Last year, around this time, a Christmas comic caught my eye: Scrooge and Santa, by Matthew Wilson and Josh Kenfield. I liked it a lot—it mashes up a lot of Christmas traditions but still has a fairly original story, and the kinetic art made me think of an animated cartoon. So this year, I fired off some questions for Wilson and Kenfield about their story—which is back in comics stores this week, just in time for Christmas.
Robot 6: What was your favorite Christmas special (or movie or book) when you were a kid? (I see a lot of shout-outs to It's a Wonderful Life—was that one of your favorites?)
Matt: Definitely It's a Wonderful Life! It's not only my favorite Christmas movie, but one of my favorite movies of all time. I love the honesty. It's known as a feel-good movie, but people forget how dark it is. George Bailey spends most of the movie frustrated and angry. His life is so hard and difficult that he's ready to kill himself. But in the end, when all his family and friends show him the impact a lifetime of doing the right thing has made, that joy is real and the feel-good moment is earned. That's something I hoped to do with Scrooge and Santa, give everyone a feel-good Christmas moment without cheating and manipulating emotions.
Josh: My long time favorite Christmas movie is a balance between 1985's Santa Claus: The Movie (at least the first half) and Ernest Saves Christmas. Favorite Christmas TV special is definitely A Muppet Family Christmas (1987). Favorite book is a fight between Clement C. Moore's The Night Before Christmas (illustrated by Douglas Gorsline) and E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker (illustrated by Maurice Sendak). As for the visual references in the book, I came up with them as I was drawing out the comic, looking for any spot where I could squeeze them in without too much distraction.
Robot 6: I have seen a lot of Christmas mashups, but never Scrooge and Santa before. How did you come up with this odd pairing?
Matt: It started with the title. I was watching Christmas movies at home with my family, and thinking that as much as I love them, they're all the same. They're either one of the classics (It's a Wonderful Life, Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th St, etc.) or an imitation of one of the classics. I started exploring Christmas ideas that would be new, but would still fit in the same world of Christmas folklore we know and love. So I thought about new stories for George Bailey, or Scrooge, or Santa. And then one day I found myself writing down the title - "Scrooge and Santa." And then the creative juices started flowing. The guy who hates Christmas and the guy who is Christmas. What if they had to team up? Conflict galore! Robot 6: How did you deal with the challenge of writing a fresh story about such iconic characters?
Matt: I always had "What if?" ideas about all my favorite Christmas stories. What if George Bailey got what he wanted and became rich? What if Scrooge lost all he had and became poor? What if Santa discovered nice children could become naughty adults? In most Christmas stories, they take iconic Christmas characters and put them in the exact same circumstances we've always seen them. I wanted to put them in new circumstances and explore how these character choices we're used to seeing (right over wrong, people over money) would be affected by new challenges.
I also wanted to challenge the expectation people normally have with a Scrooge story, and make them wonder if Scrooge might actually be right. This is why I took so much time early in the story to have Scrooge rebuke the ghosts and prove to them (and us) that it's better to have money. It's as if Scrooge, like all of us, has heard the Christmas Carol story many times before and is not convinced. I think we all can recognize that even though we smile and nod when we read A Christmas Carol, that is not how we actually live. Something deep within us is unwilling to let go and be unselfish, particularly when it comes to money. But also deep within us is a belief that unselfishness is the right thing to do. Scrooge's journey in this story is an exploration of that conflict.
Robot 6: Santa is usually a pure good guy in Christmas specials, but yours has a bit of a dark side—he doesn't just bring presents to the good girls and boys, he tells some adults why he didn’t bring them presents when they were kids. Why did you go there?
