Fred Van Lente, the bestselling author of Hulk: Season One and writer of superhero video games for Marvel, has spent so much time immersed in the world of comic books it’s a wonder that dialogue bubbles don’t start forming around his head as he describes his own origin story. It begins (like many of them do) in a small town. “I got into comics at an early age,” says the Ohio native. “My father, a sort of casual fan, gave me his copy of The Great Comic Book Heroes, which had the origins of Superman, Captain America and all these cool characters.” Van Lente, the story goes, loved the book so much he asked his mother to read it to him constantly. Finally, when she couldn’t take it anymore, Van Lente taught himself to read by associating the words with pictures in the book and by the time he entered school he was well-prepared, if not ahead of all the other students.
Hearing this, you would think Van Lente was destined for a career in comics, but he says he never even considered it as a profession until he got to Syracuse University in the 1990s. That’s when he fell in with a group of guys studying to be comic artists and later followed them to New York, where Van Lente has been ever since. “I started writing for them, and I loved the immediacy with which they brought my words to life, and I was hooked,” he says. “I still make comics with two of the guys, Ryan Dunlavey and Steve Ellis.”
Today it’s Van Lente’s books that people can’t put down. The proud Brooklynite, now 41, has emerged as one of the hottest comic book writers around. He’s spent the last decade and a half channeling superheroes (Spider-Man) — along with superspies (Brain Boy), conspiracy busters (Archer & Armstrong), heat-packing soldiers (G.I. Joe) and the living dead (Marvel Zombies). He’s also worked on video games (Avengers Initiative) and done some nonfiction too (The Comic Book History of Comics). “I like to stay off the streets,” he says, jokingly, by way of explaining his herculean output.
In a recent interview, Van Lente talked at length about his plans for New York Comic Con (newyorkcomiccon.com), which opens Thursday, his writing process and the similarities between Bruce Banner and Walter White. Below are excerpts from the conversation.
The city is not just your home these days it is also a frequent muse.
Very much so. The cultural events, the museums, the plays, the people, they’re all a huge inspiration. And a lot of my stories have New York City settings. I moved G.I. Joe’s headquarters to Governors Island. In Archer & Armstrong, Wall Street is run by a Satan-worshipping cult that sacrifices homeless people to make the Dow rise. And there are too many Marvel stories to mention, but writing a childhood favorite, The Amazing Spider-Man — which is perhaps the most New York of all comics — it was fun bringing all that local color into play.
Is there a large comic book community in New York?
Absolutely. There are book signings and readings going on all the time. A lot of folks in the industry live here. Most are writers. The fact that I’m able to meet people face-to-face and go in for one-on-one meetings has definitely helped my career. The big two, Marvel and DC Comics, are both based in New York. Valiant Entertainment, with whom I do a lot of work, is here. Dynamite is not far away in New Jersey. I often run into people I know, like Jeff Parker and Gabriel Hardman, who are well-known comic book creators.
We also host one of the biggest events on the comics calendar.
NYCC has grown to be the second biggest con in North America. It’s my hometown show and my favorite.
How many Cons are there?
There are literally hundreds. In fact, I would say from March to October there’s at least one, usually more than one, going on somewhere in North America, if not the world. I’m going to the Guatemala City Comic Con in November, which I’m very excited about. I’ve been to the Mexico City Comic Con, the London Comic Con. In fact, New York Comic Con is not even the only comic con in New York City! [Laughs] There’s the Big Apple Comic Con, the Museum of Cartoon and Comic Arts Fest, the Comic Arts Brooklyn Fest. There’s the Wizard World New York Experience … I could go on but why should I?
Any big plans for NYCC this year?
On Thursday I’m on a great, unique panel called “Creating Educational Comics Kids Actually WANT to Read,” which is kind of an unwieldy title, but it gets the idea across. I’m also on a fantasy comics panel with Wendy and Richard Pini from ElfQuest, whom I’m excited to meet. Then two new series that I’m working on will be announced. I write the Conan comics so there will be a fun announcement regarding that at the Dark Horse panel. And there will be a big announcement on the Dynamite panel on Sunday.
Times weren’t always so great for you. Early on you struggled to make it as a writer. Wasn’t there a 10-year gap between the publications of your first two mainstream books?
It was a long time. Partly that was just bad luck. My first work, Prime, was published by a company called Malibu that was recently bought by Marvel. This is right when Marvel was going into bankruptcy. I mean the late 1990s were probably [laughs] the worst time for comics in the history of humanity because of all the financial difficulties the industry was going through. That was when the Image [Comics] bubble collapsed. You can read all about it [in mock salesman voice] “in The Comic Book History of Comics, available now for your Kindle and at your local comic shop.” It didn’t really occur to me until I was doing that book almost a decade later that my early career was one of the casualties of that period.
How did you survive?
