It seems as if the Hellboy universe is continually expanding not only with new stories but also with new creatives. That includes award-winning novelist Angela Slatter, who joins in on the fun on September 14 with her debut comic, Castle Full of Blackbirds. Drawn by Valeria Burzo (and co-created by Mike Mignola), the four-issue miniseries continues the story of Sara May Blackburn.
The fan-favorite character from Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: The Return of Effie Kolb, May is now headed for New York with one goal in mind: to find the mysterious Miss Brook at the Linton School for Girls and ask all about the mysterious powers that have plagued May her entire life.
To better understand the miniseries, I asked Slatter a few questions. That includes how writing this series proved similar to her day-to-day writing and if we can expect more comics from Slatter. Plus, to get into the mood as we near the spookiest of seasons, Slatter shared her favorite witch stories.
AIPT: Tell us a little bit about Castle Full of Blackbirds. How did this project get started?
Angela Slatter: Castle Full of Blackbirds tells the story of Sara May Blackburn, who helps Hellboy out in Hellboy and the B.P.R.D: The Return of Effie Kolb. Sara can sometimes see the future. At the end of that story she heads off to New York in search of the Linton School for Girls and hopefully some answers about her powers.
Mike and I started chatting about it toward the end of 2019 or thereabouts––and then the pandemic hit, so we had a long hiatus until last year! Basically, it was a chance to nerd out over demons, witches, and fairy tales. What’s not to love?
AIPT: As an award-winning novelist, were there any methods you used in writing prose you used to help write comics, or were there any tricks that you usually use that didn’t work?
AS: I think I probably dug more into my background as a short story writer––because that’s what I started out as––to think about how to tell a story in a rich but succinct way. Mike gave me a couple of bits of advice about pacing and placement of reveals which were really useful, but mostly he was like “You know how to tell a story!”
I obviously read even more comics than usual to pick apart the techniques, and I also found that watching shows like Castlevania and Arcane helped me to figure out the balance between using words and art to tell the story. It’s a revelation for a writer that the art can do some of the heavy lifting that I’d normally do with prose. It was such a fun experience for me, as it’s my first comic, and it was a new form for me to work with AND a complete dream to be able to play in the Hellboy Universe.
AIPT: Was there a panel or page Valeria Burzo knocked out of the park in the first issue that totally took you by surprise?
AS: Honestly, Valeria’s first sketches were amazing, and as we saw the progression to the pencils, then the inks, and then adding Michelle Madsen’s colours? It just got better and better––true magic. Valeria absolutely nailed the sort of gothic style that I wanted for the Linton School, and the looks of and interactions between Sara May and Miss Brook.
I think the pages where I did actually start making noises of excitement so high-pitched that only dogs could hear them were where Sara and Miss Brook (and Rava!) meet again, and then the scene of Sara’s first lesson, and then the last page of issue #1 with its big reveal (which obviously must remain a surprise!).
AIPT: What was something about the main character, Sara May Blackburn, you learned after writing her in this four-issue series?
AS: There’s a line at the end of The Return of Effie Kolb where Tom says Sara’s “out there looking for her place in this world,” which was kind of the through-line I took with this series. That idea of looking for your space––and that it’s complicated for Sara by the fact that her family threw her out because they thought she was a witch. Mike and I talked a lot about leaning into that idea, that she was definitely a witch, so I thought “That’s where she’ll find her next family.” As a writer I make up characters, but they often let me know when I’ve got something wrong about them.
I guess I found out that Sara was actually a bit more ruthless than I first thought in her learning and her life choices? She’s young but determined not to let other people make her decisions, and I think she’s also going to be a lot more powerful than anyone suspects.
AIPT: You’ve likely got a few issues under your belt, do you have the comics “bug” and will you continue with other series going forward?
AS: I’ve absolutely got the bug, and would definitely continue with more series! I mean, I love storytelling. I’m obsessive and maniacal about writing and creating, and I’m really privileged to be able to do this as my job. Getting the opportunity to play in another format has been incredible. I’ve started sketching out some of my own stories as comics as an experiment, and with any luck I’ll get the chance to put them out there at some point. Witches and dark things are definitely my jam, whether in short fiction or novels, so exploring the Hellboy Universe witches and (hopefully) bringing some new light to that has been a gift for me. Plus, I’ve got some more ideas for Sara’s future, along with some old and new HB allies and nemeses.
AIPT: Castle Full of Blackbirds is a story about a school of witches. What are some of your favorite witch stories?
AS: Well, any fairy or folktale involving a witch––and let’s face it, a fairy godmother is also a witch. She’s just got better PR. Baba Yaga is a perennial favorite. Any questionable old woman who offers you a choice––it’s up to you if you accept or not. In terms of more modern stories, Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch is an incredible re-imagining of witches and fairy tales, The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow remains one of my favorite books ever, Tanith Lee’s The Blood of Roses, Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic, and, of course, Black Magick by Greg Rucka and Cullen Bunn’s Harrow County. I do like tales that look at witches from a different angle, so we’re not going over the same ‘wicked old woman with a wart on her nose territory.
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