Talking Comics with Tim: Alex Robinson
Late last year, at my pop culture blog, I interviewed Alex Robinson about Too Cool to Be Forgotten. It was a really enjoyable interview (a fellow XTC fan is always a welcome addition to any discussion), so when I found out his new project was adapting L. Frank Baum’s Christmas tale, A Kidnapped Santa Claus, I decided it was time to catch up with him for another discussion.
Tim O’Shea: What was the biggest challenge to expanding the original Baum 10 prose pages to your adaptation’s 60 pages?
Alex Robinson: At first I was thinking that I was going to have to add a lot of material, and since the original story mostly focused on the plot I figured I could beef up the characterizations and try to give the characters a little more depth. It turned out I didn’t really need to add that much, since there’s relatively a lot of plot for such a short story.
The other challenge was deciding how closely I wanted to stick with Baum’s original dialogue and ideas. I wanted to stay true to the source material but I also felt like I had to update it a bit if it was going to resonate with children today.
O’Shea: How much fun and creative freedom did you gain in expanding the story?
Robinson: Since the book is part of a series in which cartoonists adapt classic stories Harper really wanted it to be fairly close to the original, but they also gave me a lot of freedom within that framework. Does make any sense? Aside from beefing up the characterization of the supporting cast (they’re little more than names in the original story) I tinkered around with the ending. I explained to my editor what I was doing and why I thought it should be changed and they were okay with it.
It was actually a lot of fun taking someone else’s story and adapting it. It’s kind of like covering a song in music, I imagine. Without having to worry about the basic structure there wasn’t as much pressure.
O’Shea: How weird is it draw Santa in the middle of the year. Did you have to surround yourself with snow globes every once and awhile to get in the Santa creative mood?
Robinson: It was pretty weird. The funny part is that I started it in October of last year, so to try and get myself in the mood I would put Christmas music on in the background and whatnot, so by the time Christmas actually came I was really, really sick of it! I didn’t actually finish until April, but as the book went on and I got used to drawing the characters and so on it felt just like any other book. When you do comics you have to get used to drawing the same character over and over and over.
O’Shea: Baum’s story was created in early 1904, did you choose to make it a timeless story or did you try to make it modern for the present day kid?.
Robinson: It was a balancing act. One interesting thing about the Baum original is that it was written at a time when Santa’s mythology doesn’t seem to have been canonized–for instance, Santa lives in The Laughing Valley, not the North Pole, and his reindeer don’t fly. As much as I wanted to remain faithful I also didn’t want modern kids to be confused so I kind of glossed over some of the differences (he still lives in Laughing Valley but it’s still snow covered and Christmas-y, so maybe Laughing Valley is at the pole).
I think kids are a bit more sophisticated than they were in Baum’s time–thanks to TV, video games, movies, etc a five year old in 2009 has probably experienced more “stories” than adults did in 1904–so I think it required some updating and altering the dialogue a bit. One thing I wrestled with was the presents. Do I include references to very modern toys like video games which today’s kids would naturally want? The idea of elves building Xboxes or ipods was just too weird so whenever toys are mentioned they’re either classics like bikes and dolls or made up things.
O’Shea: Can you give folks a run-down of some of the major players in the tale, and which ones were you most enjoyed getting to use in the story?
Robinson: Well, like I said, Santa’s helpers in the original story–interestingly, they’re all of different magical races but none of them are elves–were little more than names with maybe one attribute so I had a lot of room to play around with them. The main one is Wisk, is a fairy who’s kind of of Santa’s personal assistant, handling the naughty-nice lists and everything else. She’s kind of the hero of the book, since she takes charge after Santa is kidnapped. In the original story Wisk is a male character but since there were no girls in the story–not even Mrs. Claus, though I included her too–I changed he to a she. She’s helped by Kilter, a pixie–who she has a crush on–and Nuter, a hardworking, grumpy Ryl. He’s sort of a comic relief character.
On the other hand, we also have the daemons who conspire to kidnap Santa: Hatred, Envy and Selfishness. They’re angry that Santa spreads so much happiness so want to ruin Christmas by taking him out of the picture. I wanted them to be bad guys but not so frightening that they’d scare kids so they’re somewhat clownish but hopefully menacing.
