Comics Pro to Prose: How I Got to Here
I started out, when I was younger, wanting to be a novelist.
In the ultimate act of tween nerdery one year for my birthday I was given the choice to get contact lenses or a typewriter, but not both.
Up until that point in my life I had been tormented for being a bespectacled nerd by my classmates, and so I knew what that was like; I could handle that. A new, glasses-less identity was appealing, but unknown.
But it really was that I wanted to be a writer, and my eyes worked well enough for that with the Coke bottle lenses I already had: So I chose the typewriter, and began typing "Chapter One" before the sun set on my first day of Year Thirteen.
By the time I had to go to college I hadn't yet finished the last chapter of anything, but one of innumerable chapter ones I had produced won the top literary prize at my 400-student high school (out of, I believe, four entries), so I knew Higher Learning had nothing to teach me about prose writing than I already knew—it's just subject, verb, object, after all, right?
So under that flawless logic, I went off to college to study film, which was a new obsession, and, unlike picking up one's native language, apparently required intense vocational training.
But much to my shock once I actually started in the film department I found that I hated making movies. When it was actually happening to me I never would have articulated it this way. It was like saying I hated orgasms. Who doesn't like movies? But what I hated really, in the days before digital cameras and editing booths, was all the standing around and waiting for things: the sun, the actors, the lights, the set dressing, the camera set-ups. I didn't have the patience for it. All I cared about was the story, when are we getting to the story?!
College was far from a total wash, though, because I met in the Comics Club (GEEK ALERT!) guys who were studying to be illustrators and comic book artists. I had been a comic book fan all my life and after being blown away by Watchmen I had actually tried typing out a few comics scripts on the typewriter I had left behind when I went to Syracuse University, having switched to my dad's old-hand-me-down single unit Macintosh and a dot-matrix printer instead.
Just for fun I wrote some scripts for them and I was amazed with the immediacy with which they brought my words to life—after toiling away just get the dialogue synched with the picture, this was a breath of fresh air—now this is storytelling!
I had been a comics fan for the longest time but it wasn't until I met these artists that that was even conceivable to me as an actual career. But one of these guys, Steve Ellis, started getting jobs for Marvel and DC while he was still an undergrad. We started creating comics together.
By that time, I had transferred out of the film department, but, super-genius that I was, I was attending a university that had no underwriting creative writing department. I had to pursue my prose writing interests on my own.
I had wanted to write a novel as my undergraduate thesis but after I presented my idea to my advisor, he was like, "Why do you want to write a female main character? You're a man. You should write male characters." This was the first time I slammed into the wall of someone else's expectations, and it was discouraging. I decided to do a research project instead and to appease my parents' desire to get a "real job." I spent a year at graduate school, which I also hated.
Again, all of this analysis and debate seemed to be beating around the bush of the actual story—where was the story?
Steve Ellis and I kept creating comics together and sold a series to a comics publisher only six months into my post-graduate career. I was like, wow, this professional storytelling stuff is easy! So I quit English Lit for good (sorry Mom, sorry Dad) and moved to New York City with Steve…
…in the middle of the second worst crisis in the comics industry in history, the mid-1990s. That comic went nowhere. But some of the other comics we created did, and that led me to writing Cowboys & Aliens, which ultimately got turned into a movie. And by the time that happened, through persistence and good luck, I became known in the comics industry, writing for Marvel Comics (Marvel Zombies, Amazing Spider-Man) and my own creations (Action Philosophers, Weird Detective).
I became known for the humor in my comics, and I think that's what led to Quirk superstar Grady Hendrix, best known for Horrorstor and My Best Friend's Exorcism (and impersonating a cardinal) to recommend me here.
And so it only took thirty or so years, but this month my first ever novel, the stand-up murder mystery, Ten Dead Comedians, which traps ten diverse funny people on an isolated island and starts knocking them off in deliriously bloody-yet-appropriately ways, was published. Think of it as Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None meets a Comedy Central roast.
And guess what? There are a lot of female characters in it. The whole point of writing and reading is to be exposed to viewpoints other than your own. Nyah-nyah, take that, snobby thesis advisor!
It took me long enough, but I got where I wanted to be in the end. Mom and Dad are pretty proud they bought that typewriter for me.
And even though I could afford both now, I never quite got around to getting rid of the glasses…
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Fred Van Lente
Fred Van Lente is the #1 New York Times best-selling writer of the comics Odd Is on Our Side, Archer & Armstrong, and Action Philosophers! He also cowrote the graphic novel Cowboys and Aliens, which was made into a film starring Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig.