by Brian Truitt)
Superhero comic books are still new to writer Robert Venditti, even though he's proving to be as powerful in crafting their adventures as the old-school veterans.
On a monthly basis, he pens the ongoing stories of Aric of Dacia and his suit of armor for Valiant Comics' X-O Manowar, and heads to space for Hal Jordan and his fellow power-ringed cosmic cops in DC Comics' Green Lantern series.
The Florida native and Atlanta resident embraces the new, though, which is why he signed on to co-write the ongoing tales of Barry Allen and his fleet-footed alter ego in DC's The Flash with his pal Van Jensen. Their first issue with artist Brett Booth is Flash No. 30 on April 23, with a Flash Annual to follow a week later featuring the return of a character fans have been clamoring for, Wally West.
"You have something like Green Lantern that has a very large mythology that surrounds that character," Venditti says. "The Flash is somebody who's much more grounded. He's a guy who runs fast and calls himself the Flash. There's something that's really attractive about that."
He's not just into capes and tights either. Venditti wrote The Surrogates, a miniseries that was turned into a Bruce Willis sci-fi movie, and the political thriller The Homeland Directive. And next year marks his prose debut with the children's novel Miles Taylor and the Golden Cape: Attack of the Alien Horde, out from Simon & Schuster May 2015.
Venditti talks with USA TODAY about what's in store for Barry Allen, why he became a comic-book reader and the trickiest aspect about writing superhero books.
A new story line begins in April's "The Flash Annual" No. 3 plus reintroduces Wally West into the DC Universe.(Photo: Brett Booth and Norm Rapmund/DC Comics)
Q. What made you want to hop on The Flash?
A. I'm not a writer who's overly steeped in the mythology of a lot of characters. I didn't come to comics till my late 20s. A lot of this stuff is pretty new to me.
When I had my first conversation with (editor) Brian Cunningham about The Flash and he explained to me the nuts and bolts of who the Flash was, I started to have ideas of what this first story arc could be. And I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to work with Van — we worked on Green Lantern Corps together.
First of all, he and I are really good friends. But also, he's got a really cool skill set that will apply to this because he used to be a crime reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock. Barry being somebody who works in a crime lab and Iris West being a crime reporter, these kinds of things, he can bring a lot to the table.
Q. What can you say about your initial Flash run?
A. The primary villain of the first big arc who we get our glimpse of at the end of 30 is going to be an entirely new look at an established character. And that arc will deal with a lot of new villains but also the classic Flash villains that are going to be reinterpreted in a new way.
We're going to be spending a lot of time with Barry outside of the costume. There's these great relationships you have in police stations, and we really want to have some fun with that.
One of my very first books, The Surrogates, was more like a police procedural. It was sci-fi but it was also inspired by shows like NYPD Blue and Law & Order. Those are very attractive dynamics. To have Barry in a crime lab at the police station, we definitely want to spend a lot of time with those characters.
Q. Gotham Central ran for a while and that had that procedural aspect inherently in the story lines. Is that a niche sorely missing from the DC Universe that you feel you can fill?
A. Definitely. I didn't read it until after the fact, but it was brilliant — probably one of my favorite comic-book series I've ever read. I'd love to do be able to do something like that.
Q. What do you want to explore about the Flash that hasn't been touched on in a while?
A. What I find really compelling about superhero characters is not what they can do but what they can't do. It's when you confront them with their limitations that you see how they succeed and it makes them even more heroic because they overcome these conflicts.
That's definitely something we want to do. One of the things I've pretty much done with everything I've ever written is to try to really focus on the limitations and put the characters in conflicts where they have to then go outside what would be easiest and most instinctual to them. That's certainly what I'm going to try to do.
Q. What's Barry's biggest limitation?
A. (Laughs) I cannot tell you that. That's the mystery. Barry doesn't even know what his biggest limitation is but he's going to find out in this first story arc.
Q. When you were in your 20s, what got you into comics?
A. I don't know why I never read comics growing up. I always wanted to be a writer, but all my writing that I had done starting in elementary school and all the way through college and a master's degree in creative writing, that was all prose.
In graduate school when I was working at Borders, a friend of mine sort of forced comics on me: "Read these, I think you'll like them." As soon as I read them, it was the visual element of it that really leapt out to me. When I was very, very young, elementary-school age, my ambition was to be an animator – to make Bugs Bunny cartoons would have been the highest achievement in life. But even at a young age, I realized I just could not draw. I think I started writing as a way to describe the words what I couldn't draw with my hand.
I had just published my first prose story when I read my first comic book, and I decided I was going to shift gears and pursue a career in comics and I just dove into it and took my shot. That was going to be as close as I ever got to that childhood ambition.
Q. What was that first comic you read?
A. Astro City Vol. 2 No. 4, which is the first issue of the "Confessions" story arc. It had a lot of the principles I was learning in all these creative-writing courses I had taken over the years about writing character-centered stories.
That wasn't at all like the prose stuff I was doing. I was doing literary fiction, short stories and submitting for literary journals. This was different, but it was something that was very appealing to me because it had that focus on character but then put to this really fun setting where you could let your imagination go wild.
Q. Many of your colleagues have been reading comics since they were little children, though. Do you feel having a different life experience and influences brings a freshness to the genre?
