Creator Interview: Fred Van Lente
Recently, CBD spoke with Fred Van Lente. We talk Action Philosophers, upcoming projects, breaking into comics and of course, the Marvel Zombies. Either listen to it, read it or do both at the same time!
CBD: Welcome back to creator profiles with ComicBookDaily. This is David Diep and today I am speaking with Fred Van Lente; the writer of such works as Action Philosophers. Thanks for taking time out of your schedule to speak with us today, Fred.
Fred: Thanks for having me, David.
CBD: So I was curious, how did you make your break into the comic book industry?
Fred: Well, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway; “Gradually, then very quickly”. I struggled in the independent world for about a decade. Just doing a bunch of independent science-fiction books, did some humor books, I did some…I did a superhero crime series called the Silencers with a buddy of mine I went to college with named Steve Ellis, who today is better known for doing High Moon over at Zuda comics. He and I did the series for Moonstone; which is a small independent outfit out of Chicago. We did that in 2003 and that got the notice of Mark Pen who was an editor of Tokyopop- at Tokyopop at the time. I think it was Steve who actually gave him a copy of the book at a convention somewhere and he liked the book. When he moved over to Marvel, he invited me to pitch for this anthology book they’re doing; Amazing Fantasy where I created the new female Scorpion. That was sort of my big Marvel debut and at the same time and totally coincidentally, another friend of mine from collage; Ryan Dunley and I had been doing these goofy educational- I hate calling them educational- “edu-tainment” philosophy comics called Action Philosophers. We just got the self-publishing xeric grant for that and ironically, Action Philosophers #1 and Amazing Fantasy #7 which was my first issue; appeared on the same day in April I think of 2005. Ironically, I had broken my ankle so I couldn’t go to the store-
CBD: To do the signings kind of thing?
Fred: Or to see them, you know? On the rack there and that kind of stunk. But Ryan, god bless him, went to Jim Haley’s Universe in Manhattan and took a cell phone photo of it and of course because it was Action- it was Action Philosophers and Amazing Fantasy. In most stores they were racked next to each other. You know, so many stores alphabetize their titles by title.
CBD: Right, that’s a pretty good story you got there for your debut of comics.
Fred: I literally broke into the industry.
CBD: So Action Philosophers, it reads like a comedic philosophy for dummies book. How did you come up with the idea for the book?
Fred: Ryan…like I said, Ryan and I were buddies in college. We were roommates briefly and we used to go to the Small Press Expo which is the small independent comics festival in Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C. They used to do an anthology every year of submissions of people who showed up at the convention and one year the theme was biographies. They wanted you to do a short biography comic. So Ryan was going and I was going so I decided to write one for him and Steve Ellis and I had been sort of doing these goofy comics for the SPEX up until this point parodying all these different kinds of comics. In fact, if you go to fredvanlente.com; my website, you can actually see the comics Steve and I did. We did a parody of superhero comics called Right Wing which was basically what if the GOP ran a superhero character of the-
CBD: The Jack Chick stuff I saw?
Fred: Exactly, the Jack Chick comics and we did that for great Cthulu; the lovecraft creations. So to sort of continue in that vein, another kind of comics I hadn’t made fun of yet were the comics that you used to get sort of bubbled in with those Masters of the Universe- the He-Man Masters of the Universe dolls- action figures whatever. So I thought it would be funny if you bought a Friedrich Nietzsche action figure and this was the comic you got bundled in with the action figure. Hence the term; Action Philosophers.
CBD: So it stemmed from the love of action figures pretty much? The comic that came with the action figure.
Fred: Right, it stemmed from a love of making fun of comics.
CBD: How much research was involved in doing the project? You must have read tons of books on these philosophers and understood their theories to compress it all into a few pages.
Fred: Yeah, I tried to not cheat, I tried to you know, and look at textbooks and Wikipedia and that kind of stuff. I have- I’m not gonna tell you which ones I scrimped on but I’ve got a 85% success rate of: I’ve read at least one book about that philosopher and I’ve read one work by that philosopher. You know, it would take a good three or four months just to do the research and the writing of each script. Fortunately Ryan draws so slow…
CBD: [laughs] I promise not to show this interview to him later on.
Fred: Yea yeah yeah, no no, he knows. He knows how slow he draws. But yeah, normally it wasn’t- it didn’t end up being a big deal. But no, it was terrific to have this self-taught education in Philosophy while doing the series. I learned as much if not more than the people that read it.
CBD: What’s your academic background in? Because you did a really good job of interpreting all these complex theories.
