With Surrogates hitting theaters this weekend, we spoke to creator Robert Venditti about the origins of the original comic, his career as a writer, and why nothing in the story is as simple as it may seem at first.
How does having a movie impact the books? Not just the promotion of the books, but you're also writing another Surrogates book...
I don't think much has changed. I understand that right now, it's in the news and it's something that's on everyone's mind because of the marketing campaign, but I am fully prepared for the fact that, next week, the world will have moved on. I'll just keep working away on the stories, and hopefully people will keep enjoying them, whether they be Hollywood people or readers at the bookstores.
I've got two other Surrogates books I want to do, but I'm not working on either of those at the moment. Surrogates isn't the only thing I want to do, so I'd like it to be one of those things I come back to around other projects that I'm working on. Right now, I have The Homeland Directive, which is more of a modern-day political meta-thriller, and that whole book was written before I started on the prequel to The Surrogates [Flesh and Bone, which came out earlier this year], but the film went into production so fast that we put the Surrogates prequel into production to come out before the movie, and that pushed Homeland Directive back another year. It'll come out next year.
I'm also adapting Percy Jackson and the Olympians young adult series into graphic novel format, and I have an Iron Man oneshot coming out in October, as well.
You're a busy man! Was Surrogates your first book?
Yeah, that's the first book I ever wrote.
So what was the impetus behind, not just Surrogates, but also just wanting to be a comic writer?
I'll tackle the comic writer first, then come back to The Surrogates. I always wanted to be a writer. When I was very, very little, I wanted to be an animator; to animate Bugs Bunny cartoons was like the highest form of achievement for me, and that's what I wanted to do when I grew up. I had all the animation books and I kept working at it, but I could tell that I had no talent for it, I mean, it was obvious. I think I turned to writing stories to explain what I couldn't draw with my hands. I was writing short stories at a very early age, like second, third and fourth grade. So I knew I wanted to be a writer, but it was always prose. I didn't grow up reading comics, comics weren't something on my radar. So when I was in grad school, getting my MFA in creative writing, through a friend of mine who worked in Borders, he got me to read Astro City, and I just really enjoyed it. It had all the complexity, the deep characterization, the subtext and the themes that the literary fiction I was enjoying had, but it also had this very strong visual element, and it just sort of struck me that here was an opportunity, that I could write a story and someone else could render it into art and it was probably as close as I would ever get to that original ambition of being an animator.
That was in 2000, that I decided to try and write comics. I wrote The Surrogates in 2002, I spent some time - I'm not sure I'd want to call "researching," but looking into it, trying to figure out what a comic book script looked like, and also boning up on some of the classics of the medium. I didn't start writing The Surrogates until May of 2002.
As far as writing The Surrogates, again when I was in grad school, we read a book called The Cyber Gypsies, which was a non-fiction book where a guy had spent a lot of time with people addicted to online games, and these people in the book had become so identified with the personas on their computers that they'd lose their jobs or get divorced or any number of things because they were devoting so much of their time to maintaining that persona that they were neglecting the basic steps of living. It was an idea that stuck with me, this basic human desire to be someone other than who we actually are. It just clicked for me in 2002: What if there was a technology that would allow you to create a persona that, instead of being bound in a machine or have a virtual reality situation, what if the technology was reversed and the machine would go out into the world and do all the things you need to do to live for you? You could be that persona all the time and still maintain all your responsibilities.
I was explaining the concept behind The Surrogates to a friend, and she both couldn't understand what was bad about the idea of having a Surrogate, and didn't see any conflict of who you "are" using that technology.
Well, I think there's a lot of good that could come from that technology, I think there's a lot of benefit. Like any technology, it can be abused, you know.
The Surrogates - more the first book than the second, perhaps - struck me not as an anti-technology book, but definitely something that warned of the dangers of becoming too enamored and relying too much on technology that divorces you so much from the majority of your life. Was that something you were trying to get across?
