Welcome to Mignolaversity, Multiversity Comics’ dedicated column for all things Mike Mignola. Today, we’re trying out a new kind of column: the Mignolaversity Appreciation Corner. In this column, we’ll pick a creator that’s worked on Mike Mignola’s books and we’ll discuss their work on a particular title. However, instead of just hearing what our Mignolaversity writers have to say, we’ll be discussing with another creator, bringing their perspective as a comics professional to the table.
For this, our inaugural Mignolaversity Appreciation Corner, we’ll be discussing the work of Peter Bergting on “Frankenstein: New World” with artist Matt Smith. This is going to be a deep dive into “Frankenstein: New World” and there will be heavy spoilers. If you haven’t read it yet, the harcover collection just came out and it’s available on digital platforms now too.
I hope you enjoy this column. If this is something you’d like to see more of, let us know in the comments.
Mark Tweedale: Matt, you’ve made no secret of your being a fan of Peter Bergting’s work. His art pops up often on your social media accounts (especially since The Art of Peter Bergting came out), and you’ve even dropped some nods in your own work to him.
So, before we dive into discussing “Frankenstein: New World,” how did you first discover his work and what is it about it that continues to captivate you?
Matt Smith: I think it was around 2012 or ’13? I was working on “Barbarian Lord” and I was seeing Peter’s work in progress on “Domovoi.” He posted a few things online from it. One that sticks out in my mind is a panel of the lead character’s grandmother traversing an alpine terrain. Beautifully drawn and colored, it put me a bit in mind of Ivan Bilibin’s work.
Closer to the release, he created a great book trailer video for the book with some nice music. I got pretty excited for the release. One of my top ten to this day.
What still captivates me is manifold, really. For his comics work, Peter can really capture a lyrical, storybook like quality. The characters feel alive and the scenarios inviting. That being said, he can turn grim and intense on a dime. I’m thinking of “Cojacaru the Skinner,” which opens with a cabal of witches in mid air, conducting an assault on a platoon of soldiers.
It gets wild fast. He’s got something that contains aspects I love from Hergé and Mignola. Light on its feet and darkly atmospheric in turns. Always great mood! I think he’s always genuinely feeling the characters and the situation when he’s working. That’s the way it reads to me, anyway. And then there’s the illustration work, the painterly stuff. It’s all just. . . wow. You’ll be regretting asking me to take part in this. I could go on.
Mark: You hit the nail on the head there, especially regarding how he’s genuinely feeling the characters and situation. I think that’s part of why I find his fantasy work so captivating, because his honest approach to character grounds it in a sense of character reality even as the world is far from any reality we know. And that’s on full display in “Frankenstein: New World.”
And you also mentioned his illustration and painterly stuff, something we haven’t seen much of in Mignola’s books until the last few years when he started doing covers for Outerverse books and now “Frankenstein: New World.”
I’m showing these four covers side by side because it shows how story-motivated Peter’s work is. Just looking at the covers, there’s a clear progression. He even does this thing where #1 is ink dominated and the covers move toward a more painterly approach by #4.Continued below
Matt: Oh, for sure. I’d be interested to know if this could be chalked up to his getting more absorbed in the world he, Chris Golden, and Tom Sniegowski were creating as the series went along. First covers are usually needed well in advance of starting the actual story page art and so you might have read the full story script at that point or maybe not. Either way, as you get into the mood of it, drawing the characters, living them out and getting a fuller feel of the world they’re moving around in, you might lean in a specific direction for the other covers.
Mark: I also love that perfectly selected cover for #1. It takes an iconic Mignola-drawn panel from “B.P.R.D.: The Devil You Know” and extrapolates from there. It’s a panel that had readers raving about when we saw it, and so it was the perfect way to catch our attention for this new series.
Matt: Agreed! It makes me appreciate how this material has all been so thoughtfully woven together—that there is a wonderful consistency in the stories which allows for the diverse range of styles as we’re seeing when we look at these two images. I’m not sure if I’m being clear here, but this kind of cohesion isn’t always a given with expanding stories in other universes. This isn’t so much about Peter specifically, though his work is one of my favorite threads in the overall design.
