The Birth of a Comic Book: VengerA column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Keith Dallas
The premiere issue of Ronin Studios’ The Venger: Dead Man Rising debuted in June. Written and created by Matthew Spatola with art, letters and character designs by Jason Ossman, The Venger presents a city inexplicably besieged by crime, a young police detective protagonist who must solve the mystery, and his grandfather (the retired post-World War II super-hero “Venger”) who claims to have all the answers.
Recently, I caught up with both Spatola and Ossman to ask them about the origins of their comic book, how they hooked up with each other, and the unique collaborative effort involved in producing an independent comic book.
Keith Dallas: As I read the first issue of The Venger, the first thing that impressed me was the indication of an involved back story. From the post-World War II newspaper clippings reporting Venger‘s deeds to Michael’s mentioning of the trial of mobster Mattias Finn, there’s a lot of significant “pre-history” mentioned here. In that sense (and also because of the generational difficulties between Michael and his grandfather), your book reminded me of James Robinson’s 1990s DC Comics opus Starman. This is not to say that The Venger is derivative or “a riff” of Starman; just that, like Starman, The Venger is a “packed” book that is unfolding an intricate story.
Matt, how long ago did you conceive “Venger”? What are the story’s roots? And how long did it take you to work out all the intricacies of this plot?
Matthew Spatola: Thank you for the comparison to anything James Robinson writes. I have always been a big fan, and years ago he was the first creator I met at a con, Wizard Philly a long time ago. I was really into his Firearm book from Malibu. I knew of Starman but didn’t read it unfortunately. However, I’m starting to get the trades, and I'm loving what I have read. I can see the parallels.
Well, the ideas that started the whole Venger ball rolling started years ago, way back in my early “fan boy” years. I’m sure like many comic readers, I wanted to create my own comic book. Quickly it became apparent that I was not an artist (as Jason can attest to since he saw some of my early character designs for the series). Anyway, writing was something I liked to do, so it was a natural progression for me to put a focus on comic book writing.
I’ve always had an affinity for the “darker” characters and the Venger grew out of that. He was to be my version of The Shadow, that great pulp character. I originally wanted to do a series featuring the pulp era/ Golden Age Venger. The current series evolved from that. When I first started working on the series back then I worked out a whole “bible” for the Venger universe, a specific history and timeline. The Venger: Dead Man Rising series just puts the focus on one specific part of the Venger history. And all the intricate plots are part of, not just this series, but of the Venger-verse. Case in point: the flashback scene in #1. He mentions some heroes he used to work with that are all dead now. It seems like a “throw-away” line, but it’s not. We are going to learn more about the Venger’s past and how everything has a meaning. I have this whole universe of characters and histories all scribbled down in one of my infamous notebooks.
KD: So originally you wanted to publish tales of “The Golden Age Venger.” That’s interesting. What made you change your mind and launch the series with his grandson, Michael?
MS: Well, there are two reasons why I started the story of the Venger here. The first is that I personally really like this story, and I thought that readers would also like it and find it interesting. The second is basically a sales thing. I was not sure how many people would be interested in a period piece like the original Venger tales would be. But like I’ve mentioned, I have a whole timeline done for the Venger, so I could feasibly drop in at different points in the timeline. Just so happens I started with the “end” right now. I still want to go back and do the “Golden Age” tales. Maybe someday soon.
KD: So you worked out the whole “Venger universe” and you wrote the series’ “bible.” Is this when Jason got added to the mix? I find a lot of readers misunderstand how independent comic books get conceived, produced and published. Too many readers assume independent comic book companies operate very similarly to DC and Marvel; that the writer creates a concept, gets a script accepted and then the publisher connects the writer with an artist already “in their stable” or whatever. The reality, of course, is that its not the responsibility of the independent comic book publishers to connect writers with artists. The writer (who is usually the copyright holder, as you are with The Venger) must find an artist and then together, the writer and artist produce some submission pages which then get considered and hopefully accepted by a publisher. My question is this: How did you find Jason? How many artists did you consider before you realized that Jason was the right one for your book? WHY is Jason the right artist for The Venger?
