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Robert Venditti Talks ‘The Surrogates: Case Files’ And Moving Into Digital Publishing

In 2005, Top Shelf released their first serialized comic book: The Surrogates, a science fiction murder mystery by Robert Venditti and Bret Weldele, set in a world where robotic bodies had given people the ability to live their lives without ever leaving the comfort of their own homes. Last week, Venditto and Weldele returned to that world with The Surrogates: Case Files, a digital-first series of single-issue mysteries built to explore those themes.

This week, ComicsAlliance talked to Venditti to find out a little more about what it was like to move to digital and how the technology he’s using to deliver his comics fits right in with the world he and Weldele created — only hopefully, without all the murders.ComicsAlliance: When you initially wrote Surrogates, did you ever intend to revisit it like you have? Did you want to do a series of stories in that world from the start?

Robert Venditti: The plan has always been for the main story to be three separate graphic novels. The Surrogates and Flesh and Bone are the first two, and the third will take place later in the timeline. So we’ve always known we were going to come back to this world a few times.

As for Case Files, I realized a while ago that there are a lot of ideas I want to explore, but they don’t necessarily fit into the three-book plan. So we’re inserting these stories, picking up right after the close of Flesh and Bone. Harvey Greer has just made detective, and Case Files #1 shows us his first day on the job.

CA: For this series, why did you decide to go with shorter stories rather than one overarching mystery?

RV: I really wanted the series to have an episodic feel, similar to the one-hour cop drama. That’s why we’ve made each of the issues a self-contained story (with the occasional two-parter). It’s also why we decided to go digital-first. Single-issue, serialized comics aren’t really Top Shelf’s business model-graphic novels are more their stock and trade. So the digital format allows us to put these out as singles and let them stand on their own.

CA: Was it more difficult to plot that way? I noticed that the first issue is mostly built around a six-panel grid, which makes for a pretty dense comic.

RV: The earlier Surrogates books have 6 – 7 panels per page as well. It just feels right for this type of story, where many of the scenes take place in close quarters. Apartments, alleys, interrogation rooms, and places like that. It’s different from something like X-O Manowar, which is more epic in scale.

With plotting, the nice thing about digital is you have the space to tell the story on your own terms. If we had only 20 or 22 pages in a print comic, it might be difficult, but Case Files #1 is 24 pages. #2 is 26 pages. So we don’t need to rush to get where we’re going.

CA: How did the decision to go digital-first with it come about? I kind of like the idea that your story of a world where people stay in their houses, interacting through technology, can be bought through technology without leaving your house.

RV: Yeah, we’re very aware of the self-referential aspect of this. I think for me, the decision to go digital-first was rooted first and foremost in the desire to apply the world of The Surrogates to a serialized setting. But like you said, it makes sense from a content standpoint as well. Beyond that, the smaller reading area inherent in a smartphone or tablet works with the more claustrophobic settings I was talking about earlier. There’s a sequence at the beginning of Case Files #2 where Brett really nails the close-quarters feel of the story.

CA: The original Surrogates mini-series was very much a high concept story You introduced the idea of the surrogates and then had the murder mystery wrapped up in that. There’s still a lot of that in the first issue of Case Files, but on a much smaller scale. How do you balance that out?

RV: I think part of what you’re talking about with the high concept stuff in the first series, a lot of that was due to the supplemental materials at the end of each chapter and those kinds of things that sort of fleshed it out. I did these journal articles and these fake advertisements, and those kinds of things. For this project, I really wanted to do something where each one was standalone and had a very episodic feel to it, so I still have the high concept stuff, but it’s more in the story. Instead of just looking at it from the perspective of a five-issue series, looking at it from a world view, I’m looking at it from a single person’s view. Each individual issue of Case Files will focus on one individual person, and how the technology applies and, hopefully in a way the reader won’t be expecting, how it applies to the crime and the people around that crime.

Instead of a macro view, I’m taking a micro view.

CA: Does that change your perspective on the world you’ve created? Was it a shift in how you think about it?

RV: It doesn’t change my perspective on it, but it’s just one of those things where it’s like, after I thought up Surrogates and wrote the first trade and started working on more, it’s like a never-ending flow of ideas. It’s a pretty simple piece of technology, but it’s just like the tablet reader or the cell phone. You introduce a piece of technology and it affects everything at once, and the more I thought about it, more cool ideas came up for things that couldn’t bear the weight of an entire arc. It’s just a bunch of short story ideas I had about singular characters, and this format seemed to be like a good idea to get at those.

CA: You mentioned the backmatter that was in the first mini-series, but it seems like you moved away from that for this one. Was there a time when you considered that since you were going digital first with it, maybe doing something a little more enhanced and it just didn’t work out?

RV: I think the backmatter was fine on a tablet, but especially on a phone, it’s really tough to pull off. Just for this platform, it didn’t make as much sense. It’s not like I don’t have plenty of backmatter ideas that I want to do, I just think that for this particular delivery mechanism, it’s not really the best thing to do. It’s not as easy of a read.

