Homeland Front: Robert Venditti Tackles the Tough Issues
Robert Venditti is a comic book creator most known for his title The Surrogates, which was adapted by Disney into a major motion picture starring Bruce Willis. His comics career began in 2002, when Venditti met Chris Staros from Top Shelf. The meeting clearly went well, for Venditti ended up not only working for the publisher, but also climbing the company ladder. Later, Venditti shared a manuscript with Staros, which resulted in the publication of The Surrogates in 2005. Last year, he created a brand-new, wildly different graphic novel, The Homeland Directive, a look at privacy (or the lack thereof) in the 21st century. Here’s what Venditti had to say about his latest graphic novel.
On the opening pages of The Homeland Directive, you quote Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Liberty and safety are key themes throughout this graphic novel. In that thematic vein, then, imagine yourself sitting at a coffee shop and overhearing a conversation between two people who have just read this graphic novel. What do you hope to overhear? What would you dread to overhear?
I’d be disappointed if they believed I was coming down firmly on either side of the freedom vs. safety argument. I used the Franklin quote—one that’s often injected into this debate—with the intent that the reader would see it more as a question than the definitive statement people tend to take it as. When Franklin wrote those words, the scariest thing people had to worry about was a cannonball coming through their window. The world is a much more dangerous place today, and I don’t think we can speak in such absolute terms. My goal with The Homeland Directive is to present the question to the reader—How do we balance freedom and safety in the age of terror?—and let them find their own answer.
Almost every good story, such as this one, comes with an origin story. What is the origin story behind The Homeland Directive?
It wasn’t a single moment, so much as an accumulation of things I was experiencing and reading about in the years following 9/11. Here’s one example: Less than one month after the attack, I was boarding an international flight out of Miami. The country was still very much rattled by recent events, and the government was instituting new security policies on a seemingly daily basis. A woman in line in front of me started complaining about having to show her I.D. for the third time, like it was some monumental inconvenience for her. It struck me how difficult it must be for government. If we’re attacked, we demand to know why they didn’t protect us. If they try to protect us, we demand to know why they’re infringing on our freedoms. It’s a no-win scenario. I’m not passing judgment—I want my freedom and my safety just like everyone else does. So how do we balance the two?
The amount of research and historical insight involved in making this story so engaging must have been intense. How much and what types of research and/or scholarship went into writing The Homeland Directive?
I spent a good amount of time researching viruses and bacterium, not just trying to understand how they spread, but also getting a grasp on how government and science deal with outbreaks. I wanted those parts of the story to feel accurate to the reader. For the surveillance aspect of the plot, it was a combination of research and life experience. As I said, certain events I witnessed and was a part of in the early 2000s played a large part in the story’s development.
One of the most intriguing characters in The Homeland Directive is Dr. Laura Regan. A world-renowned scientist, a caring friend, an intriguing guest speaker, and someone with a bright, promising future ahead of her, Dr. Regan has everything going for her. When she is presented with information that her research partner has been brutally murdered, she of course reacts appropriately with dismay and shock; she also, however, impressively rises to the occasion and becomes a helpful co-detective to the team of subversive government agents who try to protect her and solve the mysterious case of who is trying to kill her and why. What was it like to develop her character? And as her creator and writer, what do you personally find most intriguing about her?
Her bravery, and I don’t just mean in the way she deals with the knowledge that she’s being hunted. She’s also enormously brave in the sense that she volunteers to work, on a daily basis, in close proximity to the deadliest organisms man and nature can devise. Her way of coping with the unspeakable is to confront it head-on. Most of us would rather bury our heads in the sand. To develop her, I really had to go outside myself. On the list of ways I’d like to make a living, Laura’s chosen profession would probably rank dead last.
While I read The Homeland Directive, I had many conflicting thoughts about the U.S.’s contemporary political stance and definition on liberty. Does it fit with the liberty ideology we inherited from our founding fathers, like Franklin? Or does it somehow disrespect the founding fathers’ foundational ideas on liberty? As a result of my own thought-wanderings, I found myself wondering what some of your thoughts might have been while writing. Specifically in regards to liberty and its contemporary meaning in the U.S., what were you thinking while writing?
You asked before what I’d want to overhear readers saying about The Homeland Directive. You just said it. These are the exact questions I hope people ask themselves when they set the book down. I’d try and answer them, but the truth is I don’t know the answers. For me, writing isn’t about answering questions; it’s about asking them.
There are a number of key players, or characters, in this graphic novel. Do you have a favorite character? Why or why not?
Secretary Keene is probably my favorite because, more than any other character, he represents the question as the heart of the story. I don’t condone his actions, but I do feel sympathy for him. He’s in an impossible situation, charged with protecting a citizenry that very much wants to have their cake and eat it, too.
As a fellow writer, I know that every writing endeavor has its challenges. What do you feel was the biggest challenge involved in writing The Homeland Directive? And, equally important, did you experience any pleasant surprise while writing?
I’d never written such a large cast before, so that was definitely a challenge. But I knew it was going to be that way going in. When I take on a new project, I try to do something different, so I’m always pushing myself and hopefully growing as a writer. As far as pleasant surprises, I’m happy with how the story’s central conspiracy plays out on the page. I hope that when readers reach the main reveal—how the illness is being spread and why that particular delivery method was chosen—it comes both as a surprise and as something they feel they should’ve suspected all along.
What can readers look forward to from you in the future?
It was recently announced that I’ll be relaunching X-O Manowar with Cary Nord for Valiant entertainment. It’s my first ongoing book, so I’m excited about that. I’m also continuing to adapt the Percy Jackson and the Olympians novels for Disney/Hyperion. And later this year, Brett Weldele and I will be releasing a series of self-contained, single-issue stories set in the world of The Surrogates. Then there’s all the things I can’t talk about yet….