I have to admit that the interviews I did at Dragon Con were all pretty focused on my own particular fandoms. While I realize that was probably more selfish than journalistic, it was my first con so I’m going to play the “first-timer” card.
When I saw that Van Jensen was in attendance I made sure to add him to the list. I had heard great things about his current run on Green Lantern Corps, and The Flash, both of which are titles that I have enjoyed. I’m also a lifelong DC fan, so I couldn’t pass up a chance to talk to an actual writer for the company, as well as get his thoughts on the then upcoming Flash television show. However, this was before I got my hands on a copy of Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer. I was completely unfamiliar with that book prior to requesting an interview. I thought it would be good to be somewhat familiar with the book since it was, at the time, his only creator-owned title. Suffice to say, the book caught me totally off guard. Instead of merely skimming it, I jumped in with both feet (pardon the mixed metaphors). I’m not sure I’ve ever read 500 pages so quickly in my life, including my undergrad years as an English major. I was hooked from the first panel on the first page, and almost immediately decided that I wasn’t all that concerned with the Flash or John Stewart any longer.
I had to know more about Pinocchio.
Nothing about that book should have worked. Everyone knows that vampires are over; the final stake in their collective heart being Stephenie Meyer’s pen. Mash-ups are also passe’ at this point. And, really, what could Pinocchio possibly teach us that Buffy Summers hadn’t already?
Yet it does work. And it works very well.
When I first heard the title I immediately thought that there needed to be at least one scene where Pinocchio tells a lie so his nose can stake a vampire. Not knowing much about the book, that was pretty much my only criteria for whether or not I was going to enjoy. Imagine my excitement when the very first thing I see was that exact thing. And it wasn’t just a single scene, but a major part of the plot! I thought it was brilliant, I even ran out and told me wife about it, “Honey, look! It’s in here! It’s awesome! It’s even better than I imagined!”
While my interview decisions started off as purely self-serving and focused on the safe harbor of familiar fandom, I quickly found myself revelling in entirely new fandoms. Therefore, it is with great pleasure that I bring you this interview that I did with Van at Dragon Con. He’s definitely a writer that you should be reading, and I can’t recommend Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer highly enough as a starting point.
Sean Reid for Comics Bulletin: When I saw your name I originally was interested because you are working on The Flash and Green Lantern Corps. I figured that would be great to discuss, but then I saw you did a book called Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer.
Van Jensen: Yup!
CB: I contacted my editor and asked if he could get me a copy in advance of the interview. Top Shelf was on top of things and sent me a copy almost immediately. And, WOW! I couldn’t put it down!
Jensen: Thank you!
CB: I realize it’s been out for a while, and I regret that I’m late to the party, but I hope you’re not over talking about it.
Jensen: Oh no, we just have the collection out so no I’m really happy to talk about it.
CB: It is hands down the best thing I’ve read in like the last five years.
Jensen: Oh my gosh! Thank you!
CB: Seriously, I’m not kidding. It blew my mind. I tore through it, and finished it in no time. All 500 pages. It was seriously amazing. I’ll obviously get to some questions, but I felt like I needed to get the compliments out of the way, but I figure you might not mind!
Jensen: No, I won’t turn those down!
CB: I don’t know that I’ve had that kind of that kind of investment and reaction to a story since I got the trade of James O’barr’s The Crow (the trade of the first story).
CB: I found myself that invested in the story.
Jensen: Well thank you!
CB: It was phenomenal. Was this first thing you had written?
Jensen: It’s the second thing I wrote, the first thing that was published.
CB: Okay. Still for the fact that it’s in the first two…I feel like I’ve read things from seasoned writers that aren’t this strong. I mean, everything about it was it was just so on point. I’m also trying to figure out how Dustin Higgins isn’t drawing everything right now.
Jensen: He’s great. He’s doing a Simon & Schuster book that’s coming up. So he’s going to, in the next couple of years, he’s going to blow up in a HUGE way. Which is totally what should happen with him.
CB: Absolutely! Now, I’ve read some of the Green Lantern Corps stuff. I didn’t get the chance to read any of the newer Flash stuff, and I’ll be completely honest. I’ve not been super stoked on The New 52. So it’s been hard for me to get into it, but I’ve started reading your stuff.
You started with the Durlan War? Is that right?
Jensen: Number 21 was my first. So it was last June, I think, was when that came out.
CB: I jumped in part of the way into Durlan War story. I feel like that’s a really interesting story, an interesting dynamic to examine the GL Corps. I’d like to knock out a couple quick Green Lantern questions, because I want to get back to Pinocchio.
What’s the situation like for you on working inside the greater Green Lantern universe now that Geoff Johns is off of Green Lantern (and has been cut back in general, since he was basically writing a bit of everything)? Has that change had any impact on what you’re doing with the Corps?
Jensen: You know when Geoff and Peter and the whole team left and we had the complete switchover for creative teams was when I came in, and Geoff was great. He allowed us to really do our own thing.
