A conversation with writer FRED VAN LENTE
EDITOR’S NOTE: I was granted an opportunity to interview Fred Van Lente in June 2016 upon the release of the first issue of WEIRD DETECTIVE from Dark Horse Comics. While I wrote several detailed analytical reviews of that six-issue mini-series, I never got around to posting about our conversation. I procrastinate often. That’s not the first time I’ve sat on an article long enough to make it out-dated, and it probably won’t be the last.
Since Van Lente will be making a new appearance at Captain Blue Hen this Wednesday, August 23 (to celebrate the release of WAR MOTHER #1 from Valiant Comics), I decided to re-visit my notes to see if there were any items that I could get updates on and write about. What I discovered is that there’s still plenty of interesting information to share with blog readers. So, one year and two months later, here we go . . . . . .
Fred Van Lente (pronounced Lenn-Tee) was born February 14, 1972 on an Army base in Tacoma, Washington. His ancestors hail from Amsterdam, and migrated to the United States during the time of the Civil War. Fred celebrated his first decade of writing comics as his only job in 2016, but he started writing comics while still in college.
BC REFUGEES: How were you first introduced to comics?
FRED VAN LENTE: My father. He’s a life long fan, as am I. I started reading my father’s books, his Blackhawk and The Spirit collection, plus Jules Feiffer’s book The Great Comic Book Heroes.
BC: How about influences on your writing?
FRED: Alan Moore when I was sixteen years old, and then Grant Morrison when I turned twenty-one. It’s his Doom Patrol that got me back into comics. Morrison has a childlike quality to his writing — like he’s having a great time!
I’m also a big fan of Jack Kirby’s writing, as well as his art. I loved his Fourth World period for DC and his second term at Marvel with Machine Man and The Eternals.
(Editor’s Note: Van Lente is the co-author, along with his wife Crystal Skillman, of the play “King Kirby”, based on the life of Jack Kirby. It was first staged at Brooklyn’s Brick Theater and has also been performed in Seattle, Calgary and Chicago.)
BC: I love your work on Weird Detective. That’s a great homage to the Lovecraft mythos, as well as other pop culture genres.
FRED: Thanks! I discovered H. P. Lovecraft through The Call of Cthulhu role-playing game when I was fourteen years old. I loved the world and the mythos, and that’s what got me into the books. I’ve read most of it. The Dream Cycle stories are my favorite, especially The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath.
BC: Please tell us about how you got into writing comics.
FRED: As a kid I wanted to be a writer. I studied film at Syracuse University. I figured I already had the writing skills and didn’t need to major in that. After two years, I hated it. I hate movie making.
While in school, I joined a comics club through the Illustration Department. Steve Ellis (High Noon) was a member. He picked up some Marvel jobs before graduation. We became close friends, and I started doing comics with him. I created Tranquility (Caliber Comics) with Steve while still in college. I decided “Hey, this is easy!” - - so I went to grad school for English Literature.
I did a crime book with Steve, The Silencers (Moonstone Books), that got the attention of Marvel. I spent seven years writing for Marvel, where I was guaranteed a certain amount of work.
Action Philosophers (self-published with Ryan Dunlavey) and Amazing Fantasy (Marvel) were my first major works.
Amazing Fantasy was the first work I did for Marvel. It was released the same day as Action Philosophers. So both books sat next to each other on comic store racks, since most of them place titles in alphabetical order. That was quite a thrill.
BC: There’s a great non-fiction guidebook by you, “Write Comics Like The Pros”. You’ve also had some short stories published (“Halo: Evolutions — Essential Tales Of The Halo Universe” anthology from Tor Books 2009). Your steampunk-influenced short story in the “Dead Man’s Hand” weird western anthology was one of my favorites (Titan Books, 2014). (Editor’s Update Note: Fred’s first novel, “Ten Dead Comedians”, was just released in July from Quirk Books.) You’re a very talented writer. So why write comics instead of fiction?
FRED: Comics in not how I came to writing, but how I became successful at it. That’s what people pay me to do. I’ve done spec screenplays and a couple of novels. I stay with comics because it pays, and it’s basically what I’m known for. It’s an end.
BC. What makes a good writer?
FRED: Empathy. No matter the subject, you ned to have the ability to get into another person’s skin. People care about characters. You need to get inside their heads and relate to them. Nobody will care about your work if they perceive that you didn’t care about it.
BC: What comic writers, in your opinion, have a good sense of empathy?
FRED: Jason Aaron, and Keiron Gillen. In literature, it’s Hilary Mantel. Beyond Black is one of my favorite books.
BC: What’s your daily comics writing process like?
FRED: Every day, within limits, I like to complete 4 pages per title. One title in the morning, one in the afternoon. If I’m writing prose, the target is 1,000 words per day.
And, I’m always thinking about it when I’m not actually doing it. I like to work on two projects per day.
Editor’s Note: At the time of this interview, Fred was working on “Generation Zero” (Valiant), “Weird Detective” (Dark Horse) and “Assassins’ Creed” (Titan) plus two new series he wasn’t permitted to tell me about. He actually did, because he said he trusted me. I’ve forgotten what they were!
For comics, there’s a lot of back and forth by phone, email, etc. I only send the artist a panel description and the dialogue. I don’t overwhelm artists. I like to let them figure it out. The story is the story.
I don’t have any input into the artist choice. It’s more like the publisher contacts me and asks “Is it okay if Artist X does it?” I’ve only had to ask for a different choice on two occasions. (Editor’s Note: Which he chose not to reveal for obvious reasons. Same non-answer when I asked who is your favorite artist to work with? Fred wants to stay on level ground with everyone. I respect that).
I plot out one year in advance for ongoing series. Ivar Timewalker (Valiant) and Magnus, Robot Fighter (Dynamite) were only planned for twelve issues. There’s a one year plan completed for Generation Zero (Valiant).
EDITOR’S NOTE: As evident from the above interview, Fred Van Lente is a very talented, many faceted individual. I hope I’ve provided enough information to convince you to meet him in person. Captain Blue Hen Comics in Newark is providing that opportunity this Wednesday.