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Interview: Kim Newman & Maura McHugh Talk Witchfinder

Interview: Kim Newman & Maura McHugh Talk Witchfinder

The cowriters of Dark Horse's Witchfinder speak on period, process, and eel museums.




For those of you who aren't reading it, definitely go to your local comic store and give Witchfinder a chance. Starring Sir Edward Grey, a recurrent figure of the Hellboy world, the title is now in it's third arc, The Mysteries of Unland. Issue two is out this week and it's an outstanding continuation of the strong first issue. Handled by writers Kim Newman and Maura McHugh, the title blends mystery and horror in a beautifully atmospheric, enigmatic narrative. I had the opportunity to interview the title's cowriters a few weeks ago, and they had some remarkable answers.

 

David Mitchell: In a lot of press and even in some of the pitches I hear about Witchfinder, the term "Lovecraftian" gets thrown around a lot- what does "Lovecraftian" or Lovecraft mean to you, if anything?

 

Kim Newman: I just looked out our original pitch and the word ‘Lovecraftian’ isn’t used. There’s certainly a conscious element of ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ in the plotting, though as the story develops we take a very different approach to the material than Lovecraft – almost a critique of the underlying assumptions of the original story. We were trying more to fit into the Mike Mignola universe, which has healthy dollops of Lovecraft in it along with many other influences. I’ve written a couple of Innsmouth-related stories (The Big Fish, Another Fish Story, Richard Riddle – Boy Detective). Since the Hellboy/BPRD world has done a lot with frogs (amphibians) and tentacular beings, we thought it’d be cool to go with eels as our monster/god/elder race – eel-fishing is a big thing in the West Country, where the story is set, and they combine fishiness with snakiness, plus there are electric eels. Tyler has done great work extraopolating this into the monsters of our series.

 

Maura McHugh: There are certain states that are typically described in Lovecraftian horror: dread, paranoia, and madness, with the protagonist usually cycling through them as s/he realises there are much bigger and darker forces pressing upon the limits of our world. I think this type of horror is also about people who are outliers in society and already feel isolated. The knowledge they stumble upon isolates them further. It marks them. There is often a prevailing anxiety, and I think this is why this kind of story doesn't go away, because we live in an anxious society.

 

David: Lovecraft for me really speaks to invisible, incomprehensible horror. In my review I talk about invisible colors and impossible geometries, and I think that stuff makes Lovecraft great. Really leaves things to the imagination. But it also presents a lot of challenges when adapting to a visual medium. How are you thinking of approaching that aspect of Lovecraft, if at all?

 

Kim: It’s true that all the subtly allusive, non-description of unimaginable entities in Lovecraft tends to boil down to large angry seafood when they appear in comics or films.  Our creatures have a supernatural aspect, but we’ve written them as very physical, describable beings – which makes things easier for the artist. In this particular story, I think we’re influenced as much by Thomas Hardy and Arthur Conan Doyle as Lovecraft, and the Witchfinder sub-franchise of Mike’s world owes a lot to William Hope Hodgson too. That said, we were conscious of a need to add our own spin on things.

 

Maura: There's a definite element of weird in the story that Tyler Crook is so adept at evoking. In this regard writers are at the mercy of their artist to bring to life what we have described, and it's fantastic when it's conjured up so brilliantly. The monsters are physically real in this story, so in many ways Kim and I were embracing the cinematic monster tradition. There are some almost theatrical elements, which is more a nod to Hammer Horror films (and EC horror comics). Then there's the supernatural detective at the heart of the story, which is pretty old-school literary horror. Like any other horror writer Kim and I are part of a long horror tradition with many influences. Some of them are in your mind when you're writing, and others are picked up by you or reviewers afterwards. Not all of it is conscious or planned, which is where strange writing springs from.


David: Working with a period piece always presents challenges both in writing and in art. Fantasy always brings a little wiggle room, but Witchfinder is quite well grounded. How do you approach the challenges of working with the Victorian setting?

