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Last year’s Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer by writer Van Jensen and artist Dusty Higgins saw the creative duo re-imagine the famous little wooden boy as a vampire-killing machine; each lie he told gave him one more weapon to use against the undead. As we’ve teased over the last few weeks, Pinocchio is coming back this October in the sequel to the hit graphic novel, and he’s bringing some friends.
Higgins and Jensen are the subject of a spotlight panel today at Comic-Con International in San Diego, but I caught up with them before the show to find out more about Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer and the Great Puppet Theater. Click below to also see 11 pages from the new book.
JK: We teased Pinocchio’s buddies in the new book on Robot 6 earlier this summer. What was the inspiration for this “team” of puppets who will be joining him in his battle?
Van: The new puppets continue what we tried to do with the first book: Remain faithful to Collodi’s original story while expanding it into our new story. The original has Pinocchio encounter The Great Puppet Theater, which turns out to be a traveling group of living puppets that perform theater. They refer to Pinocchio as their brother before eventually parting ways. It seemed like an obvious direction to explore, because these other puppets presumably would be able to kill vampires, just as Pinocchio does. And the big underlying question of this story is: Where did Pinocchio come from, and how is he connected to the vampires? So, again, it seemed natural that Pinocchio’s past would intertwine with the past of these puppets.
Also, it seemed really cool to have a big team of living, fighting puppets!
Dusty: Like Van said, we pulled the Great Puppet Theater from the original work. If I remember right, at one point we had discussed bringing the Great Puppet Theater into the first book, but as the narrative began to exceed what we could do in one book, they were bumped into the sequel. Harlequin and Punchinello are actually named in Collodi’s original Pinocchio, so we took those names, and with some research discovered they were characters in the Comedia dell’arte, which is this impromptu type of theater that originated in Italy. Most of the puppets are taken from the more well-known characters represented in the Comedia dell’arte.
JK: What visuals did you use as inspiration for the puppets?
Dusty: The puppets went through several revisions. As the puppets referred to Pinocchio as their brother I originally tried to make them look similar to Pinocchio, although as Van had to remind me, these puppets were not carved by Geppetto, they were carved by different hands, so their look should reflect the personality of the carver. Whereas Pinocchio is lovingly carved by Geppetto, these puppets would likely have been hastily carved by The Fire Eater so they could be put to work in the theater. Their outfits are my way of balancing the need to retain some aspect of the character upon which they are based while punching up their image to fit within this darker world we have developed for the story. These are no longer the actors we are familiar with, they too are slayers.
JK: And can you tell us how Pinocchio hooks up with them?
Van: The first part of the book is about the team uniting, so to speak. We won’t reveal exactly how it happens, but it stems from these puppets seeing the vampire threat and realizing they can do more damage together than apart.
JK: Dusty, you mentioned the Comedia dell’arte. Can you guys walk me through the thought process you each took as you created the new characters — both from a writing standpoint, Van, and artistically, Dusty? And how are the similar and different from their Comedia dell’arte counterparts?
Van: Once we decided on adding the puppets and Dusty came up with the idea of using the Commedia del’arte characters, I got really excited. The real undercurrent of this series is identity, and the puppets offered a neat way of exploring that. As we conceived it, these puppets, like Pinocchio, are made from this mysterious, possibly magical sentient wood. Whereas Pinocchio’s identity was shaped in large part by Geppetto, the other puppets were made to perform theater. So their identities were conformed to the roles they played. From there, it was just a matter of having fun with the notion of living puppets who carried their characters over from theater to everyday life.
As far as similarities and differences, that’s tough to answer just because the Commedia characters were so constantly evolving. Each character had a lot of iterations. We talked it through and settled on interpretations that fit our story the best.
Dusty: We had always thought of The Great Puppet Theater puppets as related to Pinocchio. Even in the original story these puppets call Pinocchio their brother. In their original design I made the connection a little too obvious. In fact the only remnant of that first design is the shape of Harlequin’s head, which I kept similar to Pinocchio’s. Harlequin was the puppet who initially recognized Pinocchio in the crowd and called his “brother” onto the stage. I believe it was Van who suggested I also make the puppets taller than Pinocchio, which I think helps differentiate the maturity of the puppets. Whereas Pinocchio was supposed to represent a boy, these puppets were representing what would have been adult actors/characters. I also wanted the characters to be, for the most part, stock type puppets. The idea that their carver wasn’t so much an artist, as someone trying to finish the job so these puppets could be put to work. They all pretty much have the same body shape; many of the puppets have similarly shaped heads. Most of the puppets individuality comes from their faces and costume.
JK: Getting into specifics, let’s start with Flavio and Isabella.
Van: Flavio and Isabella are two of my favorite characters in the book. They’re the pair of lovers that are held apart until the end. In our story, Flavio is constantly vying for Isabella’s attention, and she’s constantly rebuffing him. They ended up being a great source of humor even in some of the heavier moments.
Dusty: Flavio and Isabella were the two characters that went through the most revisions, but they’re modeled after the Inamorati, or two lovers, and their characters weren’t as image-specific as characters like Harlequin or Punchinello. I had originally designed Isabella to be more of a romantic gypsy looking puppet, with Flavio more of a roguish peasant, with a face also closely resembling Pinocchio’s. When we were discussing changes to the puppets Van talked more about his ideas for the characters and how he thought of them as more aristocratic and fancy looking. Fun fact: I originally used Isabella’s head for Columbina’s character. Their weapons are two of my favorites, Flavio boasts a wooden rapier, and Isabella uses the pointy end of her parasol.
