Enter Valentine Richards, a writer who’s spent her life in stasis, looking for her perfect story. And now it may have just landed in her lap. In Deathbed, we find Val tasked with meeting Antonio, who has become mortally ill, so that she can ghost-write his biography before he dies. But little does she know that death is only the beginning of this story.
Deathbed #1, the latest debut from Vertigo Comics out this Wednesday, is an incredibly evocative story about death, legacy, and the artist’s struggle to create. It’s a deeply personal story for creators Joshua Williamson and Riley Rossmo, who recently sat down with the Beat to talk about the series’ first issue.
Riley Rossmo: I like working with Josh, we’ve know each other for a long time and wanted to work on something together. we’d spit-balled on a few ideas and this was the one that stuck. I had a little down time when my daughter was born and Josh and I put together a pitch. Page one was a pretty literal translation of how I felt at the time. I think becoming a father drove me to tell this story—to really examine what I’ll leave behind for my family.
Josh Williamson: And about six months after Riley’s daughter was born, my daughter was born so I could get started on writing! Riley and I talk nearly every day about whatever we’re working on and we find we’re on the same page with a lot of what we think on storytelling in comics. So, with this I knew I wanted to do something really different and weird from what I’ve done before and Riley is a crazy imaginative genius so he was the perfect partner in crime.
Lu: If I had to describe the visual mood of Deathbed, I’d call it “buoyant” or “bouncy.” There’s some pretty horrifying stuff in the issue, but it’s couched and put in contrast against these bright colors and the eclectic nature of Antonio’s mansion and Antonio himself. Riley, how did you, Joshua, and Ivan go about constructing the look and feel of Deathbed’s world? Are there stories behind the trinkets and statues we see in Antonio’s Mansion?
Ivan did an amazing job, he brings a real richness to the world we’ve created.
Lu: There’s a lot going on in that incredible spread of Val being led through Antonio’s mansion, walking down the stairs as they pass larger-than-life portraits of some of his great feats. How did you both pick out which events to showcase here and can we expect to see the stories behind some of these paintings told as we move forward?
Rossmo: We had a list of a bunch of stuff we wanted to show both on the credits page, and on the portrait spread. We divided them up between what we could convey with just an object or artifact and what we needed/I wanted to show in a commissioned portrait kind of way. I tried to think of how Luna would art direct the painter to best portray him as heroic in any of his life experiences.
Williamson: That was a big factor. What would Luna want? What parts of his life or moments would he glorify the most and want giant paintings made of?
Lu: And to focus in on Antonio’s character design in particular, what was the inspiration behind that bold outfit he dons at the end of the first issue?
Rossmo: We tried to distill all our favorite costume elements from our favorite pulp heroes. There’s some Zorro, Doc Savage, SGT Rock, and the Shadow–then I mixed ‘em all together and unified the look with a simple color scheme. I try to use different costume elements as devises to delineate different parts of the character’s body so even when I draw the character tiny the sash separates his upper body from his lower, the collar of his coat frames his head, his cuffs indicate where his forearms are etc. The colors are simple and poppy. Josh and I knew from the outset we wanted a lot of yellow, red and black throughout the series and for me, they represent caution, danger/violence, and death.
Lu: Benjamin Franklin once wrote “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” Deathbed feels like it’s tapping into both sides of that dichotomy through Val and Antonio, but Val has a lot of dissatisfaction with simply writing things worth reading. Joshua, as a writer, do you ever feel like you struggle with the implicit observatory nature of writing in the way that Val does, watching and retelling the story of a grand adventure while people like Antonio seem to be living that great journey?
Williamson: I used to…sort of? I think one of the hardest things I had in the start was putting myself in my stories. Finding ways to have it feel like “me.” That was something I struggled with at the start a lot–finding a voice as a writer. And I’m still working on and trying to find it. I doubt I’ll ever know it 100%. BUT that is very much something that Val struggles with.
But as far as watching others live great adventures, I’m never jealous of that. I love my boring life of being locked in my office writing twelve hours a day Ha-ha. I love that I’m the god of these little worlds. While actually…yeah, if I was only ever telling other people’s stories that would be frustrating. That would drive me crazy. But I’m lucky that I’ve had a lot of drive and freedom to tell stories that I came up with my way with awesome creative partners.
Lu: By the end of the first issue, we’ve gotten a good sense of who Val and Antonio are and what their lives have been like up until the start of the story. Where should we expect to see them go in this first story arc? What can you tell us about the first enemies and challenges Antonio and Val will face?
Rossmo: There will be some monsters, helicopters, motorcycles, jellyfish, cults, mermaids, and maybe a werewolf…
Williamson: Luna takes Val down memory lane. Trying to find the people who knew Luna in his life and save them…and failing. There are crazy cults, tense funerals, their own deadly memories come to life…oh and themselves. Because really Luna is the biggest challenge they will face.
Lu: The road ahead of Val and Antonio is a dangerous one, obviously. We’ve seen at this point that Antonio is pretty used to performing dangerous feats for survival, but the narrator hints that Val may very well be completely out of her depth. Does she have any hidden talents that might give her better odds at surviving this crazy journey she’s about to embark on?
Williamson: She doesn’t take shit from anyone. Not even Luna. Luna has never been around someone who didn’t 100% buy into his bullshit. Val puts him in his place. She understands life from a different angle. She has some level of self-awareness and perspective that he doesn’t have. She has some big heroic moments in the series, but also smacks Luna around when he needs it to get over himself.
Lu: And finally, it’s pretty obvious to me that Deathbed is a personal and heartfelt story. The art and dialogue ooze passion and character in a pretty singular way. I say all this to ask—what does Deathbed mean to you both?
Rossmo: I mentioned earlier Deathbed is a really good lens for self-examination, which being a parent has really brought to light. Becoming a parent forced me to examine my life and experiences from a little more objective place. As I work on Deathbed I think about how I perceived my parents and their expectations, and narratives, and how I’ll pass their stories and my own to my daughter and how I may or may not be a reliable narrator.
Williamson: I’ve always been obsessed with story. The structure, the narrative, and how we choose to tell stories to each other. How we sometimes see our lives as a story. One of the biggest aspects to me has been death. How we handle death…How we want our lives to be remembered… I think about death and legacy more than I probably should. One of the biggest aspects of being a writer is trying to find that story that only we can tell, right? The one that we were born for. We only get one life, but we might have many stories to tell.
Deathbed #1 hits shelves this Wednesday, February 21st.