The Iron Man Armory Interviews Fred Van Lente
Fred Van Lente is the writer of Action Philosophers, Comic Book Comics, the great Super-Villain Team-Up/MODOK's 11, and many of the Marvel Adventures titles. When the MA line spun out an Iron Man title, Marvel tapped him to write it. Fred launched the title and has written all the issues to date.
In addition to the interview, Van Lente provided the Armory copies of the original pitch that got him the MAIM gig along with two scripts. In the pitches, compare the original ideas to the stories that were eventually done. In the scripts, note how Fred loves his Iron Man Armory.
In February 2008, The Armory interviewed Van Lente. Below, are his responses as typed by his hands.
Read Van Lente's original pitch to Marvel.
Read his script to Marvel Adventures Iron Man #5
Read the script to Marvel Adventures Iron Man #7
Be sure to check out Fred's site.
1. How much control did you have in creating the Marvel Adventures Iron Man universe (his origin, supporting characters, etc.)?
My understanding is that several writers were invited to pitch overall concepts. The only guideline I was given was that, due to the content restrictions of Marvel Adventures—no guns, no military, etc.—Tony couldn't be involved in weapons manufacturing. So instead, I made Stark International more of a General Electric-type electronics corporation, though specializing in the most cutting-edge technology.
My pitch ran about two pages and had eight story springboards, all of which ended up in the series in one form or another. My original idea for #1—"The Titanium Trap"—became the Free Comic Book Day 2007 story when Joe Quesada and Dan Buckley decided to start off with an origin story. We all—Joe, Dan, my editors Nate Cosby and Mark Paniccia, and me—hashed more or less together, based on the original Tales of Suspense origin, updated for modern times. We slotted "Titanium Trap" into the FCBD book when "Hostile Takeover", my original idea for that, didn't quite work in 10 pages. "Hostile Takeover" became MAIM #4, which displaced my Kiber the Cruel story (Kiber is a favorite oddball Kirby creation of mine) all the way out to MAIM #12.
But I got [to use] all eight stories from my original pitch in the series, which appeals to my efficient Dutch nature. (laughs)
So other than #1, the whole thing has been pretty much my vision from the get-go, and I'm grateful that Marvel had that kind of faith in me.
2. How far out do you have MAIM universe planned?
I just wrote the solicitation to #14 . . .
3. Do you have an over-arching plan for the series, a place you want the book to get to story-wise?
Nah, because of the nature of Marvel Adventures the series can't "arc"—each story pretty much has to end with the status quo restored, kind of like a classic episodic TV series.
4. In your opinion, what's the key to having a good Iron Man story?
A good mix of action and humor—a memorable villain, at least some interaction with Rhodey and Pepper, and I like to bring out Tony's gearhead side by throwing in as much real-life science and technology as I can.
5. Your Tony Stark is back to basics. Playboy adventurer. Prodigious inventor. Super hero. What don't we know about this Tony Stark yet?
What's going to happen when he finally reunites with his long lost father, Howard Stark—and that happens in MAIM #12!
6. Let me follow-up to that one. What is one aspect of Tony Stark that you haven't been able to explore yet but want to?
This Tony Stark is pretty much "my" character, so I do enjoy putting him in different situations to see how he reacts.
I guess we haven't seen him in a romantic situation yet, but I'm changing that as of MAIM #13 . . .
7. You obviously know your Shellhead history. How much fun is it to have access to all of Iron Man's lore and the chance to tweak and adapt it?
It's great, one of the most fun things about the Marvel Adventuresverse is that you get to put 40 years of a character's history into a blender and come out with a version of that [that] mixes all the best iterations of that character.
Honestly, Iron Man had always been one of the few Marvel characters I never quite got. Tony just wasn't a person I felt like I could relate to, this billionaire magnate. He seems so powerful on his own it's almost unfair to then get him super powers on top of that. (laughs)
But then when I was invited to pitch for MAIM, I went out and bought the first two Essentials, a couple of the Michelinie/Layton trades, and I realized that what made him difficult for me to relate to was what made him such a compelling character. As this internationally famous magnate, Tony Stark has responsibilities to thousands of people—and to the world, really—that you or I can barely understand. And that makes his struggle as a hero that much more interesting.
