Fred Van Lente Talks ‘Magnus,’ ‘Conan’ and ‘G.I. Joe’ [NYCC 2013]
Most creators would probably consider a con to be successful if they had one big project announced. This weekend at NYCC, Fred Van Lente, who’s already had a big year with G.I. Joe, Brain Boy and Archer & Armstrong, managed to land himself two. Not only will he be part of Dynamite’s Gold Key relaunch as the writer of Magnus: Robot Fighter, he’ll also be taking over Dark Horse’s Conan the Barbarian at #26.
I sat down with Van Lente at NYCC’s Artist’s Alley to find out more about these projects, as well as why G.I. Joe #3 is the best single issue of the year — and why he’s leaving that book after #11.
ComicsAlliance: Let’s talk about Magnus. As I understand it, Magnus is a dude who wears a red miniskirt and karate chops robots to death.
Fred Van Lente: Exactly. It sounds like it should be right up your alley.
CA: It should, but I’ve never read a lot of it. I just recently picked up a run of the Tom Peyer stuff from Acclaim.
FVL: As a kid, and this dates me horribly, well into the ’70s, Western would reprint the Gold Key comics in little, almost proto-trades that you could get in the comics rack at the grocery store and the 7-Eleven. I actually read Doctor Spektor, Magnus and Solar in their original ’60s incarnation, just printed fifteen years later, when I was also reading the Marvel stuff that was being reprinted at the same time in paperback. I guess I was 20 years behind my time in my comics reading.
What happened with Magnus was that I happened to be out drinking with Nate Cosby, the line editor, when he got the gig. He wanted to talk to me about the Gold Key characters because he knew I was working at Valiant, where a lot of those characters were last published, and I was like “Oh, you know, Magnus could be interesting. What if it was like They Live, and only he could see which people were robots and which were humans? What if we incorporate ideas of the Singularity, when all the humans and machines merge and fly off into space? What if this takes place after that?” After about three or four hours of drinking, we came up with the whole premise of the series. It’s super exciting.
CA: If I didn’t want to read a book about a dude in a miniskirt karate chopping robots, you sold me on it by telling me he’s basically Rowdy Roddy Piper.
CA: That’s an interesting premise, though. He’s originally in the future, right?
FVL: He’s still in the future in my book, in 4000 AD. But for some reason things look a lot like the 21st Century.
CA: Why is that?
FVL: All of that has to do with the singularity, and the fact that it takes place after the merging of humans and their own technology. It has to do with Northam, the city where Magnus has always taken place. The original idea was that it was basically Mega City One, it was the city that encompassed all of North America. This is a robotic version of North America that’s actually much smaller, because the robots have cut out all the boring stuff. New York blends right into Boston, it’s like the EPCOT Center version of America. These people live in a massive theme park, essentially, where the robots have completely taken over. It’s not an oppressive thing, really, they feel like they’ve done it for humanity’s own good, but the robots follow a religion built around the Singularity. The higher level machines have all been Raptured, basically, and disappeared, so they have to be the best humans they can be. There are various factions raging against this theocracy in Northam, and Magnus was raised by a robot dissident called 1-A.
CA: We’ve talked before about how your work has a lot of research that goes into it, whether it’s the obvious kind of research-heavy books that you do like Action Philosophers and Comic Book Comics, or even if it’s just the more casual “how do death cults work?” type stuff that you do with Archer & Armstrong where you’re talking about how the concept of zero works…
FVL: And history gets perverted.
CA: Right. This feels like it’s something that sprung out of that passive kind of research where you were just thinking about the Singularity, and then you had a beer with Nate Cosby and it snapped into place.
FVL: It’s exactly like that. It’s a really organic process. We plotted the whole first year out and I’m really proud of it, and Cory Smith, who’s drawing it is so talented, and his designs are so amazing. We’ve got every kind of robot.
CA: Does he still have the skirt?
FVL: You know me. I’m not averse to writing skirt characters. I’m totally down with that. Destro and his kilt, all the way down to Hercules.
CA: Hercules did have a fetching mini.
FVL: And a Miss America sash, and a headpiece lovingly designed by Jack Kirby that, to this day, I do not entirely understand what its purpose was. Did he have skull surgery recently?
CA: With a book like King’s Watch, I know the deal is that it’s a big team-up story. With the Gold Key books, these are characters that always go together, but not necessarily in the same universe. Is there one united world here that starts with Turok and ends with Magnus?