I worked for this temp agency that served [the] financial services industry; it was a lot of answering phones and filling out spreadsheets, stuff like that. I worked at Citibank. I worked at Hewlett-Packard. My last three years temping were at the United Nations. That was different. I mean it’s not that I wasn’t doing anything for those 10 years. I did a variety of things: some independent books, some black-and-white books. I did a science fiction series with Steve Ellis called Tranquility that was well received but went nowhere. But Tranquility is what got me a job co-writing Cowboys & Aliens! I wrote Cowboys & Aliens in 2001, though it wasn’t published until 2006, and the movie wasn’t made until 2011. This just goes to show you that persistence is its own reward.
Was writer’s block ever an issue?
No, if anything I’m someone who suffers from an overabundance of ideas. When I began I did the classic young writer mistake of starting a lot of different projects that were never finished. I had terrible follow-through. I always found some other shiny object so I kept flitting from one idea to the next idea that, I thought, would make my fortune. In the process, I never really just got stuff out there, and it’s getting stuff out there that leads to other projects.
After Tranquility starting collecting dust on bookstore shelves, what did you do to get your career on track?
Steve [Ellis] and I did another comic called The Silencers. It was sort of a crime-drama with super-powered mob enforcers; “Sopranos as superheroes” is how everybody described it. The Silencers was also released by a teeny, tiny publisher. And again, nobody read that. But it was well reviewed and an editor at Marvel liked it so he got me a gig working on Amazing Fantasy, a comic book anthology series that nobody bought! I remember I’d just been laid off from the U.N. and, fortunately, at the time Marvel had a kids’ line so I made my living doing that. I wrote the Spider-Man book. They had a Fantastic Four book. I created the Iron Man kids’ book, which was right before the first movie came out [with Robert Downey Jr.].
It must have felt like you graduated to the big leagues when Marvel called.
Yes, but kids’ books are kind of the redheaded stepchildren of the big two. Marvel doesn’t even do them anymore. What really put me on the map, though, was Incredible Hercules. That was the modern-day adventures of the Greek demigod and his sidekick/intern whom, much to everyone’s surprise, is a teenage Korean-American genius named Amadeus Cho. The character was created by my buddy Greg Pak, who was the writer of Incredible Hulk up until that point. I came on to Incredible Hercules to help write the series, and it sort of became an unexpected hit. A lot of my other gigs, like Amazing Spider-Man and Marvel Zombies, came from that.
You then went on to write Hulk: Season One, which was a critical and commercial success last year. What was it like working on that reinterpretation of the green goliath?
I took a lot of inspiration from Breaking Bad, actually, with the chemistry and the southwestern setting and the Jesse Pinkman = Rick Jones similarities. Like Walter White, Banner has a secret he has to keep from his loved ones that requires him to twist the truth to avoid the law. I wonder if future doctoral dissertations will be written about Heisenberg as a classic comics-style “secret identity.”
With Hulk: Season One, you were able to maintain the spirit of the early stories from the 1960s yet still make it feel fresh. Was that difficult?
A lot of recent versions of the Hulk have rejected the duality with Banner, which to me is the only thing that is interesting about the Hulk, so I think that was classic-and-fresh at the same time, just because it had been abandoned for years in the series.
You’re not just in the comic book game anymore. You write superhero video games for Marvel.
Yes, I worked with lead writer Alex Irvine on the Facebook hit Avengers Alliance, and I’ll be doing some work on upcoming mobile game for Amazing Spider-Man 2, which picks up on the recent, very popular miniseries Spider-Men, by Brian Michael Bendis. It’s going to have a lot of your favorite character and your most hated villains.
Another one of your games, an iOS fighter called Avengers Initiative, had three million downloads when it came out last year. Did you enjoy working on that?
It was super-fun. Originally we thought of doing a Hulk game. Certainly the idea of writing a game where Hulk punches monsters in the face is something I like to be a part of. The creators behind Avengers Initiative gave me a general idea of what they wanted, and I wrote an outline of story beats and set pieces and suggested who the main boss, bad-guy should be. Then they took that back to Disney, our owner, and Marvel Games had input. For various reasons they said, “Could you do this instead?” and I said sure. Or sometimes I said, “Do I have to?” And they said, “Yes.” So I said, “Sure.” Then I wrote script, which was dialogue-based.
With games, do you have to write multiple lines for different outcomes?
As a game writer, you have various categories. There are “victory lines.” You don’t want players to hear the same line every time so I think I gave them 15 lines for when the Hulk defeated somebody, [of] which maybe they used six or seven. We had wonderful voice actors, and it was exciting to hear those lines brought to life. Then there are “wild lines,” which are things random characters might say. If you’ve ever played Grand Theft Auto V, you hear people having cellphone conversations as they walk past. Somebody has to write that. One section of Avengers Initiative takes place on a HYDRA carrier, this ship that the villainous group HYDRA uses, so there are a bunch of announcements like what was being served in the cafeteria or what was going to be featured on tonight’s movie night. It was always a different Disney movie, like Lady and the Tramp.
