9 Cool Things About Frankenstein Underground We Learned From Mike Mignola

Christine Mignola

Mike Mignola is one of the most celebrated creators in comics today. He’s a gifted artist, whose creation, Hellboy, has been on shelves continuously for more than 20 years. Now, Mignola is set to launch a new book in the Hellboy universe, Frankenstein Underground. The book, which comes out on March 18th, is a follow up to Hellboy: House of the Living Dead, and sees the Frankenstein monster, fresh off of a bender with Hellboy himself after their slobberknocker in the lucha libre ring, falling through a temple in Mexico into THE HOLLOW EARTH. [/flanger]. Mike was gracious enough to talk to Topless Robot about the new series and the end of Hellboy and BPRD.

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1. The Frankenstein Monster’s Existence in Hellboy Is a Happy Accident.

TR: First of all, I got a chance to read the first issue and it’s fantastic.

MM: Thank you.

TR: What is it about Frankenstein’s monster that makes him fit so well into the Hellboy universe that you didn’t even notice he was there when you started writing him?

MM: Well I think the idea of the Frankenstein monster, the reanimated corpse, is such an iconic feature of horror literature and comics and movies that, you know, it never even occurred to me to use the actual Frankenstein’s monster…I had done that several times, had some kind of monster – either a gorilla or a person with bolts in their arms or in their head or in their necks – and it was just such an iconic image. Again, it would never have even occurred to me to say it’s the Frankenstein’s monster, until, and you know, I’ve told the story many times now, I had to write the ad copy or the back cover copy for the graphic novel that I did with Richard Corben, The House of the Living Dead, and then…there was [just]no way to sum up what that character is. I mean, that story I did had these iconic, here’s the vampire, here’s the female vampire, here’s a werewolf. But there’s no easy way to say “And the reanimated corpse.” I guess I could have said that, but it just didn’t have the same punch as saying “the Frankenstein monster.” So it was really only by having to write that bit of copy that i put that label on it. And then once you do that, you go “oh shit, well we have the Frankenstein monster, it’d be a shame not to do something with him.”

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2. He’s a Mix of the Novel’s Frankenstein Monster and Boris Karloff From Bride of Frankenstein.

TR: It seems like he starts the issue very much as Karloff’s monster and then as we hear from him more, he seems to be more Mary Shelley’s monster – the more eloquent but a little bit taciturn tragic figure. What about this period in the Hellboy universe makes this the right time for this book?

MM: Well, I don’t think there’s anything in particular except that we’re getting closer to the end of everything, BPRD and Hellboy. There’s something that happens in this story that very much plays into how things are going to shake out in the Hellboy/BPRD world. But that wasn’t the number one idea. It wasn’t like “oh we need to do this book, it’s the puzzle piece that needs to come now.” It was entirely just having this idea and this title – the Frankenstein Underground title has been kind of banging around in my head, and I had a vague idea.

But why now is because Ben Stenbeck is done with the Baltimore book. He’d been doing it for a long time and was looking for something else to do. And I love Ben and I love his work, and I had two or three different things that I kind of floated past him. He was like “yeah, those are fine…” and then I mentioned this Frankenstein Underground idea, and he’s like “Oh I want to do that!” So as is the case with so many books that we do, when we have the right artist who wants to do a particular project, or if we can team guys up with the right project, that’s when we do that project. So it was entirely Ben’s fault.

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3. We’re Coming up on the Last Act of BPRD.

TR: You said we’re kind of approaching the endgame of BPRD and Hellboy. Can you talk a little bit about where this fits in or how this fits in? Is it kind of the trigger to the next phase of the story? Is it the beginning of the end?

MM: It’s hard to say anything without giving away where things are going. I can’t really say much. In fact, I’m afraid to say anything. We are still pretty far from the end, but we’re looking at the next giant arc of BPRD, will probably almost certainly be the last big arc of BPRD. That’s still probably at least 5 years or more of stuff, but it’s like the last third of BPRD. So yeah, as the Frankenstein story shaped up, I kind of went “oh yeah, we need to set the stage for this or this or this”…It’s not necessarily something people are going to realize “oh, that’s this thing.” You’ll only recognize the significance of the Frankenstein book as we get further down into the end of the BPRD stuff.

