Talking Comics with Tim | Van Jensen

It was bound to happen at some point and today's the day:  I interview a talented creator who frequents the same comic shop I do. As Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer and the The Great Puppet Theater writer Van Jensen and I realized several months or so, he and I both shop at Book Nook (located in Decatur, Georgia). Jensen was kind enough to do an email interview regarding the December 2 release of the second volume in the Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer universe. As regular readers are well aware, we are big Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer fans here at Robot 6. Back in late October, we offered an exclusive sneak preview of the book, which we invite you to peruse after reading the interview.

Tim O'Shea: I think it's safe to say that the latest volume of Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer is being released later than you would have hoped. I mainly ask, because unlike most delayed book situations where the delay results from creators missing deadlines, that's not the case here. Care to explain some of what delayed the book?

Van Jensen: The very short answer is overseas printing. The costs for printing are such that it's cheaper to have a book printed in Asia and then shipped via the Pacific. That distance lends itself to delays arising. Both of the Pinocchio books, for instance, were in cargo containers that got held up in customs.

I know it's frustrating to fans, though. And it's frustrating to Dusty and me. We're both newspaper guys, and that job drills the importance of deadlines into your head. You get your work done, and it's in print the next morning, every morning. I really pride myself on turning work in early. So with the book being late, I feel like it's breaking a promise to the fans, and I feel awful about it.

O'Shea: You built up a hell of a new cast for this latest volume, who proved the most challenging to bring to life?

Jensen: That was by far the most characters I've juggled at one time. I think there's a scene with 10 characters, plus a horde of vampires. But the new puppets came through fairly easily, because we came up with the concept that their sense of identity would've evolved from spending their whole lives performing theater. So each character in our book aligns with an archetypal Commedia del'Arte character as sort of a simulacrum.

It also really helped that Dusty had already come up with designs for the characters, which gave me a sense of their personalities. I guess the most challenging part was to create enough distinction between Flavio and Capitano, who are both brash, lovesick egomaniacs.

O'Shea: How much fun did you have hosting the recent Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer's PVS 2 Contest?

Jensen: It's always great getting fans involved. This one was especially nice, though, because we got to see our work inspire the creativity of others. Some of the puppet designs people sent in were amazing.

O'Shea: Do you have the whole PVS universe/timeline laid out somewhere, I know you have a planned third volume, but do you hope to possibly do more than that, depending on reader response?

Jensen: About midway through the first book, Dusty and I mapped out the whole Pinocchio mythology with the hope we'd be successful enough to tell the whole story. Obviously, the first leg of that mythos is the Carlo Collodi story, which we held as gospel (aside from that whole Pinocchio-becomes-a-real-boy part). From there, the main question in my mind was "Where did Pinocchio come from?" As we tossed around ideas, we came up with a way to answer not just that question, but also the question of the origin of the vampires, all in one fell swoop.

All of that will be resolved in the third book, which I actually just finished writing. If the response continues to be favorable, I'm sure there will be interest in continuing the series. And it's certainly possible. But both Dusty and I are really happy with this trilogy, and the only way we'd expand on it is if we had a story idea that was too good to ignore. At this point, we're just focusing on the three books.

O'Shea: Am I right in thinking the cover is a slight Shakespearean homage? How did it come into being?

Jensen: Exactly! The cover is a nod to Hamlet, which Dusty came up with as a way to tie into both the theatrical aspect of the book and the underlying theme. At its core, this book is about Pinocchio, like Hamlet, torn between his desire for revenge and his discomfort with violence. I thought Dusty did a great job of bringing that across.

I tried to thread that thematic ribbon throughout in some subtle ways. For instance, the very first page shows a character moving beneath a statue of St. Paul, the statue's sword looming overhead. Later, there's a tight panel on a dead fish at a market. Just little things like that to imply a sense of pending doom and the very real repercussions of violence.

O'Shea: In a recent Robot6 interview you said: "I still have a long way to go as a writer." Multiple choice, depending on what you prefer: can you give yourself credit in terms of as a writer how you already come a long way to a certain extent; and/or if you feel you have a long way to go in what storytelling elements/skillsets are you hoping to gain some traction/progress?

Jensen: I've been writing comics for about four years now, and I know I've improved a lot over that span. I can barely even look at the first Pinocchio book. All I see are things I wish I'd done better.

I want to be a great writer. Not a good one, or a proficient one, but a great one. I've always felt like there's no point in doing something unless you want to excel at it, and so I approach comics with that mindset. But I'm not great yet, so I just try to work really hard at it and improve every day.

As for specifics, I knew after the first PVS that I needed to clarify my action scenes, tighten up dialogue, polish my humor a little and add more thematic notes. I think the second book is an improvement, but there are still some jokes that don't work, and the dialogue isn't distinct enough from one character to another. So that's what I focused on for the third book.

O'Shea: Any temptation to produce the story in color; or do you prefer the black and white format?

Jensen: I like black and white, personally. For one, it's cheaper to print, and that means the books cost less. I'm big on making comics to read, not to collect, so I want them to be as cheap as possible. There's also the tricky matter of coloring a character who's made out of wood. Dusty has done a few colorized Pinocchio illustrations, and while they look good, I prefer him black and white.

O'Shea: How do you decide the proper balance between comedy and adventure?

Jensen: That's the hardest part with these books. The humor and more dramatic bits can be right next to each other, so a lot of the writing is trying to make sure the mood doesn't jerk around too violently. I just try to always be aware of the mood of any scene that I write and to convey that to Dusty. His task is a lot more difficult, making those mood shifts seem natural.

O'Shea: After the initial success of the first volume, which got listed on multiple best of lists, as you embarked on this next volume did you find yourself concerned about the challenge to meet the success of the past, or do you avoid falling into such a competitive/creative trap/metric?

Jensen: Like I mentioned before, I'm not totally happy with the first book. I knew going into it that I could do much better. So I guess I do fall into that trap, but I'm primarily worried with finding a way to meet the standards I set for myself.

I do worry about sales and critical response, though. Of course I want the book to do well. But I just try to do the best I can and not worry too much over stuff that's out of my hands.

O'Shea: Without giving too much story away, what's your favorite scene in this volume?

Jensen: The scene that I'm happiest with is one toward the beginning, when Carlotta is looking for Pinocchio in this dingy bar in Rome. There are a lot of little details, minor characters and jokes that I like. Oh, and for an Easter egg, readers should look for (and then translate) the name of the bar.

O'Shea: In an ongoing effort to mix it up for our interview subjects and readers, one last odd question. Any questions you would like to ask the readers of Robot6/consumers of your work?

Jensen: One thing I'm always curious about is what readers (even more than critics) particularly liked or didn't like about the first PVS. Phrased another way: What can I do better next time?

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