Talking Comics with Tim: Vito Delsante
This November, writer Vito Delsante‘s collaboration with artist Rachel Freire, FCHS: Volume 1, will be released by AdHouse (Diamond Order Code: SEP09 0568). As described at the AdHouse site: “Do you remember high school? All the fun and trouble you used to get into? All of the sex, sports and alcohol that was your Senior year? It’s time to go back! Join Hector, Kennedy, Jules and the whole gang at FCHS as they begin their last year of high school. Will they be ready for ‘the real world’ when it’s all over? Will they all make it? Archie meets 90210.” Delsante, who has written for a number of publishers (including DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Dynamite Entertainment, and Simon & Schuster), was kind enough to do an email interview with me. In addition to discussing FCHS, we discuss his experience working at Jim Hanley’s Universe, as well as some of his other upcoming projects.
Tim O’Shea: FCHS got its start at the Chemistry Set, how did the publishing arrangement with AdHouse come about?
Vito Delsante: A mini comic. Seriously! Rachel and I attended MoCCA two years ago and at that point, we had about 21 strips on the site that we turned into seven 3-tier pages. We were handing them out to just about anyone who was interested, with the thought that we’d bring some traffic back to Chem Set. Chris [Pitzer, AdHouse Books publisher] got one and a few weeks later, right before Comic Con Intl., he e-mailed us and asked if we were interested in doing a book. I think, in the back of my head, I was hoping to get a few publishers interested in FCHS, but when Chris offered, we jumped at it. Rachel and I are big fans of AdHouse, and to be a member of that family is a very good feeling.
O’Shea: Back to the Chemistry Set, I missed out on the explanation of how and why it has shut down–can we discuss that for a bit?
Delsante: It really came down to timing and money. We (the collective we) were funding it out of our own pockets and 90% of the creators involved have day jobs. It became a struggle to keep artists on projects that weren’t paying gigs (I think I speak for all of the writers when I say that we would do the work for free forever just to get it out there). That’s just a rough situation to find yourself in. We were trying to come up with better ways to make the site more user friendly, rather than just a Word Press blog, but nothing really stuck. The Chemistry Set’s audience was primarily other creators, and try as we might, we just couldn’t break through to the web-comic friendly fan base. Individually, you can get past these things, but when you take them all on at once, it becomes a flood. I think the concept (the writer & artist dynamic) is still valid and maybe we’ll get a chance to do it again someday, and do it right.
O’Shea: You’re able to jam a great many characters into this high school tale, were you ever concerned that you were putting too many characters in?
Delsante: Always. I think that when you expand your supporting cast, you run the risk of diluting your story, but I compensate by using those characters as instruments of change on the main seven, and seven main characters is, in and of itself, nothing to sneeze at. Look, it would have been easy to make this book Hector’s story and his story alone, but I was really determined to tell a story about friends. If this was Hector’s story, you might not get impact. What I mean is, when something happens to Hector though someone else’s eyes, you get a different feeling then when you just see it happen. The grand story, the plot, is about change, and change that comes on the cusp of childhood and adulthood. To make the reader feel that change, you have to make them feel as if everything is familiar, and the way I chose to do it is by introducing them to familiar characters. There’s a few characters that didn’t make this book! Heather Gracen is mentioned and Boggs isn’t seen after his cameo in the first few pages. It’s unrealistic to think that these seven characters would just be around each other all the time, 24/7, in every class. That’s just not the high school experience; that’s kindergarten.
O’Shea: In pre-interview discussions between us, you mentioned there is a musical connection to FCHS, at one point you slipped a reference to Grease 2 into the story, but I was wondering what other musical connections are there?
Delsante: Other than my own musical aspirations? There’s a few throughout the book. Hector and his friends are in a band, a Police cover band to be exact, so I’m setting the reader up to know who is musically inclined. That way, when we do the high school musical (which I realize is the name of a musical, but it has no bearing on FCHS), you’ll understand who was cast and why. I’m really keen on music and the musical as a means to tell a story, and when the opportunity arises, I like to flex my lyrical abilities and songwriting arrangement skills. Grease 2, That Thing You Do, Chicago…I watch these three movies too much, and there’s something to be said for the effectiveness of pop music. The two, comics and music, are interchangeable in many ways, and I’m out to convert whoever I can. I will always be a comic book writer that is both a frustrated actor and a frustrated musician and I’ll never be able to change that, so I’ll take the chances in my comic writing to reflect my other “careers.”
