Paul Dini had a pretty busy 2010 — he launched a live-action series, Tower Prep on Cartoon Network, started work on the Ultimate Spider-Man animated series, and remained the writer of monthly ongoing titles Batman: Streets of Gotham and Zatanna at DC Comics.
Somehow, he managed to find time to write a new story starring one of his original creations, Jingle Belle. Titled Jingle Belle: Grounded and found in the pages of this week’s Top Cow Holiday Special original graphic novel, the story introduces the mythological character of Krampus — who, as the story goes, accompanies Santa on Christmas doling out punishment to those on the naughty list — to the world of Jingle Belle.
Newsarama talked with Dini — best known to fans for his work on '90s cartoons like Batman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond — about the story, modern parenting, artist Stephanie Gladden and possible future plans for his original characters. (We also talked with Phil Smith, writer of the Top Cow Universe-sprawling story in the Top Cow Holiday Special on Tuesday, that article is here.)Newsarama: Paul, it’s been two years since your last Jingle Belle comic, Jingle Belle: Santa Claus vs. Frankenstein. Do you find yourself with a lot of ideas for the character that you simply don’t have time to get to?
Paul Dini: I have a lot of stories to tell about the character and about that world, it’s just that time and the rest of the world intrudes on it. It’s also, how do you continue to tell stories about something that is pretty much a seasonal character?
Nrama: Sure, Jingle Belle is kind of targeted to a specific timeframe.
Dini: I have experimented with stories that take place outside of that time frame, and I think they work to varying degrees. But one of the ways I’ve been thinking about the character more and more, and there are some of these in the book, is almost like a Sunday comics feature, where I can take stories about Jing and about her friends and just do a gag page. I really loved experimenting with the character that way this last year, because last year we weren’t doing a Jingle Belle book, but Stephanie Gladden and I did about three or four strips that came out during the holiday season, and we ran them online almost as like a test balloon. I think people liked seeing them, and there’s enough familiarity with the character right now that they thought it was a lot of fun. I was thinking, “Boy, I would love to do a weekly strip about my characters.” Not only Jingle Belle, but also mix in some of the lighter characters that I publish myself, like Polly the Witch and the Mutant, Texas characters — most of whom make cameo appearances in the Jingle Belle book this year.
Nrama: And those strips appear in the back of the book in the Top Cow Holiday Special.
Dini: Yep. Stephanie and I are going to do a few more, we’re just going to put them out throughout the year. I’m kind of in awe of some of the online cartoons who do a weekly strip. I think that’s really cool, and I would love to get into that myself, but it’s just a matter of, “how do you juggle the time commitment?” and also Stephanie’s commitment, and there’s also, “is this going to be something that funds itself or not?” I think it’s a lot of fun to do, as long as it does not operate at deficit.Nrama: Switching to the new material, “Grounded” introduced a character new to the Jingle Belle mythos, but from centuries-old legend, Krampus. What gave you the idea to incorporate Krampus into the Jingle Belle world?Dini: I’ve always liked the Krampus character, and I’ve always been fascinated with him, especially the tradition that he was such a part of the holiday season in Europe, in Germany, Austria, northern Italy, various other places. Over the years, I think as certain kids have gotten older and maybe grown away from Santa Claus, and they’re also looking at other forms of entertainment, and other forms of fiction, I think that kids who are into monsters, especially, have discovered Krampus in the United States, and they’re going, “hey, that’s kind of cool” — this demonic assistant of Santa who follows with him, and they do kind of this warped good cop/bad cop thing on kids. What I did with the story was sort of do an Americanized version of that. I can understand why Krampus would be left behind in this country, because he’s not very PC, and the idea that Santa Claus admonishes by leaving a lump of coal or putting you on the naughty list, that’s really weak tea considering that Krampus was there to administer beatings and to drag some of the naughtier kids away to Hell.Nrama: A little jarring, maybe, for American audiences not familiar with the concept.
Dini: I know, but I think now more than ever we need him. [Laughs.] I like the character, a lot, and I love the old German postcards that say “gruss vom Krampus,” “greetings from Krampus,” which show him doing everything from kind of like a tamer version of him eating oranges with kids, like he’s sort of made peace with them, to him driving them off to hell in a little runabout. It’s him driving a motorcycle with Santa sitting in the sidecar. I really think those are quite charming. They’re kind of scary, too, but I like the character an awful lot, and over the last few years, Stephanie and I have been talking about how much we like him, and I’ve been thinking, “boy, there’s got to be a story out there, and maybe we can weave him into the Jingle Belle mythology.” So I was thinking about it a little more, and I’m thinking, “what if we do a story about why Krampus was left behind in the present day?”
It has to do with the way a lot of parents are. “The way I was brought up was one thing, but I don’t want my child to be scared, and I don’t want my child to be punished. I’m a good enough parent that none of that is necessary.” Santa kind of wimped out when Jing was born, and he didn’t discipline her very well, which is why she’s kind of a willful brat these days. If your father makes the best toys in the world, and gives them to you all the time, then you can get anything you want.That aside, I just liked the look of the character, and I thought he’d be a lot of fun. When Stephanie came up with some designs for him, I just said, “I love the way this character moves.” Even though it’s not animation, Stephanie brings such a great quality of movement to all her drawings. I could just see that character running around and looking so gleeful as he scares kids and administers smitings with his little switches and everything. I just thought it was terrific. I can’t wait to bring the character back. Suddenly, I want to do a whole Krampus book because he’s so entertaining. There’s a little bit of the Joker in him; there’s a little bit of the mischievous old imp and devil; there’s a little bit of the manic Warner Bros. style funny animal to him, too. Nrama: The relationship between Santa and Krampus comes across as pretty endearing, too, with Krampus seeming like part of the family and Jingle Belle calling him “Uncle Pete.”
