Comic strip writer Fred Van Lente writes characters who are gray, not black and white.
The Sopranos with superpowers
21st-century comic strip characters are complicated
By Aileen Torres
Comic strip writer Fred Van Lente is not interested in churning out the same old superhero schlock. Not that he doesnt respect his eldershe admires Jack Kirby, the creator of such characters as The X-Men, the Incredible Hulk and Captain Americabut Van Lente just doesnt see the battle between good and evil as strictly Manichean.
In the fourth installment of The Silencers, a series he co-created with cartoonist Steve EllisIts sort of Sopranos with superpowers, said Van Lente. The main character, or, more precisely, antihero, the Cardinal, goes off on a tirade against the Tights, a group intended to represent traditional superheroes. The Cardinal, a long-time hired gun of the Provenzano Mafia of New York City who wishes to retire from the business, rails against the notion of evil existing as a monolithic force outside the individual.
What hes basically saying is you guys dress in these ridiculous outfits and youre so loud and obnoxious and you fly around[but] your evils in here, explained Van Lente, pointing to himself. Its not something you beat up and shoot laser beams at. Its personal, and theres just no way you can get rid of it.
Van Lente, who is secretary to the board of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in Soho, creates protagonists who are moral characters, but who dont conform to the conventional role of the hero. They each have superpowers they must learnor choose to learnto control, lest they unleash forces into the world that could prove lethal to those around them. Take the tragic case of Scorpion, a female teenage superspy, sort of in the La Femme Nikita mode, as Van Lente described her. She shockingly becomes aware of the deadly sting possessed by her left hand during an unfortunate incident involving her boyfriend at their high school homecoming dance. The Scorpion was introduced recently via Marvels Amazing Fantasy series, the companys showcase for new characters.
The Scorpion series stars Carmilla Black, who returns home after three years of wandering in the wake of the horrific episode at her school dance. The deaths of her adoptive parents summon her back. Their brutal murder is executed by the minions of a global terrorist network, for whom her biological mother labors as a high-level scientist. The government then nabs Carmilla mid-mourning to mold her into a superspy set on a mission to infiltrate the terrorist network.
But dont mistake Carmilla for a superhero. She may have superpowers, but this Eurasian teen is not looking to save the world. Shes more interested in finding her mother so she can finally learn the truth about her identity.
Espionage is a great way to tell identity stories because spies are people who are claiming to be something theyre not, said Van Lente. Shes a spy pretending to be a superhero, whos trying to find out what her real identity is. And shes an adolescent, who also already probably has a lot of identity issues, so its just this identity crisis blown up to extreme proportions.
Van Lente also intended for the Scorpion character to be a tweaking of the fairy tale of the scullery maid who finds out that shes a princess. I wanted to do a darker, more gothic take on thatlike, oh, look, I really am something special. Oh, and I kill people!
As for the more mature protagonists concocted by Van Lente, they remain, like the younger ones, out for themselves. Such self-centeredness isnt necessarily bad, though. In fact, it can be quite useful for the purposes of the common good, as Van Lentes stories evince. I think that you just cant trust people who are black or white. Its the people who understand the grays that are actually going to get stuff done.
A lot of this comes from my view that the world is a pretty brutal, cruel place, and in order for goodness to happen, weve got to get some of those brutal and cruel people on our side. And thats where a lot of The Silencers comes from, this idea that somebody like Cardinal, this brutal gangster, you better hope he just gets sick of doing evil things and wants to start doing good things because he can operate in the real world and he can get stuff done. His criminal experience can be put to excellent use.
Van Lente, who is now 33, has been writing comics virtually his entire life. He got his first comic published three or four months after graduating college (he attended Syracuse University, where he studied English Literature). Entitled Tranquility, the series is about a female cop in the near future who lives on the moon and has a talking gun named Rodney for a best friend.
As evidence of Van Lentes love of philosophy, the latest installment of Action Philosophers, a non-fiction series he co-created with Ryan Dunlavey based on the lives and teachings of the great thinkers throughout history, recently hit stores. The idea sprung off of the old Masters of the Universe action figures that were sold with comics included in their packages.
Action Philosophers is very informative, and funny, too, as is to be expected from a couple of smart guys who both have a good sense of humor. The series won the prestigious Xeric Grant in 2004. Included in its survey of great minds thus far have been Friedrich Nietzsche: The Original Ubermensch!, Plato: Wrestling Superstar of Ancient Greece! and Bodhidharma: Grandmaster of Kung-Fu! And, for a bit of controversy, the All-Sex Special will be out in June. It will feature the salacious rumored love affair between Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves; Catholicisms wild-man-gone-good St. Augustine and Objectivist founder Ayn Rands prurient shenanigans. Self-Help for Stupid, Ugly Losers and The World Domination Handbook are set to roll out as future issues.
And if thats not sufficient reading material to ponder, the next installment of The Silencers will be out in July.