Fred: I am a proud graduate school dropout. I dropped out of the University of Pittsburgh. I was a year into my English. Lit graduate program- I guess the Masters program. The people were really nice but it was- you had to be a teaching assistant and I was like 22, I was just out of college; undergrad where I got my degree in English Literature. And I did it more because my parents wanted me to get a real job and-
CBD: And so you became a comic book writer instead.
Fred: Well what happened was, all the people I used to hang out with in undergrad were studying to be comic book artists. And Steve Ellis had gotten a lot of work at Marvel and DC and I was pitching stuff through him. We were becoming somewhat successful at it so- at least initially. And so I was like “screw this, this comics thing is easy. I’m quitting and moving to New York City! To see my name in lights and comic books” And then you know, I bummed around for the next eight years basically, at soul crushing temp jobs. But I have a- my background is in English Literature and I did quite a lot of that and did various papers and stuff like that.
CBD: Is this it for Action Philosophers? Are there any plans for future installments? You’ve covered almost everyone there is out there for the Western Philosophy.
Fred: Well, we’ve got a few more and you will see them this fall-this November from Evil Twin comics, just in time for Christmas! The Action Philosophers Omnibus is coming out, aka the More Than Complete Action Philosophers and it’s more than complete because it’s the entire series from beginning to end; revised and corrected and we took the stories which kind of randomly came out of history and we put them in correct chronological order. So you get a history of Philosophy from pre-Socratic to Jacque Derrida, so you literally go from pre-history to the 20th century and there are four new stories in that collection that will never been seen anywhere else to trick you into buying the book.
CBD: Who are the four stories on?
Fred: Epicurus the sage, Rumi the great Islamic poet, William James and…who’s the other one…August Comte whose name I just totally destroyed the pronunciation of.
CBD: You also did another series called Comic Book Comics. It was a great miniseries you did about the history of comics-
Fred: Well, remember what I said about Ryan being really slow?
Fred: It hasn’t actually completed yet. He’s still trying to complete- he’s drawing the fourth issue right now. In fact during this interview I might have to go over to his house and check and find out. But it’s still chugging along, we’re getting there. We made it into the 60’s and we’re gonna make it all the way to the 21st century god darn it.
CBD: So how come you decided to do a- a history of comics comic?
Fred: Well, partly for the simple reason that it’s never been done before and part of the reason that it’s never been done before is that I imagine due to various legal and trademark issues that now- since Ryan and I don’t have a you know, pot to piss in, we don’t really worry about anyone suing us. Also, we’re doing it in a very satirical manner, so we can actually sort of hide behind the first amendment in that sense because parody is one of the exceptions. Taking characters like Superman, Mickey Mouse, Spider-Man and everybody. And you know, we wanted to keep doing humanities in comic form but we went through a bunch of different possibilities and ended up settling on this as the most fertile ground. Each issue has definitely sold more than Action Philosophers believe it or not
CBD: Wow, that’s pretty impressive.
Fred: I guess we made the right choice.
CBD: You used so many sources in your book, In your little bibliographies, just tons and tons of books. How did you even start researching everything? Where did you know there’s this book there’s that book…
Fred: Well, I- since 2002 even before my professional career started, I’ve been lucky enough to volunteer for an organization here in New York called the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art or MOCA. And I curate all their shows, I was chair of the Curatel committee so I sort of enjoyed applying my knowledge of the medium to that. So I actually had a lot of the books and had a lot of the knowledge already. I certainly knew more about the subject when we started this than I knew about philosophy when we started Action Philosophers. So I already had amassed a fairly vast comics and cartoon art history library. And I used books in the museums collection and just sort of enhanced my knowledge that way. So it was definitely a subject I had some knowledge of before beginning the series.
CBD: So you’re almost- you’re pretty much a comic book historian of sorts at this point.
Fred: I guess you know, if they interview me for a documentary, they can put that you know.
CBD: Put that on all your business cards too?
Fred: I prefer conspiracy theorist, I like that better. That’s the classic unpaid, undocumented, unlicensed, investigator/historian.
CBD: Right, right. So when you’re at Marvel, you’re- you pretty much jumped on with Amazing Fantasy and then you’ve pretty much become well known for your work on Incredible Hercules with Greg Pak, where you’re list as co-author with him.
Fred: Yup, he and I write each issue together.
CBD: How does the co-writing system work? When you’re at- it’s usually just the artist and the writer. Writer churns out the idea for the artist to put down. So when there’s two writers, how does it work for scripting?
