Comic books are a great medium for telling strange stories. Their visual nature allows a writer and artist to bring to life bizarre and unreal things that might be hard to describe in prose form or costly to produce in film narratives. Of course, there is that old adage about truth being stranger than fiction, and in some cases, it’s more hilarious, too. Writer Fred Van Lente (“Incredible Hercules,” “Power Man & Iron Fist”) and artist Ryan Dunlavey (“M.O.D.O.K.: Reign Delay”) have been illustrating those two facts in their six-issue, creator-owned self-published series, “Comic Book Comics,” examining the origins of comic books as a storytelling medium from an often humorous perspective. Issue #5 of the series hit stores this week and we spoke with Van Lente about it, the series as a whole and his past and future collaborations with Dunlavey.
“Comic Book Comics” is actually the second title from Van Lente and Dunlavey’s self-publishing company, Evil Twin Comics, through which the duo pioneered their signature form of comical nonfiction storytelling with their award winning series “Action Philosophers.” “Evil Twin is the name of a comic strip that Ryan Dunlavey drew for the ‘Daily Orange,’ the Syracuse University student newspaper. He and I both went to Syracuse. We were roommates when we both first moved to Brooklyn. After college, we tried to get into a comic anthology that the SPX convention was putting together, which had a theme of biography,” Van Lente told CBR News. “I thought it would funny to do a humorous biography of Nietzsche, as if you had purchased a Nietzsche action figure and this was a little comic that was bundled in it to explain who the guy was; hence the term ‘Action Philosophers.’
“We didn’t get into the anthology, but we ended up doing an entire series’ worth of ‘Action Philosophers,'” Van Lente continued. “We decided to self-publish it after every publisher in town rejected us. In 2005, we got a grant from Peter Laird’s wonderful Xeric Foundation and Ryan named our publishing company Evil Twin after the comic strip he did in college. ‘Action Philosophers’ was our first title and it was a big hit. Take that publishers! All the money went into our pockets!”
“Action Philosophers” ran for nine issues and is currently available in three collected editions, a complete omnibus style edition and in eBook format. When Van Lente and Dunlavey were wrapping up “Action Philosophers,” the duo realized that no one had ever really attempted a comic book series detailing the history of comics. And so, “Comic Book Comics” was born.
“Obviously, there’s Scott McCloud’s ‘Understanding Comics,’ and there’ve been a lot of nonfiction books written about comics, but as far as we could tell no one had really done a truly broad-based examination of the entire history of all comics. Not just ‘Mad Magazine’ or DC super heroes or Robert Crumb,” Van Lente said. “Comics’ history and scholarship tends to be focused on whatever the particular scholar likes. We wanted to do sort of the whole story and see how all these different aspects of the medium connected to each other, and they truly do. I’m constantly shocked to see how many connections there are as we move through the history.”
Van Lente and Dunlavey began their look at comic book history at the beginning with “Comic Book Comics” #1 featuring a look at the various forms of storytelling that would give birth to the comic book precursors, from pulp magazines and newspaper strips to early forms of animation. Issue #2 examined the Golden Age of comics and the effect World War II had on the industry while “Comic Book Comics” #3 took a look at things like Fredric Wertham’s anti-comics crusade, Robert Crumb and the Silver Age of Comics. Issue #4 tackled the rise of Marvel Comics, the underground comics revolution and the story behind the creation of Herge’s “Tintin.”
With this week’s “Comic Book Comics” #5, Van Lente and Dunlavey tackle a chaotic subject with its own chronology that stretches from the early days of comics to present day: lawsuits and their effects on the comic industry.
“The earliest lawsuit in the issue is the very famous and very important case where DC sued Fawcett over Captain Marvel, and to the shock of many, won. Captain Marvel was declared to be a rip-off of Superman. Fawcett had to later settle out of court and basically gave up their entire comics line as a result of the lawsuit,” Van Lente said. “Then of course, that cascades back into history. It was why Marvelman was created in England. Without Marvelman, we wouldn’t have Miracleman and so on and so forth. And the latest development from that early lawsuit is probably Marvel Comics acquiring the rights to Marvelman from Mick Anglo, the original creator of that character. That development raises the question of; where does that leaves the status of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman stories from Eclipse Comics? Marvelman became Miracleman when Eclipse published it, so Marvel Comics wouldn’t give them a hard time. So who knows?”
Despite the fact that Van Lente and Dunlavey are in a unique position to not just report on the history of comics, but to comment on it as well in their series, it’s not something that interests the duo. Their stories are more about presenting the facts in an interesting and humorous way than trying to prove any points.
“In ‘Action Philosophers,’ our attitude was that we believed every philosopher that we profiled, while we were profiling them, even though Ayn Rand and Kierkegaard and Sartre don’t necessarily have any agreements with each other. With ‘Comic Book Comics,’ it’s a little more complex,” Van Lente said. “I think there are some things that sort of beg commentary on. I read with great interest Jason Aaron’s essay about Alan Moore here on CBR a few weeks back, because we produced our own response in the context of our British Invasion story in issue #5, which is called ‘1986 AD.’ We take a slightly different tact than he does. We much more play things for the comedy value of them.”
