Joshua Dysart: Old Becomes New For BPRDA comics interview article by: Matthew McLean
Right on the heels of his last Dark Horse project, Conan and the Midnight God, Joshua Dysart takes on one of comics’ most famous licenses, Hellboy in BPRD: 1946. The new title, the second issue of which comes out on February 13th, focuses on Hellboy’s mentor, Professor Bruttenholm and the aftermath of World War II.
Matthew McLean (MM): So as readers can tell from the title, BPRD 1946 is a sort of precursor to the modern Hellboy tales. For those who didn’t catch the first issue, what’s it all about?
Joshua Dysart (JD): BPRD 1946 is about Trevor Bruttenholm (pronounced Broom) who is the adopted father of Hellboy and the first field mission of his newly created organization, the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. So it's a great jumping on point for the BPRD series, which is now something like 7 trades strong. If you've read any Hellboy story or have even seen the film, which has a relatively accurate origin, then you can leap right into this. We’ll be your gateway drug to the Mignola/Arcudi/Davis BPRD, which is stellar, and the larger Mignola universe in general.
So basically this is about a young Trevor Bruttenholm at the beginning of his career, creating an organization that, at this time, is very humble. We're assuming there are more people involved, but what we get to see here are two men: An older man named Dr. Eaton, who is a friend of Bruttenholm's and an academic, and Bruttenholm himself, who’s also a bit of an intellectual. They end up going to Berlin six months after the Russians have taken the Reichstag and their mission is to uncover any information they can on the Nazi obsession with the occult. When they get there they realize that the Russians have a team doing the same thing and that the Russian team is obviously more equipped, better funded and just outright taking the whole thing a lot more seriously than the Americans are.
Contextually, as I said, it takes place in Berlin in 1946. So, as anyone even remotely familiar with history can imagine, this is a seriously depressed place. Filled with people whose own ideology has betrayed them. Many of them are old enough to remember the disastrous outcome of World War I and now they’re living in even worse poverty and destruction then they did before. So this is the world that Trevor Bruttenholm and Dr. Eaton have to walk into and must try to make sense of.
MM: Why are the Soviets more prepared?
JD: Well, that's an interesting question. I think the Soviets are more prepared for many reasons. I think that Stalin was a more aggressive leader. And I think that the Soviets, being an older people, having an older culture, allow for a stronger emphasis to be placed on old world knowledge. So all Bruttenholm gets is a tiny corner office in an Air Force base in New Mexico and an old friend for an assistant.
But that'll change. Anyone who's familiar with the modern BPRD knows that it's a very well funded, virtually militaristic, organization. How that change comes about is part of this story.
MM: So what’s it like writing for a title when its most famous character isn’t really on the scene?
JD: It's exactly the way to do it. There's been very little of Bruttenholm in anything done by Mike Mignola. There's more of Bruttenholm in the first film then there is in any of the Hellboy stories, so I have a lot of room to really create a character and get into his psychology. I've spent a large portion of my career trying to find myself in other people’s characters, like Conan and Swamp Thing. Now I get to work on a character who has a history in comics, meaning that there's a readership that wants to hear about him, but really, he's completely untapped. As long as I don't go against anything Mike has in mind, I pretty much have carte blanche on the character. It's wonderful to be a part of an established series and yet have an un-established character. It's the best of both worlds.
MM: You mentioned earlier that Berlin at the end of WWII was this grey, depressing, broken place. It was, in many ways, a giant graveyard. That’s got to be great stuff when writing a horror / adventure story. Where did you find the most inspiration?
JD: The most inspiration? I would have to say the German psychology. I guess inspiration isn't the word I would use, but it is the most fascinating thing about it all for me. Imagine if it were you. Whether you bought in to the national socialist dream or not, this prevalent philosophy has brought the whole world low and totally smashed your way of life, your economy, everything you believe in. Now imagine you were a “Good German”. You know, Lower/middle class, a believer in the idea “Lebensraum”, you were on the side of the road cheering when Hitler’s caravan come rolling by, convinced that national socialism was going to save Germany. Hitler was strengthen the economy after the first world war. You’re family was eating again. So you ignored, or even agreed with the language of racism and totalitarian overtones. I mean, that wasn’t every German, but that was a lot of them. So if that was you, well, by ’46 the fact that you had chosen the wrong “ism” and the wrong leader had become pretty obvious to you. Even people who were not aware of the camps and maybe didn't buy into the rhetoric of racism, those people still had to suffer from guilt, particularly when news about the camps came out. That's what’s interesting to me. It's not necessarily where we pull all of our horror from in this story, but it does make for some very engaging context. Here we have a population riddled with guilt, anger and a great sense of loss. What is your sense of the future like when you've been so thoroughly defeated? Pretty bleak. And not just defeated by war, either, but by your own ideology.
MM: That desperate fear of failure also fueled a lot of really crazy military schemes; the revenge weapons, the werewolf guerilla units. Did that play into BPRD 1946 at all?
MM: [Laughter] OK, I'll leave it at that. Let's switch the subject then.
JD: Hah, sorry! I’m not going to reveal anything that will spoil the reading experience.
