The movie The Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis, will be shown in Germany at the beginning of next year. It is based on the comic of the same title. The single issues were collected and released as a TPB in the States in 2006 while the foreign editions have been published not until this year. The German publisher, Cross Cult (which is also licensee of the German issues of comics such as Sin City, Hellboy, The Walking Dead, and The Umbrella Academy), invited writer Robert Venditti and artist Brett Weldele to the Frankfurt Book Fair and a short signing tour.
On October, 16th, Comicgate’s Andreas Völlinger and Frauke Pfeiffer had the pleasure to interview the two gents who have never been to Europe before …
Andreas: Okay, Robert and Brett, let’s start this interview. Is it kind of strange to promote a book that is … how old? Four years?
Robert: Yes, the single issues came out in 2005.
AV: So, that was the first time you had to talk about it and promote it. But now you are back on the track because of the international editions and the movie. Is it kind of strange or hard for you to do this again?
RV: No, actually there were the doldrums in there where it got a little bit redundant in these in-between years, where there wasn’t really a lot going on with the book. And since this was the only book I’ve done, on conventions I was telling the same things all over again. But this year is really energizing. Not just with the movie but also with the foreign editions. And we also had the new prequel come out, „The Surrogates: Flesh and Bones“. And we are promoting that as well. It’s a lot of fun.
AV: So, you enjoy being in Germany, going to book fairs and doing interviews?
RV: I love talking about myself. (laughs)
AV: And what about you Brett?
Brett: Well, Rob is mostly known for The Surrogates but I had new books coming out over the last years so it’s different for me. And I don’t promote like Rob does.
AV: But you kind of enjoy the ride?
BW: The ride has been great. It’s been kind of surreal …
AV: So, where are you going next after your stop in Germany? Are there any other places in Europe?
RV: Yes, we are going to France. We are doing a neat little book tour in France and then we go for one day to Brussels. And after that we go to Italy for the Lucca Comic Book Festival. So altogether it’s gonna be 18 days. And what you were saying before about me doing all the PR stuff … I don’t know if you guys know but I actually work for the publisher of The Surrogates. [which is Top Shelf]
Frauke: We’ve read that you started out in their mailroom …
RV: Yes, I started out in the mailroom. But I still work for the company today. I see the editor every day and we talk all the time, so it’s just very simple and an easy transition. And a lot of times I’m talking on the phone with someone else and then he realizes that I’m also the guy who wrote The Surrogates and then we talk about that
AV: Is it kind of difficult to switch roles between being writer and company man?
RV: It’s actually very beneficial. Because most of what I do at Top Shelf is selling directly to all the comic shops in America and even overseas. We sell to a lot of shops in Belgium, in France, the UK … And I do all the invoicing and that kind of stuff. I wrote the book in 2002 and it did actually come out in single issues in 2005. During that three-year-interim I was talking to retailers everyday on the phone. So when my book came out, I was on a first name basis with all the retailers all over the country. That really helped a lot. And I also worked at conventions – not as classy as this one – but at comic book conventions in America. And all that time I was reading all the comic book press. So when the time for my book came I already knew all of these people.
AV: Let’s talk about the writing process. You wrote the script without having an artist attached to the project, without having a publisher, although you were working at one. Were you just doing it for fun or did you kind of hope to get it in there somewhere in-between?
RV: I definitely wanted it to get published. I went to school to be a prose writer. I wrote short stories. And I’ve never read comic books growing up. I don’t know why, I just never did. In 2000 I read my first comic book and I decided I was gonna write them.
FP: What comic book was that?
RV: Astro City Vol. 2 No. 4. The first issue of the „Confessor“-story-arc. A friend of mine told me to read that story because he knew I had an interest in religion – which you can see in The Surrogates. And this story-arc is about a priest who is also a vampire. That is, by the way, the hugest spoiler of the whole arc. (laughs) So I read that and I really liked it and I was struck by the complexity of the story and the characters. What I’ve been trying to do in my fiction writing … There were two different kinds of writing. There was literary fiction which was based on characters and there was genre fiction which was based on plot. And I thought comic books were just genre fiction, but when I saw this was a really character-based story I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I had no idea how to do it, I had no artist, I was working in that mailroom. I just did what I felt was right.
AV: How did you learn the ropes? Did you study other comic books? I mean, writing a comic book script is different from writing a movie script for example …
RV: There wasn’t a lot of resources at that time. But now you can go to the bookstore and there are a million books about writing for comics because comics are cool now.
