In-Depth with Fred Van Lente

Whether you know his name or not, Fred Van Lente is steadily gaining a foothold on some of your favorite characters. The current writer of "Marvel Adventures Iron Man," Van Lente's worked on almost every "Marvel Adventures" title and, like writer Jeff Parker before him, is following up his success in the line with an acclaimed miniseries in the Marvel Universe proper: "Super-Villain Team-Up/M.O.D.O.K.'s 11," a heist caper a la "Ocean's 11" but with a handpicked team of B-list villains. Additionally, Van Lente will also co-write "The Hulk" with Greg Pak following the "World War Hulk" crossover event.

Van Lente's high-profile superhero projects come on the heels of his success in the indie comics world with the quirky "Action Philosophers!" A collaboration with artist Ryan Dunlavey, "Action Philosophers!" tells the lives and thoughts of history's A-list brain trust in a hip and humorous comic book fashion. They're not, as many people would suspect from the title, a super-hero team, fighting crime or anything like that. They're actual philosophers, and the series depicts their actual lives and their actual philosophies.

"AP!" wrapped up last week with issue #9, and CBR News sat down with Van Lente to get his final thoughts on the cult-favorite project, and some updates on his work at Marvel Comics and his new project, "Comic Book Comics."

The end of the series is the culmination of a lot of work for you and Ryan. How does that feel?

It doesn't really feel like an ending just because we have literally not stopped producing comics. We're just moving to a different subject. It's a strange feeling. The books are supposed to be delivered from the printers later this week so maybe I'll feel different once I actually crack open the box and have the last issue in my hand. As of right now, it doesn't feel like anything I have to admit. In part because we made the decision last Fall. So I've had a while to get over it. And we've had the death threats and the talking fans down off the ledge ever since the announcement to keep us busy.

You're joking, surely?

No, I think that's kind of standard when anything ends. There's always that sort of range of reactions from its fan base, from grief to anger to denial to acceptance.

How did "Action Philosphers!" come about? You have an interesting secret origin story.

It came about because Ryan wanted to be in the "Small Press Expo Anthology" one year. SPX is a pretty well known, small press convention in the Washington, D.C. area. They used to do an anthology every year benefiting the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. The theme this particular year was biographies and Ryan actually wanted my wife to write him a story at first because she's a playwright! So I was kind of like, "Dude, I write comics, what are you doing?" Anyway, I used to create indie comics with another friend of Ryan and myself, Steve Ellis.

What we would do is go to SPX with mini-comics that were basically parodies of other comics.

One of which was a Lovecraft-Cthulhu mini-comic; a Christian pitch on the Cthulhu Mythos.

That's the most famous one. The two things I get the most fan mail about are "Action Philosophers!" and the Cthulhu thing, which is unfortunate because the Cthulhu thing is free and it makes me no money, but that's okay! Go to FredVanLente.com and check out Online Comics and you'll find "The Cthulhu Tract."

And the year before, Steve and I had done another comic called "Right-Wing" which was like a parody on the conservative mindset. It was sort of like, "What if Rush Limbaugh wrote a superhero comic?" So it's this very right wing, reactionary kind of social conservatism. And you should just see the scary fanmail I still get from that. A lot of people out there don't understand this joke. I tend to get a lot of e-mails like, "Can you do more Right-Wing comics so we can sell them at our Young Republicans meeting?"

So I was actually parodying the literal forms that comics take more than the subjects themselves. So we had the religious tract pamphlet, the mainstream American superhero comic, and one of the type of comics I hadn't yet had a chance to parody were the comics that used to get bundled in one those He-Man type, "Masters of the Universe" action figures, explaining the characters. So since the theme that year was biography, I said, "Wouldn't it be funny if there were philosopher action figures and this is the comic book that game with your philosopher?" Hence, the name – "Action Philosophers!"

So we did that and SPX promptly rejected the story.

But you then took it to three other places?

Well, more than three unfortunately. The second thing to happen was a start-up newspaper named Prophecy commissioned new "Action Philosophers!" stories from us. This was supposed to be like one of those free newspapers like The Onion that get distributed in coffee shops. Ryan had heard of the paper so he submitted the story, and it turned out the Editor was a former philosophy major. So that's when we did the Bodiharma and Plato stories. Ryan had just started on the Jefferson story when we got word the paper lost its funding. So we were now stuck with 32 pages of comics and nowhere to publish them.

