Valiant Comics has been producing some of the most solid comics in mainstream comic art for a while now, but they took their quality to another level with Book of Death. I had the chance to sit down with writer Robert Venditti at San Diego Comic-Con to discuss his work for Valiant and for DC. I think we ended up with a fascinating interview, which I hope you enjoy.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: How does it feel to be rebooting the Valiant universe in a way that moves the characters forward?
Robert Venditti: It’s a lot of fun. I don’t know if would call it a reboot so much, but we are definitely building and expanding on everything that has come before. I did Armor Hunters last summer for Valiant. So to be able to come back and do another event again for this summer…
As Warren Simons, the editor-in-chief of Valiant says, there’s nothing harder to do than to pull off the universe-wide events. I enjoy the challenge of it, being able to get in there and have access to all those characters and all those moving parts. It isn’t easy, but it’s a lot of fun to be able to work on.
CB: What’s the core storyline?
Venditti: The core storyline of Book of Death is you have a character called the Geomancer, which is a pre-existing character in Valiant continuity that is a mystical individual that communicates with the earth. They’re the eyes and ears of the earth, and also speak to the earth and all those kinds of things.
There’s been a series of natural — even beyond disasters, natural catastrophes, almost like nature is acting out and wiping out towns. All sorts of horrible massacres are taking place. Almost everybody in the Valiant universe believes that the Geomancer, who is a young, eleven year old girl named Tama, is either intentionally or inadvertently the cause of this.
The one person who does not believe that is Gilad, the Eternal Warrior, who has a mission to protect the Geomancer throughout history. He’s an immortal character who’s been around for thousands of years. He’s protected a line of mystics. He believes that there’s another entity that’s behind this and it’s only being made to look like Tama is doing it. So this pits him and what he believes against what the rest of the Valiant universe believes. It’s obviously a big risk for Gilad to take because if he is wrong about that, there are a lot worse things that are going to happen.
CB: You have a complicated moral center there, where there’s some ambiguity that is hard to predict.
Venditti: Very much so. That is something that Valiant as a mission statement tries to do. It’s not a black and white universe. Nothing is clear-cut. I think that is reflective of the way the world is. Everybody is the hero of their own story. As long as you have the character staying true to who they are as characters, when you pit the Valiant universe against Gilad, it doesn’t make either necessarily right or wrong.
They’re both fighting for what they believe is right. Gilad is seeing it from a millennia old, long-term perspective of the world. The rest of the Valiant universe, being mortal and having normal life spans, sees it from a very short-term point of view by comparison. It’s just those two different points of view that are clashing.
CB: That sounds like that is really the hook for you as a writer, being able to compare those different approaches to the world and different viewpoints.
Venditti: Yeah, very much so. That’s what makes Gilad a unique character, not just among Valiant, but among comics. There are other immortal characters, of course, but there are elements about Gilad that make him wholly unique. These are the things that I am going to be delving into, not just in Book of Death, but also in the Eternal Warrior series, Wrath of the Eternal Warrior, which comes after.
CB: Why is it the Wrath of the Eternal Warrior?
Venditti: You’ll find out.
Venditti: We’re going to see what exactly he goes through and what the cost of his immortality is. That’s not just in a physical sense, but in an emotional sense as well. If you think about all of us and our lives, there are things that we wish we could have done differently, mistakes we have made, and what have you. Imagine having a hundred lifetimes of those mistakes weighing you down.
CB: And people who you knew and loved who have passed on.
Venditti: Very much so. That will be a big element of it as well. So there’s definitely a cost to what he does. As I was saying earlier, we’ve seen plenty of immortal characters before throughout mythology and other things. But this is going to be a different take on that.
When editor-in-chief Warren Simons came to me about doing the book, which is something we’ve been talking about for a very long time, he mentioned his thoughts on how maybe the series could open. Immediately I could see the whole thing laid out in front of me from that starting point.
CB: So how did you approach working with a character like this? How do you build someone who has got such a complex backstory?
Venditti: I think you have to look at what would make him separate from everybody else.
Just as an example of that, he is often seen carrying an axe, which may seem like something that is outdated for a master tactician and an Eternal Warrior character. But if you look at the idea of the axe’s concept, it’s an extremely versatile instrument, right? It can be a weapon of course, but you can turn it over and use the heel as a hammer. You can cut down trees and make a shelter with it. You can polish it and make a signal mirror out of it. You can heat the edge and use it like a frying pan. You can do a million different things with an axe that you can’t do with a gun or a sword or anything like that. I think that in and of itself typifies who he is as a character.
He has within not just history in the sense that he read about it in books, but this guy actually lived that history. The amount of wisdom and the way that he would view everything would not be what it is right now, but the huge span of time and all of the iterations it went through to get to what it is right now. And he’s seen all of that. So that puts him from apart from everybody. He is much more than a warrior in a lot of ways. He is the wisest person in the Valiant universe.
CB: I was just thinking he is the kind of character the more you get into his head, the more you get wisdom about your own life and perspective on things.
Venditti: Sure, yeah. It also opens up the opportunity to do a lot of things historical, of course, whether it’s whole issues or just snippets of him in different historical time periods.
As you were saying earlier, all of the family, the wives he has had and the children he has had and the dogs he has had, you know what I mean? You can see all of these things. Just the amount of pain that it would take and why does he keep doing this? Why does he keep coming back? Why does he keep fighting for mankind? Why does he keep protecting the Geomancers?
I think that there’s a lot of pessimism in the modern environment. I think a lot of people think that things are far worse. We are driving off the cliff or whatever. But I think for him as a character, he would not be able to do what he did if he wasn’t an eternal optimist. He would have to believe that there’s more good than bad in this world and that it can turn around and it can endure and there are things worth fighting for. Because if he had this view of the world as being this horrible, awful place, he would just lay down and stay there.
CB: It’s always worth fighting for. It’s always worth being passionate about.
Venditti: I think it’s an interesting perspective to look at an immortal character like that and view them as an optimist.
CB: That’s interesting. When I think about the losses I’ve had in my life, a lot of them I think about frequently. Imagine living millennia and all of those losses in your life. It seems like it could either crush you or just give you such a fire to move on and continually improve the world. What is his life like on a day-to-day basis? Is he an outsider in society?
Venditti: He bags groceries at Publix. (laughs)
No. I don’t know if outsider would be the word. I think it’s definitely a little difficult for him to relate to people because there’s no one else like him. Of course he is in Unity as well, so is a member of Valiant’s super team. He is a member of Valiant’s super team. So he does that.
But his day to day is basically not just protecting the Geomancer, but like I was saying earlier, fighting for what is good and right in the world. Not in sort of a truth, justice, and the American way perspective, but just the idea that there’s goodness in this world. There are things worth fighting and defending.
He’s going to be the guy that does that because for him to lay down and stay dead, it would almost be like leaving his buddies on the front lines. He never leaves a man behind and he is not going to lay down until the job is done. There’s a lot of work left to do.
CB: We do a podcast for my site and on one episode we wandered onto the topic of Valiant Comics. One of the things that people called about why we think Valiant has been so successful is this basis of complex characters, X-O being another one who is very shaped by his experiences and also has to live his current life. It’s heroism with a different perspective, almost a mythological perspective because of the amount of time and the problems they have to deal with every day.
Venditti: Yeah, I think that X-O Manowar, I’ve written it for thirty-nine issues so far if you count the zero issue. We just announced that we are doing X-O #50, which I think will be June next year.
When Valiant first approached me about pitching on their characters, they didn’t approach me about X-O specifically. They gave me character bibles on a lot of their characters. There were two that really appealed to me. One was X-O and the other was the Eternal Warrior. It was a tough choice to make, but X-O really was just so unique. I mean there really is no other Visigoth in alien armor. That doesn’t exist on any level. That is a wholly unique concept. So lots of respect for Jim Shooter and Bob Layton and what they were able to do there.
CB: I have been rereading the early Valiants. That’s the concept that immediately jumps off the page, the idea of this Visigoth warrior in this suit of super-powerful armor. What does it mean to be a thousand years out of time and still have all the problems you have adjusting? To me, the perfect issue of that is the post-Unity issue from the original series where he’s thrown back into 1000 A.D.
Venditti: That’s my favorite issue.
CB: He’s completely lost and no one knows how to react to him. His power is so far beyond the pale that he’s just crushed by the change that this has brought to him. And you’ve done a really nice job also showing how the relationship between who he was and who has to be now is challenging.
