After years at Marvel Comics, Fred Van Lente has been stretching his legs with some varied and some lesser-known heroes. Whether it’s Archer & Armstrong helping relaunch and revive the Valiant Comics line, various Conan the Barbarian stories paying tribute to the fantasy world that Robert E. Howard created, or now with Magnus: Robot Fighter bringing Gold Key back to life at Dynamite with artist Cory Smith, Van Lente has gravitated to offbeat heroes who often have moral quandaries that make them appear less-than-heroic.
We talked with Van Lente about the Magnus relaunch, his plans for the character, what’s appealing about working with the non-big two comic companies, and why answering philosophical questions during karate chops is awesome.
Newsarama: Let’s talk about Magnus: Robot Fighter, Fred. It’s kind of funny, you were involved with the Valiant relaunch, and now you’re involved with what many remember as the “other half” of the company with the Gold Key titles. How did you get involved with this, with Dynamite?
Fred Van Lente: This was just a bizarre coincidence. I was hanging out with my friend Nate Cosby on the day he first had a conversation with Dynamite about heading up the Gold Key line as editor. I was describing some of the characters – I actually remember reading the Gold Key comics back in the 70s, when they were reprinted under “Western Publishing.”
So I started talking about Magnus, and I thought one of the things that you could do with him that would be fun would be a robot version of They Live, the famous John Carpenter movie where aliens have taken over in a body snatchers kind of deal. So I thought what if that was robots, instead of aliens, and only Magnus can see them. From that kernel of an idea, the whole thing mutated into something semi-similar to what I had been talking about originally, but super cool. Nate was on board from the beginning. I got the gig sort of because I happened to be standing around and said “why don’t we do this!?”
Finally, by the end of the evening and many beers later, we realized we had hit on a super cool way to take the series.
Nrama: So aspiring comic writers, take note, hang out with Nate Cosby and give him beer.
Van Lente: Right. Editors in general.
Nrama: The premise here sounds a little Cylon-ish, a little Battlestar-inspired. Is that something you’re deriving from at all?
Van Lente: Not really. Like I said, that was the initial – that was the 2 beers in idea. It really mutated into something a bit different. In essence, Magnus finds himself awakened in a world where robots have completely taken over humanity, for what they claim to be humanity’s best interest. They are also sort of ruled by a theology where the highest thing a robot can achieve is to emulate living things as much as possible. Magnus has been raised by 1A, a renegade artificial intelligence who wants to liberate NorthAm, the city where he lives, from the Church of the Singularity – the robot religious fanatics.
Magnus has to fight his way through a phalanx of many different kinds of robots, and along the way maybe learn that 1A isn’t entirely on the up-and-up himself. So there’s good humans, and bad humans and good robots and bad robots, and Magnus has to navigate all of this, both morally and through kicking the crap out of robots and punching their heads off.
Nrama: Okay, good to hear there’s the kicking the crap out of robots part, because this sounds pretty heavy here. There are questions of what life is and religious questions…
Van Lente: What is the real? What is natural? What is human? These are all great questions, and they will be answered with karate chops! Well, not with karate chops; they’ll be answered during karate chops (laughs).
Nrama: What makes you think about those kinds of questions, and makes you want to tell stories in comic books evaluating them?
Van Lente: Well, the major thing we’re adjusted to in our age, the internet and smart phone era, is the immediacy of us being around each other all the time thanks to Twitter, Facebook, fine sites such as Newsarama. The obvious question, I think, is that when it comes to the real day-to-day relationships we have with each other… on one hand we have what we tell each other on facebook, in interviews like what I’m doing right now, this is what we’re telling people “this is the real me.” Are you different when you make public proclamations on twitter versus when you’re dealing with your family members versus when you’re dealing with coworkers? We all have different guises that we put on – benignly, we don’t have to be putting one over on anyone – but it’s just the normal way we relate to each other.
Dealing with robots as far as technology and the robot religion and everything else is a good way to explore those issues in a fun, action, science fiction adventure kind of way.
Nrama: As your comic book writing has evolved over the years, you’ve notably moved into some of the smaller company-owned characters versus the big ones. Are there specific advantages or challenges that makes that appeal to you?
Van Lente: Well, it’s easier to make them your own.
Whenever I get offered a job, the main question for me is, can I do anything interesting with this? Both in a way that interests me and in a way that interests anybody else, to keep the book alive via sales! It’s not so much that the companies are smaller, it’s that when you get characters like Magnus that have not appeared that recently – the Dark Horse revival notwithstanding – there’s more room to wiggle. The public doesn’t have as much of a solidified opinion of what that’s supposed to be. Your leash gets let out a bit more, and you can have more fun with the characters. It’s not that Marvel and DC don’t have great lesser known characters that they’re not doing a lot with. I loved the Grant Morrison Animal Man and the old Doom Patrol, and Bob Layton Hercules, and the Batman and the Outsiders – all these weird, niche books. That’s definitely what I’m more interested in working with. It’s just more fun!
Nrama: Is your run on Magnus a limited series or open-ended?
Van Lente: It is open-ended. My contract is for “x” number of issues, but hopefully it’s successful and we’re able to go beyond that. I have a very distinct idea of what I want to do for the first 12 issues. It’s kind of a self-contained idea, but definitely leaves the door open for more.
Nrama: What style of science fiction would you say you’re going for here? Are you going for the flashy kind we commonly see in theaters (and comics) today, or are you going for something closer to modern day, more of the “hard science fiction” of the past?
Van Lente: Great question. A lot of it has to do with the setting. Magnus, the setting is slightly different than the original. In the original story NorthAm was like Mega City One in Judge Dredd – they called it that because it literally stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
This NorthAm is a little different, I don’t want to spoil it too much because of the story, but in this NorthAm, the robots have sort of rebuilt North America with all the boring parts cut out. Sorry, flyover country and all the major landmarks there. The comparison I keep making is that this is what the New York, New York casino is in Las Vegas to the actual New York. They just left in the greatest hits.
Nrama: So there’s a stalk of corn, but not all of Iowa.
Van Lente: (laughs) Exactly. There’s one corn field, and that represents most of the states I grew up in and around.
And why that’s the case, why North America had to be rebuilt, is a major reveal in the series. It’s also been constructed to look like early twenty-first century North America. The idea is, it’s a combination between the hypertech and the advanced, mixed with what we see right now.
Nrama: Very interesting. Well, with you, Nate, and Greg Pak all involved with the Gold Key revival here, are we going to see some crazy sound effects in these books?
Van Lente: HA! (laughs) Well, you’d be more likely to see that in Archer & Armstrong than Magnus: Robot Fighter. Magnus: Robot Fighter is not much of a crazy sound effects book. I generally have tried to keep that as an Incredible Hercules thing, and leave it there where it works so well.
Although, Greg and I have something in the very early planning stages that may demand the return of the crazy sound effects.