So, we took it to a lot of independent comic book publishers that I'm sure you've heard of and they all said, "No thanks." But then Chris Staros at Top Shelf said, "Why don't you try the Xeric Grant?" This is the non-profit organization founded by Peter Laird, of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" fame, who, God bless him, decided to buy one less sports car and invest some money in this great organization that not only helps would-be comic book publishers but also gives grants to various New England charities and non-profit organizations. So, we won the award and much to our surprise were successful. So, you know, take that SPX and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund! Our money could have been yours!

You obviously put a lot of work into each issue of "Action Philosophers!." I know you read at least one major work for each philosophy covered. Issue #9 is a monster in that respect. There's just a ton in it.

Busted! Um, yeah, not as much as the other ones. I'd already read the Tao-Tze-ching and was already familiar with Shin Taoism. I read a pretty good book called "The Courtier and the Heretic" which was a twin biography of Leibniz and Spinoza. That was very helpful. I ended up reading a book on Rumi, the major Sufi poet, because at one point that was going to be in there. So I read that, unnecessarily as it turned out, because we couldn't squeeze him in.

And that's about it. You know, I've been extremely good throughout the life of the series about not cheating. To me cheating is going to Wikipedia and going to the internet, the encyclopedia of philosophy. I've been haunting used bookstores and actually buying philosophy textbooks. I have a really excellent philosophy textbook from the late '80s that I leaned heavily on. There was this book for McGraw-Hill called "Philosophy, History and Problems" that I leaned on occasionally. But just for the nature of #9, I cheated more so than usual. But I did read enough for three philosophers, which would be the regular amount for an average issue. I should also point out the whole concept behind #9, the whole crazy cram as many philosophers as you can into one issue, was Ryan's idea.

Did you read anything for Rousseau?

I did. I read "Rousseau's Dog" by Edmonds and Eidinow who were the guys who wrote "Wittgenstein's Poker," a great book about a confrontation between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Carl Popper.

How much work would you say you do on an average issue?

Couple months. It's tough to tell because it overlaps. It's funny because we had a meeting right when we got the Xeric Grant and we decided we'd do just three issues, but then it quickly became five, six, seven, eight and then nine issues.

You do a great job of representing each philosopher's point of view. I know you've mentioned whichever philosopher you're covering, that's the side you take in writing about him. Is that hard to do?

I do have some pretty strong opinions of my own, but not really. What's funny is I actually think the reverse is more true. I think it's hard when I'm covering a philosopher I really, really agree with because I don't want to be too lenient on them. I want everyone to receive the same amount of abuse. So for someone like Spinoza, whose work I feel rather strongly about, I really had to try hard. But it's definitely a lighter touch than on some of the other philosophers.

I do think that's one of the most impressive things about the series, your ability to make a reader take a second look at a philosopher they may have written off. I personally hated Ayn Rand after reading "Anthem" in High School, but after your story I have a real respect for her philosophy, even if I don't agree with it.

Well, Ayn Rand's problem is that she's been co-opted by a political group that most intellectuals can't stand. Helen Mirren said it in this horrible, sort of made for TV movie where she played Ayn Rand, but it was something to the effect of "Rand hated conservatives even more than she hated liberals." And I don't particularly like her novels, but I think she's one of the most entertaining writers of philosophy maybe ever. I recommend "The Virtue of Selfishness" to anybody. She does a great job of attacking people like Immanuel Kant who try to overly mystify the realm of philosophy.

Which philosopher or philosophers are closest to your own viewpoints? You mentioned Spinoza earlier and I know you're a fan of Zen philosophy, right?

I often like to say that most problems in two thousand years in Western philosophy could be solved by reading ten minutes of eastern philosophy, which is kind of an overstatement but… maybe a month reading eastern philosophy? So the Taoists, there's a great book about and by the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn called "Dropping Ashes on the Buddha" that I'd recommend to anybody. Also Wittgenstein; Wittgenstein's philosophy on language is very useful. The logic-based aspect of Ayn Rand's philosophy -- once you separate from Alan Greenspan and those guys.