MM: Immediately after World War II was a pretty tricky time; there was all sorts of intrigue as the Soviet / Allies split and both sides tried to make a grab for technology, secrets and personnel. However, the Hellboy universe has its own secret history. What are the big differences between our textbooks and what you’ve got to work with?
JD: Well, I would say that the differences are just in the metaphors that we’re using. I've always felt that Hellboy was a metaphor for the Cold War. The title is constantly dealing with the repercussions of World War II. I have long believed that World War II was “the war that never ended”, to quote Gregor Dallas, and so that was one of the very first things that I said to Mike when I was doing my tap dance trying to get this job. You know, like, “Hey Mike, is Hellboy a metaphor for the cold war!?”
MM: How did he respond to that?
JD: He thought it was a great idea, but he claims not to have done it intentionally. His response was basically, "I like Nazis and monsters."
JD: That’s Mike, you know, operating on some unconscious level. So here I've been given an opportunity to take this theme that I always saw in the property and bring it up to the forefront and be painfully obvious with it, which I usually am in my work anyway. So getting back to the question on the obvious differences; in my mind the histories are very similar, we just have the comic book metaphor of the occult to deal with.
MM: Well, speaking of the Cold War, the leader of the Soviet team, Varvara is an interesting one. I have to ask – how did the idea of a Russian, vodka belting little girl evolve as the leader of Bruttenholm’s Soviet rivals?
JD: It's Mike Mignola's idea – it was one of the very first things he talked about, one of the things he was most excited about. It's a beautiful thing to see, Mike Mignola excited about ideas. He's like an idea factory. If I ever run out of ideas or need a visual I can’t come up with on my own, I call him up and the guy goes from 0 to 60 in five minutes. It’s astonishing.
But Varvara was his idea. He didn’t have a name for her and he only sort of had a look for her, but all he really knew was that he wanted this little girl. He knew who she was, but he didn't fully have her history formed (and no… I'm not going to tell you that history).
But it was one of the cornerstones of BPRD 1946. One of the big ideas he handed to me when we first sat down with it.
I had a character from years ago that was a little girl and she was involved in this sort of supernatural behavior and I had already written stories about her, none of them published, but regardless, I already had her mannerisms and her voice down. My character was much more of an innocent than Varvara is (by the way, the name is taken from Russian literature, Dostoevsky to be exact).
But I had a strong understanding of how she was going to look – the frilly dress, the shiny shoes. So her look and the innocent side of her is a holdover from this other character of mine. If you read Varvara, she's not entirely innocent – like you said, she's swills vodka, she curses the church, etc. – but she's still a child and that child part of her I already had down pat. I love her. I think she's awesome. She's going to be one of the things that, when this series is all closed up, people are going to want to see more of.
MM: On Bruttenholm's side of the field, he is assigned a group of tired soldiers who are, basically, sitting around and waiting to go home.
JD: Yeah, the dirty half-dozen. Except that there’s five of ‘em.
MM: Where did the inspiration for those fellas come from?
JD: That's Mike again. That's almost all Mike. That great introduction page , that big splash page of all of them, Mike had some war comics that he was looking at, some Kubert stuff I think, and he took inspiration for that splash from that.
We worked with that splash a little bit to give them each a personality. Eventually I went with these really short, stabbing sentences about each ones. It doesn’t necessarily fit with the speech pattern we’ve established earlier in the scene for the Colonel (whose delivering the lines), but it works in comics. The voice change isn’t too noticeable.
And let me tell you, I'm speaking for Paul Azaceta as well as myself, it is not easy in comics to deal with a large cast of characters and keep your action moving, especially if you want each of them to have some uniqueness about them. So we worked very hard on that. Especially Paul – when you're working in six panel pages, having to draw 18 soldiers on a page (the cast enlarges even more in future issues), over and over and over again. I mean, its work, you know.
MM: That's got to be brutal.
JD: I often wonder if Mike would have made the same creative decision if he had had to draw it himself. [Laughter]
But that [the dirty half-dozen] was totally Mike's and in the end it worked great. It's definitely one of the reasons why Bruttenholm comes to the realization that he needs to create a military organization. He's certainly not an inherent military guy. But when this is all said and done, he’ll see the necessity – the pragmatism - of a man with a gun.
MM:: So we've talked about the Russians, we've talk about the Americans. Are we going to see Herman von Klempt?
MM:: [Laughter] Yesnomaybe? You just gave me three answers there.
JD: Yes I did. I'm going to be very vague about what's going to happen in this book. We've designed the narrative so that as Bruttenholm figures out what’s going on, hopefully, so will the readers and not one moment before.
MM:: OK. So it sounds like you really enjoyed the collaboration process between you and Mike. What was that like and who else was involved?
JD: Obviously, Paul was involved in the visualization. But sitting down with the story it was Mike, myself and Scott Allie. I would like to stress, at least in the books that I've worked on, Scott's role in the Hellboy universe. He works his ass off to make these things good and Mike listens to him. So Scott’s opinion and aesthetic is definitely strongly in the mix.
