Tuesday, April 29, 2014

[replay] Back Matter Interview #7: Rob Venditti

When I first started writing about comics, around 2006-07, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.

Rob Venditti is “the third man” at Top Shelf and his first comic series THE SURROGATES, created with artist Brett Weldele, was recently collected by Top Shelf into one volume.  Despite his very busy schedule, Mr. Venditti was kind enough to take the time and answer some questions for Independent Propaganda.  I want to thank him for his generosity and hope you all enjoy what follows.

INDEPENDENT PROPAGANDA: What is it that prompted you to want to write for comics and has this been an aspiration of yours for some time now, or is it more recent?

ROBERT VENDITTI:  I started out wanting to write prose fiction, so that’s where most of my background and schooling is.  It wasn’t until I read my first comic book in 2000 (a back issue of KURT BUSIEK’S ASTRO CITY) that I decided to change gears and write for comics.  This was around the time that the America’s Best Comics line was starting up at Wildstorm, as well as the short-lived Gorilla Comics imprint at Image, so there were a lot of quality books for a newbie like me to get his feet wet with.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that comics were capable of much more in the way of storytelling than I’d previously thought, and I instantly fell in love with the medium and its possibilities.   

IP: What do you feel is the most important factor from your personal history (education, family) that has allowed you to become a published writer?

RV:  Both family and education have played critical roles in their own way.  First, it was my family that instilled in me the joy of reading, and they’ve always encouraged me to write, as long as it was fun and it was what I wanted to do.  Education was very important as well, though.  I majored in English and Creative Writing, and by doing so I was able to surround myself with like-minded people, which inspired me to produce and share my work with others.  Also, the deadline nature of college courses—being given an assignment and a time at which it must be turned in—taught me how to balance writing with other interests so that I finished what needed to get done.

IP: Many creators, especially when starting out, hold down a day job while creating their comics.  What jobs, if any, did you have and did they provide anything for you with regards to your writing?

RV:  I still have a day job!  For the past five years I’ve worked for small press publisher Top Shelf Productions.  I started out packing boxes for orders that came in through their website, but over the years my duties have expanded to include editorial, promotions, marketing . . . whatever needs doing.  It’s been the best possible scenario for me, because as I was writing THE SURROGATES I was learning—from the inside—how the comics and graphic novel industry works.  Whereas my family and education background helped me develop the creative aspects of being a writer, working for Top Shelf has helped me understand the more business-oriented side of things.  To reach any measure of success, I believe it’s important to have a firm grasp on both.   

IP: When they are first trying to break into comics, many writers have difficulty finding artists able to realize their story samples.  What can they do to overcome this?

RV:  If you’re looking to get published, first see if the publisher will be willing to set you up with an artist.  They have the contacts and the backing to get an artist interested, and this will also give them the opportunity to pick who they want for the project.  I was lucky in that Top Shelf knew Brett Weldele and was able to bring him onboard.  Without their help, I would’ve had to scour the Artist’s Alley at conventions looking for someone willing to work on a 5-issue miniseries with a first-time writer, which can be a tough find. 

IP: What do you think is the biggest pitfall aspiring writers fall into when looking for their first job?

RV:  They start out too grandiose.  If you’ve never been published before, then the odds that a publisher is going to want to sign on for your epic, decades-spanning ongoing series are slim.  Even worse, when you’re just starting out your skills most likely aren’t developed to the point that you can tackle that kind of story, so even if your idea is a winner your execution may destroy it.  Start with something more manageable—a miniseries, a fill-in issue, even an eight-page short story—and let your skills grow with the length and breadth of your ideas.  

IP: What do you feel aspiring writers can do in order to better their chances of becoming published?

RV:  Get involved.  So many people think that if they create it, people will come.  I’ve found that the opposite it true—people aren’t going to notice that you created something unless you bring it to them, be they publishers, fans, or what have you.  I started working in the mail room at Top Shelf precisely because I knew I wanted to write comics, and, while packing boxes wasn’t a dream job, I hoped it would get my foot in the door.  Turns out I was right.  If I’d been the sort to say, “I’m not going to pack boxes.  I’m an artist!” then my art would probably still be sitting in a filing cabinet at home.

IP: What creators, possibly more obscure ones and not necessarily within comics, would you recommend aspiring writers read and study? 

RV:  I believe it’s important for writers to read everything they can get their hands on, if for no other reason than the fact that oftentimes reading is where inspiration comes from.  This was certainly the case with THE SURROGATES, the idea for which came to me after I read a book for one of my grad school classes.  I do think it can be dangerous, though, to read or study particular authors or genres that are similar to your story because you may fall into the trap of imitating rather than creating.  Read different things.  Expand your influences.  You may be surprised at how those experiences will enrich your writing.    

