Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Comics You Should Own – ‘Action Philosophers!’

The exclamation point is mandatory!

Action Philosophers! by Fred van Lente (writer) and Ryan Dunlavey (artist).

Published by Evil Twin Comics, 9 issues (#1-9), cover dated April 2005 – July 2007.

I don’t know how much I’m actually going to write about this series, because, after all, it’s just a bunch of short examinations of philosophers, but that shouldn’t stop you from owning it!

Back in the early 2000s, before Fred van Lente became such a comics superstar that he has his own special day to celebrate him, he and Ryan Dunlavey (who’s had a pretty good career himself) decided to make philosophy interesting and fun. It turned out to be such a successful gig that they moved on to presidents and then the histories of comics and animation, but while those comics were quite good, they didn’t quite reach the weird heights of Action Philosophers! Van Lente and Dunlavey had entirely too much fun making dry musings about the nature of humanity interesting and bizarre and engaging, and this series is the result.

It’s tough to write about these comics, because they are just little vignettes. I hate simply saying what Van Lente and Dunlavey do for each philosopher, because I like writing about themes and metaphors and such with these deep dives, but that’s not what we’re going to get here. So, because I’m boring, I’m just going to list each philosopher and tell you a little about what the creators do to make them fun comics. That’s just the way it’s going to be!

Issue #1
1. Plato. We know this is going to be an interesting series when the first panel depicts Plato in a wrestling ring, holding a very wimpy dude over his head, about to drive him deep into the ground. The name “Plato,” we’re told, was adopted by Aristocles, a wrestler, due to his broad shoulders (the word means “broad” or “flat”). An excellent introduction to this series! Plato never qualified for the Olympics, so he decided on a career change (but kept the name). In the second panel, van Lente does another fun thing – Plato speaks like the Hulk, and van Lente will do this throughout the series – make allusions to classic comic book characters, which keeps with the book’s fun tone. He and Dunlavey do this a lot, with a lot of anachronistic stuff (on the second page of the series, Socrates is calling into a televised psychic show) to show us how similar different historical periods are to our own – wrestlers, psychics, and such – and just the trappings were a bit different thanks to the use of different technology (if you wanted a fake psychic in ancient Greece, you actually had to go to Delphi yourself instead of just calling on your phone). Van Lente, as he will show throughout the series, does an excellent job breaking down the philosophies into easily understood portions, and Dunlavey does a good job showing a lot of abstract concepts in concrete drawings.

2. Bodhidharma. The grand master of kung fu is the focus of this segment, and once again, we get philosophical musings boiled down nicely. The best thing about this vignette is that Dunlavey draws Bodhidharma with only one expression – kind of a disapproving one, as we can see below:

It never changes, even when our hero is old and has a long white beard. The world just keeps disappointing him!

3. Friedrich Nietzsche. Dunlavey, not ignoring the easy joke, turns Nietzsche into Superman in the half-splash at the beginning of this chapter, because of course he would. Nietzsche is, of course, a problematic philosopher, not really because of anything he wrote but because of his adoption by the Nazis, but van Lente isn’t afraid to tackle some controversial figures (although he does edit some things out, as I’ll note) and he also points out that Hitler’s reading of Nietzsche was kind of, well, wrong. I like Nietzsche, not because I agree with his “superman” theory, but because he’s a fascinating writer.

Issue #2
1. Thomas Jefferson. As someone later points out in the letter column, we don’t think of Jefferson as a philosopher, which is silly because he definitely was one, even if he’s more famous for other things (we don’t think of Marcus Aurelius as a philosopher, either, but he also was one). Van Lente points out that the way Jefferson reconciled his “all men are created equal” with his ownership of slaves was by coming to the conclusion that black people aren’t human, which is an unfortunate way to justify it, to be sure. Jefferson actually did try to fight against slavery, but not as strongly as he fought for other things. As with a lot of these philosophers, van Lente never lets us forget that they’re just human, and therefore, subject to a lot of human frailties. Jefferson thought he himself was awesome, so everyone should aspire to be like him, and he probably didn’t really want to be without his slaves (he’d have to work then instead of writing philosophical treatises!), so he didn’t really push too hard against the institution.

2. St. Augustine. One of the funnest saints, mainly because he liked to party. His embrace of Manichaeism means that Dunlavey can turn his inner conflict into a battle between Kirby’s New Gods, which is fun. Augustine, of course, eventually found Jesus and settled down, and he’s one of the most influential shapers of, really, Western culture, but I bet in his heart he missed all the banging.

3. Ayn Rand. Rand, of course, is yet another person who came to her philosophy based on a very limited view of the world and wanted to live her life the way she wanted but didn’t want to really allow others to do the same if it conflicted with her desires, and van Lente shows this well. Rand’s philosophy is childish, which is why it’s so depressing that adults who have a big say in how our country is run are so enamored of her.

