The initial path of Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden’s Lord Baltimore may have been set down by a novel, but with their latest comic series, the co-writers are pushing far beyond the character’s initial boundaries.
Debuting in the 2007 prose book “Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire,” the World War I-era occult adventurer had the broad strokes of his transformation from a haunted family man to a half-human vampire hunter told in full. But when the Dark Horse Comics series took up Baltimore’s cause in 2010, the stories written by Mignola and Golden didn’t just fill in the blanks of the initial book. Instead, they set him on a path to continue past the novel’s dramatic ending — which readers can check out in a new paperback edition this July.
This May, the writers team with frequent Baltimore artist Peter Bergting and cover artist Ben Stenbeck for “Baltimore: The Cult of the Red King.” While this new limited series isn’t the first comic that comes chronologically after the end of the novel, it does open up the character to a whole new phase of his existence –Â one that his creators say will set him on a path towards his final fate. CBR News spoke to both Mignola and Golden, and the pair described how they found themselves suddenly staring down Baltimore’s final mission against his ultimate foe, how the vampire menace turns the comic into a bizarre alternate history and why “Cult” will open up Baltimore’s story like never before.
CBR News: Gentlemen, “Cult of the Red King” marks about five years of you guys expanding your original “Baltimore” novel into comics, and it seems that the stories will continue on from here. While I know Chris has written a number of novels and comics outside this series and that Mike has waves of Hellboy-related projects going, this feels like it’s a special collaboration for both of you. What is it that keeps it going strong?
Mike Mignola: It sounds like he’s trying to imply that the rest of the stuff you write is just stuff that you’re hacking out. “Why does the Baltimore stuff suck less than the other comics you do?” [Laughter]
Christopher Golden: No! I think the question is about why the Baltimore stuff is something we keep coming back to. And my thing is that I’ve been doing comics as long as I’ve been writing novels, but I did stop doing them for a number of years. One of the reasons for that was because I just got so disheartened with it. My adventures in the comics industry were fraught with bad artists and difficulties — like editors I didn’t love. And not always, I should say. I worked with some really talented artists and some great editors who were supportive, but I had my share of issues. So I felt like I kept stumbling in that field, and I sort of just stopped pursuing it. As much as I loved comics, I focused entirely on the books for a while with a couple of exceptions. I did “Talent” with BOOM!, and that turned out really well.
Eventually, when Mike put it out to me to do the “Baltimore” novel, that led to these comics and me coming back in. And look, you can’t be in a better position if you want to be freer and really delve into what you want to do from an artistic and creative perspective than to work with Mike. Because he’s crazy and supportive and has all the same insane frames of reference, yes, but also, he has the freedom because of the success he’s had over the years to say, “This is what we’re doing. Come on board.” And that’s an amazing place to be for me.
Mignola: And the thing he’s left out is that when you work with me, after the first book or two I kind of lose interest [Laughter] From there, Chris is able to do whatever the hell he wants! He says, “I think I’m going to do this,” and I say, “That sounds fine.”
Golden: Well, I would say that as long as you’re happy you let me. If you’re unhappy, you pay very close attention.
Mignola: That is true. I’ll go, “That’s fine,” but I never say “That’s good enough” because it’s a phrase I hate. I heard it too much in the old days. I’ll often say it’s fine, and then when I read it, I go, “Well, couldn’t we do this? Couldn’t we tweak that?” But really, other than the first “Baltimore” miniseries, I think they’ve all been plot-driven by Chris. The novel was plot-driven by me, and we talked about the idea that there was room to do a whole lot of stuff with Baltimore with the middle part of the novel which jumps over a number of years. But other than the odd idea that I’d throw out, I don’t think there were any other plots that came from me. “The Plague Ships” is probably the closest because it was the first one.
Golden: Right. I think mostly with that book you just wanted Ben [Stenbeck] to draw diving suits.
Mignola: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s always a plot born of “I want to see the artist draw this or that.” And it helps that the artist wants to draw that too.
The upcoming “Cult of the Red King” series does mark a turning point for the book, though. After many miniseries covering the ground of the novel, this book seems to be pushing Baltimore into a new direction — specifically having the character and his companions confront a kind of hidden master villain who’s been hinted at for a while. Was this confrontation always something you felt was in the offing?
Mignola: I think it happened faster than we thought it was going to.
Golden: Really what happened was, we initially set out to fill in some space that was left in the novel. There’s a period of years where Baltimore was sort of running around killing vampires and other things, and we left that open knowing that we could eventually come back and fill that in with comics and other things. So we did that, and then in “Chapel of Bones,” we got to the end of the novel and we’d always talked about the potential to continue on after that and do sequels — even when we were writing the novel. But when we got to that particular series, we finally decided to set the stage for that.
