"Graphic Novelist Robert Venditti on His New Thriller, ‘The Homeland Directive’"
I just finished reading Robert Venditti and Mike Huddleston’s The Homeland Directive, which chronicles a dark plot that originates in the Department of Homeland Security and the employees of other agencies who come together to fight it. Without saying too much, The Homeland Directive feels like an exceptionally good graphic novel for the moment in its nervousness about everything from our obsession with security to our financial system. And it’s got a sophisticated sense of how government works that’s often missing from fiction, science-fiction or otherwise. Robert was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the novel, and what our obsession with homeland security’s done to America.
I spent three years covering federal bureaucracy, so the nerd in me was delighted to see a plot that involves interagency rivalries and a government divided against itself. I’d be curious where that part of the story, often something pop culture misses, came from. Were there specific stories that inspired you? Research that you did?
It was an aesthetic choice. For me, a government conspiracy story wouldn’t be believable without opposing factions. As much as government is maligned in the news and in popular entertainment, it’s still comprised of people. And I’m one of those pie-eyed optimists who believe that people, for the most part, are good. If there really were a conspiracy as vast and deadly as the one portrayed in The Homeland Directive, then surely there would be those within government who would seek to derail it. At least I like to think so.
I was also interested in the tension within the administration itself, with a fairly weak president and a Homeland Security secretary carried over from a previous administration who is working not just to undermine him but to engineer cataclysm. Is that a reflection on Robert Gates, who Obama kept on as Defense secretary from the Bush administration? On the risk of a highly empowered Homeland Security Department in general?
Because of where we are in history, the natural reaction is to assume the President in the story is Obama, but the entire book was written before Obama was ever a serious candidate for the Oval Office. That isn’t to say the President in the story is George W. Bush, either. From the beginning, I didn’t want the perception to be that the book was rooted in any one administration, and Mike Huddleston’s idea to keep the President’s face always in shadow was a great way of visually communicating that.
I also decided early on that I didn’t want the book’s conspiracy to reach all the way up to the Presidency, because I felt that would be interpreted as too much of an indictment of government as a whole. Making Secretary Keene, fictional head of the story’s Department of Homeland Security, a holdover from the prior administration added an extra level of separation between himself and his boss. At first, I was a little worried this story element — the President retaining a high-level Cabinet appointment from another administration — would seem impractical. But then Obama chose to keep Robert Gates onboard, and I wasn’t so worried about it anymore.
My hope is that the reader would see Secretary Keene as a sympathetic villain. He truly believes in his heart that what he’s doing is right, and he takes no joy in it. He merely recognizes the contradictory nature of the American population. We ask our government to protect us absolutely from the terrorist threat, but if they try to do so in a way we feel is intrusive, we rebel against it. If we were to be attacked again, though, the first thing we would do is look for someone in government to blame. We’re also contradictory in the sense that the very same freedoms we fight for in the face of government encroachment, we often trade voluntarily for the sake of convenience. These are the paradoxes Secretary Keene finds himself coming up against. I’m not assessing blame or holding myself up as any less contradictory than the next guy. I’m merely suggesting we can’t always have it both ways.
There’s also a certain skepticism about science, or scientists. Do you think scientists need to think more clearly about the applications of their work and the question of whether research can be pure? I always think of Arthur Galston, who discovered the defoliant that was turned into Agent Orange by others, and has spent much of his career as a bioethicist trying to make up for it.
The thing about progress is that you never know where it’s going to lead. The protagonist of The Homeland Directive comes to learn that, even when you set out with the purest of intentions, someone can come along and pervert your achievements. But not using science to push the bounds of our lives would bring humanity to a grinding halt. Discovery is in our DNA. We just need to do a better job of policing ourselves. Just because we can do something, that doesn’t mean we should.
It’s an interesting open question at the end of the novel: is America actually threatened from without and in dire need of reform to survive? Or are we manufacturing all the perceived threats ourselves? Do you come out on one side or another? Or did you want to leave the reader ambiguous?
For me, the experience of writing isn’t about answering questions; it’s about asking them. If I felt I already knew all of the answers, then the story would become preachy, with me trying to advocate a specific point of view.
I open the book with a famous quote from Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” When Franklin wrote that, the worst thing he had to worry about was a cannonball coming through his living room window. The world is a far scarier place today. How do we preserve both personal privacy and public safety in the age of terror? I leave that for each reader to decide for themselves.