MS: Yeah, you’re right about how the process goes for independent comics. Once I had my pitch “green lighted” by Noble at Ronin, I had to find an artist. So I put out an ad on digitalwebbing.com, and Jason was one of the many responses I received. This was last fall, maybe around the holidays. I must have received about 40 replies to the ad and after looking over all the samples, I really liked Jason’s and someone else’s; can’t even remember who that artist was. I contacted Jason, but he told me that he was only into doing covers. He wouldn’t commit to doing interiors. So I went with the other guy. Now I’m not sure if I contacted Jason again or he contacted me, but basically he had changed his mind and wanted to do the book, and I was ecstatic.
As to why Jason, it’s many reasons. His style and ability are phenomenal. He really does amazing work. Also his designs and ideas for the series have really enabled me to push my writing up a notch. I’m constantly striving to meet his level with the artwork. Yeah, the copyright to the series is in my name, but Jason has been a great partner in developing it and making the series, from character designs to the look of the book. As you know, we get a lot of great reviews for the look of the title. That’s Jason, and Dadicus [The Venger colorist John D. West] too. The last thing I want to mention is the way we work together. I think we just “clicked” from the beginning. This relationship and friendship has also helped make The Venger what it is. I only wish that we can continue working together past this series.
KD: Jason then, let me turn to you. What about The Venger attracted you? What made you change your mind and commit to providing interior art as well as covers? And why did you initially only want to provide covers?
Jason Ossman: What initially attracted me to The Venger was a 7-page excerpt I read of Matt’s script. I was checking out various message boards and ran across an “artist needed” thread and curiosity set in. I started reading the script, and by the time I got to the end of page 7, I was thinking, “wait…what happens next?!?” That, to me, is everything in itself. To be left wanting more is an important element to have in comics. Without it, what is there to look forward to from month to month?
Another very important reason that it turned my head was that even though the basic “meat and potatoes” of the plot is nothing extremely new, it is presented in a way that is fresh and exciting – the very foundation of new comic title. If it ain’t exciting, it ain’t gonna sell! [Laughs] There are many facets to this story, and the plot only thickens as the story progresses.
Regarding the reluctant commitment for the interior art, that had everything to do with time. At that time, I was finishing up my last semester of college, married with a child (and one in the oven), and working two jobs. I thought to myself, “There is absolutely no way I’m going to be able to draw 22 pages on a set schedule and maintain my sanity, much less a family!” Well, as the maxim goes, “the more you have to do, the more you do…” I have an extremely supportive wife, and she’s just as excited as I am, at least that’s what I tell everyone. [Laughs.]
KD: Did you feel a need to “adjust” your usual artistic style for The Venger or did you feel your style was a perfect fit for the title? Maybe it’s better if I phrase the question this way: What kind of artistic style does The Venger require?
JO: My style is a perfect fit for any title! [Laughs.] It seems a lot of titles rely more and more on the colorists – which is not necessarily a bad thing since comic coloring has come a long way. I had never worked with a colorist before, and thus I always approached the Bristol board with the mindset of using a lot of blacks to make up for lack of coloring. This in turn creates a “darker, moodier” style in the end – something which cannot be helped unless the blacks are taken away. Since The Venger was initially going to be featured in only black and white (line art), I approached it accordingly. It wasn’t until I kept getting emails from Dadicus telling me to “ease up on the blacks, man!” that I realized I could rely a little more on him to provide depth, shadows, etc. [Laughs.]
However, since Matt’s story is a bit darker than the typical “superhero” book the amalgamation of darker gray tones and inks worked out perfectly in my opinion.
KD: You are credited as the “series and character” designer. How did you go about creating the costume design for the Venger character? Did you revise a design Matt provided you or were you given a blank slate? If the former, how specifically did you revise the design and what were the reasons for your choices? If the latter, what did you use as inspiration for the design?