8. Are you consciously mining the IM library for stories? Are you intentionally re-telling the IM history with a MA spin (kind of the way some of the Ultimate-verse titles re-tell key arcs)?
Not really . . . not that I haven't done that before. I retold the Dr. Octopus-rents-a-room-in-Aunt-May's house story in MA Spidey and the Galactus trilogy in MAFF. If you steal, steal from the greats, baby!
9. What is your favorite IM era or creative team?
I'd have to say I love Gene Colan when he's drawing Shellhead.
10. Your Tony Stark is secretly Iron Man. What do you think about the recent "trend" at Marvel against secret identities?
I know if I was a super hero I wouldn't have a secret identity. (laughs) I'm with Stan Lee on that—I'm too much of an egomaniac. But it is a useful conceit when coming up with dramatic stories, though. And I think Tony Stark, specifically, has very good reasons not to let people know he's Iron Man.
11. Related: The Free Comic Book Day special you did had a reference to how secret identities are par for the course in the super hero biz. Is that your real opinion coming through?
I wouldn't say it was a position or opinion. Actually, it never occurred to me for Tony not to keep his identity secret. In Marvel Adventures we never have to follow anything the regular MU is doing. Besides, like I said my initial exposure to the character was the original Kirby/Heck/Colan stories. It just seems more logical and interesting that Tony wouldn't want his board of shareholders knowing their CEO risks his life daily—for free. That's bad for business! So the fact he keeps his identity a secret speaks more directly to the sacrifices Tony makes as a hero; it makes him that much more noble.
12. Okay, granted MAIM is designed to be an all-ages read, but there's a real optimism in it that hearkens back to the best Iron Man runs. Would you have that optimistic mood if you were writing the regular Marvel Universe run? Do you think that's a core part of the character of Tony Stark?
It's funny. When I do interviews so many people ask me if it's tough to write all-ages material for such a "somber" character like Tony. He doesn't seem like a downbeat guy at all to me. I mean, the guy's wealthier than Midas! If you have that much dough and can't start each day with a smile, I don't know, check yourself in for therapy, man. (laughs)
If I was Tony, I'd be like: "Why should I be down in the dumps? I look in the mirror every day and I'm still Tony Stark!" (laughs)
Maybe it's Civil War fallout, maybe it's the heart thing—I just can't see Tony as anything other than an optimist. "Futurists" usually are. Or they kill themselves. (laughs)
More below . . .
13. Your book features a kind of hybrid traditional cast (Pepper and Jim Rhodes at once), in general, how do you see supporting characters working in comics?
Everybody needs some kind of family, even if they're just friends, and that's what your supporting cast is for your lead. They ground him in the real world and give him responsibilities beyond just the driving force of the story—they pull him different directions, just like all of us are, and that makes the audience/reader relate to him better.
14. Your Stark is a little brash, a little flighty even (like in ish #3 where he was all concerned with golf and didn't make an appointment before going all that way). Is he playing it up for Pepper and others or is the guy who would build an armor suit and fight crime in his spare time a little off to begin with?
Don't forget in MAIM #3 that was a fake golf bag where Tony was hiding his Iron Man armor components. So that would be definitely playing it up for Pepper—but that first part of your statement I think is true; he is genuinely all those things—this is definitely not a Bruce Wayne/Batman dichotomy here, where Batman pretends to be a playboy. Iron Man really is a playboy. (laughs)
15. In your book, Iron Man's Marvel U foes seem to be Tony's friends or close associates in the Marvel Adventures world (Bullski worked in Tony's Brazil plant, Justin Hammer is on SI's board, Stane was an acquaintance of Tony's father . . . ). Did you have some conscious decision to this dynamic or is it simple convenience (less story setup)? What's the design there?
Yeah, it's mostly convenience. In a done-in-one 22-pager you've got to get on the road within the first, say, 3 pages and making the threats close at hand is the most efficient way of doing that.
16. Could you tell me a little about your decision to give Tony Stark a (living) family and how that affects the character, your stories? (Obviously the search for his missing father is going to be an ongoing plot point.)
Yeah, that was a happy accident. Sales & Marketing came to MAIM editor Mark Paniccia and said they had this idea to feature all the different armor in the upcoming Iron Man movie on the covers, and the first one was the original gray armor. Mark challenged me to come up with a story about it. Since we had already established in MAIM #1 that Tony's first armors, which he built with Yinsen, were way more sophisticated than that, I thought, well, then maybe he built the gray armor even earlier—when he was a kid. And that led me to think about what his father was like, and that led to the whole idea behind the retro-tech in this underground Cold War bunker with an electronic brain gone amok, and the whole scenario for #9 just kind of wrote itself from there.
