Talking Comics with Tim: Fred Van Lente
Fred Van Lente is hellbent on getting his name on the cover of every Marvel comic, or so it would seem. I could try to list all the Marvel titles he has written, is writing or will be writing, but we’d never get to the actual interview. Suffice to say that Marvel keeps him busy. And then there’s Action Philosophers (Van Lente’s successful independent collaboration with artist Ryan Dunlavey). Back to Marvel, this week marks the start of his Spider-Man/Chameleon storyline with the release of Amazing Spider-Man 602. Here’s the official word on Van Lente–he “is the New York Times bestselling author of Incredible Hercules (with Greg Pak) and Marvel Zombies 3, as well as the American Library Association award-winning Action Philosophers. His other comics incldue Comic Book Comics, MODOK’s 11, X Men Noir and Amazing Spider-Man.” Van Lente was kind enough to do an email interview with me about his various projects.
Tim O’Shea: Marvel is clearly pleased with X-Men Noir, given that they have announced a follow-up with the same team, Mark Of Cain. Given that a great deal of your writing for Marvel is within the “main” Marvel U, how liberating is at as a writer to get to play around with characters in a Noir universe?
Fred Van Lente: I always like to have big, bloody Grand Guignol endings, with bodies heaped up on stage like at the end of a Shakespeare tragedy. Nothing says “dramatic climax” like “everybody dies.” One of the nice things about working with the X-Men franchise in the Noirverse is that it has so many characters there are always some left over no matter how many you knock off. XMN1 we whacked Jean Grey, Magneto, Mastermind, Blob, Unus, Beast, Banshee, Rogue, Iceman, Gambit and Qucksilver, but we still had Wolverine, Puck, Cyclops, Angel, Professor X, and the Scarlet Witch to kick around.
In Mark of Cain they’ll be joined by a large bulk of the “All-New, All-Different” cast, including Noir analogues of Juggernaut (obviously), Emma Frost, Nightcrawler, Storm, and Colossus, and a few surprise appearances as well.
We’ve already been asked about a third installment, so my co-creator Dennis Calero and I will have to be careful not to kill everybody off. Even the X-Men have their limits in terms of mortality.
O’Shea: What’s some of the storytelling lessons have you taken away from collaborating with Greg Pak?
Van Lente: Becoming friends with Greg has been one of the most rewarding parts of doing Incredible Hercules. Neither of us had ever co-written anything before this, and I think the most important lesson I took away from it is that having a collaborator can be as, and sometimes more, rewarding than flying solo. The analogy I always use is that of a jazz combo, where one guy plays a note and then that sparks something in another guy, who takes the performance in a different, unexpected direction. All that not-knowing-what’s-happening-next, because you’re working with a second brain, is part of what makes working on the book so exciting for me.
O’Shea: The most recent issue of Hercules had him come face to face with the Shakespearean Marvel version of himself. Did you choose to have this plot element, at least in part, to explain why Hercules no longer talks like that?
Van Lente: Sort of. I more just like busting on old comics. Because there’s something wrong with me, deep inside. Where I’m soft, like a woman.
As a kid it drove me crazy that Thor, who’s not from England, and older than Shakespeare, always talked like Macbeth. It didn’t make any sense to me. I mean, now that I’m older, I appreciate why Stan Lee did it, to make these divine characters seem otherworldly and larger-than-life. But Greg and I have been pretty militant about not having Herc talk like that, because, as we keep drumming over and over, he is an exceedingly human god, which is both his attraction and his weakness.
Also, there was the practical consideration that giving the Heracles shade a different speaking pattern it helped the reader differentiate him from our hero Hercules because they look exactly alike.
O’Shea: When you first took the assignment on the Hercules (formerly Hulk) book did you do it with the assumption it would be a short term or assignment or did you always hope it could become the permanent arrangement (Hercules in his own book) that it has become?
Van Lente: If I remember correctly, originally it was just supposed to be a four-issue run of Incredible before that book stepped aside so Jeph and Ed’s Red Hulk could step onto the stage. But the numbers were excellent, and the reviews even more so, so Marvel extended us another five issues or so. So we tied in to Secret Invasion. That arc sold even better than the previous one and I think two out of the five, or maybe even three of the five, sold out and had second printings. And the reviews were quite complimentary too. So that’s when we basically became an ongoing. And it was about that time Greg and I came up with the overall uber-arc for the book, this massive eight storyarc epic that when it’s all said and done will be my proudest achievement at Marvel, without a doubt.
Just to give you an idea of the scale of the whole thing, the issue that just came out, #131, is the end of the fourth arc, so it is the exact halfway point of the saga.
O’Shea: Is the level of creative satisfaction different for you when you’re writing a Marvel property versus when you’re writing Action Philosophers?
Van Lente: It’s a different kind of satisfaction. And it doesn’t really have to do with the difference between Marvel and creator-owned, because Action Philosophers isn’t really “creator-owned” in the sense that Ryan Dunlavey and I are adapting the work of these great thinkers of history. It’s more the difference between non-fiction and fiction.
I think that because it is philosophy, it’s comics that explore the great questions of life, why are we here, what is the best way to live, how do we be good to each other, how should we deal with death… The reaction is just very different than to a work of fiction.
It’s a very special thing to have people write you or come up to you at cons and tell you your comics literally changed their lives. It’s a special thing to know your comics are taught to cadets in West Point ethics courses and the Brazilian government bought out the entire run of the Portuguese edition to give to students. I know doing the book, grappling with these issues, changed my life, very much for the better, and has really affected in a positive way my level of happiness as I go through my day, and I know that I’ll have that with me until I die, and there’s really no greater feeling of satisfaction than that.
