There’s no arguing otherwise — Paul Dini is one of the most successful animation writers in the industry.
A veteran of Warner Bros. Animation, Dini’s work dates back to the late ’80s and early ’90s when he worked on the Steven Spielberg-produced “Tiny Toon Adventures,” before he moved on to the legendary , Emmy Award-wining “Batman: The Animated Series,” for which he helped reinvent several classic Batman villains and created the iconic Harley Quinn.
Apart from animation, Dini has a storied career in comics as well. In addition to working on Batman, Dini created the enduring and lovable Holiday character Jingle Belle, the bratty daughter of Santa Claus.
CBR had the opportunity to speak with Dini about his brand-new collection of “Jingle Belle” stories from IDW Publishing, and in the process delved into the origins of his reinvention of Mr. Freeze for “Batman: The Animated Series,” and much, much more.
CBR: How did you come up with Jingle Belle?
Paul Dini: One Christmas in the mid-nineties, while I was working on shows like “Tiny Toons” and “Freakazoid!,” I got a nice holiday card from our executive producer Steven Spielberg and his family. It was a photo of Steven and Kate Capshaw and all their kids, and that got me thinking, Steven is a movie magician to kids around the world, but what’s it like when he’s just Dad hanging around the house? I started playing around with the idea of how sons and daughters would relate to a famous father, and because it was the holidays, my brain did a jump to Santa Claus. In classic Christmas stories Santa’s not known for having kids of his own, but what if he did? And what if that kid had sibling rivalry with every other kid in the world for their dad’s affections? And what if that kid happened to be a teen-age girl going through a rebellious streak? I started writing down some gags and story ideas, then sketched up Jingle’s rough design which was refined and perfected by animation designer/creator Lynne Naylor. I didn’t have any specific plans for Jingle at that point; sometimes I’ll get an idea for a character and work with designers to come up with a model long before that character ever sees print. Around 1998 I had the chance to do some comics with Oni Press and Jingle Belle was one of the ideas Jamie Rich and Joe Nozemack let me try out, with Stephen DiStefano doing brilliantly funny artwork. A lot of readers, especially those who liked funny characters like Harley Quinn, also liked Jing, so since then I try to bring her back every couple of years and find something new and fun for her to do.
How did IDW’s collection come about?
I had been hoping to gather the early Jingle stories into a collection and, given IDW’s great track record with humor books, I thought Jingle Belle might be a good fit. Fortunately IDW’s Chief Creative Officer Chris Ryall agreed with me. He got the book okayed and we were off to the reindeer games.
Why do you think you’re so successful writing female characters?
If I’m able to do it all, it’s because I’ve been lucky to know some very funny, very interesting women. My mother, my sister Jane, a number of friends I grew up with and now my wife, Misty Lee, all have very strong personalities and great senses of humor. I write based on what I’ve learned from them and from other people. Nothing beats real life for inspiration.
How do you approach a story differently as a comic versus animation, and do you prefer one medium?
Writing animation, you have the luxury of being able to show the lead up, follow through and result of specific action. Writing comics, you have to go for the single image that conveys exactly what you’re trying to tell in the panel. When I started out, I quickly learned you couldn’t indicate too much happening in the panel, which often ends up with a lot of dialogue fighting with the action for the reader’s attention. As a writer you have to go for the moment of impact, whether that is a fist to the face or a pointed bit of dialogue. As to which I prefer, it’s a hard call. I find there’s usually more freedom in terms of subject matter and tone in comics than animation. You can explore interesting ideas and let the characters breathe a little more when you don’t have to worry about that 11 or 22 minute time limit. The rules of animation, especially in terms of content, are more rigid. With the exception of direct to video features, most superhero cartoons are looked upon primarily as entertainment for kids. The action is more fantastic than violent and the characterizations are generally less complex. But when it all works, when you’ve got great animation, voices and music, the end result can be wonderful. So, it’s a trade-off.
Do you put a lot of research into everything you write?
Yes. I try to learn as much as I can about whatever I’m writing about, even if I ultimately use very little information, or wind up completely changing things. I like having a credible jumping off point before I veer into fiction.
Is there any Batman story — other than “Dark Night: A True Batman Story” — that adapts a personal experience you’ve had?
There are little bits of life experience that have appeared in the animation stories over the years. I gave Bruce Timm an aluminum tree color wheel one year for Christmas and that worked its way into a “Justice League” episode. I used the memory of some spectacularly bad dating choices as the basis for a Batman Beyond story. One incident that stands out happened while I was writing the “Mad As A Hatter” episode of “Batman: The Animated Series.” I wanted the Wonderland amusement park the Hatter uses for his hideout to closely resemble a park called Children’s Fairyland that I went to frequently while I was a kid growing up near Oakland. I went to the park to take pictures of the Wonderland area for our artists to use as reference, and was promptly ejected for being an adult with a camera and without a child. It was surreal — for most of my grade school years I was going there at least twice a month for friends’ birthday parties, only to be booted out of the Queen of Hearts card maze 25 years later. Luckily I had my Warner Bros. ID with me and after I explained what I wanted, I was allowed back in. Not only that, they gave me an annual pass. Ironically, it was in my wallet the night I was mugged, so that does tie in to “Dark Night.”
How did Heart of Ice and redefining Mr. Freeze come about?
Early in the Batman series development, Bruce and I agreed that while we liked his cold gimmick, Mr. Freeze was otherwise a rather nondescript character. So we played around with the idea that losing his wife had made him dead to emotion. I think we may have thrown some of Vincent Price’s Dr. Phibes in there as well, especially in Freeze’s determination to revive his wife. After we did the inital development on Freeze, I left Warners for a while to work on a movie. Alan Burnett came on to supervise the writing, and he asked if I would write some freelance scripts. The first one I wrote was “Heart of Ice,” as no one had touched Freeze since we had done the early development on him. In writing the story, I thought if Freeze claimed to be dead to emotion, then the last scene should be him breaking down. I worked backward from that idea, setting up the conflict that would get him to that point. I think that was the first episode Bruce directed himself and he knocked it out of the park. Everything came together in that episode, the storyboard, the design, the music, and of course Michael Ansara’s great voice. The only bad thing about reinventing Freeze along those lines was that it made it hard to come up with other stories about him. He’s not compelled to cause mayhem like the Joker, or to steal valuables like Catwoman. Those characters are easier to write because their motivations are cleaner. Like Man-Bat, Mr. Freeze is more of a victim than a villain – there’s nothing they want beyond being normal. Still, I’d rather do one or two good Mr. Freeze or Man-Bat stories than lose what was special about them by overexposing them.
What was your reaction to Batman & Robin’s take on the character shortly thereafter?
I thought they were trying to both honor the cartoon and recapture the fun of the original Adam West series, but were not entirely successful. I also sensed that the filmmakers were pulled in a bunch of different directions to satisfy many different needs. It’s hard to make any film when you work under those constraints.
Have you been approached about the Harley Quinn solo movie?
No. I’ve never met any of the people currently connected to the DC movies.
Any plans to work on the new Spider-Man animated series?
Probably not. I am working on a bunch of new cartoons and some interesting live projects, but I can’t talk about them right now. Next year, though.
“Jingle Belle: The Whole Package” from IDW Publishing is on sale now.
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