Then from there I thought I could milk this for all it's worth (laughs) and make Tony's search for his estranged father the driving force through this whole "arc." (We call the four issues that comprise a whole MA digest an "arc" even though the individual done-in-one stories rarely have any stronger connection than a similar theme.) Overall, the four issues, collectively known as Hero by Design, has been the most gratifying work I've done in Marvel Adventures so far, with the kind of emotional resonance you only get dealing with close family members.
17. Please describe how you typically work as a writer. Do you sketch things out in a rough outline? plot major points? think of a twist ending and work back?
Before I had to give little paragraphs of my ideas to my editors, but now we've been working together long enough that I can call them up and just pitch my stories verbally. Once I get the thumbs-up, each issue gets roughed out in a three or four page outline where each page is described in a sentence or two. Then once that gets approved I go straight to a full script with action and dialogue for each panel.
But yeah, I'm always more comfortable starting with an ending. It's a lot easier to get where you're going if you have a destination in mind.
18. For MAIM you write so-called done-in-ones. It has to be harder to write twelve individual tales a year than it is to string a story out over a year or more. Plus you have the back-end pressure of trade paperbacks and their focus on short, cohesive stories. How has all of this affected your writing/plotting?
Oh, yeah, it's much harder. A six-issue story arc is still, basically, one story, while in six issues of MAIM we have to do six stories. You can get burnt out doing them, but with Iron Man I keep finding new places to take the character so that hasn't happened to me yet.
19. In the first nine issues of the book you've had four artists handling the pencils. As a writer, is your job harder when you have a rotating roster or is that not a factor? How much collaboration do you have with the artists on the book (like James Cordeiro, who did four issues; Cliquet, Sandoval, Nolan)?
Honestly, it is a little difficult. I would prefer to work with the same artists. But because of the unique pressures the Marvel Adventures line is under, the schedule is so rigid that it makes everyone's lives easier to have a bunch of artists working on multiple stories at once.
I am very excited to be doing two issues, MAIM #11-12, with my pal Scott Koblish; we did a martial arts mini-series called The Weapon for Platinum/Top Cow last year (www.drunkduck.com/The_Weapon/). He's known mostly as inker but he's also a brilliant penciller with an incredible sense of layout design. These issues will kick mucho asso.
20. Related to the above—do you work with the artists to create armors? And if so, to what extent?
Sort of. I send them reference to Iron Man armors past on-line at sites, like, gee, I don't know, the Iron Man Armory, where someone—I don't remember who—said was the first and always best Iron Man site on the web . . .
But for the most part we let the artists do their own thing. Graham, for example, invented the ghost armor in MAIM #7 pretty much from whole cloth, and I believe the initial design for the Steam Armor in MAIM #9 was developed by Skottie Young for the cover, and then Rafa Sandoval came in and put his own unique take on it.
Thanks for the shameless plug. I was pretty jazzed when you mentioned (in a previous e-mail) that you used my site for research. (In #7, when I read Plastic Ghost Armor, man, I jumped out of my chair. I coined that—and now I've been immortalized!)
My pleasure! Although I personally would prefer to be immortalized by not dying.
21. Anyway, that steam armor was pretty inventive. How did that come about? Did you think of the Amish-like setting and it came from there or . . . ?
Yeah, exactly. Again, you force the character into new and different situations and see how he reacts. I wanted to know what Tony would do if he was cut off from access to all technology.
22. Will upcoming story arcs feature more incredible armors? If so, can you share some spoilers?
Sure, in MAIM #10 we'll be seeing the classic "Ditko" armor with the pointy faceplate . . . I love Ditko designs . . . And in MAIM #11 Iron Man will be donning his Silver Centurion armor to jet up to the Great White North and go on an adventure with Alpha Flight. This version of the silver armor is actually an exclusive design for an action figure to be produced for Target stores in conjunction with the Iron Man movie, so this issue might be bundled in with that, and that would be cool.
