Interview: Fred Van Lente
Fred Van Lente may have one of the strangest resumes in modern comics.
After all, not many writers can give their first claim to fame as writing an award-winning non-fiction comic book series both satirizing and paying tribute to the greatest thinkers in human history; yet that’s his name alongside artist Ryan Dunlavey’s on the cover of Action Philosophers, which won the Xeric Grant in 2004.
Since then, he’s gone on to write what seems like an endless stream of series and miniseries for Marvel: Marvel Adventures Iron Man, Marvel Adventures Spider-man, Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four, Amazing Fantasy, Super-Villain Team-Up: MODOK’s 11, Wolverine: First Class, and more besides.
These days, his most steady gig is co-writing (with Greg Pak) Marvel’s Incredible Hercules, a fan favorite series and critical darling that’s been praised for mixing mythology with good old Marvel superheroics. He’s also writing the X-Men Noir miniseries, a mystery story set in the heyday of prohibition.
And, just to make sure his resume keeps getting stranger, the third issue of Comic Book Comics, his second collaboration with Ryan Dunlavey, just hit the stands recently. As the title suggests, it’s a comic book that chronicles the history of comic books.
Fred took a few minutes out his schedule to talk to us about how he wound up writing for Marvel, how not to kill Jocasta, and how not to get sued when infringing on copyright.
ComicMix: How does the writer of a black-and-white independent series about the great thinkers wind up writing all-ages superhero stories for the Marvel Adventures line?
Fred Van Lente: Well, believe it or not, my working for Marvel and me doing Action Philosophers happened simultaneously. What happened was, for two completely different career paths converged. I was doing Action Philosophers on and off with Ryan [Dunlavey] more or less for fun until we got the Xeric Grant, and I did a color independent comic with a great artist by the name of Steve Ellis, who’s now better known for having co-created the series High Moon over at Zuda. We did a super-crime mob series called The Silencers for Moonstone, and that brought me to the attention of Mark Paniccia over at Marvel. Mark invited me over to pitch for an anthology series called Amazing Fantasy. They ran a poll on Marvel.com for which characters to revamp, and they chose Scorpion. By a bizarre coincidence, Action Philosophers #1 and Amazing Fantasy #7, which premiered the new Scorpion, came out on the same day.
FVL: Yeah! And in most stores, because they were both “A” titles, they were racked next to each other. So after ten years of trying to break into the business and not really getting much traction, I not only had two comics come out on the same day, I had them sit next to each. And to add irony to irony, I had broken my ankle. So I was laid up and on painkillers, so I was unable to go to the store and see this magnificence for myself.
CMix: That’s kind of sad.
FVL: Well, my friend sent me cell phone pictures.
CMix: Gotcha. So, my next question is, how does the writer of all-ages Marvel superhero stories wind up co-writing Incredible Hercules, one of the most critically beloved mainstream titles right now?
FVL: After Scorpion, the work they had for me at the time was in Marvel Adventures, and that’s how I really got to know Nate Cosby very well, who was an assistant editor at the time. We worked really well together on Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four and Marvel Adventures Spider-Man and a couple other sort of minor things. And when Greg Pak was starting to do World War Hulk, that was in Mark’s office as well, they wanted to spin-off a series called Renegades that was about all the heroes who had fought on Hulk’s side in the war. One of those characters was the new Scorpion, which obviously I’d created. I think that had something to do with it. So it was Nate who suggested to Greg that we co-write together, because Greg was just completely underwater at the time.
CMix: And you wound up rolling the Renegades story into Incredible Hulk, right?
FVL: What wound up happening was, the Marvel editorial board, which approves or disapproves projects, didn’t think the time was right for another team book. What they thought would be interesting is if Hercules had his own book and was teamed with Cho. Basically, they slashed the Renegades team roster in half. And then they were like, “we can call it The Incredible Herc! Hah hah hah.” And I said, “That’s actually not a bad idea.”
CMix: What’s the writing process like for Incredible Hercules? Do you and Greg sit in a room and bang out a script?
FVL: We do not. We both live in New York City, so we can and do get together quite a bit to go over story ideas face-to-face, but I’m definitely not the kind of person who has the temperament to sit in a room and come up with lines of dialogue. We had never really co-written anything before, either, with each other or with anyone else, so we’re not very bright. We just literally co-write it—He writes half of it, and then he gives it to me, and I write half. And then I rewrite his half, and send the full thing back to him, and then he’ll rewrite that, and so on and so forth, tossing it back and forth until we reach some consensus.
CMix: Which half do you write? Or is it sort of up in the air?
FVL: It’s fairly random. We try to take turns. In the beginning, it was like, “oh, you created Amadeus, you write all the Amadeus scenes.” That quickly sort of fell by the wayside. Now it’s pretty much indistinguishable. We’ve basically been taking turns, and there have been a couple of times where he’s written a full draft of one script, or I’ve written a full draft of one script, depending on, you know, where our respective schedules are. At this point, I couldn’t tell you which ones were which. We have an unspoken policy to be submitting the script to the editors as the unanimous vote. Each one of us has to sign off on everything. It’s very much a peer collaboration.
CMix: Has it been working for you? Will you two be on it for a while to come?