Mark: Well, let’s dig into the design aspect, because a big part of ‘New World’ is, well, the New World, and though we’ve seen glimpses of it by Mike Mignola and Laurence Campbell, what Peter takes those glimpses and truly makes them a world. Personally, I think he has a flair for drawing the natural world, so to give him this sort of fantasy environment plays into his strengths in a big way. He can make it every bit as fantastic as it needs to be, but he also makes it believable with careful attention to detail. In the first issue in particular, he has to introduce the human refuge in the Hollow Earth, the New World of the frog people, and the threshold in between the two. That’s a lot to tackle in only twenty-two pages.
Matt: Yes, for sure. This seems like where Peter is most at home, fully free to create wild, fantasy-esque environments. As seen in stories like “Cojacaru the Skinner,” he has no problem expertly creating Wroclaw, Poland in 1938—or the Tivoli Gardens of Copenhagen and the seaport of Malmo in “Imogen of the Wyrding Way.” (I absolutely love that issue—giant troll!) He’s masterful at that kind of difficult real world drawing, but when I first saw the pages from ‘New World,’ I thought “Ahh, here is Peter at his most Peter-iest.” By which I mean, it looks like he was having a lot of fun on every page. That’s making some assumptions on my part, but it’s the way it strikes me.
And that attention to detail you mention, so strongly evident in those real world scenarios he draws, makes all the difference when creating these fantastic natural worlds. It makes me think of Bill Watterson and his weekday strips. You didn’t need to see the big, Sunday strips with the really wild drawings to know he could draw amazingly. It was evident even in the relatively more simple panels. I’m belaboring the point, but I think some artists (taking hands off keyboard to direct both thumbs back at myself) prefer fantasy environments because modern ones present technical challenges beyond their comfort zone. With Peter, he can do it all, but revels, soars, in that fantasy-tinged environment.
Mark: And he does so while remaining story focused. The three environments in ‘New World’ serve very specific purposes. While all three are alien to varying degrees, one needs to feel like a place where humans belong, so the human settlement of the Hollow Earth is the most familiar—we immediately get a sense of an arcadian existence. The threshold between this world and the New World is the most alien and inhospitable to humankind. It’s beautiful, but we immediately understand why humans don’t wander out into this area, why they don’t attempt to cross this barrier between worlds—it feels dangerous. And finally the New World, which needs to communicate it’s both alien and paradisal. (Well, the New World has a whole host of things it needs to communicate, but those two points are the immediate concerns in issue #1.)Continued below
Matt: That’s a great observation regarding the three environments that I didn’t consciously make. Looking at the issue in hand now, I see it. I suppose it’s always this way with the good stuff. If it’s designed really well, that kind of intentional construction doesn’t necessarily draw attention to itself, but as a reader you’re being taken on a trip. It’s working whether you’re picking up on the how of it or not. I’ll admit my favorite art form to enjoy is music. I have no idea on how it’s made and it’s just pure enjoyment for me. I’m generally not compelled to question the choices or imagine how I would have done it. When I really dig a visual artist, it’s a bit like that too. It’s more akin to how I read comics as a kid. I just want to get into bed with a plate of cookies and the story to get lost in. When I think of this kind of experience in recent times, it’s of Simonson’s “Ragnarök” and of Peter’s work in the Outerverse and “Frankenstein: New World.”
Mark: So when you look at this first issue, what is it that strikes you about what Peter’s doing?
Matt: Can I be trusted to make any observations at this point? Ha. Rereading the first issue after the last question, I tried to be more observant this time. Again, when I really dig an artist’s work and the story, I find myself going along for that ride. I’m not even the front seat passenger, I’m in the back, staring out of the windows into the story landscape. Paying almost no attention to the driver. It’s almost a perverse inversion of how you’d think someone would approach the work of an artist they admire. Maybe when I’m less engaged, I’m looking at the mechanics of the work—or wishing the driver would go faster, ha.
So, what strikes me is both the creation of the vast setting(s) and the introduction of a small, but very important character, Lilja. Now, of course this is all inseparable from what was written in the script and I could easily start writing about all the things I like purely in the story and dialog—but I’ll paraphrase what I wrote in my first answer—Peter immediately creates an engaging environment and brings real life to characters, in this case, to Lilja. In a few pages you have a great sense of her energy and personality. She’s restless. Lilja is running, dancing on a fence, eating a weird fruit, reaching, yearning, and arms akimbo, exasperated with her big new traveling companion. He saves the stoic shots for Frankenstein.
