This past Tuesday, we celebrated our sixth annual Fred Van Lente Day here at the blog. The man himself, Fred Van Lente, joined me in an online chat about comic book history. We were joined by a number of special guests, including Ryan Dunlavey, Fred’s collaborator on the Comic Book History of Comics (which you can read about here), Greg Pak, Fred’s co-writer on The Incredible Hercules, Herc and Alpha Flight and also Steve Lieber, noted comic book artist who joined Fred for a fascinating discussion about comic book piracy.
Read on for the official transcript of the chat!
Brian Cronin: Welcome everybody to the Fred Van Lente Day Chat! Today, we’re here for a discussion about comic book history in honor of the news that Fred and Ryan Dunlavey’s Comic Book Comics mini-series (which you can read about here, including previews of the issues!) is being collected by IDW Publishing as The Comic Book History of Comics.
Brian Cronin: Okay, to start, here’s a topic that you and I discussed way back when Comic Book Comics #1 first came out. How do you go about determining whether there is enough information on a topic that you’re willing to state one way or the other that it is true?
Brian Cronin: Or false, as it may be
Fred Van Lente: That’s why “allegedly” is such a wonderful word. 🙂
Brian Cronin: Ha!
Fred Van Lente: Victor Fox is a perfect example.
Brian Cronin: He IS a good example.
Fred Van Lente: For those of you who don’t know, Victor Fox was allegedly DC’s accountant. When “Action Comics” first started coming out, the DC brass hated Superman, but the #1 cover had already been done, so they didn’t change it. But they insisted Superman not appear on the cover again. And that stayed true until Action Comics #7. Sales immediately shot through the roof. The first to notice this was Victor Fox, as the accountant–he got the numbers first. So he saw which way the wind was blowing. He (supposedly) promptly quit his job, founded his own comic book company–in DC’s building– and hired Will Eisner to produce a new super hero comic called “Wonderman.” Now that last part we know for sure is true. The part about him being DC’s accountant, etc–that’s just an industry legend that gets passed around using the word “allegedly.”
Brian Cronin: Gerard Jones did as much, as well, in his great book about comics, Men of Tomorrow – Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, reporting the Fox story along with that glorious word “allegedly.”
Fred Van Lente: Right.
Fred Van Lente: Interestingly, the great-grand niece of Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson (founder of DC Comics) has a real bone to pick with Jones. She seems to be waging a one-woman campaign to improve the major’s image.
Fred Van Lente: She wanted us to send her a free comic so she could scan it for errors.
Ryan Dunlavey: I love when people complain to us about stuff somebody else did. Like it’s our fault.
Fred Van Lente: Shockingly, we didn’t get around to that. I was like, “Lady, there’s this thing called ‘torrenting’…”
Brian Cronin: That’s awesome.
Brian Cronin: It is like the daughter of Percy Crosby, the creator of the popular comic strip, Skippy. She, too, has been waging a decades-long fight to defend her father’s honor and fight the peanut butter company.
that she feels stole her father’s trademark. I wrote it about in Comic Book Legends Revealed here.
Fred Van Lente: I mean, we tried to avoid obvious whoppers. But some stories just become larger than life.
Brian Cronin: Heck, even me, when it comes to Comic Book Legends Revealed, as much as I try to avoid the “allegedly”s of the world, I cannot say that there aren’t legends that basically turn on me saying, “Yeah, that article convinced me” one way or the other. Whether it is “beyond a reasonable doubt” or not, I am comfortable stating that the article (or a person being interviewed or questioned) has convinced me , so I’ll run it as such.
Fred Van Lente: Right. Exactly.
Fred Van Lente: One thing we can correct is the assertion that we made at one point in Comic Book Comics #2 “Comics at War” that the password for the D-Day invasion at Allied headquarters was “Mickey Mouse.” I believe I got that from Neal Gabler’s great “official” Walt bio, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. However, it turns out to be blow way out of proportion. [NOTE: This comment inspired me to feature the “Mickey Mouse” story in this week’s Comic Book Legends Revealed. – BC]
Brian Cronin: And, of course, the problem is that for a number of these things, who can prove otherwise?