There has been no directive, no hand holding. He knows that every writer kind of needs to be able to bring his own ideas to bear on a book. So the great thing about coming into Green Lantern Corps is that I’ve been able to work so closely with Rob Venditti, we’ve been friends for eight or nine years. He’s one of my best friends in the world, and we’re getting to plot these stories out together. Rob was more seasoned as a writer. I mean Green Lantern Corps 21 was the first single issue comic that I ever wrote, and I had a week and a half or so to turn it in. So it was a trial by fire, and Rob was there with a lot of experience to act as another editor to kind of help ease me into the world of monthly comics.
Rob and I, and the other writers, we all get along really well. We’ve been able to plan out these long form stories and do some kind of weird, compelling things. It’s been a lot of work, but a ton of fun. Every once in a while there will be a moment where I’ll be working and I realize this is what I’m doing with my life now.
CB: That realization that, “Hey, I work for DC comics!”
Jensen: Yeah it’s awesome. Like, it really is. It genuinely is.
CB: Kind of following up on that, how was it going from something like Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer a small press book, independant book with your characters, and your direction. Was it a big transition to step into something like Green Lantern Corps? Were you just handed decades of canon, as well as DC editorial, The WB, and all the related corporate hierarchy putting boundaries on what you’re able to do, at least within reason.
I’m not trying to say that you’re a slave to some evil overlord or something, but how is the transition coming your own thing and stepping into something else where they may have laid things out for you already?
Jensen: There’s a really steep learning curve. The biggest thing is that DC and Warner Brothers they actually have been very, well I don’t want to say hands off, because they’ve been great about providing direction in the right kind of way.
But we’ve also gotten a ton of creative freedom. Which to a point that I was actually surprised with how much creative freedom we got.
CB: That sounds very encouraging.
Jensen: And the things we’ve been able to–I mean I blew up Oa In like my fourth issue.
CB: Yeah, that’s a big deal.
Jensen: Yeah, and I did not expect that that was going to happen.
CB: And you made Mogo an essential character!
Jensen: Yeah. See there were big big things that they allowed us to do, and the biggest thing really in making the transition, one was in figuring out the production process. I come from the world of magazines, so I was really a nerd about processes. Which that is like the least creative/exciting thing ever, but I really like to know how the book is put together, how the art schedule works, how does the lettering work, what’s the revision process, how many times am I getting to edit it before it goes to the printer? All that kind of stuff. So it was just a lot of figuring that out. Each individual editor kind of has their own styles. So there’s a little bit of a learning curve with each of them.
Honestly the absolute biggest thing is just twenty pages is not very much space. I had gotten done writing a book that spans five-hundred plus pages. Where I can just write as long as I wanted to write, until I ran out of steam. [Dusty Higgins], thankfully, was really speedy on those books so it didn’t take forever to get it done.
Then all of the sudden it was like “Oh crap.” I got through my first scene and it was sixteen pages. I was like “What am I doing here!?”
CB: There’s more story than there are available pages…
Jensen: It’s very much like the nuts and bolts stuff of how single issue comics, and superhero comics, there’s just a lot of little style things that are different. Figuring out the flow, and figuring out the aesthetic is very different. The feel, the tempo is different.
There’s a real craft to making an issue that makes 20 pages feel like 30 pages.
And that’s what I want to do, because I want people to feel like they’re getting a lot of story from what I write, and it’s very rich narratively and emotionally. The characters are really having things going on both externally and internally.
All of that stuff, and every issue becomes like this very tiny puzzle that you can piece together with tweezers.
CB: That’s a good metaphor! As a fan I can tell you, I appreciate that. The bulk of my comic book collecting period of my life was during the 90’s. I read a lot of the early Image comics. They were all like forty pages, and they would be forty beautifully colored pages, but It was like Fruit Stripe gum. As soon as you start, it’s done!
So it’s nice to read something that has some depth, and some weight. Which, brings me back to Pinocchio… I really feel like you didn’t waste a panel. Both in the words that were used, and the flow that was established. I loved how the panels were laid out.
I have an English degree, and, after far too many poetry classes, I tend to think ofcomic book panels as kind of a meter and a rhythm. I really felt like you got that right, you guys established a really solid rhythm. Was it something that was intentional when you started mapping out the story? Did you and Dusty decide, “We want a beat here, a beat here, a beat here.”?
Jensen: That was one of the things that I really focused on, and especially as the book went on. [Pinocchio] was the second book I written and I actually think I was writing it at the same time as I was writing [the first] one. So they’re kind of happening at the same time where this whole thing was super new to me. I had no clue what I was doing.
CB: I really didn’t feel like it showed. As I read it and I had assumed you had been writing comics for much longer.
Jensen: I mean I had been working as a journalist for years.I’d been writing for decades. But the medium was new. And it was new to Dusty. So the first book is like 130 pages, and it reads like it’s an 80 page story, just because I didn’t realize that you can control pacing.