All the characters were fun to do. Someone suggested that if the book is a hit I make a series out of it, where the daemons try to ruin other holidays, “An Assaulted Easter Bunny” or “A Stolen Baby New Year” and so on. I’m up for it!
O’Shea: After reading this blog post (The old Christmas switcheroo) I was curious–have you pulled the old switcheroo yet?
Robinson: Haha! No, I haven’t had the courage to put my book in a more prominent location in a bookstore. I think the seven years I spent working at Barnes and Noble have altered my DNA to the point where I cannot purposely put a book somewhere it doesn’t belong. This does not mean I don’t encourage anyone reading this to move the book to the best sellers table, however.
O’Shea: Did you adjust your art style at all for what hopefully may be a whole new audience for your great work–or did you not worry about that when working on the story?
Robinson: I didn’t make any conscious changes regarding the art. Since my other stories all tackle adult situations and have cursing and nudity in them I obviously had to keep in mind that this was aimed at kids (though like a Warner Brothers cartoon I tried to include some jokes that adults would like). I really liked the idea of doing something for kids, since it seems like the books people most fondly recall are books they read as children. I love the idea that in twenty years someone might try to track down the book on ebay or something since they remember reading it as a kid.
O’Shea: Would you like to do more books for kids?
Robinson: Yeah, though I don’t have any particular ideas in mind. The interesting thing about this project is that it’s something I never would’ve thought to do on my own in a million years. Since I don’t have any kids of my own and don’t hang out with kids too much I have a hard time imagining what sort of thing they would like, so I often had to think back to what kind of thing I would’ve liked when I was a kid.
O’Shea: It Books (The HarperCollins Imprint) is a relatively new imprint, how did you score the project?
Robinson: They had come up with the idea of doing this line of cartoonists adapting classic Christmas stories and I was one of the people they approached. I was looking to start a new book but didn’t have any ideas so it seemed like a stroke of luck.
O’Shea: Between your work and Eric Shanower/Skottie Young’s Oz work at Marvel, Baum is a popular comics property these days. If you had the opportunity to adapt Baum again, would you be interested? Did you find you had a newfound understanding of Baum’s writing after this project?
Robinson: I feel kind of sheepish admitting it but I didn’t do a lot of research for the book, in terms of reading Baum. Other than this story I’ve never actually read any of his other work! I think I didn’t want to limit myself by reading other stories or how other people had approached his work. It was only after I was about halfway through the book that I realized that some of the characters and races had actually appeared in other Christmas stories he’d written. The comic-nerd in me was worried that it would violate some sort of Baumverse continuity but I wanted to do the best book I could do without worrying about that. I mentioned some of this on my blog and a Baum fan let me know that he’d read the Oz books a million times and had never even heard of “A Kidnapped Santa Claus” so that put me at ease.
But it definitely opened me up to the idea of doing other adaptations.
O’Shea: Any short wish list for other adaptations you might be open to doing?
Robinson: Nothing readily springs to mind, though I wouldn’t limit it to short stories. Sometimes when I’m stuck for a new book idea I’ll toy with adapting a classic myth or even Shakespeare or some other older material, but never pursued it too seriously. The fact that a publisher approached me with a specific plan in mind definitely helped get the ball rolling.
The fact that I’d never read this story or even heard of it prior to doing the adaptation might’ve helped me in this case since I wasn’t going in with any preconceived notions. Obviously if you’re trying to adapt “Hamlet” you have centuries’ worth of versions to compete with and be compared to.
O’Shea: What’s the next project for you–and what else is on the creative horizon for you?
Robinson: I have started a new book but I’m not really ready to go public on any of the details. I will say it’s shaping up to be very long, and I’d like to serialize it somehow so that people don’t have to wait six years for something new from me. Stay tuned!
O’Shea: In terms of potentially serializing your next project, would you like to do it in a webcomic and/or something for IPhones or Kindle–or is it too early to say what serialization platforms you’re considering?
Robinson: I think I’m still old school enough where my first thought is toward print but it does seem like we’re in the beginning of a digital revolution similar to the one that changed the music industry and it would be foolish to not keep that in mind. I’ve actually been toying with the idea of doing a separate comic specifically for a digital release, but at this point it would be more of side project and I would need to work with someone who understood all the technical stuff. I can’t even figure out photoshop and still do everything in pen and ink.