Interview with Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey
Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey are the creators of the Action Philosophers
series, a humorous but accurate look at the history of philosophy in comic book form. They also teamed to create a comic book about the history of comic books called, fittingly, The Comic Book History of Comics
. Each has made many other comics throughout their careers. Dark Horse Comics just published a special “Tenth Anniversary Uberedition”
of the collected Action Philosophers
series, containing all of the individual stories as well as a new story.
I met up with Fred and Ryan at New York Comic Con to discuss Action Philosophers
, where it came from, and what they have coming up both together and separately.
Jim Bush: Action Philosophers
– where did that idea come from? It’s such a cool idea.
Ryan Dunlavey: Fred and I had an opportunity to get into a biography, an anthology of biography comics, and we decided to do a goofy Nietzsche comic, like it would be one that came with a Nietzsche action figure. It actually got rejected but I shopped it around, and I found a home for it eventually, and people just seemed to dig it. We kept making more philosophy comics and eventually we made 300 pages of it and we made a whole history of philosophy in comic form.
JB: So why philosophy?
Fred Van Lente: I was reading a lot of Nietzsche at the time because that’s what you do when you’re in your twenties, and it just seemed funny. It seemed like a funny gag to take something that was so serious and, sort of what we learned, was so intimidating and sort of humanized it a bit through humor.
JB: I really like it because I studied philosophy and going through it, it’s pretty accurate. Did you guys have to do a lot of research?
FVL: Yeah, quite a lot. It took me about a month to do each 8-12 page story. I would always read one book about a philosopher that we did and one book by that philosopher, and supplemented by a lot of other things, too.
JB: And how about for you [to Ryan Dunlavey]? Did you have to do a lot of research?
RD: Amazingly, no. I didn’t have to do as much research. I let Fred do all of the heavy lifting, and, you know, when you have draw people who don’t actually exist, you can get away with a lot. Like the pre-Socratics… well, not that they don’t exist.
FVL: Of course they exist!
RD: But there’s no pictures of them. So you can pretty much draw whatever you want. And I did, and it was fun.
JB: Action Philosophers
seems like something that could be educational. Do you know if it’s being used for that purpose in schools and stuff like that?
RD: Yes, lots of people are using it to cheat on their Philosophy 101 courses… No, actually, we have had reports from people in Canada and people in Scotland and all over the U.S., who are using it as a supplement to their Philosophy classes.
JB: So is there going to be more? Is this it?
RD: So doing humorous nonfiction comics is kind of our shtick, but we are done with philosophy as a subject. We just came out with this giant, 10th
anniversary edition hardcover, and I think we’ve got our bases covered. Wouldn’t you say?
FVL: Uh, yeah. I think that once you do the 10th
anniversary hardcover, you have retired. That’s like receiving the lifetime achievement award. It’s time to die.
JB: Well, also, I went through it, thinking is it there anyone you could have [who is not in the book]? And you even have, like, Schopenhauer in there. There’s not a lot that you guys didn’t cover.
FVL: Yeah, we cast a wide net.
JB: So you’re were saying there’s going to be more like this, because you’ve done comic book history, too. What other areas of a history or biography are you doing? Can you talk about that?
RD: Well, we’re working on Action Presidents
right now, and just about anything that has happened in history, we would be interested in doing as a comic. You know, whether it’s people or other subjects….
FVL: Yeah, American history is sort of our main focus with the Presidents series right at this exact moment.
JB: So are you going to go in order [with the Presidents]? Or is going to be, like, the most popular ones?
FVL: Well, we can’t really say yet. [In fake-serous voice] “Those negotiations are ongoing.” But no, probably not [laughs].
JB: So you guys have been working together for a long time. Has that changed your working relationship over the years?
RD: Um, I don’t know. We were friends for so long before we starting working together.
FVL: That’s true.
RD: It just went pretty smoothly at that point. I don’t know. Maybe we were afraid to hurt each other’s feelings if we disagreed. But, actually, probably not. You know, we kind of let it all hang out.
FVL: We like to keep it real.
JB: So of all the philosophers that you had to cover, who did you enjoy the most? Who did you enjoy the least?
FVL: I did not like Kierkegaard and Derrida. Reading them is like stabbing your eyes with an icicle. Nietzsche’s really funny. Ayn Rand, even though I disagree with everything she says, is a very entertaining writer of philosophy. Her novels kind of suck, but I like her as a writer of philosophy. She’s definitely talented. Yeah, those were sort of my faves and non-faves.
JB: [to RD] And on the drawing side, who did you like drawing the most?
RD: Oh God. I don’t think any of them were my least favorite. Definitely my favorite is Karl Marx because it was just so action packed and just so much fun.
JB: Were there any that were more difficult in some sense?
RD: Um, yeah. I’m trying to think of what was hard. Yeah, I think towards the end it started getting a little harder. Issue eight, when we did Schopenhauer – that was a tough one.
JB: Because of the subject matter? Or because you trying to not do the same thing?
RD: It started to get like, “All right, let’s do the next thing” at that point.
JB: You guys have definitely done a lot of different kinds of comics, too. Is there any types of comics that you haven’t done that you would like to do?
FVL: We have an idea that we’ve been kicking around for a while about a comic on the history of money, which we think is a surprisingly fascinating topic. So hopefully one day we will get to do that, although we are about to be locked into a fairly long-term project, so who know when that will happen.
RD: We also always wanted to do one that wasn’t nonfiction together.
FVL: Yeah, that’s true.
RD: Which is something that we might do soon.
JB: But you don’t have a specific idea for that one?
BOTH: We do
JB: Top secret?
FVL: It’s called “Alpha Samurai” and it’s an adaptation of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo
with an office temp instead of a ronan.
JB: Very cool. So what else do you have coming out, not necessarily together, but beyond the Action Philosophers
FVL: Well, next month premieres Resurrectionists
, which is my creator-owned book from Dark Horse. It’s about people that can summon and become their own past lives. I’m super excited by it.
JB: Who’s the artist on that?
FVL: A wonderful guy from Italy named Maurizio Rosenzweig, who I met for the first time in person at this show, so that’s nice. New York Comic Con is bringing people together!
JB: [to RD] How about you?
RD: I’m doing a web comics series called “Lil’ Classix” with my good friend, Grady Hendrix. He’s the writer and I’m drawing it. We’re adapting classic literature as newspaper comic strips. It runs 5 days a week, and we’re going to collect each one into its own little books.
JB: Is that on a specific site?
RD: Yeah, it’s www.lilclassix.com
JB: Well, that’s all I have, so thanks a lot!
RD: Thank you.
FVL: Thanks so much.