A. I hope it does. At the beginning, I worried that it might be a drawback for me and I'm always very upfront about that whenever anybody's asked me about a character, that I don't have a lot of familiarity. But for better or for worse, it is something that allows me to differentiate myself from other writers. I can at least bring a different perspective.
Q. Is there a common thread that's found its way in your comics and graphic novels?
A. I try to do something different with every project, whether it's a different genre or a different type of cast. I started out with Surrogates, which was cyberpunk, and then after that was a modern-day political medical thriller. Then I did X-O Manowar and then Demon Knights. I try to jump around, but one thing I always aspire to do with my stories is to present questions to the audience, and they're always questions I don't know the answer to.
A lot of times, the entertainment in our culture can be preachy in a sense – you watch the movie or watch the TV show or read the book, and it's almost like you can tell what the writer wants you to think because they already have made their mind up about a certain thing and they're just writing almost an essay about it to you and disguising it as fiction.
I never want to write stories where I know the answers to questions. For example, with the Surrogates, is technology of that kind good or bad? I don't know, I just wrote a story about it. With The Homeland Directive, where is the line drawn between personal privacy and public safety? I don't know.
I write these stories to pose these questions, and maybe make the readers think about them so they can come to their own decision. Maybe a lot of these questions ultimately aren't answerable, but they're at least worth thinking about.
In addition to DC Comics' "Green Lantern" and "The Flash," Robert Venditti also writes one of Valiant Comics' main titles, "X-O Manowar."(Photo: Valiant Comics)
Q. Since you come from a prose and creative writing background, what is the strangest thing about working in superhero comics?
A. The monthly schedule of it — 20 pages written, penciled, inked, colored, lettered, every 28 days. It's just always this breakneck pace at the end, the rush to get the book out the door, and then you just sort of collapse and a couple days go by and the next book's gotta go out the door.
Every month you have to come up with a story — you don't determine the pace, the pace is determined by the industry. That took me a while to get used to because I would never say that I was the fastest writer out there, and with my creator-owned stuff I always maintained a day job — at least one, sometimes two.
When I wrote The Surrogates, I was working full time, 40 hours a week at Borders and just about full time 40 hours a week at Top Shelf, and I wrote Surrogates on the side. It took me a while because I had a lot of other things going on.
Well, in the monthly superhero comic-book industry, you don't have a lot of time.
Q. What's influenced your writing the most?
A. Probably my upbringing. I was given books at a very young age and I was always encouraged to read books beyond what kids that age would normally be reading. My mom would always give me books and we always had a den with bookshelves in the house. My grandpa read National Geographic — he had every issue going back to like the '70s.
There was always stuff to read around, and it was always encouraged in me not just to read but to challenge myself with what I read. That was a really neat way, looking back on it, to be brought up. It's inspired me to not only love the written word and the desire to pursue that as a career, but also the desire to question things and to find joy and the mystery and the wonder of things.
Q. When you write, say, The Flash, who are you writing for?
A. The person I think of the most when writing a comic doesn't have anything to do with age. I try to write for the new reader and keep them in mind. If this is an issue they've picked up, will they be able to understand what's going on and be able to enjoy it?
When I was walking into a comic-book shop in 2001 and trying to find things to read and everything had a number in the 100s, it was very daunting to me. You pick up one of these books, and you don't know anything about it.
That was another thing that was really fulfilling to me about Astro City — there were only about 20 issues of it out but every arc dealt with a completely different character. You were always only two or three issues behind if you wanted to catch up, and all the issues were pretty accessible anyway.
When DC started the "New 52" (relaunch of their superhero line in 2011), that was really inviting. I didn't know these long mythologies with Batman and Superman, but it was an opportunity for them to start with a new No. 1 and I could get on the ground floor in learning about these characters. That's something I focus on every time I write a script.
Q. When I was growing up in the 1980s, the first superhero comic I ever read was Captain America No. 315, and I had no idea what was going on. But it was exciting because I was thrown into this thing. If I didn't like it, I could just put it away. I dug it, though, so I went back and found the prior 15 issues while reading the new ones thereafter. We were all fine with that 30 years ago whereas now there is a different mind-set.
A. When I was starting to read comics, I went through Astro City pretty quickly and I walked into a shop looking for new things to read. Everything had a really high new number, so there were these books that had 1s and 2s on them, pretty new things from this company called America's Best Comics.
This book called Tom Strong had a No. 1 on it and the cover looked cool. I picked it up and bought it and really liked it, so I bought the other books from ABC. I was like, "Wow, this Alan Moore guy's pretty good. I wonder what else this guy has written. Oh, he's written Watchmen? Let's see what that's like."
Literally that's how I discovered Alan Moore because I just happened to discover comics at the same time that America's Best Comics was starting up and his books had No. 1s on them.
Q. I've been reading them since I was a kid, so I can't imagine somebody in their 20s getting into comics. It must be a totally different experience.
A. Yeah, and I think there's a lot more opportunity for that much more now. Even in just the 10 years I've been in the industry, there are things like best-seller lists for graphic novels now and that didn't used to be the case.
The way that collegiate and even high school and younger curriculums have adopted graphic novels into their course requirements and things like that, there's much more of an opportunity to get those people coming to comics. Again, that's why I focus really hard on making things accessible for new readers.
Q. You never know when somebody like yourself working at Borders will pick up an issue of The Flash.
A. Well, they're not going to be working at Borders, but yeah. (Laughs)