IP: For you, what is the advantage of publishing through Top Shelf rather than Marvel and DC?

RV:  The biggest advantage was the freedom to tell the story on its own terms.  Each issue of the miniseries contained twenty-four pages of comics, as well as four pages of backup features like news articles and brochures.  The backup features really helped flesh out the world and lend an element of believability that the story would’ve lacked had they not been included.  We even ran a series of mock advertisements on the back covers for Virtual Self, the fictional company that manufactures surrogates.  Had the book been published by Marvel or DC, each issue would’ve contained twenty-two pages of comics (twenty-four at best), and everything else would’ve been sold to real advertisers.  Top Shelf was 100% supportive, and for that I can’t thank them enough.

IP: Do you feel the recent push toward graphic novels - both collections and original works - and bookstore distribution has been good for the industry?  Why, or why not?

RV:  I believe it’s been very good for the industry, simply because more books are getting into more readers’ hands.  An increase in distribution can’t be a bad thing.  I also think the inroads that comics have made into bookstores and other mainstream venues have given the medium a long-deserved dose of respectability—comics is recognized more and more as an art form that can communicate complex ideas to a diverse audience, which, of course, is something that creators have known for quite some time.

IP: What are some things you would like to see change with the current distribution system?

RV:  I don’t know if this has to do with distribution per se, but I’d like to see comics shops and bookstores carrying a wider variety of titles, a selection more representative of what’s being published these days.  I understand the need to stock deep on Marvel, DC, and manga, but books like LOUIS RIEL, WIMBLEDON GREEN, and OWLY shouldn’t be left out of the mix.  

IP: THE SURROGATES was your first comic series and I thought it was very well done.  What was the genesis for this story and did it change much from your initial proposal?

RV:  I read a book called THE CYBERGYPSIES by Indra Sinha for one of my grad school classes.  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 online personas—stuck with me.  I began thinking about what it would be like if, instead of being confined to cyberspace, 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?  I combined this central idea with a detective element—I’ve always been a fan of cop dramas like Law & Order and NYPD Blue—and everything went forward from there. 
I’d already written the first issue and plotted the entire series before showing anything to Chris Staros at Top Shelf—I tend to think things through before discussing my ideas with anyone—so the story didn’t really change much from the initial proposal.

IP: What did you find to be the biggest challenge in writing THE SURROGATES?

RV:  Learning to adapt my style to fit the unique characteristics of the comics medium.  Writing panel descriptions, using page breaks effectively, conforming to a serialized structure . . . these are things that don’t usually apply in prose writing, so adjusting to all of them took some time.  I did my best to read up on the process, but anyone who’s gone looking can tell you that there aren’t many books about writing comics out there.  At some point I had to just dive in.  That was a little scary.

IP: Did you have any writing experience before this project or was this ultimately your first published work?

RV:  Except for one short story I published in a literary magazine, the only writing experience I had was from the creative writing classes I’d taken in college.  Just because the experience wasn’t professional, however, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t beneficial.  Those six years of collegiate English courses helped me get a firm grasp on the basics—story structure, character development, and so on.     

IP: Did Brett Weldele have much input into the series or did he come in after it was written?

RV:  The entire script for the series was finished before Brett joined the project, but that’s not to suggest that he didn’t have any input.  He may not have worked on the plot or dialogue, but the visuals were all his.  It’s his distinctive style that makes THE SURROGATES look the way it does on the page, and that amounts to a whole lot of input.    

IP: With any new writer there are bound to be growing pains, ones that can be eased by a good editor.  Were there any parts of THE SURROGATES that needed to be rewritten as a result of this inexperience, and if so what was the reasoning behind these changes?

RV:  Working with Chris Staros was a rewarding experience for me.  Because I was on the staff at Top Shelf I saw Chris all the time, so we’d discuss THE SURROGATES at the office or while traveling to conventions.  He was a great sounding board, letting me bounce ideas off him and responding with detailed questions to make sure I’d covered all of the bases.  So, in that sense, I guess most of the editing and rewriting was done verbally.  When it came time to put everything down on paper, the story stayed pretty much as it was. 

IP: And finally, do you have any more projects on the horizon, and can you talk about them at all?

RV:  I’ve just finished the first draft of a new five-issue, sci-fi miniseries, this one more of a near-future serial killer story.  I’m not ready to go into too much detail about it, but I hope to have a final draft finished by the end of the year.  Once it’s finished, I’ll hunt for a publisher, find an artist, and start the whole process all over again!

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