AV: Like „Writing for Comics with Peter David“ or the one by Denny O’Neil [„The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics“] …
RV: Or „The Idiot’s Guide to Writing Comics“. Back then there wasn’t much. I started to study the Will Eisner books „Graphic Storytelling“ and „Comics & Sequential Art“ and I sort of did what, I felt, came naturally. So when Brett did come onboard, which was a year after I finished writing it, I told him upfront, „I’m not an artist, this is my first stab at this. If you got a better way of doing it, then do it. If you want to change angles or other kind of things, go ahead.“ I was very, very detailed in the script.
AV: Yes, I read the example script pages in the German edition.
RV: Yes, it was very long. I think that was born out of my habit of writing prose. Even in prose I write very long and detailed. I didn’t know who the artist was going to be and whether he had a sketchier style, like Brett does, so that he wouldn’t need all the details. When we did „Flesh and Bone“ I think I paired it down a lot. Because now I know it’s Brett.
FP: I guess that in the US, like in Germany, you can’t really earn money with a book at a small independent publisher. So did you do it for the art? To just get this comic book made?
RV: I was in the position where I had a fulltime job. So I didn’t need to do it for the income. But I did want to have a career start and see if I could make a living at it. Knowing that with any form of the arts you are not just gonna hit the ground running, I kept my fulltime job. One time I was working fulltime at Borders, forty hours a week in four days, on my three days off I would pack boxes at Top Shelf, and I was writing The Surrogates at night. That’s how I wrote the book. I was doing all that at the same time. But because I had those other jobs I did never have to take a writing job just because I needed the paycheck.
FP: Did you kind of see it as a hobby or did you really want to take the chance to become a professional?
RV: I definitely did. I even got permission from my wife first. I did want to become it a career. But I don’t know if you are familiar with Top Shelf’s books. They do mostly black and white art-style indie comics. The Surrogates was their first mainstream book. So I knew already from the beginning we were going with one foot in the grave and one in the banana peel. It was a mainstream book coming from an independent publisher. So we had none of the street credibility and none of the audience either.
FP: You never had the intention to publish it somewhere else?
RV: No. Chris [Staros, Top Shelf publisher] told me upfront, „If you like to do the book somewhere else I will introduce you to another publisher and they will pay you more money. But you won’t own it or won’t own it as much or won’t control it as you do by publishing it here.“ Because I had another job and I had money coming from somewhere else I didn’t need it to come from there.
FP: So this is a truly creator-owned comic?
RV: Yes. I signed my publishing deal with Top Shelf for 300 Dollars. That might be what Siegel and Shuster got for Superman.
FP: So they paid you 300 Dollars and then you got a share from the sales?
RV: Right. Because I went with Top Shelf, I own it. Whatever happens with the book I participate financially in that. When the movie was made I got the money, when the rights to publish it in Germany were sold I got it. And I also get royalties on the books. Personally I don’t like getting a big advance. I don’t want a big advance and then I have to earn that out. That’s like I’m digging out of a hole. I’d rather have no money upfront and know that the money is still coming to me.
AV: Brett, when you were introduced to Robert and his work, what convinced you to draw it? Did you think „This has potential.“ or „This suits my style.“?
BW: Well, I was first approached by Chris Staros and I know him since I went to college.
AV: So you kind of trusted him on this?
BW: Yes. I had grown a relationship with him over three or four years and when he emailed me one day and asked me to do The Surrogates I agreed.
AV: Let’s get to the movie adaption. I’ve noticed some plot changes in the movie script. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’ve read about it. What do you think about these changes? I’ve read that you were a kind of an advisor to the script people …
RV: Not really. I mean, I was a consultant, but I don’t want to overstate my involvement. We were involved in it to the extinct that we knew what was going on. We talked to the producer, we went to visit the set and all that, but we weren’t involved in the controlling.
FP: Did you completely sell the rights for the movie?
RV: Yeah. I never wanted to be involved. I always felt like if they wanted to invest their time and energy doing something with my story then let them bring their creativity to it and have fun with it and do what they want to do. The book already exists. I’ve already told the story the way I wanted to tell it. If this was a screen play, and my screen play got bought and got rewritten 47 times and turned into something completely different so that my original story did not exist anymore, that would be different. But my story is there. So it doesn’t bother me, it doesn’t change anything.
AV: After you’ve seen the movie for the first time, did you feel that it served your story well? Is this still The Surrogates or is it something different with just some ideas taken from your book?
RV: I feel like it’s still the same, it’s still The Surrogates. The themes are there, the majority of the characters is there, the marriage between Harvey and his wife is translated to the screen very well. And that was always my favorite part even though it’s only about ten pages of the book. I always liked that part the best because I think this is really what humanizes the whole story, you know. So that translated to the film perfectly.
AV: Even though Bruce Willis doesn’t exactly look like Harvey, he is the right guy for this role, isn’t he?