FVL: They all exist in the same “universe” or timeline. Not to give too much away, but you’ll see Turok is very different from the way we see history, and Magnus has a pre-timeline that leads into the book. Solar and Spektor take place in the present, and one of the books ties them all together. It’s not necessarily a traditional crossover, but it’s in a very organic way. Me, Cory and Nate have a very distinct beginning, middle and end in the first year of Magnus. Magnus is thrust into this world where he’s been raised by a robot to fight robots.
CA: Let’s talk about G.I. Joe then. G.I. Joe #3 is legit the best single issue of the year
FVL: I appreciate you saying that. It’s one of my most favorite things I’ve written.
CA: How did that come about?
FVL: You know, initially, and I think it might have even been solicited like this, it was supposed to be a Choose Your Own Adventure. I was reading an article about torture and how it really, literally gives you brain damage…
CA: And the thing in that issue, which I later found out was based on fact, is that Duke is physically incapable of breaking under torture because of this neurochemical he has.
FVL: It’s a brain protein, I want to say, and it basically regulates your heart rate and makes it very even. The problem with it, which is kind of fascinating, and I think this made it into the issue as an aside, is that you’re going to die of a heart attack at 50 just from sheer consistency.
CA: But Doc says Duke’s gonna be okay!
FVL: Exactly. But yeah, Dr. Mindbender does his mind-bending, and we get Duke’s whole origin as Dr. Mindbender tries to get him to reveal this passcode that Cobra needs. Originally it was a Choose Your Own Adventure, and I was tearing my hair out trying to make it work. Eventually I was out drinking with my buddy Charles Soule, and he said “oh, they did that in The Unwritten,” so I went and got that, and was like “oh my God, this is three times longer than what I was going to do.” So I just scrapped all the CYOA stuff, but I’d written so many scenes of it that I basically had a full comic. It worked out.
CA: It’s interesting to see how it’s structured, because most of it takes place in Duke’s memories, and you watch Duke relive his own origin story while he’s being tortured, and you get the same amount of information that Dr. Mindbender does, until the end of the story. There are so many good visual cues in that comic.
FVL: Yeah, Steve Kurth did a great job.
CA: The scene with Aisha’s eyes, which are like the action figure’s eyes.
FVL: The Eagle Eyes, yes.
CA: It’s creepy and clever and heartbreaking all at the same time.
FVL: It was one of those things where I put it in the script and I wasn’t sure how it was going to look, and then I got the page and it definitely worked.
CA: It’s a story about Duke that we’ve never seen before, even when we’ve seen different versions of his past. Was there any resistance to it when you pitched a story where you gave Duke a secret wife that nobody knew about?
FVL: Hasbro’s been great. They were like “great, go for it,” and as long as it doesn’t contradict continuity, IDW gave me carte blanche. My last issue, #11, is Roadblock’s origin, which as far as I know is completely from the ground up. Cover Girl’s origin incorporated G.I. Joe Extreme, and Roadblock’s will incorporate G.I. Joe: Sigma Six.
CA: That’s the thing: You’ve added a lot, like Hashtag, but you’re also bringing in a lot of stuff that’s been ignored over the years. We talked when you started about how you wanted to do a story that was more like the cartoon, and now you’re doing all the cartoons. Sgt. Savage is in it, Sgt. Stone is in it, and the G.I. Joe Extreme stuff is almost as good as #3, in a different way.
FVL: It’s a very different issue in tone, but I love those character studies where you get to just look at each member of the unit. If I could just do a comic that was just that, I would probably be super happy.
CA: So many times, those characters get reduced to their specialty, especially Duke. He’s A Soldier, and that’s kind of his failing as a character in a lot of ways.
FVL: Larry Hama said that he could never quite get a handle on Duke, because Duke is the First Sergeant, and his job is to be an asshole. He’s always screaming at dudes, and Larry kind of always had a resentment against him, because that was his MO. His job was to be a dick. So I wanted to explain why he was like that.
CA: And I love that they know now that they can’t break Duke, so they’re going to come at him another way.
FVL: Did you read the original “Mad Monk” story? It’s the last four issues of a book called G.I. Joe Origins that David Lapham wrote, and fans really turned me onto it. They wanted to see more of that character.
CA: I love the way he’s described, as this guy who can’t conceive of a world different from how it is now, so he can never be a leader, but he can see everything exactly as it is.
FVL: That’s all from that story. It’s the lynchpin. It’s a direct quote from Lapham.
CA: I also like that Destro says that.
FVL: More fun Destro stuff is coming. Did the issue with the skeet shooting come out yet?
