“The Visitor: How and Why He Stayed,” the story of an alien protecting the world from Lovecraftian horrors and watching over a half-demon with a stone angel hand, ends up being a surprisingly human one. Chris Roberson joins us to discuss the series and show off an exclusive preview of the fourth issue due to hit comic stores May 31.
And yet in a lot of ways the alien visitor has always been close to the core story. For one thing, he’s watched Hellboy from December 1944 to February 2001—just over fifty-six years, Hellboy’s entire career as a B.P.R.D. agent. So what is it about the state of the Hellboy Universe now that makes this story relevant and necessary now in particular?
Chris Roberson: We’re in this interesting moment from a storytelling perspective, where we know both how Hellboy’s story began in “Seed of Destruction” and how it ultimately ends in “Hellboy in Hell,” and a large part of what we’re doing is exploring how the character got from one to the other. But I’ve never wanted it to be a simple matter of filling in gaps in the calendar. By using this alien assassin who we learned in “Conqueror Worm” had been lurking around in the background since Hellboy’s first moments on Earth, it allowed us to tell a story that spans the lion’s share of Hellboy’s life, and see how he grew and developed over time. But as Mike and I began to discuss the idea, it very quickly became as much about the alien observer himself, and how he was affected and changed by his experiences.
“The Visitor: How and Why He Stayed” is a standalone story and yet in another way it could be read as a kind companion piece to “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.” It sort of picks up where “1954” left off, with the first issue covering one more case in from ’54, “The Nature of the Beast.” Then we jump forward into the ’60s and see that familiar cast of characters a decade on, teasing the story trajectory to come, such as Victor Koestler, who showed up in a “1954” one-shot as a haunted child with special abilities, then appears in the ’60s as a fledgling B.P.R.D. agent.
The “How and Why He Stayed” part of the title an interesting addition. It’s a question seemingly answered in the first issue, but with each new issue you’ve been finding news layers to what this question is really asking and what the answer is. The alien visitor has his mission, but beyond that there is something more personal at play here. You’ve even begged the question of how long he’s really stayed. Was it fifty-six years or fifty-six more years?Continued below
Structurally “The Visitor: How and Why He Stayed” is an atypical series. It’s more like a series of vignettes connected by a common character rather than chapters of a single story. However, as we progress through each one, we see the alien visitor a little clearer, especially his humanity (for lack of a better word).
Actually, Hellboy and the Bureau often take a backseat, almost vanishing from the story entirely at times. Curiously, I find these moments are when the story is at its most interesting. After all, it’s hard to spend fifty-six years, just watching Hellboy, and the alien visitor builds a life for himself—and not just a disguise life for him to hide in.
This works to the story’s advantage, especially since we already know the trajectory of Hellboy’s story in those fifty-six years, so it gives you the opportunity to pull back the curtain on other things that were going on, like the steady uptick of stirring Ogdru Hem, Ogdru Hem spirits, and the cults around them.
Chris: That was very much by design, as we didn’t want to waste space on things that the reader would already know. And the idea was that having spent several years keeping a very close watch on Hellboy, after he is convinced that he’s made the right decision the alien would keep tabs on him from a distance, and eventually just follow his exploits on the TV news. And I think that it remains unclear whether the alien visitor builds a life for himself on purpose in the interim, or whether one begins to form around him without his realizing it. And a lot of that is due to a chance encounter with a young African-American waitress named Ruby in the late 1950s, who ends up being an integral part of his life on Earth. But certainly by the latter chapters of the story, the alien is scarcely paying any attention to Hellboy at all, so preoccupied has he become with his own life and relationships.
I have to ask about Zara-Hem. By now readers have seen a lot of Ogdru Hem in this line of books, but very few tend to make a second appearance. When they do, they tend to be significant in some way. So with Zara-Hem (and the cult around it) showing up in “Witchfinder,” “Lobster Johnson,” “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.,” and now “The Visitor: How and Why He Stayed” #3, feels like you and Mike Mignola are building to something. I get the feeling we haven’t seen the last of Zara-Hem just yet.
Chris: We have definitely not seen the last of Zara-Hem just yet. One of the tricky bits about writing these ‘period piece’ stories in Hellboy’s world is dealing with threats and concepts that the characters don’t learn about until much later, and the Ogdru Hem are a perfect example. Hellboy had a few encounters with them over the years, but it wasn’t until he spoke with the alien in “Conqueror Worm” that he had much context for what they were. So there is definitely going to be a big threat involving Zara-Hem in the pages of “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.” and elsewhere, but the reader will be able to see connections that the characters themselves might not always be able to make.Continued below
For anyone that’s been reading the series so far, I’m sure they’ve been enjoying Paul Grist’s art on the book. Could you talk a little about what he brings to the book and what it is about his work that made him the right guy to tell the alien visitor’s story?