Fred Van Lente: Yeah, you’re right, Brian, there is in many ways a lack of accountability. The one fortunate thing is that some of these people are the most-interviewed in human history. I’m sure there are US Presidents who have been interviewed less than Jack Kirby.
Brian Cronin: A “problem,” though, is that most of these interviews took place before fandom was as organized at it is now, or more specifically, comic book historians were as organized as they are now. To wit, Gardner Fox responded to plenty of fan letters asking him questions before he died but there are plenty of fascinating questions that he never answered, partially because no one asked him. But then again, who knew what the “right” questions to ask were at the time? It is not like guys like Jerry Bails did not ask Fox plenty of great questions, it is just that things weren’t organized enough to have all the “right” questions be asked. Heck, one of the most informative interviews with Fox happened when a group of fans (including the late Rich Morrissey) came over to his house soon before he died! We got answers that day to questions that no one had ever asked before! So think about the fascinating Golden Age questions that we likely will never know the answers to because the questions were never asked in the first place. The situation with Bill Finger, of course, is even worse because he died so much earlier.
Fred Van Lente: A lot of the issues are the same today. Fandom only knows to a certain extent what the Big Two choose to tell them, and what creators let slip on their own.
Brian Cronin: Oh, definitely. For instance, I once did a legend where I quoted someone on a topic that took place about seven years ago and they let me know, “Yeah, that’s what I said then, but you should have asked me about it now.” And they were totally correct in saying as much. I should have checked their old quote with them now, but still, it is a fascinating example of how time changes the reliability of information.
Fred Van Lente: Sure. I’d be skeptical of any creator who’d claim he doesn’t have one or two of those kinds of stories.
Ryan Dunlavey: These are a lot of the reasons why Fred led us to focus on the major trends and movements
in comics history rather than the trivia
Brian Cronin: Definitely, Ryan, especially the last issue.
Brian Cronin: Which was probably the biggest “trend” issue.
Brian Cronin: Speaking of the last issue, Fred. How about you give us your rebuttal to the “Underground” defense of pirating as it ties directly into issue #6’s discussion of comic book piracy.
Greg Pak: TAKE COVER!
Fred Van Lente: Oh. Sure. Steve Lieber was nice enough to offer to do a follow-up interview. He e-mailed me on his own, which was very cool of him, but I haven’t gotten around to it. So I hope I don’t misrepresent his position.
Brian Cronin: And yeah, it is important to note that this is not knocking Steve and Jeff Parker (the creators of Underground) at all.
[Steve Lieber enters the chat room at this moment]
Brian Cronin: That is hilarious.
Steve Lieber: Dag, I walked in at the right time.
Steve Lieber: I came in on “I hope I don’t misrepresent.”
Fred Van Lente: Awesome.
Brian Cronin: I was just asking Fred to give his much-loved “Underground” rebuttal. Which is not a rebuttal to YOU, of course
Fred Van Lente: Right, it’s not a rebuttal of what Steve was saying. It’s a rebuttal of how this story has taken a life of its own.
Brian Cronin: Exactly.
Fred Van Lente: OK, so: Steve how about you give the Cliff’s Notes of your 4Chan “Underground” experience. Just so people have some clue as to what we’re talking about.
Steve Lieber: Someone one 4chan’s comics board was doing a “storytime” of Underground, a creator owned book Jeff Parker and I did at Image. He posted every page in the thread and nagged people to read and discus. I found out, came in, told them no problem, hung out, talked comics. They started donating money because I didn’t go all Gene Simmons on them.
Fred Van Lente: By “donating money”, what do you mean, were they buying the book, or what was the process?
Steve Lieber: We put the whole book up on our site for free, along with a donate button and a link to my
studio’s etsy store where people could buy a hard copy.
Fred Van Lente: Gotcha. So people could download the book for free & could either buy the hardcover or just give you money whether they wanted a book or not.
Steve Lieber: Over the next two weeks we got several thousand in donations from people downloading the
book. We call it “the honor system.”
Fred Van Lente: While before, you were getting next to nothing.
