Rising star comic book writer sits in The Outhouse for a conversation with Royal Nonesuch!While many comic book creators start in indendent comics before getting offered work at The Big 2, Fred van Lente achieved success in both worlds at quite literally the same moment. Since winning the Xeric Grant for Self-Publishing in 2004, which he used to publish ACTION PHILOSOPHERS!
#1 with artist Ryan Dunlavey, van Lente has been on the fast track at Marvel Comics, where he writes or co-writes a slew of ongoing and limited series. He suceeded Robert Kirkman at the MARVEL ZOMBIES franchise, and helped bring about the hit MARVEL NOIR line. He also co-writes THE INCREDIBLE HERCULES and, is a part of the writing team on the thrice-monthly THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. The rising star stopped by The Outhouse, where he told us about THE INCREDIBLE HERCULES, politics in superhero comics, and his love of tacos.
As it is in any creative field, one needs as much luck as they do talent to break in. How did you go from applying for a Xeric Grant to working on several properties for Marvel?
What's funny is a common misconception that one led to the other for me. I guess it makes for a cleaner narrative. But believe it or not, my Xeric Grant book, ACTION PHILOSOPHERS #1, and my first Marvel comic, AMAZING FANTASY #7, went on sale the same day in 2005. I had been working my career path at both ends, indy and mainstream, and they ended up paying off simultaneously. Go figure. What is the application process like for the Xeric Grant?
I'd advise anyone doing it to finish your comic first. The grant specifies it's for self-publishing your book, that is to say, marketing and publishing it, not creating it. Basically, you send them the comic, a budget and how you plan on getting your book out to the public. Ryan and I are really appreciative the board there took a chance on us; since it's four years later and we're still producing our comics based on the money we earned off them, I guess we turned out to be a good investment. I'm not sure even I would have agreed with them at the time, so that makes me even more grateful! What kind of research did you do for ACTION PHILOSOPHERS! and COMIC BOOK COMICS?
The process was slightly different for both. For AP, I read at least one work by each philosopher, as well as whatever biographical material I can get my hands on. For each issue, there were several of months of reading before I could even begin scripting.
Although CBC is still very research heavy, it's just a subject -- comic book history -- I know a lot more about than I did about philosophy when we started doing AP. I served on the Curatorial Committee for many years at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art and curated a lot of their early shows; earlier in my career I contemplated a biography of Jack Kirby, and amassed a lot of research on that. So while there is still a lot of reading involved, I'm just operating on a firmer base of knowledge there. Is there anything else planned with Ryan Dunlavey?
Well, it'll take us about a year to finish COMIC BOOK COMICS. Once that's done, we'll begin work on ACTION PRESIDENTS.
Which is exactly what it sounds like. You are one of the architects of the MARVEL: NOIR line. Why do you think crime comics are so popular right now? What do you think comics do especially well when it comes to the crime genre?
They're similar to superheroes, in the sense they tend to be about very strong-willed people living outside the normal codes of society. They solve things through action rather than committee meetings. And, you know, there's all that opportunity for violence. Having written X-MEN: NOIR and MARVEL ZOMBIES 3 and 4, which is more fun to write: noir or zombies? Would a zombie noir story be cool, or is that just getting greedy?
Ha! Probably. I was not a big zombie fan when I got the MZ3 assignment, so I guess I'd have to say noir is more fun. I've loved Raymond Chandler and mystery novels since I was a kid. But the zombie series I'm working on right now is reawakening my love for those flesh-eating shamblers.... You created Carmilla Black, the new Scorpion at a time when Marvel had been introducing a plethora of new, young characters (Gravity, the Young Avengers, X-23, Spellbinders, etc). When the idea for a new character comes up, how far ahead is Marvel thinking in terms of future stories, licensing, etc.? Or do they wait and see what kind of initial fan response there is before planning anything further?
That's a good question. You might have to ask someone higher up in the Marvel hierarchy than me, though. In general, though, I think that Marvel makes most of their moves based on market reaction. Which is why there are something like 23 Deadpool on-goings at the moment. Are there more plans for Carmilla Black?
Michael Gaydos is redesigning her for AMAZING SPIDER-MAN in April. Get excited.
In your DEADPOOL TEAM-UP story, you made a politically-charged joke wherein Wade starts to find Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly reasonable, but only due to a lobotomy. We live in sensitive times, so a reader's enjoyment of a book could be affected if they feel like they are being "preached to" in a superhero comic. When you write a gag like that, do you worry about setting off a reader's "political bias alarm," even if it is fairly innocuous (there was some discussion about this here at The Outhouse, so we're curious about your thoughts on this)?
Geez, the day a person can pick up anything I've written, superhero comic or otherwise, without fear of running across a contrary opinion, or anything someone might be offended by, is the day you know I've given up, sold out, and decided to live the rest of my life in comfortable, mindless hackery.
Thing is, I've been accused of being biased against pretty much everybody in one point or another in my career. When I pointed out anti-comics crusader Dr. Fredric Wertham was an overreaching liberal in COMIC BOOK COMICS or when I said nice things about Ayn Rand in ACTION PHILOSOPHERS I got angry emails from lefties who thought I was a right-winger. I've been accused of being anti-man (seriously) and anti-woman (a slightly more common accusation against a superhero writer). I once got accused of advancing a pro-gay agenda and being homophobic... for the same comic. (By two different people, obviously.)
