Talking Comics with Tim | Robert Venditti
As an Atlanta native, in terms of pro sports teams, I root for the Braves and Falcons every season. In a similar vein, when something from Top Shelf (partially based out of the Atlanta metro area) is published, much less by a talented Atlanta-based writer like Robert Venditti, I aim to support that project, but only if that support is warranted. I am happy to say that Venditti and artist Mike Huddleston’s The Homeland Directive has more than earned my full and enthusiastic support. Don’t trust my gut? Consider what The Middle Ground columnist Graeme McMillan’s wrote about the 152-page graphic novel: “It’s unlikely you’ll find a book that looks as good as The Homeland Directive this year.” The book, released last month, is best framed by the publisher: “As a leading researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Laura Regan is one of the world’s foremost authorities on viral and bacteriological study. Having dedicated her career to halting the spread of infectious disease, she has always considered herself one of the good guys. But when her research partner is murdered and Laura is blamed for the crime, she finds herself at the heart of a vast and deadly conspiracy. Aided by three rogue federal agents who believe the government is behind the frame-up, Laura must evade law enforcement, mercenaries, and a team of cyber-detectives who know more about her life than she does—all while trying to expose a sinister plot that will impact the lives of every American.” My thanks to Venditti for his time and be sure to visit the Top Shelf website for a six-page preview of the book.
Tim O’Shea: Was there any one factor (influencing your decision more than others) as to why you tapped artist Huddleston for the project?
Robert Venditti: I wrote the book having no idea who the artist was going to be or, for that matter, if it was even going to get published. When I turned in the script to Chris and Brett at Top Shelf, Mike Huddleston was one of the first names they mentioned. I’d never met Mike before, but I was a fan of his work on The Coffin, so I was immediately onboard with the idea. He’s an amazing talent, and he proved himself to be a consummate professional as well. It was an absolute joy to work with him.
O’Shea: The color schemes and tones in this book are distinctive in many ways. Was that an approach that you and Huddleston agreed upon–or how was the color selection process determined?
Venditti: That was all Mike. He told me before he got started that he wanted to be experimental with the art and coloring, but I really had no idea what that meant. Even if he’d tried to explain his vision to me, I don’t think I would’ve understood, since I don’t have much of a background in art. But I want the artists I collaborate with to feel like they have the room to bring their own creativity to the project, so I told Mike to do what he thought would work on the page. As the first pages were coming in, my reaction was that they were completely unlike anything I’d ever seen, and in a completely positive way. He really went above and beyond.
O’Shea: You definitely gain inspiration from living in Atlanta, given the role the CDC plays in the book. Was it pretty early in the process that you realized you wanted to build a story involving the CDC?
Venditti: I knew from the outset that the story was going to involve a mystery illness that was spreading throughout the American population. With a story like that, you’re going to want the Centers for Disease Control involved, so even if I wasn’t an Atlanta resident, I still would’ve made Laura a doctor at the CDC. But living here made it easier for me to get the exact name of the highway exit that leads to the Atlanta airport!
O’Shea: In refining the plot of the book, did you consider toning down the political commentary for fear it would compromise the thriller aspect of the story?
Venditti: At no time did I want to be seen as taking a specific position one way or the other in the debate between personal privacy and public safety. Too often in our entertainment, it’s obvious what the storyteller thinks, and, to me, it feels like I’m being beat over the head with the writer’s message. With my writing, I hope that I can present an unbiased argument to the reader, and then let them come to their own conclusions. To act as though I know all the answers would be disingenuous, because ultimately many of these questions don’t have an answer.
O’Shea: How much research did you pursue for the accuracy of the story?
Venditti: For The Surrogates—a science fiction story set fifty years in the future—I tended to make things up as I went along. With The Homeland Directive, however, I wanted to ground the story in the real world, so I studied books about epidemiology and how various government agencies respond to viral and bacteriological crises. It’s a fascinating topic, but also quite terrifying. The doctors and specialists who are the vanguard of our defense in these scenarios often don’t know beforehand how dangerous the threat is. They’re made from far sterner stuff than me.
O’Shea: Few writers can say they had their graphic novel adapted for film. Any interest in garnering interest from Hollywood with this new book, or are you less interested on this go-round?
Venditti: I wrote all of The Homeland Directive before The Surrogates was even optioned, so having it adapted to film was never my primary goal. I just wanted to make a good comic. Having said that, I enjoyed my experience with the Surrogates adaptation tremendously, so if Hollywood were to come knocking on my door again, I’d be happy to let them in.
O’Shea: Were you surprised when this School Library Journal review of The Homeland Directive noted that while it is an adult graphic novel, it could also appeal to teen readers?
Venditti: To me, the content seems skewed toward an older audience, not necessarily because of excessive violence or adult content, but because it deals with some pretty heavy issues. To have a publication like School Library Journal endorse the book is a huge compliment and, yes, a bit of a surprise. But maybe it shouldn’t be. My mom had me reading Stephen King in middle school, and I seem to have turned out okay.
O’Shea: Do you think the loss of privacy (due to security concerns) will ever be stemmed and we might go back the other way, or is there no going back?
Venditti: I think that for the tide to turn, we would have to lessen our dependence on technology, and I just don’t see that happening. At least not voluntarily. One of the themes of The Homeland Directive is the extent to which Americans are complicit in their own surveillance. And we’re a fickle nation, too. We demand that government protect us from the terrorist threat, but if government tries to do so in a manner that we view as intrusive, then we rebel against it. In many ways we put government in a no-win situation. I’m not assessing blame or suggesting that there’s an obvious solution. Like I said, maybe these questions can’t be answered.
O’Shea: As a writer who sees the blessing and curse of technology as you do, when a new technology enters the market do you quickly see the potential pitfalls that come with the new gadget’s advantages?
Venditti: I wouldn’t say that I foresee the pitfalls, but I can be a little leery, depending on the technology. With things like smart phones and the iPad, I’m an early adopter—the convenience they offer is too tempting. On the other hand, watching IBM’s Watson crush the competition on Jeopardy! . . . that was kind of unnerving.