CBR spoke with author Angela Slatter about her creative process working on her upcoming addition to the Hellboy Universe, Castle full of Blackbirds.
Over the years, Mike Mignola's Hellboy series has expanded to include a diverse cast of characters — each with their own unique and complicated relationship with the supernatural. Mignola and Zach Howard's two-issue series, Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: The Return of Effie Kolb introduced fans to Sara May Blackburn, a young psychic who left her home to look for answers about the source of her mysterious powers. Now Sara May is returning in Castle Full of Blackbirds, written by Mignola and Angela Slatter, with art by Valeria Burzo, colors by Michelle Madsen, and letters from Clem Robins.
Castle Full of Blackbirds follows Sara May as she explores the extent of her powers at the Linton School for Girls. CBR spoke with author Angela Slatter to discuss her experience writing her first comic series. She explored how her other writing projects informed the series, talked about her collaboration with Mignola and Burzo, and mentioned a few other Hellboy characters that she'd like to write about in the future.
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CBR: This is your first comic! How has the writing process compared to your other work?
Angela Slatter: It is my first! So exciting! One of the aspects I liked was the fact that the Hellboy Universe is so broad in terms of characters and time periods, legends and folklore, and different storytellers, so it's got that element of being a "mosaic" made up of a bunch of fragments to create a whole. That's a form I've worked with in my Sourdough world collections, and I love being able to kind of look at the map of the Hellboy Universe and figure out where there are uncharted spots. So, it's got that in common.
Where it differs is in how the art plays a part. Usually, I'm giving brief descriptions of or approving a cover illustration that's pretty and shows a tiny element of the entire novel, but with comics, that part of my brain had to expand. Figuring out what would be better shown visually rather than in prose, how to give descriptions that were clear — and also not asking too much (e.g. don't ask for a 48-panel battle scene on a single page!). I also had to look at the structure differently than how I'm used to thinking across a novel, a short story, or even a mosaic collection arc.
In terms of the story creation cycle, the comics took a lot less time to write than a novel but were no less intricate. You've still got to remember all the threads you've laid down in early issues and either figure out how to tie them up by the end of the last issue or if you're going to carry them across to a new series. I'm a huge fan of whiteboards, sketchpads, and spreadsheets for plotting, but mostly my brain mid-writing looks like a really big spider web. There are a lot of insane-looking notes-to-self attached to my printouts and notebooks.
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You've created a shared fictional universe of your own with your World of Sourdough. How has that work informed your writing for the Hellboy Universe?
Haha! Well, as I said above, the feeling that it's a mosaic shape is probably the main thing. The other element is that the Sourdough stories come out of my love of fairy and folk tales, myths, legends, etc., which as a reader is what I love about Hellboy. Sourdough's not a shared universe, though. It's all mine. I'm the only one playing in that sandbox. But it's been great training for looking at stories from different angles, picking out which characters might tell a really interesting version of a story. So, reworking and reimagining fairy tales is good practice. That's the sort of thing that gets you amazing works like Neil Gaiman's Snow, Glass, Apples, Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, and Kelly Sue DeConnick's Pretty Deadly. All have that foundation in old stories with which the writers have then jumped off a cliff in a new direction.
For me, it's about looking at a character who might not seem to be the natural protagonist, but their position in the story world actually gives them a different point of view. They see and know things you might not otherwise be told. It's one of the things I've loved playing with in Sourdough. One character might be the protagonist in one story, but in the next, they might be a secondary character or just someone seen in passing, or they've become a legend or a rumor — so you see them from a bunch of different angles.
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Could you talk a bit about your collaboration with Mike Mignola and Valeria Burzo? How has their work influenced your approach to the series?
Mike and I have been friends on social media since about 2009. Eventually, we started chatting about story and fairy and folk tales. It's so much fun talking with someone who loves those tales as much as I do. A couple of years ago, I wrote a novel called, All the Murmuring Bones, which has versions of original and reworked fairy tales scattered through it as part of the main character's family history. I asked Mike if I could do a riff on his version of a Grimm's story about mermaids ('cause I liked what he'd done with it more than I liked the original). And he was cool with that!
At the end of 2019, he asked if I'd think about writing a comic set in the Hellboy Universe, with Sara May Blackburn as the main character. Obviously, I said "Yes" embarrassingly quickly. Then the pandemic hit, so we got delayed for a long while (until 2021) — but that also gave us the chance to find Valeria, whose artwork is just amazing. She's nailed the gothic style of the school and the story perfectly. Having stalked her Instagram, I knew how beautiful the work would be and that I could throw ideas at her, and she'd run with them and come back with just the perfect depiction.
Basically, it's been a dream run for me. Mike was very patient with my emails that started with, "So, have you used this demon in …" and, "So, this dagger/grimoire, etc …" Valeria's art was something I was so excited to look at when the emails came through from Dark Horse, and, she was very patient when I was saying, "I know it's a tiny thing, but we really need the green leaf on that apple!" I've got to say that the editorial team at Dark Horse — Katii O'Brien, Jenny Blenk, and Misha Gehr — have been incredible. They're like a three-headed encyclopedia of all things Hellboy — and occasionally a three-headed grimoire when I had weird questions about demons and their seals.
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What appeals to you about Sara May Blackburn as a character?
I'm always fascinated by characters who are at major turning points in their lives, who find themselves untethered from their usual existence either through their own actions, or the actions of others, or just weird circumstances. Sara May's been exiled from her family. That's the story we get in Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: The Return of Effie Kolb, and she's looking for a place to belong. She met Amelia Brook in that first story and made a connection, and Miss Brook seemed to have some of the answers Sara needs about her own nature. I love writing characters who are survivors. They are fascinating. I like seeing the choices they make, the good and the bad, and how they deal with consequences. In my stories, they'll come out scarred and bruised, but they do come out the other side stronger for it. That is absolutely Sara May Blackburn.
What can you tell fans about the Linton School for Girls?
Miss Brook gives Sara a postcard with a picture of the school on the front, which seems to take an unnatural hold of Sara until Hellboy tears it up in The Return of Effie Kolb. Miss Brook tells Sara that her last name isn't really Blackburn, it's "Blackbird," and that blackbirds have to fly — and blackbirds are witches. So Sara heads off for New York City, where the school is located, hoping to find out more about herself and the nature of witches. Needless to say, there are strange things going on inside the school. A lot of special lessons, doors that lead into something more than ordinary rooms, gates to something more than gardens, and a whole bunch of new friends and enemies for Sara. More than one person there has plans for Sara May Blackburn.
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What are you most excited for readers to encounter in Castle Full of Blackbirds?
Oh, gosh. Probably Sara, Miss Brook, and a few of Hellboy's other old enemies who are in this story with a different agenda and purpose and just being able to explore the world of the witches more deeply.
Are there any other corners of the Hellboy Universe you'd like to explore in the future?
Absolutely. Mike's got a couple of ideas that I'm keen to run with. I'm fascinated by Hellboy's sister, Gamori; and by his wife, the Spanish Bride. I think both would have really interesting adventures — both are underestimated by those around them but critical to big events, a bit chaotic, a lot devious, and a wee bit (okay, a lot) homicidal. What's not to love?! I'd love to do a couple of interconnected stories about them.
Castle Full of Blackbirds #1 is due out on Wednesday, Sept. 14, from Dark Horse Comics.
Dustin is a reviews/interviews editor for CBR, writer, and cartoonist living in Northern Colorado.
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