JO: I basically approached the character designs from a practical standpoint. Given that no one in the book really has “super powers” (save one), I figured that it would ground the overall feel of the book if I outfitted the characters with a more believable look. For instance, since the Venger is more or less your typical detective, why would he all of a sudden decide that putting on tights would benefit him in a fight? It just wouldn’t make sense to make a leap that big. I tried to kind of place my mindset in that of the characters. If I was a detective that made the realization that I needed to take matters into my own hands, I would head straight for the special unit’s or SWAT team’s locker room and snatch up as many MP5's and phosphorous grenades as I could [Laughs]. Actually, his main weapon is a retractable titanium bo that was offered by a private corporation specifically for the special units teams. A quick flip of the release on the side and SMACK!, we’re in business! I tend to over-think the details when it comes to costume designs, and I catch a lot of flack from friends, but I think it is necessary not only for the characters to look cool, but to also have equipment that functions. Another example of this is that I always end up outfitting characters in shoes that have a runner’s shoe sole. It makes perfect sense to me that if I had to maneuver quickly in the heat of the action, I would want to be as flexible, comfortable, and quick as possible. Oh, and the undershirt he wears is made of a wicking fabric that keeps him ventilated in hot climate and warm in cooler climate. And that's no joke. [Laughs.]
KD: Wow. Obviously, you put in A LOT of thought when designing Venger‘s costume. Apparently, you also put in a lot of thought when dealing with Matt‘s scripts. One of the “bonus features” at the back of the first issue are “side-by-side” looks at two pages of Matt’s script and your corresponding artwork. For one of the pages, you faithfully execute Matt’s script as is. For one panel on the other page though you deviate from Matt’s script and in your “Artist’s Note” you explain why you deviated from the script and then state, “Matt has basically let me have free reign on [artistic] decisions.” How often did you exercise this “free reign”? How often did you deviate from Matt’s script?
JO: Matt has been more than accommodating in letting me make artistic decisions regarding certain angles, composition, etc. I think that unless the writer has a very good knowledge of the artist’s work, it’s hard to play to the artist’s strengths, which in turn affects the overall end result of the book. For example, if I was writing a romantic, drama-type comic, I wouldn’t want someone like Jim Lee or John Romita, Jr. to illustrate it; those guys are known for their huge splash pages and action! Which brings me back to Matt. Prior to this, he had no clue as to exactly what style I was comfortable drawing, and all he had to use as tools were the things he thought would work best in terms of angles, perspectives, etc. Don’t get me wrong: when I read his scripts, which are pretty descriptive, I can visualize exactly what he’s asking for, and 9.9 times out of 10 he’s got it spot on. It's 0.1 times out of 10 that I get to the page and think, “This or this would work better.” And I usually get with Matt first – but not all the time [Laughs].
We have a great mutual understanding and realization that sometimes it takes critiques or outside-viewpoints to make a better book, and we are both very receptive when it comes to recognizing that it can be beneficial to consider someone else’s point of view. Kind of the whole “forest for the trees” sort of thing.
KD: So in essence you two edit yourselves? I noticed the book has no editor. But of course, even comic books that lack an editor go through an editing process. How do you two comfortably and competently edit yourselves?
MS: Well hopefully “competently” goes without saying! It really helps that both of us knows exactly where we are going and what we want to accomplish in the story. Jason’s been given the outline to the series; he knows in any given issue what exactly we are going to have happening plot-wise. And with that knowledge he has come to me with questions or suggestions. Like he said earlier, sometimes he has different thoughts on particular scenes or camera angles or whatever. It’s a mutual respect thing; I respect that Jason as an extremely talented artist has a “leg up on me” when it comes to the visual aspects of the story. If he says it would work better differently, I trust that it will, and so far he has been right. A lot of his “edits” are trying to get me to cut down on my dialogue. As you know I can be wordy. You even told me the same thing, Keith! So even though I really strive for the best and most realistic dialogue, sometimes it just is either too much or doesn’t work right. There is only so much space in the panels… or so Jason tells me!
My editing of him is really just minor stuff. I’m always extremely pleased by what he turns into me. I think I’ll give him a few comments, like thicker borders or some very basic stuff like that. Again it’s just me being a fresh pair of eyes. Another thing that really contributes to our “editing” is that I try not to be too far ahead of him with the script. When working on the first issue I would send it to him in chunks of a couple of pages at a time. That way if changes needed to be made we wouldn’t have to come back later after the whole issue was done. We stayed on top of it throughout the entire process. Now here on #2 I’m pretty much far ahead of him at the moment but that won’t be for long.
KD: How many issues have you planned for The Venger? Is this a four issue mini-series, a twelve issue maxi-series, an on-going with no planned final issue?