 

Kim: I’ve written a lot of period-set fiction and have quite a few handy reference sources. I think it’s important not to impose too much on the times by having characters express modern opinions or seem to be too far in advance of their period intellectually, which is a tricky balancing act when there’s a master detective character in the mix. We have to accept that Sir Edward is a very clever sleuth and occultist – but he’s never heard of fingerprinting and probably believes in scientific theories we’d dismiss as crackpottery. This story grew out of the setting – obviously, we were commissioned to pitch for Witchfinder, which meant the late 19th century was a given, and so the question became where the story was set rather than when. We hit on the idea of a Victorian new town – there are several in Somerset, founded by Quaker firms – and that led us to the theme of a rigid Christian moralist lifestyle being imposed on people who benefited from the work and improved living conditions but still must have bridled at, say, living in a town with no pubs.

 

Maura: Like Kim I've written period pieces before, and getting the details right is important. When you write in the fantastic tradition you are asking your readers to agree to a break in reality, often in a significant way: giant eels not being the norm, after all! So the grounding of the story - the setting and the characters - need to appear realistic. You don't want an incongruous detail to pull a reader out of the story, which is often a fragile experience especially at the beginning. I enjoy research, and one of the most frequent things you have to check in a story like this is when was an item invented, or when did a phrase enter the lexicon. That leads you to discovering other facts, which sometimes you can feed into the story, or file away for another tale. Kim was fantastic at catching little details which were overlooked.

 

David: Collaborative writing isn't enormously common in comics, despite the fact that most comics on the market are collaborations of some kind (editor, writer, penciller, and so forth). What is it like working collaboratively as writers on the title? Do you "Divide and Conquer" so to speak, each of you handling the writing of specific pages? Or is it very much a collaboration page-by-page?

 

Kim: We live in different countries, but got together to talk through the story before it became a pitch. That went to DH and we rejigged the pitch to take on board their suggestions – my memory is that they were pretty happy with what we came up with in the first place and made only minor tweaks. We passed drafts back and forth between us – generally, Maura did the first pass on panel/page breakdowns and I finessed the dialogue, though there are whole stretches of the series where it’s the other way round. A couple of scenes in the whole series I can point to and say one or other of us did the bulk of the writing on – the Police Gazette-style sequence in Issue One is late addition to the script that I did and there’s a wonderful scene in an eel museum (all stories should have scenes set in eel museums) that Maura came up with in a later issue. Otherwise, it’s hard to separate out who did what – which is the point of collaboration. I think neither of us could have written this on our own.

 

Maura: The main thing is that it adds extra time to the writing process. We had an agreed treatment we had created together which we worked from, but as soon as you start writing the script that starts to shift, especially when you start breaking the action down into pages and have to re-evaluate the pacing. Other writers may differ, but I prefer to do an entire pass at a script in one go, rather than do a section of it and send it on to your partner. Each script is its own entity in my mind, and I have a sense of its pacing and layout. But, I only ever viewed the first draft as a framework, which meant I wasn't adverse to changes - the point of a collaboration is to collaborate, after all. Once we started batting the script between each other lots of new elements appeared and tweaks occurred. Some small scenes are more of a product of one or the other of us, but essentially everything grows from the story, and we're responding to each other's work. Which means invariably the narrative becomes a product of both of our inputs.

 

David: The Sir Edward Grey, Witchfinder stories are part of the larger Hellboy universe, but they aren't contemporary to (most) other stories in that universe. How do you see your narrative as part of that world? Do you see it as being part of a direct causal lineage, or is it more a standalone story?

 

Kim: Coming into an established world, we didn’t want to do anything that would tread on other storylines that were developing – and since we were working in the 19th century, well before the bulk of the Hellboy stories are set it was fairly easy to do something self-contained. It might well be down to other creatives as to how the Unland story feeds into the larger narrative, and we did leave a few hooks so that other elements of the mythos could be spun off out of it. If nothing else, Poole’s Elixir is now a permanent part of the fictional universe. Though Ed Grey has had two previous miniseries and a scattering of post-mortem appearances, he didn’t have much baggage – in issue one, we call back a few characters (not all alive) from the previous series and polish them up a bit for later re-use. We named Mr Silk and  Miss Goad, Ed’s bosses/government contacts; Silk was in the first Witchfinder series, but anonymous, and Goad is our creation – they should come in handy for further stories. Otherwise, Grey’s on his own in a new locale with all-new suspects. I hope it works as a standalone or start-off point for the series, but I also hope that longtime fans will feel they get added value from bits of continuity. We also felt that in his other cases he didn’t get much of a chance to be a detective, so here we give him some proper sleuthing to do … in addition to the mandatory tussles with giant eel monsters. Grey is fairly dour in his solo stories but more acidic and witty in the post-mortem appearances, so we felt we should start him on the path from who he was to who he will be and make him one of those people who react to extreme situations with grim humour. That’s also fun to write.

