It’s The Halloween Interview With Mike Mignola! Returning To Classic Hellboy And Old School Horror With A Master Storyteller

Who better to celebrate Halloween with here on Bleeding Cool than Mike Mignola? Recently, the 13 Days of Hellboy event really demonstrated the breadth and scope of the Hellboy Universe, and the seemingly endless variety of tales that can be folded into its capacious parameters, and it turns out that some of the qualities imbued into the first Hellboy books have continued to make that possible. When the creator-owned series launched at Dark Horse over 20 years ago, Mignola found himself free to be his own “boss” but also given the freedom to seek editorial advice, and it’s a degree of freedom he still hopes to extend to those working within the Hellboy Universe.

The results speak for themselves as characters spin out to become the heroes, or to resist hero roles, in their own series and Hellboy himself can meet his demise, and yet his universe continues through the BPRD fighting “Hell on Earth”. Then there’s the seemingly endless possibility of exploring different time periods in this occult-menaced world, from prehistory to the present day. In two upcoming series, Hellboy and the BPRD, and Frankenstein Underground, Mignola demonstrates this scope by taking us back to “classic” Hellboy stories set in 1952, and even further back in time to the Victorian era to explore “literary” monsters and hyperborean lore.

Mike Mignola joins us today to talk about the scope of the Hellboy Universe, the return of “classic” Hellboy, the excitement behind his creative process, and lastly, whether Hellboy is, in fact, a horror comic at all.

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[Photo by Christine Mignola]

Hannah Means-Shannon: Welcome to the Halloween interview here at Bleeding Cool and thanks for taking the time to talk with us. There are several titles that fit well with Halloween that we could discuss since there’s so much going on in the Hellboy Universe right now!

Mike Mignola: The trick is how much of it do I actually know about it, and how much of it am I just vaguely aware of since it’s grown so far beyond my little area, but I should be able to bluff my way through most of the titles.

HMS: Well, I suspect so, but I’d also like to ask you some questions about horror in general, it being the season. But actually, my first question relates to what you just said: When you look at all this material, that just stretches out, seemingly forever, this whole universe of Hellboy-related stories, do you ever wonder what would have happened if you hadn’t drawn that first sketch of Hellboy?

MM: Only in the vaguest way do I sometimes wonder what would have happened and where I would be now. Looking at the comics business outside of my little world, I just don’t know. I can’t imagine that I’d still be doing the Marvel and DC stuff. I imagine eventually that I would have done some kind of creator-owned thing. I just have no idea. And I really don’t like to even think about it because I’m so lucky that for 20 years I’ve been left really alone. At least from a creative standpoint, I’ve been left alone to do my own thing and I’ve gotten to work with these great people and blow this thing up with them. Also, hopefully have given artists and writers the room to stretch and really do what they want to do. I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to do.

HMS: This must be one of the biggest platforms that’s ever come out of a creator-owned comic. I was thinking about that recently.

MM: It’s possible. I’m not super-aware of where certain things have gone. I know that a lot of Image guys blew their things up, but I don’t know that anything has stayed as big or has grown the way this thing has grown. That’s one thing I’m very proud of, that this thing has grown organically and at no point have I been saying, “We need more books”. And at no point has the publisher come to me and said, “We need more books”, which I think is interesting. If anything, we have the opposite situation, where we say, “We don’t want too many titles at one time”. It’s entirely because I just keep having ideas or the people we work with do.

I had this situation just the other day where I said to someone, “Ok, you’ve done this. What do you want to do next? But don’t look just at what we’ve done. Look at the various time-periods we’ve dealt with and other characters who have been mentioned, but haven’t really been fleshed out. See if there’s anything in this whole world that appeals to you and we can do something with that”. So, at this point, I think we’ve sketched out a big enough world that for almost anything anybody would want to do, we can say, “Yes, we’ve got that here”. Or, “We can slot that in here”.

It happened when John Arcudi was talking to John Severin and they wanted to do a Western. While we had no Western [element], I said, “Well, we’ve got a guy who functions in that time period. Why not have him go to the Old West?” So, we are almost able to accommodate anything anyone wants to do. Which is what I want. I want an artist or a writer to be able to say, “I want to do the book that I want to do, but I want to put it in your world”. And it’s good for them, hopefully, because they get to do what they want. And it’s good for us because it makes this a richer world.

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HMS: It does seem like you’ve helped create an environment where people can now have what you initially wanted to have, which is a certain degree of freedom.

MM: Yes. It is a weird thing, because it is work for hire, and as a guy who did work for hire for years, there’s a certain uncomfortableness with work for hire, but the trade off is, hopefully, that it’s commercial work for hire, but with more creative freedom than you’re going to get somewhere else.

HMS: And it’s so true about bringing in all these genres. You’ve also got historical elements. There are such strong historical elements in the Hellboy Universe which I think appeal to a lot of people, like in Sledgehammer 44, which naturally fits with the Hellboy world.

MM: We realize this having done it for 20 years now, that the more you do, the more there is to be done. We still haven’t filled up the bucket. We just realize it’s a bigger and bigger bucket, because the roots of this thing stretch back into prehistory. Starting to do this new Hellboy and the BPRD series, we realize how much of Hellboy and the BPRD have never really been touched on. There are 50 years of Hellboy’s life that have only been vaguely sketched out. So, really, there’s no end of stuff and no end of ground to cover. It’s a little overwhelming, because as soon as I start thinking about it, I want to do a million books to cover all this ground.

HMS: Regarding Hellboy and the BPRD, we get those really adorable flashback stories like The Midnight Circus, and we see him in different phases of his childhood, which fans go crazy over, but now with Hellboy and the BPRD, he’s going to be more of a young man, a young adult, in 1952. To what degree is there still going to be humor in this storyline or are these going to be a more serious, coming of age type stories where he’s messing up and he’s getting in trouble?

MM: There’s always humor in it. I don’t want to give out too much of the plot of the 1952 book, but what I really wanted to do with this book was to do, not so much a parody, but an absurd chunk of old school Hellboy stuff. It’s such a parade of different iconically old school gags and creature stuff. I didn’t want to get too bogged down with fate and all those things. There are touches of those things in there, but I just wanted to do a great, old school Hellboy adventure story. It was fun to go back and do that and really hit on the stuff that I haven’t been doing. Certainly with Hellboy in Hell, and even before that, I’d moved so far away from that old school Frankenstein monster or Nazi Frankenstein gorilla kind of pulp stuff, that for this book I really wanted to say, “Let’s really sell the idea that we are doing old school, classic Hellboy”. To balance the weird Hellboy stuff we’ve done.

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HMS: Yes, I was going to say, “This is Hellboy Classic”, as sort of a distillation of Hellboy.

MM: Yes, and it’s fun to do that. When I killed Hellboy off, or even before that, when I started kind of drifting him off the planet into this folklore world, there was part of me that missed the simplicity of old school, less complicated Hellboy, which I’ve been able to do with some of the short stories over the years. I just think having the old school, Hellboy Classic book, allows me to go even further in the other direction with Hellboy in Hell. So, we’ll get two really radically different ends of the spectrum.

HMS: Wow, that sounds awesome. I’m really looking forward to it. To set Hellboy in the 1950’s as well, that’s got to be fun. Are you really into looking at the historical backdrops and elements there?

MM: Not at all! I have no interest in that kind of history. Thank God John Arcudi is scripting this book because I had kind of a joke, one-line plot for this story based on my slight understanding of historical events. The book takes place in South America, and when I talked to John about South America, he trotted out something about the political relationship between the US and South America in the early 1950’s.

I said, “That’s great. In the plot, I am going to have Broom explain something. And it’s just going to be a close-up of Professor Broom with a really big word balloon, and John, you can put that in there”. Because that’s the kind of stuff I don’t know anything about. I just make up adventure stories, so having someone else who can bring that kind of information in is important. But that’s not really the motivator. If anything, it’s a nice backdrop. But I don’t really want or need this thing to be a period book. I don’t want to alienate readers by saying, “It’s all about the 50’s”. No, it’s all about Hellboy, and the BPRD, and yes, there will be certain things you can and can’t do because of the time period. But really, the bigger restraint is always going to be what we’ve established and what we haven’t established in the Hellboy world already.

The biggest challenge with this kind of thing is always, “Well, if we do this thing, then people would still be talking about it [in Hellboy’s future]”. So the stories have to be relatively small and we have to remind ourselves that “Nobody knows about this yet or that yet”. So, if we deal with it, it has to be handled in such a way that our guys wouldn’t know all this particular information already. You can’t have Galactus show up, because people would still be talking about it. It’s not a big stumbling block, but it is one of those things where we constantly have to look back at the comics and ask, “Wait a moment, do they know about this yet? Has this thing happened yet?” That’s one of the reasons that it’s really fun to do the old school stuff.

HMS: I remember I was talking to Scott Allie once about it and he was mentioning the difficulty of avoiding land mines that would have changed the future, so to speak. It’s almost like you’re time traveling and you can’t change anything major. You have to be careful.

MM: Yes. What you can do is something that I just did this in the Frankenstein book that I’m writing. There was an event that happened in the BPRD, and Frankenstein also takes place in the 1950’s, so I was able to create a scene that takes place before the scene that takes place in the BPRD book for the Frankenstein book. So, you’re able to fill in blanks or add things to events that have already happened, or even foreshadow events that are going to happen. But really, there is so much stuff that goes on behind the scenes, that as long as you can build up the things that go on behind the scenes but don’t really spill over into the lives of our main characters, there’s really a lot to be done. It really is overwhelming, when I look at the things that have been set up. We’ve got a little girl, for instance, who is running the Russian version of the BPRD, a little demon girl…

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HMS: Oh, yes! I know who you mean. [*Varvara]

MM: And we realize, “Wow, we’ve done almost nothing with her!” And we’ve seen her before, but we’ve seen very little about how she got to where she is. So, you can do a lot with her, and our guys just aren’t aware of her.

HMS: Well, she’s a very evocative character. People love her. So, it’s a great idea to return to her as well.

MM: Yes, she’s a wonderful character who started off as a one-story gag and she will become a more and more important character as things go along. It’s been one of the real joys with this material to take characters who weren’t meant to exist for more than a few pages, and see that those characters end up taking on these bigger lives. Like this little pig-headed character who turns up in a Hellboy story, “The Corpse”. He was just a couple-panel gag except that he ends up being the giant mover in the last big Hellboy arc leading to Hellboy’s death. So it’s really fun to create these characters and give them enough room for them to evolve, in many cases, in directions we never expected.

HMS: That kind of follows the pattern of Hellboy himself, since you went from wanting to draw this character and wondering about him until he became a whole universe.

MM: Yes. As much as we are creating it, this universe almost feels like you’re watching it unfold. I never set out to be a writer, so the whole writing thing for me is still like a magic trick. Not a magic trick that I’m doing, but just something that’s magically happening. There are so many cases where things have gone in different directions, even as I’m writing them, than I expected.

Even today, I was writing an outline for an upcoming story, and it veered off from what I had planned to do just because one character started talking, and that piece of dialogue led to this, then this, then this, then this. And suddenly, I thought, “Oh, I didn’t expect this to go there!” It’s almost like you’re taking dictation. And I thought, “Well, it seems to be working. I’m just going to keep writing it down as it occurs to me and see where it goes”. In some ways, if it’s going to go too much in the wrong direction, then you have to put on the brakes, but if it seems to be going ok, then you just have to let it go and see where it takes you.

HMS: Wow. That’s amazing.

MM: Well, I’ve plotted certain big moves all the way to the end of these books. So the trick is to not dismantle things so much that the big endings don’t work. Unless, of course, you come up with something better. But [you have] to give this stuff room to breathe and move around, and still keep nudging it toward that end-spot that you’ve got set up. And that’s exciting. It’s also exciting to know where these things are going, but in some cases you know there are events that need to happen, but you’re not exactly sure how we’re going to get to those events, or even what characters are actually going to be involved in those events.

Like the death of Hellboy. I knew roughly what was going to happen, but I wasn’t exactly sure who the various movers were going to be who were going to get things to that place. I remember when I realized, “Oh, this is the person who is going to do this, and that is the person who is going to do that”. At some point, it’s like the fog lifts, and you realize, “Oh, wait a minute. I just saw that all the pieces are there”. Or it’s like playing chess, and you realize, “Oh, that character is going to kill that character and that’s going to lead to this, and this, and this…” Dominoes are a good comparison. Once all the dominoes are in the right place, you just have to hit one, and the rest rattle out to where they are going. It’s fun!

