How Lee & Kirby's "Fantastic Four" Birthed the Marvel Universe, Part 1
The hardworking writer Fred Van Lente gets even more busy in the next few months. In October, as discussed (in a Van Lente interview) in last Friday’s Axel-In-Charge, the writer will team with artist Alessandro Vitti in a holiday-themed one-shot, Marvel Zombies Halloween. But more immediately, on August 8, Valiant Entertainment will release the first issue (previewed last week by CBR) of the new Archer & Armstrong ongoing, teaming Van Lente with artist Clayton Henry. Given my love of Van Lente’s brand of comedy and the knowledge that the series teams an 18-year old assassin with a soused immortal, I fired up the computer to conduct an email interview with Van Lente. I have to say that Van Lente catches my attention when he said in our exchange: “I’ve never written a book like this.”
Tim O’Shea: Would it be fair to say that Valiant sought you out for Archer & Armstrong based partially on the success and tone of your co-writing gig on Hercules?
Fred Van Lente: Yeah, I’ve got a reputation now as the funny superhero guy, even though Incredible Hercules started out as a story about a guy trying to atone for murdering his entire family — Judd Apatow, are you reading this?!
If memory serves, what made Warren Simons think I’d be right for Archer & Armstrong was my Taskmaster GN, which is a classic example of me getting my hands on a character and thinking, “Okay, this is my chance to do a straight-up thriller, do a real grim and gritty thing here.”
But the more I worked on it the more the crazy ideas creeped in until it had a town full of Hitlers and characters like Don of the Dead and Redshirt, the Überhenchman and I was like, “Boy, you really screwed that up, Fred” but it’s become the most beloved thing I’ve done at Marvel, at least in terms of people tracking me down and saying how much they enjoyed it. So, what are you going to do?
I think the problem is that as an adult man, I find it hard to take super heroes, a genre invented for children, very seriously. Am I ruining my career by saying that publicly on a major comics blog? But it’s the truth. I feel like Whedon’s approach with Avengers, leavening the superheroics with humor, is the perfect tone to take. And everybody hated that flick.
So I’ve been very fortunate that most of my recent mainstream work has been outside the superhero genre — Hulk: Season One (out in July) is more of a monster/horror story, I had fun doing a Black Widow espionage story earlier in the year, and now, I’m getting to do something that is straight-up comedy with Archer & Armstrong.
When writing a series like Archer & Armstrong, which is clearly infused with humor, what is involved finding the right level and tone of humor for a series?
The characters. The characters, the characters, the characters. I have to care about them and part of that is believing in what’s happening to them. If you have that, you have everything. Without it you have nothing. Jokes and fights are equally meaningless.
Archer and Armstrong are amusingly mismatched, but they’re each tragic in their own right. Armstrong has lived for thousands years as a result of great loss, and losing everything that matters to him, and he responds to that by living a life of hedonism. Archer has lived his whole life being kept completely ignorant of an outside world he’s suddenly thrust into. We’re taking time to build them, and their relationship, and that’s what will make people care what happens to them.
Just as Herc killed his family, as I mentioned, and Amadeus Cho lost his, and Taskmaster was struggling with the debilitating effects of major brain damage. There has to be something human there for the reader to latch on to, or neither the action nor the comedy has any effect.
As you noted in your CBR interview back in March, Archer has a “superpower that allows him to absorb the skills of everything he sees”. In assembling the players in this story, do you find yourself thinking “ooh I need to work in someone with a jailhouse rock fighting style into this issue for Archer to learn”? Or do you not approach Archer (and tools for him to use) that way?
That’s a great question. Archer is literally a walking encyclopedia of physical skills — martial arts from around the world, lockpicking, escape artistry, to name just a few — which he thinks because he got from schooling at his millennial cult compound. His parents, leaders of said compound, think he’s like Taskmaster — whatever he sees, he can copy.
But the truth is much more shocking, and it’ll be a big reveal in our first arc — high in the mountains of Tibet, where Archer honed his abilities in the original series but takes on a slightly different cast here.
In that interview, you made it clear that Clayton Henry is the kind of artist that delivers exactly what you need with few instructions. Does that allow you to relax and focus your forces elsewhere in the process?
Sort of. Regardless of who’s drawing the book, I’m the kind of writer who tries to rewrite to match the art whenever possible (when there’s time, which on a mainstream book with deadline pressure there always isn’t). There are plenty guys like me who do that, this kind of half-assed Marvel process where there’s a full script and writing the dialogue afterwards. I just feel like you have the most organic merging of art and story that way. For the same reason, I letter all my own non-fiction books, Action Philosophers and Comic Book History of Comics. When finding the precise wording for abstract concepts and historical fact, complete control over the text is key.
Given your love of history, what eras are you looking to explore that are gained via a character who is immortal?
I struggled for a while whether or not to have flashbacks to old-timey times and Armstrong’s adventures kind of like what Greg Pak and I did with Hercules‘ “mythbacks.” I decided against it, ultimately, partly because we had already done that with iHerc and wanted to challenge myself to do something new; partly because Barry Windsor-Smith largely stayed away from that in the original series; and partly because I wanted there to be a nagging suspicion in Archer’s mind, and therefore in the reader’s, that Armstrong is just some drunk maniac (albeit a really strong drunk maniac) who’s full of shit.
That said, Armstrong claims at various times to have been at George Washington’s first inaugural ball in New York, fighting against the Nazis in the Alps, drinking buddies with Michelangelo during the Renaissance, and run into some serious trouble with the First Emperor of China, who (according to history/legend) was obsessed with immortality.
Helping shape a newly reborn comics universe, what are some of the perks from a writing perspective?
Well, there are only four titles. That’s pretty awesome. Unending amounts of time are wasted at the Big Two with negotiations and meetings over whether it’s okay to use character X in your book when he’s pulling double-duty over in Title Y so wait, how exactly are you using him? Here, at Valiant, there are only four titles so it’s not quite as big a deal and everything can be coordinated in a small group.
Also, we all love each other. Platonically.
What are we not talking about that we need to?
Archer & Armstrong is basically an action South Park. Ostensibly, it’s an adventure about two mismatched brawlers — a purely innocent unstoppable martial arts assassin and a cynical immortal strongman — racing against time through the sacred and exotic sites of the globe to stop an ancient conspiracy from destroying the world.
But really it’s a chance to make fun of The Da Vinci Code/Assassin’s Creed/National Treasure-type “Secret Histories,” fundamentalists, Satanists, hippies, Wall Street bankers, nudists, New Yorkers, flyover country, academics, homeschoolers … pretty much anybody who blunders into our crosshairs.
At one point during the development of issue #1 Warren emailed me and said “I’ve never edited a book like this” and I replied “I’ve never written a book like this.” It’s pretty ballsy of Valiant to be publishing a book this unique as part of their initial line launch and I hope people encourage our shenanigans by checking it out.