Rennie & Holden seek tenure in 'Department of Monsterology'

Readers of 2000AD already know the writer Gordon Rennie as a go-to guy for comic strips expertly merging the fields of action adventure, the supernatural and horror. He's the man who brought us "Necronauts," "Caballistics Inc." and "Absalom," all strips that gleefully cross genres, and share something of a Wold Newton-ian outlook. "Necronauts" was the strip that introduced many of us to the work of Frazer Irving, and told the tale of a team-up of sorts between Charles Fort, Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft. The much-missed "Caballistics Inc." featured a team of supernatural investigators forced to migrate from the civil service to the private sector, and featured casual references suggesting it shared a universe with Doctor Who, Quatermass and 2000AD's own "Zenith." "Absalom" was an indirect spinoff of "Caballistics Inc.," fusing classic cop-show DNA into the mix. At one point, Inspector Harry Absalom lists Jack Regan of The Sweeney as an old colleague.

Rennie worked with artist Paul "PJ" Holden on the 2000AD strip "The 86ers," which, while set in the world of Rogue Trooper, still managed to have allusions to Lovecraft lurking in its backstory. You may well know Holden's work from the critically acclaimed Numbercruncher, being published by Titan Comics. Others will know him as one of the men who essentially invented digital comics as we've come to know them, working on comics that could be distributed as apps way back in 2008 (as well as being the first to run afoul of Apple's censorious streak then, too). He also occasionally finds the time to be one of the trio of presenters of that most uproarious and vulgar of all comics webcasts, Sunnyside Comics.

Their upcoming comic together at Renegade Arts, Department of Monsterology, shares a lot of influences with these predecessors, while being notably less dark and cynical than Rennie's work for 2000AD. There's a great five-page prequel at USA Today that goes a long way to revealing the tone of the first issue: While the debut features pitched battles against Lovecraftian undersea creatures and Chinese vampires, the more playful emphasis reminds me of the Indiana Jones movies. Like Indy, the cast members of DoM are ostensibly academics who just happen to find themselves in the unlikeliest of high-stakes adventures, all in the name of science. We spoke to Rennie and Holden to ask them about Department of Monsterology, its influences, and their hopes for its future.

Robot 6: I could take a guess at the literary influences behind Department of Monsterology (great title, by the way) just from the names of the field teams and assorted other sly references scattered through Issue 1, but I'd rather just ask you two to talk us through them. 

PJ Holden: This will be a question for Gordon. Certainly, the one reference I'm certain of -- and was probably the first thing Gordon and I talked about even before there was a DoM -- was "Mister Vampire," which was my first time encountering Chinese hopping vampires. Would you believe I'd never read any Lovecraft until I'd started Monsterology?

Gordon Rennie: Yeah, the team names are very deliberate. Each one is named after a classic pulp character related to that team’s area of specialty, and kind of tells you where we’re coming from with this book and the world it’s set in. They are: Challenger (Professor Challenger, hero of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World), which searches for lost and hidden places, and the things that live in them; Carnacki (William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost Finder supernatural detective), which investigates the paranormal and occult; and the mysterious Team Carter (Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars), who specialise in the outer-space and UFO stuff.

Other obvious references would be Dunsany College, which the Department belongs to, and is named after the Irish fantasy writer, and the name of Team Challenger’s expedition ship the Derleth – named after August Derleth, the horror writer and the guy who did more than anyone else to extend awareness of HP Lovecraft’s work after Lovecraft’s death. There are plenty of other little Easter eggs in there – some of them more obscure than others – but these are the main road map ones.

A rag-tag team of supernatural investigators, seeking out creatures from folklore and pulp literature. Will we shoo the Mignola-comparison elephant out of the room early? There's a couple of similar character archetypes in common between DoM and the extended Hellboy cast.  What's the difference between the world of DoM, and the B.P.R.D. universe?  

Gordon: Well, it’s a theme I seem to return to, and have been doing for a while in other strips like "Necronauts" and "Caballistics," and "Necronauts" carbon-dates back to 1991, when it was going to be a series for Tundra, which I think is years before Hellboy. I like Hellboy and B.P.R.D. – or, at least, I like the idea of them, but often think the narrative execution is lacking – but DoM is just the first chance I’ve had to do the same kind of story that I’ve been doing for years on a larger canvas than a 2000AD serial makes possible. And I didn’t want to do yet another story about a secret government agency, which is why the Department is an academic institution whose job is to study and catalogue this stuff. Although, admittedly, a fair amount of monster-stomping does occur -- academic standards clearly aren’t what they used to be.

