She Can Only Save (Or Destroy) Christmas So Many Times: Paul Dini Talks ‘Jingle Belle’ [Interview]
For a long time, the only comics I really "collected" (as opposed to just buying stuff to read every week) were Christmas comics. Anything with Santa Claus or a decorated tree on the cover found its way into my collection, and to be honest, a lot of 'em were pretty disappointing. But not Jingle Belle.
Admittedly, I would've bought this one even without my love of the holidays. Jingle Belle is, after all, the creation of Paul Dini, probably best known for his work on Batman: The Animated Series, and along with artists like Steph Buscema, J. Bone, Stephen DeStefano, Stephanie Gladden, Jose Garibaldi, and more, he created a world of sugarplums and toy-making elves that was sarcastic without being cynical and cheerful without being cloying.
Now, with over 400 pages of Jingle Belle collected in a new book from IDW, ComicsAlliance spoke to Dini about creating Jingle, his approach to Christmas mythology, and why he wanted to get away from just doing stories about Christmas.
ComicsAlliance: Have you always had a connection to Christmas and Christmas stories?
Paul Dini: I was one of those goofy kids whose year narrowed down to focus on Christmas from about September on. I guess I was like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, in that I would get swept up into the anticipation of the holiday, watching the lights go up, hearing the songs in the stores, getting special Christmas issues of comics and all that. A local San Francisco radio station would play old Christmas programs, and I'd stay up late listening to dramatized versions of A Christmas Carol or Miracle on 34th St. or whatever else they were running.
Of course the downside of all that is, while the season may linger through New Years in other countries, here in the US it pretty much hits a wall on Dec. 26th. Down comes the tree, away goes the music, and the kids who were smiling and joking with you at midnight mass will be waiting to punch you out again the first day back at school. So as much as I liked the build-up to Christmas, the week after always socked me with the blues. That's probably why a bitter edge often works its way into Jingle's stories. Her world is as much about holiday disappointments as it is about happiness.
CA: I’m definitely familiar with that kind of post-Christmas hangover that comes in once it’s time to take down the tree. Is that something that you still find in your life, or do you just start writing new stories on Boxing Day to keep the feeling alive all year round?
PD: The post-holiday blues aren’t as bad these days. It helps is to have something to look forward to in January, whether it’s a trip someplace fun, or a visit with friends I didn’t get to see over Christmas. I don’t wait until Boxing Day to start writing, though. I take copious notes for future Jingle stories starting in early November, while it’s all happening around me. Everything from the awestruck look on a kid’s face as they toddle through Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland for the first time, or a bitter verbal barb hurled from one drunken family to another gets filed away for future use.
CA: Was there anything in particular that formed your take on Santa mythology? Jingle Belle comes from a world that seems very Rankin-Bass.
PD: The old Rankin-Bass animated specials seemed to exist in a loosely shared reality, which is what attracted me to them. Santa, Snow Miser, Rudolph, Frosty, even the Easter Bunny seemed to be on nodding acquaintance with each other, even if only in cameo appearances in each other's cartoons.
I can see where elements of that shared universe idea worked into Jingle Belle's world too, along with bits and pieces of other Santa Claus and Christmas myths. In an early story, I put it forth that Santa, or some version of St. Nick was a brawny, heroic Nordic type who freed the elves from an evil winter tyrant. I never much cared for the grandmotherly version of Mrs. Claus, so I made Santa's wife the ageless queen of the elves. To me, that explained why the elves liked working with Santa, and it set up Jingle's mixed human/elf parentage.
CA: Have you ever thought about going back and showing more of Santa in that light? Doing a big action story that would serve as the origin story for Jing’s universe?
PD: There was a little bit of that in the first solo Jingle Belle issue.
I have roughed out a bigger story that would fuse elements of the original history of St. Nicholas with the modern version of Santa as seen in the comics. However it’s also a heavier story than I’ve done before, and I haven’t entirely figured out Jingle Belle’s role in it. Maybe someday.
CA: Getting into the character herself, how much came fully formed with the simple idea of “Santa Claus’s rebellious daughter?”
