Interview: Fred Van Lente on ‘Action Philosphers’ Tested by Philosophy Professor
Fred Van Lente is the New York Times bestselling author of Incredible Hercules
(with Greg Pak) and three entries in the Marvel Zombies series, as well as the American Library Association award-winning Action Philosophers. His original graphic novel Cowboys & Aliens (co-written with Andrew Foley) is being adapted into motion picture form by Dreamworks and Universal, starring Daniel Craig. Van Lente’s other comics include Comic Book Comics, MODOK’s 11, X Men Noir and Amazing Spider-Man. Wizard magazine nominated him for 2008 Breakout Talent (Writer). Comics Should Be Good named Fred one of the 365 Reasons to Love Comics. He’s been called “one of the most idiosyncratic and insightful new voices in comics.”
With the release of the even bigger (4 superheroes added and the original heroes now arranged in chronological order), The More Than Complete Action Philosophers by Fred and his partner-in-crime, illustrator Ryan Dunlavey, from his very own imprint, Evil Twin Comics, back in November, I went back and re-read the Philosophers’ stories I’d reviewed about a year ago. Being a Philosopher, myself, and therefore the very curious type, and always looking for new ways to connect with my undergrads, I sat down, keyboard-to-keyboard, and had a chat with Fred about this latest incarnation of his intrepid endeavor.
ComicMix: To start off with the basics and the obvious but perhaps not-so-obvious, why Philosophy in Comics?
Fred Van Lente: They used to do an anthology every year for the Small Press Expo (SPX) in Bethesda, Maryland, which Ryan Dunlavey and I go to a lot. One year the book’s theme was biographies. Ryan wanted to submit a story, and I volunteered — well, more like bullied my way into writing it, because Ryan originally asked my wife, Crystal Skillman, who’s a playwright.
I had been reading a lot of Nietzsche, just for fun (because that’s how I roll), and it occurred to me a funny, short comics bio of Nietzsche would be just in the wheelhouse for Ryan’s style.
CM: So then that begs the question, with your inspiration being the very cerebral Nietzsche, why “Action” Philosophers?
FVL: For the past couple SPX’s, I’d been writing little mini-comics for us to sell out our table with my buddy, Harvey Award-winning artist Steve Ellis.
They were satires of different kinds of comics; for example, we did a strip called “Rightwing,” about a conservative superhero published by the Republican Party: http://www.fredvanlente.com/rightwing.html
And the following year, we made fun of Jack Chick, the famous religious tract publisher, by doing an evangelist strip for HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu (this one’s become pretty big on the Internet): http://www.fredvanlente.com/cthulhutract/
To continue the trend, I thought it’d be funny to pretend there were action figures of philosophers (interviewer’s note: there are!), and so we did the Nietzsche strip in the style of a little comic you’d get bundled in with your Nietzsche action figure. Hence the title, “Action” Philosophers.
The punch line is we got rejected from the anthology but found we enjoyed doing philosophy comics. We did a couple more for a start-up magazine that never started up, and eventually we got a grant from the Xeric Foundation to self-publish our own AP comic … and here we are today.
CM: That’s a story worthy of the quirky twists and turns of most
Philosophers’ lives. So do you consider yourself a Philosopher and then
how do you define Philosophy/Philosopher?
FVL: I don’t really consider myself a philosopher, no. More of an essayist, commenting on others’ work in graphical form.
think philosophy, generally speaking, is the exploration of the nature
of existence and existing. I suppose others would define it more broadly
but that’s what it means to me. And you don’t need to be a philosopher
to practice philosophy, of course.
CM: How very philosophical of you, Fred! So, how did you choose your artist to collaborate with?
and I had gone to college together, even were roommates for a year, but
we hadn’t really collaborated with each other until ACTION PHILOSOPHERS. And it’s turned into my most meaningful experience in comics.
Writing, business, and Philosophy are all about choices. In this new
volume, the Philosophers are in chronological order, which I think is
very helpful, but not so in the originals and not readily apparent in
the 3 omnibus volumes, signed by you, that had been gifts to me from
other author friends. How were the Philosophers chosen and arranged for
the original books?
