The Unvarnished, Unpretty, Unchivalrous Truth: Fred Van Lente On ‘Immortal Brothers: The Tale Of The Green Knight’ [Interview]
Good news for those of you who enjoy your Arthurian legends mixed up with superheroes: Last week, Valiant announced Immortal Brothers: The Tale of the Green Knight, a new 48-page one-shot from Fred Van Lente and Cary Nord that retells the story of Sir Gawain through the lens of the Valiant Universe’s three immortal brothers. Inspired by Barry Windsor-Smith‘s take on the Three Musketeers from 1993, this one finds Aram, Ivar, and Gilad — alias Armstrong, the Timewalker, and the Eternal Warrior — involved with a life-and-death wager against the mysterious Green Knight.
To find out more, ComicsAlliance spoke to Van Lente about his inspiration for the story, the ease of mapping the brothers to their Arthurian counterparts, and why a story so weird makes for a great superhero comic.
ComicsAlliance: Fred, every time I talk to you about something you’re working on, you always mention a book you’ve been reading that triggers an idea or plants the seed in your mind that you can extrapolate into a story. We talked about the cult that worships Nothing in Archer & Armstrong, for instance. Obviously, there’s one specific story that The Tale of the Green Knight relates to, but is there anything beyond that which informed your take?
Fred Van Lente: I can recommend a specific translation that I’m using for this, which is the one by Simon Armitage, an English poet. If you go on YouTube and search for “Green Knight BBC doc,” there’s an hour-long documentary of him walking around England, going to the various places described in the poem. It’s super interesting if you’re a King Arthur nerd or a literary nerd, and I’m both. I highly recommend it.
CA: You’ve talked before about how there’s a lot of influence here from the original Archer & Armstrong #8, where Barry Windsor-Smith did the characters as the Three Musketeers.
FVL: Right. Classic.
CA: What did you take away from that story?
FVL: What I liked about it was that basically, you had Ivar, Gilad, and Armstrong as the Three Musketeers, and there was an Archer stand-in who was D’Artagnan. It was kind of a mish-mosh of both The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask, which is another one of [Alexandre] Dumas’ novels, being influenced by the Geomancer, this wizard that Gilad, the Eternal Warrior is always trying to protect.
What I liked about it is that it was purporting to be the “real” story of the Three Musketeers. You’ve got this watered-down version that Dumas wrote, but now we’re going to give you the actual tale. We sort of did that in the regular Archer & Armstrong series, when Clayton Henry and I did the #0 issue that retold the Epic of Gilgamesh as the origin story of the three brothers.
We’re continuing that tradition in the Tale of the Green Knight one-shot that Cary Nord and I are doing, giving you the straight dope, man, on King Arthur. All that other Camelot stuff with the songs and stuff? That’s not how it went down, yo! We’re going to give you the straight, unvarnished, often unpretty and unchivalrous truth.
CA: Were there other stories that you thought about before settling on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? Like “oh, what if Armstrong was Robin Hood,” or is that something we could maybe see down the line?
FVL: Robin Hood was definitely my second choice. One of the gags for Armstrong is that “Anonymous” is his pen name, so every book credited to Anonymous is actually written by Armstrong. I like the idea, because we don’t know who wrote the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was written by Anonymous, which of course is Armstrong. I kind of settled directly on that.
I’ll run out of epic poems eventually. I guess we’ll get Beowulf in there sometime. It would also be fun to do a World War II thing, maybe, now that Nazi-punching is very much back in fashion. It’s trendy once again.
CA: How difficult was it to map the brothers and Archer onto the Arthurian characters? In this story, you’ve got Gilad as Sir Gawain, obviously, but you’ve also got Ivar as Merlin, which seems like something that clicks into place really easily.
FVL: Yes. We also did a very Arthurian bit in the American Wasteland arc of my run on Archer & Armstrong, which was set in Arthurian times. It was about Sir Percival, this cloistered knight from a completely unrelated poem, Percival and the Story of the Grail. It was fascinating when I was reading the poem, because Percival was raised in the woods by his mom, who didn’t want him to know anything about knights because she thought all that violence was bad for him. Then he leaves and goes to Camelot and doesn’t know s— about anything. That easily maps to Obadiah Archer, so he’ll be reprising his role as Sir Percival in the Immortal Brothers storyline.
