By Jarrod Jones. In October of 1996, Caliber Comics published Negative Burn #40 and brought Fred Van Lente hurtling into the comics industry.
Many things have transpired since then. For instance, the Californian governorship of Arnold Schwarzenegger came and went, Burn editor Joe Pruett moved on to, amongst many other things, co-found AfterShock Comics, we put a robot on the planet Mars, and Van Lente himself went on to work on such mainstream titles as Spider-Man, Alpha Flight, and Archer and Armstrong. Last year saw the release of Van Lente’s incredible 4000 A.D. tie-in over at Valiant, War Mother #1, a simultaneously thrilling and meditative standalone that turned out to be so popular that it’s about to explode into a highly anticipated mini-series later this month.
At Marvel Comics he developed a kinship with many of its bullpen creators, relationships he would take with him as his career grew. “You develop a kind of foxhole camaraderie,” Van Lente told me in late July. Though, mastering the gauntlet of mainstream comics publishing, as Van Lente has over the last twenty years (“It’s a tough grind,” he says) hasn’t diminished the writer’s desire to seek new horizons.
In both celebration of Quirk Books’ fifteenth anniversary and anticipation for Mr. Van Lente’s debut novel, Ten Dead Comedians, we spoke with Fred about his career leading up to this moment, his experiences with the film Cowboys and Aliens, and what makes a truly great Spider-Man story.
1. You’ve been working in comics since 1996, reaching back to ‘Negative Burn’ #40 from Caliber Comics. Quite a bit has changed in the industry since then, but how has your perception as a writer changed over the years? What’s improved? What needs to improve?
Fred Van Lente: That is a deep cut there with the Negative Burn reference! Yeah, that was an installment of my very first comic, which I did with Steve Ellis, Tranquility. In many ways having my first novel out is déjà vu from twenty years ago and my first introduction to the comics industry having just come out of college. Reality meeting expectations can always be a bit of a shock. When you first arrive with your work on the scene, you want everything to be trumpets and confetti but it so rarely is. It remains a hustle to get people to try new work from people they’ve never heard of before. So in many ways, even though I’ve done all these comics, had a graphic novel made into a movie, and so on, doing a novel is like I’m completely reintroducing myself to an audience for the first time.
Fortunately, this time it’s a bit less terrifying, because I feel like I know what I’m doing more – a little bit, anyway. [Laughs]
2. Throughout the early Aughties, you worked on books like ‘Silencers’ and ‘Action Philosophers!’. What did you learn about drafting a comics script in those days? What did you learn not to do?
FVL: My collaborators, Steve Ellis and Ryan Dunlavey, respectively, did everything ourselves on that project – they drew and designed, I wrote, researched and even lettered. It was a great learning experience to take a book from the idea stages all the way up to the printing and making sure copies got boxed up and loaded onto trucks, the whole shebang. Every writer should do it at least once, it gives you a real feel for what everyone else in the publishing house – from production to marketing – has to go through.
That said, it also taught me I never want to do it again! My skills lie in writing and that’s where they should be concentrated. Ryan and I delivered all our self-published comics to IDW and Dark Horse, and HarperCollins is coming out with our next series, Action Presidents, next year.
3. Tell me about your initial experience working at a major publisher — in this case, Marvel Comics.
FVL: Marvel definitely launched my career in the sense they brought me out of indie obscurity. The rate of production over there is brutal – even though comics are usually monthly, they’re really a weekly process, with scores of books going to the printer every Friday. It’s a tough grind, even for the artists. You develop a kind of foxhole camaraderie. I met some of my best friends at Marvel and I still stay close with them long after they leave the company. I’m back there now, doing books like Deadpool vs. The Punisher, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Weapon X. I enjoy the fans and my co-workers quite a bit.
4. In 2006, you worked on an original graphic novel for Platinum Studios, ‘Cowboys & Aliens’. What was the experience like working on that book? My impression was that the book, and later, Jon Favreau’s 2011 movie, were working sort of in tandem.
FVL: Technically, I wrote the book in 2001 – I turned in the script the day before I got married, in fact! That’s how long it took them to get the book out. Platinum was the first entity to actually pay me to write anything, and for that I’ll always be grateful. The idea was always to make a movie – they had been trying out comics writers since the mid-Nineties, really since the Men in Black film – but my version was the one that stuck… even though the final movie didn’t look all that much like my version, which is pretty par for the course, really. It did a lot for my career anyway, that’s for sure.
5. You have had a long, lovely history with Spider-Man. What to you makes a perfect Spidey tale? Which elements of the character’s mythos are essential, and which, if any, are completely overblown?
FVL: Thank you. I grew up on reprints of the original Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Spidey comics, and it was a real dream come true to write Amazing. The thing I like most about Peter Parker is his fallibility, that he doesn’t always succeed, that Spider-Man is rarely rewarded for his efforts, that he even seems to take two steps back for every one step forward. That’s what makes him so special, and so relatable.
6. You’re in the midst of a book tour for your latest effort, ‘Ten Dead Comedians’, via Quirk Books. What can you tell us about this book?
FVL: Ten Dead Comedians is my first prose novel. On one level it’s a riff on Agatha Christie’s classic And Then There Were None, in which a bunch of people trapped on an isolated island are killed off one-by-one… and one of them is the killer, but who? On another it’s a satire and meditation of comedy, the language of which is steeped in murder – a great comic “kills” the audience, a struggling one “dies” on stage. Each kind of stand-up comic is represented among our potential victims (and killer), including a blue-collar comic, an observational comic, a prop comic, a late night talk show host, and so on. One of the great things about the mystery genre is that it’s an investigation, not just of crime, but a society – I’ve loved comedy all my life and it’s a great pleasure to peel back its layers.
7. I can imagine that you, like most writers out there, have scads of ideas squirreled away in notebooks for projects you hope to make time for somewhere down the line. What made you hit the gas on ‘Comedians’? What idea forced your hand to write this book?
FVL: I’ve written a few novels but this is the first one that got published! I would like all of them to have been published but these were the cards that I was dealt. If had any kind of greater control over reality ALL OF YOU WOULD BE MY SLAVES — wait did I say that out loud? Sorry…
8. What kind of future does prose hold for Fred Van Lente? Is there a sprawling fantasy series in you, or perhaps a lurid anthology of detective yarns? Inquiring minds want to know.
FVL: I am currently at work on my second novel, The Con Artist, another mystery, but this one set in the world of comics – San Diego Comic-Con in fact, where I just was. I am answering these questions in the airport waiting to fly back home! That should be out next year and I am looking forward to merging my two worlds together…
9. As a writer, who do you read for fun? Who do you read for work?
FVL: I read a lot of history, both for pleasure and work. I’ve been reading a lot more mysteries, particularly the work of Carl Hiassen – reading his Skin Tight on the plane. One of the (few) bummers about this job is I read so much for my job I don’t get to read for fun as much as I’d like to.
10. What’s the one comics character you’d like to write the most?
FVL: I still need to work on this “Fred Van Lente” character. He’s still a work in progress, trying to get him where he wants to be…!
‘Ten Dead Comedians’, from Quirk Books, is available now.