O’Shea: On page 72, there’s a phone conversation between Hector and Kenni, where they discuss their feelings for each other. At one point, Hector gets the biggest grin that the reader has seen on the character in the entire story (unless I’m off). Was that telling and fun moment a suggestion you gave artist Rachel Freire or was that small nuance something she came up with doing?
Delsante: It’s totally her. I wrote, “This will be a close up of both of them, smiling like two fools in love.” It’s not the greatest of descriptions, but with the set up, she noticed that it was a gradual build-up. Rachel, for being relatively new to the industry, has great instincts and her abilities are only going to get better. She “gets it.” I can’t speak for her, but she’s said that the story drives her, that she enjoys my scripting, and for me, that’s a great compliment. She’s got a long future in this industry, and I am glad I get to usher her in.
O’Shea: The dynamics of gossip and drama in a women’s bathroom (as played out in pages 78-79) are nothing like the dynamics of a guy’s bathroom. As a male author, how did you capture that so effectively?
Delsante: If I captured that effectively, it’s because I have a great partner, and that’s a compliment to Rachel, but also my wife, Michelle, who is a great sounding board. Michelle was the one who suggested Jules “hold the door” for Alisha, something I’d never think of. The dialogue is kind of par for the course, and that was all me, but the women’s bathroom is a place that, other than making out in one, I’ve never been in with a woman. I knew that when the “movie night” scene was coming up, I wanted a part in there where the girls could talk, and girls talk in the bathroom…it made sense to me. The end of that scene has a girl coming in from off panel and saying something so blunt and so to the point…I know that when women are together, they are just as bad as guys, language wise, so within the “Fortress of Femininitude,” nothing is off limits.
O’Shea: Not to fixate on the bathroom scene, but it was the first time I realized narrative-wise, you don’t always take shortcuts like “Soon…in the movie theater women’s bathroom…” Despite (or maybe because of her simplicity of line) Freire was able to quickly and effectively convey where the scene was set, how often does she impress even you when she pulls off scenes like that so economically?
Delsante: Constantly. Without sounding like a broken record, her instincts are off the charts. On the writing end, I shy away from the “Meanwhile” and segues that seem unnatural because the passage of time is often implied (I do use, “Soon,” on the aforementioned Page 72). We both plan those things to happen when the page turns, so that you have the transition happening on the left of the two page scene. There’s your passage of time…flipping to the next page. Sometimes we have to shift a few scenes or excise them all together, but we all sacrifice the page for the scene.
O’Shea: The first half of the story, Reilly is having all the fun and seems to have not a care in the world (more so than other FCHS characters). Did you do that partially to make when the story’s plot pull his chair out from under him (literally and figuratively), it makes his “fall” (pun intended) that much more dramatic?
Delsante: Oh, there’s worse to come for Reilly, believe me! It’s only intentional in the sense that, I know his arc. I know where Reilly will be at the end of Book 4. I think it’s a little entertaining to see that fun loving character come down a few pegs. If everyone else is having a bad day, guess what, so is he. He is always going to be the fun loving character…notice that he always wears shorts. He’s not immune to any of the bad vibes going on, no matter how above it he thinks he is.
O’Shea: High school was quite a number of years ago for guys like me and yourself, was part of the reason you tapped Freire to be the artist was that the emotional drama and intensity of high school was more recent for her to be able to tap for creative use?
Delsante: I never thought of it like that, but that’s an interesting way to look at our creative dynamic. For me, she was in the right place at the right time. I never thought to consider how close she was to her own high school experience. Since the book takes place back in the 90′s, I’m not sure how much of that she tapped into. In fact, I made it a point to give her my high school video yearbook for research.
