Monday, June 25, 2012

Fireside Chat with Fred Van Lente

Welcome back to our warm hearth, gentle reader.  This week, our Fireside Chat guest is none other than the ever-talented Fred Van Lente!  He's found some time in his packed schedule to sit down and discuss his upcoming project, Archer & Armstrong.  Coming out on August 8th, Archer & Armstrong is the most recent salvo being launched from Valiant Entertainment, and I must say, it looks pretty swell.  But don't take my word for it.  Check behind the cut to hear from the man himself on how it's been working on the title, his thoughts on the book, and more!

I would admit to being pretty darned surprised if you weren't already familiar with Fred Van Lente's body of work, but just in case you're drawing a blank today, let's run through some of the brilliant stuff he's done.  Over at Marvel Comics, he's worked on a boatload of books, including X-Men Noir, the recent Alpha Flight miniseries, and The Incredible Hercules (both of those last two along with Greg Pak).  He's also responsible for the fiendishly good Taskmaster miniseries that Marvel published back in 2010.  Along with artist Ryan Dunlavey, the two created Action Philosophers, which is a hilarious look at some of history's great philosophers.  I could go on and on, but I think you're getting the idea.  Most anything out of his catalogue is worth a gander, but before you race to your local shop to buy some Fred Van Lente-penned goodness, I'd invite you to check out our chat below.

Grant McLaughlin: I'd like to thank you kindly for taking the time out of your busy schedule to sit down and chat with us at The Weekly Crisis, Fred. Let's get things going with an easy one, shall we? How are you doing today?

Fred Van Lente: Typing these answers up on a computer. And happy to be doing it!

GM: Glad to hear it!  I'm curious to know, how did you end up working with Valiant Entertainment?

Van Lente: I knew Hunter Gorinson, Valiant’s redoubtable Marketing and Communications Manager, in his former life at Marvel. He came up to me during New York Comic Con and asked me if I’d be interested in working with Valiant. He put me in touch with Warren Simons, the Executive Editor, who, ironically enough, I did not know in his former life at Marvel, but soon we met up for lunch near Valiant’s Manhattan offices, and really hit it off -- so here I am.

GM: And did they have Archer & Armstrong in mind when you first arrived?

Van Lente: They did, actually. Hunter mentioned it when he first spoke to me, because he liked the work Greg Pak and I did on Incredible Hercules.

GM: Understandably so!  What would you say is your favourite part about working on this series?

Van Lente: Archer & Armstrong are the Valiant Universe’s conspiracy busters, and that’s a subject I’ve always been fascinated in -- the Freemason symbolism behind the All-Seeing Pyramid on the back of a US dollar bill, what’s really hidden beneath the Vatican Library, the connection between Tibetan monks and the Nazi Party -- this titles allows me to explore all that stuff. Archer & Armstrong is a combination of globetrotting adventure, secret history, and above all, one of the best buddy teams in comics history. It’s one of the most beloved of the original Valiant series for a reason, and it’s an honor and a pleasure to bring it back to life.

GM: On that note, what kind of preparatory work did you do before sitting down to write? Were you at all familiar with the original run?

Van Lente: I wasn’t, but Warren gave me the trade of the first twelve issues at our first meeting, and, like everyone else I fell in love with what Barry Windsor-Smith brought to that series. I got every issue of the entire run -- as well as The Freebooters, a sort of follow-up to A&A BWS did as part of his Fantagraphics Storyteller book, so by this point I’m fairly immersed in the original material.

GM: A good place to be, I image.  From what I've heard, it seems like you'll be shaking things up a little. How close will your interpretation of Archer & Armstrong be to the original? Will you be retreading some aspects or taking things in a completely different direction?

Van Lente: Sort of/not really. It’s like two different chess players. BWS and I use the same set of pieces, we’re just deploying them in different ways.

GM: Alright then, why don't you tell us about your lead characters. Who are they? What are their hopes and dreams? And more importantly, what would you say is their favourite meal?

Van Lente: Again, as in the original series, Archer was raised by very strict fundamentalist parents in America’s heartland; he has the ability to copy whatever physical action he sees (a power in characters I’ve worked with before -- see below). While he is incredibly gifted physically, he is totally ignorant of the outside world. A real “meat-and-potatoes” type, if you will.

