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.

This is your second novel after Ten Dead Comedians. Where did the idea for The Con Artist start?

I was waiting for my luggage at a carousel in New York and chatting with a comic book artist who had just come back from the same comic show I was at, and he was telling me that he no longer has a house. He just flies from comic con to comic con. I thought that was a fascinating way to exist. He had some relationship troubles and his dog had died and a lot of other stuff was going on. I told him, I’m going to write a novel about you because that’s a great idea for a character. He thought I was nuts. I filed that away and fast forward a couple years, and Quirk really liked my manuscript for my first novel, Ten Dead Comedians, and they said, what else you got? I pitched them another murder mystery, this one being at Comic Con, and I used as the inspiration for the main character this guy who was literally doing what Mike the main character in the book does.

It’s the perfect metaphor for the state of his life. It also kind of sounds like hell.

Yeah, it’s not the way I would want to live. I should say that my friend has since finally settled down. He was doing that for like two years.

Obviously when a publisher says, “We’d like another novel,” you pitch them a novel, but why did you think this would make a good novel versus a comic or a play?

I always thought of it as a noir. It has a Southern California setting – the San Diego Comic Con. It’s about corruption. It has a sort of femme fatale type character. It has all those elements and I love Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and so my mind drifted towards a novel. I suppose you could make a pretty good movie. It was funny because I was two thirds of the way through the manuscript when I realized I needed to write this in the first person. Originally it was written in the third person and I realized something was off. I realized, this is a noir and should have first person narration. It never occurred to me to do a comic.

The other thing is that the comic medium is corporate dominated. I had to – and enjoyed quite a bit – making up a bunch of phony geeky things to appear in the book, but I can also reference Deadpool and Batman and Star Wars. If you did a comic, then you’re getting into likeness rights and using trademarked characters and that would be incredibly challenging. You could do it with leaving those things out, but it would be a different book. In prose you can get away with a lot more because there’s a clause in the copyright laws that says if you’re referring to something simply to identify it, that’s not a violation of trademark. If I actually had Deadpool appearing in a comic not published by Marvel, I would probably get letters from lawyers. So the question is, do you leave ubiquitous Joker and Harley cosplay out of your Comic Con story and does that make it feel less real.

Some aspects of Comic Con are the same year to year but then there are so many comics/shows/movies and other details which change year to year, so you have freedom to invent a lot.

The fun thing about Comic Con – or the useful thing when you’re trying to structure a novel – is that the social calendar is very structured. There’s always the CBLDF party on Thursday night. There’s the Eisners on Friday night. There’s company parties on Saturday night. There’s Preview night the first night. That’s how the novel is structured. Mike in the novel is trying to solve this mystery and has to juggle that along with his other responsibilities like attending the con and being on the show floor. The Marriott Marquis which has this very pretty tropical tiki bar pool is the big pro hangout. At least it has been as long as I’ve been going to San Diego Comic Con. I brought all that realism into the story.

And then you get to do your own thing like the runaway hit TV show about the zombie apocalypse where they’re all invested in bringing realism to what would happen if the zombie apocalypse hit a maximum security prison.

Cell Block Z. Where you have a lot of good looking murderers and rapists trying to fend off zombies.

For comics people there are so many laugh out loud moments in the novel, and it’s set in this warm sunny locale amidst cosplayers, but it’s also a story of corruption and betrayal and about the history of comics.

There are a lot of original sins involved in comics. One of which is the theft of IP from original creators and we deal with that in the book. The main mystery revolves around stolen artwork from this very popular made up character named Mr. Mystery. I always try to balance the humor with for me life is a permanent combination of the hilarious and the horrific and that’s what I end up focusing on in my work.

I think that’s true throughout your work. I’m sure you could write a darkly serious no one smiles in this universe kind of story, but you don’t.

I imagine I’ve attempted to and failed.

In The Con Artist you have a number of characters who aren’t composites, but they could be based on dozens of people. And I’m sure people have asked, is this character based on X?

There are a couple obvious real life individuals. Really, there’s only one obvious real life individual in the book. There’s a pretentious writer character named Sebastian who everyone compares to Grant Morrison. Which is interesting because I’ve had dinner with Grant and he’s such a down to earth person. Physically the way he’s described is like Grant and I guess he could also be seen as Spider Jerusalem from Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan. It’s interesting that that’s who people gravitate towards. But the character is nothing like Grant Morrison, who is down to earth and unpretentious. There is one person who is based on a real person but no one comments on it because he does a good job of keeping himself out of the spotlight and is arguably one of the most powerful people in comics.

