The many worlds of Van Jensen

Meet the storyteller behind comic books, movies, diplomacy and more

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Steps away from his Candler Park home b and access to the internet b writer Van Jensen spends hours each day in a shed in his backyard building new worlds.The walls inside his homemade workspace are painted a baby boy nursery blue. Itbs neat and serene b even the overwhelming stacks of graphic novels and other books on the floor are tidy. Behind the door, though, hangs a tangled mess of lanyards. Theybre a testament to the many comic book conventions hebs attended.On the wall opposite his desk is a large window he painted black and now uses as a whiteboard to keep up with his many projects. Itbs clear this is a guy with a lot of words inside him.The easiest way to explain who Jensen is and what he does is to say hebs a storyteller.bIbve worked on a lot of different mediums,b he says, bbut the one thing that has been consistent is that Ibve always cared about telling stories. Even when I worked in nonfiction, I gravitated to the type of work that allows me to tell a narrative.bItbs something he learned from his family: Both of his grandmothers were writers. One was a high school English teacher who graded the short stories he wrote as a kid. bShe would destroy my writing,b he says.Tough love b but clearly impactful. Jensen, who moved to Atlanta in 2007 with his wife, is known for working on DC Comicsb The Flash and Green Lantern Corps. He also helmed the conspiracy theory action series Cryptocracy for Dark Horse, among other titles. Currently, hebs finishing up a miniseries for Chapterhouse Comics (due out later this year), adapting Ian Flemingbs James Bond novels to graphic novels (bWorking directly with the Fleming estate b& has been kind of surreal,b he says), and collaborating on the original graphic novel Two Dead with Nate Powell (the New York Times best-selling graphic novelist who drew John Lewisb March trilogy), set to come out in 2018.How Jensen got into comics is not unusual. He started reading them as a kid in Nebraska, even though he was made fun of for doing so. bI was the only kid in my hometown who read comics,b he says. bI was the weirdo.bWhen he got older, during a stint as the crime reporter at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, he met and befriended illustrator Dusty Higgins. bWe would talk about comics,b he says. bOne day, just really randomly, he drew a sketch of a bad Pinocchio lying with his nose shooting through a vampire, and I chuckled at it and was like, bThatbs clever,b and totally forgot about it.b A few months later, after Jensen had moved to Atlanta, Higgins called him up and asked him if hebd be interested in writing the Pinocchio story. It ultimately became Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer.bEasily in my top five best decisions,b Higgins says via email. bVanbs very good at analyzing where a story needs to go and the beats that we need to hit to get there. By the time webd finished book one of Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer, we had a pretty good idea of where we wanted to take the second and third book, and Van introduced some of the weirdest characters in the story that inadvertently became my favorite characters to work with.bWhen Jensen took a 10-page preview of the work to HeroesCon, a comic book convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, it got a lot of positive feedback. bI had just gotten accepted into an MFA program for creative writing,b he says, band all these people said, bNo, you need to be making comic books.b It was like a sign ... comics are so visual; when I write stories, I see them in my head before I put the words on the page.bEventually, Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer was picked up and published in 2009. Afterward, Jensen started moonlighting at Top Shelf Productions, a publishing company based in Marietta (which was acquired by IDW Publishing two years ago), to learn more about the business, all the while maintaining his day job as assistant editor at Georgia Techbs alumni magazine. He wrote comics whenever he could, and in 2013, he got a call from DC, asking him to take over Green Lantern Corps, and later, The Flash.
No value assignedIN THE PAST few years, Jensen says he realized something was missing from his work life. In March 2014, he walked away from running Georgia Techbs alumni magazine to write full time. It was the dream, he says. A couple years later, he decided to leave DC to focus on his own works.When he looked back at his career, though, he saw how much he loved the large-scale collaboration and project management side of being at the helm of a publication. He also started thinking about his roots.bGoing back to the silent-film era, my family had this theater called the Silver Hill Theater,b he says. bIt had just, generation to generation, gone through the family. You go up in the projector room, and everyone whobd ever ran film wrote their name on the wall: So, itbs my dad, a couple of uncles, grandparents, great grandparents, friends of the family b all these names are up there. It closed in the b70s, but as I was growing up, my dad and my grandma were always showing me movies that they screened at the theater and then telling me stories about what happened while they were showing the movies.bAs he was mulling over these things, Jensen became acquainted with two local film guys, Justin Miller, a production designer, and Chris Campbell, a director of photography. (They own their own production company, and have worked on big-budget feature films and television shows, such as bThe Walking Dead.b) They suggested he consider directing film because so much of that work is preparation, coordination and tedious labor b the very things he missed doing.So, he took a shot and self-financed a short film he wrote called Pisser. Miller and Campbell co-produced it with him. bThe first day of shooting, I was like: bThis is a terrible mistake, this is so overwhelming and so intense,bb Jensen recalls. bThe second day, though, I could see the machinery of it. I saw how all the gears worked. Itbs not like I knew how to run the machinery really well, but I at least understood what it was. That was the point where I realized this was the right path.bPisser, about a sad guy who decides that the victory he needs in life is to make a spatter-free urinal splash, is now in post-production.bRight off the bat,b Miller says by telephone, bVan impressed us with his intensity and also the truthfulness that he strived for in storytelling. He always has a really strong sense of what a story should say about a character. Hebs very imaginative but also very rigorous in his structure and process in storytelling. Thatbs a really difficult combination to find in a storyteller.bCampbell adds via email: bI have learned so much about the nuts and bolts of storytelling because of working with Van. He just has a way of breaking a story down to the parts so well that an IKEA customer could put it back together. I think that is how he creates such unique worlds. He just starts with an insane idea and keeps breaking it down into parts until he can reassemble it as an entirely new entity.bEven though Jensen has only been doing the film stuff for a little while now, hebs already got his hands full. In addition to writing an original screenplay, he also just finished directing a second short called Hot Yoga (which was adapted from a comedy sketch by Highwire Comedy), and hebs also preparing to direct two music videos for local hip-hop group Far Out Family.
Image Joeff DavisWHILE FILM may be in his blood, itbs his work in comics that has made Jensen bthe cool guy.b Last year, he was tapped to become Americabs first comic book ambassador. bI thought I was being bcatfished,bb he says. He spent almost two weeks in Tbilisi, Georgia, teaching people of all ages b including refugees who were displaced from their mountain villages after Russia invaded in 2008 b about comics. He also helped writers and artists there launch the first Georgian comic book.bThey had this idea of using comic books as a way of cultural engagement,b Jensen says, as comic books as they are now are breally the one true art form that is American.bbTherebs no way that this doesnbt sound stupid,b he continues, bbut I do what I do because I think itbs the path that I have toward making the world a better place. For me to be productive in my work, I have to feel like Ibm actively striving to make the world a better place. I feel like taking on the comic book ambassador role fit really well with that value thatbs important to me.bJensen says he was asked recently to travel to Russia on ambassador duties, but he declined, as he and his wife are expecting their second child. (Also, the idea of going to Russia is a little scary right now, he says.) Plans are in the works, however, for a trip to Israel in the fall.In the meantime, Jensen volunteers his time in local schools, teaching kids about storytelling by making comics with them. During a recent visit to Dobbs Elementary in Atlanta b one of the schools impacted by the big test cheating scandal b a boy asked him if he could be Superman.bAll the other kids started laughing,b Jensen says, bbut hebs really earnest, and so I say, bAll right, can you shoot lasers out of your eyes?b bWell, no.b Then I ask, bWell, can you fly?b bNo.b bWell, can you punch through a brick wall?b bNo.b I was like, bMan, I donbt know kid, Ibm sorry. Wait, hold on a second. What makes Superman a hero?b So he says, bWell, all those powers.b I was like, bWhat does Superman do with those powers?b bWell, he helps people. He looks out for people who are in trouble and he fights against the powerful who are doing bad thing.b I said, bOK, can you do that?b He said yeah.b

Jensen pauses. bThatbs the kind of encounter that I live for. People look at me as, bWhoa, he has a cool job.b I was just a kid in the middle of nowhere who wrote and drew stories.b

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