Interviewing Fred Van Lente is tough, because it’s very hard to stop him from talking about The Winter Guard, and how much he loves them, and how determined he is to make them Marvel’s most A-List team of all time. You have to keep intervening to make sure he doesn’t forget to talk about his other work in comics, such as his Ryan Dunlavey team-up series “Comic Book Comics” and “Action Philosophers”; his long run with Greg Pak on Marvel;s brilliant ‘The Incredible Herc’, or his recent work on Amazing Spider-Man and Alpha Flight. Just one mention of his upcoming three-issue miniseries “Black Widow Strikes!”, set in the movie continuity and starring a thoroughly realistic take on Marvel’s spy character which doesn’t feature any trace of The Winter Guard whatsoever; and he’s off on another long tangent about Ursa Major’s majestic fur.
Luckily we managed to calm him down through the process of asking some absolutely terrible questions - which he wisely batted aside in order to talk more about his career, interest in the Renaissance, and sense of humour. One of the most notable things about Van Lente’s career is that his works have always had a strong sense of humour to them. Even when writing something which is ostensibly serious, like in Comic Book Comics, there’s always something subversive going on. It comes from growing up in a family which was “a household of wiseasses”, who’d barrage each other with jokes, jibes, and various other insults constantly, trying to one-up one another. Connect that with a childhood reading mainstream Marvel titles like Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, and you can see why Comic Book Comics first came into creation.
A series of one-off comics which take a serious topic about the history of comics and details it carefully (but with acerbic side-notes and cartoons from Dunlavey), CBC has tackled subjects like the rise and fall of the comic-books code and made it interesting. Writing the book allowed Van Lente the chance to play around with the medium, structurally, and have a go with different story lengths, different types of narratives, and weirder and weirder jokes. The idea that "there’s always something weirder" out there is something which has followed Van Lente from story to story.
Take his recent work on Marvel’s maxiseries turned ongoing turned maxiseries, ‘Alpha Flight’. After deciding with co-writer Greg Pak that the characters all needed to be re-established and bumped up, Van Lente paid particular attention to Marina. Typically "a bit of a damp rag”, the two decided that the best way to amp her up would be through making her the most outright funny character of the team. “Marina is an alien, and we had this idea that her process of time would be different to everybody elses. So the Marina we’ve seen up till now was her as a child, and now she’s entering her teenage years”. Enter a seaweed feather boa (provided by artist Dale Eaglesham, a keen fan of all things Canadian on account of BEING a Canadian) and a misjudged sense of anarchy, and Marina became, unexpectedly, the standout character of the series.
Van Lente established himself as a mainstream comics writer during his tenure on ‘The Incredible Herc’, a series which pushed fallen Marvel star Hercules back into the limelight and re-established the character as well-meaning, entertaining jock. That title was also co-written with Pak, with the two writers swapping scripts back and forth so they could fit in more jokes and refine the storyline. Working from a long-term plan which led them up to a mini-event called Chaos War (which ended the series and their initial run with the character), they decided early on that it’d be important to have somebody for Herc to bounce off – and elected for that somebody to be Amadeus Cho. "Cho’s anarchic sense of humour leant itself well" to an odd couple relationship between the two, which gave the book a unique voice amongst the other Marvel titles. When Marvel decided to drop Cho from the book and focus solely on a more serious Hercules, "much of the momentum and energy left the title", and it was ultimately cancelled after only a few issues.
The humour in Herc must’ve caught the attention of Spider-Man editor Steve Wacker at some point, because he signed up Van Lente to be one of the writers of Spidey’s ‘Brand New Day’ era. "Getting asked to write certain stories provided a different kind of challenge", as ideas would have to carry over between story arcs and ideas introduced by one writer would be ended by a completely different one. Writing parts of the Gauntlet storyline was a highlight of Brand New Day for Van Lente, with his Sandman story (drawn by the stunning Javier Pulido) reinterpreting the character (once again) using humour and drama as the pivots. While Sandman’s storyline was rather serious and dark, Van Lente could put humour into the story through Sandman new ‘adopted daughter’ Keemia, and her reactions to Spider-Man and her surroundings. Then, at the end, he pulled the humour away and left a sombre ending to the storyline. Without the humour, that ending would never have felt so dark and powerful.
Currently, Van Lente has a number of different projects bubbling under. There are plans for TV, comics, and theatre – his wife is the insane amazing genius Crystal Skillman, the playwright who, among other things, adapted his early comic ‘Action Philosophers’ for the stage. Working on that particular adaptation at what felt like an incredible short-notice, Skillman recalls "Fred back into the room time and time again for help with jokes, ideas and characterisation". And she also recalls "pushing him out the room, time and time again, when he started to offer too many jokes, ideas, and characterisations". Together, the pair seem to have this great idea that there’s always something quirkier and funnier that can be brought into a story, and that humour is one of the best, most natural ways to bring excitement into a narrative. While she is currently writing a play with ComVan favourite James Asmus, he is currently writing a webcomic called RENAISSANCE, about "the relationships various famous renaissance men – Machiavelli, Da Vinci, The Borgias and others – had with Lisa Del Giocondo, the lady who would eventually become famous as The Mona Lisa". The art for the series is provided by Skillman’s former roommate Sarah Oleysk, who previously drew ‘Ivy’ for Oni Press. It’s all interconnected over here, you guys!
And there will also be Hulk: Season One coming out soon, followed by Black Widow Strikes! Which, as you’ll recall, features absolutely no members of The Winter Guard whatsoever. Much to everybody’s eternal dismay! The miniseries is actually pitched at Russian readers rather than American readers – it’ll be transcribed into Russian and made widely available around the country – and “sets up the movie perfectly. Also, it will be published in Maxim in Russia, mirroring the 'real life' Black Widow who posed for the magazine recently and caused so much attention-gathering controversy”. Van Lente then ended our interview with a nine-minute soliloquy about what colour Darkstar’s boots should be and whether she should have high heels.
Thanks to Mr Van Lente and Ms Skillman for their time!