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Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.

BAKER'S DOZEN for 12/23/2009
Survival of the Wittiest
Fred Van Lente on Action Philosophers

If it seems like Fred Van Lente has been writing a lot of Marvel titles lately, well, that’s because it’s 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 of Ideas.

However, while it is true that he’s currently scripting or co-writing the adventures of a significant number of Marvel’s characters on a monthly basis, those tales represent but a portion of his output. That’s because Van Lente’s 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 efforts.

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.

Bill Baker: Fred, you’ve 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 it?

Fred Van Lente: Action Philosophers is the lives and thoughts of history’s 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 kid—like 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, Action Philosophers.

Ryan’s a wise ass, I’m a wise ass, so it was just sort of natural for us to do this; I think it’s 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 humor—which, in retrospect, shouldn’t 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 anthology. [Laughs]

Ryan 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 you’d sell local advertising in it, and you’d 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 don’t you try the Xeric Foundation?”—which, for those of your readers who don’t 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. We’ll have a comic, this will let us get it published, and if we sell enough comics, maybe we’ll go try to sell it to book publishers.” We really didn’t there was much of a future for it in comics.

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. We’ve been translated into three languages, on four continents, something like that. And we’re used in colleges all around the world; we’re used in West Point and various other places. So, it’s been an incredible journey, to say the least.

BB: Just having it used at West Point is interesting enough.

FVL: It is. I spoke to a major about it. It was, like, “I’m speaking to a major about Action Philosophers!” I was born on an army base. It’s good to give back. [Laughs]

BB: Ah, so it’s a bit of a homecoming, in a sense.

FVL: Exactly.

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: There’s always give and take in any writer-artist’s comic relationship. I do the scripts. I do a lot of visual research. Ryan’s 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 can’t 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 don’t necessarily have these problems, but, when you’re doing Sigmund Freud comics, enemas sometimes come into play. [Laughs]

But, generally speaking, he comes up with a lot of visual gags, and he refines it, and then I rewrite it. And I’m 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 there’s too much text, sometimes things need to be reworded to match the finished drawings. It’s very much a back and forth, give and take-type of relationship.

BB: OK. How full are the scripts you’re providing him?

FVL: Full. It’s no different than what I do with Marvel. Panel breakdowns, but in the description, there’s complete dialogue. In the Action Philosopher scripts I put in footnotes [on sources in the script] so I can go back and check, when I’m lettering, check the quote to make sure it’s accurate, and all my Hindi and Sanskrit are spelled correctly. Again, when you’re doing Spider-Man, you don’t usually have these problems.

BB: How do you know when something’s 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 it’s funny.

You know, when I was a kid—I was a nerdy looking kid in a very small school—and 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, that’s 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 there’s nobody around, or especially when there’s nobody around.

BB: Survival of the Wittiest, in other words.

FVL: Exactly.

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 that’s not the case at all, is it?

FVL: 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] I’m a ten year overnight success.

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 I’m used to multitasking.

BB: Well, this brings up a question, because I’ve been considering your output at this point, and you’re doing how many books for Marvel?

FVL: Six or seven is my usual monthly output, at this point.

BB: And then you’ve also got the new series, Comic Book Comics, as well.

FVL: Yes.

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 I’ve had to turn some projects down recently. I guess I’m just kind of a workaholic. I’m definitely one of these people who lives to work, rather than works to live.

I like staying busy, and I’m blessed to have good relationships with a number of the different Marvel editors. So, when you’ve got multiple people coming to you with projects [it’s hard to say “No.”] And my first DC story will be coming out at the end of the year, so that’s expanded across town, as well.

BB: Congratulations!

FVL: Thank you.

But I like keeping busy, and I kind of have artistic ADD in the sense that Incredible Hercules is the one strip I’ve stayed on for a long time. It’s, hands down, the longest I’ve ever worked on a continuous strip—but then I have a co-writer, Greg Pak, working with me [on that book]. We’re 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, we’re pretty literal. [General laughter]

Neither of us had ever worked with another person before, so it was like, “I’ll write one half, you write the other half, and we’ll alternate.” And that’s pretty much how it’s worked. Up until recently, we’ve 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 don’t want to say which ones, because I want you guys to think that I only do the ones you like, so I’ll leave it a mystery.

BB: Well, that brings up the question of how difficult is it to match up your voices, your writer’s voice to Greg’s?

FVL: I think what has happened is that we’ve combined to create this singular, mutant voice that’s not quite me and not quite him. In many ways, when we’re drafting, I’ll do something he really doesn’t 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 don’t like that he probably would have been able to put in a book he was fully scripting himself.

So, it’s not even so much preserving our distinctive voices; it’s 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 you’ve recently begun working together within each new arc, rather than alternating writing arcs, or did I misunderstand that?

FVL: That’s the way we started out. Actually, what’s happened recently is the exact opposite, is that we’ve been handing arcs off to each other. And that’s more because of when certain artists are available. It’s not really because we can’t stand each other, you know? [Laughter] It’s not like an Abbott and Costello-type situation where we really hate each other, but it’s just a more efficient division of labor that way. And each one of us reads each other’s stuff, and rewrites, and changes, and offers suggestions for bits. So, it’s 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 I’d give it to him and he’s write page 12 through 22, or vice versa, and then we would rewrite each other’s stuff. We just don’t have the time to operate that way.