Ryan Dunlavey: I will confess I downloaded Underground for free, read it, liked it but didn’t donate
Greg Pak: Can I ask how the sales of the hardcover did?
Steve Lieber: Hard copy sales were about 300 copies that week, compared to about 900 through the entire direct market in the six months since the book had shipped. Paid taxes as “misc income.”
Fred Van Lente: That’s awesome.
Steve Lieber: The linked chart above is a screengrab from our site comparing hits from a rave review at Boing Boing and the first day of the 4chan story.
Fred Van Lente: And the moral of the story, in your eyes, was…
Steve Lieber: Moral= The direct market isn’t a healthy market for spelunking thrillers.
Fred Van Lente: Ha!
Steve Lieber: “Maybe it’s time to try something else.”
Fred Van Lente: After the two week spike, did you do any further follow up with 4chan, or anything like that to keep the fires burning?
Steve Lieber: I popped in to a few more threads, but I don’t like to just hover around a board and plug. If I’m gonna be at a board, it’s because I want to be part of a community.
Fred Van Lente: You summed up your overall experience nicely in 3 steps in a Tweet to me & Parker. Do you remember it?
Steve Lieber: 1. No Money
Steve Lieber: 2. Lots of Money
Steve Lieber: 3. Sandwich Money
Steve Lieber: WE ROCK!
Fred Van Lente: Ha! So the spike basically was a one-time only thing.
Steve Lieber: Oh yeah, We did nothing to maintain it.
Greg Pak: Interesting. Makes me think about Kickstarter/IndieGoGo…and getting a big short-term internet buzz going to drive dollars/donations/sales… Can’t do it every week for the same project… but maybe for some projects… you just need to do it once.
Fred Van Lente: And the larger point, also, I think, was directly engaging readers, not demonizing them,
had positive results, right?
Steve Lieber: Definitely. The one long term effect I noted was that sales at conventions were double
what I’d expect. That says to me the biggest part was letting people know that the guy who drew the book was an actual human being, and you can meet him.
Steve Lieber: This is not, as they say, a “scalable business model.”
Steve Lieber: Then again, neither is making comics.
Fred Van Lente: Also, your story got a lot of play on boing-boing, techdirt, various sites.
Steve Lieber: We were boing boinged, slashdotted and techdirted the same day.
Fred Van Lente: A lot of sites’ spin was slightly different. (Again not claiming Steve or Jeff have any control over that.)
Fred Van Lente: The problem with talking with the issue of piracy with folks is, let’s face it, piracy is
awesome. You get stuff for free, you get it immediatley.
Steve Lieber: “Free stuff? Suh-weet!”
Greg Pak: BUT YOUR IMMORTAL SOUL!!!
Ryan Dunlavey: Soul schmoul, I needs me my free Jughead comics!
Fred Van Lente: People don’t want to believe something so awesome could have detrimental effects. That’s one thing.: But there’s something else going on. Which is that a lot of people who are pro-piracy, if you talk to them to any significant amount of time, you discover they intensely dislike the comic book industry — admittedly, for not always unjustified reasons. Its current struggles, to them, are chickens coming home to roost. So people repel against the “Piracy Hurts” argument, as if it somehow excuses the industry’s other
problems: Too many titles, too many books w/one character, high price point, availability, etc.
Steve Lieber: I think of piracy as just one bolus in a bed we have thoroughly shat.
Fred Van Lente: You’re going to make me look up “bolus,” aren’t you.
Fred Van Lente: “Bolus.” Good word. I like you more than ever, Lieber.
Fred Van Lente: The problem is that people took Steve’s story about his 4chan experience — or at least the way it was portrayed by some — and said, basically, “Look, giving stuff away for free on the Internet is a viable business plan!” when a) I don’t think that’s what Steve was saying and
Fred Van Lente: b) nothing about his story, or his chart, proves that at all.
Fred Van Lente: Yet, a very, very common response when I talk about piracy is “Did you hear about the
guy who did it on 4chan and now lives in a rocket-powered jacuzzi” & I want to scream.
