short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill
DOZEN for 12/23/2009
Survival of the Wittiest
Fred Van Lente on Action Philosophers
it seems like Fred Van Lente has been writing a lot of
Marvel titles lately, well, thats because its
true. Over the past few years, his work has enjoyed an
incredible rise in both popularity and visibility in the
comics market. And those successes, in turn, have lead
to more and more high profile assignments at the House
However, while it is true that hes currently scripting
or co-writing the adventures of a significant number of
Marvels characters on a monthly basis, those tales
represent but a portion of his output. Thats because
Van Lentes creative vision extends beyond the mainstream
to encompass the independent sphere of the industry, where
his indy press and self published creations have met with
critical acclaim, fan popularity and sales that that threaten
to equal, and perhaps eventually exceed, that of his work-for-hire
With the forthcoming release of a newly repackaged collection
of Action Philosophers, the nonfiction mini-series
that continues to defy wildest expectations of its creators
and pundits alike, I thought it was the perfect time to
talk with the author about that project, how he broke
into the mainstream and the source of his sense of humor
among many other topics.
Baker: Fred, youve got a brand new, expanded
collection of Action Philosophers coming out at
the beginning of December. For those unfortunate souls
who might have missed this book, how would you describe
Fred Van Lente: Action Philosophers is the
lives and thoughts of historys A-list brain trust
told in a hip and humorous comic book fashion. I write
it, and my able cohort and co-owner of our Evil Twin publishing
company, Ryan Dunlavey, draws them.
BB: Where did this kinda crazy idea come from,
and how did you guys develop it into something that would
really interest a modern audience?
FVL: Well, Ryan and I both, independently, had
been going to this big convention down in Bethesda, Maryland,
down by Washington, D.C., called the Small Press Expo
[or SPX]. And they used to do an anthology where if you
were attending the convention could submit your stories
and see if you could end up in the book. One year, they
decided to do a theme of biography. And I thought it would
be funny to do a funny strip about Fredrich Nietzsche,
in the style of one of those [promotional] comics I used
to get when I was a kidlike the He-Man and the
Masters of the Universe figures used to have little
comics bundled in with the figure.
So the gag was that this was the Nietzsche comic book
you got with your Nietzsche action figure, hence the name,
Ryans a wise ass, Im a wise ass, so it was
just sort of natural for us to do this; I think its
only six pages, this six page strip in a very humorous
fashion. And in doing it, we discovered how great comics
are to convey abstract ideas, and particularly to convey
abstract ideas through humorwhich, in retrospect,
shouldnt have been such a big surprise to us, since
political cartoonists in newspapers all over the world
do that daily.
And so, we did the story, and it got rejected from the
had submitted [the Nietzsche story] a couple other places.
Ryan had heard about this start up newspaper that was
going to be sort of like The Onion, but with comics.
It would be free, and youd sell local advertising
in it, and youd get it in the coffee shop or wherever.
And he sent our story to the editor, and he really liked
it. He said, This is great. I was a Philosophy major
in college. Would you do more?
So we did Plato, and we did Bodhidharma, which were two
philosophers I was already familiar with from college,
so I just let water find its easiest path. And so they
really liked them, but before they could pay us, the start
up company went under.
So we were stuck with these comics.
Then, Ryan did a mini comic, and we bundled them together
in comic book form, and we went to pretty much every single
big name independent comic publisher and they all rejected
us. But Chris Staros at Top Shelf said, Why dont
you try the Xeric Foundation?which, for those
of your readers who dont know, is this wonderful
nonprofit organization founded by Peter Laird, one of
the co-creators of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,
to fund self published comic artists.
So we did, and we won the grant. And we were like, Well,
you know, this is cool. Well have a comic, this
will let us get it published, and if we sell enough comics,
maybe well go try to sell it to book publishers.
We really didnt there was much of a future for it
But, to our shock, the first issue sold out. We did a
second printing, and that sold out. We were originally
going to do five issues, because we figured by then that
the money would run out, but we ended up having to stop
at nine, because we eventually ran out of ideas, [despite
the fact that] our numbers kept going up. So we did a
trade, and that sold out. Our trades are very successful.