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4. Mignola’s Got a Shelf Full of Gothic French Novels.

TR: Once you knew that you were coming back to Frankenstein’s monster after writing the backmatter for House of the Living Dead, how much research did you do to prep for it? What specifically did you look into?

MM: I didn’t do much. I did have to go back through the Shelley novel to find certain things. I was in a very strange spot. As you mentioned before, he’s a lot more Karloff monster, certainly in House of the Living Dead and at the beginning of this book, because that, to me, even though I’ve read the Shelley novel a couple times, my gut level reaction to the Frankenstein thing is always going to be Karloff, especially in Bride of Frankenstein. So that’s the monster that’s in my head, but I did want it to be Mary Shelley’s creature. So I did have to…while the story, who he is and where he comes from isn’t central to the story, but I did want to root him in the Shelley stuff. So in fact, the issue that I’m supposed to start scripting today has specific flashback moments to the Mary Shelley novel…I did have to find a couple scenes and pull out dialogue from a couple scenes, but other than that, there was a little bit of history of the time period because there is some Victorian-era stuff.

I always have to do a little bit of reading on that. There’s a little bit of Hollow Earth stuff. I had to dig out a few names and stuff so I’d look smart when I talked about that stuff. But mostly it’s my own mythology, it’s my own take on history. So yeah, mostly I had to just look inside my own head.

TR: Speaking of pulling names and sneaking some names in there: Nodier, the Marquis de Febre’s guy, that’s a reference to the French author, right? That’s him?

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MM: Almost all my names come from me roaming around my bookshelf and pulling off books and so fortunately if I have a French name, what do I have on my shelf? I have collections of French horror stories and fantasy stories. so yeah, that’s where the names come from.. It’s not meant to be him, it’s just a good name.

TR:…Marchosias is set up kind of as Igor, even though he’s a Duke [Marquis. Sorry! -Jumbled Jim] of Hell in captivity. Is that a conscious nod?

MM: Those characters did appear – Nodier did, but wasn’t named – in BPRD. This story takes place before BPRD, so this big marquis of Hell who’s revealed to be a big marquis of Hell, that happens in BPRD. But since this happens before it, he’s still in this kind of beaten, hunchback, service role. So I don’t get to do his arc. Same with the female demon, his girlfriend or wife. We do get a little bit more of her, and how she ends up a bird on a plate, which is where we see her in BPRD. It was actually really fun to go back before the scene we see in BPRD and say “Well how does she get there?” but the book isn’t about those characters. It’s just a little slice of life, a little flash of these characters. And really it’s the only thing that references something that had been done elsewhere.

But again, if you haven’t read BPRD…you’re not going to be lost seeing these characters. You’re just going to be saying “Oh, these are some very odd characters.” With the hunchback guy, there’s nothing in Frankenstein that says this guy is actually a demon and he’s imprisoned and blah blah blah blah. But what I love is if you read BPRD, you go “Oh it’s that guy!” I’ve always tried to have these books stand completely on their own, but if you’ve read the bigger stuff, if you read BPRD and Hellboy and that stuff, you’d get a more complete picture of the world.

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5. There’s More to the Monster Than It Seems.

TR: It strongly hints, I think, in part of the flashback and in the Marquis’s story here, that there’s more to the story of the Frankenstein monster’s existence than just a scientist playing god and getting lucky, that there’s some kind of purpose to his existence. Am I reading too much into that?

MM: Again, that’s all stuff that’ll be revealed in later issues. I kind of didn’t know where I was going with this story. Some of these stories pop into my head full blown, and some of them start…like this one started with a title and an idea of what the book was going to be and then the story changed pretty radically. Originally it was just going to be a parade of monster scenes. Ben had been doing city scenes for a long time, and I thought well, if we throw him underground and it’s like a Edgar Rice Burroughs thing where he just runs into this monster then escapes that monster to do this other monster and then he’s captured and blah blah blah blah. That’s issue 2.

Beyond issue 2, it was like “okay I’ve done that. Now let’s bring in some of this Victorian-era stuff.” Again, I’d had an idea for something with Victorians and some underground stuff completely separate from the Frankenstein thing, and I just had these images of this Victorian expedition underground. What if I marry that to this Frankenstein idea?

And we get into that with issue 3 probably. So the book does take these radically different turns, as I kind of…I didn’t make it up as I went along. I had it all kind of worked out before I did the first issue, but it goes through a couple of different phases where you can almost see oh, at one point it was going to be this, then it was going to be this, and then it finally found its footing with the third issue. It goes in this other direction. The beauty is, I think, reading this book, you don’t know what’s coming. It does take a couple of dramatically different turns, so you really don’t know, starting with the first issue and I think even with the second issue, you don’t know where this book is going.

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6. Ben Stenbeck’s Art Is Perfect for This Version of the Frankenstein Monster.

TR: I know you’ve mentioned before that you usually wait to get really deep into the story, past the initial idea, until you’ve found an artist to match the idea. Is that accurate?

MM: Yeah.

TR: What is it about Ben’s work that made him right for Frankenstein?

MM: Well, he wanted to do it. That’s pretty important. Ben’s stuff is very grounded in a kind of reality which probably wasn’t necessarily necessary for this book, since so much of it is in kind of a fantasy world or kind of an underground world. But he brings such a solidity to characters, and wonderful facial expressions. And there’s something about especially with the Frankenstein monster, even though he is a monster and you could go radically wild with the look of him, Ben makes him kind of a living, breathing person.

TR: Yeah.

MM: He actually has a look – if you look at what Richard Corben did, he was a much weirder looking character and Ben humanized him a lot. And this character being an extremely tragic figure, you needed a guy, or I wanted a guy who could give him that humanity. And also, Ben’s one of those guys, I’m very lucky to have him, he can draw anything. So there’s no point in the story where you go “Well, I’d like to go here but I don’t know that Ben could pull this off, and I don’t know that Ben could pull that off.” He’s got such a great range, and he’s willing to do research. There were a couple of places where I was like “Well, I need somebody who’s going to put in the time and the energy to figure out what this would look like or what that would look like,” and Ben can do that and will do that. He’s just one of those artists I hope I get to work with for a very long time, because he gets better all the time and he can do anything. I’ve been very lucky to work with a few artists kind of like Ben in that they really can do anything. When you find those guys, you don’t want to let them go, so it’s like “Ben, you want to draw Frankenstein? Sure, I’ll make up a Frankenstein book for you no problem. I want to keep you happy.”

TR: Looking at RIchard Corben’s work in House of the Living Dead, the monster is just kind of this brick, this house, this force of nature, and he’s much more, I guess, peaceful and sad in the first issue of Frankenstein Underground.

MM: Yeah. He, and again, I didn’t want to spend a lot of time telling his backstory and how he ended up this way, but there was some of that in the first issue where we kind of cover the fact that he’s been around a long time, and he’s been kind of beaten down into being this kind of Karloff-esque, quiet, grumpy kind of a creature. And then, you know, it’s kind of like as he has people who actually talk to him, we get a little bit more of a voice. I mean, he has like, 3 lines in the whole House of the Living Dead.

So yeah, I couldn’t do a whole book of him the way he was in House of the Living Dead. And again, the whole time we were doing House of the Living Dead, there was never any thought that this guy would get reused for anything. And in fact, in House of the Living Dead, he only speaks at the very end. There’s a little tacked on little scene, a very quiet little sad scene of Hellboy and the monster drinking together, and I think that’s…had I not done that scene, which I think was probably a last minute, “Oh I’ve got some more pages, let me do this quiet little moment,” I’m pretty sure I never would have done anything with this character. I may not have even called him the Frankenstein monster, I would have come up with some other back cover copy for the book. But it was just enough of a look at this character and the tragedy of this character which was completely not gotten into in that book, that gave him legs, that made him somebody you could do something with.

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7. The Monster Smells Like 200 Years of Accumulated Ass.