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HMS: It sounds like it’s entertaining for you, not knowing everything ahead, too.

MM: Yes, it is exciting. If I knew it all and if I plotted it all really tightly, at some point I’d just have to take it all apart. Because if you plot the stuff to rigidly, it’s like the blood can’t circulate, and then you have to amputate the limb because it dies. [Laughs] If I have the stories plotted too tightly, too far in advance, I’m just going to have to take it apart and put it back together, just to get the blood to circulate back through it. If that makes any sense at all. This is stuff I never really talk about, so I’ve never really articulated it, but I do know that if I’ve got a story set in stone for too long, at some point, I have to take it apart.

Things have to stay fluid. When I sit down to work, I need to feel like there are certain things that I don’t know yet. If I know it all, then it’s just typing. Even with individual issues, like the one I’m doing right now, there were places where I thought, “I’m not quite sure what happens until the end of this issue”. Sometimes it’s frustrating, but most of the time, it’s just exciting to give yourself room and say, “Well, let’s take this over here. Or let’s just take that over there and hope it doesn’t derail too much of what we planned to do in the next issue”.

HMS: It sounds like you’re the opposite of a control freak when it comes to the process of creation. I mean, some people work differently than others…

MM: Yes. It’s funny because in some ways I’m more of a control freak but in other ways I’m not. It’s a little hard to explain. I know that John Arcudi and I work radically differently. John is, in some ways, more organic than I am when it comes to these things. I hate to speak for him, and maybe I’m completely off base, but it seems like John’s not really sure where things are going. But when I start plotting something, I come up with an idea, and then I think, “How would I end that?” So, the middle is the unformed part.

I can’t work without knowing how it’s going to end. After I come up with the initial idea, the ending becomes the most important part. Because I don’t want to get 20 pages into something and think, “Oh, wait a minute. This thing doesn’t work”. And the ending might change, but if I don’t see how the story might end, then there’s no point in starting it. And I won’t start it until I see how that end is going to work.

HMS: It’s funny, I was reading something recently where Alan Moore said that. He said that his biggest paranoia, and the way in which he’s hardest on himself, is that he makes himself follow the rule that if you don’t know the ending, you don’t start it.

MM: That’s interesting. That’s good company to be in. I do remember that in the second Hellboy mini-series I did, the ending was small, and the middle of the story got really big, much bigger than expected. And when I realized this, I thought, “Oh no”. The middle of the book, or the last third of the book, had gotten so big that the ending didn’t work. And I was literally on a page and thought, “From this point on, it doesn’t work”. That was the biggest panic I remember ever happening. Well, until the complete nervous breakdown where I had to stop drawing for 6 years. But when I was still functioning on the book, that was the biggest problem I had ever run into.

I remember Scott [Allie] telling me, “Take the weekend off. Just think about it. Look at what you’ve done”. And I’m always asking Scott, “Tell me what to do”. Because I always think he knows what I should be doing, but he won’t tell me. [Laughs] He will just say things like, “Reread this” or “Examine this”, or he’ll ask me questions. He’s very good as an editor. He will ask me questions and get me to come up with stuff, but he will never tell me what to do, even if I’m begging for him to tell me. So that was the only case I can really think of when I created a story and the ending just didn’t work at all.

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HMS: One of the topics I actually was going to ask you about was the experience of working with Scott Allie for nearly 20 years. You were touching on that just now. Can you recall the first time you met him?

MM: I don’t recall the first time I met him. He was a voice on the phone. I was not in Portland when we started working together. But I do remember one thing, and you may have already heard this story. He was originally working with me just to fill in for an issue or two between editors. He was told by someone, perhaps the editor who was going out, “It’s a creator-owned book. So, your job is basically just to fix his spelling”. Because I can’t spell anything.

HMS: [Laughs]

MM: He was told, “So just open the envelope, fix the spelling, and put it into production”. But I had drawn a hole in the ground that didn’t look like a hole in the ground. He called me and told me, “It doesn’t look like a hole in the ground”. I was so grateful. I don’t remember whether I recall this part of the story or Scott has told me this part of the story, but apparently, I called up Mike Richardson, and said, “I want this guy as my editor. I don’t want somebody who’s going to let me make mistakes like that”. And if the attitude is that it’s a creator-owned book, so the editor shouldn’t do that, I don’t want that. I want freedom, believe me, but at the same time, if someone has an idea for how to make things better, or if someone is catching me making a mistake, I definitely need someone looking out for me.