Weve been translated into three languages, on four
continents, something like that. And were used in
colleges all around the world; were used in West
Point and various other places. So, its been an
incredible journey, to say the least.
BB: Just having it used at West Point is interesting
It is. I spoke to a major about it. It was, like,
Im speaking to a major about Action Philosophers!
I was born on an army base. Its good to give back.
BB: Ah, so its a bit of a homecoming, in
BB: Well, how do you and Ryan work together? Is
there, even though you have similar sensibilities, do
you strictly do the scripts and he handles the art, or
is there a bit of give and take there.
FVL: Theres always give and take in any writer-artists
comic relationship. I do the scripts. I do a lot of visual
research. Ryans ability to do visual research has
always impressed me. For the Freud story, the script called
for, because it was referred to in various biographies
of Freud, this 19th Century vaginal enema. I was like,
I cant find this, but Ryan somehow managed
to find, somewhere, photo or picture reference of a late
19th Century vaginal enema.
So, go figure. When you write Spider-Man, you dont
necessarily have these problems, but, when youre
doing Sigmund Freud comics, enemas sometimes come into
But, generally speaking, he comes up with a lot of visual
gags, and he refines it, and then I rewrite it. And Im
the letterer, also, you see, so there are a couple rounds.
Because I do my scripts, he draws it, then I get the art
and I rewrite to match. Sometimes theres too much
text, sometimes things need to be reworded to match the
finished drawings. Its very much a back and forth,
give and take-type of relationship.
BB: OK. How full are the scripts youre providing
FVL: Full. Its no different than what I do
with Marvel. Panel breakdowns, but in the description,
theres complete dialogue. In the Action Philosopher
scripts I put in footnotes [on sources in the script]
so I can go back and check, when Im lettering, check
the quote to make sure its accurate, and all my
Hindi and Sanskrit are spelled correctly. Again, when
youre doing Spider-Man, you dont usually
have these problems.
BB: How do you know when somethings funny?
Does it just click, or seem to happen naturally, or is
it harder work than it might appear?
FVL: Well, knowing is probably not
the verb I would use. It feels funny, you hope its
You know, when I was a kidI was a nerdy looking
kid in a very small schooland got picked on a lot,
I figured out fairly quickly that I was never going to
be able to physically overcome people who were abusing
me. But if you have that ability to cut people down to
size verbally, if you develop that verbal skill and sort
of immediately come back with a wisecrack or a cutting
remark that exposes the silliness of your opponent, thats
something that you learn on a sixth grade playground that
really stays with you your entire life. It just becomes
this instinctual defense mechanism, and you do it as an
adult even when theres nobody around, or especially
when theres nobody around.
BB: Survival of the Wittiest, in other words.
BB: Now, when we were talking before the interview
proper began, I made a mistake that turns out to be fairly
common, which was assuming that the success of Action
Philosophers is what led to your working for Marvel.
But thats not the case at all, is it?
Right. By a bizarre coincidence, I had already been working
with Marvel, and my first Marvel work, which was in an
anthology called Amazing Fantasy, came out the
exact same day as Action Philosophers # 1. I had
done an independent super hero crime series with my comrade,
Steve Ellis, called The Silencers for a small publisher
called Moonstone, and that got us noticed by the big boys.
And Silencers actually predates Action Philosophers.
I had been working on that prior to me and Ryan doing
what we thought was a one-off, satirical Nietzsche comic.
BB: So, rather than being a pretty arduous process,
it sounds like they almost came to you, in a sense.
FVL: Well, I guess. [Laughter] Im a ten year
What happened was is that Steve Ellis gave Silencers to
the editor Mark Paniccia, when he was still at Tokyo Pop.
But then, when Mark transferred to Marvel, he remembered
my work, he remembered I had been openly pitching things,
so he asked me to pitch for the Scorpion concept [in Amazing
Fantasy] and I got the gig, ultimately. At the same time,
Ryan and I were taking the Xeric money, and putting together
the first issue of Action Philosophers.
BB: Quite a confluence of events, there.
FVL: Eh, I also had a day job at the time, so Im
used to multitasking.
BB: Well, this brings up a question, because Ive
been considering your output at this point, and youre
doing how many books for Marvel?
FVL: Six or seven is my usual monthly output, at
BB: And then youve also got the new series,
Comic Book Comics, as well.
