Books

Action Philosophers by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey

John Snider springs into action over Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s graphic reconstruction of the history of ideas.

Look – up in the Sky! It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s…the Ubermensch???

Let’s face it: fan boys and philosophers don’t mix much. Those who wince at the sight of spine-roll and dream of finding a mint copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 at the neighborhood yard sale seldom truck with people who can tell the difference between Left and Right Hegelians.

Nonetheless, a publication has arrived that pannapictagraphists and philosophers alike will enjoy: Action Philosophers, a comic-book series written by Fred Van Lente and drawn by Ryan Dunlavey, the dynamic duo who comprise Evil Twin Comics. Action Philosophers provides a hip, easily digestible summary of weighty material that will appeal to the masses and still keep the interest of the learned. Issue #1 hit the shelves in April 2005, sold out quickly, then sold out again in reprints six months later. As of this writing, the series is up to issue #6, with two more installments in the works. Now the Evil Twins are reprinting issues #1-3 as a new trade paperback bearing the title Action Philosophers Giant-Size Thing Vol. 1.

AP #1 kicks off with the great-granddaddy of all philosophers, Plato, billed on the cover as the “Wrestling Superstar of Ancient Greece!” As Van Lente and Dunlavey point out, he actually was a professional wrestler before he washed out in Olympic trials and turned to metaphysical pursuits. Plato is shown poised in mid-flight, clad in a toga and a Mexican wrestler’s mask, about to lay an atomic smackdown on some lesser philosopher.

The Evil Twins breeze through Plato’s career, from his studies under Socrates (drawn as a gap-toothed geezer orbited by buzzing flies), to his exile after Socrates’ execution, to his encounter with the mathematically-inclined Pythagoreans, which led to his famous theory of perfect Forms.

Rounding out issue 1 are heavy-hitters Friedrich Nietzsche and Bodhidharma. Nietzsche, wearing tights and a cloak like that certain other superman, gives us an angry run-down on all that’s wrong with the Western world: “Equality is a human-created concept and ultimately corrupting.”

Action Philosophers condenses the mustachioed German’s writings in an impressively brief six pages: his condemnation of religion and democracy; that whole “God is dead” thing; his obsession with and later rejection of composer Richard Wagner; and finally, how ol’ Fred got a bad posthumous reputation when his teachings were hijacked by the likes of Adolf Hitler. Bodhidharma, meanwhile, is a steely-eyed wanderer with a stare so laser-like he burns a hole through a mountain. This is the guy who gave birth both to Zen Buddhism and kung-fu. If that doesn’t lend itself to comic-book-ization, I don’t know what does!

Issue #2, The All-Sex Special, looks at three towering intellects with controversial love lives. Leading the pack is Thomas Jefferson; inventor, father of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the United States, and a man who carried on a love affair with one of his slaves, a young lady by the name of Sally Hemmings. Jefferson gazes with a sly smile at a doe-eyed Sally, who wipes a tear from her eye. The words “I Was the President’s Love Slave!” blaze lasciviously over her head. Again, Van Lente and Dunlavey deliver a quick-but-respectable summary of Jefferson’s thoughts on liberty and American culture – and his contradictory behavior vis-à-vis slavery. AP also mocks Jefferson’s unrealistic hope for an agrarian paradise dominated by farmer intellectuals, with a snaggletoothed farmer smoking a corncob pipe and wearing a pair of Virtual Reality goggles (“Yessum. Invented the gol-danged thing after I milked the hog, I did.”) Another testosterone-fueled philosopher is Saint Augustine, whose pre-salvation libido was the stuff of legend (motto: ‘Lord make me good, but not yet’), and whose struggle with the problems of free will and good-versus-evil had a profound influence on the development of Christianity.

Lest you think all philosophers are predatory males, consider the case of Ayn Rand. The mother of Objectivism and author of the bestselling novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, she is also notorious for her bizarre love affair with Nathaniel Branden, an acolyte 25 years her junior. The two carried on a lengthy romantic relationship – with the grudging permission of their respective spouses – until Branden began another affair with a much younger woman. Rather than leave it a purely personal matter, Rand banished Branden from the Objectivist camp and tried to ruin his career. It didn’t work: Branden went on to have a successful career as a psychiatrist, lecturer, author and pioneer in the self-esteem movement.

Issue #3 (Self-Help for Stupid Ugly Losers) provides similar tongue-in-cheek summaries of the careers of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. You get the picture by now: each installment of Action Philosophers combines the often overbearing gravitas of philosophy-biz with the goofiness of Saturday morning cartoons.

Writer Fred Van Lente and artist Ryan Dunlavey do a Laurel-and-Hardy routine, Van Lente playing it straight with the text, while Dunlavey yucks it up with the graphics. While Action Philosophers is educational, it appears to have been written simply for the love of philosophy: it’s not as serious and pedantic as one would expect from classroom material. Dunlavey’s illustrations are simple (dare I say crude?) but effective and hilarious. He tips his hat to select classics from comic-book history, including The Incredible Hulk, Superman and The Fantastic Four. The brilliant summary of Manichaeism pays visual homage to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s legendary ‘Coming of Galactus’ storyline from FF #48-50.

Will Action Philosophers inspire today’s teen slackers to become the next generation’s deep thinkers? Or will it lull them into a false sense of understanding, the comic-book equivalent of Philosophy for Dummies? To be fair, probably a little of both. In any case, Action Philosophers is a good resource for those who admit to being staggered by the vast historical sweep of philosophy and just don’t know where to start. It’s also a witty diversion even for those who can quote chapter-and-verse from the works of the great intellectuals. And who knows – maybe these divergent demographics will bump into one another at the newsstand?

© John C. Snider 2006

John C. Snider is the editor of the online science fiction magazine scifidimensions, published monthly (www.scifidimensions.com). He lives with his lovely and frighteningly intelligent bride in Roswell (Georgia, not New Mexico).

Learn more about Action Philosophers at www.actionphilosophers.com.

Action Philosophers Giant-Size Thing Vol. 1 (ISBN 0-9778329-0-2)