Welcome To My Nightmare

One of the highlights of my trip to the Pittsburgh Comicon was meeting the Rich Bernatovech. He is the writer and creator of Sentinels a four volume graphic novel series that is as enjoyable as anything I’ve read from the bigger publishers in recent years. It’s a saga that, while nominally a superhero story, runs the gamut from sci-fi to romance to government conspiracies to all points in-between. Rich was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his busy day to talk to me about his labor of love, and I’m delighted to share that conversation with you here.

Jeff: Rich, your introduction in Book 1 of Sentinels you talk of your love of storytelling. But tell me a little about your craft, about the way you approached the Sentinels specifically. Was it something you sat down and plotted and scripted from beginning to end or did it take on a life of it’s own?

L to R: Luciano Vecchio and Rich Bernatovech

Rich: When I started Sentinels I immediately knew the beginning and end of the story. The theme was there and as the characters were created they moved into their specific roles. I used a sort of time map so I knew where to have the specific plot points I needed to hit to get to the end and have it all make sense. The rest I could focus on character development and have fun. Everything else was open for me to play with and as long as I got from point A to point Z, it was fine. Doing that really made it easy to write and allowed me to use all the fun and seemingly throwaway stuff and make it integral to the story. Many of the things from books 2 and 3 where added just due to what was going on in my own life or Luciano’s. As we worked on the series and grew as writer and artist, so did the characters. And I think that really showed and helped to make our series unique. It gave us a distinct voice.

Jeff: You said in your introduction that you told stories from an early age. You honed your craft at the Actor’s Studio, which is a somewhat unusual path to take on the way to writing comics. What or who inspired you as a writer? Was there a certain writer in the comics field, or a certain comic story, that really hooked you in?

Rich: Yeah, I’ve always been telling stories and drawing characters. It was an outlet for me since I was young and I always knew it was something I wanted to do. When I moved to NYC, I kind of got pulled into the acting world and totally fell in love with it. Its more work then people think and at its core, its all about storytelling. Whether you’re writing, or drawing or performing, I believe your goal is the same. You’re telling a story. So, switching from actor to writer isn’t that much of a stretch and actually helped. When you’re able to break apart a characters motivation and find the beats of their journey, it’s easy to understand how to do that when you’re writing. Having to read all the classic plays and study different genres also helped inspire me a lot. I’m a big of Shakespeare, the Greek tragedies (and comedies) as well as many contemporary playwrights. As far as comic writers/creators, I definitely took a lot of inspiration from comics of the 80s, Wolfman/Perez Titans, Claremont X-Men, Levitz/Griffen Legion. I really think the storytelling back then was more dramatic and had more power. When a character did something, it had meaning and you actually cared about them. Today, most of the mainstream books seem to be about “shock and awe’. There’s too much hype for my tastes and if character X dies or changes somehow, I find I don’t care because I know that it will all change back in a few months because they have to keep the status quo. My goal with Sentinels was to take that old school feeling and bring it up to date and have it be fresh. Being an Indie book, we were able to do that without be afraid of changing the characters.

Jeff: Your characters were inspired by important people in your life. Having met you in Pittsburgh , I couldn’t help but wonder if there was one in particular that was more “you” than anyone else. I know, they probably all have a little bit of you in them somewhere, but is there one you identify with more than the rest?

Rich: I get asked this a lot and, unfortunately, I really have to say that there is a little bit of me in each of the characters in Sentinels. I know that’s the obvious answer, but it’s true. I think you can see my sarcastic side a bit in each of them. But hopefully I was able to make them all unique. The character least like me is easy to say and that would be Gospel. I only got to write her a little in Book1 and then when she returned in Book 3, she was not supposed to be in control of herself so I don’t think she was fully portrayed as herself until Book 4. But even then she’s the least like me. I’m not a very religious person and her whole life is based on her religious beliefs. That made it hard for me to get into her head. I’m more interested in the history of religion (whatever religion it may be) rather then the religion itself. If I had to pick one character that most like me it’d probably be Harlette or Electron. They both had a lot of guilt and uncertainty about them, but unlike Templar they didn’t hold their feelings back. They kind of wore their hearts on their sleeves but also came across as dependable and strong when they needed to be. I also enjoyed Harlette’s “take no shit” attitude.

Jeff: I don’t want to get too deep into the story itself because I want people to get the series and enjoy it themselves. But I will say that this is an epic. It’s got superheroes, it’s got aliens, it’s got mysticism, it’s got government conspiracies (my personal favorite!), and it’s got relationships and character growth. You managed to mature your characters more over four full-sized trades than Marvel does in 40 years. How did you pull off mixing these elements so well? Did your Actor’s Studio training help?

Rich: Thanks! I really appreciate hearing that. It was one of our main goals to have this be epic and have the characters evolve throughout the series. Even little things like their costumes modifications were important to us.

