For over thirty years, Rankin/Bass Productions made holiday specials with an off-kilter vibe, and now a new trio are looking to pick up that gauntlet for the years to come.
Northstars by writers Jim and Haigen Shelley and artist Anna Liisa Jones is a throwback holiday special, in this case co-starting Holly, the daughter of Santa Claus, and a Yeti princess named Frostina.
On Wednesday, the first volume of what’s planned as a yearly release tradition comes out from Action Lab Entertainment titled NorthStars, Volume 1: Welcome to Snowville, and Newsarama talked to the three creators about this ambitious and nostalgic graphic novel series.
Newsarama: Jim, Haigen, who are Holly and Frostina, and why are they the titular NorthStars of the book?
Jim Shelley: Holly is the daughter of Santa Claus and lives in Snowville. Frostina is the daughter of King Blitzer, the ruler of Yetisburg. Both are citizens of the arctic realm of Polaris, a land of undiscovered wonders and mythical dangers. Holly is the first human Frostina has ever met, which sometimes leads to culture clashes. However, their larger than life backgrounds give them a mutual bond. Frostina is bored easily. Holly has an insatiable curiosity. This combination drives their adventures. If I had to try to find an old school analogy, I would say they are more Johnny and Hadji than Huck and Tom.
Haigen Shelley: Holly was originally going to be called Krissy, but I changed it. The problem was everyone else was already using names that started with Kris. It felt played. I started thinking of things you see during Christmas and Holly just jumped out at me.
Jim Shelley: Originally, Holly’s companion for her adventures was going to be a robot named Artifact. I was going for a Richie Rich and Irona feel. However, after we completed a script with Holly and Artifact, we realized the buddy movie dynamic was missing. Fans of Asterix and Obelix will notice how that series has influenced the action, comedic tone and character banter of NorthStars. For American readers who may not be familiar with the French comic series, a better analogy might be the 1940’s buddy comedies (Hope/Cosby, Martin/Lewis, Abbott/Costello). To this day, when channel surfing, I find it hard to click past a playing of On The Road… or Abbott and Costello Meets… movies.
Haigen Shelley: I also thought adding another girl to the story would make dialogue easier. I had a hard time thinking like a robot.
Shelley: Yeah, I wasn’t entirely down for ditching the robot, but once we played around with some dialogue, I realized it was the right move. Frostina’s name was a bit more of a struggle. I must have come up with half a dozen snow related names, but Haigen rejected them all. Then one day, she came to me with Frostina, which I thought had a lot of good qualities.
Haigen: I think my friend Lizzy came up with the name Frostina, but she swears she didn’t.
Nrama: Anna Liisa, how'd you go about designing Holly and Frostina?
Anna Liisa Jones: Jim actually had another artist working on this previously, who had to drop out, so we already had a character sheet for Holly that I could use as reference for my version. I made a few small changes but Holly mostly looks the same as she did when I joined the project. For Frostina - and all the other characters - Jim would put together kind of "mood boards" to use as inspiration for the feel and look of the character, as well as a description of their personality, so that's what happened there. I did some sketches first, very rough ideas, trying out hair styles and things like that until I got something I liked enough to show Jim. Frostina required a few more iterations as we were creating her from scratch, I remember the clothes were something we did multiple takes on before we found something we liked, but we eventually settled on a design that we were happy with. I think they work really well as a duo!
Nrama: And so what do they get pulled into for this first story?
Haigen Shelley: Well, Holly believes she is babysitting Frostina, but Frostina believes the reverse. During this “babysitting” visit, they discover a Troggie trying to steal a magic wand.
Jim Shelley: Troggies are the residents of a subterranean village called Undertown. They mine the coal Santa hands out to naughty people.
Haigen Shelley: The Troggie explains there is a problem in Undertown. For that, we thought it would be neat to have the Troggie’s explanation of the problem look like a child’s drawing in his word balloons.
Nrama: So what's in the Undertown that's threatening Christmas and the city of Snowville?
Jim Shelley: It’s the Krampus and his Straw Lads. He has a plan to increase the amount of naughtiness in the world, thus making him more powerful than Santa.
Nrama: So how would you describe this land they're in above Undertown, Polaris?
Anna Liisa Jones: In my head it's sort of like a wintery (and more family-friendly!) Middle-earth, with lots of different areas and environments - mountains, forests, plains, frozen lakes, etc. - with their own unique creatures and races. Some that have been pulled from existing folklore, like dragons and yetis, and some completely original critters. I'm excited to explore other areas of Polaris as we continue to develop the world!
Nrama: The Rankin/Bass tone is reverberating throughout this story and art. Can you tell us about that influence, and doing it in comic book format?
Jim Shelley: One of the things I always liked about the Rankin/Bass holiday specials is how there was this arcane world of ominous magic and preternatural forces in the shows. For example, the Winter Warlock from Santa Claus is Coming to Town or Winterbolt’s Snow Dragon in Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July. It was an odd fantasy realm which used seasonal imagery in a fascinating way. It wasn’t your standard Dungeons & Dragons but seemed to have deeper roots in European folklore. We have tried to capture that same mystique in NorthStars. It helps that artist Anna Liisa is originally from Finland and raised in England. She is able to use her cultural experiences to enhance the tone and visuals of the comic in ways that really invoke that Old World feeling.
