In his graphic novel The Surrogates, Robert Venditti shows us an all-too-close, all-too-plausible future America where the communal, self-image disconnect has gone totally (and commercially) bonkers. Never mind your meticulously-tooled, wishful-thinking Second Life avatar — that’s so 2012. In Venditti’s world, only the real Luddite holdouts tool around the meat-space world in their real bodies: Instead, most everybody has a telepresence ticket to ride in artificial bodies called Surrogates, or ‘Surries,’ and it’s unlikely that anybody is what he or she seems. Maybe that blonde hottie club-kitten you’re guiding into the alley for a quickie is really some stubbled, beer-bellied midlifer in Des Moines. Maybe your actual, flesh-and-bone wife hasn’t come out of the ‘bed’room for a face-to-face meal in years because she’s inextricably ego-twined with her own idealized Surrie self. And in a world of delusionally disconnected ‘users’ and isolationist and fundamentalist wingnuts who want to drop the metaphysical/electromagnetic bomb on society at large, just who is craziest, anyway?
Now, Surrogates has been made into a Hollywood film, scheduled for release September 2009, with Bruce Willis starring as Agent Greer — a police officer investigating a conspiracy to murder surrogates.
Here Venditti talks to h+ about virtual selves, his comics and the upcoming movie based on them, and living for fun on Whedon’s "Serenity", Venditti’s follow-up graphic novel, The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone, was published in July 2009.
h+: There seems to be an almost seething, very personal pessimism around the notion of the ‘virtual self’ running through The Surrogates. The characters most opposed to it are different flavors of demented. The ones who try to remain the most human lose every time they turn around. And even the early-adopters who "enjoy" the benefits of the tech rarely catch a break. Is this just a worst-case exploration for the sake of story? If the tech were available today, would you buy into it?
ROBERT VENDITTI: More than anything, it’s a function of storytelling in general. Without conflict, you don’t have much of a story. I don’t view myself as a pessimist so much as a realist. None of us are ever completely happy.
If surrogates existed today, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t use one. But technology can be a very seductive thing, which is probably why we all welcome it into our lives without really thinking about what its ramifications are going to be. So as much as I want to believe that I’d eschew the surrogate lifestyle, the iPhone/TiVO/computer side of me realizes that probably wouldn’t be the case.
h+: How close, if it all, would Robert Venditti’s surrogate be to the real deal? What would you change? Any ‘flaws’ you’d purposely leave unaddressed?
RV: For the most part, I’d keep my appearance. My reasons for owning a surrogate would trend more towards thrill seeking than physical perfection.
h+: The obvious extension of internet anonymity to the operation of your "surries" could cause all kinds of new and interesting problems. Are there any you wanted to explore in the graphic novel that didn’t make the final edit?
RV: Tons. One thing I’d like to do is a series of graphic novels where each chapter is a separate surrogates-related crime that Detective Greer has to solve, sort of an episodic TV format, but in comics. The possibilities are endless.
h+: Beyond the most obvious, present-day examples of in-game avatars, chatroom gender-fronting and flat-out identify theft, do you see any subtler, more-insidious forms of mankind ‘disconnecting’ via the medium of tech? Which do you find the creepiest? The most promising?
RV: To me, the creepiest instances are when parents go online to impersonate teenagers in order to bully their children’s rivals. Another bizarre one… parents buying breast implants as a gift for their daughter’s sixteenth birthday. If adults can’t find a way to deal with technology in a responsible fashion, then what hope is there that children will? This is a large part of what The Surrogates is all about — how the decisions we make about our lives today will affect the generations that follow.
It’s not all bad, though. For example, I just read an article about a developing technology that would allow a doctor to perform life-saving surgery remotely through robotic limbs so time would not be lost waiting for the doctor to arrive on the scene. Amazing.
h+: The Surrogates movie is out in a few days, and it’s not a small one, either. As an author who’s now accustomed to (presumably) complete control of your baby… well, let’s be blunt… Aren’t you sorta scared shitless about sending him out into careless, sleazy Hollywood?
RV: Not at all. If it were a case where — during the screenwriting phase, the story had been changed to a romantic comedy, then I’d be worried. But I know from reading the screenplay and visiting the set that all of the themes and subtext of the book have been retained, so I’m fine with it. Of course changes have been made, but that’s to be expected. All of the people involved —producers, actors, and the director — are creative minds in their own right. So I wanted them to have the freedom to bring their sensibilities to The Surrogates. I’ve told my story. It exists, and nothing is going to change that. Let them tell theirs.
h+: In the collected softcover, there’s a great supplemental section that goes into the making-of process behind your book and comics — a literal "rise from the mailroom" story. If readers out there are inspired by what you’ve done and want to take their own shot in the world of comics/graphic novels, what advice would you offer to them?
RV: When the chance to work in Top Shelf’s warehouse arose, I jumped at it because I saw it as a way to get my foot in the door. My goal was always to be a writer, but I wasn’t afraid to roll up my sleeves and get dirty, so long as I felt that I was headed in the right direction.
He asks for a human-to-human encounter —a “skinjob.” The prostitute rebuffs him, offended that he’d think she was that kind of girl.
When I tell aspiring comics creators about my beginnings in the warehouse, I can see some of them tune out, like manual labor would undermine their artistic credibility. There’s something to be learned from almost every opportunity, so take them as they come.
h+: There’s a really disturbing ‘deleted scene’ — the ‘skinjob’ sequence — in the supplemental material that drives a stake into the heart of your world’s humanity. Could you set this up and talk a little about why it didn’t make the cut… and where that tangent might have gone if it had?
RV: The scene shows Detective Greer, the lead character in the story, approaching a lady of the night about a tryst. All of the prostitutes work their corners as surrogates to protect themselves from the obvious hazards of their profession, but Greer wants the real deal. So he asks for a human-to-human encounter — a “skinjob.” The prostitute rebuffs him, offended that he’d think she was that kind of girl.
Ultimately I decided not to include the scene because one of the main subplots of the book is Greer’s conflict with his wife, who’ll only interact with him through her surrogate, even in their home — Greer’s desire is for his woman, not any woman, so I felt the scene was out of character. There’s a variation on the scene in the new book, The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone. During the course of an investigation, Greer visits a surrogate sex club called Gandy Land. When you’re feeling randy, go Gandy.
h+: Everybody has their Gotta List, the works that inspire, challenge or just plain entertain them the most — that form a sort of mental collage of who they are. What are some of the books, comics, movies or games you would recommend?
RV: Here’s a partial list of favorites, in threes, since that seems like a convenient number. Books: 1984, Of Mice and Men, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Comics: From Hell, Alec: the Years Have Pants, and Skyscrapers of the Midwest. And from the more mainstream side of comics, Astro City, Gotham Central and the Robinson/Harris run on Starman. Movies: Full Metal Jacket, Unforgiven, and Midnight Run. TV: Sopranos, X Files, and I’m really liking Friday Night Lights. Games: The last game I played was the second Knights of the Old Republic for Xbox, so I’m out of the loop there.
h+: Final poke into your personal, private selfscape: You’re being forcibly deported from this reality/world-line/splinter-verse and you have to choose another — based on some other artist/writer’s existing vision. To which new ‘verse do you relocate, and why? And what are you going to bring to make it a better place?
RV: To be onboard Serenity in Joss Whedon’s Firefly. I’m a big fan of the western genre, and Malcolm Reynolds is the best space cowboy since Han Solo.
If you’d like to join me, you could be the one who makes that world a better place. I’m just going to have fun.