Then there’s the relationship between those two. The two characters couldn’t be any different. Peter understands them both and how to show them as a traveling unit together so that you’re there with them. The TL/DR is that he brings it all to life. That might seem simple enough but I’ve read comics and seen shows where all the elements are there—the storyline on paper is well thought out, the dialog is good, everything looks cool and yet with all that good work in place, the execution is somehow lifeless. You don’t have to worry about that here. This book is screaming with life. It’s a noisy book!
Mark: Peter really leapt into the opportunities in the script. I haven’t read the script, so I can only really respond to the broad structure where Lilja is dancing on a fence, then punches one of the other children. Right there we have two aspects of her character striking juxtaposed, and I think Peter made some smart composition choices to play that up. When Lilja decides to dance on the fence, he frames her against the natural world rather than with the other children in the background—the composition tells us she’s in her own world.
A few panels later we get a closeup with butterflies around her head, playing up the innocence of the character so that when the punch comes it’s a very pronounced change. But those butterflies, were they in the script or were they a Peter addition? I’ve no idea, but it works.Continued below
But let’s get to Frankenstein himself, because here we’re seeing a transition from one artist to another. Ben Stenbeck had his own take on Frankenstein and here Peter’s taking up that same character, so there’s the issue of continuity of performance. And Peter’s done this before—after all, he previously took on Lord Baltimore after Ben Stenbeck too—and I’m always amazed how seamless he makes it. I like Peter’s acting choices, if that makes sense.
Matt: Absolutely it does, full agreement to all of that. I haven’t read the script either, only that before I meant the things I’m reacting to with Peter’s drawings is obviously building on the story as written, the dialog they are speaking. Though having read both Tom’s and Christopher’s scripts (and novels), I can almost imagine what this script looked like. I’m sure it was a lot of fun to read. But that is a really interesting comparison to make, Ben and Peter’s portrayals of Frankenstein. And while again you can’t easily separate the artwork from the written story, we’re seeing a different Frankenstein. Yes, the continuity is seamless but the story itself places him in different circumstances, in a different role. The Frankenstein we meet in Ben’s book (and I’ll admit I haven’t properly reread it recently but only just breezed through it now to gawk at the incredible art) is, as I remember, a more tortured character. There’s anguish of purpose and desperation for redemption. Peter picks up Frankenstein at a very different point. When we see him, he looks more of a monk, a mystic in deep trance. When he awakens, his role is more that of a knight setting out on a holy quest and now, with Lilja, a protector. There’s not much he says of himself or of his own wants. It’s about preserving the life of the new world against the coming dark. “…but I seek the light for all our sakes.” So while Ben’s Frankenstein violently leaps out of the classic tragedy and horror origins of the character, transforming from those origins and creating something new, Peter’s starts more from a place of folklore and adventure. Frankenstein himself is more a legend than anything else to the remnant humanity at the start. He’s a Moai statue or even a sword in the stone, waiting to be activated. The world beyond is unknown, there’s a distant hope and a growing evil. It’s that classic stuff and fantastic territory for Peter.
There are parts that echo his own written work with “Domovoi” in that folkloric, almost fairytale-like (in the best sense) structure. That same lightness and vitality of character moments juxtaposed with encroaching darkness. I suppose I’d say “Domovoi” is a smaller (for lack of a better word) story of an individual’s fate (along with her companions) while “Frankenstein: New World” has the fate of a world at stake. I think maybe this is where you can really see what Peter brings to a book. Whether it’s his own written works like “Domovoi” and “The Portent,” “Frankenstein” or his other contributions to the Mignolaverse, you can see what he brings regardless of who is writing or what the story is. That’s not at all to be interpreted as the story isn’t of equal importance, only in a comparative sense between books you can almost distill the story out and focus on what he does as an artist that makes the books he’s involved with so engaging.
Back to Ben and Peter, both could easily handle the other side of the coin here but I personally am very happy that we got them taking the points in the story that they did. What luck that both of them found their way to the story and we have these things in print.
