Interview w/ Maura McHugh, Witchfinder
One of my favorite comic books of 2014 was Dark Horse’s Witchfinder: The Mysteries of Unland written by Maura McHugh and Kim Newman. It’s a horror/mystery series featuring Sir Edward Grey, who has also made appearances in the Hellboy series. When a royal investigator looking into a mysteries new ointment turns up dead, the Queen calls on Sir Edward to look into it. Initially he’s reluctant because he thinks it’s a simple case but he soon learns that there’s a dark secret in the Unland where the ointment originates, and he has to use everything at his disposal in order to make it out alive. The series had plenty of action, suspense, character development, timely humor, and the artwork wonderfully complemented the excellent writing. So when I had an opportunity to interview Maura McHugh at NYCC about the series and her other projects, I was all over it.
Me: Sir Edward Grey has made a lot of appearances in other comic books and his own mini-series. When you had to do this one, what did you wanna bring to the character?
Maura: I think, one of the things that Kim (Newman) and I tried to bring in was a little bit of humor because Sir Edward is a very serious guy. He deals with difficult things and so we felt that maybe he needed a little bit more humor while still giving him very tough situations. So we weren’t trying to make him, you know, we weren’t going for a clown effect, we were just going to try to add some slight humor. Also the nice thing is we know where he ends up. I’m not (giving) spoilers there because he’s appearing in Hell Boy in Hell at the moment. So what’s really lovely is to try to give some (humor) and he’s quite funny in hell. You know, he’s got a sense of humor, right? So, what’s nice is to try to do the journey because its early on in his career, so we’re trying to show a little bit of the progression. And also he’s more of a detective in this one. We wanted to give him a bit of sleuthing around. But mainly, these comics are fun. You know what I mean. We wanted to make sure it was also a fun read while giving some chills and having a good mystery.
Me: Yes and I think that’s definitely been done especially for people who have never heard of him before. I think he would be good introductory point for them as well. Kim is your co-writer in the series?
Me: What was it like working with him?
Maura: Fantastic. Kim and I had worked together on a play in London, an anthology horror play. And we’ve known each other a long time but we hadn’t written together other than this play. I knew we could work together but working together in this sort of very close fashion is, you know – you never know how it’s gonna go. It was actually brilliant. I learned a lot from him. He’d never written comics before, and it’s actually quite technical. He’s written screenplays, so he’s familiar with this, it’s a very similar discipline but not the same. There are a lot of technical things we have to know about comics. It’s nice to work with a friend and for the project to end up so well. Because we worked, we did so many drafts between us. We passed it back between each other as we worked on it. I think the scripts were quite a high quality as a result because we were kind of editing each other and making suggestions. So it was great I have to say. It was a really, really wonderful experience.
Me: Knowing that this was a limited series, is there anything that you had to edit out that you wish you could have kept in?
Maura: That’s a good question. Maybe more monsters – more monster action. Yeah, I mean, to be honest, we had a very clear idea what we wanted to do with it. We were, you know, like many people we had a treatment outline of the five issues and I think we pretty much did everything. In fact, if anything, we put in some extra stuff which we hadn’t originally thought of in the outline. So when we were writing it, it came about organically which is often the way when you’re writing. So, for instance, I think like the eel museum, that wasn’t in the outline, and it popped up for a reason. We needed an event at that page, and so, it sort of, again it organically happened. That’s great because it means that it’s coming out of the story. It’s not shoved in. I don’t think there was anything we didn’t do, just that he’s a fun character to work with. So I guess at some point it would be nice to work with him again.
Me: I hear that. So now, the Unlands was very fascinating to me. I liked the location and it was unique. Even the language, it took me a little while to adjust to the change in the language. What was the inspiration for that location?
Maura: Well, Kim lives in that area…its Somerset. They have a very particular style of speech, dialect He felt that that had never really been done before, and so he kind of wanted to give the area a bit of a showcase. And also, we had our first meeting actually in his kitchen. We sat down and hashed out the original idea. At that time it was really terrible flooding happening in Somerset. Somerset is a low-lying county and it floods a lot. So we, that was kind of on our mind as well. So when we were first trying to figure out a location, we started talking about it and this came up, and then the flooding, and that again provided a bit of an engine for the story you know, which is great. Unland, is actually an old Anglo-Saxon word and it means swamp or bog. Occasionally also, it can mean washer as in not land obviously. I just loved the words, an also because of where it says, there is this sense of there being an older people here. So I thought it’d be really good to have an old name so that’s where the name came from.
And the guys liked it a lot ’cause we had proposed another title originally and they were like, ‘no, maybe not’. So then I was like, we’ll how about this one ’cause we were using that in the comic. They are like ‘oh yeah, that’s great, let’s do that one’. So, yeah, it’s a very interesting place. Every country has these like back water (locations) where there’s a bit of a strangeness to the local people. So every country.. even if you live in the US.
Me: Like Louisiana.
Maura: Yeah. Things like these happen. Everywhere.
Me: So when you were working in his kitchen, were there eels in the water too?
Maura: (laughs) No. In fact I think some people, you know there’s Cthulhu but actually in many ways, the eels came from the environment, because we wanted to have a good old monster. I got to have a good old monster. So the eels are something that, it’s part of the tradition there so we just went with that and we did a lot of research as well on eels. But God, I know a lot about the eels (now). They’re actually really interesting.
Maura: Yeah they are.
Me: Did you eat any?