Again, I think knowing the end of the story and having it mapped out helped a lot in mixing all the elements together. When we finally got to Book 4, Luciano and I talked for a few hours just about all the dangling plotlines and making sure they were all answered. We made a list and made sure it all flowed smoothly.

My Actor’s Studio training probably helped in there. It made me question the answers we came up with and if they didn’t make sense, we focused and worked to come up with another way to resolve things. I think mostly the training at the Studio made me not settle. You have to be willing to start over again and again if something isn’t working. That’s kind of hard to do, but I believe it’s important and you’ll get better results. Also, it was important to us that the character grew naturally and that the choices they made were due to their maturing and growing into their role as heroes and not just because the story was over.

Jeff: As a writer myself, I find it very hard to find a comfort level when working with a collaborator. When Luciano Vecchio (write his name down folks, he’s about to become a star) joined you early on in this process, how did you find that common ground? And in terms of pacing and layout, was it your direction in the script, his sense of graphic storytelling, or something in the middle?

Rich: I consider myself blessed that I teamed up with Luciano. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in crime for Sentinels. Pretty much from day one we were in sync with each other and what the story was about. I speak from experience (like you) when I say that’s really rare. Most of the time there’s one person steering the ship and it can lead to things being unbalanced. But with Luciano and myself, I think we both really feed off of each other and inspired each other to work harder. We both cared about the characters in Sentinels and I think that shows in the series. When we first started I was definitely the writer and he was the artist, but by the time we finished Book 1, we were more collaborators. I stopped having to write panel descriptions for him with Book 2 because he knew what was going on and we shared the same vision. That helped with the pacing and layouts. It became a kind of middle ground where I would say one thing and he would change it to something better or he’d do something and I change the dialogue due to what he did. I think just comparing Books 1 and 2 you can see that difference, we trusted each other.

Jeff: In terms of individual character designs, I was wondering who came up with the special touches? Flare’s facial tattoo? Electron’s armpit hair? I know to some of my readers that sounds like a nutty question, but I was impressed (and laughing) that you guys took the time to make these characters that detailed. EVERYONE in the Marvel Universe or DC Universe that I can think of off the top of my head who is a costume-wearing superhero is built like an Olympian. Was it a conscious choice on your part that these characters be drawn less like Greek gods and more like PEOPLE, or was it just a lucky coincidence that Luciano’s style lends itself to a less sculpted look?

Rich: The individual character touches were done by both of us. When I first created the Sentinels team I purposely designed the characters to look differently. Different heights, different weights, different hair styles, different breast sizes, etc. That was very important to me. Things like Flare’s tattoo and Harlette’s more masculine face were things I designed. When Luciano started working on the characters he enhanced all of that and added new things. Without me even telling him, he understood that I wanted there to be individuality in the Sentinels team. He made Harlette less feminine then the other female members even though I never told him I meant to do that. Phazer was thinner then the rest of the guys. He added Electron’s body hair and gave Crusher a receding hairline. All of those touches have been commented on by readers and I think it’s really great that they noticed and appreciated the extra attention to detail we put in and how we didn’t make everyone look like an Olympian, lol.

Jeff: I found it interesting that there are very few really dirty words in the book. There’s probably more in my column from week to week than in a whole volume of Sentinels! But on the other hand there is some nudity and certainly some very adult themes. What are your thoughts on the appropriateness of language and/or nudity in comics?

Rich: I think as long as comics are label as “mature” or such when needed, that pretty much anything goes. I don’t think any creator should edit themselves from whatever story they want to tell. They just have to know that they limit their market a bit if they cross certain lines. With Sentinels we were just telling the story as it unfolded to us and some times that went into some more adult levels. I still think we were pretty tame when you look at some of the comics out there today.

The nudity you mention is integral to the story. It helps set a tone and impacts the two characters that are shown naked. Plus, it’s not about sex. If it was nudity for the sake of sex, we wouldn’t have done it because I think you can show sexuality without nudity. It all depends on what reaction you want to readers to have. We wanted to create a mood for people and have them either be shocked (Gospel) or uncomfortable (Templar) with the nudity, so we decided to show it and from what we’re heard from readers, we achieved that. A lot of them were uncomfortable with the nudity but thought it was done tastefully. Maybe it’s just my own personal experience from my acting days but nudity is no big deal to me, nudity doesn’t equal sex and it’s not obscene. It’s funny that you mention there were very little curse words in Sentinels though, I hadn’t really thought about that. I curse a lot in real life, but I guess subconsciously I know it’s wrong and I pulled away from it in my writing but didn’t think twice about the nudity. Go figure, lol. I’ll try to curse more in my next book.

