Last week Dark Horse Comics announced “Castle Full of Blackbirds,” a four-issue miniseries set in Mike Mignola’s Hellboy Universe. The series will follow magically gifted Sara May Blackburn as she heads to New York City to find the mysterious Linton School for Girls. Award winning novelist Angela Slatter will be writing the miniseries in her comic writing debut with artist Valeria Burzo. We got in touch with Angela, and she was more than happy to discuss the upcoming book, especially since she’s had to remain tight-lipped about it for three years now.
Hellboy: An Assortment of Horrors
Cover by Mike Mignola
Before we dive into your work in Mike Mignola’s Hellboy Universe, I wanted to ask you about your experience with it as a reader. What’s your background with the character and this world Mignola created?
Angela Slatter: It took me an embarrassingly long time to start reading “Hellboy.” I voraciously read “2000 AD” as a teen but not much else, and eventually shifted to reading pretty much novels and anthologies. I’d seen the Hellboy movies (who hasn’t?), but maybe ten years back a friend handed me a “Hellboy” (I think it was ‘The Troll Witch and Other Stories’), which can only be described as my gateway drug. I’m a huge fan of fairy and folktales so it was completely relevant to my interests. I’m still in the process of collecting all the Hellboy Universe books. Whether it’s one of the little weird tales like ‘Double Feature of Evil’ or the ones deeply rooted in fairy tales like ‘The Third Wish,’ there’s always something amazing to admire in the storytelling and the art.
“Castle Full of Blackbirds” isn’t your first work in the Hellboy Universe. You also contributed a short story in the prose anthology Hellboy: An Assortment of Horrors, “To Bell the Cat.” This was one of my favorite stories in the collection, in part because it so prominently featured Kate Corrigan, my favorite character. How did you get involved with this project? And what drew you to do a story focused on Kate?
ACE: Thank you! I’m really fond of that story. I got involved with that one because Christopher Golden, who was editing it, emailed and said, “Mike and I would like a story from you for this. Would you be interested? I’ve been Facebook friends with him and Mike since 2009 or so (OMG 13 years!) and I don’t need to tell you how fast I said “Yes.” I chose Kate because I really love that character and I wanted to see how she’d solve a problem—chances were she wasn’t going to punch her way out of a situation. She’s really smart, so I wanted to see how sneaky I could make her de ella—have her de ella use a really sort of ordinary (and funny) solution to overcome a bunch of goddesses. Aaaaaaaand, the best bit of what was an awesome experience in the first place is that I have Mike’s original artwork from the anthology framed and on the wall above my desk.
Art by Mike Mignola
This is your first time writing a comic. What appeals to you about the medium and what are the comics that inspired you to want to write some yourself?
ACE: I loved the challenge of figuring out how to have the art and the words working together to tell the story. When you’re writing a novel or short story, everything has to come through via the words: the story, the meaning, subtext, etc. When I’ve worked with artists in the past, it’s been for covers and sometimes internal illustrations, which is great fun, but it’s not generally something that’s carrying a huge part of the story to the reader. But with comics, the art can’t just be pretty, it’s got to be telling part of the story. So I had to change my thinking about storytelling, and also make sure I was giving clear instructions for the artist. I did occasionally have to remind myself of what I often say to students who aren’t getting the setting right in their work: the reader can only see what you show them.
Kelly Sue DeConnick’s “Pretty Deadly” with Emma Ríos and “Bitch Planet” with Valentine de Landro, Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s “Monstress,” Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook’s “Harrow County,” and Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ “Saga.” And, if we’re going back into the ancient history of my teen years, Alan Moore and Ian Gibson’s “Halo Jones,” which I re-read to this day.
In “Castle Full of Blackbirds,” you’re carving out a whole new corner of the Hellboy Universe to explore. Yes, you’re building off of a starting point from “Hellboy and the BPRD: The Return of Effie Kolb,” but beyond that, I genuinely have no idea what to expect from this miniseries. And that’s very exciting. I can only imagine your mind must’ve gone to a million places at first, so when you were invited onto the book, how long did it take you to figure out what was important to tell about Sara’s story? To find the heart that everything else would be built around?
ACE: Ha, long story! Effie starts off in ‘The Crooked Man,’ and I loved her in that story. She was a great wicked witch. Then she gets another run in ‘The Return of Effie Kolb,’ which is where you see Sara for the first time. Mike gave fascinating hints about her de ella —that she’d been thrown out by her family de ella who thought she was a witch, so she’s been staying with Tom from ‘The Crooked Man.’ And she guides Hellboy up the mountain to the old estate that’s meant to be abandoned, but they find Amelia Brook and her brother Ella Karl there. Amelia’s definitely a witch, and she recognizes that Sara’s got a lot of power and potential, so she gives her a photo of the Linton School for Girls, which is basically like a lure.
