Fred Van Lente on "Untold Tales of the New Universe: Nightmask"

***CAUTION!!! You are entering a TIME WARP!***

The year is 2006 and Marvel Comics has just announced a number of one-shot specials centered around the New Universe, an initiative begun by editor-in-chief Jim Shooter twenty years prior, to celebrate that anniversary. Many intriguing creators signed up to tell the stories, and a writer by the name of Fred Van Lente was among them. Being a reporter for Comixfan at the time and a New Uniphile besides, I jumped at the chance to interview the talents involved. Bless his heart, Mr. Van Lente was one of the few who agreed to be interviewed. I took him through the wringer over this dinky little one-shot! Alas, he did give it his all, and I could not let this lengthy interview languish in my Yahoo! Mail inbox forever. Only five years and change after it was conducted, I bring you Fred Van Lente talking about his one-shot special, Untold Tales of the New Universe: Nightmask! (Say, whatever happened to ol' Fred, anyway...?)

DELUSIONAL HONESTY: To start. how did you come to work for Marvel?  How has the journey been so far, with the recent "Scorpion" series in Amazing Fantasy now under your belt?

FRED VAN LENTE: With my longtime artist pal Steve Ellis I created a series about superpowered mob enforcers turned freelance operators called The Silencers, that's been published both by Moonstone and Image. Senior Editor Mark Paniccia really enjoyed the book, and when pitch time came around for Amazing Fantasy he asked me to participate. Ultimately, my take on the character was the one that was chosen.

The journey has been quite a dream come true, having grown up a huge Marvel fan. Getting to play in this sandbox has been the biggest kick of my professional writing life, thus far.

Scorpion has been featured in other places around the Marvel Universe since her debut, most notably Incredible Hulk and in one of the Captain Universe one-shots.  How does it feel, having developed the character, to see her gaining such high exposure?

FVL: It makes me a proud papa... That's my baby girl! >sniff!<

What's even better is to see secondary cast members of hers, like S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Khanata and A.I.M. Scientist Supreme Monica Rappaccini pop up everywhere, like House of M: Hulk. Having a popular super hero is one thing, but to have your supporting cast be just as popular is almost cooler, being more of a challenge.

It really is. How did you come to work on the Nightmask special?

FVL: Basically, editor Mark Paniccia gave me a pick of a couple New Universe titles, and I chose Nightmask. He seemed like the character with the most untapped potential.

Were you a fan of the character when he was introduced?  What intrigued you enough to give him a look?

FVL: Yes, Nightmask was one of the N.U. titles I followed the first time around--I had pretty much every issue. The problem I had with him as a reader was the reason I was excited and interested in writing about him: I really felt he never had a chance to shine, since the series was plagued with never-finished storylines and revolving-door creative teams.

Let's get to the meat of the original series. Who is Nightmask, in your view?  His supporting cast?

FVL: Nightmask is Keith Remsen, the eighteen-year-old son of dream researchers. A bomb rips through the airport when his parents and little sister are seeing him off for a summer internship at a respected sleep institute in Switzerland. The elder Remsens are killed, Teddy is crippled, and Keith is plunged into a coma for months, only to be awakened by the worldwide astronomical anomaly known as the White Event. When he comes back to the waking world, he discovers that he has the ability to enter other people's dreams. Thanks to this power he becomes a much sought-after "psychic therapist" of sorts, working at the clinic of his guardian, Dr. Lucian Ballad.

Teddy, Dr. Ballad, and Keith's physical therapist-cum-love interest, Lita Mercado, all feature prominently in my Untold Tale.

Have any of the cast members in Nightmask been especially fun to work on?

FVL: Teddy. I have a little sister myself, so it was fun to work our bratty banter into Keith and Theodora's relationship.

How is Nightmask different from the other work you've done?

FVL: It's the project that sort of most viscerally brings me back to a specific point in my life--1986-7, my early high school years, when the New Universe books first came out. I've always been the kind of reader who enjoyed new titles, getting on board with a series from the get-go, so I was very intrigued by the N.U., and sampled a bunch of titles, including Nightmask. Like most people, I think the N.U. suffered from extremely uneven execution, but there was some good stuff in there--stuff ahead of its time, even. DP7 was hands-down my favorite, a solid comic from start to more-or-less finish.

How much "homework" did you have to do before writing the one-shot?

FVL: The N.U. part of my comics collection has long since disappeared into the mist of time, so Marvel loaned me the complete series from their archives. I read all twelve issues--but it was through trawling an Internet fan site that I stumbled across a simple fact of Nightmask's original run that made me think, "Oh, this is just too good to pass up. This will be my story!"

And what fact was that? Where among the original stories does your tale take place?