Mark: And he does that fantasy stuff so well, it’s particularly cool to see the elements of the story that lean hard into that aspect. Like Frankenstein taking up Gall Dennar’s sword. That sort of stuff is so cool to see, and not just for the geek factor of seeing him holding a cool weapon, but because Peter gets to connect those moments with Ted Howards. When Frankenstein fights, we see the body language of Howards emerge.Continued below
He’s one of those artists that never feels constrained when he has to reference work outside his own. Instead, he leans into the opportunity to go bigger than ever. Anyway, it’s a great skill for an artist working in the Hellboy Universe to have!
Matt: You might as well put one of those bobble-head toys in my place because all I’m doing is nodding with agreement. That’s another great observation about Frankenstein taking up the body language of Howards when wielding the sword. Interesting to think about the sword carrying something with it. Maybe not entirely unlike Mjolnir. These weapons taking on aspects and memories of their wielders. I’m a big fan of semi-sentient weaponry. Off the bat I can think of the screaming, insatiable spear in Slaine: The Horned God and Elric’s Stormbringer. I know Peter is a big fan of Michael Whelan’s Elric art. Makes me wonder how he imagines these things. I really want to go off on a tangent here about Luke’s lightsaber in The Force Awakens apparently calling to Rey—imbued with memory—how that particular thread seemed so cool to me and it was never followed up, but I’ll drop it. But, yes, you could put Peter anywhere in the greater Hellboy story and he’d be great. A selfish part of me wants to see him on a Yad Tovich story.
Mark: God, YES.
Matt: Selfish, I guess, as I have a particular affinity for that character. Some point in his history before meeting Hellboy, tracking down a particularly unique werewolf, or maybe it is tracking him? Or if I can just dive off into my own fantasy land for a moment, a cross over with the two supernatural odd-jobs men from Domovoi. Both Yad and the pair of Nivek and Ethr being hired by different masters to track the same beast for different reasons. Can we just write this together now with the remainder of the article and press-gang Peter into drawing it? Ha!
Mark: Peter, if you’re reading this, consider this a moment where we’re both pointed looking at you.
I want to draw attention to a particular bit of the story telling in “Frankenstein: New World,” something relatively understated, but I love it for that because it means you don’t necessarily notice it while reading, but you feel it. The following two panels are from separate issues, the first in #1, the second in #2. The subtle difference in #2, in contrast with the dialogue from #1 speaks volumes. . .
I like storytelling like this. It often reads subconsciously, but it also demands that the reading engage with the art as more than just “illustration.” It’s text just as much as the dialogue is.
And from that second panel, we now know the connection between Lilja and Liz is growing stronger.
Matt: Let me just say thank you on behalf of all writers and artists for giving books the kind of attentive reading that you do. That’s a fantastic observation that I didn’t catch myself but it’s an example of the kind of thing you can get out of rereading if you missed it the first time. I really enjoy that in great movies and comics, that second (or tenth) go where you catch something, some rich subtlety, and it just ups your whole appreciation even more. It tends to only happen where all cylinders are firing on a book and allows for both an exciting, fast paced read-through to know what happens but also rewards a more careful one. And because we’re talking about Peter here, he’s just great at this kind of thing.
Mark: Exactly. It’s always present in his work. He’s always worth rereading.
Matt: It was immediately apparent in “Domovoi,” these moments, a certain tilt of the head or some specific detail in a room to focus on during a conversation. He’s a master of capturing mood and story-focused art. He’s never wasting his time flexing his art-muscles, though he’s got them. It’s like the ease of a big hunting cat, confidently telling a story and pouncing when he needs to—it’s all purposeful and serves the story. You can’t ask for more in a story artist. Ha, yes I just called Peter an art-panther. Clearly the coffee I just finished is kicking in and it’s doing the writing for me.Continued below
Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to in the continuation of the “Frankenstein” story? I’m assuming—hoping—we’ll be getting more, given the way it goes. With “Frankenstein Underground,” the ending is such that it could be an end or is an open door to more, which thankfully we got. ‘New World’ has major things in play at its conclusion. For myself, I’ll say it’s seeing more of the New World itself and the development of Lilja’s and Frankenstein’s relationship. Really, just seeing Peter draw wonderfully weird stuff is enough.
