Out this week is Action Presidents: George Washington, a rippingly enjoyable biography of the first US President by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey. While Van Lente details Washington’s life – as accurately as possible – in the issue, Dunlavey illustrates the events in perhaps a slightly less accurate manner. To look into the launch of their new series, I spoke to Van Lente about their collaborations, his research for each issue, and… well… beards.
Steve: Action Presidents has been in the works for a while – I believe you started work on it around 2006-2007. How much research goes into putting together a single issue of this series? Where do you go? Who do you talk to?
Fred: It varies quite a bit depending on the subject. For Action Philosophers, my rule was to read at least one book by and about each subject. Back then we were doing three or so an issue, though. For Presidents my reading has already been more extensive. Fortunately, I am a huge Revolutionary War nut, so I already knew quite a lot about Washington in the beginning.
A lot of my opinion about his character and his place as a military leader is from the excellent Washington’s Crossing by Hackett, and a lot of the stuff about his presidency I derived from Founding Brothers. A Necessary Evil by Garry Willis, about various fantasies Americans have about their government and its history, debunks a lot of the grandiose claims made about the militias and their effectiveness against a highly trained army like Great Britain’s, which is a major point of the story.
For the curious (and myself), I’m maintaining a list of all the reference I’m using for Action Presidents over at Goodreads.
Steve: When researching, do you try and find a common, recurring theme for each historical figure, to ground the narrative? Where do you start as a writer?
Fred: I try to start with no preconceived notions, and let the weight of the evidence propel the essay in toward the most interesting theme. Sometimes both halves of that sentences are hard — not having an opinion about, say, the Declaration of Independence, is hard — and particularly with a life as consequential as Washington’s, it’s hard to pull out a single theme that makes a short essay seem both comprehensive and unique unto itself.
Steve: The first issue is all about George Washington – as could be expected. And you start with a prologue about myth versus fact, saying “nine times out of ten, the real story is so much more awesome than the myth”. Did you find yourself surprised by some of the things you learned while researching the series?
Fred: “Surprised” is maybe the wrong word. I’d like to think of my entire career as a lonely one-man war against bullshit (laughs). American Exceptionalism is one of the most powerful pieces of nonsense our country has ever produced, and I’m just trying to do my part by knocking it down with, y’know, facts.
Steve: Would you consider the prologue to essentially be your mission statement? To emphasise how a factual piece can be as interesting, strange, and involving as a work of fiction?
Fred: Oh, I would say it goes without saying the truth is always more interesting. Fiction is truth by way of lies, after all, and non-fiction cuts out the middleman.
Really the mission statement is more along the lines of Will Rogers’ old canard that it’s not what you don’t know that hurts you but what you think you know that’s actually wrong. A lot of what we’re taught in school is a few hairs removed from propaganda. A country’s happy myths are what it tells itself to make itself feel better. History is twisted in the service to justify some modern evil or injustice. What we’re trying to do is untwist the history in Action Presidents so we can at least agree on the same basic group of facts. (I hope.)
Steve: How does your collaboration with Ryan Dunlavey work? It’s impossible to pick out which elements in the art come from your suggestion or from his – you seem to be totally in-sync.
Fred: I write a pretty detailed script that Ryan is free to interpret however he wants. Usually if he wants to change something he tells me, and I usually agree, because as a designer and cartoonist he’s unparalleled. We don’t live too far from each other, and our wives are close friends so we socialize a lot too, so it’s hard to get too far apart. (laughs)
Steve: When you’re writing the narrative of each issue, outlining the details, do you have to keep a mind as to what will be most visually interesting for Ryan to work with?
Fred: Yeah, definitely. Sometimes when you’re dealing with decades worth of history that can be challenging, but Ryan makes that kind of thing a joy.
Steve: The smallest touches in your collaborations are sometimes some of my favourite – one tiny detail in this issue, for example, is that the nurse holding the just-delivered baby nation of America is smoking. How much does his artwork and sense of humour, in turn, influence your writing?
Fred: Oh, very much so. It’s a difficult thing to describe, because it’s very much inside my head as I’m writing, and my scripts have become such a shorthand because we’ve worked so long together I wonder if anyone else would be able to understand them at this point … It’s like we’re speaking our own, secret cant.
Steve: Where will the series move on now, following this issue? Will you be picking and choosing Presidents as you go forward, chronologically?
Fred: Yeah, as anyone call tell from the aforementioned Goodreads list, the next on the list is John Adams, a president that’s enjoyed quite a media resurgence of late. Ryan’s laying that one out right now — that story focuses mostly on Adams’ being our first (of what became a long, long line) lawyer president, and his legal justifications for separating from England (which much of the country had to be persuaded of).
Adams was also the first Vice President, so a big myth knocked down in that episode is the infallibility of our Constitution, as originally the Vice President was whoever got the second most votes for president. Clearly the Founders didn’t think that through all too well. Can you imagine Vice President Mitt Romney serving in an Obama administration? He’d be undermining him right and left.
Which, of course, is exactly what Vice President Thomas Jefferson did for poor Adams. So that’s a focus of #2, their battle.
Steve: Finally, I hope you don’t mind me getting seriously political here — Action Philosophers and The Comic Book History of Comics set a fine precedent of beards in your work. But it’s now been over a century since America last had a President with facial hair – William Taft. Do you think this has been to the country’s detriment?
Fred: I think we will elect a president with Taft’s facial hair before a president of his titanic girth. (Sorry, Chris Christie.) Our modern-day media culture won’t allow it.
But who knows? If doing Action Presidents has taught me anything, it’s that with the right candidate, anything is possible.
Many thanks to Fred for his time – Action Presidents #1 will launch tomorrow on ComiXology, priced at $1.99. If you can’t wait that long, you should head to Evil Twin’s website and take a look at Action Philosophers and The Comic Book History of Comics!