Steve Lieber: I need to make up a new graphic with my vignetted head and a word balloon with the 3 steps
Fred Van Lente: Ha! Yes. Unfortunately, my friend, you are now Legend. I can’t have a piracy discussion without someone pointing me to an article about you.
Steve Lieber: Ah, “Fame.”
Fred Van Lente: The reason this came about recently (and why Brian asked about it during this chat, I
presume) is I was having a friendly debate on Twitter with a writer from techdirt & he was arguing basically that “the digital marketplace won’t be a problem for a creator who’s nice to your readers”then — I said it out loud to computer screen before he did it — Tweeted an article about Steve & 4Chan to say, in essence, “See, there’s proof,” & I blew a gasket.
Ryan Dunlavey: Fred losing his shit: Always entertaining.
Fred Van Lente: I mean, anyone who wants to seriously examine issues of digital media really should not take an urban legend and try to use it to prove that The Long Tail actually works.
Fred Van Lente: Ryan & I self publish, and Marvel’s told me their digital sales figures. Digitial cannot replace the mainstream any time soon.
Ryan Dunlavey: Current digital sales are, at best, like adding one really supportive retailer, money-wise.
Brian Cronin: And, of course, ad-supported web comics are a whole other animal.
Fred Van Lente: Right. Ad- and merch-supported web comics, plus web comics that appeal primarily to the tech/web crowd are perfectly situated on the Interwebs.
Fred Van Lente: But I can see the hunger, the HOPE people want that somehow this will work, and that’s why they see Steve’s “Underground” experience as something other than what it is.
Fred Van Lente: But it still doesn’t prove anything, other than Steve is one charming mofo.
Steve Lieber: I don’t think the long tail works yet, but I think it fails to work less severely than any other options right now. Does that make sense?
Fred Van Lente: You mean it works better for some projects — well, a LOT of projects – than the Direct Market.
Steve Lieber: Exactly.
Fred Van Lente: Yes, there I would agree.
Fred Van Lente: The difference is between “survival” and “thriving industry.” (Or even “okay industry.”)
Steve Lieber: I come to the piracy argument assuming that everything else is a total fucking disaster.
Fred Van Lente: The problem is the massive reduction — if not the straight-up elimination — of the creative middle class if you have an environment where you have, essentially, individuals giving stuff away for free (and a very teeny-tiny percentage making a living exclusively off of that) and big media conglomerates who can afford to take a financial hit.
Fred Van Lente: And frankly I don’t see the solution.
Fred Van Lente: But as someone who deals in history I can’t cling to false hope either.
Fred Van Lente: And there’s just a lot of demagogeury attached to this issue that I can’t stand.
rawnzilla: A lot of the problem falls with the consumers that we have left being stuck in patterns..
rawnzilla: I can’t tell you how often a customer will complain about a book they’re buying…
Fred Van Lente: …and let me guess, that same customer will refuse to be recommended a book he might actually like.
rawnzilla: lately I’ve been buying multiple issues of some of my favorite books like THUNDERBOLTS and giving them out to people who are picking up other books just so they even look at it
Fred Van Lente: It’s hard to separate the piracy issue from the decades-long love/hate relationship between comics fans and comics publishers. Ryan & I surveyed people about their piracy habits on-line before Comic Book Comics #6 came out and one guy actually wrote (I so wish I was making this up): “I bought hundreds of dollars of books in the 80s and 90s and now comics owes me.” (i.e. that is why I pirate).
Fred Van Lente: And I thought that was fascinating. Well, no the way capitalism works is that you give money for goods and services. If the store TOOK your money then GAVE you comics in return they don’t actually owe you, unless they took your money but kept the comics. Then yes, you should be pissed.
Fred Van Lente: And, as usual, the piracy issue has derailed everything. But in a good way. 🙂
Brian Cronin: It does have a way of doing so.
Fred Van Lente: Steve, thank you, thank you for coming out and chatting. You also, Greg and Ryan.
Fred Van Lente: Anyone have any questions I can answer before we go?
zdenkovoloder: Where can we expect Herc to pop up now? Avengers Academy?
Fred Van Lente: I have no idea. At least in comics… (chuckles ominously)
rawnzilla: Will we ever learn the secret of the Elven tickler?
