Chris Roberson previews 'Witchfinder: City of the Dead'
Marvel and DC get all the big buzz, but they aren’t the only comic companies who have spent decades constructing complex fictional continuities. Over at Dark Horse, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics have gone from one series about a human-raised demon investigating the paranormal into an expansive universe full of fairies, monsters, and detectives struggling for or against the forces of eldritch horror. This fictional universe pays homage to many of the pulp genres that first influenced Mignola; in addition to Hellboy’s wanderings through Hell and the Celtic underworld, there’s also Witchfinder, which follows Sir Edward Grey’s occult investigations in service of Queen Victoria. Something of a predecessor to Hellboy and the modern-day B.P.R.D, Grey pops up frequently throughout the Hellboy mythology. The Witchfinder series, which has run on-and-off since 2009, shows how Grey did things back in the days before radio.
The newest installment of that series, Witchfinder: City of the Dead, features Grey dealing with a zombie incursion into Victorian England. It’s got one of the foremost zombie experts at the helm, too; City of the Dead was co-written by Mignola and iZombie creator Chris Roberson. As Mignola continues his gradual exit from making Hellboy comics, it’s only natural that he would bring in similarly-minded creators to continue taking care of the universe.
Below, Roberson speaks with EW about writing a universe he’s loved as a fan, taking zombies out of their comfort zone, and making Witchfinder accessible to new and old fans alike. Above, check out the exclusive cover of the first issue (of five). Witchfinder: City of the Dead #1 is on sale August 31.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: On first glance this appears to be a zombie story. Most zombie stories, however, take place in the present or near future. What’s different about a Victorian zombie story? How does working on this story compare to iZombie?
CHRIS ROBERSON: One of the things that motivated the creation of iZombie in the first place was that I’d noticed that zombies had been relegated to the post-apocalyptic scenario. Werewolf stories don’t all have to take place in eastern Europe, vampire stories aren’t required to be set in Victorian times, but we’d reached a point where it was rare to see zombie stories set anytime other than in the near future after the collapse of society. There’s a lot of fun to be had in taking different genre tropes and transposing them into different historical settings and cultural milieus.
This story alludes to past events and people but is also pretty easy to follow. How are you balancing servicing lore and long-term fans with making this story accessible to potential new readers?
It’s a balance that I’ve always tried to strike when working with established characters or in long-running fictional worlds. There’s the old saw that “every issue might be someone’s first,” and I think there’s some truth to that. The trick is to draw from the existing lore when constructing the story, but integrate it in such a way that it makes sense in the context of the story that you’re telling. It’s possible that longtime readers might see additional layers of meaning from some of those connections, but someone who is entering this world for the first time should still be able to understand what’s on the page.
Witchfinder has so far existed as a series of one-off storylines. What can you tease about your long-term plan(s) with this series and character?
Witchfinder was actually my ticket into the Mignolaverse, as a creator. I had done some work with Scott Allie on an Aliens miniseries a few years ago, and having really enjoyed the experience, was eager to do some more work with him and Dark Horse. Scott ran down a list of franchise properties that I might be a good fit for, and I stopped him cold when he said that they were looking for someone to pitch a Witchfinder series. I’m a big fan of Victorian occult detectives in general, and of Sir Edward Grey in particular, and I’ve reread the entirety of Hellboy and all the related B.P.R.D. titles roughly once a year since the beginning, so I had a lot of ideas about interesting places to explore with the character. We know from other stories a few details about Grey’s later life, including how he dies, but there’s a lot of empty space on that map that can be filled in. With Scott and Mike’s input and feedback, I’ve come up with a rough outline for Sir Edward’s globe-trotting adventures all the way through his final battle in 1916, and the seeds for a lot of that are planted in City Of The Dead.
A great theme of Witchfinder is the comparison between eldritch horror and human-level cruelty. How do you use that dynamic in this story?
It was an idea born from realizing that Sir Edward Grey doesn’t hunt monsters, as such. He hunts witches. His focus isn’t on the supernatural itself, but on the people who use the supernatural to their own ends at other’s expense. He might find himself fighting a monster on occasion, but he’s just as likely to end up dealing with a human being who does horrible things on a completely mundane scale. Or to put it another way, not all monsters have to be supernatural.
What’s it like working with Mike Mignola? How long have you followed his stuff?
Oh, geez, I’ve been a fan of Mike’s since the early days of his career. When we first met a few years ago, I confessed that I still thought of him as “the Rocket Raccoon guy.” I bought the first issue of Hellboy the week it hit the stands, and have been there in the front row ever since. Mike is one of my favorite creators, and one that I consider to be a formative influence of mine, so just the fact that he knows who I am and likes my work is incredibly flattering. But one of the most enjoyable aspects of working on these books is getting to bounce ideas back and forth with Mike, talking about monsters and mythology and movies we like. This really is a dream job for me, and one I hope to keep doing for a very long time.
As the years go on, it becomes more clear just how special a world Mignola has created with the Hellboy universe. What’s your favorite part about playing in it?
I’ve loudly proclaimed for years that Hellboy and the related B.P.R.D. titles rank among my absolute favorite comics of all time, and contend that they have been the most consistently enjoyable and rewarding “universe” in American comics, bar none. But my favorite part about working on these books has been the collaborative element, I think. That often starts with phone conversations with Mike, bouncing ideas back and forth. And then I work up detailed outlines of the stories with Scott Allie, who gives the best creative notes and editorial feedback of any editor I’ve worked with in comics. And when the artist comes onboard, there’s always a lot of great back and forth, as they figure out the best way to visualize my script on the page. From the initial idea to the finished comic, those conversations are so enjoyable that I almost feel guilty calling it “work.” It’s just an absolute pleasure to have the opportunity to collaborate with so many great people, all of whom are fantastic at what they do.
What’s your favorite part of working with Ben Stenbeck? How are you playing to his strengths?
Speaking of people who are fantastic at what they do! Ben is amazing. I think I was introduced to his work through the first Witchfinder miniseries, and I was overjoyed when Scott told me that Ben would be coming back for City of the Dead. He is just so amazing at capturing the period, and the spaces that the characters inhabit. But he’s also fantastic at the “acting” of his characters on the page. He’s also had a direct hand in shaping the story itself, though. There have been several instances where we had to go back and tweak the scripts because Ben had a suggestion for a scene to add that was so perfect that we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.