Caught Between Science And The Supernatural – Chris Roberson Talks Witchfinder: The Gates Of Heaven

by Hannah Means Shannon

A brand new foray into the world of Witchfinder begins this week from Dark Horse Comics in Witchfinder: The Gates of Heaven #1 written by Mike Mignola and Chris Roberson, with art by D’Israeli, and colors by Michele Madsen. Sir Edward Grey’s world, of course, is the same world as Hellboy’s, but has its own particular Victorian flavor as Grey battles the occult. In previous series “City of the Dead”, Grey formed an unlikely alliance with the Helliopic Brotherhood of Ra to probe the secrets of a temple found deep under London, and in “The Gates of Heaven” we’ll find the occult investigator called before Queen Victoria herself and set upon a new mission that will bring him into conflict with both science gone awry and mystical power unleashed.

We’re delighted to have writer Chris Roberson (iZombie, Witchfinder: City of the Dead, Hellboy and the B.P.R.D., Rasputin: The Voice of the Dragon) on the site today to talk about Sir Edward Grey and his new adventure in “The Gates of Heaven”.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Mad scientist characters fit into the Gothic vein, but is this is a new chance to look at the relationship between science and the occult in Gates of Heaven?

Chris Roberson: Absolutely! And in fact that’s something that we’ll be exploring from a number of different angles, both with the return of the “techno-occult” secret society the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra, and with the introduction of a number of new characters who have different opinions on what the relationship is, if any, between science and the occult.  

HMS: What is Edward Grey’s perception of science? To what extent do you think he is a skeptic or believer in the advancement of human kind through curiosity?

CR: I think that Sir Edward occupies an interesting middle ground. He’s not a hidebound traditionalist who feels limited by ancient doctrines or received wisdom, but at the same time he’s more than a little skeptical of anyone who claims to be able to master the supernatural purely by the power of reason and intellect. If anything, he’s a pragmatist who believes in results and the evidence of his own senses, and suspicious of anyone who would intentionally meddle with the supernatural. But through the course of The Gates of Heaven, he will find it necessary to make allies, and the question of which direction he’ll turn to seek assistance is one of central questions that the story will investigate.

HMS: It’s demonstrable that Queen Victoria had an interest in the occult, but how would you describe her character in the Hellboy Universe, and what of that do you think is taken from fact and what from fancy?

CR: Our take on Victoria is that she would avail herself of any avenue that might serve to strengthen the Empire and her place in it, and to contain and eliminate anything that might threaten that. But in terms of how our fictional representation stands in relation to the historical reality, I think that the treatment of historical figures in Hellboy’s world has always been a little abstracted. The Rasputin that Mignola introduced in the pages of “Seed of Destruction” owed more to the image of the “mad monk” in the popular imagination than to the historical reality of Grigori Rasputin, and I think that our Queen Victoria is a similar case. She is a more a symbol for the figurehead of the British Empire at the time than an attempt to present a nuanced portrait of the actual woman herself.

HMS: How does setting a story in London (as with Cities of the Dead) change the way you might set up the story structure and the geography of story? Was there a lot of map diving involved to see what structures date from when to serve as settings and key locations?

CR: Good lord, yes, it did. In contrast to my previous answer, while we might treat historical personages as symbolic abstractions, when it comes to the geographical setting, we try to be a close to historically accurate as possible. And considering that The Gates of Heaven begins with an investigation into a series of thefts and associated murders taking place all over London, a LOT of time and energy went into researching the various locations, looking over lots and lots of maps to work out the geography and the terrain, and hours and hours spent looking for image reference for the various settings. Even questions as granular as how long it would realistically take the characters to move from one location to the next, and what route they would travel, were all investigated to a sometimes exhausting degree!

HMS: Do you think that a character like Edward Grey has specific literary predecessors? What’s the storytelling DNA of Witchfinder, in your opinion?

CR: Mignola has often cited the occult detectives created by Victorian writers like Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson as predecessors of Sir Edward, and I think that there’s a lot of John Silence and Carnacki in Sir Edward’s DNA. And while modern readers are probably more familiar with Sherlock Holmes, I don’t think that there’s much of Holmes in the mix, but in The Gates of Heaven we drew a lot of inspiration from another Arthur Conan Doyle character (though I can’t say which one without spoiling things!).

HMS: Has working in the wider Hellboy Universe changed the way you might have viewed these characters and stories as a fan? Hellboy has been around long enough now that I’m going to take the liberty of assuming you were a reader before working with Mike in this established world!

CR: That is a safe assumption to make, as I have been an avid (at times even rabid!) fan of Hellboy and his world since the first issue of Seed Of Destruction was published. The Hellboy and related B.P.R.D. titles were one of a small handful of books that I would reread in their entirety every few years (though those rereads took more and more time as the years went on, as they kept coming out with ever more stuff!), and I’d only recently finished rereading everything to date when I was first given the opportunity to pitch a story idea set in Hellboy’s world a few years ago. That pitch ended up evolving into City Of The Dead, my first foray into the Witchfinder era, and as much as I enjoy working in the other corners of that world (in the cold war era with Hellboy and The B.P.R.D., in WWII in Rasputin: Voice of the Dragon, and so on), I’m always at my happiest when we get the chance to return to the Victorian-era adventures of Sir Edward.

HMS: What surprised you most when working on Gates of Heaven? Did you make any “discoveries” along the way whether in research or in character work?

CR: This project had a LONG gestation time, in large part because I did an enormous amount of research while we were developing the outline. I’m a history buff, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m so comfortable working on period pieces, but there’s always the danger of getting a little too invested in the research side of things. And so only the tiniest bit of the material that I dug up ended up being used, as the rest of it just didn’t fit the story that we were telling. But there was so much great stuff that suggested other Witchfinder stories that we could tell, and hopefully readers continue to enjoy the stuff that we’re doing, so we’ll have the opportunity to tell those other stories somewhere down the line!

Thanks very much to Chris Roberson for taking the time to participate in this interview!

Witchfinder: The Gates of Heaven #1 will arrive in shops this Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018 from Dark Horse Comics.

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