The cover for “Action Presidents” issue one, which debuted last week via comiXology, depicts Washington wielding an axe and a chainsaw, mad spittle shooting out of his mouth while yelling, “YOU’RE NEXT!”
Only humor and comics can make politics palpable, or at the very least, as writer Fred Van Lente puts it, “cut through the bullshit.” Following up on his and artist Ryan Dunlavey’s “Action Philosophers,” which saw the likes of Jung and Descartes distilled through a filter of comedy, “Action Presidents” is a spiritual sequel that focuses on the executives we know — and the executives we sorta forgot about. Brimming with sharp art and sharp humor, the first issue is already available to download, with more on the way.
Van Lente, a vocal proponent of digital comics, is adamant about “being everywhere,” having your book in as many places as possible. With that in mind, the writer spoke with CBR News about the positives of digital, the research that goes into each issue of “Action Presidents,” and why some of the less popular presidents are quite fascinating. To that end, he probably knows more about Chester Arthur than you do.
CBR News: Fred,Â “Action Presidents?” Action heroes, sure. But action presidents? Let’s hear about the idea behind the book.
Fred Van Lente: Shockingly, the title is a natural outgrowth of our first-ever series,Â “Action Philosophers,”Â which ran 2004-2009. That book’s success surprised both Ryan and I, and we wanted to keep doing non-fiction comics. At first we wanted to doÂ “Presidents”Â and what becameÂ “Comic Book History of Comics”Â concurrently, but that proved impractical.
Fundamentally, Ryan [Dunlavey] and I try to use humor and comics to cut through bullshit — and we as Americans are fed a lot of it by our culture, which likes to promote the idea of the USA’s infallibility and exceptionalism.Â “Action Presidents”Â is our dissenting side of the story of our country, which paradoxically uses the comics medium to tell a much truer story of our first executives than what you get in textbooks.
Even though, ironically, our first issue, “George Washington,” was createdÂ forÂ a textbook, which was the great non-profit “Reading with Pictures” with a very successful Kickstarter. The sixth grader in your life should start looking for it early next year!
Each issue deals with a certain president, right? Which one are looking forward to the most? Personally, I can’t wait to see what you do with Teddy Roosevelt —
Teddy’s great, but what always excites me with these non-fiction projects is discovering stuff I didn’t know anything about. Some of the “loser” presidents are quite fascinating. Chester Arthur, for example, one of the most cited forgettable presidents, defied his party’s political machine to enact much-needed customs reform, pre-income tax, customs fees and such being the main source of the Federal government’s revenue.
Chester Arthur? Who’s he…? But seriously, what other fascinating tidbits have you dug up about these forgettable executives?Â
Well, it’s a slow process, and I can’t claim to be an expert about every one. But it is very interesting to me, like inÂ “Action Philosophers,”Â how presidents’ biographies determined their public lives. Teddy Roosevelt, for example, was born very sickly and weak, and developed his body through physical and outdoor activity that pretty much defined his interest in conservation at home and various (sometimes ill-considered) adventures abroad.
John Adams, who will be the subject of #2, was a lawyer — the first in a long line of lawyer presidents — and I found he demanded that theÂ legalÂ arguments for America’s secession from Great Britain be founded in principle like any other court ruling, so it wasn’t only morally right but could be defended before an impartial judge. I find that kind of stuff fascinating.
When I think of government history, my mind fogs and I go cross-eyed. But when presented with material likeÂ “Action Presidents,”Â I immediately pay attention — it’s the lighthouse in the fog. Is that the trick of humor, then? To take a subject that many perceive to be wooden or boring, and make it palpable?Â
It’s not just the humor unto itself, but the rendering of abstract concepts in picture format — in the comics format. We discovered this in doingÂ “Action Philosophers,”Â and editorial cartoonists have been doing that for centuries. By rendering ideas into physical format, visual format, you make them so much more digestible by the mind — and more fun, too!
Switching gears a bit, what benefits have you found using comiXology as the main means of distribution for yours and Ryan’s projects?Â
Our imprint — Evil Twin Comics — was one of the very first publishers to sign up for comiXology, and they’ve always been terrific supporters of ours. They’re like the world’s largest comic book store at the tip of your fingertips anywhere you can get a WiFi connection, and I use their service for both new comics and back issues myself.
I’m not just a publisher — I’m also a member.
After digital, are there plans for a print edition?
Our plan at the moment is to do digital until we have enough material — 100 pages or so — for a TPB. We printed a very limited print run of “George Washington” for NYCC and other conventions — retailers can get them at wholesale rates through our indy distributor,Â the great Tony Shenton, andÂ individuals can check out our web site. But we’re saving the big dead tree push for the graphic novel version.
Do you prefer digital or print? Do you see one as being more beneficial than the other? As you put it, digital is extremely far-reaching, but there’s nothing quite like holding a comic book, so…?
You have to be everywhere. Online, with DRM, without DRM, in print, in bookstores, in comics stores, in the supermarket checkout line if you’re lucky enough. There’s not enough money in the arts to not be everywhere you can possibly be, so it’s just stupid to be dogmatic and hold up one format over the other. You have to maximize revenue by any means necessary.
Uh, legal means, that is. Stay off drugs and in school, kids!
It’s plain to see you guys are having a hell of a time taking our past presidents and creating something hilarious, so what’s after theÂ “Presidents”Â run? “Action Occultists?”Â
Well, Ryan and I do have something in development at the moment, but nothing I can announce. It’s something we’re exceptionally excited about, and is a subject that is neither philosophy nor history, but combines quite a bit of both. It’s something I’ve never researched before and what I’m discovering is blowing my mind! I can’t wait to share it with y’all.