Inherited Soil: The PopMatters Exclusive with Robert Venditti

Robert Venditti comes to us fully formed. A young artist but an artist nonetheless, Venditti is already in the throes of working out themes that connect his various and disparate works. We he says late in our interview, “I wanted to write a woman because it’s something I hadn’t yet done” in an almost conspiratorial tone, there can be no doubt as to his bona fides. There’s something deeper at play for Venditti, a kind of working through of talent that he manages to involve the audience in time and again.

His responses push me back. I had been expecting a comicbook writer, a mind steeped in the medium of comics. Instead I encountered an artist, on the cusp of breaking through the solitary endeavors of being a writer and about to become a performer in the public life. “Because it’s something I hadn’t yet done”… the words ring out from the deeper recesses of an artist dissatisfied with typecasting his talent.

There’s a searching need that seems to drive Venditti. It’s not at all unlike That Need that biographer Michael Feeney Callan identifies in the young Robert Redford when he refuses $10,000 a week because television is simply not the right move for him. Venditti is deeply meditative about the world, and his books are his public performances. He is the Grand Entertainer wrestling with the issues that beset him and beset America.

“I would love it if that was the case,” he says in answer to a question I pose about moral rejuvenation in this new decade, “but it’s so hard to say. Things are just so acrimonious in America right now. It’s gotten to a point where you can’t be a Liberal or can’t be a Conservative without having the other half of the world….” He stops to correct himself, he’d meant “other half of the country”.

But his verbal slip does betray a deeper insight. The idea that wrestling with an American identity today is definitive of the broader role played by America in a global psyche. This is what elevates Venditti’s work above role of rockstar, recasting his projects with a wider, global audience. He’s not just Muddy Waters escaping the South as much as escaping poverty, he’s Jagger and Richards’ Stones on their own American adventure, he’s Coca Cola spread out across Asia and Africa.

Venditti continues his thought: “It’s gotten to the point where you can’t be a Liberal or be a Conservative without the other half of the country hate your guts. People act as if there’s no common ground between us but of course the world is nothing but common ground. It would be wonderful if that were the case. If sort of out of the ashes of something like 9/11 we all became a better country, I just don’t know. Everything is so hyper-partisan. Everything is just so overly politicized to the point where you almost can’t have reasoned debate about anything anymore. And it’s also to the point where I think a lot of people feel like, if they’re Conservative on one issue, or Liberal on one issue, then they must be Conservative or Liberal on all the issues. So if I am (this is an example) for lower taxes, then I must also be pro-life… Or if I’m pro-environment, then I must also be pro-choice. “

“We set ourselves up for this. We’re trying to act as though the candidate is our soulmate, when obviously he’s not. You get two guys to choose from. Both of them are going to be like you on some things. They’re going to be unlike you on some things. Are they like you on the things that are more important to you and unlike you on the things that are less important to you? If so, vote for them.”

There’s a heightened drama to watching Venditti’s mind work. It’s easy to get the sense that more is happening than should be happening. My question was directly about Venditti’s new book, The Homeland Directive that, in shipping this week, missed out on the sublime act of coinciding with the Fourth. “Are Gene and the Guys, who at the opening of The Homeland Directive find themselves on the horns of a moral dilemma, emblematic of a new way of thinking?,” I had wondered. Venditti’s response had been to tease out inner conflicts that plague the project of reconstructing a national identity and a national idiom.

This is very much the action of an artist in transition to performer. I’m reminded of Paul Auster’s deeply moving essay, “A Prayer of Salman Rushdie” in which Auster identifies the primal solitude in being an author and the act of immense strength it takes to connect with even another author. I’m reminded also of writer Martin Amis’ essay “Thinkability” which introduces his collection Einstein’s Monsters. In it, Amis is troubled by the physical distance that removes him from his family life and what this distance might mean in the case of a nuclear attack.

Late in the interview, when both Venditti and I have been talking at length, his mind still reaches for what is beyond its immediate grasp. He breaks through the Fifth Wall of solitude and enters the stage of public performance. What connects these disparate projects; Venditti’s sci-fi masterpiece The Surrogates and its sequel Flesh & Bone with his comics adaptation of the Percy Jackson series with his current work The Homeland Directive is Venditti himself.

Knowing Venditti only through his work I had asked him about Surrogates earlier in the interview. It was the basis for the eponymous film starring Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames. At one point Venditti offered that with The Homeland Directive he’d wanted to offer readers the inverse trajectory that The Surrogates. “In The Surrogates you know what the villain’s plot is, but you don’t know who the villain is. In The Homeland Directive you know from the very opening page who the villain is, but you do not know what he’s trying to do. I wanted to see if I could do that. I wanted see if I could build a story where you know who the bad guy is from the opening, but you don’t know what he’s trying to do and have that be the big reveal.”

But that wasn’t my opening gambit. In knowing Venditti only through his work at the beginning of the interview, I attempted to position him within the framework of comics. But this tactic would prove wildly insufficient to the task of coming to grips with the core of Robert Venditti as an artist. With the ancillary materials in The Surrogates, and the visual rendering of The Prophet and of Greer, the lead investigator, I had assumed that this was a postmodern interpellation of the so-called British Invasion of the comics industry. In my mind The Prophet was clearly Alan Moore, Greer was visually a younger Warren Ellis.

But Venditti’s response stunned me. “My experience with comics is really so young,” Venditti offers, “I read my first comicbook in 2000. And even to this day I think I’ve read maybe one Warren Ellis comic. Of course I read comics by Alan Moore, but it was funny how I came about him. Basically a friend of mine had introduced my to comics with Kurt Busiek’s Astro City series. I read the Confessor storyarc and really liked it. So I went down to a comic shop near my house; I’d never been to one by this time. Looking around at the books that were there it was very daunting to me because all the Marvel and DC stuff were at issue 762 or whatever. So there was this line of comics that had just started up at the time, with some lower numbers. 1’s and 2’s and things like that… so I bought those simply because I wanted comics I could start off with early on in the system. And it was the (Alan Moore conceived and written) America’s Best Comics line. I started reading Tom Strong and Promethea and I was ‘Oh this Alan Moore guy is pretty good… what else has he written’. Watchmen.”

Robert Venditti had entered comics as a fully formed artist. In my assuming of him a long history steeped in the medium, I was wholly under-prepared. Venditti was immediately evocative of promise and the terror Scott Fitzgerald articulates when describing America. When Greil Marcus wrote in Mystery Train, “To be an American is to feel the promise as a birthright, and to feel alone and haunted when the promise fails”, he could be describing Venditti.

And to come to grips with Venditti, this fully formed artist who actively chose the medium of comics, I would have to go even further.