Because my goal is to produce the best work. I will argue if I don’t agree, and that’s happened a couple of times. It’s funny, because I kind of forget, and maybe it’s good to forget, that I have the final say on this stuff. It is creator-owned. I am the boss. But I will generally treat things like Scott’s the boss. It is much easier for me to kind of say, “Well, if that’s what you think…” Unless I really, really disagree with him, I will bow to that. Especially on the non-Hellboy books or the peripheral books, I’m very happy to have him give the final say on that kind of stuff.

HMS: That’s a great story. Thanks for that window onto your experience. I’ve talked with Scott a few times and I can see his attention to detail and the seriousness that be brings to all the projects he works on. It’s admirable.

MM: Plus, I’m so lucky that he’s been on this since the beginning, or nearly since the beginning. He does pay attention to it ,and we’ve been talking about this stuff for almost 20 years. Which is why when he wanted to start writing, it was just really perfect. We needed another writer, and who better than a guy that has been listening, and in some cases almost co-plotting this thing as it’s gone along? He’s really the only other person [involved], even more than John Arcudi, since he wasn’t there from the beginning. He’s the next best person to me regarding a knowledge of this world.

HMS: He is the definitive expert.

MM: Yes, and while he doesn’t have exactly the same background as I have as a fan of horror stuff, since I’m a bit more of a horror fiction guy, and he’s a bit more of an occult sciences kind of guy, at least we both have travelled the same road in terms of the things we like and the things we are aware of, so we speak the same language.

He does have different sensibilities about things, which you certainly see on the Abe Sapien book. His Abe Sapien book is a much, much different book than anything I would do or anything John Arcudi would do, but I think, again, it makes for a richer world. You just don’t want a steady diet of John Arcudi or me, and maybe you wouldn’t want a steady diet of Scott Allie, but I think that the three things together give you a certain variety that you need.

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HMS: Can I ask you about the upcoming series Frankenstein Underground?

MM: Sure! What do you want to know? It’s all there in the title.

HMS: I know! It’s awesome.

MM: It’s Frankenstein and he goes underground. Beyond that, anything I say might be giving away the plot. Do you have any specific questions?

HMS: Yes. Well, I want to ask about your thinking. When I see Frankenstein Underground coming, and hear it’s part of the Hellboy Universe, I think, “Oh, my God. I’m so stupid. Why didn’t I see that?” Since the biggest parallel in monster fiction for Hellboy that I can find is Frankenstein. Because they are both on these quests to figure out who they are.

MM: Yes, that’s one of the problems with Frankenstein Underground. How do I do a book where I haven’t already covered that ground? It actually never occurred to me to use any established, big, literary creatures in the Hellboy stories. And that’s one of the strangest things about Frankenstein Underground. If it’s folklore, or if it’s mythology, that’s fine, but to use a literary creatures—that’s something I would never consider doing.

When someone at Dark Horse wrote ad copy for the back of the Corben graphic novel, The House of the Living Dead, I didn’t like the ad copy they wrote, so I rewrote it. When I rewrote it, I was running down a list of all the different monsters in the book. When it came to the Frankenstein-like creature that Hellboy fought, I just couldn’t say “a Frankenstein-like creature” or a “reanimated creature”. It just didn’t flow. To just put in “Frankenstein” for the Frankenstein-like creature was funny.  That was the feel I wanted for the ad copy, so I thought afterwards, “Well, I guess that was the Frankenstein monster”. When I wrote that book, he wasn’t Frankenstein’s monster, but we didn’t know who he was. So then I thought, “Why not have the Frankenstein monster in my series?”

Again, I hadn’t planned on doing anything else with him, but I had these ideas for a Victorian expedition underground. I thought, “If I can use that Victorian stuff and throw the Frankenstein monster into that, and at the same time give a nod to Edgar Rice Burroughs, now I have a whole bunch of pieces that wouldn’t seem to fit together at all. What happens if I put all of those alien-seeming pieces together? How’s that going to work?”