FVL: Well, we hate each other. I’m sure you can tell from other interviews we’ve done. We’re actively trying to put hit contracts out on each other. Yes, yeah, we’re gonna be together forever. We’re joined at the hip on this one.
CMix: Best friends forever?
FVL: Totally. BFF. I mean, you know, Hercules is definitely a book that has an ongoing storyline. It has a distinct beginning, middle, and end. We won’t reach that end until 2010. After that, all bets are off. But, definitely, we’re on it, we have a distinct plan, and that plan is playing itself out.
CMix: Now, on the darker side of things, you’ve been working on X-Men Noir. It’s a lot darker than a lot of your recent books. Is it an enjoyable change of pace from writing all-ages Iron Man stories?
FVL: It is. As I said at the beginning of the interview, I actually started out writing crime stories, so it’s more of a return home than anything else—to the stuff I was doing more in the independent world. I’m also doing the Dark Reign: Mr. Negative miniseries for the Spider-Man offices, so that’s fun. It’s another of the crime-oriented titles that I really enjoy doing. What’s good about Noir is that I keep calling it a crime story, but technically it’s a mystery story. It’s the kind of thing you don’t see that much in comics published by Marvel or anyone else for that matter, so it’s a lot of fun. To me, it’s kind of an underdeveloped genre.
CMix: Well, it’s a mystery comic starring a cast of criminals.
FVL: Yes, exactly. And, you know, obviously, the Angel, who’s the main character, is more of a traditional sort of detective character.
CMix: And then, keeping on the darker side of things, there’s Marvel Zombies 3. A lot of people liked it, but it was very different from Robert Kirkman’s original miniseries. Was it challenging to come into that with expectations so high and so set?
FVL: What was sort of nice about it was that we hit on the idea of using Machine Man and Jocasta pretty early on. In fact, I think Bill Rosemann, the editor, he really wanted to use Jocasta and that made me really want to use Machine Man. That, we came up with within 24 hours. I think it was actually delivered to me with the idea of, “well, let’s explore different parts of the zombie world and use the robots to do that. Let’s really give them some juice and have them invade the mainstream Marvel continuity.” It really wasn’t that intimidating, because I had come up with the idea before I had read any of Robert and [penciller] Sean [Phillips]’s comics, which are terrific. Within a week I had read them all. It was one of those things that happened so fast that I didn’t have time to be scared.
CMix: Was the use of Jocasta supposed to reintroduce the character for Mighty Avengers, or did that just happen?
FVL: In fact, Dan Slott was already planning on reintroducing her in Avengers: The Initiative. I don’t think those issues have come out yet, but Tom Brevoort and the folks in the Avengers office made it clear to me that that was something they were planning on doing. They were like “Don’t kill her! Don’t blow her head off!”
CMix: And moving away from Marvel just for a second, the third issue of Comic Book Comics just came out. Can you tell us where that project came from?
FVL: Well, as you mentioned, we started doing these non-fiction comics, Action Philsophers, which is the history of the A-list braintrusts. That succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations, including me and Ryan Dunlavey’s, so we wanted to keep the humorous non-fiction train going. We stopped for fuel, and we were sort of casting around for ideas—I think part of it was that we wanted to do a shorter-form project. Action Philosophers was originally intended to be 5 issues until it became 9. [Comic Book Comics], we also started out doing 5 issues but it will probably end up being 6. We realized no one had attempted to do the history of comic books as a comic book before. We just thought it was a fun idea, and we thought we could do it because a lot of what would prevent people legally from doing it would be prohibitions against using trademarked characters like Superman, Mickey Mouse, the Hulk, and so on and so forth. But we would have license to do that because we do it in the form of satire, which is protected under the First Amendment. So we just started doing it, and this has also exceeded our expectations. It’s doing much better than Action Philosophers, so, that’s been very exciting. It’s definitely introduced us to a whole new realm of fans.
CMix: Is it strange to write a history of superhero comics while you’re writing superhero comics?
FVL: It is. It’s not just superhero comics, fortunately. We also touch on romance comics, and crime comics, and the underground, and the influence of the French, and the influence of the Japanese—the whole gamut of it. We’ll see what happens when we start talking about issues like Stan Lee and his authorship at Marvel and Jack Kirby trying to get his artwork back. I’ll have to put in disclaimers, I guess, saying “I work for Marvel! I take money from these people!” That’s something you always have to be very cognizant of, you have to be upfront and transparent about this whole process.
CMix: That was the last question I had written down. Any teases from your upcoming books you want to share with us?
FVL: Well, we’ve got Marvel Zombies 4, which is coming out in April. That is a team of monsters put together by Morbius, which is comprised of Jennifer Kale, Son of Satan, Man-Thing, and Werewolf by Night. They go out tracking down creatures and zombies who escaped at the end of Marvel Zombies 3.
The All-New, All-Different Savage She-Hulk appears in April as well with all sorts of shocking revelations and gamma-irradiated fun, guest-starring the Dark Avengers. There’s another She-Hulk running around, from what I understand. She may make an appearance as well, not promising anything.
Speaking of the Dark Avengers, they appear in Hercules, in our Dark Reign crossover, that’s in #127 and #128. That is when Hera attempts to form an alliance with Norman Osborn, we’ll see how that goes. Her son is on his superhero team, it might help, or it might hurt. You’ll have to read.
And the last issue of X-Men Noir should be coming out.