I definitely wanted that to be one of the themes. And like you said, I didn't want it to be anti-technology. I didn't want someone to read it and think, that's what this guy thinks, this is what he's saying, because in many cases, I don't have the answers. I'm just sort of asking the questions and it's up to the readers to answer them individually. In this case, I had these questions: What does technology do to our interpersonal relationships? What would it mean if we could all redefine not just our physical appearance, but also deeper notions like race and gender? In what ways would it be freeing, and in what ways would it be confining? All these sort of things, and I just wanted to put it out there. Writing for me, as an exercise, is a way for me not to find an answer as much as explore a question, whatever that question may be, that's behind the story I'm telling.
That's what I wanted to do, to pose those questions to the readers, but not at any point feel like I was answering them. I think that's when, as an audience, you start feeling like you're being preached to, and I don't enjoy that when I'm reading or watching a movie. I try to not do that when I write.
I think it's left very ambiguous, especially with the prequel, which explains a lot of the concepts behind the first book. Why did you go back and do Flesh and Bone?
That was always the intention. It was always meant as a trilogy of books, but back in the day, all the other books were very dependent on how successful the first book was. It was always intention to tell that middle story, then a prequel, then a sequel to continue the story from the first book. I'm writing them in the way I always intended to; I think it makes sense to go back before you go forward again, to see the origins of Harvey and Margaret Greer, of the Prophet and how he built his church and get that background before you go forward again.
With the Prophet and his church, were you playing on the traditional science versus faith theme, or was he and his church just the most obvious counterpoint to the blind faith the rest of society has in the technology in the first book?
A little bit of both, but definitely the science versus religion debate... It becomes this question of, Where does it end? If we're going to use science and technology for reasons purely based in vanity, because there's something inherently wrong in that, then where does that end? If you're going to say that there's something wrong with someone getting a facelift, if that is a misuse of technology, how is that different from plastic surgery because they were a burn victim? I understand a difference, I understand the practicality, but if you look at it from a purely religious - versus scientific - stance, and you try to draw a line between black and white, you see that it is the grey area I was talking about earlier. There aren't any easy answers to these questions, and it's up to people to answer them for themselves.
It's not only the religion versus science argument, but also the Prophet himself, the character; I wanted him to be a grey area himself. You see this more in the prequel, but you don't really know: Is he a con man, or is he doing this because of a deep and abiding faith in Christ? All of these things that he does can be construed in either way.
Something I really like about your writing in general, especially the second book, is how much you want to leave open to the reader's prejudices. You argue both sides about whether the technology is worthwhile or a bad thing.
I wanted to populate the book with people who are using the technology for different reasons. I think the movie focuses more on just the physical aspect, and the personal beautification element of the technology, but I wanted to fill the book with people who use it for different reasons. I mean, Greer's surrogate pretty much looks the way he looks, he looks a little bit different but only because he's aged since he bought the surrogate, but you get the impression that, on the day he walked out the showroom, he looked exactly like that. For him, it's not something about changing the way he looks, it's about something he needs to do his job and be safe. I wanted to have these people, have different reasons, so the reader could see different things, whether it's law enforcement or to improve public health, and say "Wow, these are benefits that this technology could give" so that it's not just something that people use for vanity or self-servedness.
Do you think that sort of subtlety can come through in the movie?
Am I worried it's going to be lost in the translation? I don't think it will be. To me, the most important part of the book, even though it's a very small element, is the relationship between Harvey Greer and [his wife] Margaret. I think maybe it accounts for ten pages, if that, of the entire graphic novel, but it's what drives home the human toll of the entire technology. It also lays bear the dichotomy of people using it for beautification and people using it for more utilitarian reasons, because Margaret is using it because she's uncomfortable with how she looks, but Harvey's just using it because it's something he needs to do [for his job]. All of that is retained in the film, and the relationship plays out very much like it does in the book, and I think because that is in there - and in the film, I think more screentime is devoted to it than pagetime in the book - I think that stuff will still shine through.
If you had a surrogate, what would you do with it?
I'd like to think that I'd be like Greer, I'd be a guy who'd use it for utilitarian reasons, not for any kind of vanity. But I understand how seductive technology is, and if I lived in a world like Greer does where everyone is using these things, it's be very easy to get sucked into that. I don't know if I'd perform as admirably as I'd want to.
Surrogates is in theaters now. The two graphic novels, The Surrogates and The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone are both available in bookstores and comic stores now.