Horror and Fantasy Collide in Valiant’s Game-Changer Event, Book of Death

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Though the current incarnation of the Valiant Universe has only been brewing for three years, a grisly, hidden menace threatens the end of such characters as Bloodshot, Ninjak and X-O Manowar in this summer’s Book of Death miniseries by Robert Venditti, Robert Gill and Doug Braithwaite. Grown from the foundation of last year’s narrative palate cleanser, The Valiant, this new event pumps up the peril on a global scale as nature revolts against humanity in horrifically creative ways. Throughout these inexplicable atrocities, an immortal soldier named Gilad continues his mission to protect and nurture a young time-traveling girl named Tama, who belongs to a sacred line of ecological avatars called Geomancers. Is Tama related to this spate of natural disasters? Can Gilad salvage her future despite the fact that he’s failed in every previous instance? What’s the deal with the accompanying one shots announcing the fall of every major character in Valiant’s publishing line? The end feels very nigh.

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Book of Death #1 Cover by Robert Gill

The Book of Death straddles this fault line of tension and intrigue, introducing a new oppressive era to a superhero universe quickly accumulating an addictively cool mythology. And as Sony Pictures recently made clear, this editorial line is destined for even bigger things. Though much of the 4-issue project remains veiled in mystery, Paste hopped on the phone with Venditti and Gill to learn more about this project, its ambitious mission statement and injecting the Valiant cosmos with a new dose of fantastical dread.
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Paste: Is the best way to thematically describe this miniseries as a continuation of the events from The Valiant?
Robert Venditti: It’s like everything that we’ve done, in the sense that Armor Hunters is a continuation of things that have happened in X-O Manowar, but not a continuation in the sense that you need to have read the Valiant work to understand what’s going on here. We really strive as a group and as writers to constantly write stories that build on top of preceding work, yet always feel new and not like a retread. But If you’re a brand new reader who’s never read a Valiant book before, you’ll still know what’s going on. This is built upon events that happened in the The Valiant, but that storyline isn’t necessary to understand what’s going on here.

Paste: These events also feel like State of the Unions, showing the new status quos of the Valiant Universe. You’re not just setting the stage; you’re evolving it. On a very superficial level, what’s the idea behind The Book of Death and what are you trying to accomplish for the Valiant Universe.
Venditti: The idea behind Book of Death is that there’s a new Geomancer, who has arrived from the future. The Eternal Warrior, Gilad, is charged with always protecting the Geomancers. The Geomancer knows who he is, from having trained with him and having known him in the future, but the present-day Gilad has never met her before. So there’s this interesting relationship where Gilad is wiser, and an adult about a lot of things, but there’s a whole bunch of things that he’s not as wise about. He doesn’t know where this girl comes from, as long as she’s known him in a sense.

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Book of Death #1 Cover by Cary Nord

So they are working together, trying to piece together this mystery of why the earth, for lack of a better word, is acting out these extreme natural disasters—these horrific events that are nature related. Meanwhile, Unity—the team that Gilad has traditionally been a part of that has X-O [Manowar], Ninjak and Livewire and is an established team in the Valiant Universe—wants the girl back because the girl may be the cause of what’s happening, or may be able to stop it in some way. So Gilad is at odds with his own team and the rest of the Valiant Universe because he knows from the long view, as a guy who’s been around 10,000 years, how these situations work. Whereas Unity is looking at it from the very short term, normal life-span point of view, where they just want the girl to see if she can stop what’s happening. He’s at odds with everyone in the Valiant Universe while he’s trying to keep this girl safe.

Paste: Regarding Gilad, one thing I always thought was brave of Valiant and its editorial was to have a hero who’s consecutively failed in his one mission. That deviates so much from the standard superhero template. How much does that play into this arc?
Venditti: Very much so. He’s still coming off the death of the previous Geomancer [Kay McHenry, who was murdered in The Valiant]. Whether he’s to blame or not, he blames himself for that, and now he has this young girl who’s his charge. And things are far, far worse than he’s ever seen them before, in terms of how events are occurring and how the dark age is playing out with the death of the [previous] Geomancer. He’s a bit rattled, and it’s part of that insecurity, for lack of a better word. It’s part of that repeated failure that you’re mentioning, that leads him to go on the run, and not trust anyone else who he’s worked with in the past.

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Book of Death Art by Robert Gill

Paste: The environment plays such a huge role here, Robert, and I loved your note in the script about the oil derricks in midwestern farming in the ‘30s, and how agriculture was the first step in humanity controlling nature directly. How much does our current ecological state inform what’s going on in Book of Death? Is there real-world resonance informing the role of the Geomancer?
Venditti: I think there is. I don’t want to get too much into her being an environmentalist or anything like that. I don’t even think she looks at the earth in those terms. She has a natural, personal relationship with the earth. She’s the eyes and ears of earth. She’s the only person who can talk to it or know what’s going on with it. She’s this conduit through which humanity and earth can relate to each other. So she has a love of nature, and those sorts of things, but it comes from beyond what our conceptions can be. The Geomancer is able to do these things, and it’s Gilad’s role to preserve and protect that, because it is such an important part of not only the natural ecosystem, but the sociological ecosystem.

