Most superhero comic book readers know the name Robert Venditti, either for graphic novels like The Homeland Directive or Surrogates — the latter made into a feature film starring Bruce Willis — or for his superhero work on titles like DC's Green Lantern and Valiant's X-O Manowar.
But to teenage readers, Venditti is the author of the Miles Taylor and the Golden Cape books — now a series of novels, thanks to the release this month of Rise of the Robot Army, the second in the series from Simon & Schuster.
Starting with last year's Attack of the Alien Horde, Venditti introduced readers to a middle school boy who uses a magical golden cape to transform into Gilded, the super-powered protector of Atlanta.
But the books aren't just prose novels — both titles incorporate drawn comic book pages, drawn by Dusty Higgins, which are inserted into the book every time Miles puts on the golden cape. The comic panels forward the story until the cape comes off, when the book returns to prose.
The series has won critical acclaim from librarians and educators for not only incorporating action-packed comic book scenes, but for also dealing with real-world problems that kids face each day, like bullying, having a crush, and making friends at a new school.
As Rise of the Robot Army is released at book stores, Newsarama talked with Venditti to find out more about his book series and why he thinks it works so well for them to also feature comic book pages.
Newsarama: Rob, I think the people who know you for your comic book work would be surprised to learn you're a novelist and have been for a while. How did you start writing young adult novels?
Robert Venditti: When I was in grad school, I got my master's in creative writing and I was doing prose. So I was writing at that time, short stories. I was submitting to literary journals and things like that.
And in the midst of all that, I read my first comic and decided I wanted to make a shift and start to write comics. So prose was always something I always wanted to do.
I had this idea about the concept behind Miles Taylor and the Golden Cape going back years, even before Surrogates was out. I just wasn't sure what to do with it, you know?
Originally, I thought it would be aimed at a more adult audience, and it wasn't working. It was one of those things that I just couldn't figure out what was wrong with it, and I just kind of set it in the drawer.
Then as I started writing comics, one of the jobs that I picked up was doing adaptations of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series for Hyperion Books. So I would take the novels and I would make graphic novels out of them. And I've continued to do that. I've done three of the books in the Percy Jackson series, and I've some other Rick Riordan books as well.
And the editor who I was working with at the time — his name was Christian Trimmer — he asked me if I had any ideas for original novels of my own.
When he said that to me, never having thought about it before — and Christian is primarily a middle-grade, young adult, children's editor — it occurred to me that this idea I had for Miles Taylor and the Golden Cape that went back so long, the reason why it wasn't woking is because I wasn't targeting it toward the right audience.
And it would fit really well as a kids story.
So Christian ended up moving over to Simon & Schuster, and I submitted the book over to them, as he was an editor there. And Simon & Schuster was the one that ended up publishing it.
The book that just came out — Rise of the Robot Army — is the second book in the series.
Nrama: I don't want to spoil the first novel, because I think Newsarama readers would want to start there. And this is definitely in their wheelhouse, because it features a young superhero. And it features actual comic book pages along with the prose.
Venditti: Yeah, the way the idea developed, it really became a hybrid. I knew it was always going to be a story about someone who comes into possession of a cape that turns him into a superhero. But there's a catch — it only works in certain situations. And the mystery is, why? And of course, you find out over the course of the story why.
As I was developing the idea, I thought that it would be really interesting to do all of the scenes in prose where Miles Taylor is himself. But whenever he puts on the cape and it works, and he turns into a superhero, it becomes a comic book.
So the novels actually have between 60 and 70 pages of comics as well.
I wanted to do that for a couple of reasons. First, I know there are a lot of hybrid stories out there, but this is one where it would switch from illustration to prose for a story related reason, which I thought would be fun, but also it plays to the strength of both mediums. You know, comics being so visual, it really excels at action and big battle scenes and downtown cities being attacked and things like that. And prose really excels at quieter moment — a boy and his father, a boy and his friends at school and things like that.
So this was a way to take the strength of those two mediums and put them into one book and see how it works.
A lot of the response we've gotten so far, primarily from libraries and educators, has been really positive. It's had nice write-ups in the School Library Journal. It's been a Junior Library Guild selection book, things like that. The don't recall seeing — I'm not saying it doesn't exist — but they don't recall seeing a novel that goes back and forth with comics in quite the same way this one does. That seems to be one of the elements that really excites them about the story.
Nrama: The characters feel very real. Miles is a boy who's going through things that are typical for kids his age. Can you describe him, as well as the other characters who play a key role?
Venditti: Yes, basically the story is that there's a superhero based out of Atlanta named Gilded. And nobody knows where the hero came from, or how they do what they do. And there's all kinds of speculation — you know, is it an alien? Is it an angel? Is it a science experiment? What is it?
Events transpire to where our main character, Miles Taylor, ends up getting possession of the cape, but he doesn't know what it does. He doesn't know all that much about Gilded. But he has a friend at school named Henry. Miles is new at school, and Henry is sort of the first person he interacts with. He meets him, actually, in detention. And Henry is really smart, and he knows a lot about these sorts of things. So he's kind of the Alfred in this scenario.
Another one of the aspects of the visual element of the book that I try to play up on is to not really give very many head-to-toe descriptions of characters, and I think if you look at the reading experience from maybe when we were younger, when I read Lord of the Rings, my Frodo was different from your Frodo was different from somebody else's Frodo, because we all imagined him in our heads differently.
But I think with the generation we have now, with everything being so digital and there are so many adaptations, and you know, selfies and Twitter and all these kinds of things, I think that everybody wants their Frodo to kind of be the same, if that makes sense.
And so one of the aspects that the visual component brings to the Miles Taylor books is that you can read the novel, but then you see the character. And rather than describing them in words, you just sort of see them. And now you have the faces to go along with what you're doing in the books. It's just another element that we try to bring to it.
You also have Miles' dad, recently divorced, raising Miles on his own. Miles' mother has left. You have the conflict there.
And then Miles has a romantic interest named Josie that he goes to school with. And him being the new kid in school, he does not know anybody. And he's the one who's getting picked on, and he's the one who's being singled out.
And into the midst of all that, he ends up happening upon this cape, which is really extraordinary as someone who views himself as otherwise completely ordinary.
Nrama: And you just had the second novel come out this month, meaning it's officially a series, right? The first one did well enough to justify a second novel?
Venditti: It did, yeah. It's interesting. You mentioned in the beginning that a lot of comic book readers might not know that I'm a novelist. And there isn't a lot of crossover between the two worlds. Simon & Schuster was aware of my comics work, but not hugely so. And as you say, a lot of comics readers might not know that I write novels.
So it is kind of starting out at the beginning again, even though it's all writing. It's a different format, and in a lot of ways, it's a different market. That was part of the challenge, and that's what I liked about it. I always wanted to do novels, and I think it would be easy to just keep writing comics. And I'm not the fastest writer in the world. So it took a lot of time and effort for me to write these novels. And the revision process. And learning different skills, you know?
To revise a 22-page issue of a comic book with notes from an editor is one thing. But to revise a 300-page novel is really different. The best way I could describe it is, it's like trying to carry a garbage bag full of water up a flight of stairs. It's like, you touch it in one place and the whole thing shifts, and you have to go and fix all the little places that it shifted across 300 pages. You know?
So these were all things I kind of had to learn and teach myself, because although writing is writing, depending on the format, they all have their own rules and their own skills sets.
I'm having a good time with it, though. This was a challenge that I set for myself, and so to be able to do one novel — or to be able to do two now — I feel really fortunate for that.