Nrama: Anna Liisa, Jim and Haigen said that Rankin/Bass was a major influence for them with their part in this book, but with your art I feel something else coming in - like a vague Akira Torayama style and the old David the Gnome cartoon, but I'm probably way off base. What helped inform your approach with NorthStars?
Anna Liisa Jones: I have never actually seen David the Gnome! I see what you mean though, with the pointy hats. That's actually a Finnish thing - Finnish elves have those pointy hats, so that's where I got that from. As for Toriyama, like most artists I went through a heavily manga-inspired phase in my teens, so my art has retained plenty of that as my style has developed. I would point to titles like Avatar: The Last Airbender as having a similar feel - a blend of Japanese manga and Disney cartoons/comics. That's how I would describe my art style in NorthStars.
Nrama: This kind of comic book was a staple of the industry for some time with things like Uncle Scrooge and Casper the Friendly Ghost, but not so much now. Do you see a gap? And was it harder to get this project going with a publisher since its part of a bygone genre?
Jim Shelley: I am soooo glad you brought that up. I think conventional wisdom is that there are no comics for kids anymore, and in some ways, that’s right. The easy grab and go Harvey and Walt Disney comics that kids could get off a spinner rack are definitely gone. However, once you start to really look at all sectors of the market, you see things like Raina Telgemeir's Smile or Rachel Renee Russell’s Dork Dairies just tearing up the best seller charts. There’s also fellow Action Labber Jeremy Whitley’s Princeless series, and Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona and…
Haigen Shelley: …Jem and Holograms, the new Archie, Adventure Time, Goldie Vance…
Jim Shelley: Yeah. I think the issue is, the line between kids and teenagers is getting blurred. “Kids” are now weaned on a diet of The Simpsons, Adventure Time, and The Regular Show. I wouldn’t say they are more sophisticated, but they definitely have certain modern sensibilities. It’s hard to say how receptive they would be to old school all-ages comics like Casper or Uncle Scrooge.
Haigen Shelley: I also like Uncle Scrooge.
Jim Shelley: Hm… that’s a bad example. Everybody likes Uncle Scrooge.
As to publisher reception, I was lucky with that. We targeted Action Lab Entertainment right out the gate because we are both fans of Princeless. That’s a great series which they’ve been nurturing quite well. The fact that they also have an all-ages line of comics was encouraging too. The part I was not so sure about was how open would they be to a holiday-themed comic. It’s strange because when I was growing up, both Marvel and DC had holiday stories all the time, but now, not so much. I guess they don’t really fit into today's event-driven publishing strategies. As it turns out, Action Lab loved the idea!
Nrama: How did you three connect to do this comic book together?
Anna Liisa Jones: I had an account on a freelancing website... I wasn't using the account at all, as I had a good stream of titles I was working on already - small press indie titles. I probably hadn't checked it in months when I got an e-mail that I had received a message. It was Jim asking if I was the artist on one of those indie titles - if so, he wanted me to come on board for NorthStars. That was it. If I hadn't had that unused account, with e-mail notifications enabled, we might not be working on this today. I guess that's an argument for keeping your social media accounts open, even if you don't use them - you never know what opportunities might find you that way!
Jim Shelley: I was sifting through comic artists on a site called Upwork. For those of you unfamiliar with the site, it’s a sort of like eBay for freelancers. You hire a person for a project and once the assignment is finished, you review each other. I found Anna Liisa’s listing with a reference to Yuki vs. Panda, a comic available for purchase on comiXology. I bought Yuki vs. Panda and about halfway through the book, I realized she would be perfect for NorthStars! Her expressive faces and smooth line work give NorthStars an animated feel.
Haigen Shelley: We had her do character sketches of Frostina and Holly first. Those were great, but it was the Krampus character sketch that made us realize she was the right choice.
Nrama: Anna Liisa, what made NorthStars a story you wanted to do?
Anna Liisa Jones: I was a Christmas baby, so the season has always held a special place in my heart. I had never had the opportunity to do a holiday comic book before so I was absolutely ready to jump on board with NorthStars. As a plus, I am half Finnish - my Christmas celebrations were always dominated by Finnish traditions and imagery, so I was pleasantly surprised to see other European folk figures in this story.
Nrama: So, big picture, what are your goals for this?
Jim Shelley: Right now, Action Lab is committed to releasing a new NorthStars hardcover collection every year. It won’t be on a regular monthly or bi-monthly schedule, but it will be ongoing with single issues coming out digitally first and then in printed hardcover collections. How I see it is each new collection becomes a special holiday treat much in the same way that the Rankin/Bass shows only came out during the holidays. I think that’s fitting considering the nature of the project!
Haigen Shelley: I want to see a NorthStars movie.
Jim Shelley: Yeah. We all want that. [Laughs]