CA: The Cover Girl issue is the same way with that really clever summation of her character. Duke’s the soldier who can never break, and that’s something you say almost directly in that story. Cover Girl’s the person who accidentally found out she was good at killing people. Did you want to make sure you got those in there before you left the book?
FVL: I left the book because I felt like I had said everything I had to say with those characters, and I was worried I was going to start wheel-spinning. The other part of it was being offered things that I just felt like I couldn’t turn down that really excited me. Once I got a year into G.I. Joe, I felt like I could pass it off to someone else.
CA: It’s interesting to hear you say that, because you do have that core cast with the big public Joe team, and then you get a Duke issue, a Cover Girl issue, a Roadblock issue. Were those the characters that were interesting to you?
FVL: I tried to use everyone that I found interesting. I have a good idea about Tunnel Rat coming out. I think the problem I was running into was that I was way more interested in the characters than in the main plotline, and that’s a problem, unless you rename the book G.I. Joe Origins.
CA: You should do Battle Files, and instead of doing it Official Handbook style, just do those focused character studies. Do it. Do it now.
FVL: I’m calling IDW right now. “Damn it, take me back!” I do love Destro and the Baroness, and I was shocked to find out that they never hooked up in the IDW continuity, so I hooked ’em up. The issue where they skeet shoot, they’re doing it with people shot out of catapults. You’ll love it when you see it.
The last arc is a lot of fun, just because everyone’s trying to backstab each other. Mad Monk’s making Duke backstab G.I. Joe. Destro wants to backstab Mad Monk.
CA: And Cover Girl and Roadblock are trying to backstab Duke.
FVL: It’s a reflection of my paranoid mind.
CA: Let’s talk about the other announcement today: You’re taking over Conan from Brian Wood in #26.
FVL: I’m super excited about it. He’s wrapping up a story called “Queen of the Black Coast,” which is probably the best Robert E. Howard Conan story.
CA: I’m a “Rogues in the House” guy.
FVL: “Rogues in the House” is awesome.
CA: It’s the one where Conan has to wrestle a gorilla that thinks it’s a wizard.
FVL: That’s right! I read the Kurt Busiek/Cary Nord adaptation of it. They were f**king amazing. That run is the best.
CA: Were you always a big Conan fan?
FVL: Nope. Didn’t know a thing about it until Dark Horse paired me up with Ariel Olivetti for “People of the Black Circle,” a miniseries that’s coming out in about two weeks, and then I devoured it. When they gave me the main job, I was like “right on,” because I love the fact that there’s so much history in Conan. It’s all weird archaic names, but I love it, having a pre-history to history.
The story that I’m doing is based on fragments, it’s about a page and a half outline that was finished by Carter and de Camp and they called it “Snout in the Dark.” I’m not 100% sold on that title. My preference would be for it to be called “The Witch-Hunter of Kush,” which is much more the main thrust of the story. Conan ends up as a broken man because of the events of “Queen of the Black Coast” and how it ends, in the capital of Kush, drinking himself to oblivion. From the bottom of this pit that he’s fallen into, he has to literally and figuratively crawl out of it and become Conan the badass again, and he gets sucked into royal intrigue. There’s literally a witch hunt going on, where someone is casting curses and summoning monsters. It’s got a lot of emotion and sorcery and intrigue, all the things that make Conan awesome.
CA: So when you’re doing Conan, is the onus to stick with Howard?
FVL: It is. “People of the Black Circle” is a perfectly tight fantasy story, and I was inspired by Darwyn Cooke’s Parker books, cleaving close to the source material. With the ongoing, it’s sort of the story of Conan’s life from “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” until he becomes king. It’s amazing what Howard put out in such a short period of time, and in those stories, there are so many gaps that we writers can fill in. It’s almost like being a jazz musician, in that there’s a skeleton of a story like a melody, and you can go in and out wherever you want.
My second arc is literally two paragraphs of the next story. It’s how Conan got to the point where that happens. Everything that Howard wrote about the story that I’m writing, the witch hunt, is in the arc. I didn’t change a thing, you just have to add on to the beginning and the end.
CA: It’s interesting that you weren’t a Conan fan, because if memory serves, you also weren’t a Hercules guy either, and yet you’ve ended up writing Hercules, Armstrong and Conan, which is such a natural progression.
FVL: And I’d never heard of Archer & Armstrong when they asked me to write it. And of course I said yes. It’s been strange, and obviously, Conan and Armstrong flow directly from Hercules.
CA: One more question: I want more Power Man & Iron Fist.
FVL: Talk to Marvel.