Book Review - Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer carves up Disneyfied classic

Van Jensen and Dusty Higgins' trilogy transcends vampire shtick

Atlanta comic book writer Van Jensen knows perfectly well that the title of his graphic novel Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer sounds like a one-note joke. But Jensen and artist Dusty Higgins' riff on Carlo Collodi's classic fairy tale, like the nose of its wooden protagonist, proves surprisingly expansive.

The book's sequel, The Great Puppet Theatre (SLG Publishing, $14.95) came out in November and introduces a commedia dell'arte-inspired team of monster-fighting marionettes. Upon the publication of a third volume next year, the trilogy will top out at more than 500 pages of Jensen's elaborate but sturdy mythology. The author will be on hand at the first Atlanta Comic-Con Dec. 4-5 at Cobb Galleria Centre to promote the newly published second installment.

Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer began as a hastily drawn joke. In the mid-2000s, both Jensen and Higgins were employed at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as a crime reporter and graphic artist, respectively. They were interested in creating their own comics and brainstormed ideas. Jensen recalls, "Dusty doodled a bad Pinocchio character, who accidentally stabbed a police officer with his nose. Then he did another with Pinocchio killing vampires. I saw it, said it was totally funny and then forgot about it."

In 2007, after Jensen and his wife had relocated to Atlanta, Higgins called him and asked, "What do you think about making a book of Pinocchio killing vampires?"

The book's introductory action scenes play like you'd guess from the title: Pinocchio confronts a vampire, tells a lie, and then stakes the bloodsucker with his elongated proboscis. "The idea on its surface sounds like a cheap, easy joke that could fall into slapstick," acknowledges Jensen. "It's actually a struggle for Pinocchio to deal with external threats and his internal demons."

Jensen takes violence seriously following his years as a crime reporter. "The job was very emotionally taxing, because I had to face the real impact of crime and violence. When you're shooting things in video games or reading comics, violence can seem kind of frivolous," he says. "What I want to bring into my work is that if there is violence, it doesn't happen in a cheap way. There's silliness in the book, but also emotional weight."

Rather than drawing in a childlike style reminiscent of the Disney cartoon, Higgins renders the black-and-white book in rich, shadowy hues consistent with the dark themes from Collodi's fairy tale. In the original, Pinocchio crushes the talking cricket and is haunted by its ghost, for instance. Jensen also points out a plot discrepancy between the original tale and the Disney movie that provides the key to the new trilogy. "In the Disney film, Geppetto builds a puppet, and the Blue Fairy brings it to life. In the original, the puppet was made out of a sentient piece of wood, but he never explained where the wood came from. The idea to explain that ties into the origin of the vampires, and the third book will answer those questions."

Jensen recently finished the script for the third volume and has three new projects under consideration at different comic book publishers. For the immediate future, though, he'll remain in the Pinocchio business, having learned that Collodi's mischievous wooden protagonist really can take on a life of his own.

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