Maura: God, no, no, no. I’m actually vegetarian. But jelly eels are a real dish and you know, a really popular dish in the UK. Well certainly in the 19th century, they would have been. The other thing is, if you’re poor you eat what’s there and there’s a scene in issue four with Ada, the eel fisherwoman, you get a real sense of that. You eat what’s there and eels to them is basic food. They eat it all the time.
Me: So without giving away any spoilers, because the last issue isn’t out yet…
Maura: Yeah, Wednesday.
Me: Are you interested in doing any future stories with Sir Edward Grey or would you want to work on other characters at this point?
Maura: Yeah I’m working on a bunch of other projects currently and Kim is perpetually busy. He’s just had a new novel out, an English ghoul story, and he’s got another non-fiction book. He’s done one for BFI (British Film Institute) Quartermass and the Pit. You know the – I don’t know if you know this – the old movie – he’s written a BFI classic guide to it. Kim he does a lot of non-fiction writing as well because he’s a journalist. So that man has projects lined up forever, I don’t know. He’ll keep writing till the end I think. So there’s a schedule issue there, you know, but yeah I mean, we’d be quite happy to do another issue together but probably not immediately. And it also depends on the course of our paths. We were just really happy to get the gig, and it was very enjoyable to work like that.
Me: You also write a series called Jennifer Wilde. How would you describe the series to someone who has never read it and what do you love about it the most?
Maura: Okay. Well it’s a kind of detective character. It’s our origin story. Jennifer Wilde is an artist in Paris in 1921 who’s investigating a little mystery around her father’s death. That’s – without giving anything away – it kind of happens early in it. She is aided by the ghost of Oscar Wilde. So that where it’s Jennifer Wilde (comes from)
Maura: So it’s kind of a three nations tour … Ireland, England and in this case France. So the first issue’s in France, the second issue’s in England, in London, and the third issue ends in Ireland. This is her trying to figure out something about what happened. She can see ghosts. So there’s this dynamic duo wandering around in 1920’s. What I love about it, 1920’s Ireland, England and France…is, I adore the 1920’s. It’s an amazing period. In my opinion (it’s) essentially the start of the modern era. The 20th century. I mean they were pushing forward in technology and music, and everything, you know. When you read what people were doing at the time, it’s extraordinary. Also because it was after World War I. I’m a huge history nerd. I love doing period pieces because I love looking into it. So I had great fun doing that and also Jennifer is a really fun character to write because the way I have written her is that she’s… an artist you know, she loves life, she’s fun, and Oscar Wilde is also a fun character to write. He was a real person and I do take that into account. I try not to do stuff that I think wouldn’t be right with him. Do you know what I mean?
Maura: So yeah, it’s real – it was great and Steven Downy, my artist, is tremendously good. He’s from Northern Ireland, in Belfast. He’s worked on a lot of different titles and he was fantastic. I’ve actually got a very short six pager that’s gonna be online free. A little or just a tiny event, an escapade, a vignette. I think we should call it a vignette of her, which happens after she has left. It’s in 1922 so it’s about a year later. So that should be good. Leeann Hamilton is an Irish artist. She’s drawn it and it’s in color too. Where the (other) comics were black and white ’cause it’s digital, there’s no problem. You know the expense is less, ’cause obviously it’s just going online. So, yeah, and that should be coming out in a couple of months I think. I mean it’s done, I just don’t know when Rob Curley who owns Atomic Diner Comics which publishes Jennifer Wilde. I just don’t know when he’s scheduling it out yet. But it is, it actually is all finished
Me: So where can somebody find this issue if they wanted to?
Maura: Atomic Diner has a website and you should be all able to order them from there. The very first issue of Jennifer Wilde is on Comixology. I’ve no idea ’cause I don’t do the publishing end of things. I know they’re meant to be scheduled to come out on Comixology too and I really hope that happens because I mean it just gets to a much wider audience. Because waiting for physical copies to come from Ireland…
Me: Can be difficult..
Maura: Yeah. You don’t necessarily want to do that. A lot of people buy their comics digitally you know. I have some friends. I know a writer here at (NYCC) and he’s told me he almost never buys physical copies anymore, everything is digital. In our business it’s just much better. I mean that’s wonderful. I ain’t knocking it.
Me: As long as they give you what you want, right?
Maura: yeah. Absolutely. But I do like – I’ve got a Comixology app on, I’ve a Dark Horse on my iPad. You know, and on my phone. I use it a lot.
Me: Yeah. I still try to support the local comic book shops.
Maura: Oh I do that too..
Me: But sometimes it’s just easier.
Maura: Yeah it’s easier. Not great on your credit card. It’s so dangerous man, I’m telling you. You’re like ‘how much?’ And when I go to cons I’m nearly always, ‘I’m not buying, oh look at this’.
Maura: I do believe in supporting the small press because that’s where I came from and that’s actually where most comic book writers and artists came from. You know, ’cause you gotta start somewhere and most people don’t start at Dark Horse. In Kim’s case, he’s an incredible pedigree of work so it’s not like you know, he did nothing before he got there.
Me: If anybody wanted to keep track of the work that you’re doing, where can they find more information on it?
Maura: Well my website is splinister.com and I’m on twitter as @Splinister. Those are the two best place. I mean I have a Facebook and Tumblr and stuff like that. I don’t use Tumblr as much just because there are just too many outlets of social media but Twitter is probably the best thing to follow me on. ‘Cause I always put out my updates and I have a blog on my website so I have a bibliography of everything out there so if people want to know what I’m up to, that’s the place to go.
Me: Alright. Thank you.
Maura: Thank you!
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