Issue #3
1. Sigmund Freud. Van Lente has fun with Freud’s sexual hang-ups, which were a bit weird, even if he was radical enough to actually discuss sex, which was a big no-no back in the day. It’s a short sketch of Freud, so he can’t dig into his sexism too much, but he does point out how conservative Freud was about sex even if he was willing to discuss it. Freud didn’t think anything other than standard heterosexual sex was “normal,” which is too bad given that he was willing to delve into sexual fantasies so much. Just another neurotic dude using “science” to justify his own thinking! This is also “part one,” as the second part brings in the next philosopher!

2. Carl Jung. In 1909, Freud famously went to America, where he hoped his theories could gain more traction than they had in stuffy old Europe. He took Jung along, as Jung had become his most promising student and the “crown prince” of psychology. Jung and Freud fell out over their conflicting theories about dreams, and van Lente does a good job showing that conflict. Jung’s racism is even less touched upon than Freud’s sexism, but such is life. This doesn’t quite lead into “part three” as easily as Freud-to-Jung, but it does connect to “part three” a bit!

3. Joseph Campbell. Campbell’s “hero’s journey” is wonderfully illustrated by Dunlavey as a board game, with stops and starts along the way and various fun pop culture references (Spider-Man defeating the wrestler, Luke fighting Darth Vader), and van Lente points out that Campbell’s theories can reconcile Freud’s and Jung’s thinking. Campbell, of course, through not much fault of his own, has become the go-to philosopher for fiction writers without an original thought it their heads, as we’re up the wazoo with hero’s journeys. Come on, writers, do something different occasionally!

Issue #4
1. Karl Marx. Van Lente turns Marx into Rambo, gunning for the capitalists, and he and Dunlavey show up in the comic, not for the first or last time, as ineffectual purveyors of Marxist dogma (Marx says that the real revolution will come in the streets, not in lecture halls or comics). The most annoying thing about Marx is that he was right about a lot of things, but man, he dug the violence!

2. Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli’s life and virtues are debated by two Italians waiting to see if Florence will allow the exiled writer back into the city (they didn’t). Dunlavey gets to do some fun stuff, including drawing a “battle Pope” robot (Julius II, who’s known as the “Warrior Pope”), a Morrisonian “Hero of the Beach,” and a Renaissance Justice League.

3. Isaac Luria. Luria came up with the Jewish Tree of Life, which means we get a bit about the celebrity obsession with Kabbalah. Dunlavey gets to throw a golem in there, too, which is fun.

Issue #5
1. René Descartes. Dunlavey has fun going from almost completely empty panels to full ones, as Descartes slowly discovers that the external world exists using logic instead of, you know, his eyes (philosophers crack me up sometimes). Descartes was killed by Queen Christina of Sweden, who wanted him as a tutor and scheduled him early in the morning, meaning he caught a cold in the Swedish winter that quickly turned to pneumonia. Danged lesbian queen!

2. Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre formulated a lot of his philosophy in a Nazi prison camp, which is one thing to do with your time if you’re imprisoned by Nazis, I guess. I wonder if the dehumanizing effects of a Nazi prison camp had anything to do with his philosophy? I mean, we all know philosophers are never influenced by real-world events, but maybe …?

3. Jacques Derrida. Due to Derrida’s “deconstruction” philosophy, this is a fun one, even though van Lente admits he does not like Derrida at all. On the first page, we get Derrida as the Terminator, with “The Deconstructonator” as the title of the story. As Derrida’s philosophy turns to the actual comic, it begins to break down into a script, which causes the cartoon van Lente and Dunlavey to freak out, which leads to the fun ending:

Good stuff all around!

Issue #6 (Readers voted on which philosophers should appear in upcoming issues, and this issue is the result!)
1. Ludwig Wittgenstein. There’s some fun stuff in here, including a football game based on philosophy, but the best part is that Dunlavey draws the cranky Wittgenstein with anger lines emanating from his head in almost every panel. It’s genius, I tells ya!

2. St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was, famously, a virgin, and Dunlavey gets to draw him as a Ken doll, with no genitals, to visualize this condition. Aquinas used mathematical proofs (which rule) to prove the existence of God (I mean, sure), and he’s one of the more influential philosophers in this series, given that he helped “Christianize” Aristotle, which formed the basis for a lot of Western thought. Good job, Thomas!

3. Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard had a long-standing feud with the official Danish church, which makes him all right in my book. He also seemed like a dude who would go against the prevailing thought no matter what it was, which makes him delightfully contrary if just a bit petulant. Oh, those wacky philosophers!

Issue #7
1. The Pre-Socratics. We get shorter-than-usual vignettes about philosophers who came before Socrates (I mean, hence the name), with Thales of Miletus (who measured Egypt’s pyramids accurately), Anaximander (who postulated a multiverse, because why not?), Anaximenes (who didn’t do much but disagree with Anaximander, his teacher), Heraclitus (who believed that energy is never created or destroyed, just changed … hmmm, sounds pretty modern there), Parmenides (who disagreed with Heraclitus), Empedocles (who wanted all philosophers to get along), and Democritus (who thought matter was made up of tiny things called “atoms,” which got him laughed out of the Philosophy Club).

2. Aristotle. Most of the Aristotle section is devoted to his time tutoring Alexander the Great, which is certainly important. Van Lente does a good job boiling down Aristotle’s thoughts, because the dude thought a lot about a lot of subjects. It’s tough boiling it down!