Chris: I have been an ENORMOUS fan of Paul’s work for more than twenty years, and he remains one of my absolute favorite cartoonists working today. It first occurred to me that he would be a great fit for a book set in Hellboy’s world not long after I started working on them a few years ago, but it took a while to find just the right project. When Mike and I started talking about the story that eventually became “The Visitor: How and Why He Stayed,” I suggested that Paul’s style would be perfect for the book, and Mike agreed. What he brings to the book, besides making it look absolutely phenomenal, is that he is one of the most gifted visual storytellers working on comics today. There is no one that can structure a page to communicate a scene visually better than Paul Grist, and only a handful who can do it as well as he can. There is a sequence in issue #3 that simply involves a character getting up out of a chair and walking across the room to look at a television, that in the script was just a standard four panel layout, but that Paul reworked into an amazingly structured page that elegantly showcases tricks that are only possible in the comics medium.
I especially enjoy the life that he brings to the domestic scenes. The sort of thing, where he plays with how time and change within a space is presented, really works for a story like “The Visitor: How and Why He Stayed” which is very much about the weight of time, and about a character that can change very radically while moving within a space.
Grist also has a knack for finding visual motifs that function as connective tissue, such as the panels of blood dripping in the issue #1. These aren’t just pretty layouts. They perform a specific story functions, often acting as punctuation or even a counterpoint to the dialog.
Chris: The blood drops is a perfect illustration for how the collaboration on this series went. I had the idea that we could use drops of blood against darkness as a kind of drumbeat connecting the different vignettes visually, but couldn’t quite figure out how it would work. Here’s how I suggested the idea in the script:
Interspersed through them are images of a drop (and then multiple drops) of blood falling through darkness, as on the earlier page. My instinct here is to have one narrow panel along the outside edge of each page (left on the even numbered page, right on the odd) that is entirely black except for the droplets of blood, with the rest of the page taken up with vertically stacked panels. But if you see a better way to lay that out, go for it.
Which, as far as it goes, would have been a perfectly serviceable way to handle it. But Paul took the basic idea and improved it immensely by having a continuous black bar running across the background, with the drops of blood slowly working their way from left to right as the four page sequence went on, culminating with the blood pooling on the ground.
Not to mention the blood travels from left to right across the sequence, which gives the sequence a sense of momentum.
Chris: Exactly. And when you pull back even further, the issue opens with an all black panel, and the last panel of the final page is a close-up of the lilies that sprout from Hellboy’s blood, so that tracking continues from the beginning of the issue through to the end.
I’m curious, did you change the way you wrote at all as pages started to come in?
Chris: Not really, but there was a reason for that. As I’ve said, I’ve been an enormous fan of Paul’s work for ages (particularly his creator-owned stuff like “Kane” and “Jack Staff”), and in preparing to work on the series I reread pretty much his entire body of published work, so it was fresh in mind. And then when it came time to take the story that Mike and I had come up with and translate it into script form, I essentially described the pages how I imagined Paul would draw them (with the frequent caveat that if he ever saw a better way to structure things, to ignore me completely and do his own thing, as I trusted his instincts implicitly). And in some cases, what I’d originally imagined turned out to be pretty close to how Paul ended up working the pages, but in most instances what he came up with far better than what I had in mind. I think the only time that I requested that anything be changed in his linework or layouts was the look for ‘awkward teenage Hellboy,’ as there was another story already in the works that established him being a ‘t-shirt and jeans’ kind of kid, like a young wannabe James Dean, and Paul’s initial take was a little more ‘rustic farmboy.’ But in every other instance, wherever Paul deviated from the descriptions in the script, it resulted in a stronger story overall.Continued below
Thanks, Chris. I must say, I loved the upcoming issue. It’s truly the best one yet.
“The Visitor: How and Why He Stayed” #4 comes out May 31. Check out our exclusive preview below.
Written by Mike Mignola and Chris Roberson
Illustrated by Paul Grist
Colored by Bill Crabtree
The visitor alerts the BPRD as increasing numbers of Ogdru Hem attack, and the challenges of being an alien on Earth take a toll.