There were some things that Dusty did to help out the weakness in my writing. After writing that book we looked at it and really analyzed, “Okay, what are the weaknesses, what worked and what didn’t?” One of the big things was pacing. So it was very intentional on both of our parts, and one of the real tricks – it’s a silly book, it’s an incredibly silly book – but then it also has these horror elements and it also has these very serious/dramatic elements. So we wanted it to be something that resonates on that emotional level, that really works as a drama that happens to have funny beats.
In the writing, and in then the art, the mood would affect the way that the panels were laid out. We really wanted to intentionally shift the pacing based on the tempo. Is this more staccato comedic tempo? Is this more of a slow, drawn out, build attention creepy moment? Is this more of a heart wrenching moment where we would linger on shots for a little bit longer? I think one of the masters at that aesthetic is Mike Mignola.
So we tried working in some silent panels here and there. Like there’s a scene in the second book where it’s Pinocchio and Master Cherry, who has since become a vampire, they come into a conflict with each other and they’re heading into an alley. There’s one little panel where they’re in a market, one little panel zoomed in on a crate of dead fish. And it’s just this dead, lifeless fish lying there. Which is something that you can almost visually read over, but it’s this kind of thing that cues this sense of death, this sense of foreboding. A quick little beat that helps, even if the reader only notices on a subconscious level, it says “This is changing” or “We’re heading into something different.”
CB: One of the sections that really stood out to me was one that I don’t recall there being any actual dialog, I think the dialog is actually read into it by the audience. It was the full two page spreads when Pinocchio is running towards the castle.
Jensen: Oh! With the long nose?
CB: Yes! And I found it intense, even on my tablet, which is how I was reading it, and isn’t always conducive to getting a good few of multi-page layouts. I’m dying to see how it looks on the printed page. There’s not a single word there, but the change in the art style, bouncing the focus from the feet to the head and back, and just the swiftness of everything.
When you were working on that, was that a situation where you and Dusty would get together? Would you plot out points and he would interpret it? Or was that a combined effort?
Jensen: That’s a great specific story moment to look at how we worked together and that I had an idea on how that beat would play out, and I initially envisioned it as Pinocchio running with his long nose stretching allthe way across the spread. Even that just being it. Being very simple and almost doing it where it was like a flip book where Pinocchio is moving as you flip a page, you know? Spread to spread to spread. Dusty looked at it and said “You know what if we do something that’s a little more kinetic and really switched the perspective and also had these changing angles where we also would have these little staccato beats to the vampires, and so we just got on the phone — we live in different states — and going back and forth. And that’s that true great collaboration where you’re like one-upping each other and just make the idea better and better. And that is really how we worked through the whole book. I mean I would write an outline, and send it to him, and he would make notes on it, and we would have this long conversation and we would talk through the entire outline. And he was helping me edit the story because we didn’t have editors. I mean we were just doing this on our own. So he was helping me with story beats, but he was also analyzing the outline for opportunities to do weird/cool things with our book. So he would come back with “Okay, well what if we didn’t do this, but we would do this?” and I would say “Oh! Well that’s cool, and then we could add this wrinkle to it!” And, again, Dusty and I are just really good friends, and we’ve gotten to be better and better friends over the course of over five years of collaborating on these books, and also we have a very similar aesthetic, very similar approach. Dusty has this amazing work ethic, which I really admire. I was spoiled with him, and then I realize that I’m not going to have that kind of relationship with every single person. But yeah he Is just a really special talent, and I have no idea what he’s going to end up doing. He’s the kind of artist that I think decades down the line people are going to look back at the body of work that is done and really see it as one whole body of really remarkable work.
CB: I’m a bit of a Joseph Campbell nerd and as I was reading Pinocchio I kept noticing strains of Campbell’s Monomyth. Was that intentional? Or was it more a matter of the Hero’s Journey finds its way into most epic stories?
Jensen: No there’s a lot of focusing on archetypes.
I’m a huge structure person in terms of writing. Campbell is very influential. There’s a book by Christopher Booker called Seven Basic Plots, it’s one of the more influential books that I’ve read. I think there are these archetypal stories for a reason. People respond to them for a reason.
For a long time I didn’t really know what I was doing as a writer, and once I started to study those [archetypes], the more I realized that it was not like I was trying to break the mold. I want to figure out what the mold is and master the mold before I go off and do crazy stuff. So I really like archetypes. I like to use them and I think people respond to them. I think that stories should have structure, that’s what allows them to have impact and to resonate.
I’d like to thank Van Jensen once again for taking the time to sit down with me and for indulging in my rampant fanboy gushing over Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer. You can follow Van on Twitter at @Van_Jensen, you can get a copy of Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer from Top Shelf Productions, and you can keep up with The Flash and The Green Lantern Corps (including the new GodHead storyline!) via your local comics shop or Comixology.
I’ll have more from Van coming up on the site soon, including a review of his next independent work, The Leg, and a review of the Green Lantern Corp: Future’s End one shot that came out last month.
Now go buy a copy of Pinocchio, seriously! What are you waiting for??? GO!