Ryan Dunlavey talks "Action Philosophers!" Finale

CBR News spoke earlier this week with Fred Van Lente, writer of such titles as "Marvel Adventures Iron Man," "Super-Villain Team-Up/M.O.D.O.K.'s 11" and the acclaimed indie comics hit, "Action Philosophers!" Depicting the lives and thoughts of history's A-list brain trust in a hip and humorous comic book fashion, "Action Philosophers!" concluded with issue #9, on sale now.

Continuing our coverage of the series finale, CBR News speaks now with Ryan Dunlavey, the artist and co-creator of "Action Philosophers!." His next collaboration with Fred Van Lente is "Comic Book Comics" – a hip, quirky look at the stories of comics history you think you know -- but really don't.

With "Action Philosophers!" wrapped up, we sat down with Dunlavey to hear his thoughts on the book that's made him an indie comics hero.

Fred Van Lente & Ryan Dunlavey at New York Comic Con 2007

"Action Philosphers!" was rejected by numerous publishers before winning the prestigious Xeric Self-Publishing grant. Were you surprised with the success of "AP!" given its rocky start?

Not as surprised as Fred was. I thought we would do okay, but once we got the Xeric Grant, the way things were going, it didn't seem that surprising. I mean, a lot of people have done comics like we've done before, but we've gone after the mainstream comic book market and succeeded there, where others have not.

Well, Larry Gonick's work "Cartoon History of the Universe." That's been around for a long time. But comics fan like you and I don't necessarily think of that as a comic book. It's a graphic novel that's been in stores twenty some years but it doesn't show up on the stands next to "X-Men" and stuff.

We don't know any better. [Laughs] We only knew what we did at the time we started. We've since found out the whole book publishing market is huge and so much more than the direct market and individual sales.

Issue #9 has shipped. Are you a little sad to see "Action Philosophers!" end?

No not at all. I really enjoy finishing things. It really did seem like the time to end it, too. A lot of people have asked, "Well, why couldn't you do more?" and I guess we could but after a while the philosophers start to repeat themselves and the joke starts to wear a little thin. Our whole plan is to go out on a high note --one of the great rules of comedy.

But #9 is, ironically enough, a really great jumping-on point because we do a variety of philosophers packed into one issue, giving people a good taste of how we handle philosopher's lives and theories in cartoon form. We really did go all over the place for the issue. We did Rousseau as a sitcom, we did "The Six Degrees of Francis Bacon" as this big flow-chart thing. We just had a great time playing with the comic book medium and trying to find new and interesting ways to present these ideas to people. "Six Degrees of Francis Bacon" was actually a fan suggestion and we were like, "We're totally stealing that, hope you don't mind."

The relationship you guys have with your fans is very open. Between the letters and the forums, you have a lot of people who really like to respond to your work in a way few creators get.

Yeah, we get some pretty passionate people. It can actually get pretty intimidating because we're both amateurs when it comes to philosophy, myself especially. Fred and I learned more doing this series than we ever learned in school. A lot of people assume we have degrees in philosophy and we don't.

Do you guys get actual professors of philosophy on the forum?

We used to all the time, in the first few issues, but it kind of tapered off. I don't know whether those people think we're idiots or what but we had some professors and teachers early on. The classic thing we get, though, is people who took philosophy in college.

Do you want to give your side on "Action Philosopher's" secret origin story?

Well, I wanted to do a biography story for an anthology and I didn't feel confident enough to write it myself, so I actually asked Fred's wife originally. And then she didn't have time and Fred got very hurt and said, "Why can't I do it?" So, you know, he did the Nietchez comic. And the reason why it's called "Action Philosophers!" is that at the time I had this terrible habit of buying action figures, which I've since given up on. So he did it basically to make fun of me. He always called them my "man-dolls" and thought it was hilarious that I had a whole room filled with nothing but action figures. But they're all gone now. All sold. I had to make a clean break.

Were you interested in philosophy at all at the beginning of the series?

Not really. I mostly just got roped into it. I'm not what you'd call academic at all. I did not finish college. I did take Philosophy 101 when I was in college and I got a C+. But doing material like this has definitely been a real learning experience for me.

Would you say you're a philosophy fan now?

Oh, hell yeah.

Did Fred ever pass along some reading to you from time to time while researching the book?

No, because he knew I wouldn't do it. [laughs] All my research is, like, ten minutes on the internet. The only real research I had to do was on what topics we would do for the issue. We'd talk about who we'd cover, what the broad themes were going to be, etc. A lot of my suggestions got shot down by Fred just because he knew he was going to have to do the reading. Like, I suggested an anarchist issue at one point, and he shot that down because he just wasn't that interested.

You're a very talented caricaturist. Is a lot of your research looking at old paintings of stuff-shirt philosophers and figuring out amusing ways to render them?

Yeah, a lot of old white guys in suits. The way I start doing the caricature is I find as many paintings or pictures of the person as I can and then I actually do a realistic drawing of them first, which no one ever sees. There's a pile of them in my sketchbook. Then I just keep paring that drawing down until it looks more and more like a cartoon character. That's how I came up with Nietchez, Bodiharma, everybody. Except for weird ones like Plato where he looks nothing like how Plato actually looked.

That design really became the symbol for "Action Philosophers!."

Yeah, there's a story behind that. I had actually done a flash cartoon for World Championship Wrestling a couple years previous, which is now defunct. And I did that pose a lot of that guy leaping off the ropes. This cartoon was seen by nobody but I always really liked drawing that. And then we found out Plato was a wrestler so it just sort of came together.

Given that you'd start with a realistic drawing first – are you a cartoonist by training or an illustrator?

A cartoonist. No doubt about it. But that's really the only way I know to make a caricature of somebody – start realistic and then just pare it down. Because when you do that you really become familiar with the quirks of somebody, of their face, and the shape of their head and what not. And then you can make that simpler. I've heard of like caricaturist techniques and stuff, but I've never tried them and this is the only way I know. Just keep making it simpler as long as its still recognizable.

Who's your favorite philosopher?

Probably Joseph Campbell.

His issue was very popular with readers.

Me too, and I just connected on a very personal level to it; just the idea that all these mythologies, all these philosophies – everybody thinks the same thing, in their own language. The patterns just repeat themselves over and over and… I don't know. I just connected with it more so than the other ones.

Bring us through the basics on Ryan Dunlavey's Seminal Treatise on Philosophy if it were ever published. Where would you come down on the big questions? Atheist or spiritualist? Liberal or conservative? Marxist revolutionary or fascist capitalist pig?

No, I can't do that. That book would never exist. But I am an atheist, yeah. Somewhere in the middle between liberal and conservative. And for the last one... I just want everybody to bow down before me. So whatever gets me that.

So you're a Machiavellian.


Do you have a favorite "Action Philosophers!" story?

Probably the Bodiharma story, just for the visuals. That was my favorite for a long time. And the Marx one was a lot of fun to draw. Actually that's probably my favorite. I felt like I really reached a break through with that. I really got into it.

The visual jokes in the Marx story are particularly good. Like the "Made in China" tag on the Che Guevara t-shirt.

Yeah, that's Fred. That was in the script. But some of the jokes are just ones that I include because I think of them. A lot of them I just throw in for fun and then people went nuts over them. Like one of the ones that wasn't in the script was Hegel has an apron in one story, and I just wrote: "Kant Touch This" on it. Everyone was like, "Oh man, you have to do a t-shirt with that on it!" That's what happens when it's 2:00 in the morning and you're inking pages and you're like, "Well, I'll do something here."

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