Ten years ago if you had pitched a novel set at Comic Con, it might not have gotten published. It is a completely differently pop culture landscape today.

I got a fan letter from someone who actually bought the book in the San Diego airport bookstore, which I thought was interesting. The fascinating thing is how quickly the consciousness shifted from comics being this dirty really laser focused niche media and is now being so mainstream that millions of people go ballistic when Sony and Disney decouple their relationship over Spider-Man. It’s been a whirlwind change. I think that a lot of it is that as reality becomes more difficult, more and more “normal” people are much more likely to retreat into fantasy. You see that with Harry Potter and Star Wars and Doctor Who and just the ascendency of geek culture has proportionally had something to do with the difficult situation we’ve had in the real world. There’s definitely a correlation there. People don’t like reality. They’d much rather have this constructed idealized space. And like everything else, there’s good and bad things about that.

I did this independent comic called Silencers, which was a mafia story set in a superhero universe with superpowered mobsters. It got optioned for movies, but all of the screenwriter takes had this obsession with the origin story. In the comic book there’s no explanation of why — nobody cares why, there just are superheroes and villains. That’s the reality. But no one in Hollywood could deal with that. They said, people aren’t going to get it, we have to explain it. I remember reading the first screenplay to Watchmen, the Sam Hamm version – he wrote the Tim Burton Batman movie – and it was obsessed with how there are superheroes. Now The Boys can be so successful because they need to do the heavy lifting of why is there this fast person and this person who can fly and this pseudo-goddess. Now we just accept it. Comics had accepted it decades ago. You could just tell superhero stories. To a certain extent that goes to what you were saying about The Con Artist, everyone just accepts that this world exists as opposed to justifying its own existence.

You’re always working on a number of projects. What comics are you working on right now?

I have a science fiction comic coming out right now from Valiant called Psi-Lords. It’s a science fiction prison break story that’s very fun and cosmic and exercises muscles I don’t use that much. I’m doing a bunch of nonfiction comics, a bunch of which haven’t been announced yet. Me and Ryan Dunlavey have our Action Presidents series coming out through Harper Collins Kids. The next four books will be coming out in color next summer, which is exciting. I’m doing a book on the history of basketball. I’ve got a bunch of stuff that I can’t talk about because they haven’t been announced yet but hopefully some cool announcements coming soon.

You’ve been making the webcomic Eat Fighter! with your wife Crystal Skillman and Fernando Pinto which just wrapped up. What was it like working together on a comic and making a webcomic?

It was fun, but it was intense. It’s a weekly schedule. I was doing all the lettering and production so that was a lot of time taking up there. Our artist Fernando was terrific. It was this crazy story about an alternate world where fast food is illegal so there’s this huge underground competitive eating competition. Our hero is trying to win that. There’s also parasitic worms and zombies and explosions and all sorts of insanity. It was a lot of fun and we had a really nice response to it. I’m not going to lie and say I’m sad it’s over. It was a lot of work! [laughs] Doing it weekly is really hard but it was fun working with Webtoon.

I know that she’s written a pilot about the early years of the comics industry, and with this novel and The Comic Book History of Comics, you’ve both spent a lot of time diving into this history.

It’s a subject I really find super interesting. One of the projects that I’m working on is not comics related but it is in that same vein. Hopefully you’ll be hearing about that soon.

In both your work and her work, you’re both interested in playing with form, with structure, with expectations. Your nonfiction comics especially really push against a lot of the genres and expectations.

I think the bottom line is that I get really bored really easily. A lot of pop culture just bores the crap out of me. If I never have to see another chosen one story ever again, I’ll be really happy. “I’m the inheritor of some great mystic power!” – I don’t care. Not interested. If I never see another superpowers as metaphor for the persecuted, I’m cool with that. We’ve got plenty of persecution in the real world, why don’t we talk about that? I just get bored so I amuse myself. Throughout my career, for better and for worse, the primary person I am entertaining is myself. I put it out there with the hope that other people will be entertained. I found that whenever I have attempted to somehow figure out what it is the public wants, it’s a complete disaster. I just don’t have that huckster gene in me to sway the masses. I’d be a shitty cult leader. I feel like I could be an okay politician, but not a cult leader.

So are you going to write another novel?

I am. I’ve completed a manuscript for a third novel, but that’s still in the early stages and we don’t have a publisher yet. I have an agent and we’re looking at our options.

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