Armstrong, on the other hand, has seen and done everything -- and everyone. He’s an immortal strongman who’s literally been around since the beginning of history. He loves booze -- a good red, particularly -- and the food, whatever it is, is just there to absorb the alcohol so he can keep on drinking. This mismatched pair finds themselves drawn together to fight a common foe -- “The Sect,” a conspiracy-of-conspiracies that links all the secret societies of the world together.

GM: Forgive me if I say that that all sounds kind of great.  On the art front, how has the collaboration with Clayton Henry been? How did this team up come to be?

Van Lente: Clayton’s one of my all-time favorite collaborators … we worked on Hulk, Wolverine: First Class, and Incredible Hercules. I was thrilled when Warren reached out to him.

GM: Has that familiarity between you and Clayton impacted your work together at all?

Van Lente: Very much so. Clayton is great at action, but even better at character interactions. In our last major collaboration he came up with an image that became one of the more infamous Internet memes of recent times. I have no doubt we will achieve the same with Archer & Armstrong!

One of Armstrong’s more … unusual fighting moves from the first issue will soon be immortal on the Internets. You heard it hear first.

GM: Haha!  Thanks for sharing that scoop here at TWC, Fred!  I'm sure we all look forward to seeing it happen!  It's still early, but Valiant seems quite keen on developing their own shared universe. You certainly have a lot of experience with that type of thing from your time working at Marvel. How involved with the rest of the Valiant universe will Archer & Armstrong be? (sub question: is there an established name for the Valiant shared universe at this juncture?)

Van Lente: Quite important. As all long-term Valiant fans know, Armstrong has two brothers as long-lived as he who had series of their own right. Both appear in Archer & Armstrong #1, and at least one of them plays a very important part in the first story arc…

The established name for the Valiant shared universe is “Dinesh.” That cat has forgotten more about the Valiant Universe than you or I will ever know, and our go-to guy on any VU questions. It’s great to be working with him and the whole team.

GM: In the last five or six years it seems like you've been writing a heck of a lot more than previously in your career. What would you chock up this copious creativity to?

Van Lente: I’ve only been writing full-time since 2006, so your timeframe encompasses my entire professional career! Before then I was merely a “talented amateur” in a series of crappy dead-end temp jobs. Remember, kids: If you stay off drugs and in school, you too can make your dreams come true. Or, in my case, drop out of grad school and drink too much.

GM: A lesson that I think we could all learn a lot from.  What (if anything) would you say is your biggest challenge when it comes to tackling a new project?

Van Lente: Beginnings are always tough. (Endings, not always, but are often easy.) Warren and I worked the first issue script quite a bit, but I just did final lettering against Clayton’s amazing inks this week, and if you want my totally unbiased opinion, it really come together terrific. Lots of suspense, laughs, character moments -- in other words, an Archer & Armstrong comic. And given the receptions of X-O Manowar and Harbinger, we have tough acts to follow. I’m happy to say the team really brought it. We’re going to turn some heads, here.

GM: Turning a little more generally, do you have any particular writing habits? (music you listen to, food you like to have around, etc.)

Van Lente: I try to be at my desk at nine and I force myself to stay there until lunch. Sometimes I write more in the afternoon, but usually I do interviews, meetings, etc. When I was younger I could never finish anything; I finally figured out writing had to habit-forming, and once you have a routine that works, you need to stick to it.

GM: Like many creators in the comic book industry, you are pretty prolific on Twitter. What draws you to the service (medium?)? What do you like or dislike about it?

Van Lente: On a personal level, since like many people in comics I work alone, from home, it’s a quick, easy way for me to stay connected to my social community. On a professional level, it’s a great way to stay directly connected to the people buying your work. On Facebook you’re competing with Cousin Martha’s photos from the family reunion and Farmville. On Twitter it’s not just a very targeted audience, but a very targeted message, too.

GM: Cool, cool.  On the subject of interaction, what would you say is one of the most memorable things you've experienced will participating in the convention circuit?

