What started as a Kickstarter project last year, reached its goal, and eventually found a print publisher at Action Lab, Vito Delsante’s Stray is a story about redemption and becoming your own man. The series stars former teen sidekick Rodney Weller, who inhabits a world of superheroes, roles, and relationships that will be instantly recognizable to longtime superhero readers.
Newsarama sat down with Delsante recently to talk all things Stray and some of the real-life experiences that informed they storytelling process, including the passing of his father and his own drug use. He’s also sent along some interior art from the first three issues.
Newsarama: So, Vito, the title of Stray itself has multiple meanings, tell us a little bit about that.
Vito Delsante: Well, the title of the book was always going to be Stray. I'm a big Jane's Addiction fan, and their first album, with all the members, was called "Strays." I just happened to be listening to it on the Staten Island Ferry when I was trying to come up with a name and it just made sense. The character's name became Stray because, like you said, the multiple meanings of the word in the context of dogs and strays. The idea that his ideology changes, and he "strays" from the type of hero that came before him and that he works alone. I always knew the story was about redemption and identity, so the name speaks to that...to the expectations of a hero and who he wants to be.
Nrama: You have a lineage hero thing here being passed from father to son. You've stated that while writing this you thought back to when you were dealing with the passage of your own father, as well as your drug usage as a coping mechanism. How much of yourself did you put into creating protagonist Rodney?
Delsante: I was in the shower one day, and I remembered a little tidbit that I had long forgotten that was put into the story. It harkens back to those years of drinking myself stupid and trying whatever drugs were available. And the thing was...drugs were always funny. I never really got high from them, and I realized, later, that it's how they work. They create a false sense of superiority...of invincibility...that makes the user think, "Well, if three lines of cocaine don't affect me, I'll try five next time." That was hindsight. In the moment, though, whenever this stuff didn't affect me, I'd though, rather foolishly, that I had a healing factor or something. And that's why Rodney has one. It's little things like that, little character traits that make him, make the story, autobiographical in some sense. I was 15 when my father died, and Rodney was about the same age when he quit being a sidekick. There are tons of parallels in there that, if you know me at all, you'll see. When I used to go barhopping with my friends...this was years after I cleaned up my alcohol intake...I would only drink water (with a lime or lemon). That's on page 10 of the first issue. A lot of little idiosyncrasies made the cut. I don't think it's necessary to know me personally to get some of that stuff in there, but it helps, I'm sure.
Nrama: Let's talk about this world some. It sort of reminds me of Kirkman’s Invincible in a few ways where you do have this super team full of DC analogs, but Rodney himself is sort of the anti-Invincible as he wanted nothing to do with the cape life while Mark faced it head on and embraced it.
Delsante: Yeah, that's one of the most fun parts of the story is...as the writer of this world, I had to, in essence, convince Rodney to be a hero again. I had to talk him into it, by guiding the events of his life. There's a certain puppet master-like role we take as writers, and it was always interesting to me the idea that a sidekick doesn't have to grow up to be the hero and take the mantle of his or her mentor. That, there could be that rebellious streak, especially as a teenager, that drives them away from it all, and the only way that they come back is if they, for one thing, have an inciting incident that forces them to choose and second, if they do it their way. The analogs are there as a sort of shorthand for the reader. We get into the story pretty fast and this could have easily been a 12-issue mini series if we sat down and made the reader learn the backstory. By using the analogs, you know, immediately, who everyone is, what their role is (or should be) and how they operate. In some ways, you have a preconceived idea of what their backstory is, so this way, when we do reveals, it means more and fleshes out the characters in an almost organic way.
Nrama: Your artist on the series, Sean Izaakse is from South Africa, how did you come about him?
Delsante: As a writer, one of the hardest things in the industry is finding an artist. You want to work with the Haspiels and the Camuncolis but those guys are always otherwise preoccupied. I don't know who referred me to them, but DeviantArt, Pencil Jack and Digital Webbing have always been my go to sites. I found Sean on DeviantArt, and just became a fan of his work. Soon after, I did something on Project: Rooftop with him and we just...we clicked. We both like Nightwing, Daredevil...we have the same affinity for dogs. We just mesh. We were working on two other projects before this and when I needed a new artist for Stray, he jumped at the chance. He redesigned every character, which was no small feat, and he gave me some visual cues in the script, so that it would work better for him. He also helps me with the placements of the lettering, which is still new to me. He is as much a co-creator as any parents are for a child.
Nrama: Dealing with the designs down from Rottweiler and Doberman, to the miscellaneous villains, what was the process? Did you have a lot of input or did you trust him enough to do his thing?
