Over twenty years have passed since Hellboy first won our hearts in the pages of Next Men #21, but the universe that creator Mike Mignola hath wrought only grows more expansive with each new comic. His latest tale set in the Hellboy Universe, illustrated by his Baltimore collaborator Ben Stenbeck, is Frankenstein Underground. As its title states, this four-issue Dark Horse miniseries (the first issue of which arrives on March 18th) will feature Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster. As a lifelong fan of Boris Karloff’s interpretation of the character, Mignola was understandably wary about focusing an entire story on the most iconic figure in horror fiction, even after featuring him in his graphic novel House of the Living Dead (illustrated by Richard Corben). But as he tells us in the following exclusive interview, Mignola has found, as he has with most every character he’s written, a way to make the creature his own…
NERDIST: In Frankenstein Underground, you’ve partnered with an artist with whom you’ve worked before, one whose work complements your writing especially well, and manages to capture the spirit of your own art without inviting comparison.
MIKE MIGNOLA: I think part of why it works is I created this book for Ben. Because he wanted off the Baltimore book, and I was playing around with this idea in the back of my head. We ran through a couple of different ideas for something for Ben to do, and the one that he was most excited about was this Frankenstein thing. So I said, “Well then, let’s do that.” The story is tailored very much to him. He’s just one of those guys — he can apparently do anything. So I’m very lucky whenever I get to work with guys like that. But since I did know his particular strengths, and I knew he was very excited about the book, I’m sure that makes a difference. But yeah, generally when I write a book I know who I’m writing it for. I think that does always inform the shape of the thing.
N: How did you and Ben first come to work together? His style, like yours, employs a less-is-more philosophy, but he adds a welcome bit of cartooning.
MM: Yeah. He’s a funny bird. Because there is a kind of simplicity to what he does, but he doesn’t skimp at all on the information. You really saw it in Baltimore. You really saw it in the Witchfinder stuff. Where he did so much homework and he brought in so many background details, and little information pieces. Which is one of the things I love about working with him — he can give me all this information, all this visual stuff, but still make it solid and readable. Some guys are so detailed oriented that it’s just a blur of information. But Ben, because he’s so good at spotting black and making things solid… He’s got a cinematic quality in that he’s seen the world and he’s seen how everything works in that world, he’s much more realistic in that way than I am. But he adds almost an old film kind of quality. There’s a slight clunkiness to it because it is grounded in reality certainly a lot more than most comic book artists are. But he’s also a really good cartoonist. So he’s this perfect thing, and he can draw anything. Which again is just one of the great things from the perspective of a writer. I don’t know that there’s anything where I’d go, “Oh, we can’t do that in the story, because Ben can’t do that.” Because he can do anything. When I plot for myself, I’m constantly running into “I can’t draw that” or “I can’t draw this,” or maybe I just don’t want to draw that. But I’m constantly shifting around things. With Ben it’s just like, “No, I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do.”
He was doing a zombie book of some kind for Dark Horse. I haven’t looked back at this stuff in a long time, but I think it was probably really simple and really primitive by the standards of what he does now. But there was something about it that I just went, “Oh, this is a cartooning thing, but also solid, grounded in a certain reality.” There was something about that book where I just went, “Oh, I like this.” I mean I trust my gut when it comes to fictional artists, and while I did see that he had a ways to go with certain things, there was a gut-level response to his stuff. He did a BPRD one-shot with us, and he’s pretty much just worked with us ever since. So it’s just been a matter of “What do you want to do next?” or “Here’s this great project for you.” We’ve got projects lined up for quite a ways down in the future also. I dread the day that he doesn’t want to work with us anymore. [Laughs.] Really the things is, we’ve just got to give Ben books that he wants to do. That’s where the Frankenstein book came from. It was like, “Here’s a couple different things. You want off Baltimore? Here’s a couple of different things. What would you like to do?” He’s like, “Well I like that Frankenstein book.” I’m like, “Alright, it’s yours. We want to keep you happy.”
N: You’ve said that James Whale’s Frankenstein movies are your favorite films. Though this book is inspired by Whale, it doesn’t regurgitate what we’ve already seen. How did you strike that balance between forging your own path and allowing yourself to be inspired?
MM: Well I started with not a lot of thought about the Frankenstein monster, other than I’d created this character a monster in this graphic novel I did with Richard Corben, in which case I had no idea at the time that it was THE Frankenstein monster. So I had the character of the monster all ready, and then realized who it was. So I didn’t start with Mary Shelley. I started with the Karloff type — almost silent, groaning type of monster. As much as I love the Shelley novel, the Karloff monster is always going to be closest thing to my heart. So I kind of had to create the character for myself, and not trip over and now try to second guess what Mary Shelley would have done. I just couldn’t write that character. Though in later issues there are a couple of moments that I pull straight from the novel for flashbacks. I did want to ground the character in Shelley’s character and have that in his past, but at this point now, it’s 1950, and he’s been beaten and abused enough that he’s kind of… Not necessarily dumbed down, but he’s quieted down to being the Karloff monster from Bride of Frankenstein. Bride of Frankenstein is one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s what’s always in my head when I think of the Frankenstein monster. And it’s why this character is mostly a very sad character. He’s got the weight of a lot of abuse and crime that’s he’s committed that he maybe feels bad about. So that informs the character. But he’s not even the central character. His character isn’t the plot of the story. He’s there for another story.
