Devin Grayson on USER (Mania.com)

By:Russell Lissau
Date: Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Batman: Gotham Knights writer Devin Grayson traded her Batarang for a broadsword to prepare for USER, her first project for DC Comics' Vertigo line. The three-issue limited series about online role-playing adventure games has nothing at all to do with the brave superheroes Grayson normally writes about, but plenty to do with courage of a different sort.

'I wouldn't actually say that USER is about heroes so much as it is about identity and heroism,' Grayson says of the new comic, which hit stores Jan. 4. 'USER is about the smaller details of heroism: finding your voice, facing your responsibilities and claiming your own bravery. I think comics, as a medium, can support these kinds of stories just as well as it supports superhero stories.'

A New Frontier

USER's title refers to the computer users who participate in online role-playing games, or RPGs. The subject is a familiar one for Grayson, who is something of an online RPG veteran. 'For those of you out there who think gaming is only about rolling dice and killing ogres, I greatly look forward to USER proving otherwise,' Grayson says. 'USER specifically is drawn from a real series of adventures I was fortunate enough to be part of several summers agomany of the 'fictional' online characters are modeled after very real characters that still grace the online RPG scene today. The book is, in fact, dedicated to those players, who entertained, taught and inspired me. I'm insanely grateful to all those wonderful storytellers I gamed with, whose visions and creativity fuel USER as much as my own.'

But USERwhich is illustrated by John Bolton and Sean Phillipsisn't exactly a four-color guide to online gaming. The book really is about a woman named Meg Chancellor who, for a variety of reasons, uses her computer to regularly escape into a virtual RPG universe. 'Meg is looking for the 'escape' key to life,' Grayson explains. 'Her mother's gone, her father's emotionally catatonic and her kid sister is facing a very real threat of sexual abuse. Searching desperately for a hero, Meg finds one in the most unlikely place: an online chat room.'

It is there she enters the world of online gaming and invents a paladin named Guilliame de la Coeur, a gallant and passionate young knight, to represent her in cyberspace. But as Meg becomes more and more preoccupied with her online adventures, she also must deal with dangers that are all too real. 'In Book One, Meg discovers and becomes obsessively engaged with not only the fictional realm of Vhydon (where the RPG adventures take place) but also with her own bravery and masculinity,' Grayson says. 'But the danger under her father's roof escalates in Book Two while the role players of Vhydon make increasingly ardent attempts to invade her real life. In Book Three, an unexpected death forces Meg to re-evaluate what it means to be a hero and, indeed, a human being.'

The 30-year-old writer has been awfully busy with some high-profile comics during the past year. Between the ongoing Gotham Knights series, the Black Widow: Breakdown mini-series at Marvel (with co-writer Greg Rucka) and the upcoming Ghost Rider limited series for Marvel Knights, she's really had her hands full. But USER is atop her list of favorite projects. The much-anticipated book initially was scheduled for an April 1999 release but, through no fault of Grayson's, repeatedly was delayed by DC. Grayson is thrilled comics fans finally are getting a chance to see the story. 'I'm just really excited about this project and I want to see it out,' she says. 'I've wanted to show it to people since its inception, and it's been amusingly frustrating to have had to wait so long. But for me it's completely worth the wait.'

Getting Serious

In case you haven't figured it out yet, USER definitely is not a light-hearted, Dungeons & Dragons-esque romp. There are some serious issues at work here. 'As Meg's two worlds collide, the story winds through issues of gender identity, post-modern isolation, spiritual malady and the abiding human desire for belonging and connection,' Grayson says.

Fans of Grayson's writing know she's not afraid to delve into seriousand sometimes intellectualsubjects in her comics. In fact, Grayson's best projects always go a step further than traditional 'Wham! Socko! Zap!' funnybook tales. In her first year on Gotham Knights, she has developed the most in-depth psychological profile of the Dark Knight Detective ever attempted in comics. And in her two Black Widow series, she has taken a hard look at ex-spy and current superhero Natasha Romanov's estrangement from her former Soviet allies, as well as the dark and twisted reality of modern espionage. Even Grayson's run on Titans focused on the interpersonal relationships between the title's young heroes, as opposed to just showing battle scene after battle scene. For Grayson, there's no reason why comics can't adopt a more grown-up and literary attitude.

