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The Puppet Masters: An Interview with Van Jensen and Dusty Higgins

You only think you know the legend of Pinocchio. His story wasn’t that sweet, and that was before the vampires came to town and killed Gepetto. What’s a poor wooden boy to do? Start lying like crazy so his nose grows and pierces their hearts. He’s a natural-born vampire killer, and he’s got the scars to prove it.

The ongoing adventures of Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer come to us courtesy of writer Van Jensen and artist Dusty Higgins, who launched the idea. The book was recently named to the American Library Association’s list of Great Graphic Novels for Teens and it’s catching on strong with new readers. We caught up with Jensen and Higgins to discuss how it all came together.
Congratulations on your recent naming to ALA’s list of Great Graphic Novels for Teens. Were you surprised to see this happen?
Higgins: Surprised doesn’t seem like the right word. There’s an implication there that we didn’t think it was a good story and we’re surprised someone else did. I am happy and honored that the folks at the Young Adult Library Services Association enjoyed it enough to put it on the list. And yeah, I was surprised.

Jensen: I didn’t even know we’d been nominated when I stumbled onto the news on a comics blog, and at first I figured it was a mistake. The other books on that list are really phenomenal. To be listed among them is an amazing honor. And, as the grandson of a librarian, it makes it that much more special to be recognized by the ALA.
Dusty, the book was your idea?
Higgins: I think when most people think about it, the idea is pretty obvious. It began as a throwaway warm-up sketch that kept nagging at me, developed into more sketches, and perhaps went a little too far. Then I got Van involved, and it went even further than that. As we kicked ideas back and forth, the story just kept getting bigger and bigger.
It must have been a lot of fun to put this story together. Did people take it seriously when you pitched the idea to them?
Jensen: When Dusty first approached me about doing the book, I didn’t even take it seriously. The idea of Pinocchio killing vampires is super clever, but it’s easy to write it off as nothing more than a joke. The challenge that Dusty and I gave ourselves was to take that little joke and turn it into a fully realized story. That was a fun process, largely because, as we went back to Carlo Collodi’s original story, we understood how rich those characters are and how much more potential remained for them.

We really only pitched the story to SLG, but I did show our 10-page preview to a few other comics people, and they all got a kick out of it. I think we also got it across that the book was more than just a goofy romp, so it wasn’t hard to convince people.
Higgins: I think most people were skeptical. They laughed at the name and figured it wasn’t much good beyond that one joke. The biggest hurdle was getting people to realize that not only did we have an idea for a 128-page story, but we had an idea for a trilogy. That includes our publisher. But once they started reading the story, I think, with a few exceptions, we convinced most people.
The original story of Pinocchio is fairly dark and twisted, making it fit right in with a vampire story. When did you first read the original version of the tale?
Higgins: It was early in the process, probably around the time I approached Van about the story and we started filling out the plot. We knew we wanted to pull more from the original story, and since before that I had only been familiar with the Disney version, I was surprised at how much darker the original story is.

Jensen: I had read it as a kid but forgot most of it. I went back to it after Dusty asked me to do the project, and it was really revelatory. Collodi’s version is darker, yes, but it also has better characters, more humor, and more poignancy than the Disney version, which sadly has become what everyone knows.
Are most people you encounter surprised to discover that the original story of Pinocchio is not as sweet and light as they had thought?
Higgins: Yeah. Two of my favorite examples are the cricket’s death, and Pinocchio’s almost-death by hanging.

Jensen: That’s pretty much the standard response. The original and the Disney film are extremely dissimilar, but the cartoon is so ingrained culturally. We had actually finished the book when we decided to create the little recap of the original story. If we hadn’t, I think most readers would’ve been scratching their heads to the references of Pinocchio being hanged, the cricket being killed by Pinocchio, and so much else.
So far, what has the reaction to the book been?
Jensen: It’s been incredible. I think that clever premise helped, as when news of the book first got out, it spread like crazy around the Internet. But what’s been the most rewarding is how, after people actually read the book, the vast majority seem to like it quite a lot. And what most reviewers and fans have said is that the book surprised them in that it’s a lot more than just what the premise implies.

Higgins: Good, better than I anticipated. I mean, obviously I think the story’s cool and all, but I understand this is an indie graphic novel, and Van and I are first-time writers/artists, so I kept my hopes down. But we’ve had a really good response to the story.
How did you two meet and start working together?
Jensen: We were working at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette together, where I was a crime reporter and part-time comics critic and Dusty was (and still is) an illustrator. Our first contact actually was that my wife hired Dusty to do a comics commission for me for a birthday present. After that, we discovered our mutual interest in comics, and before long we were tossing around ideas.
Higgins: There being a handful of people working there under 30, eventually we started talking comics stuff. After Van left the paper and moved to Georgia, I got the idea for Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer and, knowing he was interested in writing, gave him a call.

What are some of your favorite graphic novels? Whose work has inspired you?
Jensen: I started working for Top Shelf in large part because I’m a fan of their books, with my favorites being Superspy, Owly, and The Surrogates. Other creators I deeply respect include Joshua Cotter, Ed Brubaker, Brian K. Vaughan, G. Willow Wilson, Mike Mignola, and Rutu Modan. I read a ton of comics, and I learn from all of them. But I can’t really say that any particular creator or book has had a singular impact on my writing.
Higgins: John Buscema, Alfredo Alcala, Mike Mignola, Charlie Adlard, and Ben Cleveland for artists. As for graphic novels, I don’t even know where to begin, so here’s a sample of stuff I read: Scott Pilgrim, almost anything with Conan in it, Northlanders, Buffy and Angel (I should note, because I know somebody is going to say it, that the only thing by Joss Whedon I had seen before Van and I started work on the book was Firefly and Serenity), The Walking Dead, Fables, World of Warcraft, and Chumble Spuzz. If you’re wondering why there isn’t more indie stuff on that list, it’s because my local comic book store doesn’t sell a lot of indie stuff.
What’s next for Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer? Do you see it as an ongoing or a finite series?
Jensen: Part way through scripting the first book, I came up with an idea for a larger mythology and roughly plotted out a three-book series. The script for the second one is finished and Dustin is cranking out some incredible artwork. It should be out in fall 2010. What we’re exploring is the question of Pinocchio’s identity, which is one of those things that is much more interesting in the original story. I can’t say for certain how many books it will take to fully explore that question, but we definitely have an end in sight.

Higgins: Right now we just have plans for a trilogy. If at some point Van or I think of a story we believe is worth telling beyond that, I’ll get back to you.


-- John Hogan