Fred Van Lente: On His Journey’s Into The Comics Universe

Fred Van Lente co-founded Evil Twin Comics with artist Ryan Dunlavey. He is an American Library Association award winner for Action Philosophers, and was named as a break out...
X-Men Noir Writer Fred Van Lente At A Signing.

X-Men Noir Writer Fred Van Lente At A Signing.

Fred Van Lente co-founded Evil Twin Comics with artist Ryan Dunlavey. He is an American Library Association award winner for Action Philosophers, and was named as a break out writer for 2008 by Wizard Magazine. He is one of a hand full of people to win a Xeric Award, and his work includes Action Philosophers, the brilliant Comic Book Comics, Incredible Hercules, Marvel Zombies 3& 4, The Silencers, Amazing Fantasy, Amazing Spider-Man, Wolverine: First Class and X-Men Noir.

Nicholas Yanes: Similar to how most superheroes have an origin story, comic book writers tend to have a personal narrative that describes the moment when they knew they wanted to be comic book writers. What motivated you to write comic books?

Fred Van Lente: I always knew I wanted to write, and I always loved comic books. But when it came time to go to college I was kind of torn. I went to school for filmmaking, but ended up transferring to the English Lit department. So I was working on screenplays and prose. But most of the people I ended up becoming really close with in college were the guys studying to become comic book artists. This was at Syracuse University in New York. I found myself thinking more about the comics I was doing with those guys than anything else I was doing. Screenplays and novels would lie around unfinished, and I would finish comics scripts overnight. I think the universe was trying to tell me where my true interests lay.

So, after something of a lengthy struggle, one of the comics I did with S.U. bud Ryan Dunlavey, Action Philosophers, won the Xeric Grant, and another, The Silencers, with Orangeman (and High Moon co-creator) Steve Ellis, got me noticed at Marvel. And the rest is history!

Yanes: With the explosion of academic research being done on comic books, many academics have this notion that all comic book creators have a college background, and are fully trained in culture and art theory. So, what’s your educationally background? And what do you think about professors and college students so closely examining your work?

Van Lente: I graduated with an English Lit degree from Syracuse. My parents very much wanted me to be a professor, a scholar … an intellectual type. So I went to the University of Pittsburgh masters program in English for a year, and taught their Writing 101 course. I couldn’t stand it. I was young and not interested in motivating unmotivated students who were angling for the pre-med program and couldn’t really give a rat’s ass about writing. And I despised the boilerplate syllabus they handed out to all the first-years, which revolved heavily around convincing middle class white kids they were oppressed. Ah, the mid-nineties…

So, when, through Steve Ellis’s help, I sold a story to Malibu Comics, if you remember them (they had become a fully-owned subsidiary of Marvel at that point), I promptly dropped out of grad school and moved to New York City with my artist pals, thinking this whole freelancing in comics thing was a breeze, and/or my unstoppable destiny.

Of course, if I had known then Marvel would shut down Malibu before my story was published and it would take me another eight years before I was hired by the mainstream again, maybe my attitude would have been slightly different…. Oh, well. Live and learn.

I create my work so people will examine it closely, academics or no, so by all means! Have at it.

Yanes: A lot of people at my comic shop and on the net seem to show shock that you wrote books like Action Philosophers & Comic Book Comics, and then went on to write more mainstream superhero comics. What are your thoughts on this elitist distain for the superhero genre?

Van Lente: They clearly don’t realize I’m plotting to bring down the system from the inside.

Yanes: Genre wise, Action Philosophers is quite different from Wolverine: First Class. What are your thoughts on being a writer in these two different genres?

Van Lente: They exercise different muscles. Action Philosophers and Comic Book Comics, our current series, are trying to explain often-complex concepts in a succinct, entertaining way … in fact, for me, at least, the efficiency of the explanation is the entertainment. While fiction of any kind, super heroes or no, is taking the reader on an emotional journey through the characters, in this instance the comedy stylings of America’s most popular Canadian and Jewish superheroes.

Hey, if they make a movie of it, David Cronenberg can direct!

Yanes: I’ve interviewed Justin Murphy (creator of Cleburne) and Brahm Revel (creator of Guerillas). Murphy is a Xeric award winner, and felt that the award validated his hard work. Revel decided not to even apply for a Xeric because he felt that the “Xeric Grant is better for someone who is making a graphic novel or a one shot rather than a series.” What was your experience with the Xeric Foundation? And would you recommend that aspiring comic book creators apply for it?

Van Lente: Oh, sure. My career would be considerably different without it. At the point we applied, Ryan and I had been turned down by every “big” indy publisher in comics, so we definitely needed the validation. And, frankly, we needed the money — we couldn’t really have afforded to do ActPhilo [Action Philosophers] on our own at that point in our lives. We took the money we received and published our first two issues with it, and we’ve been operating at a profit ever since. Thank you, Turtle Bucks!

[Note: The Xeric Award was founded by Peter Laird, co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles]

X-Men Noir Issue One Cover Art

X-Men Noir Issue One Cover Art

Yanes: Since I was a child I was fan of the X-Men. I pretty much buy any thing associated with the X-Men; hell, my undergraduate thesis was on the X-Men. I mention this only because I found X-Men Noir to be one of the most original re-imaginings of the X-Men mythos. Besides the X-Men franchise, what stories influenced how you developed X-Men Noir?

Van Lente: I became a huge Raymond Chandler fan in high school. “The Lady in the Lake” and “The Long Goodbye” are the biggest direct influences on X Men Noir, and the plot itself was heavily influenced by “Empire Falls”, a historical novel by Thomas Kelly.