'I'm not sure I'm on a crusade to raise the literary level of comic books so much as I am a writer trained in more literary writing who's trying to work in this mediumit's just what I do,' she says. 'I'm not very good at dumbing things down, and I wouldn't be my own first choice for adolescent male power-fantasy writing. Of course, we all know that although the industry continues to be associated with just such a thing, our reader demographic has changed dramatically over the past 20 years or so into older and more discerning readers. Both types of storytelling are important and valid, but lately both Marvel and DC seem to have been hiring a lot of freelancers more inclined towards adult themes. That works out great for me, as one of said freelancers!'

Artistic Adventures

Not to take away from Grayson's writing skills, but there's more to USER than just an imaginative scriptmuch more. USER's fancy prestige format is designed to showcase the book's wonderful artwork. In an interesting move, two artists were hired to simultaneously illustrate the series. Bolton (Batman: Manbat, Aliens: Earth War) paints the adventures in Meg's cyber world, while Phillips (Wildcats, Hellblazer) depicts the events back in the 'real' world.

'Both Bolton and Phillips did tremendous work on this project,' Grayson says. 'They not only captured my vision but in many places exceeded it. Even though I know what happens on any given page, I love studying their artwork and searching out the wonderful details and nuances they've added. It's actually amazing to me that people who were strangers at the beginning of this project could so perfectly capture images built out of my dreams and experiences. There's magic in the synergy produced between creators, and that's part of what makes comics so viable an exciting. As deeply personal as USER is to me, it's also unquestionably saturated with John Bolton and Sean Phillips' energy and talent. I can't imagine being happier with the results.'

Each artist brought something special to the project, Grayson says. You might think Phillips got the short end of the creative stick as the 'real life' artist, but Grayson strongly disagrees. 'He got stuck covering a lot of the quieter, more tense drama of the story, which I think was a difficult assignment,' she says. 'But he completely rose to the taskyou can really feel the tension and almost see the way in which all of the clamped-down emotions of the characters are about to boil over.'

Phillips, a longtime fan of Grayson's writing, was eager to team with her on USER. 'Devin does great character-based stuff, the sort of stuff I like to draw,' he says. 'So when I had a chance to do something with her I didn't hesitate.'

And let's not forget the incomparable Bolton, who blew Grayson away with his illustrations. 'The very first time I saw John's painting of the paladin, Guilliame, I actually teared up,' she says. 'That character had become so close to my heart, but I'd never really seen him before outside of my mind's eye. And there he was on a page. John understood him perfectly.'

Phillips was excited to work with Bolton, too. 'I've been a fan of his for years, so it was a pleasure to work on the same project as him,' he says. 'Seeing his pages really helped to spur me on to produce my best work. And I'm very pleased with the result. It's some of the best work I've done.'

Grayson hopes USER won't be her only project with Bolton. The writer and artist already are considering proposing another creator-owned, limited series to the folks at Vertigo. 'This one is based on a painting John did called 'Industria,' which he wanted to build a story around,' Grayson says.

End Game

USER is Grayson's second creator-owned series. The first, last year's Relative Heroes for DC Comics, met with mixed reviews but got a lot of mainstream media coverage, including pieces in USA Today and Entertainment Weekly.

'I've received very positive fan response for it, overall, including some lovely letters from teenagers who were very excited to see the emergence of a gay superhero's coming-out story,' Grayson says. 'The exceptions were diehard fanboys who were misled into believing it was standard superhero fare and were, in a sense, justifiably confused when it turned out not to be. But if it gets to be a trade paperback and therefore winds up in bookstores, I think there's still a strong chance of it finding its core readership.'

Grayson has made no secret about having career plans beyond comics. In fact, she recently moved to northern California from New York to work toward a master's degree in creative writing and to resume working on a novel. Although she may have to scale back her comics writing to make room for her studies and other projects, Grayson promises she will continue dreaming up tales of super-powered champions and diabolical villains.

'I think of the comics work I've been doingand hope to continue to do for a whileas a wonderful, unexpected side road,' Grayson says. 'Though I'm excited about linking back up with some of my true life-long goals, like the novel, I wouldn't have traded the experience of working within the comics medium for anything. I've learned so much, and I've found the work incredibly challenging and rewarding.

'I came to comics with maybe three stories I hoped to tell,' Grayson continues. 'Over one hundred books later, I'm truly amazed to have found so many stories inside my own head. Sure, it's hit and miss, and some of the work makes me wince, but I can't think of any better writing discipline than being forced to ride that wave month after month. I feel really lucky to have been able to do this work.'