BB: How can you balance all of that? Is there a
certain point where you have to start saying no, or do
you think you can actually handle even more assignments
at the same time?
FVL: I have got to the point where Ive had
to turn some projects down recently. I guess Im
just kind of a workaholic. Im definitely one of
these people who lives to work, rather than works to live.
I like staying busy, and Im blessed to have good
relationships with a number of the different Marvel editors.
So, when youve got multiple people coming to you
with projects [its hard to say No.]
And my first DC story will be coming out at the end of
the year, so thats expanded across town, as well.
FVL: Thank you.
I like keeping busy, and I kind of have artistic ADD in
the sense that Incredible Hercules is the one strip
Ive stayed on for a long time. Its, hands
down, the longest Ive ever worked on a continuous
stripbut then I have a co-writer, Greg Pak, working
with me [on that book]. Were kind of like a jazz
combo, bouncing ideas back and forth. So that may be why
my attention span has lasted longer, just because of sharing
the workload with another person.
BB: How do you and Greg create those scripts? Do
you literally send things back and forth, or
FVL: Yeah, were pretty literal. [General
Neither of us had ever worked with another person before,
so it was like, Ill write one half, you write
the other half, and well alternate. And thats
pretty much how its worked. Up until recently, weve
been doing more of the He takes one story arc, and
I take one story arc We generally plot out each
story arc together, and then one of us ends up fleshing
it out. I dont want to say which ones, because I
want you guys to think that I only do the ones you like,
so Ill leave it a mystery.
BB: Well, that brings up the question of how difficult
is it to match up your voices, your writers voice
FVL: I think what has happened is that weve
combined to create this singular, mutant voice thats
not quite me and not quite him. In many ways, when were
drafting, Ill do something he really doesnt
like that I will probably get away with in my [version
of the] book, if I was just doing it myself, and he does
something I dont like that he probably would have
been able to put in a book he was fully scripting himself.
So, its not even so much preserving our distinctive
voices; its that, as a result of the process, the
Greg and Fred voice is just different than either the
Greg or Fred voices by themselves.
BB: OK. One thing I wanted to clarify. Did I understand
you correctly, and that youve recently begun working
together within each new arc, rather than alternating
writing arcs, or did I misunderstand that?
Thats the way we started out. Actually, whats
happened recently is the exact opposite, is that weve
been handing arcs off to each other. And thats more
because of when certain artists are available. Its
not really because we cant stand each other, you
know? [Laughter] Its not like an Abbott and Costello-type
situation where we really hate each other, but its
just a more efficient division of labor that way. And
each one of us reads each others stuff, and rewrites,
and changes, and offers suggestions for bits. So, its
still the same basic process.
It just became too time-consuming for us to literally
co-write in the sense that I would write page 1 through
11, and then Id give it to him and hes write
page 12 through 22, or vice versa, and then we would rewrite
each others stuff. We just dont have the time
to operate that way.
BB: Right. Schedules can get really tight, Id
FVL: Yeah, but its still basically the same
process. Its just that, right now, hes writing
entire scripts, and Im writing entire scripts, and
well look at each others stuff.
Now, Id like to get back to another of your ongoing
projects we mentioned earlier, Comic Book Comics. For
those who havent seen that book, how would you describe
it, and whered that book come from?
FVL: Well, Comic Book Comics is the complete history
of comics books as a comic, and that came from us sitting
around the New York Comic Con being a little bored, and
knowing that Action Philosophers was going to come
to an end at some point. At a certain point, [you hit
a wall with the subject.] You have the top tier, A-level
philosophers, and we were already sort of dipping into
the B-level philosophers. People would come up to us,
especially college students, at conventions and stump
us with obscure sociopolitical theorist theyd read
about at school and ask are we going to do him or her.
And we were just like, Once we complete the average
philosophy textbooks worth of people, were
just going to move on to something else.