Sara May Blackburn in “Hellboy and the BPRD: The Return of Effie Kolb”
Written by Mike Mignola; Illustrated by Zach Howard; Colored by Dave Stewart; Lettered by Clem Robins
A few years back, Mike—like, literally 2019—Mike floated the idea of telling me Sara’s story. Again, I think I broke the sound barrier saying “Yes” (and obviously thinking “Am I crazy? Is he crazy?”). Mike had some ideas about riffing on the Bluebeard fairytale, and we talked about that, which got me thinking, and we threw more ideas back and forth. Then the pandemic hit and the world stopped. So, it was a long while before anything was actually done. I had a bunch of notes, but they got shelved and I did other projects. But eventually Mike emailed and said “Hey, remember that Sara May story? We’re back on!” And I think the hiatus had actually been good, because she’d been sitting in my back brain just percolating, and a lot of the fear about writing into the Hellboy Universe had actually dissipated by then. So, when it was finally time to go, a story had built itself in my head.
Castle Full of Blackbirds #1
Variant cover by Vanesa Del Rey
The heart of Sara May’s story was that she’s alone, and there’s a line from Tom in ‘The Return of Effie Kolb,’ which is that she’s looking to find her place in the world. So that was the refrain I took. Ella she’s young, she’s got these powers she does n’t know what to do with, she’s untrained, she’s untethered from family and friends. But the lifeline she’s got is Miss Brook and the Linton School for Girls. . . and I knew I wanted to add in some of Hellboy’s old frenemies. . . and build on some witch mythology to show they’re not all wicked. . .
You’re working on “Castle Full of Blackbirds” with artist Valeria Burzo. How did she come onboard the project and how are you finding it working with her? I’ve been following her work on Instagram, and it is stunning!
ACE: Mike and the Dark Horse team did the artist search, and Valeria came on board. Her work by Ella is just amazing, so incredibly beautiful. Whenever the pencil sketches hit my inbox from Katii O’Brien (editor extraordinaire at Dark Horse), I make a screech of happiness. By the time we’ve got to the inks stage, they are just perfect.
When I first read your novel, vigilant, I was impressed by the way you used the location, taking real-world Brisbane and transforming it into a place of fantasy fiction (complete with a map in the opening pages). I can’t walk by the Cathedral of Saint Stephen in the evening without feeling like I’ve stepped into the pages of your book. So with that in mind, I’m very curious to see what you do with 1960s New York in “Castle Full of Blackbirds.” You seem to derive great joy from taking something familiar and reframing it through the lens of the fantastic (and that seems an excellent fit for a Sara May Blackburn story). Is this an aspect of writing you particularly enjoy?
ACE: I just think sense of place is so important, because it can tell you so much about a character—whether they fit there or maybe they don’t, which are both really critical things in writing. Place should feel like it’s also a character in a story, I think, so that’s one of the things I just automatically do when I start writing, and it’s always something I assess when I’m redrafting—have it done it enough, have it done it well, or really, really badly?
With vigilant and all the truth books. . . I think most my Brisbanites have had that feeling at one point or another that you’re still in a big country town and you’re incredibly bored by your surroundings (which has basically committed the sin of not being Somewhere Else). I’d traveled a lot and lived in Sydney for four years by the time I’d moved back to Brisneyland and started writing in earnest. vigilant started out as a short story “Brisneyland by Night,” which I wrote during a week of the Clarion South Bootcamp in 2009. It was the usual disgustingly hot Brisbane summer, INXS and Powderfinger were on the radio as I was trying to figure out what to write for my next story submission. I started to think about whether you could transfer a crime noir to the streets of the big old country town, and what would the narrator sound like, where would she live, how would she see the city if the city wasn’t quite the city . . . and that set me off on imagining how the ordinary places might actually look different.
Fun fact: the two churches in vigilantSaint Stephen’s and Saint Mary’s, are where my paternal grandparents and favorite uncle (respectively) got married—but I didn’t know that at the time!
With “Castle Full of Blackbirds,” there was a lot of checking to make sure things were of the right time period! Like making sure the cars were right, and no one could have headphones or Walkmans ’cause those has not been invented then!
You have a novel, The Path of Thorns, that’s just come out in Australia and should come out June 28 in other English-speaking territories. Could you tell our readers why they should pick it up?
ACE: Well, I guess if you like horror, fairy and folktales in a mash-up mixed with Frankenstein meets jane eyre meets Dark Shadows, then this is probably your jam. I wanted to do something a bit different from the traditional gothic where an innocent girl goes to a big old dark mansion because she’s got nowhere else to go in the world. So, I have Asher Todd (and yeah, for the language nerds out there I chose her last name as a kind of word play on the German ‘tod’), who arrives at Morwood Grange to be the new governess, but she’s got plans of her own. . . Ghosts, witches, werewolves, general shenanigans. . .
Make sure to pick up “Castle Full of Blackbirds” this September. . .
Cover by Wylie Beckert
Written by Mike Mignola and Angela Slatter
Illustrated by Valeria Burzo
Colored by Michelle Madsen
Lettered by Clem Robins
On saleSeptember 14, 2022
Full colour, 32 pages
When Sara May Blackburn headed for New York after the events of Hellboy and the BPRD: The Return of Effie Kolb, she had one goal in mind: find the mysterious Miss Brooks at the Linton School for Girls, and ask her what she knows about the mysterious powers that have plagued Sara May her whole life. But as is often the case with these things, the answers are not as simple as all that. Sara is in for an education in more than just reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic at the Linton School.
Hellboy creator Mike Mignola partners with celebrated author Angela Slatter and artist extraordinaire Valeria Burzo for a new adventure from the world of Hellboy!
• Continues the story of a fan-favorite character from The Return of Effie Kolb.