Paste: Robert [Gill], Book of Death has so much imagery regarding this environmental turmoil. What did you use as references for these epic instances of global distress to show that impact?
Robert Gill: I’m big into the post-apocalyptic stuff anyway. I love the symbolism with the oil rigs and all the stuff Robert puts in that I can work off of. I just derive stuff off of the news or that I’ve read in books. I read the script probably five times before I start drawing. I spend a lot of time referencing stuff on the internet—anything I can get my hands on to try to get as much of a complete view in my brain before I can start breaking stuff down to thumbnails, to layouts. By the time I get to the finished page, I have a huge amount of detail of the story in my head built around the idea the writer has to try to flesh the scene out as much as possible, and to catch all that symbolism and cram anything else in there without getting too crazy. I help convey everything from the visuals that they’re trying to get in there, especially the moods. Anything I can do to enforce a mood in a page or the scope of the book is hugely important to me.

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Book of Death Art by Robert Gill

Paste: One thing I loved about The Valiant is how wind-resistant it is. There are so many characters, but it never feels convoluted. As mentioned, I’m noticing that same balancing act in this work as well. How do you keep this story accessible while keeping these characters and their stories constantly evolving? It seems like a bit of a tightrope.
Venditti: And it is in anything, whether it’s an event or a team book. In each scene, I take the character who you’re seeing that scene through to anchor the reader and build everything around that. You can accomplish a lot in terms of letting readers know exactly who characters are with just a line or two of dialogue.

Ninjak is a great example of that. He’s a character who I find enormously fun to write. He’s so pompous and confident about everything. If you hear him speak five words, you know exactly who that guy is and what he’s all about. It’s really an economy of dialogue, using it to the best effect you can to communicate as much information as you can in a short space. But nobody’s really hogging all the scenes.

Paste: It’s something that I think Valiant does exceptionally well.
Venditti: It’s something I try to do with all of my comics. I didn’t start reading comics until I was 27 years old, and I found it very alienating to try to read things that had a huge continuity—I had no idea what was going on. That’s something that’s always at the forefront of my mind, no matter what I’m writing. Whether it’s Green Lantern, Flash or X-O, I want every issue to be something for the guy like me, who’s going into the store for the first time and has never read a comic before, to understand. You try to develop tricks and do things at different times that don’t become repetitive. Part of the challenge of writing is part of what makes it so fun—trying to come up with new ways of doing things.

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Book of Death Art by Robert Gill

Paste: Robert (Gill), what are you going for tonally with the miniseries?
Gill: One thing I like about this book a lot are the horror aspects. I think it hearkens back to the classic sort of horror movie. It’s really fun to get into that. Right now, I’m working on the end of the book, which is another intense horror-type sequence. It’s really different, breaking away from more superhero-y type stuff. Eternal Warrior is a fantastic character in terms of the hood, ax and sword. And I’m big into fantasy, too. To be able to combine both horror and fantasy elements for this book is super good. I look forward to seeing how this book looks cohesively, and how people react to it.

Paste: You bring up an interesting point in that there’re so many different aesthetics and genres at play in the Valiant Universe. You have sci-fi, horror and fantasy all under the same umbrella. Is it a challenge to make all of those different genres work under the same page?
Gill: For me, I love to combine that stuff together. I don’t think it’s too much of a challenge for me. I have a good time with it.

Paste: Robert [Venditti], how much did you communicate with Robert [Gill] about the art? Did you tailor the art to explore the horror/fantasy elements he thrives on?
Venditti: I think the tone of the series is established, in that we want it to have that horror feel, which is great for me because it’s not something that I’ve ever done before. I’ve never even written anything I’d say is marginally horror-ish. So it’s nice to be able to work in a genre that I haven’t done. I tend to leave a lot of comments in the script—probably more information than Bob needs, but it’s just being conversational within the script. I completely trust him to handle the art. I am very cognizant of the fact that I’m a writer and I don’t know art the way an artist does. With everyone who I work with, I’m pretty loose in terms of giving free rein to let them interpret the story, because I trust the guys that I get to work with.

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Tama Designs by Paolo Rivera

Paste: For anyone curious who hasn’t been exposed to the Valiant universe, how would you describe The Book of Death?
Venditti: This is a great entry-point for the whole universe. You’re going to get a lot of characters and a lot of the genres that you were talking about earlier. It’s going to be very accessible, very new-reader friendly, but we’re also doing some things here— I’m almost loathe to say have never been done before, because in the entire history of the written word I’m sure everything’s been done at some point—but we are doing some things differently with the story and with the larger event that I can say aren’t common, and that I’ve not seen before. There will be a lot of surprises along the way, and it’s an event that will have a lasting impact. There’re going to be ramifications for it; it’s not just something that’s going to be a little one-off story. It’s going to really shake where the Valiant Universe heads for a lot of the characters in the near term. This is a great time to hit the ground running and get a taste of everything that the Valiant universe has to offer.

The Book of Death #1 releases this July.