Fred Van Lente: Interview With the Marvel Adventures Writer
Fred Van Lente is what you could call a veteran newcomer, or a rookie veteran, or a guy that has been writing comics for years and over the last couple has become a writing workhorse / powerhouse. He was nice enough to answer a few questions for us here.
Comics in the Classroom: Fred, thanks for doing this.
CitC: Readers of this site first got to hear about your work a year ago when I reviewed the self published Action Philosophers you and artist Ryan Dunlavey created. How did you go from that to writing a whole bunch (was it seven in 2007?) of series for Marvel? To those that only pay attention to books published by Marvel and DC you seem like an over night success.
FVL: Geez, since you asked, now I have to count. In 2007, I wrote Super-Villain Team-Up: MODOK's 11, Fantastic Four & Power Pack, Marvel Adventures Iron Man, Marvel Adventures Spider-Man, Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four, back-ups for Spider-Man Family and Heroes for Hire , and co-wrote with Greg Pak an issue of Incredible Hulk/Herc/Hercules. So I guess it was eight, actually... Of course, a lot of those were written in 2006 and, in case of SVTU , some in 2005, so it was one of those waiting-for-a-bus type situations: You stand there forever and don't see one and then suddenly five show up all at once.
I am pretty much the definition of a "10-year overnight success" since I actually started working professionally in comics in 1996. My first work was for Malibu Comics, an issue of Prime , right before Marvel shut them down. I spent a looooooooong time in the wilderness, having some indy stuff published here and there, before Ryan Dunlavey and I won the Xeric Grant for Action Philosophers, and Marvel became interested in me because of this indy "super-crime" comic I did with Steve Ellis, The Silencers (http://www.fredvanlente.com/silencers.htm).
Ironically enough, Action Philosophers #1 and my first Marvel work, Amazing Fantasy #7 came out on the same day in April 2005. But I had just broken my ankle and was stuck in bed so I couldn't go into the comics shop and see! Sigh.
I mention that just 'cause I've seen a couple commentaries that say Marvel got interested in me because of Action Philosophers , when in fact those were two coterminous and coincidental events. But the historian in me appreciates how people try to simplify past events into a simpler narrative. (laughs)
CitC: Action Philosophers is geared more for young adults and up. Your current work through Marvel comics is generally geared more for younger readers (so far) – some is for all ages (the Marvel Adventures books), and other work, like the M.O.D.O.K. series is for a bit older, but still more appropriate for younger readers than the average book put out by the big two publishers. Are these the type of stories you envisioned yourself writing when you dreamed of breaking in to the world comics creating?
FVL: Not really... You know the old John Lennon quote, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans"? Definitely the case here. I was a child of the 1980's, and was really captivated by Frank Miller, Watchmen , all the dark, badass stuff... I was a nerdy kid, got picked on quite a bit, never quite fit in -- The empowerment of superhero comics really speaks to that, and I think that's where the majority of the audience still is today-- Folks with chips on their shoulder. And for much of my teenage and early adult years I would put myself in that category.
But ... (laughs)
I got older. I got married. I held down a real job. I found most of that anger dissipating once I reached my thirties. So what I started out doing, the real nitty-gritty bad-ass stuff that I had been writing in my 20's, ceased to appeal to me. It just seemed kind of ... I don't know. Overwrought. To a certain extent I'm lucky Mark Paniccia approached me about doing Marvel Adventures when he did, and to a certain extent, at least in this period of my career, with kids titles I've found my niche in the mainstream, and it's very rewarding. I get to work with the Marvel characters the way I remember loving them as a kid, without all the B.S. continuity baggage. As is frequently the case, the universe has provided me with a reward beyond what my own puny mind could imagine, and I'm terribly grateful for it.
I don't think I'm going to spend my whole career doing this, but I am definitely trying to savor it while it lasts.
CitC: Whenever there is an article about one of the all ages Marvel Adventure titles someone will go on the accompanying message board to say that the stories are “watered down” and not what kids want to read. How do you respond to that?
FVL: Well, I've also seen people complain that the MA stories are too sophisticated for kids, so you're damned if you do...
The on-going and in some cases pretty vehement on-line hostility to the Marvel Adventures line is a never-ending source of fascination for me, if only because I think it might speak volumes about fan psychology. Part of it, I think, is fans feel like, well, I started reading the main Amazing Spider-Man book as a kid, why can't the next generation? They see the MA line as invalidating their own personal nostalgia. Unfortunately, the market doesn't work like that any more. A lot of what we read in the 1980's would not necessarily pass muster with the content restrictions of, say, Wal-Mart today. Not to mention that the mere existence of the Marvel Adventures line frees the Marvel Universe creators to do things like, you know, allow Spider-Man make a deal with the devil to save his aunt and destroy his marriage, which obviously is something we couldn't do in MA.
Of course, a lot of the adult fans who like Marvel Adventures proudly proclaim they've dropped all the regular MU books in favor of ours because they do think they're less dark, more fun, et cetera. We're like the opposition party in Parliament. (laughs) So it seems to me a lot of the hostility is a subconscious understanding that the regular MU books the MA-haters are buying aren't what they want them to be, and the MA line is a valve that takes the pressure off the MU to be more kid-friendly. But that's just dime-store psychologizing on my part, obviously.
CitC: Many people say that the comic companies forgot about kids in the 90's, instead chasing after the aging readers in their late teens and older by creating stories for them that would be inappropriate for younger readers. What is your take on this?
FVL: The history of the superhero genre in comics has been a history of a genre aging with its fans. The success of Marvel Comics in the 1960's was due in a large part to their appeal to college students and other older fans who felt like what DC was producing didn't speak to them any more. The rise of the Direct Market contributed to this as comics shifted away from outlets accessible to kids, like drugstores and newsstands and into the specialty shops. I grew up in the suburbs and didn't really, seriously get into comics until I got my driver's license, since I had to drive myself to the comic book store. If kids can't physically get to the product, you're going to have a rough time selling to them. Archie Comics figure out how to get themselves into supermarket checkout lines, which helped them enormously.
To a certain extent that's changed back, helped by the rise of the Internet, which I think most people will soon see is going to increase literacy rates because it encourages reading and writing, and the decline in prose reading, which has really forced educators and parents to rethink and prejudice they may have had about comics. The success of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings films has probably increased the interest in fantasy with kids the same way Star Wars did for my generation, which doesn't hurt either, I imagine.
CitC: What is up next for you and n ow that you have your foot solidly in the door with both a publisher and with fans, what projects would you like to tackle next?
FVL: Next to chronicling the on-going adventures of the Incredible Hercules with the Pak Man, what I'm most excited about in 2008 is me and Ryan's follow-up to Action Philosophers, Comic Book Comics (http://www.comicbookcomics.com), the history of the comic book industry from 1896 to today, told in the irreverent AP style. It's a story I've been following since my late teens, and it's great to share it with the world. The book really shows how all the various tribes of comcidom -- the people who like Mad Magazine, super hero comics, indy comics and more -- all spring from the same source. We're really hoping to turn some heads with this one.
The first issue of that ships in March, as does another title your readers might be interested in -- Power Pack: Day One -- in which Gurihiru and I reunite to tell the secret origin of everyone's favorite all-kids super-team. The first issue is done and the ladies are kicking more buttocks with the artwork than should be legally allowed.
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