Robinson & Signorelli on HarperCollins' Christmas Comics

In November, three indie comic creators present their takes on classic Christmas fables in pocket-sized graphic novels from It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. Joel Priddy adapts O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi," Alex Robinson reinterprets L. Frank Baum's "A Kidnapped Santa Claus," and Lilli Carre offers up a charming new version of "The Fir-Tree" by Hans Christian Anderson. CBR News spoke with It Books editor Michael Signorelli about the series and with Alex Robinson about his contribution.

The three Christmas titles were chosen for their suitability for adaptation to comics as well as their familiar stories or authors. The classic tales are also all in the public domain and, editor Michael Signorelli said, "most importantly to the identity of the series, they possess a degree of literary quality." Signorelli had originally found five Christmas stories that would have been suitable for It Books based on these criteria, and the three published titles were chosen by the artists from this list. "Alex, Joel, and Lilli were the first three artists I contacted directly. They were all game," Signorelli said. "I gave them each their pick of one of the five stories, and, amazingly, they each chose a different one. Thank god."

Alex Robinson, who adapted "Wizard of Oz" author L. Frank Baum's "A Kidnapped Santa Claus," said that the timing was right for his first foray into children's graphic novels. "I was between engagements, as they say, and it sounded like a very intriguing project," Robinson explained. "I'd never adapted someone else's story before, let alone a children's story, or worked with a major publisher, so it sounded too challenging to pass up.

"When I heard that the Baum book involved drawing demons kidnapping Santa Claus, I was sold."

"A Kidnapped Santa Claus" is sort of an odd Christmas tale, with several races of elves and fairies serving as Santa's helpers, rather than the more generic team of elves with which most readers will be familiar. Then there are those demons Robinson mentioned, or, more specifically a few representatives of the Seven Deadly sins.

Beyond that, there were other aspects of Baum's original story that Robinson found appealing. "Of the stories they were interested in featuring, ['A Kidnapped Santa Claus'] was among the most plot focused. And, since the original Baum version is somewhat bare bones - it's mostly descriptions of actions, and he doesn't go too much into the characters - I was free to sort of fill in a lot of details about the characters and give them personalities," Robinson told CBR.

"I tried to keep as much of the plot and theme intact, though I did wind up changing the end a bit to make it a bit more dramatic. I also think kids are a bit more sophisticated than they probably were in Baum's day. I don't mean in terms of bad language or anything - there's none of that - but in terms of storytelling and drama. The audience I had in mind was about ten years old, though I tried to be like the old Warner Brothers cartoons and include some jokes or references that adults would get."

Baum is, of course, best known for writing "The Wizard of Oz," though Robinson said he does not see many similarities between that well-known tale and the one he's adapting. "I've never read the original Oz books, but I've seen the movie, of course, and for most people that is the 'Wizard of Oz.' I think I tried to keep the sense of hope and optimism. Now that you mention it, I think I might have had Dorothy in the back of my mind when I fleshed out the character of Wisk," Robinson said. "In Baum's original, Wisk is a boy and [Baum] doesn't give many details, but I made Wisk a girl, and she has that sort of brave can-do spirit."

Other bits of character work involved finding a voice for Saint Nick, a jolly old soul familiar from childhood, yet somehow elusive. "Santa Claus is kind of tricky to write because he's kind of a one-dimensional character," Robinson said. "It's hard to imagine him being angry or scared or petty, all those human qualities. I think people, especially kids, want to see Santa the way they want to see their parents - kind, in control, etc.

"Since I felt like I didn't have a lot of room with Santa, I beefed up the roles of his helpers, who are pretty much only given names and very basic descriptions in the original story," Robinson continued. "Since Santa pretty much stays cool as a cucumber in the story - in my version and the original - it was really up to the supporting cast to pump up the drama. At first I thought that, because I was sort of renting someone else's characters, I would sort of maintain a distance, creatively, but I wound up enjoying writing them and liked them as much as I did any of the characters I created from whole cloth. It's kind of funny, since they're all pretty cartoony in terms of their personality - Nuter is grumpy, Kilter is a straight shooter Jimmy Stewart-type, and Wisk is kind of a noble worrier - but maybe because of that naivete I really warmed up to them."

