Welcome to the CBR SUNDAY CONVERSATION, a weekly feature where we speak in-depth — and at-length — with some of the most interesting members of the comic book community. These discussions run the gamut in terms of topics, from current projects to classic stories, talking trends, tastes and wherever else the conversations lead.
Starting ten years ago, writer Fred Van Lente worked with artist Ryan Dunlavey distilling the lives and lessons of great thinkers — from Nietzsche to Descartes, Ayn Rand, and Lao Tzu — in a series of comics called “Action Philosophers!” With the upcoming “HowToons: [re]ignition,” drawn by Tom Fowler and colored by Jordie Bellaire, Van Lente furthers his education in the sciences, particularly in physics and energy. As he teaches and informs, Van Lente also learns, often a trial by fire. Later this year, he and fellow writer and frequent collaborator Greg Pak pay it forward, packaging everything they’ve learned about publishing into a new guide called “How to Make Comics Like the Pros.”
CBR News reached out to Van Lente to discuss some upcoming non-fiction projects and to wax philosophical on questions of life, the universe, and everything else.
CBR News: You’ve written non-fiction and educational comics on a broad range of subjects in the sciences, history and philosophy. Is there any one subject you wish you knew more about, any How To book you wish were out there for you?
Fred Van Lente: That’s a great question. Ryan Dunlavey, my frequent non-fiction partner in crime, and I are kicking around the idea of doing a book on the history of money. Economics is definitely a subject I think that all of us could use a little more tutelage about. It’s something I wish had been forced upon me because I know I would not have done it voluntarily. Basic business. How to do spreadsheets. Profit and loss. All sorts of things I wish I’d been taught as a youngster. If I can plug another non-fiction book of mine coming out soon — because we actually do talk about some of this — Greg Pak and I wrote a book called “How to Make Comics Like the Pros” coming out from Random House’s Ten Speed imprint in September.
Sounds like a natural.
We take readers from idea to scriptwriting process, pencils, inks, colors, letters, and then we talk about marketing. Greg obviously had a very successful Kickstarter campaign. Ryan and I have had a successful self-publishing company. We’re able to use our joint experience to guide folks from unpublished to published, and then perhaps after that, getting hired by one of the Big Two. We do some of the basic business and math stuff on how to run a self-published comics operation. To answer your question, I wish I had this information before I started doing this, in the ’90s. It would’ve saved me a lot of wasted money and frustration.
Do you prefer to write about subjects where you have a firm, preexisting knowledge base, or is it more attractive as a challenge to tackle a subject you don’t know as much about, but could learn under fire in the process of writing that non-fiction book?
Honestly, half the fun for me to do these things is learning about the various topics. I’d gotten some philosophy in college, but when we did “Action Philosophers!” I was really just doing that from scratch. And if I can plug another book, from another publisher– [Laughs]
I’ll just add it to your tab. (Readers, there is no tab. This is merry-making. We are joshing.)
It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since Ryan and I did our first “Action Philosophers!” mini comic, but Dark Horse will be coming out with the Tenth Anniversary — Uber Edition they’re calling it — of “Action Philosophers” in the Fall.
Ten years, really? In ten more years you have to add a section on Midichlorians.
I hope everyone reading this is feeling as old as I feel, and am. But what’s cool is, Ryan and I are doing what’s probably our last “Action Philosophers!” story, which is “Action Philosophy,” condensing all that we’ve learned in the process of making the book into a single essay. That’ll appear first in “Dark Horse Presents” and then in the collection.
All time favorite philosopher?
My life has really been improved by a lot of the eastern thinkers, the Bodiharmas, and Lao Tzus, and zen buddhist thinkers and Taoist thinkers of the world. I’d definitely say that group collectively, which I got in college. I’m by nature a worry-wart and neurotic person, so there’s something very centering about their philosophies that we got through and conveyed in the book.
Smartest thing a philosopher has ever said?
Contradicting what I just said, I think people in the internet world, people on social media — pretty much anybody, I assume, if they’re reading this–
Everyone reads this. Religiously. I don’t have numbers. I can only assume.
[Laughs] I think everyone would do well to read Epictetus the Stoic. He had a very simple philosophy. In brutal shorthand, one of the tenants was, ‘Why should you worry what fools think of you?’ You should do what’s right and then accept the consequences, and not spend so much time looking to others for validation.
So, ‘Don’t read the comments,’ basically.
Exactly. It’s sort of the ‘Don’t read the comments’ of 100AD. [Laughs] Actually that’s a really good way to sum up that philosophy in 21st Century shorthand. That story in “Action Philosophers!” is definitely one of my proudest ones. Avoiding the hell that is other people, essentially.
You mentioned being a worry-wart, and I’m the same way. Poring over thoughts from the great thinkers, you find a lot of comforting ideas. ‘Centering’ things, as you put it.
But it can also got the other way.
What’s the scariest thing a philosopher has ever said? The most troubling or unnerving thing?
That’s a great question. It’s hard to say. Is it corny to say that it’s hard to be frightened by reason. I think it’s us who brings the fear. It’s the reader who brings the fear. We want the world to be a certain way and we so desperately want to be certain people. I think that what’s challenging is when we’re confronted by things that reveal the lies we speak to ourselves.
Well, now you’ve got me thinking of “The Wire” and the great philosopher Marlo Stanfield. “You want it to be one way. But it’s the other way.” Anyway.
If the truth is frightening, it’s because you’re resisting it. I guess that’s another zen buddhist thing, right? Suffering comes from desire. Trying to get something you lack requires a certain bit of resistance. There is a certain joy to letting go. There is something to say about not giving a shit. I think that’s hard for us to hear that at times, because we want to believe our desires are to work good in the world, but a lot of times our desires are selfish things that not only harm ourselves, but harm the world.
There’s a bit of truth to be gleaned from any third party, but are there any branches of philosophy that you simply disagree with?
I’m an atheist, so I find a lot of philosophers are in error trying to justify God’s existence, which involves a lot of logical leaps and fallacies that don’t work for me. Who knows? That could just be me applying my own prejudices to it. I think all atheists would like there to be a God. [Laughs] I’ve yet to meet one who goes, “No, I don’t want to live forever in eternal bliss! No, I don’t want there to be some higher purpose.”
There’s also the concession that there won’t be answers to life’s big mysteries forthcoming in the end. We don’t get to see what’s inside the envelope because there is no envelope, or maybe no letter opener. Are there any big cosmic questions you’re disappointed to know won’t be answered?
Well, to turn it back to zen buddhism, part of the zen koans — the most famous of which concerns the tree falling in the forest and whether or not it makes a sound — is that perhaps the answer is that there are no answers, and more importantly that there are no questions.
That puts me out of a job.
It doesn’t necessarily mean not to contemplate, not to think about life and the lives of others, and what existence means. But ultimately, I think, existence is the answer.
But there are more tantalizing things than lonely trees making noises. There’s Bigfoot.
[Laughs] Right. Exactly. Unlike God, we at least have photos of Bigfoot, so I’m slightly more inclined to believe in Bigfoot.
Aren’t you at least curious about aliens? Or ghosts? Or ghosts of aliens? Ghostfoot?
Well, I mean. Based on everything I know with physics, even if there were aliens, I don’t know that they would find us. Or how we’d find them. Considering this exoplanet they discovered in the habitable zone of that distant solar system…
I dunno. Perhaps some physics will be found that will allow us to travel faster than light or allow us to breach those great distances, but we may have to find all of our answers within.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Fred Van Lente’s upcoming projects and follow him on Twitter at @fredvanlente.