RV: Yes, I always thought that from day one. When I was writing it in 2002, my wife and I were talking and we were like: If they are ever going to make a movie out of this, who would be good for the part? And we both said „Bruce Willis“. I mean, he’s perfect.
AV: Did you meet him?
RV: Yeah. We both did.
FP: Soon there’s a another movie coming out with a similar subject, James Cameron’s Avatar…
RV: I didn’t know about that. But there’s a lot of movies like that right now. I think ideas just have their time, you know. Gamer was also kind of similar for what I understand – it wasn’t Surrogates necessarily, but it was about remote controlling of the bodies. There was another movie called Sleep Dealer. It’s an independent film in America and it’s about …
BW: That’s a Mexican film.
RV: It was remade, though, wasn’t it? Didn’t they change the name? (Rob and Brett discuss) Anyway, it’s a Mexican film but it was also shown in America. It’s about Mexican immigrants who … Today, they do a lot of agriculture work and things like that in America, but there’s this whole debate about immigration and all these kind of things. It’s a big political issue right now. So what this movie does: It keeps all the Mexicans in Mexico and they work their agricultural jobs through robots remotely across the countries, you know. So it’s also a very similar theme. And even technology itself, whether it’s Second Life or … I think Sweden is working on a technology where a doctor can connect remotely to a robot in another city to perform a surgery. So even technology is coming to pass. Sometimes, these ideas just happen. If Tesla and Marconi could invent the radio independently from each other at exactly the same time, just about anything can happen.
AV: You’ve already mentioned „Flesh and Bones“, the prequel to the first book of The Surrogates …
RV: Yes, it’s set 15 years before the first book. I wrote it in [looks at BW] … 2008? And it just came out in July.
RV: There are three more that I like to do still. I’m hoping to start the next one propably December this year.
AV: Brett, will you be on board for these?
AV: What will it be about?
RV: I don’t really wanna say yet. Brett’s the only one who knows how the story ends. So if I ever hear about it, I know where it came from. (grins towards Brett)
AV: Is this a prequel again?
RV: No, no. You got the first book, then a prequel. I’d like to do two books between the prequel and the first one. And then one book that comes after the first book.
FP: So it’s like Star Wars …
RV: Yeah, I know, it’s confusing. (laughs)
FP: When they are all published, how would you suggest to read them – still in the same order they were published?
RV: Yeah, in this order. You really need to read the first book before you read the prequel. In the first book when they are talking about their marriage, you see what effects the Surrogates have. In the prequel you see Marga bringing her surrogate home for the first time. And Harvey is very excited about it because his wife got a different look and it’s like he is with a different woman but it’s still his wife. It teams with the sadness because you know what happens to them in the future so I think you really need to read the first book before you read the prequel.
AV: Brett, you also worked on Southland Tales with Richard Kelly who did Donnie Darko, which is the movie most people associate him with. How was working with him in comparison to other writers, Rob for example? I mean he comes from the movies. I’ve read that he was kind of exhausted by doing the comic book script.
BW: He comes from film and not comics, but he wanted to do comics. He gave me pretty as much freedom as I wanted. He basically just handed me a movie script. When I got involved with it, filming for Southland Tales hadn’t begun yet. He was still casting. So most of the first book was done without any film at all. We kept progressively working and I would see stills from what they were shooting and what they were doing, so I did integrate that into the book. So basically the prequel that we made was sort of a road movie to get to the film. It’s an interesting project because you don’t see whole lot of things that are genuinely different media that really almost needs to be both viewed to get a better picture of the whole thing. Like you can watch the movie on its own and you get the most of it. But a lot of the back story and the character development really happens in the graphic novel. So if you don’t get that, you don’t get a richer viewing experience. Richard was an awesome person to work with. Really a great guy, lots of great ideas, he was always open to whatever I wanted to do with it.
AV: Since this was kind of a dystopian science-fiction story, too, are you a kind of genre fan?
BW: Yes, I love this dystopian sci-fi, I love a lot of genre stuff. I mean, I’m primarily a genre guy.
AV: You prefer working in that part of comic books?
BW: Yes, I love genre. Whether it’s noir or samurai, whatever. There’s always some sort of take that I wanna have on some sort of genres.
FP: Is the German edition of The Surrogates very different from the US book and do you like it?
RV: Oh yeah, it came out great. It’s the same content, but there is an interview with us in the back. I think otherwise it has the same dimensions. And we love hardcovers! I found it very humbling that another publisher in another country would publish the book. To see it in a different language … this really gives you a sense of being larger than life …
AV: So were you reading it out loud in German and laughing about it?
BW: (laughs) We wouldn’t even try.
RV: There is a French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Italian, and Belgian version. So there are six different languages besides English.
