From his earliest introduction as a helpful ghost in the Hellboy series “Conquerer Worm,” Mike Mignola’s two-fisted pulp hero Lobster Johnson has been something of a mystery. And the artist wants to keep it that way.
Even though the character continues to appear in a number of period piece Dark Horse Comics miniseries from writer John Arcudi and artist Tonci Zonjic — the lastest of which is February’s “Lobster Johnson: Get The Lobster” — Mignola says that key to crafting new Lobster Johnson stories is keeping a tight lid on his place in the world of the B.P.R.D.
“John and I have discussed just how many Lobster Johnson books we can do,” the creator told CBR News. “Because I killed off Lobster Johnson in 1938, we realized that his career is relatively short. There’s only so much you can do, and there are certain areas you have to deal with with a character like that who took place in the ’30s. As John does stories, it’s hard to do a gigantic, epic, world-changing story. I mean, as time move on, wouldn’t somebody have mentioned that? The trick with the character is to keep him relatively low key, and that’s great because then you can actually do stories about crime. The fact that he is still regarded as a mythical, ‘Was he real or not?’ character means you’re forced to maintain a certain mystery about him.”
In fact, the unknown nature of the character has been Mignola’s main fascination with him since his earliest work fleshing the hero out. “The most fun thing I’ve written as far as Lobster Johnson goes was in the first ‘Lobster Johnson’ trade paperback. Chronologically, that comes really late in his career from the stuff John is doing,” the writer/artist explained. “In ‘Iron Prometheus,’ I wrote the secret history of Lobster Johnson. There are these two-page or three-page installments that go from Lobster Johnson as this guy who supposedly killed criminals to his longer career as character in pulp magazines written by a former police detective who claimed to have known him. He was in pulp magazines and into a run of World War II comics like the great ‘Captain America’ or ‘Spy Smasher’ stuff. I think it even mentioned that it all came back around as a science fiction thing.
“And finally, it was two movie serials in America followed by a series of Mexican wrestler movies, which was where the name Lobster Johnson came from,” Mignola continued. “I realized we had a title of a book called Lobster Johnson, but at no point did we give a reason for the word ‘Johnson’ being in there. So I tried to come up with the stupidest reason why he would be known by that name. That was so much fun to me — to write a history of a character that was mostly based on the fact that no one knew who this guy really was.”
For the latest mini chronicling Johnson’s true career, some of the thematic ideas from his fake history bleed into the “real” Johnson as “Get The Lobster” focuses on a fight with some weird wrestlers in 1930s New York. “It’s John doing what John does. It’s brilliant and beautiful because he has a much better handle on the era than I do,” Mignola said. “Arcudi has really made this series so much his other than some very peculiar things about the origin of Lobster Johnson. But most of what’s great about the character is John. I just start up these things and then have the great sense to give them to a much better writer.
“One thing we discussed when John started the book was me saying: Here is my ‘true history’ — and ‘true history’ was in major quotes — for Lobster Johnson’s family tree. It’s weird. It’s intended to be something that if you heard it, you’d go ‘That can’t possibly be true.’ And you can use it or not,” the artist recalled. “And we discussed early on the idea that there might be a reporter digging into who this guy is. So my major contribution is that I tried to throw in some really weird shit that, amazingly, John is using.”
Though reporter Cindy Tynan will continue her own quest for truth around Lobster Johnson in the stories ahead, even Mignola sometimes has to learn the story at the same pace she does. “It’s funny. John is not very forthcoming with his ideas, so sometimes I have to drag it out of him what he’s doing. And sometimes no matter how much dragging I do, the most I’ll get is ‘Don’t worry. I’ve got it covered,'” the artist laughed. “What I do with both Scott [Allie] and John is talk about the general direction everything is headed in, and recently we’ve had some really long term discussions. You certainly see it in ‘B.P.R.D.’ where the world has gotten so much worse. There’s no way to go back, so it’s a question of how fast we’re accelerating things and whether we know where it’s going. And if we know where it’s going, do we have arcs in mind for these particular characters? What I don’t want is what happens when you have long-running series from multiple writers — which fortunately we don’t have a problem with — where things go one way but then stop suddenly and go another way. Then you don’t have any kind of continuity. The whole thing we’ve all been striving for is a book that feels like we knew what we were doing the whole time. It shouldn’t seem like at any point we stopped and went, ‘We hit a wall. Let’s press the reset button.’ We never want to do that.”
Part of the meticulous planning means that sooner or later, the tale of Lobster Johnson will end. “He has a pretty finite arc in terms of what John is doing here — the clock is ticking along. It’s not like this guy can have an adventure every 30 seconds. So as I coordinate with John, I want to make sure he has the room to do everything he wants to do, but I’ve also got to make sure this encompasses his entire career. Eventually, we’ll end this run on Lobster Johnson with something that can set up or lead into the opening of the ‘Conqueror Worm’ miniseries where Lobster Johnson gets killed off.”
That plotting technique of stitching together the Hellboy/B.P.R.D. universe out of what’s come before has become Mignola’s storytelling focus as the franchise has expanded. “In a lot of cases, this is me going back to really early stuff I did and saying, ‘Does this lead to that?’ or ‘Can we bring this into this?'” he explained. “With Lobster Johnson, it was a matter of bringing in some of the history of the world that I’ve been carrying in my head. That way, Lobster Johnson always feels connected to what’s going on in the other books. At the same time, we’re looking for things that happen in ‘Lobster Johnson’ that can impact the history of the other books.”
Similarly, readers of the Mignola written and drawn “Hellboy In Hell” series can expect to see some payoff for threads introduced there and in the largely standalone “Midnight Circus” graphic novel. “I’m using Hellboy’s sister Gamori in ‘Hellboy In Hell,'” the artist explained. “In issue #3, it’s mentioned that Hellboy had a sister, and originally I thought ‘Midnight Circus’ would come out before that comic. I thought we’d introduce the character, and then in ‘Hellboy in Hell’ we’d mention the sister so people would go, ‘Oh! It’s the girl from ‘Midnight Circus!” Instead, we got the mention in the series, and then months later hopefully people figured it out. So it didn’t matter what order we put them out it in. They are puzzle pieces that match up, and of course, she made certain comments in that book that will mean more when we see her again in ‘Hellboy In Hell.'”
The artist promised that in 2014, some of the ties that bind the books together will grow tighter, though not in the way readers may expect. “I do kind of mentally keep track of what’s been said or mentioned so I can pay them off. I’ve got another series I’m writing in the next few months where I’m taking an incident from ‘B.P.R.D.’ where I don’t think anyone would have ever said ‘There needs to be a prequel for that,’ and now there will be a completely unrelated ‘B.P.R.D.’ series that adds some backstory to that relatively minor incident. So I am always kind of doing that. I come up with rough plot ideas and then go, ‘What can I use from what we established already to build new pieces connecting all this?’ I’m not trying to fill in every single blank, but it’s nice to have these threads so when people re-read this stuff — especially when they re-read it — they’ll make the connections.”
“Lobster Johnson: Get The Lobster,” by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Tonci Zonjic, debuts in February from Dark Horse.