The HBO series “The Wire” was also a huge influence in retrospect, in that it had a huge cast and was very uncompromising in terms of talking down the reader in the form of exposition and such, and that was something I tried to bring to X-Noir. Some people complained at times the story was a little opaque because of it, and I can see that, but I’m something of a compulsive experimenter.

Yanes: Considering that you used the Golden Age Angel so well, do you see any chance of him being used in the main Marvel Universe?

Van Lente: I believe Ed Brubaker will very shortly. He’s a fun character, a Batman ripoff wearing a ripoff of Superman’s costume.

Yanes: So far you’ve written for Wolverine, X-Men, Spider-Man, She-Hulk, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Iron Man and several more. Is there one character that you want to write for so badly you’d consider killing someone in order to get that job?

Van Lente: Depends on who I’d have to kill. Mass murderer? Hell, I’d do that to do my “Machine Man and Jocasta” series. But someone close to me? A colleague? Hmmm… No, not so much.

Yanes: I don’t know how much influence the a writer has in deciding the price of a comic book, but do you see comic book prices leveling off in the near future? Also, what comic book buying advice would you give to budget strapped comic book fans?

Van Lente: I have exactly zero influence on my Marvel comics. But, I also own a publishing company and we made the decision to raise the price of our floppies to $3.99 before Comic Book Comics #1 came out, in late 2007, because all the other indies were too. We added eight pages of content, too.

I can’t speak directly to why Marvel prices which comics what amount. But in a macroeconomic sense, there are a couple things to keep in mind, not the least of which is that for the average consumer, if they want a comic, which is a luxury item to begin with, they’re going to pay pretty much whatever you ask them to, within reason. In other words, price point is rarely a significant barrier to purchasing when you’re talking about an individually unique item like a comic.

You might buy a cheaper car, since a Fiat will get you from Point A to Point B just as well as a Toyota. But almost no one is going to buy, say, “Wonder Woman” instead of “Dark Avengers” just because it’s a dollar cheaper. If a consumer really wants “Dark Avengers,” he’s going to buy it. If he doesn’t buy it, or instead steals it, or borrows a friend’s copy, or waits until the trade comes out and checks it out of the library, most businesspeople conclude that person didn’t really want “Dark Avengers” enough in the first place.

Obviously, a lot of people strongly disagree with that assessment, and many have threatened to or have actually dropped books as a result of it. But of course, Marvel, I presume, like any other responsible company, in their Profit & Loss calculations, already factored in attrition from that group: say, we’re losing 20% of our audience in protest or necessity but the $1 markup still means we’re making a bigger profit with the 80% that remains. So up the price goes.

And, of course, almost all the Top 10 books for 2008 cost $3.99.

X Men Noir cost $3.99 and every single issue sold out.

And Comic Book Comics easily outsells the entire run of Action Philosophers, despite being a dollar more expensive!

So, you can see why Marvel (and Evil Twin Comics) thought this was a wise business move. However, I think that Marvel’s decision was a victim of unfortunate timing, as it coincided with the outbreak of a global financial crisis. Those decisions on price, of course, were decided many months before the bottom fell out around September/October ’08 (in order to turn in solicitations to Diamond Previews), that’s just being on the wrong end of history.

For that reason, though, I suspect you’ll see the prices stay relatively stable, at least for the bulk of 2009.

And if you’re strapped for cash, you should definitely drop all non-Fred Van Lente comics from your pull-list.

Yanes: As an uncle I struggle to include my niece in my love for comic books. Considering that you have written several “for all ages” books, do you think the comic book industry is doing enough to appeal to elementary age readers?

Van Lente: I do. I’ve gone to speak at a lot of schools and library conventions and such over the last few years and in the on-going desperation to get kids to read anything, comics have definitely been embraced by educators. And since we all start out reading because our parents read to us, or we’re forced to read in school, I think that now we have a buy-in from the educational community we have a great foundation to build on moving forward.

Yanes: Also, do you think the industry is doing enough to appeal to girls and women?

Van Lente: All the industry can do is publish comics girls and women want to read, and I think they’re doing more of that, particularly if you compare now to when I was growing up. I get a lot of fan mail from women, it seems like, not as much as men, of course, but it seems like a significant percentage to me.

Yanes: Given the hype around Cowboys & Aliens being turned into a movie, do you ever see yourself moving away from comic books to film and television?

Van Lente: I still do film and television work from time-to-time, and have various irons in the fire at the moment. But comics are my first love, and I don’t really foresee a scenario in which I would stop doing comics altogether.

Yanes: For my final interview question, I usually ask why the person I’m interviewing is so awesome, but I feel that it’s a bit cliché. So I’m thinking about making the following my standard last question for my interviews. If you wanted your fans to add false information to one Wikipedia entry, what entry and what information would you want added?

Van Lente: I’d want to delete that I was anywhere near that schoolyard, I don’t care what that lying nanny says.

For more information about Fred Van Lente please check out the following websites:

A list of Fred Van Lente books available for purchase can be found here

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  • Nicholas Yanes is a comic book academic who has written two theses focused on graphic literature: “X-Men as a Reflection of Civil Rights in America” and “Graphic Imagery – Jewish American Comic Book Creators’ Depictions of Class, Race, and Patriotism.” Additionally, he was privileged enough to create and teach “American Comic Book History”; a junior level course in the American Studies Program at Florida State University. His first publication is the essay, “The Super Patriot: World War II Warriors and the Birth of Captain America,” and will be published in Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero: Critical Essays. He is currently working on two projects: 1) Editing an essay that has been accepted for publication in an anthology – this essay looks at African Religion in mainstream American Comic Books, 2) Putting together a collection of essays that look at Obama in Popular Culture: http://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/node/32305
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