February 7, 2010

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Pinocchio Vampire Slayer

Written by Van Jensen
Illustrated by Dusty Higgins
SLG

This was on my favorites of 2009 list, and I promised at the time I'd do a review later, so here it is. When I first heard about this one, I was pretty sure I was going to like it--it was just a matter of how much.

After all, the idea of the boy made of wood using his own stakes to kill vampires is an idea that's pretty much right up my alley. I wasn't disappointed at all. Jensen's script, based on an idea by artist Higgins, smartly keeps the focus on the hysterical idea of a vampire hunter who can make his own sticks simply by lying.

That would be enough to make for an enjoyable comic, but the authors put together a compelling plot that takes the best parts of the Pinocchio story and meshes them with a vampire plot of murdered and manipulated loved ones. That gives it a level of depth that causes the material to rise into the level of best of the year.

Starting off with a recap of the original story, we join Pinocchio in a post-Geppetto world where the vampires have taken the man who gave him life. He's a cynnical living puppet, fixated no revenge. As he draws closer to the truth, no one will listen. Can one puppet with a penchant for lying take on a horde of vampires, with his friends the carpenter and the Blue Fairy? And what if the truth is (as per usual) something Pinocchio doesn't want to face?

The pacing of this book is extremely quick, befitting an action story. There's almost no downtime, even with giving Pinocchio a love interest and establishing his new home life with the carpenter and the Blue Fairy. There are nice callbacks to the original story, such as Pinocchio's rough treatment of the talking cricket, the re-purposing of two villains, and even some creepy rabbits.

However, it's the snappy dialog and comedic scenes which makes this sing. Pinocchio has a sarcastic wit and uses it to create his stakes. Most of the best lines in the book revolve around his desire to make his nose grow. The problem is that sometimes this doesn't work out so well, such as when he says he will kill all the creatures--and his nose stays short. That's a double-whammy that plays out a few times in the story for great comic effect.

There's also the running gag of smashing the cricket, which is always good for a laugh. Who doesn't like seeing that annoying know-it-all get squished?

Over the course of the story, Jensen drops a lot of hints as to what is going on without being too specific to taking away from the current story. Pinocchio (and to some extent, his friends) are the key to the vampires' scheme, but what that scheme is beyond blood-drinking is a mystery. There's also the lure of being more than he is which dives Pinocchio on no matter what his incarnation. How these ideas will play out is anyone's guess, but we don't have to wait too long--a sequel is planned for later this year.

A last note on the scripting--Jensen clearly looked to other comics for help in fleshing out Pinocchio, and that's not a bad thing at all. He's got some Peter Parker at his core and the mouth of Bill Willingham's version of the wooden boy. The idea that perhaps he would be best off serving evil echoes Hellboy just a bit. Ironically, other than the basic "kill vampires" idea, I wasn't able to see a lot of sourcing for that part of the story. However, at no time does Pinocchio or the plot feel borrowed from somewhere else. Jensen has used his years of comic reading to good use, synthesizing ideas for his own vision in this book. I liked reading something that is evocative of the comics world my brain inhabits without being derivative.

Higgins' art also is evocative of others without going down the road of being slavish aping. The opening recap is in stick figures, morphing into a Mignola-like sequence. From there, the style reminds me of Doug TenNapel for most of the comic, though with more shadow. That's fitting because while TenNapel's books are full of hope, this book's tone is far more ominous. The Blue Fairy looks pained with age and the darkness of the age, and Pinocchio's wooden stare looks out at the reader in panel after panel.

I really like the structuring of the artwork in Pinocchio Vampire Slayer. He uses all sorts of angles, panel size, black tones/shadow, and other tricks to keep the action flowing. I was especially impressed by the artwork, and it's obvious that this is a project that he cares about. There are scenes of horror, but they aren't gory--it's a gothic horror fitting for a Poe or Lovecraft story but completely at home within a rather violent fairy tale. Higgins also keeps his characters moving, which I like a lot. They are always running, jumping, attacking or reacting to the events around them. It's rare for a person in this book to stand still, and if they do, it's not for very long.

Even if I had read hundreds of titles in 2009, Pinocchio Vampire Slayer would still have been a favorite. It's the perfect combination of concept and execution. This could easily have been a throwaway title played quickly for laughs. (After all, it's the kind of concept you think of at a bar, make a few jokes and move on.) Instead, Jansen and Higgins craft a strong plot with room for expansion, but also reads well on its own. I'm sure a lot of people have read this by now, but if you haven't and enjoy horror with a dark sense of humor, pick this up right away before the sequel hits. You'll be glad you did.