23. Your IM is characterized by a real high-tech feel that hearkens back to the great runs (be it Lee, Goodwin, Layton/Michelinie, or Kaminski). How do you stay up on cutting-edge science?
Google. (laughs) I get the idea for the kind of tech I'll need that issue and I just keep looking for it until I find it. Some of the stuff I knew about anyway, like the methane hydrates in the Bermuda Triangle in MAIM #5 and the microwave solar satellites in MAIM #2 or the hypersonic speed plane from MAIM #7. I boned up on the ionosphere and the aurora borealis for MAIM #11, which I knew nothing about beforehand. I have to confess I'm not much of a tech guy, but I do enjoy reading about new things in general, so that's always fun.
24. Does the Marvel Adventures Editorial office have any rules? Things you absolutely can't do in a MA book?
Oh, yeah. Lots. No guns. No war. No military. You can't even hint at swearing—not even "!@#$!" No booze (Tony's A.A. sponsor was happy to hear that). No smoking. No sex. They tend to want you to stay away from romantic stories. This all has to do with making the product sellable in places like Wal-Mart—and to ensure that any kid (or 80 year old, we're not particular, we'll take anybody's money) can buy a comic, bring it home, and read it in one sitting without being an expert on 40 years of Shellhead continuity . . . as glorious as it may be.
25. I guess there won't be a Marvel Adventures version of the Kathy Dare storyline, huh? Was there a plot (or a scene) in MAIM that got axed or drastically re-written because of content concerns? If so, can you share it?
No, because I had written a whole bunch of Marvel Adventures before doing MAIM and so I pretty much knew what to expect.
26. I loved MODOK's 11. MODOK's dirty dozen minus one was great. It was an off-beat idea that was brilliantly executed. First, is the big headed one the most underrated Marvel villain ever? Second, is there a sequel in the works? (What can you tell us? Characters? Creators involved?)
Thank you so much! It was such fun to do, Francis and Terry's artwork was so gorgeous to look at, and the way it was received was so awesome. So much so, in fact, that I am inclined not to do a sequel. It was so totally what I wanted it to be, I just kind of feel like trying to add on to it would take away from the uniqueness of the original, you know?
Okay, Fred, lightning round: Can you rate the chances for each of the following appearing in Marvel Adventures Iron Man any time soon?
27. Tony's cousin, Morgan?
(laughs) I love that guy. I wish I had thought of that. But I rate his potential appearance as super-low.
28. Hmm, that sounds like you've got a finite run in mind. How long are you going to stay on the MAIM?
Alas, I'm wrapping up with #14, and we're going out with a bang — bringing back an Iron Man Revenge Squad of past villains who team to open a can of whoop-ass on poor ol' Tone.
29. Madame Masque?
30. The Controller?
Very low. Not my kind of villain.
31. Happy Hogan?
Ding ding ding ding! The title of MAIM #13, in fact, is "The Pursuit of Happy". Which I'm rather proud of. (laughs
32. What about a MA: War Machine one-shot?
Impossible. Can't use war in Marvel Adventures, alas.
33. So that's why Rhodey always talks about being in/leaving "the Service"? You can't say Army or Air Force?
Yeah, I was thinking he was an ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, that could be fun.
More below . . .
34. Rhodey donned the armor to uphold the illusion that Stark and Iron Man are different people. Will Rhodey ever go into action in the armor?
I thought of that, but since that was a huge part of the run in the eighties, I decided to come up with some new and different ideas.
35. And finally, MODOK? (Or MODOC as the MA one seems to be?)
Honestly, I'm MODOK'ed out. (laughs) But look for his minions to appear in Incredible Hercules #115, which I co-wrote with Greg Pak!
36. Is there anything else you'd like to say to the fans?
Just that one of the most gratifying aspects of doing Marvel Adventures Iron Man has been how many longtime IM fans have written me to tell me how much they've enjoyed my take on the character. Since, like I keep saying, I was totally IM-ignorant when I started this, that's incredibly gratifying—and a huge relief! (laughs)
Thanks, Tim! This was fun. Send me the URL when you post it and I'll link to it from my site.
Read Van Lente's original pitch to Marvel.
Read his script to Marvel Adventures Iron Man #5
Read the script to Marvel Adventures Iron Man #7
Be sure to check out Fred's site.
This page is copyright 2008 Tim Rassbach
Iron Man and all associated characters are the property of Marvel Comics.