Descartes and "Hyperbolic Doubt" I find very useful. Which is the funny thing, because I almost feel that I benefited more from "Action Philosophers!" than anybody else merely by reading all this stuff. As any educator will tell you, to teach a subject you need to understand it on a really deep level, much deeper than you would as just as a student. So it's great because it's actually helped me to become a happier, more contented person because I'm able to synthesize so many different viewpoints. I cherry-pick one thing from Ayn Rand, another from Hegel, take something else from say, the Kaballah or Augustine, etc. It's great.

Where do you fall on the big issues? Atheist or spiritualist? Liberal or conservative? Marxist revolutionary or fascist capitalist pig?

[Laughs] Well, I think you have to begin any philosophy with the "Tao Te Ching" assertion that you really can't improve the universe. If you begin with the intention to improve the universe, you end up damaging it. And I think more importantly: you end up damaging yourself. This is where Spinoza comes in, with his concept that the only way to positively effect those around you is through your own actions and attitudes, your own self-perceptions. In order to have the most contentment in life, you have to be as clear-eyed and devoid of your own desires and prejudices as possible in how they effect your observations, and right there you have Buddha, you have Schopenhauer. Then also very important to me are the Stoics, who I should have mentioned earlier. A great book I would recommend to everybody after the "Tao Te Ching" would be "Epictetus' Manual."

The most important thing, therefore, is to be ruthlessly honest with yourself about who you are and what it is that you want. Unless you have those two things aligned, it will be first very hard to achieve those things, and second you'll likely end up damaging the world around you by operating on various levels of self-deception.

So, to go from that laundry list you gave me backwards, I'd first say my philosophy is quite consciously a-political. Obviously, I vote and pay taxes but one thing that does not impress me at all is any form of activism on any part of the political spectrum. But of course I'm a white, upper-middle class, straight male – so what do I know? No one cares what I have to say about social justice, and there's no reason why they should. But from my point of view the best thing you can do for the world is be a good person. You can go and scrub baby seals when the Exxon-Valdez rounds aground and that's great but it doesn't matter if you then go home and beat your wife.

If the answer is yes: you completely missed the entire point. So to answer your other questions backwards, from a viewpoint of clear-headedness, in my mind the conclusion of any rational person is: there is no God, we live in an atheistic universe, and we don't truly understand where it comes from.

Do you find that being an atheist conflicts with Zen philosophy?

Well, the attitude of Zen toward God is incredibly ambiguous. In fact, Zen is such a personal philosophy that if there were a God, I don't think Buddhists would really give a shit. Obviously, there's the Buddha for mainstream Buddhism but the more abstract forms of Ze in achieving alignment, which is your personal quest, there's just no room for the Judeo-Christian view of God. After all, the Judeo-Christian God's main characteristic is jealousy: "you must obey me and no one else but me."

So, I find in speaking about Buddhism in regards to atheism, atheism is such a Judeo-Christian notion anyway. It's a Western idea. I don't see a huge difference between atheists and Buddhists honestly, though I'm sure there's plenty of people who might disagree.

One of the most special things about "Action Philosophers!" is definitely the humor, especially in the little touches. Like casting Manichaeism in the style of Kirby's New Gods. Do you find you have to work hard for the gags like these?

Not really. That in particular would fall under the heading of just instantaneous insight. One of the most frequent questions I get asked as a writer is, "Where do your ideas come from?" My stock answer now is just: "my brain." I think being a writer lends itself to just asking yourself "what if" questions when you're going about the day, getting your groceries or whatever.

Your book recommendations are one of the most popular parts of the comic. Sometimes you buck the trend and pick something very unexpected. For Nietchez, you didn't pick "Beyond Good and Evil;" for Campbell you didn't pick "The Hero with a Thousand Faces." Was this intentional?

It depends. The name of the column is "Required Reading for Geniuses on the Go." so I literally attempted to always pick the shortest, best book I could find. And honestly, I enjoyed "Hero with a Thousand Faces" but I really did like "Inner Reaches" more. And I have to be honest – I did not read "Beyond Good and Evil," I read "Thus Spoke Zarathrustra" and picked "On the Genealogy of Moral," which is the sequel to "Beyond Good and Evil" so Nietchez spends a good deal of time summarizing the arguments he made in his previous books. That way, you only have to read one book. It's all part of the scam of "Required Reading for Geniuses on the Go." The point was maximum information for minimum amount of time.

