You’ve never seen the history of America quite like this.
Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey first came to the attention of many ans with Action Philosophers, a cartoony-yet-accurate take on the lives and works of some of the great minds of history. Now, they’re going back to their roots - along with America’s roots – with Action Presidents, a new all-ages graphic novel series from Harper Collins that take readers through the history of the Commanders-In-Chief with a reverent sense of history and decidedly irreverent sense of humor.
As in - the books are narrated by a giant turkey.
The first two books, dealing with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, are out this month – with other books dealing with Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy already on the horizon. Newsarama spoke with Van Lente and Dunlavey about what drew them to this material, their favorite presidents, and much more.
Newsarama: Fred - for the uninitiated, what is Action Presidents?
Fred Van Lente: In the vein of our - available right now from IDW - Comic Book History of Comics and Action Philosophers, this is our typically irreverent-but-accurate take on American history, as seen through the lives and accomplishments - and failings - of the - thus far - men who have been our nation's Chief Executives.
In each 110-page hardcover volume, Noah the His-Turkey leads a different set of kids through the life of a particular president, with our own special blend of fact-based humor.
Technically, the books are for middle-grade readers, but I truly believe they are "all ages" - anybody who enjoys history will enjoy this.
Nrama: How did this series come about?
Van Lente: We actually came up with the idea for this series at the same time as Comic Book History, and did a shorter "proof-of-concept" story for the great literacy-through-comics organization Reading with Pictures.
Our super agent Jason Yarn brought on board the terrific editor David Linker at HarperCollins kids in - geez, I wanna say 2014 or so? And we've been working on the books ever since! So excited to see how readers react to 'em.
Nrama: ...and how, exactly, did Noah the His-Turkey come about?
Van Lente: I will be totally honest with you, I am not a big fan of narrator-characters in non-fiction comics, but since everyone has used them since Scott McCloud depicted himself hosting Understanding Comics, for our first big-book industry launch I caved to peer pressure and decided we needed one.
An eagle would have been cliché, and Benjamin Franklin famously - though probably only half-seriously - said turkeys should be our national bird. Ryan did a great job on his character design, making Noah look like a feathered Harlem Globetrotter.
Ryan Dunlavey: Fred is a very, very strange man.
Nrama: How is doing this series different from doing Action Philosophers?
Dunlavey: We actually have a plan this time! Seriously, Action Philosophers happened totally by accident – we had done did a 6 page joke-heavy biography of Friedrich Nietzsche as a joke, but then people really dug it, so we kept making more and eventually amassed 300 pages of funny philosophy comics and pretended we were working on a graphic novel all along.
Van Lente: Our original concept of Action Presidents was to do it like Action Philosophers, which is to say, a bunch of themed books, but Harper - wisely, I'd say - wanted something a bit more straightforward.
So, we've got 110 pages of George, Abe, and, later in the next year or so, Teddy and Jack (Kennedy).
Nrama: What kind of research did you have to do for this book, and what's the craziest/most unexpected thing you learned while doing this research?
Dunlavey: I’ve visited the majority of the places depicted in the book. In fact, the Maryland Stone House - the site of a key Revolutionary War battle - is only four blocks from where I live!
I also lived in Central Virginia in my grade school years, and have vivid memories of many, many family trips and school trips to Mount Vernon, Williamsburg, and various historical sites throughout the state, and it’s pretty much all we studied in history class from 2nd through 6th grade.
The inside of the Governor’s Mansion in Williamsburg, Virginia, which we showed early on in the George Washington book, really is absolutely covered in weaponry from wall-to-wall is even crazier to see in person. Beyond that, I confess I mostly relied on the research Fred gathered himself and included when he turned in the first draft of the script.
Van Lente: Yeah, I like to do as much hands-on research as possible. I got to Springfield, Illinois, which is basically one big open-air Abraham Lincoln museum. We dragged Ryan's kids to Teddy Roosevelt's estate, Oyster Bay, which is beautiful, and they only barely avoided dying of boredom.
Nrama: Four of these are announced so far – how many would you like to do? What do you think would be the challenges in doing a particularly short-lived president, such as William Henry Harrison?
Dunlavey: As many as our public - and publisher - wants us to! In this series I could see us doing an FDR book and then a single two-for one volume on John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
Beyond that, who knows. A Nixon book could actually be a lot of fun. Andrew Jackson would certainly be an interesting book to read but my personal disgust with the man could make it tough to draw.
Nrama: Do you have a favorite president? If so, which one and why?
Dunlavey: George Washington – he’s the only one who didn’t want the job, but was definitely the best and only person qualified to do it, and has been a role model for everyone who followed him.
Van Lente: Lyndon B Johnson. He really got positive stuff done, except for that, you know, whole Vietnam War thing. And he was quite the bombastic character.
Nrama: What's working with Harper Collins been like?
Dunlavey: They are awesome. It was their idea to do a series of volumes.
Van Lente: Yeah, definitely. It was also their idea to release George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on the same day,
Nrama: What do you hope readers take away from this series?
Dunlavey: A better understanding and an interest to learn more.
Van Lente: And a desire to give us more of their money.
Nrama: In terms of George Washington and the Revolutionary War, you talk about the many misconceptions spread in popular culture early on in the book, but do you have any favorite representations of that era in media? 1776 the musical kind of has an almost Stockholm Syndrome-like quality with its sheer length, and it's weirdly fascinating to watch reruns of PBS's Liberty’s Kids with celebrity guest voices providing exposition at 100 MPH (with Dustin Hoffman as Benedict Arnold!) Also, there's apparently one with Al Pacino as a French fur trapper.
Dunlavey: I really enjoyed Nathan Hale’s graphic novel One Dead Spy, so much so I had to force myself to not look at it when I was drawing this book to resist plagiarizing it!
I actually tried out to be the artist on a Liberty's Kids comic book many years ago – I didn’t get the job, or I think they’d decided not to publish it at all.
Van Lente: I have been a lifelong American Revolution addict for reasons I don't entirely understand, and as a result I take kind of a harsh view of a lot of stuff done in this period. But who doesn't love Hamilton?
Dunlavey: Me! Sorry, I’ve tried to get into Hamilton many times, and I understand why people like it, but it’s not for me. I think I’m allergic to musicals.
Nrama: What's next for you outside these books?
Dunlavey: I still have to finish drawing the Kennedy book! I think it’s safe to say that Fred and I will continue to do humorous non-fiction comics together as long as we can stand each other. We’ve discussed tackling all sorts of non-fiction subjects: scientists, mythologies of the world, you name it. We’d really like to work on a strait up fiction graphic novel sometime in the future, but we haven’t decided on anything definitive yet – wait and see!
Apart from Fred, I wrote and drew a story for The Secret Loves of Geeks anthology called “The Cool Chick,” about being a shy introvert with an extroverted girlfriend, that comes out on Valentine’s Day from Dark Horse Comics. It’s my first ever autobiographical comic, and I plan to do more soon!
My Line Webtoon series Polidiocy is ending this month, but writer Eric Mahoney and I are working on a new series for them called Dog Park, which should launch before the summer.
Van Lente: My second novel, The Con Artist, set here in our beloved comic book industry, will be out in July, which I am pretty excited about.
And next month, CAFU, Valiant, and I will be bringing you the next installment in the Archer & Armstrong saga, The Vault of Secrets, which is more history and hilarity from me – which I guess is kind of my thing.