JK: And Il Capitano?
Van: Il Capitano is supposed to be the arrogant military/political figure, and we stayed as true as possible to that characterization. He’s the kind of puppet who’ll notch his belt for every vampire he’s killed.
Dusty: I knew I wanted a toy soldier look for Il Capitano, so his character design came down to, do I want a stripe here, a shoulder thing there, how tall should the hat be… Answer, not too tall, it’s hard to fight vampires if your hat is longer than your face. Like many of the characters, he went through a few small revisions from the first design to the final design, but for the most part his character remained the same. I also added a sash with several medals on it. Hopefully nobody will notice (except now I’m going to tell everyone) but while drawing I could never remember how many medals I put on his sash, and I was working too quickly to look back and check, so I just kind of guessed every time I drew him. I have no doubt that the number of medals on the sash goes up and down throughout the story. Honestly though, I doubt many people will be paying that close attention. For stabbing vampires, Il Capitano uses the bayonet attached to the end of his wooden rifle.
Van: Harlequin is probably the character that has had the most interpretations. We used the comic servant iteration as our inspiration. He’s a very fun, carefree puppet who will crack a joke or two in the heat of battle.
Dusty: Harlequin is easily my favorite character of the puppets. He was the one character who’s design, much like Pinocchio, came to me immediately, without really thinking about it. It was just there, and I knew I couldn’t change it. The Harlequin of the Commedia dell’arte commonly had a clown-like costume with a multi-colored diamond-shaped pattern, or just a bunch of random diamond-shaped patches. I felt like the clown-costume would be a bit out of place for this story It felt wrong for this incarnation of the character, which is why I opted for the diamond-patterned vest. Here we’ve got a very dark story, and we’ve got a clown puppet in the middle of it. It might’ve worked for some people, but it wasn’t working for me, and I was going to have to draw this character for months… maybe years. I had to be happy with the design. I was also looking to give him some resemblance to Pinocchio, which is why he wears a very similar costume. We gave Harlequin a simple knife to stab vampires.
Van: Columbina is sort of the female version of Harlequin, and they traditionally have a romantic interest in each other, which we continued. But she’s a little more serious and is the true leader of the Great Puppet Theater.
Dusty: Much like Isabella ended up being stuck with what was originally Columbina’s head, Columbina ended up looking a lot more like my original version of Isabella. As a servant I originally had Columbina in a French maid type outfit. I didn’t really like Isabella’s old head on the maid body, so I ended up just using that entire gypsy theme, toned down a little bit to look less exotic and more like a servant’s costume. Like her servant partner, Harlequin, Columbina uses a small knife to impale vampires.
JK: And finally, Punchinello.
Van: Punchinello is the mysterious, silent one out of the troupe. In our version, his personality has become much darker following the initial vampire attack on the Great Puppet Theater. And, of course, the characteristic long nose is present in our version (though it doesn’t have the same properties as Pinocchio’s).
Dusty: Punchinello was also a fun character to work with, perhaps my favorite after Harlequin (and coincidentally, Harlequin and Punchinello were the two puppets on stage when Pinocchio enters the Puppet Theater in Collodi’s story). Punchinello had a pretty standard costume, a white peasant’s costume. He also had a long nose, usually attached to a black mask. When Van saw the first image of the puppet with the mask, he commented about the character looking like he was trying too hard to be a super hero… and that was the end of the mask. I kept the nose though, I really like that as a defining character trait, and you know, it may not grow every time he lies, but it’s long, pointy, and made of wood. Still he doesn’t have to use to use the nose to kill vampires, Punchinello also carries a cane with him, which is actually borrowed from a puppet that didn’t make the final cut.
JK: Did you anticipate the sort of success you’ve had with the first book?
Van: It’s pretty surreal. I remember sitting at the hotel bar one night at Heroes Con, and this girl walked in wearing a Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer T-shirt. I thought, OK, maybe this comics thing is going to work out. More than anything, it’s just great to see people enjoy something I helped create.
As great as that has been, I still have a long way to go as a writer. I’m still holding down a day job as a magazine editor. I have four finished scripts that, fingers crossed, someone will want to publish. I’m not doing any work for hire yet (yes, I’d love to). Having this one book come out has made me realize just how challenging it is to forge a career in comics. But I’m definitely going to work as hard as I can to try to make it happen.
JK: You mentioned in your Shelf Porn write-up, Van, that you’re working on volume three. Any hints or teases you can tell us about it?
Van: When I was in the middle of scripting the first book I got caught up on the question of Pinocchio’s past. In the Collodi story, he starts out as a sentient block of wood that’s made into a puppet (not a puppet magically brought to life). I wondered, where’d this sentient block of wood come from? I pieced together an underlying mythos, and the third book is going to see the resolution of that mythology and the answer to Pinocchio’s question: Who am I?
Beyond that, our goal with this trilogy has been to up the ante both with the narrative and our own creativity in each book. The sequel has a much larger scope, crazier settings and is a little stranger than the first. And, with the third book, we’re saying: OK, now how can we set the bar even higher?