Evil All Around You: Robert Venditti Talks ‘Book of Death’ [Interview]
When you think of the revived Valiant Comics, a few standout creators come to mind, and one of those is certainly Robert Venditti, a writer who has been on board since the company came back to life in 2012.
After taking the reins on last year's Armor Hunters event, Venditti is picking up the baton once again, along with artists Robert Gill and Doug Braithwaite, for Book of Death, a four-issue miniseries that explores the fallout from this spring's The Valiant and blasts ahead into an uncertain, dangerous future for the Valiant Universe, with excerpts from the titular book --- which comes from the future ---- playing a big part in each issue.
After getting a sneak peek at the script for issue one, we spent a few minutes on the phone with Venditti to talk about whether his future for the Valiant U is concrete or fluid, the art of writing a comic script, the concept of a villain who can manipulate nature, whether trees can be threatening, and much more.
ComicsAlliance: Book of Death is coming right on the heels of The Valiant, and pretty closely jumps off from the events of that series. One of the main characters, Eternal Warrior, is the de facto lead here. You’re taking a very different approach, though. The Valiant looked to the past, with tons of flashbacks throughout the centuries. Book of Death goes the other direction. It looks to a possible future. What drove, in the planning stages, for you to do that?
Rob Venditti: It’s something we talked about from the very beginning. Talking with Warren Simons, the executive editor of Valiant, just the idea of being able to get a window into the future of what the Valiant Universe is going to be. It started off as something smaller, in terms of the number of pages we might give that, or what it was going to mean to the story, but as we worked on the story more and more, it grew and it became something that was integral to the story in the sense that Tama, the character who is the new Geomancer from The Valiant, she was sent back from the future by a version of Gilad, the Eternal Warrior, to stop this terrible, horrific series of events that was going to destroy the Valiant Universe.
She has the Book of Geomancer with her, which has the recorded history of the Valiant Universe. She’s the only one who can read it. In storytelling terms, those excerpts of what the future Valiant Universe is are what she actually reads from the Book of Geomancer. It just became a nice way to give the story stakes, and to show the reader this thing that our heroes are trying to prevent, and to tease a lot of new concepts and characters, as well as some things from prior Valiant continuity that have shown up yet in the new incarnation of the Valiant Universe.
It was a way to have a lot of fun with a lot of different things, but, of course, all in service of this story. It wasn’t something we would do if it wasn’t an important part of the overall narrative.
CA: Speaking of how important the Book of Geomancer is to the story, the excerpts you mentioned --- there’s an eight-page excerpt in issue one --- is drawn by a different artist. Doug Braithwaite does those parts. The notion of the book in the title becoming its own story within this one is really interesting. What led you to that approach?
RV: Various reasons. From a professional level, it was a type of story I hadn’t done before. It seemed like a unique challenge. I think people will really understand just how big the challenge was once they read the story, once they read the first issue. It was something I tried to do to flex some different muscles and hopefully improve as a writer.
It’s also super important to the story in the sense that what is happening in the Valiant Universe, this series of horrific events, is taking its toll on characters and all kinds of things. Gilad believes that the answers to why these events are happening and how they can be stopped are inside the Book of Geomancer. He’s confident that, hidden down deep within the pages, in the subtext of the book, will be the clues that will help them stop this. With him being in the modern day, and this Book of Geomancer being a future document, is part of the reason for him believing that.
He also knows from having been around and protected Geomancers for thousands and thousands of years, the true enormity of their mystical powers and mystical abilities. He has faith in what the Geomancer, and what the Book of Geomancer is. Ultimately, that’s where the solution is going to lie.
CA: Comics readers have seen a lot of stories about apocalyptic, devastated and awful futures, back to “Days of Future Past” and stories like that. We’ve kind of come to understand that the future can be pretty fluid. In this, there’s an actual document that says “these are the events.” Clearly, the Valiant heroes are trying to change that future. I know this is something that will be revealed throughout the series, but do you see the recorded events here as being fluid, or are they predetermined and definite?
RV: My answer to that, without giving to much away, is that I can absolutely promise you that some of what we see in the Book of Geomancer excerpt pages are absolutely going to happen in the Valiant Universe. I know this because I go to the writers retreats, where we all sit around a table and talk about the directions of our stories. Those particular items were picked specifically because I know they’re going to happen.
You can tell how much content there is in those excerpt pages. There are a lot of things that we’re putting down. Some of those are things I’m just postulating, or using my own imagination or creativity. Others are things that I know are going to happen. That’s part of the fun of it. I would hope that readers would read this story, and see those pages, and on top of it just being an adventure with Gilad and Tama and the rest of the Valiant Universe, we’ll have another added element of fun. You can look at that and almost use it as a checklist going forward. “Oh, here’s this thing that happened in Book X. I remember reading about that in Book of Death. Check that one off."
They’ll see which ones they can check off as we come into the coming years in the Valiant Universe, and which ones remain out there to be explored.
CA: There’s an enemy in the Book of Geomancer itself, and we don’t know who that is just yet, but then there’s a character who has an air of mystery in the parts that take place in the present. What we’ve seen of that character, a lot of it has to do with nature. It’s control of plants and animals. That isn’t something I’ve seen a ton of, because possibly I’d imagine that it can be really hard to make trees a threat. How did you determine a way to pull that off and make them menacing?
RV: A lot of that, obviously, comes down to Robert Gill. You can say that a tree is menacing or threatening in some way, but that may be difficult to bring across. When you see what Robert Gill has done, you say, “Okay, I’ll buy that now.” So much of it comes through the art, which is why I’m so fortunate to be working with the artists that I’m with on the book.
