In a comics marketplace where DC and Marvel fire shots across each others bows over which event comic is built on the most important and lasting story beats, another collection of shared universe comics has steadily, almost quietly, built up a number of epic events in recent years: Mike Mignola's corner of Dark Horse Comics featuring the creator's Hellboy and B.P.R.D. characters. It's almost appropriate how the stories of the Hell-born hero's battle to overcome witched in the recent "Wild Hunt" series and of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense's growing war with the ancient evil of the Frog Men and the Black Flame have come together outside the spotlight of most comics fans and commenters. As Hellboy's world is built on the darkest, most unsettling myths and monsters in history, the line's ability to creep up and shock readers with its tone and impressive size should come as no surprise.
With more and more Hellboy-themed comics on tap for 2010, CBR is proud to present the first installment of TO HELLBOY AND BACK – a new series of interviews with Mignola and the minds behind his comic creations which, over the coming weeks, will help reintroduce fans to the world and its characters as well as announce all-new projects featuring the big red bruiser, his allies at the B.P.R.D. and much, much more.
This week, the cartoonist behind the entire universe gets the ball rolling by explaining how he and his collaborators have built the action adventure universe of Hellboy over the course of many years, what mythological cornerstones have grown to be the foundation of his work and what dark, desperate themes come to light in both Mignola's ongoing series of "Hellboy" minis with artist Duncan Fegredo as well as on the similarly serialized "B.P.R.D." comics with co-writer John Arcudi and artist Guy Davis. Plus, Dark Horse has provided CBR with an EXCLUSIVE preview of April 14's "B.P.R.D.: King of Fear" #4 – the long-awaited turning point chapter for the B.P.R.D. cast and their war with the Frogs.
CBR News: When I was reading up to get ready for this call, I looked at the two most recent "B.P.R.D." volumes and thought, "Volumes ten and eleven? It can't be that many, can it?" While the whole Hellboy universe has been around for many years at this point, these stories do seem to accrue quickly with more and more volumes and more and more story piling up. Does the universe and its books sitting on your shelf look bigger than they feel sometimes?
Mike Mignola: It feels...as big as it is. With "B.P.R.D.," the beauty of it is that I don't do the bulk of the writing, and Guy Davis is not only fantastic, but he's super fast. So we're able to have pretty much a monthly book out there. "Hellboy" has been around longer, but it goes slower, so they're almost neck-in-neck in terms of books, but "B.P.R.D." has already pulled ahead of it.
It was never planned to be this giant thing, but it's not just because it's a snowball rolling down a hill that's getting bigger – it's a snowball rolling down a hill that's split into a bunch of different snowballs. And all those snowballs are getting bigger as it rolls down the hill. So nothing is planned, and I'm not consciously trying to keep expanding this thing and making it bigger, but the stories are just coming out.
The universe has grown in all kinds of ways – more characters, more titles being published, stories across the pasts of the characters. One of the things I'm struck by are the keystones of mythology between the two main books. Did you pick out a few cornerstone ideas that you don't want to get too far away from for fear the series could become unruly?
It is kind of like trying to ride a wild animal. I find you can only steer it so much. At least, that's the way I keep it fresh for me - I keep it organic. So yes, certain characters were supposed to be central characters. And then other characters came in and were introduced over on the side, then those side characters take on a life you didn't anticipate. In some cases, they'll eventually dominate a storyline. The same holds true for ideas that I'll just toss out as a kind of nothing idea. This Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra, which was thrown in to one Hellboy story just as a one-panel reference. That's become this gigantic machine that's fueling the Edward Grey stuff, and it's roots have drifted up into the B.P.R.D., so these little ideas suddenly end up expanding like crazy.
Some of these stories come about because of the characters, but some of them also – as we're doing more of the history of the Hellboy universe, there are moments in the past where I go, "Oh! Now that I've put this character on the map, I know what happened in 1826." So at some point, I'm going to have to do a story that gives us more of that history. The beauty of the way the Hellboy stuff is shaping up is that now we have all these stories and characters in different time periods. So you come up for an idea for an incident, and maybe it'll get referenced in a Lobster Johnson miniseries or get referenced in an Edward Grey miniseries. There's so many places to tell this history, and one thing I'm trying desperately to avoid – and I think it's kind of easy to avoid – is that thing where you need to read all the books to know what's going on. I try to never do anything where you reference something and someone has to go buy another book to understand what the hell you're talking about. If you read the whole line, you're getting more of the sense of the history of things, but I don't ever want to do that crossover thing where the audience feels like I'm forcing them to buy the whole line.
In the most recent stories the whole history of King Thoth and the Hyperborian Age and the Golden People has played a roll in establishing a lot of ideas to be used by either "Hellboy" or "B.P.R.D." but even there it feels like you take your time to retell the origins of that mythology in each book, and then there's so many details there that the same Thoth story can have very different implications for each comic series in and of itself.
The trickiest thing about that – and thank God there's only two writers – but it's making sure we keep track of certain events. The reason why we did that "Hellboy Companion" a few years ago was because it's mostly a tool for John Arcudi and I to know when certain things had happened to give us a framework to tell stories in. But we increasingly add to the Hyperborian history or the Victorian era stuff. We're constantly having to check and say, "Wait...was this guy here, or was he here? Was he in prison that year?" It's a little tricky, but the world is small enough that we can keep a pretty tight rein on that stuff.