Matt: Even though the story is a fantasy, I still wanted it to be "true." "True," meaning it feels true to life and the way of the world, so that we're experiencing something more meaningful than snow and Christmas lights. Santa is normally pure good, but that's because he lives in the North Pole making toys with happy elves and doesn't see the real world. If he were to go out there, he would find many of the nice children he knew were now naughty adults. Some of the saddest people in the world are those whose children have done wrong and disappointed them. Santa experiences this, and it hurts. But what gives him hope in the end is the change in Scrooge, because the reality is that while people can change for the worse, they can also change for the better. Robot 6: Similarly, Tim Cratchit is not physically disabled but he is a holy terror—you imply it's because of some undiagnosed condition. Why did you decide to change that? Matt: I wanted Tim to be worse because of how it would affect Bonnie. If he's just a cute sick kid we think "The poor child!" But if he's a crazy bad kid we think "The poor mother!" Bonnie is often overlooked but in my mind she's the strongest. She has the worst circumstances. The worst boss and the worst child. And yet she sucks it up and smiles, repaying hate and abuse with love and kindness. And this does not come from naivety. Unlike Santa, she understands the harsh reality of the world, but she has a joy that the toughest circumstances of life can't defeat. It is the power of her joy that ultimately inspires Scrooge to change his ways.
Robot 6: I particularly like look of the Ghost of Christmas Present. What was the inspiration for that character design?
Josh: That was a tough one to figure out. He went through dozens of variations. The Ghost wears a present day suit to show that he's "current" but his head and hands float separately to show that he's not part of the clothes. The head shape was the result of an evolution of heads, inspired by a burning flame and a cornucopia, which the Ghost bears in the original Christmas Carol. Robot 6: This is a very kinetic book—Scrooge in particular is always zooming around in some crazy device. How do you figure out the action sequences?
Josh: I took what Matt had written and tried to sum up the action steps visually, adding my own twists whenever I could.
Matt: Josh is not giving himself enough credit here so I am going to elaborate. I had no experience in comics. I knew animation and film, so I came up with the wildest toys and action sequences I could think of for Scrooge, keeping in mind that he is an overgrown child who never learned to share. It was on Josh to make it all read visually as a series of panels. Josh knew comics well, so I entrusted all the layout decisions to him. Now that I've become more versed in the comics world, I realize how much extra work I made for Josh by writing so much action. But I think we ended up with some pretty great sequences because I didn't know I wasn't supposed to do that. Robot 6: Scrooge and Santa came out a year ago. Who do you think is buying it, and how do you market it?
Matt: For the last year, it's only been available on Amazon and at conventions. Due to some distribution complications, it did not ship to stores in time for Christmas last year. And since it's a seasonal book, we had to wait till this year to put it out again. But now it's in stores, and I hope people react the same as what we've seen at the conventions. People start smiling as soon as they see the cover image, and when I pitch them the story they smile a little more. My favorite convention moment was when I was telling a few 10ish year old boys about the book, and then they came back later with their dads, wanting them to buy it. But the dads weren't convinced so they said they'd keep looking. Every hour or so the boys would bring their dads back and ask them again to buy it. The third time, they finally caved and each bought a copy. That meant a lot to me, to know that these kids, after seeing the art and hearing the story, wanted the book so bad that they hounded their parents till they had it.
I think the best marketing is word of mouth. People read it, like, and tell their friends. I'd much rather have a long slow process where buzz for the book is built honestly than make a splash with slick marketing and trick people into buying a book they won't like.
We tried Internet marketing last year, where we posted banner ads pointing people to the book's website but that didn't help sales. Whereas at the conventions, where people are there because they want to buy new comics, we almost always sold out. I hope the same thing happens in the stores, that comics fans, young and old, who are searching for a new story (especially a new Christmas story) find our book and like it. Robot 6: What are your plans for the future? Will there be a digital version?
Matt: We're working on putting a movie together. A producer optioned it and I wrote the script. They're starting the process of looking at directors, cast, budget, etc. It could take years, or it could happen tomorrow. The movie development process is so chaotic that it's a miracle any movie gets made, let alone a good one. I'm hopeful, though. I think it could be a great movie.
I believe converting the book to digital is on Arcana's "to do" list. They have a lot of books to do that for, though, so it may take awhile.