Surrogates, the new Bruce Willis sci-fi action thriller from Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, is set to hit theaters Sept 25. It is based on the graphic novel written by Robert Venditti, illustrated by Brett Weldele and published by Top Shelf Productions. It all began as a script for a graphic novel that, as Robert Venditti says, has gone far “beyond anything that I ever anticipated happening.” Speak with him and you hear a humble guy who knows what he wants. Here is Robert Venditti talking about Surrogates, comics and Disney/Marvel.
As Venditti describes it, the whole idea of Surrogates even getting published was far from a sure thing. He was working in the mail room at Top Shelf Productions and was hoping that maybe Chris Staros, one of the partners, might be able to help him find a small publisher and then he could have a book he could pass around to editors in hopes of landing more work. “So, to have all of this happen: to actually get it optioned and have it made, which is the huge hurdle you have to clear, and then to have it be the size and scope that it is, you don’t even know what to say.”
Ask him what a surrogate is or what the story is about, and Venditti answers with such enthusiasm you’d think it was the first time he was being asked. “Maybe you want to have a surrogate because you want to summit Mt. Everest but you don’t want to go through the turmoil of actually doing that or maybe you are diabetic and you just want to eat chocolate cake — you can do any of these things with your surrogate and experience it as if you are really doing it but it’s all coming to you secondhand through the machine.” The story about these surrogates, these android duplicates that do all the things its human owners only wish to do from a distance, takes a turn when they start turning up fried out in the real world. Something or someone is destroying them and that is where detective Harvey Greer steps in, played by Bruce Willis in the movie.
Having Bruce Willis on board is something that Venditti sounds like he’ll never grow tired of talking about. He sets up a scene a few years back, just as the trend of movies based on comics is heating up, and it’s him and his wife sitting at the kitchen table. They look at each other. What if, he asks, just for fun, a movie was made from his book? “Who would we cast in the film? And her and I both thought that Bruce Willis would be the perfect guy to play Greer because he is one of the very few actors that can be convincing in tough action sequences but also convincing in the more personal, emotional scenes like Greer has with his wife in the book, which is a very strong undertone of the book, the effect that surrogate technology has had on their marriage. And there aren’t a lot of guys who can do both and he is one of them. So, we thought he would be perfect and then, six years later, they cast him in that very same role, so it’s all pretty surreal.”
Surrogates can be practical as replacements for humans in dangerous occupations but the real attraction is that they can be the ideal version of their owners. Is this human trait to want to be something other than who you are essentially good or bad? “There is always something about yourself that you wish you could tweak to some extent. I don’t know that that’s a positive or a negative. When I wrote the book, I tried not to make any determinations. I’m trying to just ask questions. Is technology used in this way good or is it bad? It could be good in the sense that it’s what leads us to strive to better ourselves and ultimately make the world better around us. But it could be bad in the sense that it could make us go beyond that and start to lose sight of who we actually are and try to become something that we are not. So, there is no black or white, yes or no, answer to those kinds of questions — it all depends on how they are applied.”
And how are we applying the technology we have today? Where are we headed? “The technology is already so much more near the future than even the story I wrote. I put it about fifty years down the road but it seems like technology is advancing at a much faster rate that it’s going to be here sooner than that.” Venditti recalls a documentary he saw on Wired.com with robotics scientists demonstrating the use of robot arms by wearing a headset you operate with your mind. Then he thinks about things like Second Life and how we’re inching closer and closer to the future in his story with all the activity already in play in a virtual world. And, in this new world, can we hope for a truly level playing field free of prejudice? “I would hope we could reach such a place without having to use technology to get there.” In his story, for instance, the only way people can guarantee advancement is by simply taking on the required identity such as women pretending to be men in order to be airline pilots.
Now, get Venditti to talk about the writer’s craft and his creative journey and you’ll hear him make his way to a life changing discovery. “Through high school, all the way to graduate school, I had the same misconceptions that most people have which is that comics are just children’s literature and not capable of complex ideas and themes — never having read them and it was a completely ignorant stance to take. But a friend of mine was a big comics fan and got me to read an arc of Astro City called ‘Confession’ and it just jumped out at me.” “Confession”, by Kurt Busiek, considered a masterwork in comics comparable to Watchmen, showed Venditti that comics could be more than a plot-driven genre but it could be a character-driven work of literature. On top of this discovery, Venditti had always harbored a childhood desire to be an animator. “So now, flash forward, and I’m reading these comic books with a literary sensibilty and I realized here’s a medium where I can write the stories and someone else can translate the stories into art and that’s probably as close as I’m ever going to be to that original childhood ambition I had.”
So, there is that wall between academia and commerce that must be overcome. What about another wall, the one that separates fans of mainstream comics from fans of alternative comics? Venditti’s relationship with Top Shelf Productions is a prime example of how these two worlds can mix with excellent results. Surrogates was definitely something new for Top Shelf, known for black and white graphic novels with a more literary style. Surrogates would be their first mainstream full color serialized story. “So, it was a bit of leap for them,” Venditti says, “but I take it as a great source of pride that Top Shelf felt that Surrogates had strong characters and a literary style. I don’t think that a wall should be there. There is a lot of cross-over. I know from working for Top Shelf, among the leading light of their generation of cartoonists, and they all grew up on Marvel and DC and they’ve all got a Spider-Man or a Batman story that they are just dying to tell so I don’t think the wall is as pronounced as maybe some people would think.”
You have to start somewhere and, as Venditti points out, there was a time before the independent comics movement when everyone grew up on Marvel and DC. Only now, can you have readers who have only known indie comics and, for them, it might be easier to cross over to mainstream comics. Whatever the case, Venditti is proud to let you know that Top Shelf has always welcomed all readers. “We do more conventions than anybody in a given year. We have a pretty heavy tour schedule and go to places where we are really the only independent literary style comics publisher in attendance. You know, places like Chicago Comic-Con, MegaCon in Orlando or Dragon*Con in Atlanta, are places where it’s a heavily mainstream audience and we’ve just sort of won people over one at a time. And our fan base, and people that read our books, is very much composed of people that are mainstream comic fans as well.”
The prequel to Surrogates, the graphic novel, recently came out and we can expect a sequel in the future to round out a trilogy. “I’m sort of doing the Star Wars model there where I did the middle first and then the beginning and then I do the end. But since then, I’ve also come up with two additional novels that I would like to do as well so right now, in my head, we’re up to five.”
Also from Top Shelf, there is Venditti’s upcoming Homeland Directive which explores how, in a post 9/11 world, we reconcile public safety with personal privacy. “When the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written, the worst thing you had to worry about was maybe a cannon ball coming through your window. We live in a much scarier world now.”
As for Disney’s acquisition of Marvel, Venditti’s view is framed by the fact he already works for both companies. Of course, Surrogates is a Disney movie. Venditi is also working with Hyperion Books, a division of Disney, where he is working on a graphic novel adaptation of Percy Jackson & The Olympians series. For Marvel, he did a Captain America story for Marvel Comics Presents in April of last year. And, among other upcoming projects, he has an Iron Man One Shot entitled, “Iron Protocol,” that comes out in October. “So I have a foot in both camps. If the acquisition now means that both feet are in one camp, then so much the better.” As for any concerns of change over at Marvel, Venditti doesn’t think there’s reason to worry. “Disney already has other, non-superhero comics publishing divisions, so as long as those continue with their output, I don’t see why Marvel wouldn’t remain primarily a superhero imprint.”