Fred: Well, neither Greg or I had ever co-written anything before. So when I was asked to sort of help…I essentially was asked to help Greg out because- this series started when Greg was still in the middle of doing the huge World War Hulk event and so he sort of needed a pinch hitter. We ended up sort of hitting it off very well right off the bat and we just sort of decided because he and I had never met each other before, we had never worked- not only worked with each other before, we’ve never worked with anyone else for that matter, co-writing. I guess good fences make good neighbors, we literally wrote- one of us would write half an issue and send it to the other one and he would write the second half. And then we would pass it back and forth and eventually you would get this single voice that’s different from his voice, different from my voice but it’s the voice of Incredible Hercules and we managed to retain that through the whole run of the series.
CBD: Right, cause Incredible Hercules is probably one of the better written Marvel titles coming out at the moment. So it’s interesting that you guys write half of it, send it to the other guy and he sends it back to you?
Fred: Yes, we’ve been a little…that hasn’t quite…we’ve done a little…it hasn’t as dogmatic as that recently because of our various schedules. Sometimes he and I take on specific issues, but generally that’s how it’s worked.
CBD: Speaking of Marvel stuff, lately you’ve been writing all Marvel Zombies: The Return books. Like, you wrote Marvel Zombies 4…you just wrote the return…so are we expecting to see a 5 and 6 coming out at this point?
Fred: You know those zombies, they’re hard to kill, they’re hard to keep down, they just keep getting back up again.
CBD: When you’re writing the Marvel Zombies, you pretty much have the entire Marvel sandbox to play with. You have access to all the characters, just in their zombie form. Any characters you would like to write; unzombified?
Fred: Well, I really enjoyed writing Machine Man from Marvel Zombies 3. He’s a terrific character and sort of a perfect zombie killer. I love writing all the monster characters from Marvel Zombies 4. That was sort of the most fun of that to me. Taking all these great 70’s Marvel characters like Jennifer Cale and Jack Russel and Morbius and merge them with this- the incredible successful Marvel Zombies series. With the exception of Tomb of Dracula, you could say that it is most successful Marvel horror franchise.
CBD: What’s the hardest thing to deal with when you’re writing an established characters in the Marvel Universe? You’ve got these long winding back stories from years and years of continuity.
Fred: Well, one of the things they teach you in creative writing school class is that when you’re writing characters, you want there to be a sense that this character has a life outside your story. That he just didn’t or she didn’t just magically appear in the story and does whatever he or she is doing and then just vanishes again. You want it to feel like they have lives, they go to the store, they have hopes and dreams and so on and so forth. And continuity, which is often maligned and often for very good reason is given that back story and sense of purpose you know. The obvious thing that I can think of off the top of my head because we were just talking about is-was I had Machine Man be the hero of Marvel Zombies 3; Aaron Stack. And what’s great about Aaron Stack is that he used to have this relationship with Jocasta; this other robot. So I was able to just take that and go “ah-ha” Jocasta will go along with him and that why he goes and motivates and the reason he sticks his neck out for the human race against the zombie plague. So you have to make continuity your friend. You can’t let- I guess the simplest way to say it is, you can’t be a slave to continuity, you have to make continuity serve you.
CBD: Right, current series. Stuff from Marvel, DC, independents, what are you reading?
Fred: You know, I don’t get to read a lot of comics unfortunately. I spend all day working on them, so it’s very hard for me to sit down and say “I’m going to read some super hero comics”. Generally speaking, I watch sports.
Fred: Really, I get as far away from comics as possible. But that said, I really enjoy the series; Poly from David Mazzuchelli (CBD: Asterios Polyp). I’m enjoying anything Johnny Ryan does. I really liked The Hunter; the adaptation by-
CBD: Darwyn Cooke.
Fred: The Parker adaptation by Darwyn Cooke was terrific-
CBD: Did you read the latest Johnny Ryan book; Prison Pit?
Fred: Oh, I haven’t. I’ve got to.
CBD: It’s quite an interesting read.
Fred: Is that from Fantagraphics?
CBD: What advice would you give to someone who wants to break into writing comic books?
Fred: Well, the only way I can really recommend it is the way I did it. And to a certain extent it’s the way Fraction did it and Bendis did it and a lot of other writers did it, is we made our own comics. We come from the independent world. So, it’s very hard today to get an editor to look at simply a pitch or an outline or a script. They wanna see a comic, they wanna see you’ve proven that you can tell a story in comics. In a sense that you’ve already paid your dues working your way up in the industry. So that would be my- that to me would be my own advice. Chummy up to the best artist you can find and produce a great comic together.
David: Well, that sounds like sound advice. Thanks for all your time today, Fred. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you today.
David Diep is a News Editor at ComicBookDaily and is an assistant manager at Big B Comics in Hamilton, Ontario.