Cover Story - The Surrogates leads a double life

Hit local graphic novel leaps to the big screen in a single bound

"Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." And maybe even offer a movie contract from Disney. I see Bruce Willis as the mouse.

Perhaps a graphic novel-turned-action-movie doesn’t live up to the usual idea of a mousetrap, unless pop culture consumers qualify as the mice. Nevertheless, the local success story of The Surrogates shows the power of a simple, snappy narrative idea to conquer multiple media. Cumming, Ga.-based comic book writer Robert Venditti achieved his breakthroughs with such speed and ease, he qualifies as the exception that proves the rule for aspiring artists. Meanwhile, the big-screen adaptation of his graphic novel The Surrogates illustrates the kind of creative strengths that get lost and found in translation.

For The Surrogates, Venditti uses a high-tech murder mystery to explore a premise worthy of Philip K. Dick, who provided the source material for such provocative films as Blade Runner and Minority Report. In the mid-21st century, most Americans vicariously enjoy their lives by operating android surrogates. While wearing pajamas at their home work-stations, people link up to younger, better-looking mechanical doppelgangers, living ideal versions of themselves without physical risks. It’s like an extension of the ability to craft a new identity online, summed up in the modern adage, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

Venditti came up with the idea while taking a course on the literature of the Internet at the University of Central Florida in the late ’90s. As an aspiring prose writer, Venditti was an unlikely king of all media. He never had much interest in comic books or speculative fiction, and claims to have read no more than 10 sci-fi books in his life, and no comics before the year 2000. While working for his master’s degree in creative writing, Venditti took a friend’s recommendation to read an issue of Astro City, a lively deconstruction of classic superhero archetypes.

“I had the same erroneous preconception that everyone has, that comic books were a juvenile medium. In classes we were taught to ground literary fictions in strong character, and that genre stories were plot-driven. But Astro City had strong characters as well as a strong visual element. I knew I wanted to write comics — it was pretty immediate.” Comics also promised to fulfill another creative impulse: “When I was a kid, I wanted to be an animator or visual artist, but I wasn’t good at it, but in comics I discovered a form where someone else could do the art that I couldn’t really draw.”

With no luck in finding how-to books on taking the comics industry by storm, Venditti worked a day job at Borders and developed various comic scripts at night. He followed his then-girlfriend (now wife) to the Atlanta area in the early 2000s. The move, coincidentally, brought him into close proximity with Marietta-based comics publisher Top Shelf Productions. In 2002, one of Top Shelf’s distributors went bankrupt, nearly driving the company out of business. An online appeal for reader support saved Top Shelf within 24 hours. Sympathetic to Top Shelf’s plight, Venditti volunteered to help out with packing orders. Publisher Chris Staros eventually hired him as a part-time employee, then as a full-timer.

Venditti had no expectation that Top Shelf would publish The Surrogates. Since 1997, Top Shelf has specialized in idiosyncratic graphic novels with an indie sensibility, such as the melancholy, personal work of Blankets’ Craig Thompson, or the irreverent, scrawled stylings of Jeffrey Brown. Staros says that he and partner Brett Warnock were never philosophically opposed to doing a genre book. “Mostly we look for books with a uniquely engaging art style, a lot of heart and a lot of subtext.”

During long road trips to comic conventions, Staros would chat with Venditti about his story ideas, and was particularly intrigued by The Surrogates. When Venditti sought Staros’ opinion on The Surrogates' completed script, he only hoped his boss would help shop it around to more comics publishing houses, like Marvel or Dark Horse. “I had no inkling that they’d want to publish it. I didn’t want to create this uncomfortable situation where I wanted them to publish me, and if not, I’d quit my job.”

In fact, Staros decided to publish The Surrogates. “This would be an expensive project for us, but it’s a great story and fits the Top Shelf mantra. I also had a one-in-a-million hunch there could be a movie in it, and I didn’t want to be the one to let Elvis leave the building.”

To visually render Venditti’s futuristic setting and characters, Staros suggested Brett Weldele, a recent graduate from the Savannah College of Art and Design, as The Surrogates’ illustrator. Weldele’s visual style looked dramatically different from what Venditti saw in his head. “When Chris showed me Brett’s work, I immediately saw the possibilities. The sketchy look of his art fit the cyberpunk content of the book.” In The Surrogates' finished product, Weldele frequently represents faces and backgrounds with spare, simple lines, colored either in sepia browns or sheet-metal grays that convey the grubby gloom hanging over the allegedly bright future.

