Talking with John Arcudi About His Expanding the Hellboy Universe

by shathley Q

11 April 2014

Our month full of Hellboy to celebrate Hellboy’s 20th anniversary continues as we share an earnest conversation with Hellboy Universe collaborator John Arcudi who opens up about his expansion of the Universe with B.P.R.D. and the Lobster Johnson stories.

I listen to our conversation over and over and over again, mine and John Arcudi’s, the (and I wouldn’t use this word lightly) genius behind Dark Horse’s The Mask, and the more I listen to it the more it comes to take on a different form in my imagination: that of an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Specifically the episode with Letterman.

There’s the obvious associative connotations. There’s that phrase “regent red” that Seinfeld hits in like the first 30 seconds, and that’s when the episode really takes off, inherent moment of drama and that kind of thing. And slightly beneath that surface too, there’s something that seems to conform to the Idea, capital eye, of Hellboy. Something regent red, something safe and friendly, as familiar as a mom’s taxi from a generation back, there’s the idea of the story being dependable, like Hellboy is with his blue collar mannerisms and Greatest Generation/Honest Joe outlook. And of course, even deeper still, there’s the idea of that motor, that profound, superhuman turbo engine designed by Paul Newman, the beating jungle heart that lurks beneath this somewhat sedate, definitely safe choice of family-wagen. And that’s Hellboy too. That profound turn that can be made into horror and into alienation and redemption.

But Hellboy’s great, it’s just fine. But it does pose the problem of where he head next. One of the major talking points with visionary creator Mike Mignola earlier in this process, was Mike talking about putting “all the eggs in one basket,” about fleshing out the fictional universe so that it becomes both bigger, and richer. That’s the kind of work that cannot be done alone. And in an age of transmedia and social media, where trust is as much currency as it is the byproduct of collaboration, Mignola turned to John Arcudi.

“I would never use the word mastery for what I do,” John intones part-solemnly, part-jocularly, part-conspiratorially. There’s a deep humility when he speaks, almost one that disavows the weight and scope he’s brought to segregate parts of the Hellboy Universe, parts he’s written for nigh on a decade now which include B.P.R.D. and the Lobster Johnson stories. “I think that, well let’s start at the beginning, I think that it was originally, literally, well I know it was, a throwaway line, a throwaway cool line,” there’s an emphasis John places on cool, as he enthuses. He’s talking about “A Plague of Frogs,” a major storyarc in his B.P.R.D. ongoing narrative, that finds its origins in the Hellboy short piece, “Box Full of Evil.”

“I mean Mike didn’t ever write it carelessly. But I know he never anticipated that there was going to be, I don’t know how issue’s there’ve been, like 25 or something on the Plague of Frogs. He never anticipated that to begin with. But the great thing about writing a lot of what Mike wrote, is that it’s evocative. And if you ever want a springboard, there’re plenty places to go back and find one if you look at those first three or four series he did. And Plague of Frogs is certainly an evocative line and an evocative concept. And that isn’t to say that we make this stuff up on the fly, it’s that when we find something we can work with, it’s then that we have a direction we can go. And then we can plot things out.

“Obviously, when Mike wrote Plague of Frogs before I came on that must have been what he had in mind. I know he wanted this to be a beginning point for B.P.R.D.” John references the super-secret governmental agency that defends against occultic threats, the same Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense that raised Hellboy since the ‘40s.

“When I came on,” John continues, “the book was about Abe (Sapien, founding member of the B.P.R.D.) confronting his past, and my story about this former Nazi scientist being found in the basement, and really goofy stuff about the Spear of Destiny.” John self-deprecates in good humor, dismissive of the sheer inventiveness of his first foray into the world of Hellboy.

“That really was the focus and we never really talked about continuing this Plague of Frogs story. For the next story, suddenly Mike had this idea that we could further the Frogs storyline and that’s when it took off. And that’s when we all realized that there’s a larger story here. But the nice thing about that Plague of Frogs storyline is that not every arc concerns itself with the Frog menace. It goes back and forth. Again, Mike wasn’t obsessed with the idea of every arc playing heavily with the Frog storyline, he wanted it to develop all the characters of the B.P.R.D. into the kinds of characters people wanted to follow, no matter what the storyline was. So we could go back and forth. Obviously when we got to King of Fear, that was more specifically about the Frog menace.”