So in the collection that’s coming soon –Â “The Apostle & The Witch of Harju” –Â we told the two stories that were about us “gathering the team.” It changes Baltimore completely. If the early adventures of Baltimore and the novel were a solo book, it becomes a team book here. We don’t use the word “Apostle” by accident. This is very Christlike and New Testament-driven in some ways — some perverted ways.
But “The Cult of the Red King” is all about the fact that now that we’ve set the table and brought the team together, we’re getting toward the beginning of the end, I guess you’d say. That came about because as we were plotting out and as I was talking to Mike about what would happen in those last two miniseries, I realized what the ending ought to be. I called Mike up and told him what I thought that could be, and in typical Mike fashion, he said, “That’s better than I expected it to be.” [Laughter]
Mignola: Well, it happened when we got to the end of the novel, and it happened here where we thought there was a lot more to do, and then you look around and go, “Wait a minute. Everybody’s lined up where they need to be.” Just like I said before, coming to the end of the novel’s story in the comics was a surprise. I thought we had a couple more books in there, and then it was like, “No. This feels like the point where we should hit the end of the novel.” And then when we started plotting what kind of book we should do beyond the novel, that was really exciting. It wasn’t the kind of thing where we said, “It’s going to be three books, and then we’ll wrap it up.” It was, “We can do these kinds of stories.” But once you actually start doing those kinds of stories, the stories find their own rhythm and work at their own speed.
In my experience — and this is with everyone I work with and not just on “Baltimore” — I end up getting to the end of things much sooner than I thought I was going to. I just see things in these broad strokes of story, but within those stories there is a mechanism ticking along. And when the time comes, rather than stretching and stretching things, I feel like I’ve already read too many comic books that do that. Or how many TV shows have you ever watched where you go, “Oh! You didn’t think you’d get this many seasons, and you probably should’ve wrapped it up sooner.” You never want to overstay your welcome.
Golden: And to be clear, we should say that “The Cult of the Red King” is not the end, but it puts all the pieces in motion that set us on the path towards the end.
It’s funny because as I’ve been reading the more recent “team book” issues of “Baltimore,” in some ways it reminds me of Doc Savage or The Shadow where the hero would surround themselves with a team of people indebted to them in some way. What was the draw of that particular construction?
Mignola: Part of the reason was because we just wanted a different dynamic. The really crazy ending of the novel just means that it can’t be what it was going forward. With the team thing, I don’t know if we specifically referenced Doc Savage or The Shadow, but we both certainly come from that kind of background. The big difference is that Doc Savage’s guys tended to survive. [Golden Laughs] With Baltimore, we kind of realized, “This guy’s going to need a big team because it’s going to be rough hanging with him.”
Golden: Yeah. In the back of my mind — although the story and the genre both are completely different –Â as I’ve been writing the “Cult of the Red King” story I keep thinking about [Michael Moorecock’s] Elric and how Elric was basically a dude that if you hung around with him, you were going to die.
Mignola: And if you didn’t die from something else, he ended up killing you. [Laughter]
Mignola: I suddenly am getting this image of Baltimore turning around and going, “Okay, guys, let’s get going.” But when he turns, they’re all dead. “Oh shit. That’s right. I guess it’s time to put out the ad again.”
One major player in Baltimore’s team that will have an affect on “Cult of the Red King” is Tom Childress, one of the few surviving people who knew Baltimore before the events of the novel and has now seen what he’s become after that story’s end. Why was it important to have that perspective in the story, and what does that character’s role mean for how it all plays out?
Mignola: Once Baltimore becomes clearly less human — he did pluck out his own heart at the end of the novel and slam it on the table –Â I think you need a reminder that he was once really human. So having that character who once knew him as a human being provides a great balance.
Golden: And Childress is different. Yeah, Dr. Rose knew Baltimore when he was fully alive, but he didn’t know him prior to his encounter with Haigus on the battlefield. He didn’t know what he was like before the war and all this stuff happened. Childress is really the only person left alive who knew Baltimore growing up as a young man. He’s the only one with a connection to the kind of purity of who you are when you’re young. He’s the last link Baltimore has to what he views as his humanity. But the problem is that Baltimore doesn’t always pay attention to or appreciate that link, and he’ll be reminded of that in the first issue.
Despite the fact that this series is putting Baltimore and company on a path to confront the Red King, I’m doubtful you guys will have that conflict play out in a direct manner like all of them just coming up on his spooky mansion ready for a fight…
Mignola: Or will we? [Laughter]
Golden: Yeah, that’s the next miniseries. “The Red King’s Spooky Mansion.”
Mignola: Actually, “House of the Red King.” Hmmmm. That’s not a bad title. I like that.
Golden: I like that too — especially because it’s kind of a thematic follow up to “Cult of the Red King.”
