The world of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy stretches back millennia in story terms, but perhaps the most important figure on the road to the B.P.R.D. is the mysterious Sir Edward Grey. The Victorian occult detective remains a shadowy part of Hellboy’s world thanks to repeated appearances by his ghost in “Hellboy In Hell,” but the original weird investigator has also found life in his own run of Dark Horse Comics miniseries under the “Witchfinder” banner.
This June, the publisher follows up the first two Ed Grey series with “Witchfinder: The Mysteries of Unland,”Â a miniseries drawn by frequent B.P.R.D. artist Tyler Crook and co-writtenÂ by Mignola and the writing duo of Kim Newman and Maura McHugh. Newman is an award-winning novelist of science fiction and fantasy including the “Anno Dracula” series which shares come Victorian revisionist DNA with Mignola. His writing partner McHugh is an accomplished Irish comics scribe herself, with work appearing, among other places, in the well-known “Womanthology” project.
CBR spoke exclusively with Newman and McHugh about their own path to the world of the B.P.R.D., and the pair describe their comics histories, their connection to Mignola and company, how they view Sir Edward Grey when alive and dead and what creeping monsters await in Crook’s art as the shadows of “Unland” draw near.
CBR News: I know Kim’s “Anno Dracula” novels have crossed my path before, but for those who follow the work in the Hellboy/B.P.R.D. world and may not be familiar with each of your works, what about your writing DNA do you feel mixes well with the world Mike Mignola and company have built over the years?
Kim Newman: I assume that it was the Anno Dracula novels — and, specifically, Anno Dracula, which has a Victorian setting — that led the Hellboy/B.P.R.D. gang to ask me to work on this series. Chris Roberson, of MonkeyBrain books/comics — who published my three Diogenes Club collections — made the introduction. I’m interested in a lot of the things that have influenced the Hellboy/B.P.R.D. series over the years, and have written quite a few ‘occult investigator’-type stories. When I was starting out, I did some commissioned work (as Jack Yeovil) in other people’s wholly-owned worlds, so I’m familiar with the set-up of staying within boundaries while still trying to be surprising and shaking things up. I’ve read Hellboy since the beginning, and am a Mignola fan — I met Mike at a con some years ago, and we got on well. So it seemed like a nice fit.
Maura McHugh: Years ago, I completed a M.A. in English on the Irish Gothic and Supernatural tradition, and studied the likes of Charles Maturin, Sheridan LeFanu and Bram Stoker, so I’m pretty familiar with the Victorian tradition of horror. I’m also a huge fan of mythology, fairy tales, and folklore, and have written two collections of stories in this area. The first horror comic book series I wrote — called “RÃ³isÃn Dubh” — was a kind of vampire slayer set in late nineteenth century Ireland, which blended indigenous myth with fiction. So, the Mignolaverse — with its mythic elements, cranky characters and grand quests — is just the kind of place I like to visit.
Kim, I get the impression from your bio that you’ve been reading comics a long time and have known folks in the comics industry like Neil Gaiman for years. So what took so long for you to take a stab at the form yourself?
Newman: Yes, I’ve been a comics reader since the early Silver Age — I was a particular fan of the Steve Ditko “Dr Strange” and “Neal Adams X-Men” in the ’60s, and have been trying to keep up with US and UK comics ever since, though in a fairly indiscriminate way. Yes, I have a lot of comics industry friends — and appeared briefly as a character in a “Sandman” issue. I’ve a feeling Neil got me to sign an agreement that gives DC the right to market action figures of me or reboot me disappointingly in the New 52, though let’s hope they’ve forgotten. I’ve not written comics ’til now, frankly, because no one ever asked me — as it happens, I’ve a couple of other projects in the works, in very early stages, a new series called “Ghost Lantern Girl” from MonkeyBrain with Matthew Dow Smith and an Anno Dracula spinoff from Titan. I try to do something every year that I’ve not done before, In recent years, I’ve done radio drama and a stage play, for instance. So, now it’s comics. My main focus has always been novels, though — and they take up a lot of time and energy so I can’t see myself becoming terribly prolific [in comics].
I know the “Witchfinder” series has always been the showcase for Mike’s soft spot for weird Victorian occult stories. What do you think are the cornerstones of telling a story in that milieu, and how do they apply to “Witchfinder” in general?
Newman: I’m interested in that period and genre, too — with late Christopher Wicking, I spent time developing a Bible for a Carnacki TV series that got a lot of interest but never got made. When writing in period, I try to find elements that resonate with contemporary times but also to get into the mindset of a bygone era. Conan Doyle is obviously the big beast in the field — one of my novels is “Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the d’Urbervilles,” so I’ve played in his backyard before — but I was very taken by Sir Hugh Greene’s Rivals of Sherlock Holmes anthologies in the 1970s (and the British TV series based on them — which featured Donald Pleasence as Carnacki) and lesser-known writers like Guy Boothby, Arthur Morrison and Richard Marsh.
McHugh: There’s a fine tradition of telling tales of mystery and wonder in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and supernatural writers like Poe, LeFanu, Blackwood, and Hodgson, used the device that Conan Doyle perfected of creating a detective to guide the reader through the adventure. So, Sir Edward Grey is a fine continuation of that convention, combined with a dash of the British Hammer Film sensibility. The occult detective is often cynical, worn, but somewhat addicted to his lifestyle. As much as they protest the lifestyle they also thrive on the monsters and challenges.