I don’t know that I would call it control of nature so much as a manipulation of and a perversion of nature. We’re trying to tell a different style of story than what I’ve done before, more of a horror-infused story. That’s a genre I’ve never really worked in before. You know, you had something like Armor Hunters, which was sort of cosmic, with giant robots from space and aliens coming down to hunt the armor, those sorts of things. This story is grounded, literally, in the sense that the adversary that they’re dealing with is able to manipulate the ground beneath our feet, and our surroundings. I think you’d be hard pressed to find something more horrific than that as an adversary to have to deal with. You can’t run from it. It’s all around you. It’s not zombies coming over the hill. It’s all around you.
I think that was the real driving force behind, to make the readers feel the way our characters feel: unsettled, with no place to go and hide, because this is happening everywhere. You can’t hide from it, you can’t avoid it and you don’t yet know how to defeat it, but you have to try, because otherwise, we’re all going to die.
CA: Continuing with the horror thrust of the story, one thing I noticed in the script was the various points of reference that you give, mostly, I assume, for the benefit of the audience, but I wonder how much of that you intend to come through for the reader. There’s one point where you mention Aliens, particularly Bill Paxton’s characters. Creepshow comes up several times. Then, a couple points of reference aren’t necessarily horror-related, but they struck me. One was The Karate Kid, and in another one, you talk about John Dillinger. You’re pulling from a lot of cultural context.
RV: I don’t know if it’s something a reader’s going to read and go, “Oh, Daniel-san.” That’s not really the intent at all. It’s really sort of a shorthand you can use to converse with your artist. It’s just the culture we live in now, with memes and quotes from films. They’re almost like our modern-day Cockney rhyming slang. It’s almost ungraspable unless you grew up with it, and then it makes perfect sense.
Robert Gill and me, he may be from one part of the country and I another, but these are the things that can tie us together that we all know and we’ve all seen. So it may not be something I want to come across in the story. I’m certainly not trying to repeat anything that’s been done. It’s just a shorthand to describe a setting or a character’s reaction, because you do want to communicate a feeling, and at the same time, also have some fun. Make the script feel light and fun to read as much you can. Artists sometimes spend a month or longer looking at these black words on a white piece of paper. Make it conversational. Make it something that can change the mood and make it less boring for them.
CA: I always find the conversation piece that is a comic script interesting. It’s a very one-sided conversation between two people. In this case, it’s between three, though, because you’re writing some pages for Robert Gill, and some for Doug Braithwaite. I noticed when you got to the part for Doug Braithwaite, you started addressing him directly and giving him some context. I don’t think you noticed an entirely different tone in that part of the script, but do you tailor your directions or references to what you know of an artist, whether you know them personally, and what their art style is?
RV: You can certainly do that. As you get to be more familiar with people, you can become more conversational. Doug is somebody I worked with on four issues of Armor Hunters last summer, so I know him. Robert Gill, it’s my first time working with him. As our relationship develops and we get to know each other better, we can change those kinds of things.
You do want to try to write content that’s going to play to an artist’s strengths. The nice thing about working with the artists that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with is that they’re kind of like all strengths. But there are other factors that come into play, too. Sometimes, in fact, quite often, I’ll write a script and I won’t even know who the artist is going to be in terms of who’s going to draw it, because of publication schedules being what they are, and sometimes an artist has to come and fill in.
On something like this, with a miniseries, it’s going to be four issues, we know what the page count is, we know how much Robert’s going to do, we know how much Doug’s going to do, so now I do know who the artist is going to be, so I can write to them accordingly. For something else, like, just a regular issue of X-O Manowar, I might not be as conversational or mention the artist’s name, because I don’t know if the artist that’s drawing the current issue is going to be drawing the one I’m writing right now, because I’m writing four, five, six months ahead of the current issue that’s on the stands. It’s kind of different depending on the project.
CA: Back to the story of Book of Death, I feel like I ask this every time I do an interview about a Valiant project, but it’s always interesting to me how the status of antagonists and protagonists is constantly shifting in the Valiant Universe. There are some characters in here who are out-and-out antagonists, but the immediate conflict in the first issue is initially between Eternal Warrior and X-O Manowar --- they have a heated conversation --- and then Unity gets into it.
So much of this is presented from the Eternal Warrior’s point of view that the members Unity end up being the antagonists of this issue. Do you have to be a little cautious about the way you present that, where you have you heroes in conflict, but you don’t want readers to suddenly say, “Ninjak’s a jerk” and turn on him?
RV: Ninjak is a jerk, anyway. [laughs] But he’s so awesome, you know? No, I love Ninjak as a character.
The most important thing is that you stay true to who the characters are. You don’t have to have them do anything that seems out of character or out of left field, because then it seems like a forced conflict. I think the choice to use the word “antagonist” instead of “villain” is a very smart one, because two sides can be opposing each other, and neither one of them necessarily is a villain.
The way Eternal Warrior is viewing things, from his very long-term, 10,000-years-of-life perspective versus how the rest of the Valiant Universe is looking at events from a very short-term, normal-life-span perspective, you can see how they can both be right, and they can also both be wrong. Those are just the circumstances that have put them against each other in this particular scenario. That doesn’t make either one necessarily a bad guy or a villain. They’re all acting in line with what their characters would generally do. They all have honest motivations. They’re trying to achieve the same ends, which is to thwart this horrific wave of events that’s killing people and wiping out towns. They just have different ways of going about it.
Where it would become problematic would be if you had Gilad on one side, trying to keep the trees from killing people, and on the other side, you had Ninjak going, “No way, man! Let’s let trees kill people!”
CA: I don’t want to get into spoilers, but there is one thing from the Book of Geomancer I have to ask about. Will we be seeing more of the Beast Brigade --- a Unity team made up mostly of animal characters --- in Valiant’s future?
RV: [laughs] My answer would be, I sincerely hope so.
Check out a preview of Book of Death #1 below: