‘Santa Claus: Private Eye’: ‘Dead Space 2’ writer goes noir with St. Nick

Nov. 04, 2014 | 1:43 p.m.
"Santa Claus: Private Eye" (Thrillbent)

“Santa Claus: Private Eye” (Thrillbent)

Jeremy Bernstein is a man with diverse interests. As a writer, he helped craft video game worlds for both “Dead Space 2” and “Pretty in Pink,” and he also helped concoct elaborate schemes for the ensemble group on the TNT show “Leverage.” But Bernstein also longed to do a supernatural crime story. Enter: “Santa Claus: Private Eye,” the 12-installment digital comic book title that debuted on Mark Waid’s Thrillbent site earlier this fall.

Hero Complex recently caught up with Bernstein, who is also a biochemist, to discuss the comic, a noir-inflected thriller involving P.I. Nick Santana, as well as his other various writing pursuits.

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For the record
Nov. 4, 3:30 p.m.: The headline on an earlier version of this post incorrectly gave the title of “Dead Space 2” as “Deep Space 2.”

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Hero Complex: So,  biochemistry and screenwriting?

Jeremy Bernstein: Is that not a natural progression? That was a fun day when I called my parents and told them that I was leaving my job in the pharmaceutical industry to run off to film school. I’ve always had an interest in both. I’ve always been very science-driven, very mathy, and very creative. When I got to college I was debating between a major in theater and a major in chemistry. Ultimately I decided that it was easier to do creative stuff with a chemistry degree than it was to do chemistry with an arts degree. I also decided that it would be easier to teach with a chemistry degree.

HC: You’re also into video game creation. Do you design, or mostly write?

JB: I do both. “Dead Space 2” I was just a writer on. “Pretty in Pink,” I did some game design and some scripting for. I worked on a “House MD” game where I was just doing game design. So, it’s either or.

HC: What are the differences between writing for video games, television and comics?

JB:  Each media has some unique attributes and characteristics, and you need to know what they are. Comics is about the single image. The frozen frame, from a visual perspective. TV is about the moving frame, and games are about the player. What they see and what they do. But when it comes to actual storytelling, to me it’s just a difference in how you tell the story, but not what the story actually is. I went to film school at USC, and the definition of storytelling that they teach there is someone who wants something badly and is having a hard time getting it. To me, that’s any story. So you take that and apply it. For games, it’s the best definition ever because what’s in their way is the gameplay. It’s built around what the player is going to do.

HC: Why Santa Claus?

JB: I was looking to write a supernatural detective story and was trying to find a supernatural being that I hadn’t seen in the detective genre. I’ve seen vampires, I’ve seen wizards — I love them. So I was looking around and this little voice in the back of my head said, Well, there’s always Santa Claus. The more I thought about it, the more I said … well hang on,  he knows if you’re naughty or nice. Maybe he doesn’t know the details, but he’s got a very good vibe on that, which would be useful as a private investigator. He can climb down chimneys, so he’s got a real easy time sneaking in places to snoop around. You know what, this is a job that’s a job that’s a pretty good match for Santa’s skill set. So once I had that, then the next question was, Why does Santa want to be a private eye? That’s when I really started getting down into the character and this notion of a depressed Santa. This notion of the jolly old elf, who is not in the least bit jolly but has to project that image year after year after year — and what does that do to someone. He’s the clown who’s only smiling on the outside. So once I started thinking of the character in that way, it all came together. Noir detective stories usually have down-on-their-luck protagonists who are sort of getting into the seedy underbelly of life. All of that stuff really resonated with this particular take on Santa.

HC: We see Jack Frost as a snitch, but are there other characters of lore who play roles here?

JB: Jack’s the only one who shows up in this story line. He’s the best fit for the genre trope position. I have ideas for some other supernatural beings that we may see in later volumes, but really I wanted it to focus on a supernatural detective solving normal problems. Most supernatural detectives get involved in supernatural cases, but I really thought it was interesting having Santa, the spirit of joy, having to intersect with people who were in the dumps, and whose lives were a mess, having him be in this world that he doesn’t belong in either. I have some thoughts on the Tooth Fairy — there’s lots of room to explore.

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity." (Universal Studios Home Entertainment)

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity.” (Universal Studios Home Entertainment)

HC: In terms of noir as a genre, are there any great films you took inspiration from?

JB: This volume was inspired by “Double Indemnity,” which is about as perfect of a movie from that era that I’ve seen. I went back and watched a lot of old noir. “Double Indemnity,” “Maltese Falcon” and a bunch of the classics just to get all of my tropes in a row. Mike Dorman, my artist, I know that he pulled some references as well. In designing the office, I know we looked at the office from “Maltese Falcon” as the inspiration with the light and shadow and even the way that the name on the door casts a shadow down on the floor.

HC: Did you look at a lot of different depictions of Santa? “Rise of the Guardians” was one recent example.

JB: I did a little bit of looking at the history of Santa. Terry Pratchett wrote this book called “Hogfather,” which is part of his Discworld series and is an amazing exploration of the tropes and myths and history surrounding Santa Claus. By and large, I tried to stay away from “Rise of the Guardians” because I didn’t want it to pollute any of my ideas and I didn’t want to step on its toes or feel like I had to change something. “The Santa Clause” was the other one I stayed away from.

HC: Digital comics are popular, but might not yet be mainstream. What do you think of the medium vs. traditional printed comics?

JB: I think they’re connected but different media. We’re having a board game renaissance right now as much as we’re having a video game one. To me, board games and video games are different, but there’s also really fundamental similarities. I think comics are very similar. There’s things you can only do in digital, there’s things you can only do in print. The trickier issue is the business side of things, and the question of does the business side of print comics make sense any more? I would hate to see traditional comics go away, but I’m of that generation that actually likes to own things instead of just files. Creatively, I think there’s room for both. Business-wise, it’s interesting. We’ve seen so many traditional business models collapse in the wake of digital in the last 20 years. I’m not sure where comics is going to land when all is said and done, but it’s interesting watching things evolve.

— Jevon Phillips | @storiz@LATherocomplex

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