FVL: The first few issues of Nightmask built toward a final showdown between Nightmask and Dr. Horst "The Gnome" Kleinmann, the psychotic sleep researcher who planted the bomb that killed his parents. Kleinmann was able to walk in dreams just like Keith, but he did it through cybernetic technology.

In Nightmask #4, the stage for the big sleepytime smackdown had been set. Kleinmann had sicced sexy psychic vampire Mistress Midnight on our hero. Nightmask defeated her, but not before Ms. Midnight had beamed Teddy's psychic signature to Kleinmann's laboratory in Zurich. The next time Teddy fell asleep, her psyche would be captured by Kleinmann. The last panel of the fourth issue showed Kleinmann and his goons cackling evilly over the bigtime payback about the be exacted on the Remsen kids...and the next issue blurb screamed: "NEXT: THE KINGDOM OF THE GNOME!"

But then Nightmask #5 came out, and...nothing. No Gnome. No Mistress Midnight. No duel to the death with the man who killed Nightmask's parents. Instead a totally different storyline, with a totally different creative team. In fact, those villains are never mentioned in the series again!

What the hell?!? Can you imagine that happening today? Hell, no. The Internet would spontaneously combust with fan flames.

So, my story--entitled "Kingdom of the Gnome," natch--is truly an Untold Tale, telling you what happened in between Nightmask #4 and 5 when Keith did battle with the Gnome with Teddy's life hanging in the balance. It's basically Nightmask #4 1/2.

Nightmask's original series was canceled after only a year.  Why do you think the character couldn't achieve sufficient readership to continue?

FVL: I'd have to say that unceremoniously dumping the main storyarc right before its climax without explanation and for no apparent reason might have been a major contributing factor. (grin)

When you put it that way, it's hard to disagree. You mentioned earlier that the character has untapped potential.  How so?

FVL: Well... I feel that there's too much negativity floating around comics in general so I am loath to criticize other creators' work, but "untapped potential" was a euphimistic way to indiciate that Nightmask's original series, uh... (coughs, mumbles into sleeve) wasn't very good.

It's a shame, really, given the sterling reputations of the creators involved--some legends and legends-to-be [including Archie Goodwin, Tony Salmons, Cary Bates, Roy Thomas, Mark Bagley, Ron Wagner, Keith Giffen & Kyle Baker, among others ~G.] worked on that book. They had a character with a terrific premise--a dream walker who could, in theory, be exploring the nether regions of the collective unconscious--and it just seems like no one really could decide what to do with him.

Honestly, having recently re-read the whole series, it looks like an editorial decision was made to take that "world outside your window" stuff a little too seriously, and eliminate all of the science fiction and fantasy from the title, thus turning Nightmask into a glorified super-therapist making facile diagnoses on ham-fisted dream symbolism, the kind a 12 year old girl wouldn't be impressed by.

Yeesh...sorry, guess that was a torrent of negativity there...I should probably shut my big yap...

But before I do (laughs), let me just add that Nightmask predates Neil Gaiman's Sandman by several years. There's no reason why the N.U. series couldn't have explored the same type of material at the same level of sophistication.

That's a fair point. I agree that the character was really ill-served and could have been dealt with more effectively. At the other end, what parts of the larger New Universe went drastically wrong?

FVL: Ultimately, I think that the premise of the "White Event"--that everything was exactly like our world until people got super powers--hindered the writers from the standpoint that they really had no rich fictive universe--no backstory to work in.

You could say, "Oh, well Stan and Jack had to do the same thing"--well, not really. They weren't really operating at square one in terms of the fantasy. With no backstory of allowable "paranormal" stuff beyond the first issue of, say, Fantastic Four #1, Dr. Doom couldn't have become the ruler of Latveria or become the world's most feared mad scientist-cum-black magician. There'd be no Monster Island for the Mole Man to discover. There would have been no Atlantis, so no Sub-Mariner for the Torch to discover in a Bowery flophouse. And that's within the first five issues there! (laughs)

The fun of the super hero genre comes from this crazy melange of fantasy, legend and science fiction. If you say, "nutty stuff doesn't happen until--now!" that's incredibly limiting to the writers. I understand why they made the decision, it was unique, from a aesthetic standpoint, but, I think, in the big picture, creatively crippled the franchise.

Do you think today's readers would be more accepting of a character like Nightmask?

FVL: See my previous response. (laughs) Look, in a lot of ways the New Universe titles were way ahead of their time--people have said this before me. They were comics in which characters had super powers but were not super heroes. Nightmask was a therapist. D.P.7 were fugitives trying to make sense of their lives. Merc was, uh, a merc.

