Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Review: Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer

I think geek culture has finally become so expansive that it's now in a post-high concept period. That is, works that could once count on a bold, crazy or funny enough idea to justify their existence—if not completely carry them into worth-your-time territory—no longer can. Each week's new comics shipping list, every month's new movie releases generally contain a high concept that would have seemed appealingly ludicrous a few years ago but are now just business as usual.

Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer (SLG Publishing) certainly falls into that category. Adding "Vampire Slayer" to any name is a sort of tired high concept pitch (Buffy The Vampire Slayer first entered public consciousness in 1992; its ubiquity might make it a bit hard to remember that the title and premise were, at first, themselves high-concept gags). Thankfully for those reading it, Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer has a lot more going for it than the name and "Pinocchio vs Vampires" premise.

It helps that artist Dusty Higgins and writer Van Jensen has such thorough reverence for and familiarity with Carlo Collodi's original.

In the introduction, they write:

We never could have dreamed up a wooden puppet whose nose grows when he lies. I mean, you can't make that kind of stuff up. Unless your name is Carlo Collodi. Then, apparently, you can.

And the book begins with a three-page summary of Collodi's Pinocchio, told in super-simple, self-aware, jokey panels, a dozen per page. (Typical panel: A caption reading "Pinnochio goes to the authorities. They throw him in jail" above a drawing of a half-stick figure puppet behind bars, exclaiming, "What? I hate this story!")

From there it's a rather simple matter of adding vampires. In the village of Nasolungo, mysterious, powerful, humanoid, blood-sucking monsters (I'd have to double-check, but I don't think they even use the term "vampire," and the concept of the vampire seems somewhat new to P. and his crew) have invaded. They've already murdered Gepetto, and during that attack Pinocchio accidentally lied hard enough to send his pointy, wooden nose through the heart of one. That's how he discovered he always had the means of killing the creatures at hand. Er, at nose.

Since then, he and his allies The Blue Fairy and Master Cherry have been carrying on a nightly battle with the monsters to keep the town safe, although no one believes them (Thanks in part to the anti-Pinocchio propaganda efforts of two villains from the original).

I haven't read Collodi's book since I was a child, so I can't say with any great certainty that the book is incredibly faithful, but it certainly felt like it was. It was impressive how seamlessly elements of the story fit in with the popular vampire mythology, and I was surprised at how relatively straight Van Jensen and Higgins played it.

Cherry plays comic relief, as a humble carpenter who seems at least somewhat aware that he's in an adventure story, and is trying to live up to the expectations of an action hero with pithy catchphrases, but he seems alone in relishing the situation.

Pinocchio himself is more glum and serious...maybe even brooding. Yes, it's almost a grim and gritty take on Pinocchio. The humor of the book is therefore mostly organic, the occasional acknowledging of the ridiculous of the situation (mostly revolving around Pinocchio's lying, which activates his "power"), and surprisingly subtle. It's a lot of fun, and certainly very funny in places, but it's not written or drawn as a comedy as much as an action adventure story that happens to be pretty funny to boot.

Higgins' art is similarly nicely balanced between straight and cartoony. There are certainly exaggerated looking characters, like Master Cherry, but Pinochio and the vampires look as if they've come from a Mignola-style horror comic. (Some of his vampire designs are particularly cool; I like how a few of them wrap scarves around their mouths as disguises).

He's also remarkably versatile. The book is in black and white, but Higgins modulates his style as a scene demands. The Pinocchio recap is abstracted about as far as it can go, while a flashback scene is drawn in the style of old woodcuts.

There's enough left unresolved—and a nose/stake on the spine that looks a bit like a "1"—to indicate that there may be more Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer yet to come. I'm not sure how long the concept can be extended (certainly not indefinitely), but this first stab at it turned out to be pretty great comics, and I sure wouldn't mind seeing Jensen and Higgins try to extend it. Or whatever they decide to do next, actually.


censustaker said...

Im a big fan of the original and, yeah, it was pretty faithful (vampires dont actually seem out of step with it, if we accept that characters age and stuff can get more serious). I agree with pretty much everything else you said to. Check it out people!

Greg said...

Dang, your review is a lot better written than mine is. I suck. You did like it more than I did, but I thought it was pretty cool.