Then, at the same time, there was there the Victorian underground expedition that I just had as a visual, with balloons traveling underground. It was a really strong visual that I had in mind. Then there were some ancient, hyperborean history things that I’ve had rattling around in my head for a long time, but there just hasn’t been a story to put them in. So I thought, “Ok, if we do the underground thing, and the Victorian stuff, and some of the ancient history stuff…” There were a lot of pieces that didn’t necessarily fit together, but I knew there was a way to fit them together.

So I hate to say it, but the personality of Frankenstein, or the actual Frankenstein story, wasn’t the driving force for the [work]. I had all these different alien bits, and then I wanted to string them together. Then I asked myself, “And now, what happens to Frankenstein if we run him through this?” While all the plots are written now, the hardest part is writing the script, and that’s where the personality of Frankenstein will come out in the specific way he talks and the way he moves through certain situations. The ending is all set, and I think it’s a really interesting ending for him, but his personality will actually come in now, at this point.

Unfortunately, I just saw my favorite take on Frankenstein. I just watched the end of Penny Dreadful, and Frankenstein’s monster is in the show. It’s just so beautifully done. On my Facebook page right now, I’ve got this wonderful speech by Frankenstein’s monster. And I’m thinking, “Shit, if I had seen this before I started the Frankenstein book, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near Frankenstein”. Because it’s so well done.

HMS: Yes, I know what you’re referring to!

MM: The speech that’s on my Facebook page feels a little bit like it’s stolen from the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He’s basically saying, “Why didn’t you make me out of steel and stone? Why did you make me so I could feel?” The Doctor is standing behind him with a gun. He says, “I’d rather be the corpse I was than what I am now”. Basically, “Just shoot me”.

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HMS: It is so well done. I know exactly what you’re talking about. I was watching that speech and I was texting it to my brother, who I thought was watching it at the same time as me, and he texted back, “Stop texting me! I haven’t seen it yet”. So whoops, spoilers.

MM: It’s a funny show. The first episode didn’t grab me at all, but when I picked it up on DVD and watched the whole thing, then I went, “Oh my God!”

HMS: Yes, it took me a little while to get into it as well. The dialogue, and the speeches between the characters really make the show.

MM: I’ve seen people knock it for the plot, because the plot was really just an excuse to get these characters together. But I didn’t care, because I really just wanted to see these characters getting together and talking together, and to see that world.

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HMS: One more question: Are the Hellboy and the central core of related comics, horror comics, in your opinion?

MM: You know, I don’t think they are. It’s funny, because I consider myself a horror guy. I read horror, but even when I read, do I really consider it horror? Because every once in awhile, I watch something, and I’ll go, “Ick. That’s gross. I don’t like that. I guess that’s what a horror movie is”. So, if Hellboy is horror, it’s much more of an old school, Weird Tales Magazine kind of horror, and what would probably be considered fantasy, or dark fantasy, or whatever you’d call it these days.

It’s certainly much more of a fantasy book than it is a horror book. My goal is not to be horrifying. My goal is not to do anything that’s disgusting. It doesn’t even occur to me when I’m doing a story. I’ve done some horrible things to characters, but not really nasty things. I want to do an emotional book about dark subject matter, but my goal is not to upset people. I do the friendliest horror comic out there.

HMS: Yes. Well, there are certainly moments that are spooky enough to kind of make your hair stand up on the back of your neck. There are occasionally moments like that, especially when dealing with the folklore elements, I think.

MM: Yes, being spooky and creepy are much more my motivators than causing shock or disgust, or those kinds of things. There’s a reason why my favorite stuff to read is that Victorian era type fiction. I’m much more a ghost story guy than someone who is into slasher movies. None of that stuff appeals to me at all. As for the real blood and guts horror stuff, some of it I like a lot, but for the most part it doesn’t appeal to me. So, I like my horror with ghosts and “religion-y” kinds of elements.

HMS: Thank you so much, Mike.

Stay tuned on Bleeding Cool for a 6 page preview of Hellboy and the BPRD #1 later today!

Hellboy and the BPRD is currently available for pre-order as listed on Previews and with item code OCT140009, reaches FOC on Monday, November 3rd and arrives in shops December 3rd. 

Frankenstein Underground is forthcoming in a five issue mini-series in 2015.

About Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.