Interview: Joshua Dysart on ‘B.P.R.D.: 1946’
One of this year’s big additions to the Hellboy universe has been the series BPRD: 1946, which puts the spotlight on Trevor Bruttenholm as he investigates the occult legacy of the Third Reich.
I recently caught up with series co-writer Joshua Dysart to talk about BPRD, working with Mike Mignola and Dysart’s strange journey into comics writing. Dysart also touched on the wealth of other projects he’s working on, including one based on musician Neil Young’s life and music.
COMICMIX: How did you end up working on BPRD: 1946 and being so closely involved with the Hellboy books for Dark Horse?
JOSHUA DYSART: It was kind of a long and winding road, as these things mostly are. I first met Mignola and [Editor] Scott Allie in Dallas, Texas at the first Wizard World there in 2004. We hung out by the pool table in the bar together and just talked. Our aesthetic was very similar. About six to eight months later, Scott got me the job on the Van Helsing comic. Which, despite its source material, I’m still really proud of. When Mike was moving out to Los Angeles he showed interest in finding a local writer to work with. Scott mentioned my name. Then Mike went out to a local comic book shop and the owner, a close personal friend of mine, recommended me. We set up a luncheon date and I was terribly, terribly nervous. But I did my little song and dance and it worked out. That was late in 2006.
CMix: That has to be a little intimidating to go pitch yourself to somebody like Mignola.
JD: I was late to the meeting as well, by the way. I ride a bicycle everywhere and at the time didn’t have a cellphone. So on top of being terribly intimidated, I was late with no way to contact him. I thought for sure that being without a cellphone and a car was not going to bode well for me as a professional. But it turned out that Mike didn’t have a car or a cellphone either, and I think there was a sense of a shared value system in this — like two Luddites finding each other amongst the Blackberry/BMW wasteland of Santa Monica, CA. But all the way around it was a pretty terrifying thing, the notion of the meeting.
But in the end, it was fine. Mike is so enthusiastic about his creation — and as a reader, so am I — so I was put at ease very quickly. I don’t think he even noticed I was late.
The advice I got from Scott Allie before the meeting was, "Don’t act like such a fucking hippie."
CMix: So, the obvious question: Are you a "fucking hippie?"
JD: I don’t think so. I don’t drive a car out of some concern for the environment. I don’t really consume a lot of bullshit. I’m pretty politically left, well, actually I’m awfully left. But I’m not some stereotype hippie. My middle name is Moonracer. Take from that what you will.
CMix: Back to working with Mignola, were you a fan of his work before you started partnering on projects?
JD: Absolutely. I’ve been reading what Mike has been throwing down almost since the beginning. It was a really interesting meeting to take.
I’ve been very fortunate because lately it seems there’s been a lot of confluence in my life. A lot of things I’ve been interested in when I was younger have been coming back to me as work. Not only was I dealing with Mike and his glorious universe, but the minute they told me they were interested in telling their story in Berlin after the war… well, I mean, I’m the guy for that, you know?
I didn’t even have to do any research. I’d already written Captain Gravity and the Power of the Vril, which was very concerned with the mechanics of Europe before and during WWII, as well as interested in the occult/Nazi connection. So I’d been doing research in that area for years.
CMix: What about World War II interests you?
JD: I have an obsession with World War II because I have an obsession with the Cold War. I have an obsession with the Cold War because it was a power struggle for a new and redefined world that emerged from World War II. So it all comes back to the making of the modern world as we know it. Even the "War on Terror" is a direct and natural extension of events laid down by the second Word War (which in turn is part of a long chain of history). I think this last century was a pretty fucking interesting century in regards to human history, and WWII is at the very center of all of the reasons why it’s so interesting.
CMix: Have comics always been another of your interests?
JD: I have always read comics. I remember finding issues of Robert Crumb’s Zapped in my mom’s stuff… I was a latchkey kid, you know — a product of Reaganomics. So summer days at home alone I would rifle through her shit. [I would] read her comics and dirty magazines, stuff like that. I had a young mother. So comics were always really in my life. Not superhero comics, but alternative comics.
One of my very first albums, along with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, was that Janis Joplin album with the art by Crumb on it. I studied that album. I can recall everything about it to this day. I was so enraptured by the graphic sensibilities and storytelling on it. Yet, I’d never consciously imagined myself working in the medium. But it all seems to be part of a grander plan.
CMix: As you grew up, which comics ended up having the most influence on you?
JD: It all depends on what period of your life you’re talking about. I recall being really zapped by Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s Nexus and Baron’s Badger. There was a time when Mike Baron could do no wrong in my eyes.
There was a book called Wasteland by John Ostrander or Del Close that I really loved. Loved. It was really, really great. Then Renegade Press came along with Journey (by William Messner-Loebs) and Flaming Carrot (Bob Burden), Neil The Horse (Arn Saba).
Some of the first Dark Horse titles hit me pretty hard as well — Chadwick’s Concrete, for instance. Then there was Marder’s Beanworld. There was always Swamp Thing, too. Then 1986 happened.
CMix: That was a pretty big year for comics.