But in general, it was like this, I would go to Mike’s and I’d sit down, like a little boy, on the floor at his feet with my laptop.
JD: And Mike would rattle off ideas like a machine gun. Now whether these ideas fit together or what, was irrelevant – the structure, how it works, it didn't even matter, or even just the fact that he was coming up with too many ideas, which was one of my fears when I was first taking notes, you know, that we had way too much for a mini-series.
Then I also had things that I was fascinated with. This is subject matter I've worked on before with Captain Gravity and the Power of the Vril and I had done a lot of research and a lot of reading in regards to Germany before the war, during the war and after the war. So there was some things I was very intrigued by. Like the Action T4 Program, which is mentioned and plays a part in the narrative. So I brought in the idea of this asylum and some ideas you'll see later on in the series as well. Mike, being as adept and agile an idea acrobat as I’ve seen, immediately began to ensconce my ideas into what he was creating and building.
So then I would go home with this document that was literally endless bullet points of cool shit, but with just a hint of connectivity. Then I would sit down and do a big pass on the structure – it was about a fifteen page document outlining the entire five issues with everything tied in wherever I could make it feel like it fit and flowed well. Then Mike and I went through an extensive note process on that document. Then I began scripting. I would turn in the script and Mike and I would sit down and go through it line by line and figure out what worked for him and what didn't work. Then I would go and do a second draft. To be honest, I don't think he ever even read much of my second drafts. At first that was terrifying.
MM: That demonstrates a lot of faith in you.
JD: Absolutely, it does. But it was scary at first though, because I felt like a hired gun, and I wanted everything to be exactly as he wanted it. Now I feel much more like a collaborator. But, for the record, I was OK being a hired gun to Mike Mignola.
MM: There are people who would kill to do that.
JD: Yeah! It seemed like the best thing in the world, quite frankly. Now I feel great that he didn't read these second drafts, but, like I said, at first it was a little scary.
So that's the process in a nutshell. It also depends on the book. I just finished a BPRD story for Free Comic Book Day in which I had almost complete creative control. The structure is all mine, the ideas are all mine, Mike just went in and gave some notes and, essentially, made it better. And he DID make it better, son of a bitch.
JD: It's like I'm almost terrified to write without him now, he always makes everything so much better. But in the case of BPRD 1946 the ideas were about 90 percent Mike's, the structure was split between us 50/50 and the dialogue was about 90 percent mine. With Scott there all the while, brokering creative decisions and having his own, valuable input.
MM: There are some elements of Hellboy, not the least of which is the name, that are kind of silly. On the other hand, there are elements that are deeply unsettling and even frightening. How did you strike a balance between these as a new writer to this license?
JD: That is Mike's brilliance, and, I think, the reason for the property's longevity – people get the, as you said, kind of ridiculous aspects of pulp they go to comics for, but at the same time much of the readership for this title is older and I've discovered they tend to be extremely well-read, extremely well spoken. So they get fed a good, nutritious meal when they read a Hellboy comic. Now when it comes to actually meeting those demands, I think that really has to do with Mike. That is Mike's editorial role on the book; if I'm taking something too seriously, he will let me know and if I'm not taking something seriously enough, he’ll also let me know. Which is really good because I have a tendency to be a bit pretentious.
MM: Any thoughts on the upcoming Hellboy film?
JD: Yeah, yeah, I'm excited to see it. It's gonna look great and it's going to be a lot of run. I saw the first film and it was very entertaining. I think Ron Perlman, you know, he is Hellboy, he was an amazing casting decision. However, I think, barring the money, which is obviously much larger in the film industry, if I had a choice between working on the comic book continuity or the movie continuity, I'm definitely happier working on the straight up vision. Comics allow us a little more creative freedom and it's just more interesting to me.
MM: In some ways they're more seminal too.
JD: Absolutely, absolutely and that's part of it. But honestly, it's just that I think the comic line is smarter and more nuanced than the films. None of that is the fault of Guillermo Del Toro, who was a great decision as a director. I mean, I'd very much like to see Hellboy go in the direction of Pan's Labyrinth.
But the thing about the movies is that these guys are dropping 80 million dollars or something like that, so you've really got to make a profit on this thing if you want this franchise to continue.
The comic books on the other hand, you spend a modicum of money putting these comics out and Mike has the luxury of slowly building a readership. We don't have to make creative decisions that are forced or contrived or populist.
And I've got to tell you, I’ve sat down with Mignola over lunch and he has told me where this goes. The whole Hellboy thing, and I can honestly say that when it's all done this is going to be one of the great comic book franchises in the history of the medium. So, I’d much rather be a part of that then a handful of really strong action adventure films.
MM: You're a lucky man. Not many people have access to that kind of information.
JD: I totally am. It's good, good stuff.
MM: Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re hoping to see come out through Dark Horse?
JD: Dark Horse is all stuff with Mike right now. Some I can talk about. Some I can’t. But people can follow this link… http://www.joshuadysart.com/journal/archives/2008_01.html
To see what else I’m up to.
If you liked this interview, be sure to check out more of the author’s work at http://madbastard.hypersites.com