I think, post-Vertigo, well post-Watchmen (although Watchmen and the New Universe were contemporaries, both starting in 1986), post-Marvel Knights, et cetera, today's readers are more willing to accept super power stories that don't necessarily involve foiling bank robberies and such. I believe Marvel is going to be pleasantly surprised by how well these one-shots do.

DH: Let's discuss your artistic partner on Nightmask, Arnold Pander.  Were you familiar with his work previously?  Have you seen his pages yet?

FVL: Yes and oh my, yes! To coin a cliche, Arnold is kicking much butt with his pencils. His fluid style is proving to dovetail perfectly with the ever shifting-dreamscape--and frenetic action and violence--of my script. I couldn't be more pleased.

What do you think the New Universe one-shots have to offer new fans who haven't seen the characters before?

FVL: I know that Mark is making sure that all the creators establish the stories in such a way that new fans won't have to have read the other series in order to hit the ground running. So, hopefully it'll be something new--and fun--for them to sink their teeth into!

Sounds like fun! What other projects are you working on at present?

FVL: My Xeric Grant-winning series Action Philosophers continues to go great guns, telling the lives and thoughts of history's A-list brain trust in a hip and humorous fashion. The fourth issue should be out...uh...soon, once Ryan finishes drawing it; that one features Karl Marx, Machiavelli and the Kabbalah.

Action Philosophers?  Tell us more!

FVL: Action Philosophers is my self-published, non-fiction comedy series I do with my bud and longtime Wizard cartoonist Ryan Dunlavey. In each issue we profile three famous thinkers with our patented combination of insightful analysis and bathroom humor. In our third issue we did Sigmund Freud, C.G. Jung and Joseph Campbell, so I was definitely inspired to work their ideas into my Nightmask tale!

Interested readers can learn more at our official website: http://www.eviltwincomics.com/ap.html!

I am also working on projects for two big publishers--Marvel being one of them. But men in black came to my door and told me not to speak of them under pain of death.

Alas, I'm sure we'll discover those other projects in the fullness of time. For now, you've given us plenty to think about. Thanks, Fred! 

Post-Script: The "Untold Tales of the New Universe" series of one-shots was moderately successful, paving the way for Warren Ellis' reinvention, newuniversal, which ran for ten issues between 2007-2008. The project is effectively dead, as writer Ellis lost his files in a computer accident and Marvel has not requested additional scripts.

Of course, Fred Van Lente would soon join with Incredible Hulk writer Greg Pak to embark on a fruitful partnership that included Incredible Hercules, Chaos War and the currently-running Alpha Flight, the latter of which was just upgraded from an eight-issue miniseries to an open-ended series. He's also written two Marvel Zombies miniseries (3 and 4), Super-Villain Team-Up: M.O.D.O.K.'s 11, X-Men: Noir, and bunches of other good stuff. Also announced at this weekend's FanExpo Canada is the upcoming Destroyers miniseries featuring characters from across the Marvel Universe.

As for Action Philosophers, the series wrapped after nine issues, but Van Lente and Dunlavey are currently collaborating on a history of comic books called, naturally, Comic Book Comics, about to wrap with its sixth issue.

I'd say he's done awfully well for himself.

For past, present and future projects by the esteemed Mr. Van Lente, keep checking this site and visit his website at http://www.fredvanlente.com.



  1. Everywhere around the net lately, people are confessing their love for New Universe stuff, as though a statute of limitations has passed or something.

    That said, my favourite New Universe title was Spitfire and the Troubleshooters, which, I notice is no one's favourite title. :)

  2. Oh, I've been a longtime New Universe fan--I even wrote fan fiction many years ago about Justice, filling in the gaps that led him to be the Net Prophet of 2099! Nightmask actually had a pretty substantial role--I've always liked him and like Fred, I thought he was always undervalued. I'll probably make a future post about that series of events. (Look back in the archives and you'll see a Lee Weeks Hulk/Justice piece.)

    Interestingly, the only New Universe title I picked up during its original run was also Spitfire and the Troubleshooters, which was probably because of my early fascination with big robots in the vein of Voltron and Tranzor-Z. Not an altogether bad series, and Jenny Swensen was just another character who fostered my early love of redheads. Interesting that Todd McFarlane penciled one story in the run. I believe Herb Trimpe was involved too. Marshall Rogers was in there...some interesting talent, that's for sure.


  3. I think that was the appeal of Spitfire for me as well, but holy God did that book never maintain a consistent direction--I think the initial writers only lasted the first issue, then by the tenth issue it's like Codename Spitfire and soon after Jenny's in D.P.7, and . . .yeah. Atlas Comics had nothing on the New Universe for whiplash changes in direction.


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