But we wanted to keep doing the Humanities in comics
form thing that was clearly working for us, and
our book distributor said, Well, why dont
you do Action Authors? Which was interesting,
but one of the things I liked about Action Philosophers,
and still like about Action Philosophers, now that
Im actually writing new Action Philosophers
stories for the first time in two years, which is exciting,
is thatrather than simply adapting [stuff to comics
form] like Classics Illustrated, were doing our
own thing. Were telling essays in graphical form,
kind of like how you see in The Critics at Large
in the New Yorker, and the kind of stuff I read
for fun now. These more critical essays, as opposed to
actual, straight up comic book adaptations. And to me,
Action Authors would inevitably end up being Its
Moby Dick, but with jokes, and in three pages of comic
And thats not really my thing. There are enough
Cliffs Notes in the world. I dont want
to add to people being lazy. [General laughter] Id
rather people thought for themselves. Not that I have
necessarily read every page of every philosopher in Action
Philosophers. But I certainly made a concerted effort
to go out and educate myself about the various people
we were doing.
That said, we still wanted to do a humorous comic in historical
form. And no one had ever done the history of comic books.
One of the more rewarding things that I get to do as a
professional is I serve on the Board of Trustees of the
Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York, and even
before Action Philosophers, even before working
for Marvel, I curated some of their shows. I was very
into the history of the medium. So its a story that
I knew quite a bit about.
And I realized that no one had ever done a history of
comic books as a comic book before for a variety of reasons,
the least of which would be copyright and trademark issues.
But I also realized that, because Ryan and I would be
doing it in a satiric fashion, we wouldnt be busted
for depicting Superman as long as we were making fun of
him, because thats legal under the copyright law.
Plus, it was definitely going to be a smaller scale project.
Ryan dug it, and so far, it was the right choice because
every issue of Comic Book Comics has outsold every issue
of Action Philosophers. So, there you go.
BB: So how many issues do you think itll
FVL: Its going to be about six. Were
currently wrapping up the extremely latewe apologize,
America[issue] number four.
BB: Wow, thats really condensing things.
FVL: To a certain degree, to a certain degree.
I sometimes feel like that, although Ive seen reviews
that are like, Hes rambling. And Im
like, I dont feel like Im rambling.
I feel like Im cramming! Each issue is also
40 pages, dont forget.
BB: Ah, thats true. That does help.
FVL: And we start with the theory of comics history.
A lot of comics history gets bogged down, and this is
sort of another
I can get on my high horse for a minute, part of the problem,
I think with comics history as a discipline, such as it
is, is that it tends to be written by people who are interested
in their thing. So youve books about
Mad magazine. Youve got books about Batman.
Youve got books about [Robert] Crumb. Its
a specialized field that has nothing but specialties,
no ones really looking at the big picture.
So, what were trying to do with Comic Book Comics
is show how Batman influenced Mad magazine, which
influenced Crumb, and so on and so forth, and show how
its all interconnected. And so, I think by doing
a Big Picture view, which may be why some
people would see this as condensing, I think youre
getting a truer sense of the breadth and the scope of
the medium, and how the medium isnt as Balkanized
and fractured as people seem to think.
For a long time, particularly while I was growing up,
there was always the sort of battle between the super
hero fans who thought the alternative fans were snobs,
and the alternative fans who thought the super hero fans
were just underdeveloped nerds, you know? And to me, its
a really false way of looking at it, whether people want
to admit it or not. The super heroes have influenced the
non-super hero stuff, and vice versa. Thats a big
part of our project in Comic Book Comics.
BB: OK. You mentioned that youre currently
writing some new Action Philosophers stories?
BB: Are those for this new collection?
FVL: Yes. The Complete Action Philosophers will
have four stories that have never been seen before. What
weve done with Action Philosophers is that
we have taken the whole series, which was kind of scatter
shot across various issues, based on whatever fun marketing
titles we could come up with, like World Domination
Handbook and stuff like that. So there was no real
logic, and there was intentionally no logic to the order
in which we did the philosophers.
Well, now what weve done is, is weve taken
all our storiesand there are a lot of them, like
30 or 40 or something like thatso we took all the
stories, and we put them all in chronological, historical
order. So you start with the Pre-Socratic Thales of Miletus
and you go all the way up to Jacques Derrida, who died
in 2002. And there are four sections in which the stories
are grouped. Theres Ancient Philosophy, which is
Its All Greek to You; theres Some
of That Old Time Religion, which is Medieval Philosophy;
theres Blinded Me with Science, which
is in generally called in the field Modern Philosophy,
which is, for some reason, distinct from Contemporary
Philosophy, and that section is called Our Stupid
Age of Isms. And each one of those sections has
a new story, and so it almost adds up to Action Philosophers
We only did nine issues, but now youre actually
getting a tenth issue in this trade, which will only appear
in the trade. It wont be on iPhone, it wont
be on .PDF, so we can force you to buy this extremely
expensive book, because thats how we roll. [General
BB: Are there any other extras that are going into
FVL: Naw. No, were too lazy for that.