I realized that a lot of these were like Dungeons & Dragons tropes. I already had the warrior and the wizard, and it’s arguable as to whether Archer is the rogue or the cleric, so I decided to make Armstrong a guy who was hiding out in a monastery. He’s a monk, hiding out from the Sect, because they brew beer in this monastery. And he’s impregnating a lot of the nuns next door, so they’re eager to kick him out. So you have a classic D&D party: Warrior, wizard, cleric, and thief. And yes, they will go to a tavern and find a map.
The other part of the story I should mention is that it has a frame story that’s Princess Bride: It’s Archer reading the story to Faith Herbert, his girlfriend, who’s in bed with a really bad case of con crud. She’s influencing the story as he tells it, so she’s mapping all these Dungeons & Dragons tropes to this Arthurian story, which annoys Archer. He wants the straight Arthurian majesty going out there for King and Cross.
CA: I really like the idea that between Archer and Armstrong, you have a cleric pretending to be a thief and a thief pretending to be a cleric.
FVL: [Laughs] Right, exactly. And there are weird monsters and stuff, and the Geomancer is the Lady in the Lake. Everything maps shockingly easy. The brothers, in their original conception, are these archetypes that you can stick into pretty much any genre or situation. Like, an Old West Immortal Brothers story would be fun.
I like the idea of checking in with them at various points in their history. They still can’t stand each other, no matter what situation they find themselves in. One’s smart, one’s cunning, and one’s strong, and they all have very different ways of attacking problems, so they’re constantly arguing about which one is better. But they do love each other. It’s like family, you love them as long as they’re on the other side of town.
CA: The interesting thing about seeing you write them as a group is that you’ve also spent a pretty significant amount of time writing them as solo characters — or in Armstrong’s case, part of a duo that doesn’t include his brothers. What changes about them when you put them together? This idea that even though they’re 6,000 years old, they’re always going to be the same kids they were growing up together?
FVL: Yeah, exactly. A lot of us, when we go home to visit family, we get infantilized. We infantilize ourselves to a certain degree. When we’re around our parents, we’re always going to revert in some way to the way we were when we were kids. The brothers’ parents are long dead — pending some retcon that I’m not aware of — but that’s how they function for each other. They return to form.
CA: What does the group bring out that we don’t see when they’re on their own?
FVL: Gilad, the Eternal Warrior, is sort of the marquee character of the three. He’s been featured in a lot of the events. I think he was the oldest in the original Valiant universe and in the current one, he’s the youngest. I like that because it lets the other characters constantly bust his balls and treat him with no respect whatsoever. [Laughs]
Everyone else treats the Eternal Warrior with deference because of his age and skill, or because he kills them so they don’t have a chance to disrespect him any longer. His brothers, of course, Gilad’s not inclined to kill him, and they’re immortal just like he is, so they still treat him like a kid. To everyone else in the Valiant Universe, he’s the Eternal Warrior, he’s 10,000 years old, this grand old font of wisdom and violence, but to his brothers, he’s still a snot-nosed kid and they’ll always see him that way.
CA: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a really weird story.
FVL: It is.
CA: If people out there haven’t read it, it’s super bizarre, and knowing a little bit of what you have planned for the story, I wonder if readers who don’t know the original are going to be surprised by how much of that story you’re just translating directly to a comic. Was that something that just came together well because the source material has those bizarre, superheroic elements?
FVL: So much of Arthurian mythology is tied up into Christianity and Christian ideals of the time, like staying chaste, and pure, and loyal. A lot of it is framed as a temptation narrative, specifically sexual temptation. It’s like that Monty Python bit where Michael Palin goes into the castle with the 300 horny virgins and John Cleese shows up and kills them all. That’s the great thing about Holy Grail, that it does parody the actual Arthur myths that are largely like that.
I’ve kind of put them into a more typical Hollywood framework, where I’ve given the story more structure with a beginning, middle, and end. There’s actually a bit where they’re traveling across the countryside and there are a few lines like, “Yeah, then they fought some giants, but you don’t want to hear about that.” “Wait! Go back!”
The poem goes into great lengths to describe 14th-century hunting practices that I don’t think are really relevant to the modern comic book reader, so I’m going to gloss over things that the nameless author took a lot of time to detail, and I highlighted stuff where the author was like, “Eh, you don’t want to see them fighting wizards, who cares.”
But the major incidents of the story are all from the poem. Those are pretty much verbatim, and I think you’re right, people are going to go, “Oh, this Van Lente guy’s an idiot.” It’s from the poem! They’re going to be like “What’s this guy smoking?”
History, my friend. I’m smoking history.
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