Taking an informative and humorous approach to things allows Van Lente and Dunlavey to tackle some controversial stories in “Comic Book Comics.” “Part of the reason we’re avoiding commentary is, if you say just what happened and you have the facts to back you up, you’re safe. We have notes on all of the sources we used for every issue up on our website. So you can fact check us if you so choose,” Van Lente said. “The First Amendment protects fair use by information and fair use by parody. Plus, I feel like as long you don’t seem like you are biased to any one side, or as long as everyone looks equally as bad in the stories, no one side is going to be all that ticked off.
“The ‘Grabbers’ story in this latest issue, about Siegel and Shuster suing DC and Jack Kirby’s struggle to get back his artwork, doesn’t just simply beat up on Marvel and DC. Siegel & Shuster and Joe Simon & Kirby all did questionable things during the course of their fights,” Van Lente continued. “So while we are presenting what happened, because these are important issues with regards to creator rights and First Amendment issues, I wouldn’t say we are attempting to make any one institution or person out to be a bad guy. That’s definitely not my intention, so I hope that’s not how it comes across.”
Since each issue of “Comic Book Comics” covers a wide variety of subjects and material, they can take a while to put together. In fact, it took Van Lente and Dunlavey a year and a half to complete issue #5. “I hope the next one, which is our last one, will take less time. These comics do take a while, though,” Van Lente said. “At least two months of research go into each story, each story is about 10-12 pages long, and there are two to three stories each issue. So from the research side of things, it’s very time consuming.
“I already had quite a bit of knowledge about the history of comics when we began, which was helpful. I certainly knew more about that than I did about philosophy when we began ‘Action Philosophers!’ I was going to do a whole biography of Jack Kirby at one point, so I amassed a lot of research for that. Plus, I was fortunate enough to be chair of the curatorial committee for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art here in New York. So I had a lot of resources available to me through there as well,” Van Lente continued. “For the most part, though, each story is definitely it’s own unique research challenge. For #6, we’re doing a history of the graphic novel and we’re looking at graphic novels before Will Eisner. It’s been fun tracking those down. Milt Gross did a silent graphic novel in the early ’30s called ‘He Done Her Wrong.’ There’s also great stuff like the woodcut novels of Lynd Ward. So in explaining the history of the medium to the reader, I’m expanding my own knowledge and appreciation for it, which is always a great thing.”
Writing each story of “Comic Book Comics” is also a highly involved process. For every panel, Van Lente has to write informative captions, set up the art direction and make sure the humor involved is properly set up and conveyed. “It can be hard. Comedy is difficult. I’ve always been sort of a natural explainer, though. I was a college professor at one point. I enjoyed it — except for the interacting with humans part,” Van Lente joked. “I was very happy to explain stuff like Marx and Freud, so it is something that kind of comes naturally to me. I think that’s part of the reason we’ve been successful. For whatever reason, I’m someone who likes to tell people how things work.”
When it comes to explaining his panel set-ups, Van Lente tries to keep things concise. “With both my Marvel work and stuff like ‘Comic Book Comics,’ I try to be a very sparse script writer. My ideal is one sentence per panel. Unfortunately, I don’t often achieve that goal, but a lot of what we do for ‘Comic Book Comics’ is hunting down reference. We mention a lot of obscure stuff, which is not always online, so there’s a lot of scanning involved,” Van Lente said. “I try to support Ryan as much as possible, because he has to be such a visual chameleon. He’s drawing in so many different styles, like Jack Kirby, Windsor McKay and he does a pretty good Crumb. Fortunately, Ryan, who some may not know, was one of the cartoonists for the late great ‘Wizard’ magazine. They had him draw ‘Little Zemo in Slumberland’ and all these other great strip parodies like the ‘Fantastic Four’ as the ‘Family Circus.’ He was doing that for both ‘Wizard’ and ‘Toyfare.’ So Ryan is uniquely qualified to do this because he’s such a great master of cartooning disguise.”
As Van Lente told CBR, issue #6 of “Comic Book Comics,” which is currently in development, will cover the history of the graphic novel. It will also take at other current popular comic forms like manga and developing forms like digital comics. “Right now, I’m doing the story of Osamu Tezuka and how manga has affected the United States, which as you can imagine, is a massive, mammoth subject. I’m still hip-deep in research at the moment,” Van Lente said. “In addition to that and the graphic novels story, we’ve got a third tale called called ‘No More Wednesdays,’ which is about the rise and potential fall of the direct comics market, particularly in the face of challenges like digital distribution and digital piracy.”
Once they finish “Comic Book Comics #6, Van Lente and Dunlavey will dive headfirst into their next project, “Action Presidents,” a series that chronicles the hysterical and historical adventures of those who have held America’s highest political office. “It’s exactly what it sounds like,” Van Lente said. “We’re not being subtle at all.”