Welcome to Mignolaversity Debrief, our column where we explore the latest stories from Mike Mignola. This time we’re discussing “Witchfinder: The Reign of Darkness” #5 with writer Chris Roberson, artist Christopher Mitten, and colorist Michelle Madsen. If you missed our previous debriefs, here are links to #1, #2, #3, and #4.
Chris Roberson, this is a question from one of our readers, Nathan Green, who wanted to know what visual and plot cues you drew on when crafting ‘The Reign of Darkness.’ Now that the arc is finished and you can speak about it more freely, I’m certainly interested in learning how this story took shape.
Chris Roberson: I had many conversations with Mike Mignola over the years about this period in Sir Edward’s career in general, and the investigation into the Ripper murders in particular, and one thing that we both wanted to avoid was Sir Edward facing off against some guy called “Jack the Ripper.” It had to be something that we hadn’t seen a million times before. And that the murders that we know about from history were only the beginning of the story and not the end. From little glimpses we had gotten over the years it was clear that Sir Edward was not allowed to discuss the details of the case, but that he disagreed with Queen Victoria over how the matter was handled. We also had the notion that the Heliopic Brotherhood would be involved somehow pretty early on, and when I hit upon the idea of an “industrialized ritual sacrifice” the rest of the story all fell into place.
Hecate! At last, Hecate! Christopher Mitten, this isn’t your first time drawing the character. You previously drew Ereshigal in a sequence at the beginning of “Rise of the Black Flame” #2, and the way you’ve drawn Hecate here leans much more towards that cosmic Ereshigal look. Can you talk about your approach to drawing this version of the character, especially as she changes throughout the issue?
Christopher Mitten: This sequence and this take on the character was really enjoyable to draw because, just based on what was happening in the scene, how Chris had written it, there was quite a bit of flexibility. Hecate, more or less for her whole time in this issue, is still in the process of being conjured, of trying to take her true form, so with the exception of a few panels—mostly, I think, on page eleven, and the first panel of page twelve—she’s largely this swirling, undulating, sort of vague form at the center of the room. Stuff like that’s always a lot of fun because it allows for a more expressionistic approach, just creating huge areas of shape and movement.
Michelle Madsen: I try to color “Witchfinder” in a more subdued palette, but when they fired up the machine at the end of issue #4 I wanted to break from that and go nuts. Now, had I realized that most of issue #5 would be continuing the same scene for as long as it did, I would have started more subtle and built up the transition to blues. But I’m happy with how it turned out, and yes, I was referencing the blues from issue #1, which was referencing how the blue/black Ereshigal has been colored before.
Christopher M., Michelle, I want to ask about the composition choices in the conversation with Queen Victoria and Sir Edward in the later half of the issue, because it is just a conversation, but there’s a lot of power dynamics there and a lot that’s unspoken, but it’s still represented in the panel layout and colors. How did this sequence evolve from the first layouts?Continued below
CM: Again, this all comes from Chris’s writing and from the years we’ve worked together on these books; there’s a clarity to everything and what’s needed and wanted from a scene. When I read this I pretty much knew what I was going to do, how it was all going to be laid out and staged, and I don’t think the basics of it changed much, or at all, from the thumbnail stage.
And I tend to find these scenes, these quiet conversional moments, as exciting to draw in their own way as the Big Moments, where there’s more overt action taking place. Those are on side of the spectrum, but on the other, there are these—and often, it’s in these quieter beats where, in terms of story, the real big moments occur—where there’s the chance to be more subtle, to allow the characters breathe a bit, to let their acting carry the day; the arch of an eyebrow, or wringing of hands, how they hold themselves as they speak or react as they’re spoken to, that sort of thing.
MM: My choices for that scene were using the reds from pictures of Queen Victoria’s throne room, and I was so glad to not blue anymore. I was also trying to keep the intimate “off the books” feeling of the meeting.
CR: One of the things that I’ve enjoyed about exploring this era in Hellboy’s world is that there are a lot more players dealing with the occult in the shadows than might have been obvious at first glance, different factions with their own often conflicting agendas and ambitions. I’m sorry that there wasn’t more space to explore Lady Evelyn’s backstory here as well, but as for Mrs. Hibbert? She does appear to have slipped away there at the end, doesn’t she…?
When we spoke about issue #4, we discussed how this arc is the end of an era, but having read it, I can’t help feel like this is more of a beginning than an ending. Yes, Sir Edward leaves Queen Victoria’s service, but this is a choice he needs to make to evolve as a character. He began his career as a “the Queen’s Witchfinder” by saving her from an assassination attempt, but ten years later, he’s being asked to ignore the deaths of innocents to save the Crown from embarassment.
CR: As much as I love this period of his life, it was clear from the character’s established backstory that something significant must have driven him away from Queen Victoria’s service, and a big part of the challenge of approaching this story arc was working out just how his bonds of loyalty and service to the Crown would have been broken. And I don’t know that Sir Edward at the beginning of his career would have made the same decisions that we see him making at the end of this story, because I think that the character has definitely grown and changed over time.
One of my favorite moments in this final issue was the way you contextualized Sir Edward moving to Whitechapel. This is something “Hellboy” readers have known is coming for a long time now, and because of Whitechapel’s significance in the Jack the Ripper murders, I had always assumed he’d settled there because there was some aspect of the case he was still involved in. Instead, ‘The Reign of Darkness’ highlights how vulnerable people were treated like pawns in the Ripper affair, and so Sir Edward choosing to set up shop in Whitechapel says something about the kind of people he’d like to help.
CR: Yeah, that’s definitely a conscious choice on our part, to transition him from being a royal agent at the beck and call of the crown, to being a consulting occult detective living in modest rooms upstairs from a tavern. After this point he still devotes his time and attentions to investigating the occult and supernatural, but more often than not he’ll be doing so at the behest of working class and even middle class folks, and less for the upper echelons of society, in large part because he’s come to agree with Sarah Jewell that such folks have been too often overlooked.Continued below
So what does the future hold for the “Sir Edward Grey: Witchfinder” series? I can’t help but wonder if this is where it ends and perhaps there’s a new “Sir Edward Grey” series on the horizon, especially since “Witchfinder” was really about him working alone, but the years ahead have him working as part of the Silver Lantern Club.
CR: We have definitely not seen the last of Sir Edward Grey, though his days as “Witchfinder” are now behind him. Mignola and I are both huge fans of occult detective stories from the Victorian and Edward era, and characters like Carnacki are a touchstone that we revisit often. Now that we are moving into the period of Sir Edward’s life that he worked as a consulting occult detective, I’m excited to be working more closely in the mode of the stories that inspired the character’s creation in the first place!
You can find Chris Roberson on Twitter, Christopher Mitten on Twitter and Instagram, and Michelle Madsen on Instagram. This will be our last Mignolaversity Debrief for a while for obvious reasons, but we’ll be back.