Mike Mignola’s name is synonymous with a certain type of monster in comics. This week sees the release of his long anticipated “Frankenstein Underground” #1. A comic I called “another homerun for Dark Horse, another incredible chapter to Mignola’s world, and a story unlike anything you’ve ever seen from both. It’s compelling from cover to cover, and manages to exceed expectations with haunting art on almost every page. I wish I could read #2 right now, and frankly damning myself for reading this one so damn early.”
I sat down with Mike to talk about how he chooses to flesh out his incredible world, the work that goes into making a monster a character, and the whole host of influences on this incredible adventure. Get ready for Wednesday with this interview.
BD: Why can “Frankenstien Underground” be enjoyed on its own without any knowledge of the preexisting Hellboy universe?
Mike Mignola: I hope it can. It focuses on the Frankenstein monster thrown underground and although it exists in a world that has already existed for a long time, reading the book doesn’t hinge on any knowledge of that stuff. It has monsters, hyperborean legend, and all that stuff. And if this is your first introduction I think that’s fine.
It’s always a focus with these different things that we do. We don’t want to trick you into buying other things. It’s not about big crossovers. There may be a couple characters who crossover into separate adventures but if you don’t read their main book you won’t be lost. We make sure to introduce everything in a way that’s digestible to the reader.
I know all the characters, and I know what we’re doing in every book. But, I’m doing this for the reader who’s never read any of the other books.
So these guys that do crossover from Hellboy, it’s more of a wink to the long time reader. We establish Fabrice and who he is and what he’s looking for, but without too big a question mark attached to him. Then we leave him behind. It’s sometimes a trick to do that. But I think we did it well enough here.
BD: With the massive world you’ve built over the last 21 years how do you decide what story to tell next, what was it about Frankenstein that made his story so compelling.
MM: To create these other books have them share a world and have a range of tones is a total joy for me. I you want Victorian occult detective stuff and you only want to read Witchfinder, that’s perfectly fine.
But if you want to read that and Lobster Johnson, and Hellboy, you get a way bigger picture of what’s going on in that world. But! You don’t need it. There continuities still make sense, but every so often you’ll get a character from there, over here. You don’t need to know but it helps.
I don’t know if Frankenstein was even that compelling. I know after The House of the Living Dead graphic novel, something prevailed about the monster after that was all done. Sometimes you tell one story with a character and you’re ready to move on. I’m not even exactly sure when I developed another story for Frankenstein. It was almost out of the blue that I thought of the idea to do him underground, and with a world this big you just kinda tease these things around.
It wasn’t a burning sensation to tell this story, but after Ben Stenbeck expressed interest to work on something other than The Baltimore series, you know I had several ideas to pitch to him. One of the ideas was Frankenstein Underground and he didn’t even skip a beat.
So the project came together because we had the right artist for it. Without Stenbeck coming on it may have never gotten done. The nice thing is, it does something for the Hellboy world. So I’m glad it existed, but had Ben not wanted to do it, we would have found something else to flesh out the world.
BD: So do you draft up stories that only exist in these separated pockets of the world in the effort to flesh out side characters whenever the right artist comes along?
MM: Yeah… There’s always a lot of that. It’s almost an experiment. Or an exercise, it’s this or this. I kind of store them away. I also give them different avenues in where they can go. The direction is up to the right artist. I had stories of characters that are left completely undeveloped in the Hellboy world. I often give certain characters and time periods and try to get them to the artist it appeals to most.
“He’s just this kind of lumbering tragic character. He had to be the Mary Shelley here, and the trick was getting the roots of it in this comic.”
And when they choose, we come up with a story for those characters by throwing around possible ideas. So we do that until its something that we respond to strongly and before we know it, we have something we’re really happy with.
BD: The design of Frankenstein has the Karloff body with the Christopher Lee hair, how did you plan the look of the character? Was it more you or Ben?