PD: Once I latched onto that idea, I broke out my sketchbook and the gags stared coming very quickly. The first one I drew showed a disgusted Jingle at dinner, where Santa was pouring her a huge glass of eggnog and telling her to drink it if she wanted to grow up just like him. The next panel showed Jing secretly pouring it out into the dish of a horrifically fat cat under the table.
That set the tone for their relationship, and I realized that whenever I could put them at odds over a family situation, I would get a funny story out of it. That included dating guys the parents don't like, sneaking out late to parties, skipping out on household chores (in Jingle’s case, toy making) or throwing a tantrum and moving out, but only as far as a hastily constructed igloo in the backyard.
CA: One of the interesting things about Jingle Belle is that for a character so tied to Christmas, she seems really adaptable into different kinds of stories that don’t necessarily have to take place in December. How did you approach that? Is it just a matter of putting her into different situations, or does it go a little deeper?
PD: I take inspirations from newspaper strip cartoonists who look for ways of expanding their characters' worlds once they have established the initial concept of their strips. Like Charles Schulz revisiting Charlie Brown's baseball team, or Berkeley Breathed returning to Binkley's anxiety closet.
Jingle can only save (or destroy) Christmas so many times, so to keep her fresh and funny, I now look for stories that are good family or teen stories first, and use the holiday elements for atmosphere. The "Mighty Elves" story I did with J. Bone was a turning point for Jingle, in that it established her as an athlete with a love for winter sports.
It seemed a natural fit, given the North Pole setting and the fact that Jing is competitive and confrontational by nature. Giving her a hockey team to lead and a rival team, The Snow Leopards, to battle broadened her world quite a bit. I always like putting her in that scenario.
CA: That adaptability is one of the reasons I think I’m really drawn to those stories, even when they’re not set at Christmastime. She’s got that Scrooge McDuck quality where you can drop her in and she brings a whole mythology with her already that you can adapt to any situation. Is there any sort of situation that you think she can’t work in, though? Or anything you’ve tried that just didn’t work?
PD: In the earlier issues I went back and forth on the tone of the stories, and I sometimes found myself wavering between being funny and being crude. I wasn’t sure how far to take Jing toward an older or even adult audience, which was one of the things I learned by trial and error.
I looked at the other books Oni Press was publishing at that time, and as much as I liked Clerks and Barry Ween, I realized trying to take her in that direction was moving her into Bad Santa territory. That was not only a bad fit for Jingle tonally, but also it worked against the look of the charming artwork created by Stephen DiStefano, Lynne Naylor, J. Bone and many other talented cartoonists.
As for situations I don’t think she works well in; aside from the hockey stories, she’s not much of a team player. Other than hanging out sometimes with Polly the Witch, or more rarely, Ida Red from the Mutant, Texas stories, I don’t like making Jing a group leader. It diminishes what’s unique and funny about her.
CA: Can you talk a bit about expanding Jingle Belle’s supporting cast to include characters? Are there eventually just going to be versions of Jingle Belle for every holiday?
PD: I think for now I'll hold it to just Christmas and Halloween. I really like the dynamic between Jingle and Polly Green, and I'd rather continue doing stories about them as friends then bring in new characters just for the sake of padding out the cast.
I like using Polly because she’s a good contrast to Jing. On the surface Polly seems more agreeable and innocent, but, being a witch, she has a macabre side and can get pretty dark when she starts casting hexes and curses. Also, she crushes on Jingle's demonic "Uncle" Krampus, which I find charmingly twisted.
Speaking of Krampus, Stephanie Gladden and I seemed to have perfectly timed his introduction into the series. The year after he appeared, Krampus was suddenly everywhere in the public consciousness, and in nearly every Christmas comic. I don’t know if his appearance in Jingle Belle had much to do with that, but I do think the time was ripe for older kids who had grown tired of Frosty and Rudolph to embrace a more dangerous holiday icon. I really love the design Stephanie worked up for him, and I can't wait to use our version of Krampus again.
CA: Were there any other pieces of weird Christmas folklore that you’ve wanted to bring in, apart from Krampus?
PD: So many, but I’m going to keep a lid on them for now. I have to leave some surprises for Christmases Yet to Come.