When The Surrogates arrived at comic book stores in 2005, it looked more like a Top Shelf book than a mainstream title. Venditti recalls, “When I first wrote comics, I envisioned the Marvel or DC Comics style. Now I think the best is something stylistically unique, that exaggerates in some way. Plus, if you have a more realistic style, why not just do a film?”

Indeed, why not? Not long after publication of The Surrogates’ fourth, penultimate issue in 2006, Venditti received an out-of-the-blue phone call from fledgling producer Max Handelman, husband of actress Elizabeth Banks. Venditti and Staros liked Handelman and his enthusiasm for The Surrogates, and granted him permission to develop a Surrogates film. In remarkably short order, Handelman attracted the interest of Mandeville Films. The production company assumed a screenwriting team and director Jonathan Mostow, whose action/sci-fi credentials include Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Disney liked Mandeville’s pitch and greenlit the film, which had a completed screenplay in October 2007, just before the Writers Guild strike. Countless roadblocks can send a potential film into development hell, yet Surrogates’ charmed life avoided them all.

The screenwriter’s work-stoppage even turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Oliver Stone postponed his My Lai massacre film Pinkville, which opened up Bruce Willis' schedule. Oddly enough, Venditti had chatted with his wife years before about the ideal cast of a Surrogates film, and who would play the lead role of Detective Greer. “It was just talking, like asking each other, ‘If you were an animal, what would you be?’ I said Bruce Willis, because he can do the action scenes but also the heavy emotion for the scenes with his wife. And nobody does ‘beat-down cop’ like Bruce Willis.”

Where this year’s Watchmen proved to be the rare comic book film that suffered from being too faithful to its source material, Surrogates screenwriters Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato made significant changes. The setting was switched from the Atlanta-of-the-future, Central Georgia Metropolis, to less high-tech Boston. Greer became an FBI agent instead of a police detective. Where the enigmatic criminal’s weapon merely destroyed surrogates in the book, in the film it also murders their operators. The surrogate cops use superhuman powers to withstand injury and make Matrix-style leaps after suspects. Ironically, the film's most “comic-booky” aspect wasn’t in the actual comic book.

Mostow’s expensive special effects include digital face-lifts for some of the actors. Bruce Willis and Rosamund Pike, as his wife, look significantly younger and eerily fake as their surrogate selves. The film more deeply explores the social ramifications of the surrogate concept than the comic book, partly because cinema’s combination of picture, motion and sound can communicate information more quickly than comics. In some ways, Top Shelf’s graphic novel seems like an outline filled in by the film.

The film script also sets up challenges that Mostow’s production doesn’t equal. Since most of the actors are playing moveable mannequins operated by distant humans, their performances have a stiffness: Willis switches from his young, fake self to his craggy middle-aged real self, accumulating scars along the way. Under Mostow’s direction, it’s hard to tell where the deliberately bad acting stops and the unintentionally bad acting begins. The concept probably needed a Stanley Kubrick protégé to pull off the high-brow concepts.

Some critics have enjoyed Surrogates as a loopy guilty pleasure, but the sheer number of twists grows increasingly silly, particularly one character's nonsensical murderous scheme. The script gives Greer and his wife a tragically deceased son as a cheap vehicle for sympathy and conflict, as if Greer’s dissatisfaction with the surrogate lifestyle, and her addiction to it, isn’t weighty enough. Overall, The Surrogates succeeds better through the simplicity and focus of the original graphic novel than the expansive, uneven motion picture.

Venditti maintains a philosophical attitude about seeing Hollywood take its own spin on his creation. “If they’re creative people and are inspired to bring their own creativity to something I did, I take that as a compliment. No matter what happens with the film, I’ll still take it that way. Given that they’ve spent so much time and energy on it, it’s difficult for me to have a problem with it.”

The writer sees the Surrogates film release not as an ending of his career, but a beginning. This summer he published the prequel The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone, and he has several other follow-ups in mind. He’s developing non-Surrogates stories and has written about Iron Man and Captain America, requiring crash courses in superhero continuity. He’s even become an expert on The Surrogates’ technological ideas. “Since writing The Surrogates, I’ve heard from professors who teach the book in their classes. I gave a telepresence interview to a class in California, and I’m going to speak to a Georgia State class about cyborgs in America later this year.”

He’s happy to offer advice to other artists about how to break into show business, while being aware that his experience may not be helpful. “When people ask me how to get a movie made, I say ‘First, pick someone who hasn’t made a movie before. Then make sure that in the middle of the development process, there’s a big writer’s strike — that’s key!’”

The Surrogates by Robert Venditti and Brett Wendele. Top Shelf Productions. $19.95. 208 pp.

The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone by Robert Venditti and Brett Wendele. Top Shelf Productions. $14.95. 144 pp.

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