MS: I originally planned it as a 12 issue maxi-series. When Jason came aboard we talked a lot about the length of the series and right now have it set at 7 issues. But the way the market is and the importance of trades, I’m constantly going over my outline and it might come in at 8 issues, which is a nicer number than the weird 7. We even discussed doing it as two 4-issue minis, back to back. I have quite a bit of ground I want to cover story-wise in the book and wouldn’t mind having the extra 8th issue. But for now, I'm saying it is still at 7.
However, I could write these characters for much longer than that. Just today I was writing down the origin story for Black Mercy; I really love that character and these ideas came to me, and now I have a nice plot for a special or one-shot to develop. Plus I have all those other stories of both Vengers I’d love to tell. Hopefully this title can become a series of minis or something. An ongoing would be killer, but I don’t know how long I'd have Jason.
KD: Speaking of which… Jason, a few weeks agoon your blog you announced that you accepted the opportunity presented to you by Arcana Studio Editor in Chief Sean O’Reilly to draw the final two issues of the three issue Horror/Western mini-series Sundown: Arizona. I read the first issue of Sundown: Arizona and found it VERY entertaining and intriguing. You relate on your blog how O’Reilly approached you about this project, but please state why you accepted this opportunity. Did the title appeal to you? Did having your art published by Arcana appeal to you?
JO: A little bit of both, actually. I had always entertained the notion of one day working on a Western comic – just not this early in my career! A close friend of mine turned me on to John Wayne movies a while back, and I’ve been hooked on the genre ever since. In fact, the contest I ran onmy blog for the first issue of The Venger was an internet scavenger hunt with classic movies of the Old West as the main topic.
I think one of the things that draws me to the Western genre the most is the lack of political correctness. I know I will step on some toes by saying this, but our world (especially our men) has become too “sissified.” I’m not saying let’s resort to being cavemen, but the guys of that time period said what they meant, and meant what they said – they didn’t apologize to anyone if some guy in Nowhereville, USA got his feelings hurt. Men were tough, crude, and they got things done [Laughs]. I see too many youth these days that expect everything to be handed out to them, as if society owes them. Whatever happened to earning your pay? The guys of the Old West didn’t complain about having to wake up at the butt-crack of dawn, eat the same bowl of grits every morning, and work until sunset. Sure, times have changed, and we’ve become more streamlined, more efficient, but what happened to the work ethic?
I guess now you realize that wanting to do a Western goes a bit deeper than simply enjoying guys with hats and guns shooting each other! [Laughs]
I met Egg Embry (editor at Arcana) last year at Wizard World Texas. He was extremely cordial, and he and I have been emailing each other back and forth. Matt gave him a copy of The Venger at WW Philly this year, and I believe that he let Sean have a look at it as well. I have watched Arcana since that time, and in less than a year they have managed to accomplish a lot of things for comics. They have only a handful of books right now, but they are in no way genre-specific – which offers the readers a much more diversified base to choose from.
KD: As you tackle the second issue of Sundown Arizona are you trying to bring your style closer to that of first issue artist Ryan Bodenheim in order to provide the book with a “consistent aesthetic”? Or do you feel emulation is a path an artist should avoid traveling down?
JO: Not at all. I am tackling this as if it were my own project. In fact, I am tentatively signed on to re-do issue #1 for the trade (for consistency reasons).
In regards to emulating an artist, I would be lying if I said I haven’t patterned elements of my style from other artists. Everyone has to begin somewhere, and there isn’t a comic artist out there that hasn’t looked at another comic at least once for some sort of reference. My art tends to come out in a subconscious way in that if I am thinking of a particular angle or pose from another panel, chances are it will end up having some similar elements to it. I just don’t think it is entirely wise to copy line for line from other artists simply because if they have any weaknesses, it will show in your artwork as well. I have many weaknesses; therefore no one should ever attempt copying from my stuff! [Laughs]
KD: Your blog indicates that despite your Sundown: Arizona assignment, you’re still committed to The Venger. When can readers expect the 2nd issue of The Venger to hit the stands, and what is your tentative publication schedule for issues beyond that?
JO: I am definitely still onboard for The Venger.
MS: The new plan is that the second issue will be out in October. After that, the series will be out bimonthly for the remainder. With both of our work schedules bi-monthly is realistic and achievable at the same time.
The first issue of Spatola and Ossman's Venger: Dead Man Rising can be purchased at its cover price of $2 at ComiXpress.