to be five issues. When I was jotting down my notes and cobbling together the plot, I made sure to end each issue with a revealing plot point or a moment of heightened dramatic tension, something to bring the reader back for the next issue. There was a fair amount of strategy involved, as with each issue there were several subplots that needed to develop in order for me to reach the desired ending, and I only had 24 pages to work with. There were scenes that I rewrote multiple times, only to leave them out in the final version because they were taking up space I needed for more important material. I really liked some of those scenes, too. But in the end, if something is preventing you from developing the characters and forwarding the plot as much as you could be, then it doesn’t belong. Everything has to serve the story.

    CF: In creating a future universe, how much did you have to map out and know about the setting, characters, etc?

    VENDITTI: A lot more than I thought I was going to! As the story progressed and I delved deeper into the world, there were things I’d encounter that needed to be addressed. This was especially true when I was writing the supplements. I found myself doing research to try and come up with a realistic figure for how many police officers there would be in a city the size of Central Georgia Metropolis, stuff like that. When there was no prior research to be found, I went with what sounded convincing.

    One thing I did have to create, however, was a series bible. I described all of the characters, the city they lived in, how surrogate technology worked, etc. I also had a timeline, listing all of the events that brought about the future world, even though most of the events never appear in the comic itself. These were just good ways for me to nail some things down – a way of saying, “This is what this world is like, and there’s no deviating from it.” This reference helped me keep everything straight and avoid contradiction.

    CF: How did you decide what futuristic elements to include in the story? (For example, there are no flying cars.)

    VENDITTI: I didn’t want The Surrogates to be more about the setting than the characters, so I tried to supply only what futuristic elements were needed to get the story told. I didn’t see a need for flying cars, so why have them? Aren’t there enough stories with flying cars?

    What I discovered was that being selective with what I did and did not give the futuristic treatment, ended up solving some of the story’s problems. For example, early on it occurred to me that a surrogate would be a pricey purchase, so how would everyone be able to afford that as well a nifty flying car? To address this, I gave Central Georgia Metropolis a network of motorized skywalks for its citizens to get about, meaning the money they no longer had to set aside for hovercars could now be spent on surrogates. Then the skywalks themselves became important to the story, providing the setting for a major plot point in the second issue. So the careful choices I made early on wound up informing the story in ways I hadn’t expected. This is the organic part of the writing process that is the most exciting for me.

    CF: What are the qualities of good science fiction? What does it mean to create Top Shelf’s first foray into the mainstream? What was their editorial interaction? How did they treat this “mainstream” book differently than their normal fare?

    VENDITTI: I’ve not read a lot of science fiction, but it seems to me that good sci fi uses the tropes of the genre – robots, aliens, time travel, etc. – to raise serious questions about contemporary society. I’ve been lucky that the science-fiction books I’ve read have been successful in this regard. I can only hope that The Surrogates reaches some level of this.

    As for working with Top Shelf . . . where do I start? They’re one of the premier art-comics publishers, so having them select my story as their first mainstream project is an incredible honor. Editorially, they held The Surrogates to the same criteria as all of their books: The story had to be fresh and compelling. They found the first draft I submitted met their standard, so there wasn’t much revising to be done. I’d say the only way they’ve treated the book differently from the rest of their line is in the way it’s being promoted, with an eye more towards the mainstream comics audience as opposed to the art-comics set.

    CF: This is also Top Shelf’s first in-house book – how did that work differently for them?

    VENDITTI: I think it was a surprise for everyone involved. When I first showed Chris Staros the script for the story, it was with the hope that he would help me shop it around to more mainstream publishers. I knew it wasn’t the kind of material Top Shelf normally publishes, and I wanted to avoid an uncomfortable situation where Chris might think I was saying, “Publish this, or I quit!” So I told him from the beginning I had no expectations of it becoming a Top Shelf book.

    Unbeknownst to me, however, Top Shelf had wanted to publish a mainstream story all along, and they felt The Surrogates was what they were looking for. It just so happened that it came from a guy who was on the company payroll. I’ve been very fortunate because the situation has afforded me the opportunity to be involved in the entire publishing process at a level that would be impossible if my publisher was in New York or Portland. Other than that, I guess the only difference for them is that I’ll be the only creator with two tax forms on file, one for wages and the other for royalties.

    CF: This is your first published work. What were some of the better lessons you learned in the process?

    VENDITTI: The most important thing I learned was to be patient. It takes a long time for a comic to go through all of its phases, and no matter how much you may want to see it on the racks, you need to take as much time as needed to ensure that the finished product is as good as it can be. For me, this meant giving the artist on the project, Brett Weldele – who’s unquestionably the right guy for the job – the time to work around his hectic schedule. It meant giving the book’s designers, Dave Bissel and Jim Titus – who’ve made some amazing contributions – the time they needed to make each issue shine. It meant giving Top Shelf the time to make sure the book would get released at the best possible moment and then stay on schedule for its entire run. If I’d been in a rush and sacrificed any of these things for expediency, the book would’ve ultimately suffered.

    CF: What was the hardest part of this whole thing?

    VENDITTI: This is an expansion on the previous answer, but to me the hardest part was the waiting. With prose writing, you finish the story and it’s done. All you have to do is drop it in an envelope and wait to hear back from somebody. With comics, however, the writing is literally just the beginning. Then there’s the penciling and the coloring and the lettering and so on. Almost three years will have passed from the time I finished writing the miniseries to the time the first issue hits the stands. That’s the plight of being a comics writer.

    Luckily, Brett Weldele is a one-stop shop. He excels at all of the artistic aspects of comics, so we didn’t have to spend time hunting for a colorist, letterer, etc. Seeing him translate my script into these beautiful pages has been a real joy. That’s the fun of being a comics writer.

    CF: What did you not expect, or what weren’t you prepared for?

    VENDITTI: How different comics scripting would be from the prose style of writing I was more accustomed to. Going in, I naively thought that a story was a story, no matter the format. This is true from the standpoint that all stories have a plot, characters, etc., but I quickly learned that, in addition to these things, comics writing has its own unique set of rules. Using the page breaks effectively, moving a story forward with dialogue rather than exposition – these are just two of the lessons I had to learn.

    CF: What have you learned about the comics business from the other side of the desk as Top Shelf’s first full-time employee?

    VENDITTI: The amount of effort it takes to bring a single book to the public. From the submission phase to the day the book arrives in stores, there is a seemingly infinite number of tasks that need doing. Publishers in this industry have often been maligned for various reasons, but I can tell you, as a guy who’s seen Top Shelf operate from both sides of the table, that they devote a tremendous amount of time and resources to each and every book they do. Anyone who has a publisher like that owes them a debt of gratitude.

    CF: Looking back at the whole process and knowing what you do now, what would you do differently?

    VENDITTI: I would’ve started writing comics sooner! I’ve come in a little late in the game, primarily because I didn’t start reading comics until a few years ago. It took me a while to find something that I really enjoyed doing, and now that I have, I wish I’d found it earlier.

    I guess what I’m saying is get out there and do it. Go to the conventions. Meet the publishers. Get involved in the comics community. If you want to be a comics professional, then be one. Even before I started reading comics I knew I wanted to be a writer in some form or another, but I didn’t pursue it as much as I should’ve because I didn’t have the confidence in my ability. I’d give anything to have that time back. But if you’re here, reading this interview at Comic Foundry – a site dedicated to helping the aspiring comics professional – it’s because you know you want to create comics. So start creating.

    Posted by Tim Leong on April 8th, 2005 filed in Story Archive |

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