CA: That was a factor in the format of it too? The panel grids?

RV: Yes, it was. I tried to keep in mind as I was writing it, what I was doing and the platform I was releasing it on. A book like The Homeland Directive, which was a print book, the first time I looked at it in digital, and I downloaded it from a couple of different providers, there’s a couple of two-page spreads in there that are just beautiful, but in digital it’ll do that thing where it flips from vertical to horizontal. It’ll remind you for a minute that you’re reading a story as opposed to being in a story. So I was trying to stay away from double-page spreads, but also use it. The settings within the stories are all taking place within interrogation rooms or small apartments or inside automobiles or whatever, so the smaller confines can be communicated easier on the smaller screen, something that’s inherent in a digital reader platform.

With issue 2, in the opening scene, you’ll see a character, and I think the way Brett drew the panel, the way they’ll translate to digital format will really enhance what the character is going through at that point in the story.

CA: I’ve noticed that in the first issue, it really does help to emphasize detail and isolation. They’re all very tight shots of characters, very enclosed, so it works well on that front.

RV: Yeah, and I think that Brett’s art style is really made for this kind of format, you know? I mean, the colors look beautiful on digital, and when you get to the murder scene in Case Files #1, which is called “Recovery,” these lamps in this apartment, you look at them on digital and it’s like they’re glowing.

CA: You said that there were originally three stories planned?

RV: The main arc of The Surrogates is three graphic novels, Surrogates, Flesh and Bone, and then the third is set fifteen years after The Surrogates, so the whole thing together takes place over 30 years. These Case Files are comprised of just a number of ideas. Right now I have the first two written and several more ready to go, and the first arc is going to be this five-issue mini-arc, where each individual story stands alone, but it tells the story of Harvey and Ray Townsend, his new partner. Once that’s done, Brett and I will work on different projects in and around it, and then come back to do more. It’s the kind of thing you can really do forever, if you wanted to.

CA: Do you want to? Like you said, it’s a very simple idea of these robot bodies that would change everything, so there’s so many aspects to explore.

RV: That was my approach to the whole idea, really. I’d never written anything sci-fi before, I’ve never read many sci-fi novels in my life, but my approach to it was not to do this big sweeping sci-fi where everything is transformed, but just to change one single element and change what would need to be changed because of that. I don’t need flying cars, so I don’t have flying cars. I don’t need aliens, so I don’t have aliens. I don’t need a moon base, so there’s no moon base. I just changed the introduction of this one element, and everything is based around what would be changed as a result of that.

CA: Do you regret not having a moon base?

RV: You know I do. I think I could’ve had some really choice battle scenes on a moon base. I made the bed, now I gotta sleep in it.

CA: So as far as scheduling the book, you talked about not being bound by page restrictions, but is your approach to scheduling the same way?

RV: We’re still trying to iron that out, but I think once a month, once every two months, that kind of thing. Brett is an all-in-one kind of guy, he does everything himself all the way down to lettering. It’s not like we have the assembly line process, so a monthly book is a tough schedule. We do want to keep them evenly spaced apart from each other, we don’t want to have one a year from now, but we don’t feel the need to have them the first Wednesday of the month or anything like that.

CA: Surrogates was done as a series of single issues, then you did Flesh and Bone as a graphic novel, and now you’re working on serializing it digitally, which is a different format. That’s kind of the recent history of comics.

RV: I never thought about that. It kind of is, I guess. That’s pretty cool… it’s never dawned on me once. I wish I could’ve said “yeah, that was totally planned,” but maybe it’s just the necessary evolution, and as the formats change, we change with it. That’s the good thing about having a creator-owned project, you can do what you want with it, how you want with it.

I guess the cart is driving the horse in this instance. I didn’t sit down and say “oh, here’s this digital thing, let me find a way to apply Surrogates to that digital format.” I knew that I wanted to do a serialized story, and then the digital thing came along and made that possible. I was definitely using the technology to tell stories I already had in mind.

As you said, the first Surrogates story was bimonthly, but it was a total experiment for Top Shelf. They’d never done a serialized single-issue comic book before in the history of their company. They’d done single issue comics, but they’d be one and done. It’s nothing like every two months, we’re going to do a five-issue mini-series, and it’s tough to get into shops when you’re coming from a smaller publisher. It’s not their standard model of doing things, so to do something serialized through them, this was the way to do it.

CA: As a writer, is there a format that you prefer? Do you like doing the more isolated stories?

RV: I think whatever the material fits in, that’s what I’ll do. I love doing graphic novels, I’ve written those, and I really enjoy writing a serialized comic with Case Files and also with X-O Manowar, so I think whatever the stories fit, that’s what I’m going to try to write it for. I’m not going to try to fit a square peg in a round hole.

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