Mignola: That’s really good. Yay! We got some work done today!
Well, however you get to that final conflict, how do you play the journey of this team in a way that utilizes the creepy, mysterious nature of the Red King’s followers to full effect?
Golden: Here’s what we can say: talking about the Red King is not like talking about Doctor Doom. Nothing against Doctor Doom, but the Red King is something that’s very difficult for the individuals in this story to imagine because he exists outside of reality in some ways, and now he’s sort of leaking in. All of these things are coming about because of that. The more people worship him, the worse it gets. We’ve been seeing a bunch of witch covens in these stories and also cults and other groups. So the more people that are worshiping this thing for the first time in thousands of years, the more powerful it becomes and the more likely it is to wake up. And if it wakes up, we’re all fucked.
Mignola: I think maybe the only thing wrong with the first issue cover where the Red King is taking a bath with that little boat is that we’ve personified these visions people have had of the Red King towering over things. But in the actual book, that guy hasn’t really made that kind of appearance. It’s more of a symbolic image that might give some the impression of “Hey, he’s a guy. Maybe he has a house.” [Laughs] But as of right now, he’s an influence. The whole plan is to stop him from becoming the guy that walks around.
Golden: And Baltimore keeps running into people who are trying to find a way to not only wake the Red King but to get him to manifest in our world.
Mignola: It’s the whole “Don’t wake up Cthulhu” thing.
One thing that stands out about this as a piece of historical horror fiction is that Baltimore’s story is very much born out of World War I in a thematically connected way to real history. But just like how the Hellboy-verse has gone from being our actual reality to being a modern earth overrun by monsters, do the stories you’re telling here ultimately have to morph this world into an alternate history kind of thing? Is that something you’ve even discussed?
Mignola: We talked about that a lot at the beginning. Because the fun thing with the novel is, we started in World War I and then the focus became so much about Baltimore. Even though we skipped a bunch of years, the ending was such a tight little ending at this inn with a few characters that you didn’t see what happened to the rest of the world. It wasn’t about the world. It was about that character. So when we started doing the comic, we talked about the fact of, “Once you’ve said that World War I ended because vampires overran everything, you kind of realize that certain other things just wouldn’t have happened.” We’ve had a lot of conversations about the world and all the different shit that would happen in the world. But there just aren’t enough pages in the comic to do that. You could do a whole book about this alternate history that we’ve created, but it’s sadly not what the book is about. It’s just a great background, and Chris does a great job of showing how these places have been affected.
Golden: Yeah. And the war stopped because there were vampires and things about, but it also stopped because this plague of illness was so bad that all the soldiers on the battlefields threw down their weapons and went home to see if their families were still alive. That changes the course of history dramatically. It also will change the course of future history that at the end of “The Curse Bells” we killed Hitler.
Mignola: That’s true. It’s funny. Because we’ve talked about the idea that once we’ve wrapped this story up, we could go back to the world and pick things up years down the road. That would really be a conversation about, “How radically different will this world be in 20 years?”
Golden: And that would be a fun conversation. We will probably have it at some point.
Even though you describe “Cult of the Red King” as “the beginning of the end,” I know that Dark Horse has described this as an entry point for the series. Was reaching the end of the novel’s narrative in the comics something that enabled you to reset and say, “We can start a new chapter here”?
Golden: We had a particular goal in mind. It was never an end point to get to the end of the novel with the comics, but it was our initial goal. What’s great with “The Cult of the Red King” and bringing in new people…even though every time one of these stories get published they say, “It’s a great jumping on point!” but this really is one. You can pick up the first issue of this miniseries never having read “Baltimore” before, and you’ll get it.
Mignola: Though you should then go out and pick up the others. [Laughter] They’re all currently in print and easily available!
But one of the beautiful things about Baltimore and the Hellboy books as well is that this thing is ultimately a finite series. We don’t have to do that trick of giving the illusion of change. There really is an arc to all these things, but it is a very long arc. There’s nothing I hate more than reading something and really liking it and then going, “Oh. It’s just one book.” There is a lot of material here.
Golden: And when we came up with the ending for this story, it was so satisfying. We were able to say, “We came up with something, and it really works.” I know just as a reader when there’s a story with a planned beginning, middle and end, I just want to live long enough to get to that ending. I can’t wait to see how Hellboy goes and watch Mike get to everything he has planned.
Mignola: Me too! That’s my main goal these days it to live long enough to finish this shit.
Golden: But it’s no relaunch or reboot. It’s a real story.
Mignola: One that feels like we planned it from the beginning. That is always the gag — to finish and say, “This looks like we planned it.”
“Baltimore: Cult of the Red King” #1 arrives on May 6 from Dark Horse Comics.
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