Given the conclusion of "AP!" and your current Merry Marvel Renaissance, one question would be, have your editors at Marvel read "Action Philosophers!?"

Yeah, a lot of people have. Not always the people I directly work with but I did a story for the Marvel Western event. The one they did last summer. And when the hardback came out, everyone had the little bios on the dust cover and mine said: "Fred Van Lente is best known for Action Philosophers!." And I read that I was like, "I am? Cool!" So someone at Marvel's read my stuff. Whoever writes the bios for the Marvel Western stuff.

You opened "M.O.D.O.K.'s 11" with a quote from Mary Wollstonecraft.

Yeah, that's great. The remaining three quotes are all Action Philosophers as well, something which is totally coincidental because they were not when I had actually written the series years ago.

How does that process work – does the story idea come from the quotation or vice versa? Do you just come across the quotation in reading and then make an effort to include it in later projects?

You know, epigrams are a tricky thing. They can sometimes be a little excessive. But I grew up reading Tim Powers, he always opened with epigrams, and then obviously they're a big part of "Watchmen." Every issue of "Watchmen" opens with one, and obviously that's sort of a huge influence. With "M.O.D.O.K.'s 11," I knew that some people were going to think the whole thing was excessively silly, so using epigrams would be a simple way right from the start to let people know that there was something more going on in the series then just "let's make jokes about M.O.D.O.K.'s big head!"

What's next for Marvel? Are you taking over "Hulk" after Greg Pak?

Well, actually Greg and I are writing "Hulk" for a spell together. Nat'urally, that's very exciting for me and we'll be doing that for four issues after "World War Hulk."

Can you give us any hints on what we can expect from that arc?

I can't. I don't think I can, anyway, because it's so tied in with the ending of "World War Hulk." I don't want to spoil it. I can say that Arthur Adams is doing the covers and he's amazing, and the interior art is by Coy Faim, who drew "X-Factor," and his pencils are just absolutely terrific.

There's nothing else you can tell us?

Okay, et me say this… the amount of time I spent researching ancient Greece for "Action Philosophers!" really helped for this arc. Hint, hint, hint, hint.

So that's happening and then, like all Marvel writers, I have a couple of federally mandated super-secret projects I can't discuss, but hopefully which should be off the ground shortly. And I should also say I'm still the writer on "Marvel Adventures Iron Man" and I jumped from "Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four" to "Marvel Adventures Spider-man."

Your Monster Island issue for "Marvel Adventures FF" was very popular with readers.

My best story from San Diego Comic-Con was this little four-year old or five-year old who had this Thing doll that was as big as she was. Her mom brought her over and said that was her favorite story, and that she always asked to have it read to her. So I signed her acrylic Thing.

Your next non-fiction project with Ryan Dunlavey's is "Comic Book Comics." And may I say how nice it is to have a book by you guys I can finally understand after only one reading.

[Laughs] Well, we were trying to come up with a follow-up series for "Action Philosophers!" and what I wanted to avoid was "Classics Illustrated." I really didn't want to adapt the major works of novelists or the stories of films. It's one thing to "adapt" a work of philosophy, it's another thing to re-tell somebody else's story.

And I've done a lot of work for Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art (MoCCa). I now serve on the Board of Advisors there. So I've amassed a huge library about comics and it just sort of hit me one day: no one has ever tried a non-fiction comic about comics history before. And what's great about comics fandom is everyone is into their own corner of the history: this guy loves Will Eisner, this guy loves Marvel, this guy loves EC horror stuff, etc. But we're going to cover everything.

Is it less research for you than AP?

It's more, actually, because I'm expecting our death threat e-mail count to triple when the book comes out because comics fans definitely feel a little more strongly about their comics and creators than they do about say – Schopenhauer. The average "Action Philosophers!" reader might not feel they have the intellectual background to feel that they can confront me and Ryan on something they think we got wrong about Schopenhauer. But there's plenty of comics fans who think they know everything Stan Lee. And they very well may go berserk about certain stories we may tell about certain creators. So I think I am actually doing even more research.