Venditti: I appreciate that. One of the things that I’ve tried to do with the new series is almost use it as an examination of the concept of heroism.
Just as an example, if we were to watch Braveheart, there’s a scene where he takes a castle and he cuts off the head of the king’s cousin and sends it to him in a basket, right? As we are watching the movie, we are like, “You go get him, Braveheart! Send Edward “Longshank”‘s cousin’s head in a basket.” If a general were to do that today in our modern times, that would be a war crime. You know what I am saying?
So the concept of heroism changes depending on the time period from which you come from. Aric comes from a time period that has the head in the basket perspective. He got dropped off in the modern day. So he is adhering to the heroism as it was defined in his own era, which is not how our world defines heroism anymore. Even though he is doing what is completely natural and heroic to himself and we as readers can understand where is coming from and why he’s doing it, to the rest of the world when he first got there, he was almost like a villain.
He landed in what Dacia used to be, which is now modern day Romania, and was like, “I am taking this over now” because from his time period, that’s what you did. If you had the more powerful weapons and the better army, you landed in a spot and you took it.
That’s not how the world works anymore. Seeing how he adapts and adjusts in that way, we are going to continue to do that. It will become apparent as we get to #50 that there’s a huge long-form arc of the entire series. A lot of things will come back around full circle.
CB: As expected from Valiant. It’s all very well planned out. That’s one of the hallmarks of the line.
Venditti: Yeah, I mean it’s definitely a speedboat. They are a very nimble company in terms of that the publishing schedule is lean. That allows us to adapt and turn and do a lot of things. I didn’t know when I started X-O that we were going to do Armor Hunters or things like that or that Unity was going to launch out of events in X-O. But you are able to adapt to those things and fit them in and still stay true to what your character is doing and your overall vision of the book. You make these speedboat adjustments as those things come up.
CB: It’s interesting that X-O ended up being the book for the initial relaunch that has lasted the longest. Everything else has gone through different phases.
Venditti: feel very honored to be on the book that long. When I started on it, I’d never done a monthly series before. So I hoped it I would make it twelve and I really hoped I would make it twenty-four issues. And beyond that, who knew? But we are coming up on forty now. I’ve turned in the script for #41. That’s a long run by today’s standards.
CB: It’s long by any standards.
Venditti: Of a book in general. But to be the same writer on a book for that amount of time, I never thought I would be able to do it. So to me, the best part about it is to feel like I’ve contributed to the universe.
Gin-GR was in Armor Hunters and now Gin-GR is the home base of Unity. Malgam shows up somewhere else or Trill shows up somewhere else. There’s Lord Vine-99 in Harbinger, who is one of The Vine from X-O. Just to feel like you are putting all of this stuff on the table that other people can pick up and play with. In some way maybe you leave something behind and you’ve contributed to what is being built.
CB: Is that part of what keeps you interested in staying on the series, too? You obviously still love working on it.
Venditti: Yeah, I think across all of my books that I do, I want to be able to do that. Green Lantern and Flash are no different. There are a lot of new concepts and things that I have introduced in those books since I’ve been on them. So I think it’s just part of the legacy, the idea that you leave something behind that someone else can play with. Like I said, you feel like you contributed to a larger tapestry that by its nature is a huge tapestry with a million different people, each putting a thread in. So it’s nice to be one of those threads.
CB: The new DC universe, I am not sure we can call it a reboot or a post-Convergence world anyway, is somewhat actually similar to the Valiant reboot, isn’t it? Characters are going in different directions. We’re getting a different sense of who they are. Green Lantern especially is a good example of that.
Venditti: For Green Lantern, the idea there is that we as readers know how Jordan is exactly the person he was before. It’s just the rest of the universe that has a perception of him as being a bad guy. We know he is still a hero and he is still doing the things he had done. But he is doing it in an environment where everything is hostile towards him.
I think that is the way it is with all of the writing. Stay true to who the characters are and who they have traditionally been. Valiant is no exception. Bloodshot, for the most part, is who Bloodshot was in the original run. X-O is who X-O was in the original run. Harbinger, which is one of my favorite books in all of comics, I think Dysart is just a next level guy. All of these characters are who they were, just in different environments, different settings, and different storylines, but all true to what their concepts have always been.