Dini: They go back a ways, and he always liked his part of Christmas. Although he liked it for the reason any devil likes anything, he gets to bring mischief and discord. Santa put up with it, recognized he has a purpose and everything. So he’s been lonely and bitter these last 200 or so years since Jingle was born, and he hasn’t liked her very much. That was something I wanted to bring out a little bit more in the book, and I’ll probably do that in a future book. He does blame her for being fired.
She kind of likes him. If nothing else, she king of likes mischievous guys, even though he’s a bit resentful. She’s sort of willing to overlook that.
Nrama: And it seems that through your use of Krampus, even though it’s obviously a fun, light story, there’s a degree of social satire there about how kids are raised these days.
Dini: That’s something I hear a lot of parents bemoaning now, that every child is rewarded. It’s such a stigma in modern society — there can be no kids who are left out. No kid’s a loser. Everybody gets a trophy just for showing up.
Certainly you’d want to curtail things like bullying, but on the other hand, I’ve always noticed the kids who didn’t get a trophy, or who lost a game, applied themselves and were the winners next time. If everybody’s a winner, nobody has to try very hard.
If one kid goes to bed with a spanking and the other one gets a toy, than maybe next year the kid will shape up a little bit. I don’t know. I’m not a parent, I’m not a child psychologist, I just base this one common sense.Nrama: Seems like there is also some commentary delivered through the cynical catchphrase-spouting “Tina ‘Tude” doll Jingle invents in the comic.
Dini: That is very much of its time. That is a very popular thing, whether it’s the Bratz dolls or some of the other things that are out there, there is a bad behavior that sells these days. There is a sort of a sassiness that people perceive as new and fresh. Jing is not wrong in that the doll she makes is actually quite popular, and becomes a big success. It really is a reflection of the times. Santa doesn’t like it because it looks rude and disrespectful, and he’s very old school that way. So he’s not exactly wrong in disliking the doll.
On the other hand, when everybody proclaims, “Santa is a genius,” and “Santa, you’ve done it again,” he doesn’t want to be perceived as old stodgy in the toy world, so he goes along with it — but he can’t admit to his daughter that she was right, and that’s the source of the discord between the two of them.
What a screwed up family.
Nrama: Paul, you’ve been writing Jingle Belle for more than a decade now, with the first comic starring the character coming out in 1999. Did you expect to still be writing her 11 years later?
Dini: I have a great fondness for any of my original characters. I have a great fondness for any character I work on, whether it’s somebody like Batman, or Harley Quinn, or whatever character I’m writing, I just really enjoy the heck out of it and I try to do the best job I can with it.
With an original character, I guess there’s part of me that always wanted to be a daily strip cartoonist, so if I come up with a character, I like staying with it for a while and always having the option of going back and telling more stories. At some point, I would like to go back and tell more Ida Red Mutant, Texas stories. Now is probably the worst time to do a book like that, because every time I’ve tried to pitch the book again, or the characters, it’s sort of like: “It’s cowboys… and funny animals, and… a girl? Oh boy, we’re not going to do sell very many of these, are we?” So it is a hard sell, so it has to be done out of passion more than anything else, but I do like those characters an awful lot. I do like the idea of finding stuff that is fun and cartoony on the shelves. It’s such a rarity these days. I realize not everybody’s into it these days, the market has changed significantly from doing books like that, but once every couple of years, when an idea occurs to me, I’ll find a way to do it.Nrama: Stephanie Gladden has illustrated the last few Jingle Belle stories — are you sticking with that partnership for the foreseeable future?
Dini: That’s the thing, I don’t draw the books myself, I don’t have the time, or I feel personally, have the skill, to draw the character the way I want to see it done. I did draw the designs of the character initially, and gave designs of pretty much all the characters in that world to the artists I’ve dealt with.
One of the things I’ve learned from animation is that some guys are really good at writing, some guys are really good at design, some guys are really good at directing. It’s almost like working in a band — not everybody plays every instrument. Rather than trying to take four years off and illustrate a Jingle Belle story myself, I would rather hand it over to a terrific artist like Stephanie who can do it in a month’s time.
I’ve had some excellent artists who’ve worked on Jingle Belle, all of them have been really great, like Jose Garibaldi, Steven DeStefano, and J. Bone. Kyle Baker even did an issue. I love working with them, and I would rather see what they bring to the character than me try and embarrass myself by drawing it myself.
Nrama: And Stephanie seems like a great fit for the character.
Dini: The way she draws is almost sort of like a fusion of Warner Bros. meets Harvey Comics, almost, feel to it. More than that, the staging and the pacing she brings to it — she has an animator’s eye, where she knows how to go for a more sympathetic look on a character and let a moment play a little bit more before kicking up the action, and keeping surprises in the action and the reactions of the characters. She’s really terrific.Happy to see JINGLE BELLE back?