So he’s carrying all this baggage, and we reference his past, but he’s really a vehicle for telling this other story, which is a chunk of the Hellboy universe mythology, this underground, Victorian-era stuff that I bring in. The original idea was just to throw him underground and do sort of an Edgar Rice Burroughs thing with the Frankenstein monster, where he’s just parading from one location to another, fighting this monster, fighting that monster. Then I started bringing in all these other things from other places, and the thing tightened up into this unique and tidy little package. So it’s definitely its own thing… Can you tell that I forgot entirely what I was talking about by the end of that? [Laughs.]
N: We see a brief glimpse of Hellboy himself in one panel of the book’s first issue. Is that all we’ll see of Hellboy in this series?
MM: Yeah. I don’t think there’s any other reference to Hellboy. He doesn’t factor into it. That was basically something that just happened to the Frankenstein monster a couple of weeks earlier, so that’s the only reason we reference it. But it certainly wasn’t a turning point in his life, meeting Hellboy. And nobody else in the story has any idea who Hellboy is, so there’s no way to reference Hellboy again. Though the bigger mythology that goes on with Hellboy and the BPRD is on some of the characters’ minds. So there are other references to the Hellboy Universe stuff, but not Hellboy specifically.
N: Given your love of the monster, it’s interesting that aside from your Bride of Frankenstein Topps cards and your Bride of Frankenstein Mondo print we haven’t see you tackle him before.
MM: It was never my intention to bring in major characters from literature. I’m happy to do my spin on characters, or something that’s inspired by something else. But to actually tackle the real character is something I never would have done had I not just accidentally realized, “Oh shit, this is the actual Frankenstein monster,” which just came about because I had to write ad copy for the back cover of the House of the Living Dead graphic novel. It really just came down to “There’s not other way” — because I was listing all of the crazy shit that was in the story — “to describe this character.” It was just funnier to say, “And the Frankenstein monster.” Then you go, “Shit, that means it’s THE Frankenstein monster.” So that’s entirely how I ended up having him.
N: At this point do you have any ideas for the character beyond this four-issue series?
MM: The original idea was a whole series of books, as we’ve done with other things. But once the story started falling into place, I realized, “This is it.” It does everything it needs to do in terms of what it does to the world. The character’s left in an interesting place, so there’s room to do more stuff. But I have no ideas for future stuff. When I wrote the end of this thing, I went, “I think I’m done. I know what this does to the world. I know where this character is. I don’t need to see anything else.” If Ben wants to do something, or another writer comes to me and says, “I want to do something,” the door’s open a little bit. But we’ve got so much other stuff we’re doing, I just think this one’s perfectly fine the way it is. When this is collected, it won’t have a number 1 on the spine, it will just be the title of the book.
N: Can you talk about some of that other stuff? What’s next for you?
MM: Well, I’m thrilled to death because I’m actually just drawing comics. I’m wrapping up this two-issue Hellboy in Hell story. It’s been a bad stretch as far as I’ve been writing too much. It just happened that I ended up writing the plots for the Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. first miniseries and writing Frankenstein at the same time. So I’m way further behind on drawing my comic than I actually wanted to be. But B.P.R.D. is in the drawer, and Frankenstein, I have a couple of issues left to script, but most of that’s done. I am thrilled to death that I wake up every morning and, most days, get to sit down and draw this comic. It’s more exciting all the time, because my Hellboy stuff is really going someplace. It’s making major changes to this character and this world. Even today I’m doing stuff where I’m going, “I never quite thought I’d get this far.” I make this stuff up, and then I go, “I hope I live long enough to actually do that scene.” And I’m doing one of those scenes right now. Yeah, I’m pretty happy.
N: Fantastic. The world can never have too much Mike Mignola art.
MM: Well, I do what I can. [Laughs.] But of all the stuff I’ve done, this one, because it is THE Frankenstein monster, was the one I was most nervous about. Because, again, I never would have imagined taking on a literary character. And in order to do that I did have to kind of make it my character. So I references the Mary Shelley stuff but there’s a lot more of the Karloff in there informing. But also I couldn’t write this character without going. “Okay, I know who he is.” Regardless of Mary Shelley, regardless of Boris Karloff, I had to make him up for me and stick to that. Then when I got it done, I kind of went, “Did I really do justice to the character?” That’s why it’s always easier to make up your own thing. It’s not the Shadow, it’s Lobster Johnson. It’s my version of that. So I hope people will tolerate my version of Frankenstein.
N: [Laughs.] I’m sure they will. Thanks for your time.
MM: Thank you very much!