The Sopranos with superpowers

By Aileen Torres

21st-century comic strip characters are complicated

Comic strip writer Fred Van Lente is not interested in churning out the same old superhero schlock. Not that he doesn’t respect his elders—he admires Jack Kirby, the creator of such characters as The X-Men, the Incredible Hulk and Captain America—but Van Lente just doesn’t see the battle between good and evil as strictly Manichean.

In the fourth installment of “The Silencers,” a series he co-created with cartoonist Steve Ellis—“It’s sort of ‘Sopranos’ with superpowers,” said Van Lente. The main character, or, more precisely, antihero, the Cardinal, goes off on a tirade against the Tights, a group intended to represent traditional superheroes. The Cardinal, a long-time hired gun of the Provenzano Mafia of New York City who wishes to retire from the “business,” rails against the notion of evil existing as a monolithic force outside the individual.

“What he’s basically saying is ‘you guys dress in these ridiculous outfits and you’re so loud and obnoxious and you fly around—[but] your evil’s in here,’” explained Van Lente, pointing to himself. “It’s not something you beat up and shoot laser beams at. It’s personal, and there’s just no way you can get rid of it.”

Van Lente, who is secretary to the board of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in Soho, creates protagonists who are moral characters, but who don’t conform to the conventional role of the hero. They each have superpowers they must learn—or choose to learn—to control, lest they unleash forces into the world that could prove lethal to those around them. Take the tragic case of Scorpion, “a female teenage superspy, sort of in the ‘La Femme Nikita’ mode,” as Van Lente described her. She shockingly becomes aware of the deadly sting possessed by her left hand during an unfortunate incident involving her boyfriend at their high school homecoming dance. The Scorpion was introduced recently via Marvel’s “Amazing Fantasy” series, the company’s showcase for new characters.

“The Scorpion” series stars Carmilla Black, who returns home after three years of wandering in the wake of the horrific episode at her school dance. The deaths of her adoptive parents summon her back. Their brutal murder is executed by the minions of a global terrorist network, for whom her biological mother labors as a high-level scientist. The government then nabs Carmilla mid-mourning to mold her into a superspy set on a mission to infiltrate the terrorist network.

But don’t mistake Carmilla for a superhero. She may have superpowers, but this Eurasian teen is not looking to save the world. She’s more interested in finding her mother so she can finally learn the truth about her identity.

“Espionage is a great way to tell identity stories because spies are people who are claiming to be something they’re not,” said Van Lente. “She’s a spy pretending to be a superhero, who’s trying to find out what her real identity is. And she’s an adolescent, who also already probably has a lot of identity issues, so it’s just this identity crisis blown up to extreme proportions.”

Van Lente also intended for the Scorpion character to be “a tweaking of the fairy tale of the scullery maid who finds out that she’s a princess. I wanted to do a darker, more gothic take on that—like, ‘oh, look, I really am something special. Oh, and I kill people!’”

As for the more “mature” protagonists concocted by Van Lente, they remain, like the younger ones, out for themselves. Such self-centeredness isn’t necessarily bad, though. In fact, it can be quite useful for the purposes of the common good, as Van Lente’s stories evince. “I think that you just can’t trust people who are black or white. It’s the people who understand the grays that are actually going to get stuff done.

“A lot of this comes from my view that the world is a pretty brutal, cruel place, and in order for goodness to happen, we’ve got to get some of those brutal and cruel people on our side. And that’s where a lot of ‘The Silencers’ comes from, this idea that somebody like Cardinal, this brutal gangster, you better hope he just gets sick of doing evil things and wants to start doing good things because he can operate in the real world and he can get stuff done. His criminal experience can be put to excellent use.”

Van Lente, who is now 33, has been writing comics virtually his entire life. He got his first comic published three or four months after graduating college (he attended Syracuse University, where he studied English Literature). Entitled “Tranquility,” the series is about a female cop in the near future who lives on the moon and has a talking gun named Rodney for a best friend.

As evidence of Van Lente’s love of philosophy, the latest installment of “Action Philosophers,” a non-fiction series he co-created with Ryan Dunlavey based on the lives and teachings of the great thinkers throughout history, recently hit stores. The idea sprung off of the old “Masters of the Universe” action figures that were sold with comics included in their packages.

“Action Philosophers” is very informative, and funny, too, as is to be expected from a couple of smart guys who both have a good sense of humor. The series won the prestigious Xeric Grant in 2004. Included in its survey of great minds thus far have been “Friedrich Nietzsche: The Original Ubermensch!,” “Plato: Wrestling Superstar of Ancient Greece!” and “Bodhidharma: Grandmaster of Kung-Fu!” And, for a bit of controversy, the “All-Sex Special” will be out in June. It will feature the salacious rumored love affair between Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves; Catholicism’s wild-man-gone-good St. Augustine and Objectivist founder Ayn Rand’s prurient shenanigans. “Self-Help for Stupid, Ugly Losers” and “The World Domination Handbook” are set to roll out as future issues.

And if that’s not sufficient reading material to ponder, the next installment of “The Silencers” will be out in July.

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