When you do this job, you get criticized by somebody for literally, and I do mean literally, every decision you make, so it really does kind of totally desensitize you to it. Since DC would (most likely) never allow it, which of their characters would you like to write in a Team-Up with Deadpool?
I'll be lazy and name the one DC character I actually have written: Martian Manhunter! I think his alien aloofness and Wade's madcap lethality would make a hilarious mix. Between such writers as yourself, Jason Aaron, most recently Jeff Lemire and going back to Brian Michael Bendis, Marvel has spent the last decade hiring well-regarded creators from outside of superhero comics to work on their established properties. What is it about Marvel at this moment that's attracting so many writers from outside "the scene."
Well, I think they're actively going out and looking for people with proven track records outside the mainstream, which is great. I generally find it more common that, say, ACTION PHILOSOPHERS fans will pick up my Marvel work than the other way around, so in that sense it does kind of expand their reach. For Marvel, you've written in the MARVEL ADVENTURES line as well as the mainline, 616 universe. Where do you see Marvel Adventures in the general strata of Marvel Comics? Is going from Marvel Adventures to 616 a "promotion," or are they on the same level?
From a writer's standpoint, they should be the same level. When I was doing MARVEL ADVENTURES IRON MAN, that to me was "the" Iron Man book, that was the attitude I brought to it. I was going to do the best damn Iron Man book there ever was or ever could be, whether it was for kids or not. Just as when I do IRON MAN LEGACY, starting in April (oooh-- Stealth plug!) that, to me, I'll write that like it's the best IM book I can make it. The fact it's skewed much older is irrelevant. The fact other people may perceive it differently is irrelevant. That's my pact with the reader, that I will do everything in my power to make whatever I'm working on, regardless of how it's marketed or packaged, the best damn thing it can be. Are the rumors of INCREDIBLE HERCULES getting relaunched after Assault on New Olympus true?
You'll get a clearer picture when the March 2010 solicits come out. You've said that neither you nor Greg Pak had ever co-written anything before INCREDIBLE HERCULES. What is the division of labor like between you two, and has that process undergone any changes over the course of the collaboration? We're assuming there's more to it than sitting in a room and coming up with hilarious onomatopoeia.
No, although that is one of the fun parts of it! Greg and I have tried a variety of different ways. Originally, he or I would literally write the first half and pass it off to the next guy, who would write the second half, but that became too time consuming, so we switched to one of us drafting the whole script then handing it off to the other. We constantly rewrite each other's work, though, so matter how we do it every issue is still a true collaboration. Did working with Greg on HERCULES prepare you for becoming a "Web-Head" on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN?
Not really. The Spider-Man process is very different, where the Webheads meet from time to time in person or in the phone, but we write our individual arcs solo. So that's more different acts following each other on-stage, while Greg and I are more a single jazz combo, each musician riffing off notes set up by the other. Who is your favorite Spider-Man villain, and which one do you think needs a revamp most?
I've already done Spot, White Rabbit, Chameleon, and Sandman... My tank is empty! I still think Rocket Racer could be cool. Well, maybe "cool" is the wrong word. "More menacing" would be better.
I've always liked the Kingpin best. He started out a Spidey villain. We need to figure out some way to steal him back from Daredevil. Ralph Macchio told me he was the one who talked Frank Miller into putting him in the book when he was DD editor, so I guess we have him to thank for that. Before comics, you were writing screenplays. How are they the same, and how are they different?
One moves, and one doesn't. I know that sounds like stating the obvious, but there are ramifications to it that I'm still learning. Movies, for example, do exposition horribly, while comics are excellent explainers. You can do great things with character in comics, but you just can't match the transition of expression over a brief period of time on an actor's face. While you can tell the same kinds of stories, the way you tell them has to be construction in such a way to fit the strengths and avoid the weaknesses of each medium. And that's something I think people who work in both media have to be very conscious of working out. You've written a pretty comprehensive history of comics, but where do you see their future? Are they going to be all digital?
History rarely works in terms of absolutes like "all." Just as people still put on live plays, people (like me) will always want some comics on paper. On the other hand, I love my Kindle, and have spent a bundle on e-books in the four months or so since I bought it. Because I, the consumer, and buying things in both formats, the creators and publishers will simply have to figure out a profitable business model across multiple platforms -- just as Hollywood had to when their asses got kicked by TV. It's Sunday night, and you have a straitjacket, a catapult, and a bad Styx cover band. What are your plans for the evening?
I'd catapult myself away from the Styx cover band and straightjacket anyone who tried to stop me. Is there anything else you'd like us to know? This is the place to lay it all out.
Tacos are good. Any websites, blogs, etc. where we can find out more about you and your work?
My site is http://www.fredvanlente.com
and you can cyber-stalk me on Twitter and/or Facebook. On both I'm simply "Fred Van Lente".
That should just about cover it.
Note: Outhouse members john lewis hawk, Punchy, Jude Terror, and GLX contributed to this interview.