How do we know what we know? What is the nature of the universe? What is our purpose? What is good? These are all questions that philosophy has concerned itself with as soon as we looked up at the stars, as well as into ourselves. Philosophers have pondered and pored over these matters for centuries, attempting to answer those Big Questions.
Writer Fred Van Lente and artist Ryan Dunlavey have that same love of wisdom, which is evident in their book series Action Philosophers, in which they use the comics medium to distill concepts that the great thinkers have tackled through the ages and made them accessible in a fun and digestible way. Recently, the duo launched a Kickstarter through Rocketship Entertainment for the new installment in the series: Action Philosophers: Omnipotence for Dummies, which throws the spotlight on such philosophical giants as Rene Descartes, Bodhidharma, and Francis Bacon.
Mr. Van Lente and Mr. Dunlavey spoke with me recently about the conceit of Action Philosophers: Omnipotence for Dummies, who we meet in the volume, the Kickstarter itself, and why humans love pursuing and delving into philosophical concepts and questions.
FS: For folks who might not be familiar with the first volume, what can you tell us about the first volume of Action Philosophers?
FVL: Ryan and I have been doing these crazy philosophy comics since 2003, when we started it basically as a joke. The comics have more or less never gone out of print since, and we are thrilled to be partnering with Rocketship for this second installment. The first one, Hooked on Classics, we Kickstarted ourselves, and featured basically the dawn of philosophy, the ancient Greeks and Romans and Chinese, featuring on folks like Lao Tzu, Plato, Bodhidharma, folks like that.
RD: And it’s the first time these comics have been in color! Back when we first started this series we were self-publishing it on a shoestring budget and could only afford to print in black and white. During a time when the 300+ page black and white Action Philosophers collection had fallen out of print we were making the Action Presidents series for Harper Collins – which were 120 pages each and in full color. We thought that could be the ideal format to revive Action Philosophers in and Kickstarter the ideal place to launch it. We brought in the ultra-talented Adam Guzowski to color the book (he’d also colored The Comic Book History of Comics and The Comic Book History of Animation for us) and the campaign ended up being a runaway success – so much so we ran out of remaining print run only a few weeks after we’d shipped out all of our backer copies!
FVL: Good news is, that even if you missed the Hooked on Classics campaign, Rocketship has put together a second printing of it so you can still get that book as part of the Omnipotence for Dummies Kickstarter. Because we love you.
FS: The first book was incredibly fun and digestible, giving a window into these figures in an interesting way. What prompted you to delve into this topic?
FVL: The simple fact is that “philosophy,” as an activity (get it, Action Philosophers) is something we all do—we wonder what the nature of reality is, what the purpose of life is, where it all comes from—all that good stuff.
The world’s great thinkers have great things to say to feed our own personal journeys of exploration and discovery—those thoughts just aren’t always presented in the most interesting way. That’s where Ryan and I come in.
RD: Making these non-fiction comics is mostly educational for ourselves, really! I usually come into these subjects with nothing but surface knowledge (with the exception our 2021 book, The Comic Book History of Animation) so drawing them is the equivalent of researching and presenting a term paper on something we’ve spent close to a year researching – it’s just a thesis in comic form.
On to the new Kickstarter, who do we meet in Action Philosophers: Omnipotence for Dummies?
FVL: So, in this book we meet all sorts of interesting folks, from Rene Descartes—he of “I Think, Therefore I Am” fame—to Immanuel Kant, who basically critiqued how the process of us knowing things actually works. He very much believed in God, to challenge the growing atheism of the day, and for his story we make him a lawyer defending the existence of the Almighty from Science, it’s super-fun.
Best of all, the brand-new story in this volume is on a person I’ve been fascinated with forever—Mary Shelley, the daughter of two notorious philosophers and who invented science fiction with her novel Frankenstein, which she began when she was just eighteen years old.
RD: In a weird bit of synchronicity I’ve been doodling Frankenstein’s monster a LOT recently – just for fun- so I was pretty excited when Fred proposed we do a new AP story on Shelley – she had a pretty incredible story and I hope we can do her justice.
FS: There are so many philosophical topics and thinkers to choose from. What was the process like for choosing who to throw the spotlight on?
FVL: Back when we were first starting the series, I was in one of the best used bookstores in the country, Haslam’s in St. Petersburg, and I found an old like late 1980s Intro to Philosophy textbook, and I went to the contents at front and was like, “Okay, I guess we’ll do these.” It was pretty arbitrary, but, I think it was a good list. And of course, we’ve supplemented the “canon” over the years with more overlooked folks, too.
RD: We’ve had a few grumpy pants critics trying to tell us we “forgot” such-and-such philosopher or that someone like Thomas Jefferson isn’t “real” philosopher… to which I say “make your own damn comic!”
FS: You’ve already hit your initial funding goal. Congratulations! What can you tell us about the campaign itself?
FVL: Thank you! We’re offering Omnipotence for Dummies in digital and hardcover versions, signed, all the good stuff.
RD: Having Rocketship run the campaign has allowed us to finally make the merchandise fans have been asking for us for years. Aside from a few freelancers (like the aforementioned Mr. Guzowski), Fred and I have had to do EVERYTHING when it came to Action Philosophers – printing the books, shipping the books, marketing and publicizing the books, filling online orders, dealing with distributors… and oh yeah and writing and drawing the comics themselves! We just didn’t have time to make pins and stickers and prints on top of all that. Partnering with Rocketship gives us the staff and infrastructure to work with manufacturers and suppliers that Fred and I simply have never had the time for, and I’m thrilled Rocketship let me just totally cut loose and make every stupid merchandise idea Fred and I could come up into a reality.
What are some of the stretch goals and how did you decide what to offer?
FVL: There are some great new prints and pins Ryan designed with Karl Marx, Nietzsche, Plato, Bodhidharma—all your favorites! Hopefully we can run a bunch of them on this page.
RD: There’s lots more coming too! Stickers, patches and some other neat secret stuff.
FS: I teach social sciences in high school and plan to use the book in my classes as I can. Have you had any teachers reach out to you with similar stories on the first volume?
FVL: That’s terrific to hear. We even do a series of comics for the New York City public school system (where we live), Action Activists, that tell kids how to make a difference in the streets and in the halls of power. I imagine we will do a Kickstarter collection for that when it’s all done…
RD: We gotten a lot of requests to include individual chapters in the syllabi of all sorts of high school and college level classes – educators think our fast-and-furious 10 pages-or-less storytelling format makes for good intro material.
FS: I know this Kickstarter isn’t finished yet, but do you have plans for a third volume?
FVL: Yep. This volume ends around the year 1820, and the next volume, which I’m thinking of calling Attack of the Isms, will feature thinkers up through the 21st century, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Ayn Rand, Wittgenstein, Derrida—all your favorites!
RD: I was pulling for Modernity Bites. That one’s also going to have the Joseph Campbell story where we illustrated his “monomyth” concept as a children’s board game – which ended up being the most popular sequences in the whole series, so a third volume is pretty much inevitable!
FS: If you had one last pitch for potential backers, what would it be?
FVL: Omnipotence for Dummies is just what the title implies: The philosophy comics therein unlock your god-like mind powers that lets you bend reality to your will and impress people at parties.
RD: Read more comics, get more smarter!
As of press time, Action Philosophers: Omnipotence for Dummies has more than doubled its initial goal with 15 days to go. Check out this campaign for wisdom, knowledge, and a whole lot of fun!