AV: Do you have them all at home?
RV: No, because a lot of them are coming out like in the next couple of weeks. I saw the German one today for the first time.
FP: I’ve downloaded the first chapter of The Surrogates for the iPone. With this in mind, what do you think about digital comics? Is it okay for you to see your comic on such a small screen or would you prefer that people read it as a book?
RV: I think iVerse – the company that did the Surrogates one … I mean, we’ve talked to a lot of companies about this one. And this is the company which I like the best because they weren’t trying to do motion comics where the word balloons are coming out of people’s mouths and such gimmicks. You aren’t waiting for the refresh rate because you have all this other stuff in there. It’s very quick. You can control the pace of reading, and it’s still static which is what comics is. When you put things in motion, you’ve got film. I liked all that about it. What I think is interesting: You’re taking a story that was made to fit a page and you’re cutting it up and you’re looking at it in a different way. A lot of what writing for comics is, is that you’re dealing with page turns and page breaks and all these kind of things. So a lot of this stuff gets lost in that. What I think would be very interesting is when people start writing comics specifically *for* the iPhone and maybe then they’ll get put in print later. If the iPhone comics will be first, what will those comics be like and how would that change the format, and how will they make use of the way the print makes use of page breaks? … I’m not tech-savy enough to know these answers but that will be interesting. I think it’s cool to have it.
FP: So you’re not unhappy with it?
RV: No, no. It wouldn’t have happened if we wouldn’t have signed the papers.
AV: Brett, do you feel like they were deconstructing your page layouts? Because it’s another kind of sequential reading.
BW: It’s a little different. I generally design in a teared fashion so it’s very easy to break that off. I purposely don’t do very flashy layouts. I always just use square panels, almost retro. It’s more about what’s going on in the panel. The shape and all the crazy designs that you see in many contemporary comics – I don’t know how you would fit that in there. I think the iPhone is a really interesting device as we look forward to it as a storytelling device in its own right. And then there are all the tablet readers that we are seeing coming out inspired by the Kindle. There will be work that will only be published for those formats. I think it’s pretty exciting, actually.
FP: Well, many people say they need to feel the paper when reading and I can understand that.
RV: Yeah, I feel that way, too. But I wonder … Well, our children are going to grow up in this world. I mean, it’s a completely different world for them. So I think a lot of this is generational.
FP: Can you imagine yourself doing webcomics and then selling printed TPBs later?
RV: Me personally, I want to stick with print. Maybe I get left in the dust at some point by all these young upstarts doing their internet webstuff, whatever … I don’t know. I guess the Zuda stuff isn’t too bad. But most of them aren’t stories, really. They are just gags or three-panels …
AV: What are your projects for the future? I guess both of you got solo works coming out.
RV: I have an Iron Man story that just came out on Wednesday. I haven’t seen it yet because I was travelling. It’s just a one shot. Right now I am working on an adaptation of Percy Jackson & The Olympians. They’re making a movie out of it. I’m turning the novels into graphic novels. And then I’m getting ready to start on the new Surrogates book.
BW: I’m working on a short horror miniseries with the writer of the Image Comics series Olympus [Nathan Edmondson]. We’re doing sort of a John-Carpenteresque horror book, pretty low-level horror.
AV: When will it come out?
BW: I don’t know yet.
AV: By the way, isn’t Percy Jackson Disney-owned?
RV: Well, the movie is not, but the books are from Hyperion which belongs to Disney. They didn’t know anything about The Surrogates. When I met the editor he didn’t know anything about it. This was in February, so there weren’t any trailers yet. I didn’t get the job through The Surrogates.
FP: If you had the choice, you would choose working on creator-owned stuff over working on company-owned characters, I guess.
RV: I think a balance is good because … Work for hire gives you a nice paycheck and that can help float while you are doing the creator-owned stuff where you don’t get a big advance. So I think that’s a nice balance.
FP: What about you, Brett?
BW: I do a fair amount of both. I also do a lot of licence stuff.
FP: And you don’t mind that?
BW: No. It really depends on what it is and who the licenser is. Those could be very problematic getting stuff approved. But if it’s a very cool working environment, then I have no problems with that. I kind of like it.
RV: I find it freeing in some ways because you don’t feel like you’ve got your baby in your hands. I mean, with The Surrogates it’s always like „I don’t want to mess this up“ while if you’re doing somebody else’s thing, in the worst case it’s just losing a job.
Comicgate: Rob and Brett, thank you very much for taking your time even though you just landed a few hours ago here in Frankfurt! Have a nice trip through Europe.
Cross Cult (German Publisher of The Surrogates, you can find an excerpt there)
Brett Weldele’s Website
pictures © F. Pfeiffer/comicgate.de