Smash Pages Q&A: Fred van Lente

The veteran comics creator talks about his latest novel, “The Con Artist,” his current comics projects and more.

Fred van Lente is the comics writer best known to some of us for the series Action Philosophers!, Action Presidents and the Comic Book History of Comics. He’s also spent years writing a wide variety of books for Valiant, Marvel and Dark Horse including Archer and Armstrong, Brain Boy, Conan, Marvel Zombies, Super-Villain Team-Up: MODOK’s 11 and his current project, the Valiant series Psi-Lords.

Van Lente also has a busy career outside of comics. He’s a playwright, perhaps best known to comics fans for King Kirby, which he wrote with his wife the writer Crystal Skillman. He’s also a novelist with two crime novels under his belt, Ten Dead Comedians and The Con Artist.

The Con Artist came out last year and features a comics creator at the San Diego Comic Con who gets drawn into an elaborate web of murder and corruption in the comics industry. It manages to be both laugh out loud funny and incredibly inventive, making a book that is very much about comics and industry, but also telling a story that is firmly in the noir tradition of corruption, betrayal and violence that leads back to original sins.

Convention season is mostly over, but I asked Van Lente if he would be up for a few questions about the book and his work.

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Living with the King: Telling the Jack Kirby story

Jason Mehmel shares what he learned about Jack Kirby during his time directing the play “King Kirby” in Calgary in 2016.

All this week we’re celebrating the life and influence of comics legend Jack Kirby, who would have turned 100 on Aug. 28. Today we present a guest editorial from Jason Mehmel, a professional director and producer of theatre in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, who had a unique opportunity related to Jack Kirby.

by Jason Mehmel

I’ve known about Jack Kirby for years… his style is as unique as a fingerprint. Crazy designs, often using circles. Crackling energy balls of negative space (later called ‘Kirby Krackles’). It represented the platonic ideal of superheroes, particularly the Marvel characters he created, and the subsequent artists, composing with better anatomy, perspective or even composition, are still ultimately riffing on the energy behind Kirby’s pencil, and the choices it led him to.

Robert Klein as Jack Kirby (Jeff McDonald/Sage Theater)

Two years ago, I came across a theatre script about the life of Kirby and found myself running a theatre company. I decided to jump at it and produce King Kirby: A Play by Crystal Skillman & Fred Van Lente, which walked through the pivotal moments in Kirby’s life:

How he came from poverty, his early love of science fiction and big ideas, and of telling them visually. How he got into comics from that love, and the birth of Captain America, just before his own wartime experience. How Marvel Comics as we know it exploded from his pen, and those of his fellow pencillers, though it would be hard to compete with the sheer volume of characters and stories Kirby developed in those years.

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‘War Mother’ fights for the future in new miniseries

Fred Van Lente and Stephen Segovia head back to 4001 AD to tell more stories about the breakout character and her talking gun.

Valiant Entertainment has announced War Mother, a four-issue series spinning out of their 4001 A.D. event. Fred Van Lente and Stephen Segovia will “bring War Mother to bear with an all-new, self-contained entry point for the newest hero manning the frontline of the Valiant Universe’s far future.”

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Immortal brothers unite in Valiant’s ‘The Tale of the Green Knight’

Fred Van Lente, Cary Nord and Clayton Henry head back into Valiant’s past with Immortal Brothers: The Tale of the Green Knight, a tale featuring Armstrong, the Eternal Warrior and Ivar, Timewalker in King Arthur’s court.

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Smash Pages Q&A: Fred Van Lente on Valiant’s ‘Ivar, Timewalker’

ivarIt astounded me to learn that Fred Van Lente‘s Ivar, Timewalker (published by Valiant) was initially slated to be a four-issue project. One part love story three times the adventure the story stars two versions of Neela Sethi (thanks to time travel) the tale deserves and has 12 issues to tell its story. For my money that is a hell of a compliment that Valiant gave Van Lente and Sethi that much freedom. Fortunately she has Ivar, Timewalker, in her corner. Now it’s down to history’s most jaded, most tempestuous time traveler to stop the worst of everything that is, was, and will be…before time runs out!

Tim O’Shea: Who is to blame –I mean credit –with issue titles like let’s not kill Hitler seriously those titles are absolutely hilarious.

Fred Van Lente: Thanks. Originally, the title was Let’s Kill Hitler but then Clayton posted some inks of the story on Facebook and somebody told him that was already the title of a Dr. Who episode. I have seen exactly two — well, now three — episodes of Dr. Who in my entire lifetime and I went and watched that one on Netflix as soon as I saw the Facebook post. The two stories don’t have much to do with each other beyond that killing-Hitler part, but since the whole point was you can’t kill Hitler I thought I should change the title to differentiate ourselves from the episode.

Am I right in thinking the time travel aspect is the most logistically complicated element of the story?

Sort of. Making sure the time-tossed characters are all consistent — like older Neela still sounds like Neela and younger Ivar still sounds like Ivar, that’s sort of the complicated part, depicting these two people at such different parts of their own lives, which, thanks to time travel, are so consistently at odds with each other.

How early in the planning of the story did you realize Armstrong needed to be part of the plot?

I went a couple rounds with the editors as to who exactly would go with Ivar on his suicide mission to rescue Ivar from the end of time. After a couple discussions I just realized his immortal brothers were the most fun choice, as well as the most logical, as who else could survive a trip to the end of eternity but some immortals?

Are there members of the cast that ended up with expanded roles because you grew to like them?

Definitely the Lurker, who was just a one-off bit in #2 that the editors loved and begged for me to bring him back. I think people just liked his truncated text message-speak, kind of like an extreme version of newspeak from 1984. Also the fact he’s basically 4chan come to life, which is a terrifying thing to even type…

How much of the success of the series can be credited to the art team.

All of it. Clayton is such a great designer, and Francis kills the far-future bits with his design, and Pere is so good at the acting and action. I’d be nothing without them.

The 5 Guys bit was an instant classic. How did it come about.

I really like 5 Guys!

OK the Juggalo Clowns of issue 9 how did you pull that gem off?

Well, I already knew that I was going to do the Roman dinosaurs — seemed like a natural fit, what with their Latin names. And I needed another historical mash-up to kind of introduce the idea that the multiverse is made up of infinite numbers of recombinations of matter. I wish I could even remember what the other candidates were. The first thing I thought of may have just been Clown Vikings, and I was like, “Full stop. That’s it!”

How critical is Tom Brennan to the success of the series?

Very. He’s been a tireless advocate for the book and great sounding board for making it better, exactly what I want from an editor.

Was it always set to be a 12 issue series.

No, it was originally four, but Valiant was very cool about letting me extend the story and flesh out the characters to tell the tale I wanted to tell. It was very generous and not something every publisher would do.

Anything we neglected to discuss?

The ending is coming soon. The team is pretty happy with it, I’m not sure. I hope people dig it. There’s a moment that pretty much sums up the idea of the whole series. I hope it lands. Time will tell!

Ha ha, that was totally unintentional humor, I swear…