O’Shea: In terms of marketing the book/building hype for it, how much of a benefit was the FCHS Free Comic Book Day edition this year?
Delsante: Good, but not phenomenal. At least, we don’t know the answer to that right now. One of the biggest complaints I heard was, “My store didn’t get it.” It kind of bothers me, since I’m a fellow retailer…you’d think there’d be some kind of fellowship or camaraderie. I don’t want to fault the retailers out there too hard, so I’m trying, with the book, to put the “power” back in the hands of the readers. I’m encouraging folks to pre-order the book. We’ve got the first 25 pages on ComiXology for free until November, so that’s the FCBD issue plus 5 pages. Rachel and I are currently running an exclusive never-before-seen strip on my website and on Facebook. So, we’re doing what we can to build the audience, but you always feel like there’s something more that you’re missing. The FCBD issue was a big help in getting eyes on the book, so I’m definitely grateful.
O’Shea: Given its semi-autobiographical nature, I’m curious have any of your friends from high school gotten to read the tale?
Delsante: A few! So far, they love it. I’m interested in how the template for Jules will react. She loved the FCBD issue, and her opinion really matters to me. I don’t think the Reilly template has seen the book yet, in any form, and it’ll be interesting to see his take. My wife is one of the templates for Kennedy, and she loves the book. I think she gets a kick out of seeing places we grew up in, places we went to as kids.
O’Shea: How painful or cathartic (if at all) is it to do semi-autobiographical work for you?
Delsante: It’s both, in equal measure. Looking back, you think, “Well, I survived that,” and that mentality is really interesting to me. Survival has nothing to do with it for most of us; we went to school and went home. If you grow up gay, black, or challenged in anyway in a small town environment, then yes, it’s all about survival. The pain I experienced was losing my dad and my grandfather and not knowing how to shed that pain. Sports, sex, and good times just never did it for me. They were great distractions, yes, but I still felt those deaths and carried them around with me for a long time. So, in doing FCHS, and looking at Hector, and how angry and intense he is all the time, I wonder how many saw me like that, because looking back, that’s what I see; a guy who was struggling with depression (not clinical, but standard, high school depression) and trying to fill it with anything. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy my years in Ford City, PA, because I did. I would have never met my wife and many of my lifelong friends if I left after my father died, which was an option at one point. I don’t think Hector feels as if he has any options, which puts him in a different spot, but I still feel like I’m exorcising some demons.
O’Shea: In trying to write about weighty topics like abortion, teenage pregnancy or losing one’s parent, how challenging is it to make it compelling drama without reading like a 1980s ABC afterschool special?
Delsante: The characters have to talk like people, or teens in this case, not robots reciting dialogue. It’s tough, I’ll give you that, because you can cross that line very quickly. You just have to hold back on the preaching. It’d be easy to tell someone that pre-marital sex leads to teen pregnancy which leads to a million other difficult choices for a kid to make. Rather than say, “This is wrong,” I’m using our characters as examples. This is a mature readers title, but I feel like you could hand it to a 17 year old, maybe even 16, and they’d relate to it and maybe learn a life lesson. It’s my job to entertain, not dictate how people should live their lives.
O’Shea: Does working at Jim Hanley’s Universe give you greater insight (than some creators) on how to effectively market yourself and your work?
Delsante: Some days. The market, when you look past Marvel and DC, is an odd animal, neither fish nor fowl. There’s a lot of companies that have popped up and a lot that have dried up in the past 5 years (I worked for one of them), and you think you know something that someone else doesn’t know, but you can never tell until you put your ass on the line. FCHS is a good book, one that I’m proud of and I think it will make a lot of people talk, but in this atmosphere, where Disney/Marvel and DC Entertainment are taking the headlines, and Blackest Night and Dark Reign are the books comic readers are actively seeking, I’m not entirely sure where FCHS fits in. Putting the book in the right hands, putting the asses in the seats, so to speak, has proven a little difficult, but I knew that coming in. Working at Hanley’s is market research on the ground level, and it’s definitely opened me up to marketing possibilities that I’d never entertained before. I’d encourage every writer starting out to get a part-time job at a comic store. I’m sure that if you put Fraction, Dorkin, Jamal Igle, Dustin Harbin and myself in a room, we’d have a million things we could tell an up-and-coming creator that we learned from working in retail. It’s a shame because I know for a fact that some publishers look down on hiring me because they see it as a conflict of interest, but the reality is, I know the product, in many ways, better than the publisher.
