Chris Roberson Talks About the Secret History Behind the New Hellboy Spinoff, 'The Visitor'

Wednesday, 22 February 2017 - 3:02PM
Wednesday, 22 February 2017 - 3:02PM
Chris Roberson Talks About the Secret History Behind the New Hellboy Spinoff, 'The Visitor'
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Every sci-fi fan goes through life fantasizing about making friends with their heroes, whether it's Alan Moore or Isaac Asimov. Chris Roberson, a four-time World Fantasy finalist, bestselling author, and creator of iZombie, knows the feeling-he spent his 20s obsessed with the work of H.P. Lovecraft and Michael Moorcock, only to have Moorcock himself reach out and invite him over for dinner one night. Later, he was given Moorcock's blessing to write the comic book adaptation of Elric of Melnibone, one of his most famous works. Now Roberson is working with another of his heroes, the legendary Mike Mignola, on a new spinoff series from Hellboy, titled The Visitor: How and Why He Stayed.

I sat down with Chris last week to talk about the new series, his work, and how he got here.

The Long and Winding Road (to Comics)

Roberson references the cyberpunk legend William Gibson when he says sci-fi and fantasy is his native culture, but his real love has always been for comics. "Comics were my first language," he says, explaining that by age 11 he was a die-hard fan of DC comics, as well as mass market paperbacks, especially those dealing with parallel universes and heroic legacies. Whereas some writers or artists might latch onto one medium and stick with it throughout their life, Roberson says "I became a novelist and short story writer on the way to becoming a comic book [writer]." 

Roberson spent years honing his storytelling abilities and started publishing stories in his mid 30s, ending up with three dozen published short stories and over a dozen novels. As mentioned before, he spent most of his college years devouring the work of Michael Moorcock and H.P. Lovecraft—Roberson mentions the Eternal Champion series published by White Wolf Publishing (and partly illustrated by Mike Mignola) as one of his most treasured pieces of reading material. Once he started writing his own stories, he noted that whether it was sci-fi or fantasy, he "sought out the science behind fictional ideas I liked in the first place." As an armchair physicist interested in multiverse theory, cosmology, and quantum mechanics, one of his proudest moments was when he exchanged views on the topic of quantum physics during a panel at the World Science Convention, causing an attendee (who happened to be the author of the standard textbook on quantum mechanics at the time) to ask Roberson where he taught. Roberson had to explain that he wasn't a professor of physics—he was a sci-fi writer.

It was in the late 1990s that Roberson wrote a review of Moorcocks' story War Amongst the Angels, which drew the attention of Moorcock himself. "Mike" (as Roberson calls him) invited him to dinner, and the two struck up an enduring friendship. When Boom Studios expressed interest in doing an adaptation of Moorcock's Elric series, Roberson was tapped for the job of writing what would become Elric: The Balance Lost. He admits that the pressure to fulfill the expectations of one of his heroes was intense, but that he and Moorcock ended up being pleased with how the comic turned out. 

Working with Mike Mignola and Hellboy

In 2015, Roberson was formally inducted into the "Mingolaverse" after previously being brought on to the Witchfinder series by Scott Allie, Mignola's editor. Mignola's legendary Hellboy series, centered on the gruff, down-to-earth hellspawn detective, is infused with all kinds of subtle references to weird fiction and the occult, especially the work of H.P. Lovecraft, but it also has its own expansive mythology that spans thousands of years (and over two decades of publishing history). When Roberson began work with Mignola, one of the first things he did was re-read the entire collected works of Lovecraft (he recommends The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, with introduction by Alan Moore). This was standard procedure for Roberson, who has been a fan of Mignola's work for years—according to him, "Hellboy is one series that I re-read every couple years."

But here's where things go from "thorough" to "mind-blowing." Across his years of reading and re-reading Hellboy, Roberson has put together his own lore compendium for the series, which he describes as a "living document of cosmology, mythology, historical events arranged in chronological order." Roberson's attention to detail is so accurate and minute that when Mignola emailed him new details on a collaboration project with Gary Gianni, Roberson zeroed in on one piece of info: the name of a heretofore unknown Hyperborean city. For years, he'd had a blank spot in his lore doc for a Hyperborean city that had been mentioned in the Mignolaverse, but never named. Now he had it.

All of these tiny details are part of a vast, semi-written canon that underlies the Hellboy universe. "Scott and Mike have done a great job keeping the lore and history consistent. We see bits and pieces of bigger mysteries, and they're left up to the reader to figure out...[characters in the stories] are quick to give definitive answers to what's happening with supernatural stuff going on now, but they're not always right." The tension between keeping some parts of the mythology unknown and revealing what's really going on creates a balancing act where characters are often "edging around the perimeter of some major cosmic events." 

Roberson's attention to the lore and history of the series ended up leading he and Mignola to unearth one mystery that's been bugging fans for years: the identity of the alien who approached Hellboy in The Conqueror Worm, long after the first glimpse of aliens in Seed of Destruction.

The Hidden History of The Visitor: How and Why He Stayed

After wrapping up the Witchfinder series, Scott Allie, Mike Mignola, and Chris Roberson got together for lunch to talk about what to explore next in the Hellboy universe. The main series ended with "Hellboy in Hell", but a whole world of stories and secret histories still sat just beneath the surface of the canon. Roberson said (in essence) "What's the deal with that alien guy in Conqueror Worm?" and the three began fleshing out the story from there.

The story represents a departure from the normal Hellboy series in a lot of ways. According to Roberson, "It's a more quiet and introspective book…it's less about the big action stuff…[and more] about a quiet, solitary person making their way through the world for fifty years." Here's how Roberson described the story in the Dark Horse press release:

Opening quote
"In Hellboy: Seed of Destruction, readers were given a brief glimpse of a crew of strange looking aliens monitoring the supernatural doings on Earth from way out in space. We later learned that one of those aliens had been sent to Earth to kill him in 1944, but chose to spare him at the last moment," said Chris Roberson. "In The Visitor, we explore who those aliens are, why that assassin was sent to kill Hellboy, and just what he was doing in all of the years in between."
Closing quote

One of the influences on the story was Nicholas Roeg's "The Man Who Fell to Earth," the 1976 sci-fi film featuring David Bowie. Roberson promises the series will show the Visitor leaving his homeworld as well as "disjointed moments of this very isolated, insular character trying to navigate our world and our customs and cultures." In the course of the five-issue series, he hints that the Visitor will make meaningful human connections and become more than strictly an observer. He inevitably crosses paths with Hellboy, but what he sees will surprise him.

The Visitor: How and Why He Stayed releases today—check it out on Amazon or your local comic book store! You can also follow Chris Roberson on Twitter and his website.
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