What’s the collaboration been like with Mike once you came on board? Has there been a bit of a learning curve getting into the style of the Mignola-verse?
Newman: It’s all been very smooth. I’ve been co-writing with Maura McHugh, and we’ve mostly had back-and-forth with each other — Mike and Dark Horse have asked for very few changes to stay consistent with the ongoing series (we did get sent huge piles of comics collections) and we’ve had only tiny art fixes to deal with. Either we write in exactly the manner they want, or they’re flexible enough to accommodate us.
McHugh: It’s been a welcoming experience. Mike and our editor Scott Allie were involved throughout the process, but have never been intrusive. Luckily, Kim and I seem to have hit upon the right kind of narrative for the character, so there’s been little quibbling about story. The notes we have received have been helpful for fine tuning to the world and its style — which is always important. It’s also been a privilege to write with Kim.
As the first two Witchfinder series involved Edward Grey’s initial recruitment by the Queen and then more of a “weird Western” tale, where does this story fall on his personal timeline?
Newman: This takes place after he gets back from America. We looked at the character in the two miniseries and his post-mortem appearances in “Hellboy,” and thought a bit about how he changes and nudge him along his personal journey while telling a self-contained story.
McHugh: Grey’s adventures in the American frontier have changed him — he experienced a vastly different culture, and expanded his knowledge of weird events, so his return to the heart of the British Empire, and its more restrictive protocols, is not an entirely comfortable adjustment.
The teasers for this series so far have hinted at Unland as a more sinister side of Victorian London. What can you say about Unland as a concept and the particular mystery driving this series?
Newman: Unland refers to the Somerset Levels, which — in the real world — are currently a near-disaster site thanks to flooding; oddly, heavy rain features in our story too. We decided to take Grey somewhere that contrasts with the settings of the other series — a small country town. I was concerned not to repeat myself and I’ve written a lot of Victorian London. I was thinking a bit of John Cowper Powys’ “A Glastonbury Romance,” which is set in the same part of the world, but I grew up in the West Country and have written other things set there — it’s an underused backdrop in general, and will be a fresh setting for American comics.
McHugh: Unland literally means “not-land,” and is an Anglo-Saxon description for a marsh or swamp. It implies old ways, and that the going is treacherous underfoot. It’s also the perfect designation for a liminal space in which weird things can happen.
Speaking of mystery, Ed Grey as a character is one of the intentionally shadowy parts of the entire Mignola-verse. What’s your take on him as a man in his own right, especially since there’s so much left to pry open about his connection to this world?
Newman: In his miniseries, he’s been a fairly traumatized, inflexible character — but when we see him as a ghost, he’s more acidic and witty. We assumed that he grew a thicker skin and became more sardonic, so he gets a little snarkier here. Also, we’ve given him a job where he has to act as a detective rather than just fight monsters — at first, he thinks solving murders is beneath him, but he gets intrigued by this role and does some sleuthing. I don’t know if Maura and I will be back with Grey, but we did try to add some things — including a few supporting characters — that might prove useful for whoever comes after us.
McHugh: Grey is an intriguing character, and I love his current appearance in Mike’s “Hellboy in Hell” series. He’s a bit dour to most people, but comes to life when he scents fiendish plots. He’s got a long arc that sees him becoming increasingly affected by the people and creatures he encounters. I enjoy placing him upon one point in his journey, where you nod to the past and hint at the future.
Tyler Crook is the artist on the book — a name I’m sure many are happy to see returning for another round in this world. What’s that collaboration been like so far, and how does having a seasoned vet of these books help you guide the story the way you want it to go?
Newman: So far, it’s been a very easy collaboration — Tyler didn’t seek any story input, but he’s run with what we wrote and we’re delighted with the detail he’s added. He draws great monsters, which is important, but his character faces are great too. And we love stuff like the hotel wallpaper —
McHugh: Tyler has been great. I love working with artists who are keen to get the period details right, and I appreciate how much time that takes to research. It’s important that the setting feels authentic, but has enough odd touches. He’s struck that balance very well. On top of that he’s captured Grey perfectly, and has had fun with the other characters, and monsters. The collaboration has been easy, but that’s because everyone has been professional, and we’ve all worked to the common goal of putting out a good comic book.
Dark Horse has shown off some rather sinister-looking eels from Tyler’s sketchbook, but what part does monster making and more traditional horror elements play in a project like this for you?
Newman: One of the big appeals of this is making up monsters — we’ve seen frogs and squid and fish creatures, so eels were left out and have been fun to play with. Of course, it’s the horrible things supposed non-monster characters do that give the horrors bite.
McHugh: I love monsters! Seriously, I have the t-shirt. It’s a great joy to be involved in a title like this where you get to play with classic horror tropes, and there’s no better one than the beast that invades from within and without.
Overall, what would you say your driving goal is in taking on this kind of writing, this kind of world and this kind of story?
Newman: I thought it would be fun, and it has been. It’s nice to be part of someone else’s ongoing saga.
McHugh: It’s been a fantastic opportunity to write in a distinctive, established world, and to add something new to its mythic landscape. My aim was to have fun, enjoy working (and learning) from such an experienced team and to help shape a dark, entertaining story.
“Witchfinder: The Mysteries of Unland” arrive this June from Dark Horse.