O’Shea: As a storyteller, how frustrating is it when you see customers buying mainstream comics that you know are poorly written or drawn or edited? You can’t turn away a customer, of course, as a employee of a retailer, you want that sale to happen. But as a creator is it sometimes maddening to see some poorly constructed multi-crossover event become a best-seller (granted, a best-seller that helps keeps you paid, I must concede)?
Delsante: It’s my own personal policy to never talk someone out of buying something, or, in some cases, to talk them into buying something I believe in. It’s not my place to say that something is poorly written, at least, not publicly. I’ve never seen the movie, Days of Thunder, but in seeing the commercials for it, I remember Tom Cruise say something like, “I wont take anyone’s word for what I can do with a car.” I adopt that as my own; I wont take anyone’s word for what I can do with a script. I say that because, yes, I’m guilty of looking at some of my peers’ work or some of the guys people consider “great” and think or know that I can do better, if only given the chance. I’m getting to the point in my life, in my career, where I now don’t care about being given the chance, I’m just going to do it and damn the torpedoes. I’m all about making my own chances. The fantasy of being “discovered” behind the register of the comic store is long gone. Did that already. I’m still trying to shake people’s perceptions of me based on my occupation, and that’s proving difficult.
O’Shea: You’ve done work for Marvel, DC, Dynamite, Speakeasy, and now AdHouse, so you seem somewhere between the mainstream and indie market, to a certain extent. Where do you see yourself?
Delsante: I don’t know. One of the guys I work with, Nick, said very matter of factly, “Neither side can claim you as their own,” and I suppose that’s true. I don’t really fit in with either. My goal in comics is to write the stories I want to read. If that alienates me from someone, a reader, a retailer, whoever, then that’s a shame. I tend to think that people would like to read what I write, but I hope that my “gray” area doesn’t turn them off. I really can’t help that; I take the work that’s offered, or now, I take the work I want to do.
O’Shea: On the creative horizon, what can you tell me about your next two projects (The Fist of Dracula and RetroFix)?
Delsante: Fist of Dracula is, to my knowledge, the only pulp retelling of the Dracula story, and that might be a bit bold and presumptuous. How it came about was…I wanted to work on a public domain character because I was tired of creating my own only to see that someone is publishing a similar character. That’s just frustrating. And while there are many different versions and iterations of Dracula out there, I think this one is wholly unique. I’m developing this right now with my Before They Were Famous: Babe Ruth artist, Andres Vera Martinez. We don’t have a publisher yet, but we’re getting a lot of the preliminary work done. We figure it’ll be 200 pages, so we’d like to go OGN rather than issue by issue. We’ll see.
RetroFix is another attempt to do public domain characters, but this time, super heroes. If you read Project Superpowers, then you’ll find this to be 360 degrees opposite. This is about taking these characters, updating them rather than keeping them the same (or similar). I’m taking the basic premise of the character, sometimes just the name, and reimagining them for today’s audience. I’ll be doing 8 page introductory stories for each character, and giving it away for free on my website. I’m good like that. Some of the artists involved are Rachel Freire, Attila Adorjany, Rick Lacy, and when he gets a free minute, I’m hoping to rope in Khary Randolph. It’s just for fun, but maybe something will come out of it.
I’m also doing a book called Stray which is about a sidekick who has to grow up and possibly take over his mentor’s mantle. Now, I only mention this one because it’s kind of fascinating, if you’ve tracked my career (and really, who has time for that?). Everyone who knows me knows that I’ve tried and tried to convince DC to let me write Nightwing more than once. This is the first time I’ve ever changed an old pitch or concept to suit my own characters. Let that be a lesson; no idea goes wasted in the Delsante house.