MM: Oh, I didn’t think of that… Well I had originally designed that character for The House of the Living Dead graphic novel, and I had drawn that type of character many times before. But, when it came time to do the book I had given Ben a quick drawing of roughly that type of Frankenstein. I started the whole design.
At first when it came time to the series, Ben took things in a pretty extreme direction and the result was taking it back in a more human proportion.
BD: You call Frankenstein “a corpse with a conscience” in this first issue, I love that description, but Frankenstein is made to suffer, how do you plan to give him more agency than pain in this series? And why is so pained?
MM: He’s been living for a couple hundred years and he’s been almost entirely abused during that time. From birth he’s been a monster, it hasn’t really got much better. I’m sure he had a couple years on a beach relaxing somewhere during a few beautiful summers. [Laughs]
But mostly its been pain. We see it in the opening pages of this first issue. He wasn’t having a great time in the lead up to this series. He was misunderstood and met by a lot of men who just wanted to shoot him.
Calling him a monster, at least at first makes the most sense to me. If you’ve read the Mary Shelley novel he has almost no dialogue. He’s just this kind of lumbering tragic character. He had to be the Mary Shelley here, and the trick was getting the roots of it in this comic.
He could have been this elegant well-spoken creature, even a portrait of us. But he’s been so abused and so beaten down that he was reduced to that dumb brute.
BD: So is he trying to learn more about himself here, is he trying to be something more?
MM: No. He’s not the type of character to search out who he is. He’s such a well-defined character already that it was never in my mind that this would really be about him and who he is. This book is really about this situation we throw him into.
His situation is influenced by Edger Rice Burroughs Hollow Earth stuff. It’s so much a thing that the simple pitch for this book was “Frankenstein in Pullicider.” We throw him underground and it’s just a parade of monsters. But, that is only really sustainable for one issue. I could only do so much before it wore thin, so it started out very simple and I brought my other influences into it. The kind of ancient history I love and the elements of my world, that’s when it went from a simple pitch to a great story.
BD: How has Ben Stenbeck’s work complimented your script? I found his work influenced by your own in Hellboy in Hell it really opened up and felt crazy at times, but in a very calculated way.
MM: Ben’s been doing books that take place in specific time periods so this was a chance for him to open up. He’s done a lot of world war I era Europe in Baltimore so here was a book where he could go wild. We have previously sprinkled this level of strange in the Hellboy stuff but no we’re going into uncharted territory.
I’m very luck to work with Ben. There was no point where I scripted something and had any doubts that Ben could draw it. At this point Ben can do anything, there were things I asked him to do that I’ve never seen from him before, but that was half the reason he came onto the book. And there were a few places in the script were he gave me something far beyond what I had imagined. I’ll never tire of working with him, because when you have someone like Ben you never want to let them go.
I don’t do real plot style scripting. I’m always writing something akin to what ends up on the page. But for the most part when the action gets heavy I let my artist take it in their own direction. Some places I really break it down, like exactly the layout and the sizes of the panels on the page. It depends on how I envision the page, but I’m always spelling it out in one way or another. All this stuff is in my head, but it would be a full script if I had the time.
I always like to reletter my work after the artist has drawn everything. Sometimes they alter a facial expression, or change the direction of a scene, and it looks like someone who never had dialogue before should be speaking. I like adding after the fact because it gives the comic a much more organic feeling.
BD: Obviously Frankenstein has an incredibly rich history and you know it well, there are all kinds of little tributes to the character’s past in these opening pages, but what iteration of the character do you find most dear and why?
MM: I read so much mythology, and it’s been cooking up in my head for so long that coming up with a backstory for my world. I’ve got all this stuff, and to some extent I make my own history. So it’s always a question of how much of my influence can I put into a new story. Is there room to put this history in there, and how can I make it work.
For the Frankenstein character I took my in head mythology. My first love is that Karloff monster. I found my own voice somewhere between the Mary Shelley novel and the Karloff monster and I think I found something special. I couldn’t do Mary Shelley, so I took the elements of the character and distilled it down to something I could write. I had to make him mine.