Well, I do not envy your position there.

[Laughs] I think it's great. It's important. I really want people to get a larger view of comics history and with all the courses on college campuses popping up about comics, I really think it can be used as a teaching resource. Although, it's just as funny and irreverent as "Action Philosophers!."

Are you still following "Comic Book Comics" with "Action Presidents" next year?

Yes. Although at this point, it might be the year after that. "Comic Book Comics" is definitely going to be a much shorter series than "Action Philosophers!," philosophy obviously having several thousand years behind it while comics have only been around since 1896.

There's comparatively little non-fiction work being done in comics right now. Do you think there should be more?

Well, I think that will steadily – actually, no. There shouldn't be more --because I don't want the competition. So for those of you out there thinking about doing non-fiction comics – don't . [Laughs] But Larry Gonick's still going strong with his "Cartoon History of the Universe."

Grant Morrison is an influence of yours in comics writing. Do you feel you've done a Morrison type comic yet?

"M.O.D.O.K.'s 11" is very Morrison in its way, and I think you'll see that as issue #3 comes out. I do like Morrison quite a bit; I just think my sensibilities are more mainstream than his.

Having read "The Invisibles," I think in at least one point in his life, Morrison really bought into the revolutionary message of his comics. And God bless him for doing that but I'm too cynical. I think my influences would be more toward Kafka, Shirley Jackson; I'm on a huge Philip K. Dick kick right now.

So I guess my point is I love Morrison but my main problem is I just can't not be funny. I will never be confused for Frank Miller. If you handed me "The Punisher" tomorrow, I might not turn it into a comedy, but it would definitely have a lot of jokes in it. I think that's sort of my gut reaction to the world. My reaction to almost everything seems to be, "are you kidding me?"

In an age of "decompression," the density of your writing really bucks the trend. Do you find that non-fiction work and "Marvel Adventures" are both great fits for that?

Definitely. Part of it is definitely that if I was guaranteed 12 issues on a title, no problem, I'd just sprawl out and decompress my ass all over that shit. But I don't. With "Marvel Adventures," you get one story to tell in 22 pages. With my other work, I get a lot of back-ups and whatever else, so the economy… okay. Here's a great story: one of my favorite creators of all time in any medium is Akira Kurosawa. Great film director. And he did a movie called "Ran," an adaptation of "King Lear."

Some reporter once asked him, "I love that shot with the castle. Why did you choose that framing?" And he said, "Well, if I moved the camera a couple of inches to the left you'd have seen the airport. If I'd moved the camera an inch to the right you'd have seen the Sony factory." So that's sort of how I feel about all artistic choices: necessity is the mother of necessity. You have to do just the right thing in the amount of real estate you have to do it. So if I'm compressed in my indie work, it's because I was paying for the comic.

Wrapping up on a contemplative note - in your Joseph Campbell story, you quote Heinrich Zimmer who said, "For Indian art, man is God. Art is created so that he might experience this truth… and need art no longer!" So, what then are writers doing? Are writers devoting themselves to a mode of thought man doesn't need or are we doing that much needed reminding?

Well, I'll come back at you with another sort of quasi-mystical response: isn't that really asking why does a turtle swim? That's what turtles do. Writers write because it's what we do. And that's the mental place I'm in right now, where I just feel blessed that I'm getting to do something that as a kid I dreamed of doing, and I can do it full time and somewhat successfully. This is true for any writer at any time in his development, and it sounds obvious, but: you have to be happy writing. The act of creation has to be just for you. I'm an extremely selfish writer. My first question is always: "what do I get out of it?" And in the case of "Action Philosophers!," in a way that was totally accidental, I ended up getting a whole lot out of it --almost to the point where I feel guilty. But then I get the mail from fans and talk to people like yourself and see that other people have gotten a lot out of it as well.

Fred Van Lente, thank you for talking to CBR. It's a genuine pleasure. And I'll remind our readers to look out for both "Action Philosophers!" #9 and the upcoming "AWESOME: The Indie Spinner Rack Anthology," featuring the preview story for "Comic Book Comics."

Now discuss this story in CBR's Indie Comics forum.

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