Monday, September 14, 2009

Philosophy, fun? Van Lente & Dunlavey talk "Action Philosophers"

When you think of action, only one name springs to mind: Plato.

Okay, maybe not, but if Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey have anything to say about it, it soon might. They're the creators of the new Xeric Award winning comic book series "Action Philosophers," a series detailing the life and thoughts of some of history's greatest thinkers through Van Lente's slightly warped humor and artist Dunlavey's dynamic, cartoon influenced art.

Instead of a dry treatise on deep thoughts, you get Bodhidharma's students trying to get him to teach them to learn the "gaze so hard it drills holes in mountain" trick to help them pick up girls, or Isaac Newton strangling Dunlavey for drawing him getting hit on the head by the apple. It's not your ordinary book on philosophy.

"The title, sure, is a gag-- and has led a bunch of people who haven't read the book to think it's about philosophers dressed as super heroes beating on each other-- but to me it also implies that thinking is an active process," Van Lente told CBR News. "Most of the stories are as much about how that philosopher reached the conclusions that he did, based on his or her biography and what he or she went through or was exposed to in his or her early life. To me that's the most inspiring and gripping thing about reading these tales-- to follow exactly how the philosopher went from one position to the other, and (oftentimes), altered the course of human history in the process."

Philosophy and humor might seem like a strange fit to most, but to series writer Van Lente, it's a perfect fit.

"Action Philosophers" #2, Page 1 "Action Philosophers" #2, Page 2
"I grew up in a pretty obnoxious family, where mocking stuff was second nature (Hmmm, no wonder I spent so much time in my room...) so the idea of relating complex metaphysical concepts through bathroom humor makes perfect sense to me." said Van Lente, "If I can be forgiven for tooting our own horn, I think what separates 'Action Philosophers' from a lot of the other non-fiction comics is that we're actually funny. Ryan is a naturally hilarious cartoonist, so without him I'd be screwed, most definitely."

Dunlavey's art, which was honed with regular strips in "Royal Flush" and "Wizard Magazine," is an integral part of the recipe that makes "Action Philosophers" successful in its goal of entertaining while educating.

"I just like drawing funny stuff," said Dunlavey. "My favorite artists are the '70s era 'Mad' and 'Cracked' cartoonists like Jack Davis and Shawn Kerri as well as their modern-day equivalents like Bill Wray, Kyle Baker, Kieron Dwyer, Jamie Hewlett, Hillary Barta, etc, etc. I get a lot of inspiration from that brand of manic, high-energy 'lowbrow' cartooning. Sergio Aragones is a big influence on me, too. Fred and I have been friends since college and he really tailors the scripts to match my art style and sense of humor. I think the humor is what people initially connect with-- it's the bridge between being entertained and actually learning something."

Illustrating things like Plato's adventures in professional wrestling or St. Augustine's carnal carousing isn't just illuminating for the audience, it's been an education for Dunlavey as well.

"Action Philosophers" #2, Page 3 "Action Philosophers" #2, Page 4
"Before working on 'Action Philosophers,' I only really knew the dictionary definition of our subjects' lives and belief systems," said Dunlavey. "I always liked philosophy, but never had time to study it. I was too busy drawing naked people and learning color theory when I was in school, so drawing 'Action Philosophers' has been a real education for me!"

Van Lente's interest in philosophy, on the other hand, goes back farther. Way farther back.

"I am the classic spent-his-childhood-holed-up-in-his-room-with-books type, and once life thrust me into the real world it always disturbed and frustrated me that people have such a terror for ideas and thinking and contemplation in general," said Van Lente. "Being such a solitary kid, it never occurred to me to feel ashamed or inferior just because I didn't know something-- if I wanted to know more, I would learn about it; if I didn't care to know more, I'd just to ignore it. That's what philosophy is to me-- a curious exploration of reality. To me, if you're interested in living, then you're interested in philosophy, even if you didn't major in it or don't read comic books about it. Philosophy is an analysis of why and how we should live, and even if you sat around for one night shooting the shit with your buddies, speculating over where we came from, or struggling with whether or not God exists, then you sir are a philosopher, even if you don't write it down as your occupation on your tax returns."

Even the very core of the series has it's roots in philosophy, the works of noted political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli were one of the primary inspirations, although Machiavelli won't get the "Action Philosophers" treatment until the series' fourth issue, the World Domination special.

"We're working on the Machiavelli story for the 'Action Philosophers: World Domination Handbook' right now. In a letter he talks about going into his library after working all day on his farm and having 'conversations' with the authors and people in the books he's read-- taking what he's read and applying it to new and more contemporary situations, putting his own personal spin on their ideas and refining them a bit." said Van Lente, "By using the information, he would retain what he learned. Real intelligence involves taking in knowledge, but then outputting it as well into something new. And like any kind of exercise, that can be strenuous, but also fun, entertaining and rewarding. School seems to have beaten the joy of exercising one's mind out of a depressingly large segment out of the American population. 'Action Philosophers' is our attempt to bring that joy back."

"Action Philosophers" #2, Page 5
"Action Philosophers" almost never made it to print. The creators had a number of false starts before finally winning a grant from the Xeric Foundation, an award created to allow up and coming independent comic creators to bring their works to fruition.

"The first comic we ever did, the Nietzsche one, was a rejected submission for the Small Press Expo anthology," said Dunlavey. "Pretty much immediately after learning of the rejection that I submitted it to a start-up magazine-- they loved it and asked us to do more, so we did the Plato and Bodhidharma strips. Well that ended up falling apart too, so as a last-ditch effort we repackaged the three strips as a thirty two page comic book and submitted it to the Xeric Foundation, who gave us a grant to publish two issues."

"Well, honestly, there wouldn't have been a book without Xeric." said Van Lente, "Their grant money paid for printing and shipping the first two issues. That allowed us to reinvest almost all our gross profits back into our business, so we have a nice, comfortable cushion to continue publishing philosophy comics for the foreseeable future."

That foreseeable future includes the upcoming World Domination issue, then "Action Philosophers Hate The French" and then the Reader's Choice issue, the subjects of which will be determined by an online poll running on

Aside from more thrilling tales of the world's greatest thinkers, the two have pretty full plates in front of them. Dunlavey continues his work for "Wizard" and "Royal Flush" while whittling away at a graphic novel for Platinum Studios, also written by Van Lente.

Van Lente has the "Scorpion: Poison Tomorrow" trade from Marvel Comics out in November, collecting his run on "Amazing Fantasy." In October he has a short story in an anthology with Peter David and a bunch of other writers, about "Kolchak: The Night Stalker."

(Article originally appeared at Comic Book Resources in 2005)

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