Jeff: Your team is has a good mix of ethnic backgrounds. Last year I wrote a series of pieces on diversity, or lack thereof, within the pages of Marvel and DC. Did you plan to make such a diversified team from the beginning or did it just sort of evolve naturally as you designed the characters? Everyone seems to expect the Devil to look like Al Pacino. Having a black character in Lord Damien ruling his little circle of Hell was a very interesting touch.

Rich: Absolutely! I think it’s more interesting to diversify characters and play off those differences. Who wants to read a book where everyone is the same? Plus, we as comic readers are a very diverse group and I think everyone wants to find a character they can identify with. That was the main reason I wanted the members of Sentinels to have a mix of races, gender, religious beliefs and sexual orientation.
I think the problem Marvel and DC have with diversity isn’t entirely their own fault though. Most of their characters are so iconic that to change them and try to reflect people of today is very hard. On one hand if you change character X from white to black, you’re affecting your longtime readers and the iconic image that that character has had for decades, so you lose readers. On the other hand, doing that opens the character up to a whole new group of readers. So, it’s very hard for them to diversify their characters. It’s risky. What they could do though is create new characters and then actually focus on promoting them and try to make them iconic along with their old time heroes. I know they try to do that but I think they need to branch out and allow themselves not only to create new characters but also get new writers and artists to do it. Having the same guys create the same books over and over again but this time with a different nationality or race, won’t lead to diversity; it’ll just be the same thing all the time.

Jeff: What was the hardest part of the Sentinels experience for you? Did you write yourself into any difficult corners? Or ending it where you did? Or was managing the Drumfish Productions side of things — actually getting the book published — more challenging than writing and coordinating with Luciano?

Rich: The hardest part of doing Sentinels was definitely self-publishing. It’s a lot of work. And by that I don’t mean just the creating part. That’s actually fun and easy. The hard work is when it comes to the managing side of things. Dealing with the printers, soliciting, promoting, press and conventions. But the pay-off is when you meet people who have read your work and tell you they enjoyed it. It makes it all worth it.

Jeff: In honor of you having attended the Actor’s Studio, I thought we’d finish up with the questionnaire invented by Bernard Pivot, and made famous by James Lipton on “Inside The Actor’s Studio”. Maybe someday you’ll get to have him quiz you but today you’re stuck with me. Ready?

Rich: Lol, very cool.

Jeff: What is your favorite word?

Rich: Create.

Jeff: What is your least favorite word?

Rich: Stupid.

Jeff: What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?

Rich: Learning something I never knew.

Jeff: What turns you off?

Rich: Laziness.

Jeff: What is your favorite curse word?

Rich: Fuck.

Jeff: What sound or noise do you love?

Rich: People laughing.

Jeff: What sound or noise do you hate?

Rich: Construction work being done outside my building.

Jeff: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Rich: Teacher.

Jeff: What profession would you least like to attempt?

Rich: Politics. It’s too corrupt.

Jeff: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Rich: You’re late.

Jeff: Tell my readers how they can get their hands on the Sentinels series and feel free to talk about anything else you like: your upcoming Neverminds series, what’s next for Luciano, how you feel about Roger Clemens coming back (you’re in New York, right?), etc.

Rich: Anyone interested in Sentinels should check out our website at www.sentinelsonline.com . You can order from me directly on there or we have all the Diamond order info to give to your local comic store so they can order the books.

At the moment I’m working on a few different projects. The first is my second series called Neverminds which I’m working on with an artist named Jamie Fay. It’s more Vertigo-ese in theme and focuses on one character as oppose to Sentinels which was a large team. Another book I’m working on is called Caspian Curses and I’m working on that with Luciano (again). It’s a fantasy/sci-fi type book with a pretty cool twist. Lastly, I’m working on the first Sentinels Anthology, which is being done by Luciano and I along with many different writers and artists who are doing solo stories on some of the Sentinels characters. It’ll be a nice collection of short stories with bridging pages done by Luciano and I.

Luciano is also working on a project called Cruel Things with a company overseas. I don’t know a greta deal about it but the artwork I’ve seen is really incredible. He’s working on the entire book using only red, black and white as colors. He’s really pushing his style with it.
Clemens? I’m a Mets fan. 😛

Hey friends, have I ever steered you wrong before? Heck no. Uncle Jeff wouldn’t do that to you. So when I say you won’t be disappointed in the Sentinels, I mean it. Rich has done a remarkable job building his own private universe and fleshing it out with unique characters and subtle touches that really keep you interested. I read the entire four volume set in about 2.5 days. It’s takes me longer than that to muddle through the weekly issues Marvel and DC are boring me to tears with. Give it a try. Experience some first class independent comic goodness and mark those names — Rich Bernatovech and Luciano Vecchio. Great guys, class acts, and talented comic creators. Man, reading a series that good makes it hard for me to find anything to bitch about.

Welcome to my nightmare.