Mark: I’m hoping we’ll get a whole omnibus of ‘Frankenstein: New World’ stories when it’s done. Like you, I want to see the relationship between Frankenstein and Lilja evolve—it really is the core of the book. However, I also want to see an ending for Liz. “B.P.R.D.: The Devil You Know” had so much to wrap up, and while it did a great job ending Hellboy’s story, a whole bunch of other characters fell through the cracks.
But then “The Sword of Hyperborea” came along and took one of those characters, Ted Howards, and slowed down, spent some time with him, and gave him a satisfying ending. And I feel like “Frankenstein: New World” could do the same for Liz. This era of the Hellboy Universe we’re in now feels very much like The Lord of the Rings to me, where “B.P.R.D.: The Devil You Know” is defeating Sauron and destroying the One Ring, but there’s still “The Scouring of the Shire” to come. As someone that loves the ending of The Lord of the Rings, this very much appeals to me. And the idea of doing a series of endings is something I think a sprawling universe like this one needs.
And to bring that back to Peter, I think he has a level of nuance in his art that allows that sort of storytelling to work, where he is serving the story of ‘New World,’ which has aspects that are very self-contained, but also aspects that are deeply embedded in far reaching lore. I have faith in his ability to give Liz’s storyline closure.
Matt: Fantastic analogy to Tolkien. I’d be curious if it came up in conversation with the writers. I wouldn’t be too surprised if it did. I’m with you, of course. I really enjoy the ending of LotR. Story worlds this big don’t end on a single note. They might if the story follows a focused narrative within the bigger story, which exists in other released material or is suggested. You have those kind of focused stories like Luke’s in the first Star Wars film or Bilbo in The Hobbit, but these worlds were even bigger in the author’s minds before those introductory tales were released.
Reminds me of Norse mythology as well, having its echoes in Tolkien’s and Mignola’s worlds. Ragnarok comes with an ending for most of the known realms but there is a new world bearing resemblance to the old. Things light and dark survive and start anew. The shining and brave Baldur, most beloved of the Aesir, returns–as does serpent Níðhǫggr, “malice-striker,” stirring in the deep. There is relatively little said about it in the original source material which makes it fascinating.
A case could be made that The Hobbit/LotR are post-Ragnarok stories of a sort, within the greater story of the Silmarils and the Rings. It’s very much a new world after Morgoth is defeated and the toll is very high, the landscape changed forever. Light remains but so does Sauron. This is one reason I enjoy Simonson’s “Ragnarok” so much, his own exploration of the unknown (and actual) post-Ragnarok era. Equally important is Simonson’s art guiding us through it. Same with Peter and “Frankenstein: New World.” The exploration is given shape by Peter’s inviting and dynamic artwork. Peter can visually give you both an intimate portrayal of the small, like a hobbit or a Lilja, and the oppressive threat of an overwhelming power. It comes back to that first question, what it is about Peter’s work that is so captivating?
I also love the idea that some new reader could pick up ‘New World’ and enjoy it as a stand-alone story with references to a storied past, other heroes who fell long ago. Maybe not knowing who Howards is—or Liz or even Hellboy. Maybe then this new reader will want to know how Frankenstein came to be as shown at the start of the story and what happened to the old world. Gimme that plate of cookies and stack of pillows under my head. This is the height of comics enjoyment for me.Continued below
Matt: I would like to recommend anyone who digs the Mignolaverse to give “Domovoi” a go. There’s been enough of a percentage of Hellboy fans I’ve talked to who hadn’t heard of it that I think it’s very much worth suggesting again. If you can imagine a similar atmosphere and great, deadpan dialogue of Hellboy but with a very different type of protagonist(s). There’s less fighting and more of a fairytale-like supernatural road trip thing going on. It’s really good. This is not to ignore “The Portent” and Peter’s other books, but “Domovoi” was my gateway into his work and it left a strong impression.
And thanks to Matt Smith for taking time to do this piece. Like Peter, he’s busy on titles with Mike Mignola at the moment. The fifth issue of “Hellboy in Love” will be out July 12, so don’t miss that. You can check out Matt Smith’s work at Matt-Illustration.squarespace.com and you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
This article contains excerpts from “Frankenstein: New World,” written by Christopher Golden, Thomas Sniegoski, and Mike Mignola, with colors by Michelle Madsen, and lettering by Clem Robins.