Interview - Van Jensen and Dusty Higgins

It seems that Disney was a little off when they made the animated Pinocchio movie. He wasn't a little wooden boy, desperately trying to be real. He was a vampire slayer, using his lying ability to have an infinite number of stakes. At least, that's how creators Van Jensen and Dusty Higgins see it.

The two collaborated on a series of books called Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer. The series of graphic novels has just reached its conclusion and both Jensen and Higgins found some time to talk about the book.

The premise behind the story is as awesome as it sounds. Trust me.

Omnicomic: Where did the idea to make Pinocchio a vampire slayer come from?

Van Jensen: Dusty came up with the original concept, so I'll leave this one to him.

Dusty Higgins: The original concept from the story was born from a sketch I did that had nothing to do with vampires. In the drawing, Pinocchio was innocently lying to a police officer to get out of trouble and as his nose grows out he accidentally stabs him in the chest. Awkward. The image stuck in my mind until the wooden stake in the chest connection got made and from that essentially started this crazy past few years of working on an idea of a wooden puppet slaying vampires.

Omnicomic: Did you approach the story with the thought of keeping the events of the comic within the Pinocchio canon so to speak? Was that important to you as creators?

Jensen: We wanted to base our story as much as possible on Carlo Collodi's original Pinocchio. Obviously, we took some liberties (i.e. he didn't become a real boy), but overall, I think our story is very faithful. It's not that we necessarily hold a personal debt to Collodi, but rather we're just big fans of his story. The original Pinocchio is a brilliant, weird, scary, funny book, and it left us with a ton of material to explore. All we had to do was sprinkle in a dash of vampires.

The moral of the Pinocchio tale involves the perils of lying. Did you set out to include that sort of morality in the Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer? Or was it just the concept of Pinocchio breaking off his nose repeatedly to stake vampires too appealing?

What I really loved about writing these books was the challenge of taking kind of a goofy conceit—Pinocchio lying, snapping off his nose and shanking vampires—and adding some subtext. So I hope it shows through the books that there is an impact to lying and dishonesty. Pinocchio struggles with this challenge: in order to do good, he must do bad. Then there's the aspect that this ability means Pinocchio can't even lie to himself. It makes him a compelling, complex character, I hope. But beyond that, it's pretty fun just having him snap off a lot of stakes and shank a lot of vampires.

Higgins: We did treat our story like it was a continuation of the original Pinocchio adventure, with a few minor changes, like Pinocchio not getting his “real boy” happy ending, which were necessary for our story to work. The original work had the elements we wanted in our book, it’s funny and has a surprising number of dark elements in it. Most of the Pinocchio canon fit really well with the story we wanted to tell. My one regret is we weren’t able to fit in more of these really awesome characters Collodi had in original book.

The moral of the Pinocchio tale involves the perils of lying. Did you set out to include that sort of morality in the Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer? Or was it just the concept of Pinocchio breaking off his nose repeatedly to stake vampires too appealing?

I think originally, at least for me, it was definitely the concept of Pinocchio breaking off his nose to stake vampires that was appealing. But if that was our prime motivation for writing the story, I don’t think it would’ve been very successful. Van has inserted several underlying themes that pull the story along.

Omnicomic: Who is Carlotta? Why is she important to Pinocchio?

Jensen: Carlotta is a friend, someone who sees the good inside Pinocchio when so many see him as a freak. Beyond that, she represents his ultimate hope: To be normal, to have a relationship, to be human. But Carlotta is also a very strong girl, someone who's willing to risk herself to help her friends and fight the vampires.

Higgins: Ditto on what Van said.

Omnicomic: Why do the story in black and white?

Jensen: One of the important things to us going into this was that we wanted to make books for people to read, not for them to collect. So we wanted them to be as affordable as possible. Thus the smaller format and the black and white art.

Higgins: I think it was a balance of making the book affordable for our readers and also doing something that Van and I could produce in a reasonable amount of time. Working on a graphic novel like this takes hundreds of hours, coloring it would double the time and likely double the cost. I would’ve worked much longer on a book that would’ve been cost prohibitive to most people. Also, I actually like the black and white storytelling. Some of my favorite books to read are Walking Dead (black and white) and the reprints Dark Horse is doing of “Savage Sword of Conan,” which are in black and white.