Van Lente: Just it’s great fun to meet fans, but also creators. The last big con I did was in London earlier this year. I shared a car with Bernie Wrightson and our wives from the airport. I chatted it up with Andy Lanning and Phil Jimenez in the hotel bar. I got to do a panel with David Petersen and learned we had so much in common. I got stuck in an elevator wedged between Stan Lee and Bill Sienkiewicz. Comics is such a small community, and such a special one, it’s cool to travel the world and meet people you have so much in common with.

GM: That all sounds like quite the time!  I imagine you must be rather busy with work, but when you do have any spare time, what are you reading these days (comics or otherwise)?

Van Lente: I’ve long been an OGN guy. I enjoyed Cow Boy from Archaia and Baby’s in Black from First Second (a German import, that one). In series I like The Sixth Gun a lot, Chew from my pals John & Rob and The Secret Life of DB Cooper from Brian Churilla. Brian and I were one of each other’s earliest collaborators. So that’s pretty cool.

GM: In all the things you've done, is there a character that you've particularly enjoyed writing? If so, why?

Van Lente: Armstrong is a lot of fun. He’s walked the earth for thousands of years, but unlike a lot of mopey immortals or near-immortals (cough Logan cough), he’s never lost that verve for life. He’s still looking for the perfect good time. And if he gets to save the world along the way, so much the better.

GM: I must admit to being rather partial to your Taskmaster series from a year or two back. Where did that idea come from?

Van Lente: Thanks. One of the things I do first whenever getting my grubby mitts on a new franchise character is break him down to his essence. (It’s actually a little harder with characters you created yourself, as there you’re trying to find his essence.) It occurred to me it might be interesting to treat Taskmaster’s super-memory like a computer’s hard drive, which has to delete space for new files; so in the course of learning all these fighting styles, his personal memories were overwritten. So right there you have a plot: “Who am I?” is a compelling motivation.

GM: Was it a lot of fun to really put Taskmaster through his paces and develop the character in a way no one had before?

Van Lente: It was. He had these photographic reflexes -- he could copy any fighting move he saw -- which, by a rather interesting coincidence, is the same power Archer has. But his power comes from a slightly different source than Taskmaster’s -- a more sinister one, in fact. This revelation is one of the more shocking ones in the series, in fact. Stay tuned.

GM: I await with bated breath.  You (somewhat) recently unveiled the first 5 pages of your ongoing project, Renaissance. How goes the work on this story?

Van Lente: My esteemed collaborator, the two (count ‘em two!) -time Eisner-nominated artist Sarah Oleksyk, accepted a position at Cartoon Network, so that’s slowed her down a bit. But work continues apace.

I’m working on a bunch of other creator-owned stuff; hopefully we’ll be able to announce concrete stuff soon.

GM: That's admittedly a bit of a downer for the project, but good news for Ms. Oleksyk!  What else do you have in store for 2012 and beyond? Do you have any other exciting projects happening that we should be marking down on our calendars?

Van Lente: Hope everyone reading this picks up Hulk: Season One in July, the definitive updating of the Green Goliath’s origin from me and the truly eye-popping artistic team of Tom Fowler and Jordie Bellaire. And what came out, then instantly sold out, was my latest irreverent-but-accurate collaboration with Ryan (Action Philosophers) Dunlavey, The Comic Book History of Comics. But fear not, IDW should have the second printing in stores shortly.

GM: Sounds good.  All this being said, we're almost at the end.  All we have left is the Literary Rorschach Test. I'll give you ten words and you have to respond with the first thing that pops into your head for each one – it can be a word or a full blown paragraph. Ready?

Van Lente: No, but let’s do it anyway.

Comic Book - Parody
Big 2 - Feet
Creator Owned - Freedom
Ideas - Light bulbs
Archer - Crossbow
Armstrong - Wine
& - And
Hashtag - “Justin Bieber again?”
Collaboration - Fun
The End - Rest

Thanks a lot for taking the time, Fred. It's much appreciated.

Van Lente: Thanks for having me, and for supporting the book. Remember: Archer & Armstrong! This August! The Summer of Valiant saved the best for last, people.*

(* apologies to fellow Valiant creators)

No apologies necessary, Fred!  I'm sure they'd say the same thing in your position!

So what do you think, dear reader?  Is August 8th circled on your calendar?  I would argue that it probably should be, as it's sounding like Archer & Armstrong will be a wild ride that's filled with fun.  Don't hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below!

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