Fred Van Lente has wrestled with Greek gods, mnemonically-trained assassins, Dead Avengers and even your Friendly Neighborhood Webslinger himself, the Amazing Spider-Man. But how did one half of the Incredible Hercules team make it to this lofty plateau?
His answer: Practice. Of course, Van Lente's story isn't quite that simple, with a lot of trials, tribulations, and a healthy sense of humor bringing him to where he is today. With his newest book with Greg Pak, Chaos War, having recently hit the stands, we caught up with Van Lente for the sixth edition of Writer's Workshop, in which we talked about his roots, characterization, and how he spins off a single image to a fully-fleshed comics tale.
Newsarama: Fred, just to start off with -- how'd you get started as a writer? What led you to this career, and what were the hurdles you had to overcome to get there?
Fred Van Lente: I can't remember a time when I was't storytelling. Okay, maybe the womb. I drew my own comics until I was old enough to realize I didn't have the discipline (therefore, I guess, the desire) to actually become good at it. I started and abandoned a dozen novels before I graduated high school. I loved comics but I never really thought about them too seriously as a career.
What really ended up happening was I went to Syracuse University for film and ended up spending all my time hanging out with guys studying to be comics artists and cartoonists, like Steve (HIGH MOON) Ellis and Ryan (ACTION PHILOSOPHERS) Dunlavey. I started writing little scripts for them. Once I saw my stuff actualized by them I just got the bug. Doing comics became my primary interest after that.
Steve got a job with the big mainstream comics companies literally right before he graduated college -- He did some issues of IRON MAN in the "Teen Tony" era. Through his help I got my first paying gig. I did a fill-in of Malibu/Marvel's PRIME.
That was in 1996. Malibu was ready to give me more work, but they went out of business and it'd be another decade before I got my next mainstream opportunity. This is what they mean when they say it's just as hard to stay in as break in (if not harder). But that's a whole other story.
Nrama: When you're approaching a script, is there a particular hook, whether it's plot or character or something else, that you need to have before you go anywhere else? Can you walk us through how you typically approach developing your scripts?
Van Lente: It usually begins with a single image or idea. At a Spider-Man retreat Sandman came up, and this idea came to my head of a little boy trapped inside a giant sand castle at the beach that was Flint Marko. It was compelling enough to me that it forced me to answer all the questions that would make it a story; Who is this kid? Who is he to Sandman? Where has Sandman taken him? After some thought (and the boy turning into a girl), it turned into "Keemia's Castle" from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #615-616.
Another time, editor Lauren Sankovitch asked me if I wanted to do anything with TASKMASTER. I hadn't really ever thought about the character, so I said I'd get back to her. I was thinking about it as I went to bed that night. While I was lying there, trying to sleep, it occurred to me that Taskmaster basically was a guy with a super-memory. What if all his "photographic reflexes" were overwriting his memories of his past? That seemed like a compelling idea and problem to build a character around. I said yes to Lauren as soon as I woke up and that mini became one of the proudest things of done at Marvel.
Nrama: Let's talk about characterization a bit. For you, what is essential for making a character fully-fleshed and ready for whatever personal arc they will take on?
Van Lente: Character is primarily a function of action. How they react differently in different situations is what defines them. With established characters, like Spider-Man or Wolverine, it's easy to think how their attitudes affect their reactions. With new characters, the burden of establishing that difference falls wholly on you.
Somebody asked me this same basic question on Formspring recently and I might as well cut and paste my response here:
There's an old creative writing exercise/theorem that says that a good character is going to be interesting no matter what she's doing. While this is true in the abstract, in practice it's a bit more complicated than that.
For one thing, any new character is going to take a while to come into her own as a unique individual. And you're not going to figure out what that uniqueness is until you put the character in challenging situations that force her to prove what she's made of.
So, sure, Sherlock Holmes buying groceries could be pretty interesting, in theory. But Arthur Conan Doyle couldn't write an interesting scene about Holmes buying groceries until he had Holmes solve several mysteries first, because he was growing to understand Holmes by writing him.
Every project, and every therefore every character, is its own completely new and unique entity, and you have to learn how to write it every single time. That's the challenging part of this job and you're only going to overcome that challenge BY writing, a LOT, with a lot of false starts and switchbacks. That's as true for the seasoned pro as the neophyte.
Nrama: Looking at your work, one of the things that stands out the most is your sense of humor. For you, how do you approach comedy? And with a medium like comics, how do you work that control over time to your advantage?
Van Lente: As a nerdy-looking kid, by the time I hit middle school I figured out the best way not to get picked on was to be wittier than the dummies hurling insults. It was a good way to get more popular too. By adulthood, the jokes become second nature. I can't really articulate how you can "control," it, or even if you can. You just try it and if it feels right, that's the version you leave in.
Nrama: Perhaps this ties into the timing aspect a little bit, but I think a lot of people overlook the work that you and Ryan Dunleavy did on Action Philosophers. Now, that's a lot of heavy, cerebral ideas that you had to translate for a visual medium -- so my question is, how do you go about condensing these dense ideas, whether it's Immanuel Kant or Hercules' continuity, into something more streamlined and accessible?
Van Lente: Brevity, the oft-cited soul of wit, is a learnable skill. Just cut down as much as your verbiage as possible. Don't use ten words where five will do the same job. Overwriting, generally, is a function of laziness. When you finish a piece, only then do you have a good idea of what's necessary and unnecessary. Then you have to go back and edit out the latter. Hence Hemingway's famous maxims that writing is really rewriting and the first draft of everything is sh!t.
Nrama: Something that's been interesting in your career has been your team-ups with Greg Pak, on Incredible Hercules, Prince of Power and the newly-released Chaos War. How did this pairing take place, and how do you two split the duties while still maintaining your own creative voices?
Van Lente: Well, you don’t maintain your own creative voice. You create a third, gestalt voice that’s him and me together. Greg and I trade drafts back and forth, each rewriting the others’ work (and our own), until it’s the best possible story we think it can be, and then we turn it in. That’s what the voice turns out to be. When collaborating it’s disastrous to be selfish.
Nrama: Obviously a writer's work is never done -- so one question I have for you is, what do you personally do to keep building those creative muscles? Are there any particular writing exercises that you do, in order to keep fleshing out a character or to look at them in a different angle?
Van Lente: No. The best writing exercise is writing. The only real writing exercise is writing. Why are you reading this interview instead of writing? Go.
Nrama: Over the course of your career, what do you feel is the best decision or discovery you've ever made? (Or the worst?)
Van Lente: Our egos (okay, mine) want to discount the role luck plays in success. We want to believe we are destined for success. There's a reason they call them "chances". What you can control, though, are what you make out of the opportunities you get. As a really young writer I sabotaged my own success a couple times by being too precious with my words, trying to get things perfect when “good” would have been fine. I was paranoid and took bad advice and made inappropriate demands of publishers when really I should have just been concerned with getting the work out there. Had I not done that, I would have shaved a few years off the near-decade it took between my first and second mainstream jobs.
Nrama: For those who are trying to break in as writers, what's the biggest thing that they don't know that they should?
Van Lente: Don’t give up. Already that puts you ahead of your competition. Because one day, almost all of them will. And who can blame them? Life is short, and the road to breaking in is long and hard.VAN LENTE'ED!