CB: The Green Lantern reboot caught my eye from the early preview pages in the Convergence event. It felt familiar, but it’s an interesting and different status quo for the character. They’ve done so many different things with him over the years. It’s intriguing to see him a fugitive.
Venditti: Yeah, and we are building a whole new supporting cast around him. While he has a similar power set in the sense that he can still make constructs and things, he has Krona’s gauntlet now instead of a ring, so it’s not as refined a piece of technology. There are some issues with that. Like prototypes are, it’s not as refined. It’s not as controllable. It’s not as predictable.
When you have someone like Hal who is spontaneous by nature (being a test pilot, he is a gut reaction guy), giving him something as powerful as Krona’s gauntlet, which we know is way more powerful than a standard ring, and then adding a level of unreliability in terms of how the gauntlet operates brings in a whole new set of challenges.
CB: For your full arc- no spoilers, of course- he is going to eventually clear his name?
Venditti: We shall see.
CB: How did the DC post-Convergence world come together? Did you have to re-pitch for these series?
Venditti: Actually, what I was doing with Green Lantern was what I already had in mind for over a year even prior to knowing there was going to be new directions across the line. It adjusted a little bit in terms of the number of issues it would take to get there necessarily, but this was the direction I was always laying out.
I think if you read the entirety of my run, the first time you see Hal as the Green Lantern in my run, he is in the evidence vault. The last time you see him as the Green Lantern in my run, he’s in that evidence vault. There’s a lot of things that were built into it that you can see that we were going there the whole time.
CB: Are you one of those writers who plots everything out? That way you have ideas about points you want to come back to?
Venditti: Yeah, that is just who I am by nature. My wife would be the first one to tell you that I am not the spontaneous individual. I wish I could be. Dysart, who I was talking about earlier, is doing Imperium now for Valiant, but also Harbinger. He is much more of a stream of consciousness style of writer. He and I have talked about process before. Our processes are complete polar opposites of each other. I don’t understand how he does it the way he does it. He doesn’t understand the way I do it and how I do it.
But our process is just our process. I envy the aspects of him that allow him to just sit down. To read one of his scripts even, even beyond just comics. Doing these crossovers, like Book of Death, for example, I had to read the Book of Death Harbinger script. It was a fascinating document to read. It was probably the most engaging comic book script I ever read. Comic book scripts by their nature are kind of dry. They are just not very exciting. But reading his was like reading a short story or prose. It was an amazing document to read. There are a lot of things I envy about him and the way he does it.
But your process is your process and you can’t really mess with it too much. Once you mess with that I think you really start to unravel what you do.
CB: I ask a number of writers that question. Justin Jordan and James Tynion are two examples I spoke to recently about it. Each one has their own unique approach to things. It’s fascinating to see. There’s no classical, archetypical way of doing it.
Venditti: I would say there are basic principles of things you can adhere to, but I am always leery of the books that are, “This is how you do it” because there’s no right or wrong. We aren’t solving for x. There’s no answer. There’s never going to be an answer. You are never going to have it all figured out. And the moment you think you have it all figured out, that’s when you start to atrophy.
CB: So you’re a planner but you also want to be spontaneous, Robert?
Venditti: Absolutely. You have to be able to. The best moments about writing by far are when you are working on a story and all of the sudden you’re in the scene and the character does something that even you found unexpected. Just for a glimpse, just for a blink, it’s like that character was alive and did something. And then you go back to writing for another three weeks, hoping that moment comes again.
Those are the absolute best parts. And you have to leave yourself open to those kinds of things. So when I sit down and I have an outline and I definitely have a plan, I definitely have to be able to adjust. Don’t box yourself in and handcuff yourself to it. There’s the element of surprise.
CB: Let the character speak to you.
CB: Anything else that you can mention?
Venditti: Well, X-O #50, which we just announced. So that will be a big milestone. Book of Death of course. Wrath of Eternal Warrior, which debuts in November. I also have a children’s novel series that I write. My first one came out two weeks ago. It’s called Miles Taylor and the Golden Cape. It’s for nine to twelve year olds. Simon and Schuster publishes that. And then still Green Lantern and The Flash. Like I said, I feel super fortunate to be on the projects that I am doing.