BB: So what will the new edition set buyers back?
Its 25 bucks. We corrected all the stories, so its
revised. New stories, chronological order, better paper,
more expensive. Which is the part were most interested
inwere philosophers, we need all the money
we can get.
BB: Except that, unlike most philosophers, youve
figured out a way to make a living at it.
FVL: Exactly, exactly. But both of us are still
one bad day away from working at Wendys, so we need
to price this book accordingly.
BB: What do you get from creating your independent
stuff, the creator owned works that you dont get
from doing the work-for-hire books, and vice versa?
FVL: Its hard for me to refer to Action
Philosophers as creator owned, because
were just taking other peoples ideas. [More
laughter] Well, were writing essays about them,
and drawing essays about them, its not like Invincible,
or something similar, where [Robert] Kirkman came up with
that on his own.
But Ill say this: Its less of a contrast between
creator owned and the work-for-hire super hero stuff than
it is the difference between nonfiction and fiction. Because
its very rewarding to have people come up to you
at signings and conventions and tell you that your books
have literally changed their lives, and changed how they
looked at life, and how they looked at the world. And
thats incredibly rewarding because I feel the exact
Having had to read and learn about the philosophers in
order to do the comic, that broadened my view of the universe,
and broadened my view of my own life. And thats
something Ill be able to retain until I die. And
thats just an incredibly rewarding thing. And then,
to also know that you were also able to share that with
those people, thats just an indescribable feeling.
BB: What do you get from creating stories generally?
Is it just something youd do, no matter what, or
FVL: Well, I guess I dont know what else
I would do. The storytelling urge, kind of like what I
was describing earlier with the humor urge, it just becomes
part of you. Its almost like asking a bird what
they would do if they couldnt fly, you know? Well,
then I wouldnt know what these wings are for,
would be the response. [General laughter]
And thats kind of my response. Ive just developed
into this story telling machine. If I wasnt being
used telling stories, Id be a doorstop or something.
[More laughter] I dont know exactly what my function
would be. Id be completely lost.
BB: Or working at Wendys, right.
FVL: Or Wendys, yeah.
I was a fry cook one summer, though. That was fun. It
wasnt Wendys, but I still smelled like grease
when I came home.
Youve kind of already answered this, but its
something I always like to ask people like yourself: What
do you hope your audience gets from your work? It sounds
like, in your case, it might be a mixture of both revelation
and humor, and just pure enjoyment.
FVL: Well, Raymond Chandler had a great phrase in
one of his essays, which is that the purpose of fictionand
Id expand that to any kind of reading for pleasure,
whether its fiction or nonfictionbut his phrase,
and Im going to mangle it horribly, was that the
purpose of fiction was to save men from the dreary monotony
of their own thoughts. And thats really all I aspire
If I have people coming to me and saying they love my
Spinoza comic, I really get as much pleasure out of that
as someone coming to me and saying, I really loved
your zombie comic where the super heroes ate each others
faces off! I still think its cool to be able
to go into the world and let people, for lack of a better
word, forget about themselves. Whats neat about
doing Action Philosophers is I think you can both
make people forget about themselves and understand themselves
better at the same time.
Which I know is a very Zen Buddhist-type of thing to say,
but I sincerely believe that that is the dividing line
between art and entertainment. Entertainment lets you
escape the world. Art lets you engage the world more fully.
more info on Fred Van Lente and his prodigious output, theres
no better place to start that http://www.fredvanlente.com,
his home on the web.
If youre looking for the skinny on Freds self
published books, Action Philosophers or Comic Book
Comics, head over to http://www.eviltwincomics.com.
Finally, if youd like to check out his work on Spider-Man,
Hercules and other popular characters, hit http://marvel.com/