PJ: I think we're aiming for lighthearted and pulpy -- or, at, least, fun and action-packed. While there may be folklore elements in what will turn up, for the most part, they'll have been pre-filtered through a pulp lens of some sort before we even tackle them, and while, in this first series, Team Carter is missing -- at some point we're going to get to them and find out exactly what's going on there.

The (Team Carter-featuring) last page of the five-page preview is a very evocative piece of sci-fi imagery. And if I said the second (Team Carnacki) half of the book pleasantly reminded me a little of the old Doug Moench/Paul Gulacy/Gene Day Master of Kung Fu comics, would you take that as a compliment?

Gordon: I’m afraid I’ve never read it. I was, however, influenced by the sound effects from Doug Moench’s Batman stories – he really does put more thought into them than any other comic writer out there – so I’ll take it as a compliment.

PJ: I can take ANYTHING as a compliment ("You're fat"; "Why thank you, I DO feel healthier") -- it's a skill I've acquired through years of working with Gordon. To be honest, though, I've never read Master of Kung Fu (though I'm vaguely familiar with it), so can't draw the comparison, but I'd hazard a guess, we're both influenced by kung fu movies ...

Ah, there's a similar use of old British pulp archetypes in the Team Carnacki sequence that rang some Sax Rohmer bells with me, but the earlier Conan Doyle/Hope Hodgson references probably had me prepared to read too much into things. The first issue is a cracking bit of world building, introducing two teams, alluding to a third, giving everybody plenty to do, allowing their actions to tell us plenty about them, and dropping two cliffhangers for the price of one. So, what next for the DoM?

Gordon: The second issue introduces the main bad guys for this story – a brother-and-sister pair of psychopaths who compete with the Department in finding these places and the artifacts they contain, and who have a very special paranormal ability. Meanwhile, bits of backstory will be drip-fed out, and some of the ongoing mysteries in the whole series – about the Department and its history, about the secret backgrounds or motivations of some of the team members will start to make themselves known. And then there’s the big mystery of Team Carter and where they’ve disappeared to and what might have happened to them there.

PJ: For my part, I put my faith in Gordon and where he wants to take it. We've talked at length about various things, often I'll suggest an idea or an element I'd like to draw and Gordon will hammer it down, smooth out the edges and include it in some way in the story.

This is a four-issue miniseries, but it read to me like the first issue of an ongoing. I know it's early days, but any plans for these characters past these four issues?

Gordon: Yeah, lots of plans, as above might have suggested. There’s a lot to be explored about these characters, their world and some of the mysteries around some of them.

PJ: We've definitely got plans, and there are a number of threads left dangling with a view to picking them up. If we can get the readers (and that's why it's important to pre-order!) we can do more ...

PJ, I keep seeing people saying nice things about your other creator-owned comic out at the moment, Numbercruncher. Looking at the two side-by-side, they could be by two different artists.

PJ: Ha! Yes, it looks very different to this. Largely that's down to the tone of the books -- Numbercruncher, even within its pages, has two different styles, dictated by the narrative. Monsterology was drawn in a way that I felt I could sustain for hundreds, if not thousands, of pages. It's probably as close as I can get to a natural drawing style.

This feels to me very much like Gordon's return to the pulpy, Fortean waters of 2000AD's "Necronauts" (hell, one character even gets referred to as a necronaut). And maybe even with shades of his "Caballistics Inc." team in the mix, too. Do you see a through-line with those two strips at all? What keeps bringing you back to these themes and tropes?

Gordon: I seem to enjoy writing team stories, which – frankly – is incredibly hard in the space constraints of a 2000AD story, where everything is told in five- to six-page episodes. This has really given me a lot more freedom to cut loose with character elements and moments that you usually have to sacrifice to space and storytelling limitations when writing for The Mighty One. At the same time, though, a solid grounding in writing for U.K. weeklies really does teach you a lot about condensed storytelling and maximum use of the space available, and, even though 22 pages an episode seems like unlimited freedom to me, a lot of the great reviews we’ve had so far have mentioned how much story seems to be packed into it.

As for the tropes and themes, I just love doing horror-adventure stuff, and it’s definitely the genre I seem to return to again and again. So, yeah, the little nod to "Necronauts" is definitely deliberate, and, later on in the series, there’s an explicit reference to "Caballistics" that’s there for no other reason but my own amusement.

The Department of Monsterology #1 arrives Oct. 16.

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