Delsante: Like any good artist, Sean really questions his designs and often will present me with five or six different versions. The first one is almost always the best, but you...I, in this case...just let him get them out. Rodney's costume as Rottweiler changes slightly from issue to issue. Stray's costume will see a change in the next mini series, as well. We work really well, I think, because there is a lot of trust given and received. If I don't like something, I tell him. It's extremely rare, but sometimes, that one element was the thing that was bothering him. We compromise fairly often. There's a character in issue three that, in the script, I described as having a "Japanese Lolita" look but also, because he knows her power set is similar to Delirium from the Endless, he adds the right tweak to make her (her name is Misery) look original. It's really easy to work with him in that respect.
Nrama: There was running joke between you and the creators behind Midnight Tiger, also at Action Labs, can you talk some about that?
Delsante: Action Lab had some concerns that Stray, who has a dark costume with orange highlights, might look too much like Midnight Tiger, who has a dark costume with orange highlights, and it might lead to brand confusion. They loved the story, but they needed to be convinced a bit on whether or not they should take it on. So, Ray-Anthony Height, who has been a friend for nearly ten years (if not more), stepped in. They asked him what he thought and he said, "Spider-Man and Daredevil have red costumes and no one confuses them," and I think he made a really good point. Since then, we take every opportunity to show them together, and we actually were the Pro badge artwork for this year's Long Beach Comic Con. I mean, I can see it, but I don't see it. I'm glad they let us come in, because we've since been making plans on a Stray, Midnight Tiger and Molly Danger crossover, which is going to be a riot.
Nrama: When pitching Stray around, was Action Lab your first choice in publishers?
Delsante: That's tricky. On one hand, we had another publisher (in reality, they were a sponsor of the Kickstarter, and would have published the book had their financials been in order), so that almost looks like Action Lab was the second. But privately, Ray and I would talk, and he would say, "I wish you were here at Action Lab with me," and I would say, "Yeah, me too." I wanted to go with them, but was afraid of...jeez, I don't know what. Rejection? I mean, we almost didn't get in, you know? Yet, I was always aware of them, keeping an eye on them, so to speak, from afar. I've had some really bad luck in this business, especially in terms of publishers. Speakeasy still gets brought up to me, and yeah, they will always be the specter hanging over me, in terms of the trust I can put into a publisher. But Action Lab has been incredibly welcoming, incredibly supportive and surprisingly transparent. We have a good home...
Oh jeez, I just made a dog pun without even trying. The stray found a home.
Nrama: You received a lot of good words from your fellow creators and even have some big names on your covers. Was it difficult to wrangle some of these guys once you showed them the project?
Delsante: Not...if I say "not really," that might make it seem like I just have it like that. These guys are all friends. I mean, "I've got you on speed dial and can call you at home" friends. By and large, due to my years working retail, I have created real lasting relationships with these artists, so they were more or less excited to help us out...which stuns me. I never want to think that I'm special, or that I deserve the friendship that these guys have given me, and that's because I never want to take advantage of that friendship or that kindness. Does that make sense? I can never stop thanking Khary [Randolph], Stephane [Roux] or Mike [Norton]. I'm always talking about Shawn McGuan as the best unsung talent out there. ChrisCross and Emilio Lopez...that cover is insane! Paige Pumphrey did me a huge favor at the last minute. And then being able to "re-team" with the artist of my Superman issue, Julian Lopez. I'm incredibly lucky. I have never underestimated how blessed I am, because a lesser person might think these things are just owed to them. I am truly humbled by the amount of affection these artists have shown me.
Nrama: Why do you think the story in Stray is important and needed to be told?
Delsante: That's the million dollar question, isn't it? On one hand, it'd be easy to say, "It's for those kids or adults or parents or sons and daughters who just don't understand each other." Or that it it's for those of us that haven't found ourselves yet and worry that we never will. And on the other hand, it's incredibly masturbatory because it's so self-referential and auto-biographical. But I think that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
When I was living in Seattle, I was dating this girl who had a nephew. I really got a kick out of hanging out with him, and I thought, one day, that maybe, I should write him an "owner's manual." A sort of how-to guide to be a man, or at least in the context of the lessons I've learned. And I think that's what Stray is. I used to tell my little sister that there's no mistake you can't regret and make amends for. That no matter what age you are, you can still fall, but still lift yourself up. Like I said, Stray is about redemption and identity. Those are so universal, and I know we have a “12+” tag on the book, but I think kids as young as 10 or 8 can read it, too, and realize the lesson of the story we're telling.
And it's beautiful to look at.
I think a lot of people, young and old, can relate to Rodney's story. There's a universality to it that I truly believe can touch a lot of people.