Fred Van Lente: Yes, but only when you’re older.
Steve Lieber: When are you moving to Portland?
Fred Van Lente: Steve: I was going to, but then Oleksyk had to go and move to LA so I have no one to nag…
mistersmith: More Machine Man?
Fred Van Lente: Read Jeff Parker’s Hulk! He’s there.
sampsa_g: A craft question for Fred : How much detail do you give an artist in a script ?
Ryan Dunlavey: TOO MUCH
Fred Van Lente: What Ryan said.
phil_keeps_crashing: What’s next for the Van Lente/Dunlavey machine?
Fred Van Lente: We are currently working on our next project, ACTION PRESIDENTS, and have another non-fiction idea we’re kicking around, but too early to talk about.
Brian Cronin: ACTION YOUTUBE COMMENTERS?
mistersmith: ACTION PIRATES
sampsa_g: Action Podcasters
Ryan Dunlavey: ACTION COMICS… no, wait…
Steve Lieber: 40-something readers like me want more FVL non-fiction!
sampsa_g: Are you actually covering all of the presidents ?
Van Lente: Honestly? That’s one of the things we’re figuring out.
Fred Van Lente: My favorites are the obscure guys like Chester Arthur, but the “money” (such as it is) is in the Big Names. (You know, just like in comics.)
Brian Cronin: Yeah, the lesser known presidents tend to be more fascinating because of the lack of info about them.
Fred Van Lente: Well, and, perhaps this is obvious, but every presidency was historic so it’s the full story of the USA (yeah, I guess that was obvious).
Ryan Dunlavey: I’ve actually got a non-fiction comic coming out sans-Fred
Steve Lieber: Cool!
Ryan Dunlavey: It’s a cook book!
Fred Van Lente: Go the whole plug, Dunlavey!
Ryan Dunlavey: Dirt Candy Cookbook written by Amanda Cohen, drawn by me August 2012!
Ryan Dunlavey: I turned in the first draft on Monday.
Fred Van Lente: I hope people get a chance to check out the 5pp preview of RENAISSANCE, a very Action Philosophers-type project Sarah Oleksyk and I have coming out next year:
Brian Cronin: You can check it out here.
Fred Van Lente: Yes, thanks Brian — and hosted by our pals here at CSBG.
Steve Lieber: It looks FANTASTIC.
Brian Cronin: It really does. She really nailed it.
Ryan Dunlavey: Renaissance is some cool shit
Fred Van Lente: Thanks, Steve! I am looking to do tap into some of that “Underground” magic by doing it FREE. This is where my “Marvel Zombies” royalties are going. 🙂
Brian Cronin: Yes, speaking of the current direct market situation, Renaissance is a perfect example of a 2012 approach to comic book delivery
Fred Van Lente: Yeah, for some reason I didn’t think a 200pp graphic novel about the Mona Lisa would
cut in the Direct Market. Although it has lots of violence. And boobies. Lots of boobies. And swears. You know, like the kids like.
mistersmith: Hey Kids, Comics!
Brian Cronin: Bam! Pow! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!
Fred Van Lente: And explosions. And so far, exactly one penis.
Fred Van Lente: ( I mean that’s visible)
sampsa_g: Oh come on, there a lot of ladies out there reading it – put in another penis!
Fred Van Lente: That’s true. Since it’s free you can download it and draw all the penises on it you want.
Brian Cronin: Democracy in action
Steve Lieber: I wanna see a bunch of SCA types doing Renaissance cosplay. With fewer guys yelling “Huzzah.”
sampsa_g: So will there be any additional value to the printed version of Renaissance ?
Fred Van Lente: It will work just fine in a power outage. (Light source not included.) Really, though, it’s too early to say. We’re not going live until it’s 50% done and Sarah’s only at the 25% point. I’ve been working on it for two-plus years so I can afford patience. 🙂
Brian Cronin: Yeah, I was looking at old FVL Days, and Rennaisance has been on the table for a long time
Brian Cronin: Okay, thanks to everyone for coming out! This was a great discussion. Happy Fred Van Lente Day!