With things like the Hyperborian stuff, the more we do, the bigger it gets. As opposed to "We've almost told the whole history of that thing," you've just got to add one little reference so you can go, "Oh look! There's 5,000 years of history that we just made a one-sentence reference to!" [Laughs] In my mind, as soon as I figure out that stuff, I want to find a way to get it into the book. From there it's just a case of "Okay, I want to cover this piece of Hyperborian history. Where do I put it?" And actually, I just started coming up with a Hellboy story two days ago where I said, "It's kind of this and that, but it's also an excuse to go in and flesh out a bit more Hyperborian history." But then you get to the point where you think, "If Hellboy finds out this, will that affect other stories?" I can't have Hellboy discover something in 1957 and then later they don't know anything about it. As this thing gets bigger, you've got to go back and read the books every once in a while to see what you're doing. But it's fun! It's a good problem to have.
It seems like something you'd have to be worried about is including this grand mythological tapestry without having it feel like some boring info dump.
Well, that's the thing. In a way, I kind of hurry to get a lot of stuff out there, but I'm not in such a hurry that I'm going to dump everything out in one place. I kind of did it in the Hellboy trade "Strange Places." That was coming off the movie, and since certain things were revealed in the movie, I wanted to put out "my" version of that. I wanted the whole Ogdru Jahad and the Lovecraftian entities – I wanted to get my version of that in print, because it wasn't like the film version. So I did maybe go overboard with a big history dump in that story, but I'm not trying to shove it down everybody's throat all at once.
Something my friend Sean T. Collins of Robot 6 pointed out to me about the Hellboy universe is that they're books about the failure of their own "superheroes." With each successive story arc since Hellboy left the Bureau, things have gotten worse for both of them. They don't pull out a lot of victories, and the characters get really ground down by all the events. "King of Fear" is about to conclude, and according to John Arcudi, it will serve as a turning point for the book, but will that very dark, almost dire tone continue in new stories?
Well, it definitely does turn a corner. And I don't want to give anything away, but at no point anywhere in "Hellboy" or "B.P.R.D." is there a magic pill where you take it and go, "Oh...now everything is fine." Suddenly, all the emotional beating the characters have been taking doesn't just stop and they go, "Now I feel better, and everything is okay. Now I'm like I was when I was 17!" All these characters in a way – well, we just abuse the shit out of them. Neither John nor I are really traditional superhero writers, so I don't think either one of us are looking at returning things to a normal, heroic thing. We're dealing with these characters a little more like – or as much as you can in these kinds of comics – we're dealing with them more like people. So the accumulated baggage of their experience does change them. I said to John from the beginning, "This isn't the Marvel Universe. This isn't the DC Universe. We're going to break shit that never gets fixed."
All the characters and the world are meant to evolve. And because of the kinds of stories we're doing, it's not necessarily evolving in a particularly positive direction. So yeah. It gets pretty bleak, and in some cases we go, "Eventually we're going to wear out this character so we might need to get some new members for the B.P.R.D." [Laughs] Some of these characters are not going to be on the front lines. You can't keep them out there dealing with what they're dealing with and have them report for work the next day.
SPOTLIGHT ON...JOHANN KRAUSS
As Mignola explained, with more and more dire events assaulting the members of the B.P.R.D., the cast for the world of Hellboy has grown by leaps and bounds, which is why with each new TO HELLBOY AND BACK interview, CBR will present a creator-driven bio of the main players in the world. Up this week is the B.P.R.D.'s resident medium – the disembodied German psychic Johann Krauss.
While many fans familiar with the Hellboy movies may recognize Krauss' form as the ectoplasmic man in the "plastic bubble suit," in the comics Johann actually appeared after Hellboy had left the B.P.R.D. making the medium one of the foundational figures in giving the "B.P.R.D." miniseries its own voice. And though Krauss may be without a human body, the character remains one of the most human and empathetic characters on the team. His connection to the world of the dead left Krauss (who was born in Germany in 1946 but lost his body in 2002 after a massive psychic event hit while he was in the middle of a séance) open to connecting with all kinds of people. At first, Krauss found a friend in teammate Roger the Homunculus, but when Roger died in battle, it caused a massive hit to Johann's faith in the team and their field leader Captain Ben Daimio.
Later, after the evens of the "Garden of Souls" series gave Krauss a new body to inhabit, the medium fell hard into the world of physical sensation and pleasure, pulling himself back from the brink just in time to be "killed" again by Daimio who was possessed by the spirit of a Jaguar god. "I think for Johann the biggest thing is that he got a taste for what it feels like to be human again," Mignola explained of the character's current state of mind. "In my view, he was kind of content. He'd made his peace with being ectoplasm in a plastic suit, but once he got – and John and Guy did a great job with this – to be very, very human and start making up for lost time and rediscovering all those sensory experiences...when you take that away from a guy, he's not going to be content being gas in a bag."
What that means for the future of "B.P.R.D." remains unclear, though Krauss has been stocking away information and a magical dagger all seemingly meant to bring him into conflict with Daimio should the Captain resurface. "My roll with 'B.P.R.D.' more and more has been to throw big story ideas in there, like Zeus chucking lightning bolts at a village," Mignola explained of how the stories come togther. "John's the one who's down in the village trying to piece together the human lives these bolts are destroying. So, John's done wonderful things with the characters. I'll come up with, "Let's do this!" and then John will figure out how that affects these particular characters."
Check back with CBR next week for more of TO HELLBOY AND BACK, including a look at May's "Hellboy in Mexico" project.