JD: 1986 was the first time that superheroes really zapped me, and that opened up a whole lot of other worlds. It was Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen that began to influence me with mainstream comics. As you can see, the problem with the influence question is that it’s just so vast. I could go on and on.
CMix: Did you study writing?
JD: I’m not proud of it, but I am a high school dropout. I dropped out at the beginning of my senior year and a few years later began to travel extensively. That was my fundamental education. I did a little over a year in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, all total. I did six months in Israel and Egypt. Six months in the UK. I just sort of knocked around the States. I lived very poorly in Los Angeles. I kicked my can up to New York City and spent some time there. It was the formative moment in my life and in my character. I am who I am because of lessons learned on the road.
But my education as a writer is perpetual. Working with Mike and all the other really talented editors and co-creators I’ve worked with, that’s my education. I like to use my editors and co-creators as a learning tool. And Mike has been really great for that. I’ve always felt he understood the comic book page better than most people in our industry do. There’s very few guys who dream in sequential imagery. I feel like
Mike must be one of those guys. It’s been great to work with him… and to not lose my own tendencies, but just to learn from him.
CMix: What have you worked on together?
JD: We’ve now written four separate projects together. We did the Hellboy oneshot for Konami. We did a short story which is coming out in the Free Comic Book Day book. We did 1946… and now we’re doing 1947.
CMix: How does that co-writing partnership work?
JD: It varies on the project. The Free Comic Book Day story is almost entirely mine. Mike came in and tweaked everything to match his sensibility. [He] essentially assumed the role of editor. In the case of 1946 and 1947, well… On 1946 I was off working on other stuff — and if you leave Mike alone, he’s going to engineer the story in his head. He can’t help it.
So, I went to his house and took notes. Then I would go home and cobble it together into a document that has a linear line, and then send that back to Mike. And we’d decide what he liked and what I liked and I’d tweak it some more, and then I would write a script from it. Again we’d go through the script, line by line. As far as I know, he doesn’t read the second draft.
CMix: So he’s more concerned with the big picture?
JD: I have a lot of freedom in the subtleties. The characters, the way they speak, the way they’re dressed, their relationship to each other, how they get from point A to B, that’s mostly all my stuff. Mike’s a big idea guy, and I tend to be more character-based. So it works out quite well. As long as he gives me space for character and I give him space for cool-ass pulp, we end up with a perfect mix on a good day.
CMix: When you’re sitting there at his house, listening to him churn up ideas, do you ever catch yourself thinking "Whoa, that’s Mike Mignola?"
JD: Less and less. When it comes time for the work, you just have to be present and push doubt aside, because you want to give it your all. You want to deserve to be in the room with him. And not just Mike, but by extension all of the other amazing people he’s brought on board. Guy [Davis] and John [Arcudi] and Duncan [Fegredo] and editor Scott Allie. You have to try your best to deserve to be in this company.
The fact is, we rarely see a property that spirals off in so many directions, yet doesn’t fall off in quality. With Hellboy, there are several projects and they all stay great. I get nervous more in social events with him. That’s when I become very aware that "Holy shit, I am signing next to Mignola. I don’t belong here! I’m a fake!" or something to that extent.
CMix: What do you think of the books, how they’ve turned out?
JD: I am very proud of ’46, i have to say. I’m pretty damn proud of it. You know, the subject matter is all really great stuff. It connects to my previous work, and I like the characters a lot. I really like writing Bruttenholm. I love creating the feel, voice and mannerisms of Vavara. I think it’s a spooky, successful read. There are a few things I’m not proud of in my overall body of work, but this sure as hell isn’t one of them. And I gotta tell ya, ’47 is amping up to be even better.
CMix: What else do you have going on?
JD: I’m currently breaking down BPRD: 1947. I’m finishing up Greendale, which is the Neil Young book for Vertigo. I’m in the middle of Buddha, which I’m adapting from a Deepak Chopra novel into a comic book — no easy feat. It’s good. It’s good to have work.
I really want to get to a point this year where I only have three projects on my plate at once, no more than that. Just do my monthly, Unknown Soldier, at Vertigo, keep doing the Mignola stuff, of which we have so much in the works that I’ve got to start treating it like a monthly book just to ensure we get to it all, and lastly, a personal project. Something from myself. So I’m really working to get some things off my plate right now.
CMix: What’s the personal project?
JD: I’m working on a creator-owned book with Camilla d’Errico, and that’s in the contract negotiation stage. That’ll be the beginnings of me getting back to personal work. I have never been able to devote the time to a project that’s solely my aesthetic. And while this is based on characters Camilla created, they were solely visual representations with no back story or world or characterization. So I’m really looking forward to writing that.
But let me say that there’s something very noble and workmanlike about being a writer for hire. You have a job. These characters exist, and you have to be true to them, but you also have to follow your own
creative spirit. It’s a hell of an exercise. The struggle is to find yourself inside these projects, you know?
Issue #4 of B.P.R.D.: 1946, featuring a story by Josh Dysart and Mike Mignola, is on shelves now. The fifth and final issue hits shelves next month, on May 14, 2008.