AN INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS GOLDEN AND MIKE MIGNOLA
Their first collaboration, Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire), was a brassy, bloody steampunk engine, a machine built to deliver timeless fables at high velocity, the whole thing armor-plated in Mike Mignola’s gothic visuals. In Joe Golem and the Drowning City, Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola suit up for action once again in a narrative that mixes history, horror, and wonder in a glowing mad-scientist cocktail. Want to know more? So did I; the lads were good enough to let me hit them with a few questions:
JOE HILL: Your first collaboration introduced the world to Lord Baltimore, a larger-than-life, two-fisted, one-legged veteran of the First World War, and a relentless vampire hunter. The star of Joe Golem and the Drowning City is right there in the title. . . . Who is this guy? And what is his relationship to Molly McHugh? What do these two need from each other?
CHRISTOPHER GOLDEN: It’s hard to talk too much about Joe without a lot of spoilers, but you can deduce certain things just from his name. When we first meet him in Joe Golem and the Drowning City, he’s a private detective, living in a flooded Lower Manhattan. His employer is Simon Church, a Victorian detective who has kept himself alive and mobile with a combination of magic and steampunk mechanics. Joe is essentially the Watson to Mr. Church’s Sherlock Holmes. But this isn’t Joe’s first life. The origin of his association with Simon Church is a strange one, and though Joe doesn’t remember much that happened before it, he dreams of ancient days spent hunting witches and killing them with hands of stone. Molly McHugh is an orphan girl who also lives in the Drowning City and who finds herself part of a mad scientist’s plans. At a time when they both seem most alone, they find that they have each other.
MIKE MIGNOLA: Right.
JH: In both Baltimore and Joe Golem, you’ve presented the world we know, reimagined through a glass darkly. How does Joe Golem's world differ from our own?
CG: On the most obvious level, this is an alternate reality. In the early 1900s, plague and war swept Europe. In 1925, earthquakes undermined lower Manhattan, dropping the bedrock by thirty feet, and the Atlantic ocean swept in. But all sorts of things are possible in the world of this book, including magic, mechanical life, and titanic, ancient awarenesses that lurk just beyond the veil of our reality.
MM: I’m a big fan of the spooky Victorian stuff and, as with the Hellboy world, I think a lot of that stuff is still chugging along in the Joe world—secret stuffy men’s clubs full of dusty old men with secret handshakes, performing no end of secret rituals and tinkering with strange secret machines. I just love to think that stuff is still going just below street level in all our major cities. It’s certainly what’s going on in all the cities I make up.
JH: I don't think I’m exaggerating to say Mike is one of the great writer-artists to work in comics in the last couple generations, and the visuals in Joe Golem have the grotesque menace of seventeenth-century woodcuts. Do the illustrations arise naturally from the story . . . or is it the other way around? Do elements of narrative ever begin with a visual concept?
MM: I think mostly in pictures. In almost all cases my stories start with a visual. In the case of Joe Golem the image was New York as Venice—a really crappy Venice. I had originally intended to do Joe as a graphic novel and the plot started out as just an excuse to draw that world.
JH: Can an illustrated story do things a story of pure prose can’t? (Admission: I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet on the subject of illustrated fiction. Dickens, Doyle, and the other most popular Victorian writers almost always saw their fiction married to visuals. . . . I don’t think modern publishing ever should’ve abandoned the pleasures of illustration.)
CG: Not to make him blush, but any story illustrated by Mike Mignola does things that prose alone can’t accomplish. The illustrations create mood and atmosphere, drawing the reader more deeply into the story than words could do on their own. I think of theater productions where actors in costume may suddenly appear in the audience, reshaping the audience’s impression of the story, so that instead of it being confined to the limits of the stage, the performance now includes them. Mike manages something quite akin to that.
MM: Personally I have a love/hate relationship with illustrated books as both a reader and an illustrator. I hate to spell out for readers what things look like or how exactly a scene should look—I’d like the readers to imagine all that for themselves based on the written word. That’s why almost all the illustrations in Joe and Baltimore are extreme close-ups of objects or nonspecific locations, or, if something story-specific is needed I try to make it abstract enough that the reader is forced to fill in a lot of the detail for themselves. I’ve tried to have the illustrations in both books serve as just an extra layer of mood.
JH: You’ve both worked in comics—Baltimore began as a novel, but soon made the leap to the four-color page, and earned Eisner and Stoker nominations along the way. What’s the difference between working together on a novel and working together on a comic book? Does a reader expect fundamentally different things from a comic than from a novel?
CG: There’s an argument to be made on both sides of this question. Some novel lovers have no interest in comics and some comics fans would never take the time to read a novel. As someone who loves both forms, as reader and author, I come to both to be entranced. I want to be drawn in and entertained and made to think, persuaded to surrender myself to the ebb and flow of the story. In that way, I want the same things from both mediums. But at the same time, I do think that people come to a novel expecting more depth of character and emotion, and especially more insight into the minds of the characters. And yet I do think that comics can achieve that depth and insight if you have great writers and artists working truly in tandem. It’s just harder to accomplish.
MM: Comics is a visual medium, so the one thing I’m always reminding Chris (who does all the real writing) to do is to leave room for the big visuals. It’s fine to have an eight-panel page of two guys talking on the phone, but if the page is about an alien armada blowing up a planet you might want to have fewer panels for that page.
JH: Any chance Joe Golem will brawl his way onto the comic book page?
CG: Hard as it may be to believe—we’ve actually never discussed it.
MM: There’s certainly no shortage of things to explore with a comic—Joe’s early years, his really early years, the Victorian-era detective Church—but for me, with all the Hellboy-related stuff, I just can’t see having the time to get into that stuff, at least not any time soon. Maybe someday.
JH: Both Baltimore and Joe Golem have, to me, a bit of the feel of the first superheroes: not Superman or The Flash, but the heroes of the pulps who preceded them, Doc Savage and The Shadow. I kind of think almost all fiction is a reflection on the stories that came before. If that’s true, what stories does Joe Golem look back on?
CG: There are so many ingredients to this thing, from the obvious—Sherlock Holmes and Houdini and H. P. Lovecraft and Dickens—to the less immediately obvious, which would be H. G. Wells and The Island of Doctor Moreau and Victorian ghost stories— --to the obscure and personal, including a love of history and folklore and Pinocchio. But even with all of those things thrown into the stew of this novel, at the end of the day it’s much more about loneliness and a search for self and for purpose than it is about detectives and pulp heroes and mad scientists.
MM: I read a lot of the pulp stuff when I was in my teens—the exact right time to read it—so that stuff is always banging around in my head and it’s super-charged by all the Jack Kirby comics I read around that same time.That’s the battery I run on. It affects everything I do.
JH: What happens if you two are working on something and don’t agree? How do you find your way forward?
CG: The only way to conduct an effective collaboration is to debate the things upon which you disagree. If one doesn’t manage to bring the other around to his point of view, then whichever collaborator feels the most passionate about the thing being debated ought to get his way. In most cases, what we do with passion will be more deeply felt by the audience than what we do with reason, but the ideal is when you can combine the two.
MM: I don’t think we’ve ever had a disagreement that lasted more than a couple minutes. I think we’re both really good at arguing our cases and the other guy (whoever happens to be wrong at the time) usually caves pretty fast.
JH: What does Joe Golem do on his day off?
CG: He naps, and dreams of witches.
MM: I can’t imagine him taking a nap. I see him sitting by the window, staring out into the gloom, smoking a cigarette.
JH: Guys, thanks for talking to me, and good luck with the book!
CG: Thanks, Joe. We appreciate your time and your enthusiasm.
MM: It's true!