Omnicomic: There are a few stylistic art changes in the books. For instance, there are a few pages that have sort of a stained-glass look (sans color). Was that style chosen for a particular reason?

Jensen: Dusty can answer this.

Higgins: My day job is as an illustrator at a newspaper where I do a lot of illustrations. I’m constantly adjusting my style for that work just to keep the art looking fresh. Whenever we took a break from the linear storytelling in PVS, I’d try to take a style that I felt was appropriate both for the particular story being told as well as based on who the storyteller was. When the pious and religious Dante tells the story of Stanislaus, we see that visually as stained glass like you might see in a church window. When the wooden puppets would tell their stories from their past, they would look like old wood-cut prints.

Omnicomic: The art depicts a story taking place in a variety of locales. Was there any real life inspiration for some of the settings?

Jensen: The first book takes place in a kind of generic, nonexistent Italian village. After that, we focused on adding real locations to the books as a way to give it some grounding. So there are lots of specific places, like Rome, Napoli, the Greek islands, the Romanian coast and Wallachia (that's where the actual Vlad the Impaler had his castle, which still stands). One of my favorite scenes is early on in PVS 2, when Pinocchio battles vampires in the Capuchin Crypt, which features walls made of skulls.

Higgins: Particularly in book 2 and 3 Van called for specific places to be shown in the script. I did a lot of research on Google images, attempting to make the settings as close to their real life counterparts as possible while taking a few liberties to make our story work.

Omnicomic: What's next in the pipeline for either of you?

Jensen: We're actually working on a new book together that's kind of a YA/teen sci fi/superhero story. Hoping to have a publisher lined up for that soon. Then artist Joe Pimienta is illustrating my graphic novel The Leg, which follows the adventures of the disembodied leg of Santa Anna through 1938 Mexico. And I'm working with another artist on an action-y miniseries.

Higgins: I’ve actually been doing concept art and am about to start penciling pages for a new project with Van that is totally different from Pinocchio aside from also being geared toward the young adult audience. I also have a more personal project that I’ve been trying to devote more time to now that Pinocchio’s finished (it was an idea that I actually put aside to do work on PVS). I’ve been posting images from that on my blog, but I’m not ready to give much more information out there than character designs.

Omnicomic: What are your thoughts on the digital vs. print divide in comics?

Jensen: I don't know that there is a divide. Digital is just a new way for some people to read comics, and all the information so far says that digital doesn't take away from print sales. It's also nice because it's more affordable. Personally, I'm a print guy. But I'm glad that digital is out there. All that said, we have yet to see any real money from downloads of our books, so I'm not sure the market is strong beyond the huge titles.

Higgins: I’ve definitely become a digital reader. Don’t get me wrong, I still buy print comics, but digital has made it so much more convenient for me to find the more obscure indy books that I prefer to read. No offense to the folks who like superhero books, but that’s pretty much all you find at my local comic book stores and there’s a wealth of material out there that has nothing to do with superheroes. I don’t see a huge divide between the two either. I think digital can make comics more accessible to people who might not normally buy them, and that’s good for everyone.

Omnicomic: What's your convention schedule look like for the rest of the year?

Jensen: I'll be at Dragon*Con over Labor Day weekend, Baltimore Comic Con the following weekend and then Comicon-Way in Conway, Ark., in November.

Higgins: I’ll be at the Little Rock Comic Con in October and, Comicon-Way in Conway, Ark., in November.

Omnicomic: Anything you want to plug while you have the floor?

Jensen: If your readers haven't already, they should check out Knights of the Living Dead, the graphic novel Dusty did with writer Ron Wolfe. It's an excellent book. And if anyone wants to keep tabs on my ramblings, I'm on Twitter at @vandotjensen.

Higgins: I’d definitely appreciate folks checking out Knights of the Living Dead, a graphic novel I worked on with writer Ron Wolfe, which was released in July. It’s an fun and dark take on Arthurian legend, with zombies (which was probably pretty obvious).