We swing to Lobster Johnson, the second property John’s developing in the Hellboy Universe. Lobster Johnson, like much of the Hellboy Universe, was nicknamed thus by Hellboy himself. An urban avenging crime fighter from before the Second World War, the Lobster found himself inducted into pulp mythology. Only to find himself reemerge in the modern era during the events of Conqueror Worm.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of reasons for that,” says John commenting on the rapid and enthusiastic uptick in Lobster Johnson readership. Like Hellboy and B.P.R.D. before it, Lobster Johnson has been delivered in a serialized format of standalone, but interlocking limited series. “Lobster Johnson’s set in the 1930s, which means the pulp sensibility… let’s face it,” there’s a distinction break as John begins to reminiscence on the recent past and on his hand in developing these Hellboy Universe characters and storylines. It’s evidence of a truly gifted intellect, and a magnanimous one at that. It’s also evidence of someone wrestling with their role in the co-creation and evolution of a story that by every measure is growing larger than us all.

There’s a kinda, sorta surreal turn that the conversations took with both Mike and John. The idea that this kind of world-creation, as an activity, is humbling. That the larger our fictional inferences can be made, the more developed and nuanced our imagined worlds, the more real we become in contrast. And the idea that positioning oneself at that crossroads, on such a midnight, exposes you to the kind of wonder on the first astronomers must have experienced. A sense that our world is in equal measure larger and stranger and simpler than we could ever have imagined. That meaning isn’t found, like some lost article strewn aside by an angry god, but that it’s made, by each of us. That the dark is far less frightening than we thought, and truly is an invitation into wonder.

John picks up on exactly that same sense of in-built magic when he continues, “Let’s face it…anybody in 2007, 2010, 2014, 2016, the ‘30s might as well be a fairytale. Nobody reading Lobster Johnson now, unless I totally have missed my audience, was even alive in the ‘30s. So I do my best to make sure that the mayor is a mayor, and the police force is more or less the police force. I do my best to make it as real as possible. But there’s just such latitude to make it so crazy. And Mike certainly in Iron Prometheus went far crazier than I did in either The Burning Hand or any of the stuff I’ve written since. I’m getting there, I’m getting there. I’m getting crazier and crazier. But more or less with Lobster Johnson we know we can get crazier and we don’t have to pay as much attention to detail and we can get goofy as it needs to be to make the story work. It’s set in what is essentially a magic time for anyone reading comics today. It’s certainly going to be closer to that surreal stuff, but Lobster Johnson, isn’t like Hellboy either. It isn’t quite as magical and as vague and as evocative. It is a little more down to earth, even if that earth is completely ridiculous.”

John wends his way into talking about the pulp that inspires him, “It’s hard to argue with the success of Indiana Jones, but I can tell you, I like the Rocketeer, or the Spider or the Shadow a lot more than I like Indiana Jones. The sensibility of those pulps is impossible to capture, because those pulps were written contemporaneously. But I feel with Lobster we sorta struck a balance, where it is what it is, but at the same time, at least touching on the same sensibility of those earlier pulps.”

The same sensibility of those earlier pulps.

And it shows. That same sensibility is definitely there, and comes shining through. Earlier in the process of writing this piece, my mind wandered into Seinfeld territory. Not Seinfeld at his height with Seinfeld, but modern Seinfeld, who’s embraced the long march of history and modern notions like social media in his web-series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Especially the David Letterman episode from the second season. Especially that analogous regent red station-wagon with the sublime motor racing pedigree, Paul Newman-designed engine. But it’s occurring to me now that maybe a cross-country, turbo-charged rampage isn’t quite the right direction to be looking towards. Maybe, look up. There’s that night sky, filled with perfect mystery that brings us all into wonder, there’re those stars redshifting as a perpetual signal that the wheel’s still in spin, that time’s ongoing and that the universe is ever-increasingly expanding. If John and Mike’s humility at their shared impact says anything, it says, Come to Wonder. That is all.


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