3. Epictetus the Stoic. “Stoic” comes from Zeno, the founder of the school, hanging out in porticoes of buildings (the “stoa”), but of course, now it means enduring misfortunes without complaining, and that’s basically what Epictetus (not his real name, which is unknown) taught. He was very Zen, apparently.

Issue #8
1. Immanuel Kant. God retains the services of Kant to prove that He exists. Dunlavey has a lot of fun with this, as it takes place in “Cognopolis, Capital City of Truth!” and features anthropomorphic representations of the senses. Plus, the judge is Maria from the movie Metropolis, and that’s nifty.

2. John Stuart Mill. This is probably the most visually inventive story, as Dunlavey presents Mill as Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus (as Jeremy Bentham), Snoopy, and the other Peanuts characters making appearances. Of course John Stuart Mill can’t kick the football! We wouldn’t want it any other way!

3. Georg Hegel/Arthur Schopenhauer. Hegel and Schopenhauer both loved Kant, but they both thought Kant was wrong, yet they split on how he was wrong. This led to a great rivalry that van Lente implies was much more important to Schopenhauer than Hegel. Hegel was a big fan of Prussian authoritarianism, while Schopenhauer thought free will was fiction. You can probably guess who was more popular with the government!

Issue #9 (the “lightning round” – lots of people in this one!)
1. Diogenes the Cynic. Diogenes was the “anti-philosopher” – he believed abstract thought was ridiculous and made sure everyone knew it.

2. Lao Tzu. Empty yourself, yo. Be at peace!

3. Michel Foucault. Another fun visual, as Foucault stars in The Family Circus … which is incongruous, given his proclivity for so-called “deviancy.”

4. David Hume. Hume was all about empirical evidence for things!

5. Confucius. In China, he’s known as “Master Kong,” so of course Dunlavey turns him into King Kong, which is quite fun.

6. George Berkeley. This dude believed that if he didn’t perceive it, it didn’t exist, so whenever he leaves the panel, van Lente just disappears.

7. Francis Bacon. Naturally, given his last name, van Lente and Dunlavey play a game that links Bacon to many other philosophers. Good stuff!

8. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Van Lente and Dunlavey put Rousseau in a situation comedy, because why not? Bill Gates has a cameo!

9. Thomas Hobbes. The creators show his philosophy wrapped into a giant sea monster, because of Leviathan. Another dude who thought authoritarianism was a-ok!

10. Mary Wollstonecraft. Obviously, we know why she’s famous, but van Lente makes the point that she was a very early feminist, attacking men (like Rousseau) who had a very poor view of women. Stupid men!

11. Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza managed to piss off orthodox Jewish authorities with his hippy-dippy views about God. Good for him!

12. Gottfried Leibniz. He believed in a universe made up of tiny units, each of which imperfectly reflected the entirety of the universe. Makes perfect sense!

(The collected edition I own – not the one I linked to below, although I assume it’s the same – has a few extra philosophers: Epicurus, Rumi, Auguste Comte, and William James. Basically, get the collected edition for more fun philosophers!) (And there’s a new color version coming out – I guess it was on Kickstarter and destroyed the goal, so good for them! But, honestly, color isn’t the most necessary thing for this book – I’m sure it will look nice and all, but it’s not like it’s the most important thing in the world.)

As I noted above, it’s difficult to write more about this series, because you can’t really examine themes or characterization or anything like that. However, I’ve read some philosophy, and the brilliance of this series is that van Lente and Dunlavey are able to take the abstract – and philosophers tend to stick to the abstract, even if they’re completely influenced by what’s going on in their world at the time they’re writing – and make it interesting, digestible, and concrete. Just the first story, in which they make Plato a wrestler, helps draw you in and engages you, so that you’re more ready to deal with Plato’s World of Ideals. It’s a very hard thing to make philosophers’ philosophizing something that laypeople can understand, and while van Lente, obviously, can’t dive deep on his subjects, he’s definitely able to give us a very good idea of what they were all about, and Dunlavey is able to turn so much of what they say into easily understood drawings. Obviously, as he’s a comic book artist and most of the people reading this will probably be attuned to comics, the references to Kirby and other comic book creators and creations is fun, but it also makes you appreciate comics more, as so much of comics history is directly linked to a lot of old-school philosophy. It’s very easy to slide comic book tropes into these stories because so many philosophers thought about Big Ideas that, later, comic book creators would ponder as well. There’s a nice syzygy between many philosophers and comics, which is fun to see visualized by Dunlavey.

As I noted, Van Lente and Dunlavey didn’t stop with these guys, and while all of their collaborations have been very good, this one is the best, partly because it was first, I recognize that, but also because the subject matter fits so well with the medium being used. You might think: “How can a history of comics being told as a comic not be a better pairing?” and I would say, I don’t know, but it isn’t. So there! Still, when these two gentlemen work on a comic together, it’s probably worth picking up.

What else is there to say? It’s funny, educational, imaginative, and it has great art. It’s Action Philosophers!

(As always, the archives are here for your perusal!)

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