BB: Right. Schedules can get really tight, I’d imagine.

FVL: Yeah, but it’s still basically the same process. It’s just that, right now, he’s writing entire scripts, and I’m writing entire scripts, and we’ll look at each other’s stuff.

BB: OK.

Now, I’d like to get back to another of your ongoing projects we mentioned earlier, Comic Book Comics. For those who haven’t seen that book, how would you describe it, and where’d 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 they’d 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, we’re 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 don’t 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 I’m actually writing new Action Philosophers stories for the first time in two years, which is exciting, is that—rather than simply adapting [stuff to comics form] like Classics Illustrated, we’re doing our own thing. We’re 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 “It’s Moby Dick, but with jokes, and in three pages of comic book!”

And that’s not really my thing. There are enough Cliff’s Notes in the world. I don’t want to add to people being lazy. [General laughter] I’d 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 it’s 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 wouldn’t be busted for depicting Superman as long as we were making fun of him, because that’s 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 it’ll run?

FVL: It’s going to be about six. We’re currently wrapping up the extremely late—we apologize, America—[issue] number four.

BB: Wow, that’s really condensing things.

FVL: To a certain degree, to a certain degree. I sometimes feel like that, although I’ve seen reviews that are like, “He’s rambling.” And I’m like, “I don’t feel like I’m rambling. I feel like I’m cramming!” Each issue is also 40 pages, don’t forget.

BB: Ah, that’s 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…

If 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 you’ve books about Mad magazine. You’ve got books about Batman. You’ve got books about [Robert] Crumb. It’s a specialized field that has nothing but specialties, no one’s really looking at the big picture.

So, what we’re 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 it’s 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 you’re getting a truer sense of the breadth and the scope of the medium, and how the medium isn’t 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, it’s 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. That’s a big part of our project in Comic Book Comics.

BB: OK. You mentioned that you’re currently writing some new Action Philosophers stories?

FVL: Yes.

BB: Are those for this new collection?

FVL: Yes. The Complete Action Philosophers will have four stories that have never been seen before. What we’ve 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 we’ve done is, is we’ve taken all our stories—and there are a lot of them, like 30 or 40 or something like that—so 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. There’s Ancient Philosophy, which is “It’s All Greek to You;” there’s “Some of That Old Time Religion,” which is Medieval Philosophy; there’s “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 # 10.

We only did nine issues, but now you’re actually getting a tenth issue in this trade, which will only appear in the trade. It won’t be on iPhone, it won’t be on .PDF, so we can force you to buy this extremely expensive book, because that’s how we roll. [General laughter]

BB: Are there any other extras that are going into it?

FVL: Naw. No, we’re too lazy for that.

BB: So what will the new edition set buyers back?

FVL: It’s 25 bucks. We corrected all the stories, so it’s revised. New stories, chronological order, better paper, more expensive. Which is the part we’re most interested in—we’re philosophers, we need all the money we can get.

BB: Except that, unlike most philosophers, you’ve 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 Wendy’s, so we need to price this book accordingly.

BB: What do you get from creating your independent stuff, the creator owned works that you don’t get from doing the work-for-hire books, and vice versa?

FVL: It’s hard for me to refer to Action Philosophers as “creator owned,” because we’re just taking other people’s ideas. [More laughter] Well, we’re writing essays about them, and drawing essays about them, it’s not like Invincible, or something similar, where [Robert] Kirkman came up with that on his own.

But I’ll say this: It’s 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 it’s 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 that’s incredibly rewarding because I feel the exact same way.

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 that’s something I’ll be able to retain until I die. And that’s just an incredibly rewarding thing. And then, to also know that you were also able to share that with those people, that’s just an indescribable feeling.

BB: What do you get from creating stories generally? Is it just something you’d do, no matter what, or…?

FVL: Well, I guess I don’t 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. It’s almost like asking a bird what they would do if they couldn’t fly, you know? “Well, then I wouldn’t know what these wings are for,” would be the response. [General laughter]

And that’s kind of my response. I’ve just developed into this story telling machine. If I wasn’t being used telling stories, I’d be a doorstop or something. [More laughter] I don’t know exactly what my function would be. I’d be completely lost.

BB: Or working at Wendy’s, right.

FVL: Or Wendy’s, yeah.

I was a fry cook one summer, though. That was fun. It wasn’t Wendy’s, but I still smelled like grease when I came home.

BB: You’ve kind of already answered this, but it’s 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 fiction—and I’d expand that to any kind of reading for pleasure, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction—but his phrase, and I’m going to mangle it horribly, was that the purpose of fiction was to save men from the dreary monotony of their own thoughts. And that’s really all I aspire to.

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 it’s cool to be able to go into the world and let people, for lack of a better word, forget about themselves. What’s 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.


For more info on Fred Van Lente and his prodigious output, there’s no better place to start that http://www.fredvanlente.com, his home on the web.

If you’re looking for the skinny on Fred’s self published books, Action Philosophers or Comic Book Comics, head over to http://www.eviltwincomics.com.

Finally, if you’d like to check out his work on Spider-Man, Hercules and other popular characters, hit http://marvel.com/ and http://www.dccomics.com/dccomics.
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