FVL: To sell comics, contrived as they were
around vague “themes” that made for funny, eye-catching covers. The
“All-Sex Issue” (#2) revolved around thinkers whose sex lives played
important (or interestingly illuminated) roles their thought. “Self-Help
For Stupid, Ugly Losers” (#3) were all psychologists or thinkers into
Two whole issues’ worth, “The People’s
Choice” (#6) and “The Lightning Round” (#9) were voted on by our readers
on our web site, which is, shockingly enough,
http://www.actionphilosophers.com. So in that instance the fans chose
CM: It’s a pity some of those funny titles could not be retained in the later editions.
So you cover a lot of ground and have, I’d assume, in the process,
gained a lot of insights into what it is that Philosophers explore and
yearn for. So what do you think is the #1 Philosophy question – most
asked, most important, or both?
FVL: What is the right way for us to treat each other?
CM: Well, certainly Jesus, Hillel, and most Ethicists
would agree with you, there! Especially because, when we talk about
Philosophy and Philosophers, we’re talking about humans and their
stories. Do you have a favourite Philosopher or Philosopher’s story?
I found value in almost everyone we profiled. But particularly
Bodhidharma, Lao Tzu, Baruch Spinoza, Wittgenstein, Ayn Rand, Sartre,
Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer.
Philosophy is a very personal thing in a lot of ways – one person’s hero
is another’s villain! Who was your most annoying Philosopher?
I would rather gouge my eyes out with a spoon than read Kierkegaard or
Derrida again. Long rambling paragraphs of hoohah adding up to bupkiss.
CM: I can whole-heartedly agree with you on Derrida, but I
rather like Kierkegaard. So there we have it. But yes, we Philosophers
can ramble and sometimes even become rather obscure. In that realm,
who’s the most incomprehensible Philosopher?
FVL: Leibniz’s ideas
are impenetrably idiotic. If it weren’t for his sucking up to royalty
and/or contributions to mathematics I would like to have thought the
collective human intelligence would have allowed him to disappear into
the dustbin of history by now.
Hmmm…I rather like Leibniz’s monads, myself (“Monads are Gonads!”).
But I’m less familiar with his biographical doings with royalty than you
seem to be. Something else I’ve learned from you. So, what’s the best
fun fact you learned whilst researching this?
FVL: That Plato really was a pro wrestler — and Plato was his “stage name”. Plato Smash, indeed.
That really did crack me up. I hadn’t known that. I’d only known
about his failed poetry career. And so I was prompted to write to you
even then to tell you that I’d used you in my class. I’m sure you get
some interesting mail from interesting people. What kind of reader
writes to you?
FVL: All kinds. We’ve received letters from men,
women, boys, girls, professors, students, people who have never read a
comic before to hardcore fans of the medium, from all around the world.
CM: I’m sure a lot of it is good, or at least entertaining. What’s the best comment/review you’ve gotten?
It’s the most humbling and rewarding experience in the world to have a
reader come up to you and tell you that your work has literally changed
their lives. I feel the same way about working on it, and it’s always a
pleasure to touch someone in such a profound way.
Some of your best work in this series seems to be on your
interpretation of some rather difficult to understand, for most folks,
mystics, like Kabbalist Isaac Luria. Do you consider yourself a mystic?
Thank you! But no, I’m even less of a mystic than I am a philosopher. I
leave that kind of stuff to Alan Moore. He has the beard for it.
Speaking of beards, with the addition of poets like Rumi in this latest
volume, you’ve covered such a wide range of Philosophers and yet there
are still so many more that could be explored, bearded or otherwise. So
I’ll wrap things up with this question: Are there more Philosophers in
FVL: Nope, we produced 320 pages of philosophy
comics, which we decided was enough: You can get the entire nine-issue
series in the More-Than-Complete Action Philosophers, available from
Amazon (note: and Barnes & Noble) and finer comics and booksellers
Ryan and I are currently on the tail end of our comics history of the comics medium, COMIC BOOK COMICS — #5 (of 6) should be out not long after this interview runs.
Then after that: It’s on to ACTION PRESIDENTS.
Which is exactly what it sounds like.
If you’re curious, and want to know more about the Action Philosophers or Fred Van Lente, be sure to checkout Evil Twin Comics website.
Fred loves hearing from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.