How does game writing compare to comic book writing?
A comic book writer’s job is essentially the same as that of a screenwriter or playwright, where you’re doing scene description and action and dialogue. That’s basically what you’re doing with games too, except in games the quote unquote action is determined by a much larger sort of committee of people as well as what the budget and the gameplay mechanics. In terms of storytelling it’s fairly restrictive unless you have the budget of a Mass Effect or a Grand Theft Auto. Anyway, games — in my opinion at least — are not a storytelling medium. I know lots of people disagree, but that’s me speaking more as a gamer than as a writer. I just don’t think story should interfere with the gamer’s experience. A game is meant to be played, not read or watched. Any game that has longer cut scenes than gameplay makes me want to throw my console out the window.
So what takes longer to write, a video game or a comic book?
It depends. But I’d probably say writing comics takes longer. One of the things I noticed is video games need a lot of rewrites for various technical reasons. Also, with games you’re dealing with a fairly rigid structure that actually makes your job somewhat easier because your choices are limited.
What pays better?
Oh, games. Without a doubt!
If you’re starting out today as a comic book writer, what kind of money can you expect to make?
Writers are usually paid by the page. Single issues, or “floppies,” are about 20 to 22 pages in length. For a beginner’s rate, you can expect anywhere between zero dollars (if you’re just doing it for exposure) to upwards 80 or 100 bucks per page. More successful guys like Scott Snyder, who’s doing a great job over at DC with Superman and Batman, can make quite a bit of money and probably earn royalties too.
Whether it’s comics or games, collaboration is a big part of your job. The first time we spoke you told me that a lot of artists who work on comics live outside the U.S., which can create a language hurdle. When that happens you have to communicate via translators or agents.
That’s right. In an ideal situation the artist and I have a lively phone or email discussion before a script gets drawn, but that doesn’t happen all the time. Instead, I’m working with people from Japan and Taiwan and Argentina and Brazil and Germany and the Netherlands. The reason for that is drawing comic books is ludicrously hard. [Laughs]. A lot of companies, particularly Marvel and DC, spend a certain amount of money traveling to foreign comic book conventions, where they can do portfolio reviews in the hopes of finding the best people available.
Does anything ever get lost in translation?
Sometimes. My favorite example is not a comic I wrote but one my buddy edited. It was a western comic. The panel description was “the cowboys haul ass out of town.” The artist, who was from Italy, actually drew the cowboys literally being pulled out of town by two donkeys.
Okay, tough question: How do you know when to use a “skraak” or “krrack” or “kkrannkkgg” in a fight scene? I mean it must make you go “aaaagh” trying to decide.
Incredible Hercules had a lot of those goofy sounding sound-effects and our editor Nate Cosby actually listed some favorites on a blog (goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2011/07/03/comic-book-easter-eggs-hercules-sound-effects/).
What’s your go-to sound effect?
I’ve always loved “zwok.” That’s a classic ’60s Marvel sound effect. It’s used for a karate chop or a punch or something.
Let’s talk about how you like to work. I read that Stephen King writes at his desk seven days a week, usually with the stereo turned up loud, and knocks off by lunchtime. Do you have your own routine?
I do. I have the stereo up pretty loud as well. [Laughs] I’m always fascinated when I meet people who can’t write while listening to music with lyrics in it. TV’s a different story, unless it’s something like a baseball game. Even that’s distracting. But, yeah, I try to write in the morning. Sometimes I’m finished by lunchtime but I make it a rule to wrap up by 5pm. I also try to never do work-for-hire stuff on weekends. That when I make time for my own personal projects.
So what’s the perfect soundtrack for writing about superheroes?
It can be anything, really. I make an iTunes playlist for a particular project and play it only when I’m working on that project. It’s a great way to calibrate your brain to think about a particular story.
How much research do you conduct before working on a title?
I personally have a mania for research. I do quite bit. At the extreme end would be something like Action Philosophers, where I would basically do three months of research for a 10 to 12 page comic story, which is nuts.
Action Philosophers was a book about the real lives and thoughts of history’s A-list brain trust [in a wry tone] “told in a hip and humorous comic book-fashion.” With most subjects I only knew their name, so I tried to research at least one book about and one book by each person we profiled, whether that was Sartre or Kierkegaard or Henry James. Oftentimes I read more than that. Trying to struggle through Schopenhauer when you’ve never done it before can laborious and time-consuming, particularly if you are actively trying to understand it as I was — as opposed to just gleaning key words you can throw out during the test, which is what I did, and what I think most of us do all too often in school. But, hey, it beats answering phones and filling out spreadsheets.
Find out more about how New Yorkers are making it in the big city with our Cool Job Q&As.