TR: You talk about Ben being willing to do the research. He, I think has mentioned that this is stretching different muscles for him because of the lack of real-world analogues, whereas with Baltimore he had kind of reference points readily available. How much guidance did you provide in some of the monster designs?

MM: I didn’t give him any guidance on the monster designs. I think the only thing we discussed was his inability to wear clothes, because he does have those giant bolts on him and you can’t, other than kind of putting a loose poncho or blanket on him, you can’t really put clothes on him. I guess he could wear pants, but where’s the fun in that?

The only thing we discussed was these kind of bandages that apparently he’s been wearing for a couple hundred years, that in certain scenes we’d need more of those bandages, and now some of them have fallen off over the years, and others have become almost a second layer of skin. Beyond that, we were working with Richard’s, or I had actually come up with the basic design of the creature for Corben, and then Corben took it in this kind of extreme direction, and Ben had to kind of take it a little bit back to a more human-type proportion. Beyond that, as far as the creature himself, there was no drawing on my part. There was another monster in the book that I think Ben and I banged some designs back and forth on, but I think that for the most part, it’s all Ben.

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8. Ben Stenbeck’s Twitter Handle Is @BenStenbeck. This Is Going to Be Important in a Second.

To go back to the Hollow Earth stuff for a second, the last Hollow Earth story in BPRD had some leftover Nazi gear floating around. Now that we’re coming back to Hollow Earth and doing it 15 years after the end of the war, are there any Nazis floating around?

MM: No, it never even occurred to me. The Hollow Earth is really big, so there’s probably Nazis in there somewhere. And had we done this thing – originally thought of it as an ongoing series of books – I’m sure i would have run out of ideas real quickly, and I would have said “oh who else is underground? Ok, we’ll do Nazis.” Since I changed…when I came up with the plot for this, when the plot was kind of finally figured out, I said “this feels like one book.” The trade paperback won’t have a number on it. It just felt like a standalone book. So there’s no plans, at least on my part, to do another center of the Earth Frankenstein book. Now that might change. Now that you’ve mentioned underground Nazis, I might go “Hey, wait a minute, that’s too good not to do.” Or heaven forbid Ben reads this and goes “OH I WANT TO DO THAT!” Anything’s possible. There’s certainly room to do that kind of stuff. But no, once I get into my Victorian guise and my ancient history hyperborean stuff, that was more than enough to play with for this book

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9. “Royalties and Residuals Are a Creator’s Retirement Plan,” Gerry Conway

TR: Stepping back from Frankenstein specifically, you’ve been doing your own book with your own characters for about 20 years now, and it seems like in the last 7 or 8 years, there’s been kind of a seismic shift towards creator-owned. Do you ever look back on Hellboy and your time on Hellboy and look at the industry as a whole and think “Holy shit, I helped start that?”

MM: I don’t really want to give myself that kind of credit, but I can’t help but think that I’m certainly a good example of not needing Marvel and DC and all the benefits of creating your own book. I had lunch the other day with Robert Kirkman, and that’s all we talked about. We’re shining examples of all the benefits to not working for Marvel and DC and kind of scratching our heads about the various people we know who say they want to do this, but can never quite leave the orbit of Marvel and DC. So yeah, I’m very happy that I started where I started and I learned a lot, but I’m very glad that I stepped out when I did, following kind of the Image example. I don’t know that we would have done it had the Image guys not made it so clearly a viable option. But yeah, I’d love to think that I’m some kind of an example of what you can do.

TR: I think that the Image guys showed that it could be done, and you showed that it could last.

MM: Well, that’s certainly a major difference. I see a lot of creator-owned stuff that seems to be a pitch for a TV show, or a pitch for a movie. Everything’s a five-issue miniseries or a four-issue miniseries; everything’s one trade paperback. I was never, i mean obviously, my thing’s called Hellboy, I obviously wasn’t pitching for a TV show or a movie, I just wanted to create a character that I’d be happy drawing for a really long time.

TR: Thank you so much for your time!

Frankenstein Underground #1 goes on sale Wednesday, 3/18/2015 in comic shops and online. Be sure to check back then for our review!

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