O’Shea: Are you quietly building your own corner of the Marvel Universe on the sly–looking at a May CBR Dave Richards piece about your Dark Reign: Mister Negative miniseries, you discussed how Hood is connected to Dormammu, which is connected to Marvel Zombies 4. Are you secretly plotting a new book called Six Degrees of Dormammu?
Van Lente: I do like that Bendis connected The Hood to Dormammu. That’s a great dynamic, and Dormmy is a fun character to write. I mean, HIS FACE IS ALWAYS ON FIRE. What’s not to love?
O’Shea: You’ve had a few of your Marvel TPBs rank on the NY Times GN Bestsellers List. Once your name made the NY Times, did you start hearing from long lost friends and relatives who were excited to see your name there?
Here in New York City it’s almost disturbing how many people don’t think something exists until it’s been in the New York Times. Relatives and people I would just run into around town, who only have peripheral knowledge of the comics scene, would be like, “Hey, you write Hercules. That’s cool.” And I’d be like, huh? How’d you know that? Oh, yeah: It was in the newspaper.
And it’s funny, Incredible Hercules: Love & War didn’t sell nearly as well in comics form as the two Herc arcs that preceded it, but as soon as we were on the list, our Amazon ranking shot way, way up and stayed there for like a month. And that was the very first NYT list in April. So people really do pay attention to these things, go figure.
O’Shea: When you do a project like Eminem vs. Punisher, how much do you think those kind of efforts help to draw in new comic readers?
Van Lente: It’s hard to say. I got a lot of fan mail from creators I know saying they liked it! I had never written Punisher before, and it was Eminem and his manager, who are both big comics fans, who came up with the general premise, and the idea that Barracuda should be in there. I actually knew way more about Eminem than the Punisher when I took the assignment, and it was fun to work in references to many of his songs in there.
I think that to expand the comics audience, the first step is simply putting the comics in people’s path, whether that’s in the schools, or, in this instance, in XXL Magazine. Put it out there, represent the medium as best you can, and hope it sticks. We have a lot of different comics now to appeal to a lot of different kinds of people, and so our chances for expanding the audience are better now than they ever have been before.
O’Shea: How did the “The Replacement Thor” storyline come about?
Van Lente: Herc originally premiered in Thor, started life as a Thor supporting cast member, essentially. One of the first questions we got when the series started from fans was “When is he gonna meet Thor?” And by the time we got around to trying to have him meet Thor, Thor got exiled from Asgard and was in the wind. So we thought it would pretty hilarious to have, in Thor’s absence, a scenario whereby Herc had to stand in for Thor on behalf of Asgard, and sort of compare and contrast the two heroes. Reilly Brown is blowing us away with the art and this one, and we ended up being able to work the real Thor in there too, and so I think everybody’s going to be really happy.
O’Shea: What’s your take on the Chameleon (who you are writing in an upcoming Spider-Man arc)? Is this the first time you have collaborated with Barry Kitson?
Van Lente: Good villains are a super hero franchise’s life’s blood, and I like rehabilitating seemingly lame ones. When he started out, Chameleon was a devious super-spy with lifelike masks. Then he became a head case with shape shifting powers who was Kraven the Hunter’s bitch. I wanted to dump the latter version in favor of the former one. He’s much more of a psychopathic Master of Disguise in this arc, someone who doesn’t just impersonate people but actually tries to “improve” the lives of the faces he wears. He’s Dr. Phil crossbred with Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a very creepy, scary foe worthy of Spider-Man.
Kiston is a lovely guy and an amazing artist with some of the simplest, cleanest storytelling I’ve ever seen. We’ve had such a blast working together on this we’re going to be doing an on-going series in the new Web of Spider-Man monthly launching in November (I believe), tales of the villains featured in “The Gauntlet”. I couldn’t be more psyched.
O’Shea: After years of Jennifer Walters being the only She-Hulk around, what interested you in doing the new All-New Savage She-Hulk miniseries?
Van Lente: I had originally been asked to develop a new series for Jennifer, but at some point in the development process Marvel decided a more radical jolt to the franchise was necessary. The introduction of Hulk’s daughter from the future, Lyra, first in Jeff Parker’s Rolling Thunder one-shot, then the story Paul Tobin did in Hulk Family, got a really good reaction, so they decided to try her out under the “She-Hulk” banner. So far, so good: The mini was well-received, the first issue sold out, and now Lyra’s been given the on-going back up slot in Pak’s new Incredible Hulk title. Michael Ryan is turning in some jaw-dropping art, we’re bringing back a Hulk villain that hasn’t been seen since World War Hulk, and it should be really, really fun ride.
O’Shea: What do you enjoy most about writing in the Marvel universe (other than the pay, of course). Seriously, what aspects of the Marvel U appeal to your storytelling instincts?
Van Lente: I enjoy working in continuity; it gives me an excuse to buy old comics for research then deduct them from my taxes. It’s an old truism of creative writing that your characters should seem like they have lives outside your specific story, and with continuity, and the fact these franchise characters were around before I came along and will continue long after I’m gone gives them histories and futures, which is a great help to a writer in bringing them to life. To hie them along to the next stage of their journey is an honor and a priviledge I’ll always be grateful for.
O’Shea: Anything else on the creative horizon for you?
Van Lente: This November, just in time for your Christmas shopping, will see the premiere of THE MORE-THAN-COMPLETE ACTION PHILOSOPHERS, the series complete in one volume, in chronological order, with a whole issue’s worth of new material by me and Ryan. Preorder it on Amazon today, you crazy kids!