 

Maura: It's both a standalone story and part of the general mythos. We knew the arc of Grey's character before we started writing Witchfinder; the first thing you do with an established character is read everything he has appeared in and discover any other relevant information. And Hellboy in Hell was coming out as we were writing The Mysteries of Unland, which was pertinent to the character. Our story is at the beginning of Grey's adventures but we wanted to indicate a little where he was going and what was in store for him. So, you push the character a little into doing something different. And remember that at this point Grey is just back from exploring the vastness of the American frontier - returning to England is an almost uncomfortable adjustment. All of this informs the story and the character. We kept the Hellboy universe in mind all the time, and have added some elements and lore - a few details are obvious, and others are known by those of us behind the scenes.

 

David: The book has a really wonderful look to it. It's very brushy, very gestural, with some painterly color choices. It also has a great period atmosphere. How much do you involve yourselves with the visual process? Do you let the artists loose on the script, or is there a tight on-going dialog between yourselves and the artists?

 

Kim: We’ve been consulted at every stage – roughs, inks, colours, lettering. I sent Tyler visual references for the Suspicions of Constable George Lawless pages, and also a few specific landscape things like Somerset bridges and flooded fields, but we knew from the first designs that we were in good hands and tried to leave enough room in the scripts for the artists to have fun making things up. We’ve both been delighted at the quality of the art – every aspect of it has been first-rate. I love the yellowing borders, for instance.

 

Maura: I love seeing how the artist interprets the script, and Tyler's work has been a knock-out from the beginning. We sent notes on tone from the treatment stage, and links to visual material such as various towns that could be used as models for Hallam. We've been involved from the start, including giving feedback on character sketches before any of the scripts were started. We had an on-going conversation about layouts, pencils, inking, and lettering. Tyler has excellent instincts, and we only asked for minor changes here and there when they were necessary for the story or for accuracy. We were also lucky to be offered input on early roughs of Julian's covers - which are just outstanding. And every time I saw Dave's colours added to Tyler's artwork I've been blown away.

 

David: You're both quite successful writers, but you definitely have different careers- as far as I know, at least. Kim, you've been a staple of horror, fantasy, and scifi writing for more than twenty years now. Maura, you're a major up-and-comer of the past decade. Respectively, what have been your experiences working with each other? What do you think each other person brings to the table? How were you two connected in the first place?

 

Kim: I’ve known Maura for many years – she maintains my lovely website (johnnyalucard.com) and we worked together on a play (The Hallowe’en Sessions) a few years ago. I knew we could work together and when this project came up, it seemed like a good fit for both of us – but also not so much like other stuff we’ve done as to be redundant. There’s an untold Edward Grey story involving vampires and Jack the Ripper, but it would be too on-the-nose for me to do that one after writing Anno Dracula. Maura’s very good on the mystic side of things, too – later issues have more magic and ritual elements. And we are both deliver-the-script-on-time people, which makes for a harmonious collaboration – and happy editors.

 

Maura: Kim and I met years ago at a convention in Ireland, and became good friends over time, long before I began to act upon my desire to be a writer. We've loads of things in common, including a love of horror in all media. Kim is the font of all knowledge when it comes to film, and horror cinema in particular, so we tend to have long conversations about that when we get together. It's great to have someone to talk to about these things, because that's not always the case where I live in Ireland. I visit London several times a year so we catch up frequently. Working with Kim has been terrific. He's a brilliant writer on a craft level, and has a knowing humour in his prose. I've learned a lot from the exchange. There are small things he did during the writing process that I made note of all the time. Working with such a talented team and in such a recognisable universe meant that I pushed myself hard to produce strong work. It's really been a privilege to be part of this project.

 

For more information on the respective writers, please visit their websites- Kim Newman at http://johnnyalucard.com/ and Maura McHugh at http://splinister.com/ .  For more information on Sir Edward Grey, Witchfinder; The Mysteries of Unland, please visit Dark Horse Comics' official page for issue two, which is out Wednesday July 16. 





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