For Robinson, an artist best known for his creator-owned books such as "Box Office Poison" and "Too Cool to be Forgotton," the opportunity to "rent someone else's characters" provided a new creative experience. "It was very different than the stories I've done in the past. In my other books, I more or less had total control, but since this was a case of HarperCollins coming to me with a specific goal in mind, I knew I had a certain set of parameters to work with," Robinson said. "I also scripted the entire story out ahead of time, something I'd never done before, since I normally work very loosely and improvise. I knew I had some room to come up with my own bits, but also had to stick to the original story, more or less, and keep it under a certain number of pages. My first book, 'Box Office Poison,' was over 600 pages, so I can go on a bit if given free rein!"

It Books editor Signorelli praised Robinson's innovations, and said that the other adaptations also enhanced different aspects of the original stories. "In 'A Kidnapped Santa Claus,' the battle of goodies versus baddies has been lightly spoofed and a comedic element pervades the whole," Signorelli said of Robinson's take on Baum's story. "Without having been filtered through Alex's sensibility, the original story would seem as dusty and dated as those 1960s Christmas specials (beloved though they are). In 'The Gift of the Magi,' Joel [Priddy] does a remarkable job filling out the physical and emotional lives of the young couple. The details of their home, their clothing, their physical appearance are captured and magnified. The range and development of their emotions are also given full play; and in moments of the most delicate confusion, the reader is allowed to dwell on their expressions. Lastly, but not leastly, 'The Fir-Tree' overlays a bright aesthetic over the rather weighty words of Hans Christian Andersen. Objects are given new arrangement and new life. The anthropomorphization of the fir-tree is so well done. It lives up to its billing as the star of the story.

"That's a long way to say that each story has been gifted a new, human life to reinterpret it."

Though the books are clearly related by design and theme, each has a very different overall style - Alex Robinson's is the closest to what we normally think of as comic book storytelling, while Lilli Carre's is more akin to an illustrated book, and each title makes distinct use of color, as well. "I think we cover a lot of ground aesthetically between the three adaptations. The differing styles complement one another because they don't step on each other's toes; they're not trying to do the same things," Signorelli said.

"Readers who don't typically read comics and graphic novels, I hope, will come to these because of the familiar, original authors; the attractive package; and for the fact that these are nice gifts."

It Books is a very new imprint within HarperCollins, having formed in early 2009, and is focused primarily on pop culture, style, sports, and Internet-sourced titles. Given this and the early appearance of comics on the list, CBR asked Signorelli how graphic novels fit in with the It Books mandate. "Graphic novels were part of the imprint's conception, but not its main focus. Graphic novels fit on the It Books list because they represent a medium of growing popularity and exposure," Signorelli said. "I do think it will be difficult to find one-off, no-holiday-tie-in projects for the list, but these three represent a good, first foray into the genre. Of course, having a holiday tie-in or some other promotional hook makes things easier. But we don't plan to be limited by marketing potentials and will make commitments to great books - graphic novel or not."

Similarly, while HarperCollins has produced graphic novels and comics-related books, including Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics," this major publishing house has only rarely offered new graphic novels. This would suggest that, though equipped with an effective publishing apparatus, there may have been some challenges associated with seeing It Books' three holiday titles through the editing and production process. "My experience advocating for these books in-house was a good one," Signorelli said. 'They're different. They're the only graphic novels on the list. They require a different approach from sales, marketing, and publicity. A non-traditional approach requires extra thought, so people in-house chewed on these a little longer than, say, a second novel, which requires a rather rote effort from our teams.

"For me, these books differed most in the production of the physical objects, obviously. Prior to them, I had limited to no experience working on graphic novels. Confirming specs, preferred file types, etc, was new for me. Learning how much I could ask of each artist, how much time I could give them (or not give them), etc, was all new to me."

Robinson, who had also indicated that this assignment allowed for a lot of new techniques, said of his "A Kidnapped Santa Claus, "I'm hoping the book will do well enough where I can do a sequel!"

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