INTERVIEW: MAURA MCHUGH ON WITCHFINDER & MORE

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With the first issue out this Wednesday, I ask Maura McHugh about her work on the new Witchfinder mini-series and her work in comics annd more.

Some of your first comic book work was on Jennifer Wilde and Róisín Dubh with Atomic Diner. How did that come about?

Rob Curley at Atomic Diner Comics asked me to write them. I’d been writing for some time, and we knew each other quite well from various events over the years. He gave me a one-line pitch for Róisín Dubh which was enough to get me on board, and after I started delivering scripts for that project he asked if I’d be interested in writing Jennifer Wilde. And I said yes.

You had experience writing in other forms including short stories but what was it like writing comics for the first time? Was it much of a change?

Well, I had completed a M.A. in Screenwriting, and if anything my screenwriting informed my comic book writing the most. It teaches you to write efficiently and always think about visual impact. But all writing teaches you more about writing. Prose writing meant that my screenwriting was technically sound, screenwriting made my prose writing more economical, playwriting gave me the freedom to let my characters speak, and comic book writing pushed me to reduce dialogue as much as possible. Each discipline teaches you different skills. There’s a learning curve whenever you enter new territory, but I like that challenge. One of the things I enjoy doing is figuring out the strengths of a media, and then writing to that strength. Comic book writing (for me) is the sweet spot of skills. I love the way the form constantly allows new ways to deliver stories, and I enjoy collaborating with artists/colourists/etc.

Stephen Byrne (Róisín Dubh) and Stephen Downey (Jennifer Wilde) have different styles and strengths. It must have been a learning experience working with them both.

Both the Stephens are terrifically talented and have very different styles. Stephen Downey is a joy to work with because he wants to get the details right, and that’s very important in a period comic like Jennifer Wilde. He’s also great at drawing people and facial expressions, which is important as your reader needs to empathise with the characters. Stephen Byrne favours a stronger black and white style in Róisín Dubh, which works very well in a comic book with a Gothic sensibility. Quite quickly you get a sense of what your artist likes to do and what they’re less keen on doing. They are also the experts on visual storytelling, so I’m always interested in their suggestions for changing the layout depending on the story flow. I’ve learned a lot from both of them.

Was there a lot of research involved for the books?

Of the two Jennifer Wilde took the most work, because I had to do a lot of research into the Irish War of Independence, and Oscar Wilde’s life and writing. There are real people being depicted in a fictional way in that comic, and I wanted to be as true to them as possible. I have a store of general information about late 19th century Ireland (Róisín Dubh) because I did a MA in English ages ago on Irish 19th century supernatural literature. But, for me research is always fun. I did English and History for my BA so I’ve an abiding interest in historical research.

At Octocon 2013, you had your first Jennifer Wilde Cosplay. That must have been a thrill.

Yes, I love Cosplay. I think it’s a wonderful, creative pastime, and it’s such an honour that someone thinks the character you have written is worth investing the time and effort to bring it to life as a cosplay. I was overjoyed by it. It’s a tribute to the work.

More recently, you got to work with Leeann Hamilton on a Jennifer Wilde (to be published online). How did feel to be working with a different artist on Jennifer?

I’ve known Leeann for a while and she’s a fantastic artist. She brings a different style to Jennifer, but that’s how it works in comics. Each writer and artist has their own take on the character. She’s been great to work with and it’s been wonderful to see Jennifer in colour!

Any further plans for these series?

Yes, the next arc is set in LA. The comic that’s going online is a short bridging story between the end of her first set of adventures and the next escapade in America.

To get to the news of the moment, you’re co-writing a Witchfinder mini for Dark Horse. My first thought was “that will suit Maura down to the ground” because of the horror and mythological aspects. Then I found out it is a detective series too. What appeals to you about this book?

Lots of things appealed to me about the project – the setting was a big draw. Again I’m back in the late 19th century, which is a fabulous era for macabre fiction. The supernatural investigator is a mainstay of literature, and I’ve already worked with that trope with Jennifer Wilde. But the biggest plus was being able to work in the Mike Mignola universe – which is pretty much an honour – with Kim. Writing with Kim was a pleasure. We’d worked together on a play with other writers, but this is the first time we’d collaborated so closely. He’s hugely experienced and a brilliant writer. I learned so much from working with him.
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It must been a bit different to be working on a character with continuity to research and working within the Mignola-verse.

Yes, there’s a certain amount of finding your feet with the character, but Mike and Scott Allie (our editor) were happy with our depiction of him. Every now and again they’d nudge us if they felt we were drifting away from their vision of the character, but those changes were pretty minor.

How different is the process co-writing the book with Kim Newman? It must be an interesting working with another writer.

In some ways the writing process takes longer because you have to keep passing the script between each other, but on the other hand you have another person to bounce ideas off, and so the project get better and richer because of the other person’s input. Kim and I know each other a long time, but writing together brings a different dynamic to your friendship. Luckily it went really well. We both respect each other and what we individually brought to the project.

I’m enjoying previews of Tyler Crook’s art. It must be great to be working with an artist with experience working in the world of Hellboy (with B.P.R.D).

I can’t compliment Tyler enough. It’s like he was born to draw Sir Edward and the Witchfinder world. He’s such a talented, astute artist and a terrific person.

I read some of the stories to prepare for this interview. It is a little bit different to main Hellboy book. How would you describe the character/series to a new reader?

Witchfinder does stand a little apart from the rest of the Mignolaverse. The story revolves around Sir Edward Grey, who is a paranormal investigator and special agent to the crown in late 19th century England. He stopped a plot by a coven of witches to kill Queen Victoria, which is where the designation ‘Witchfinder’ came from, and why he received his knighthood (his background is not one of wealthy entitlement). He’s the person who is called upon to stop weird and arcane forces which are arrayed against the common good.

Can you tell us a little bit about the story?

Here’s the official blurb: “Edward Grey is sent to Hallam to investigate a mysterious death. Once there, he hears rumours about the mysterious Unland, the wetlands around the town, and the creatures that inhabit it. Grey’s scepticism vanishes when he encounters the monsters of Unland, and he realizes that Hallam is a place of secrets.”

I will tell you that it does involves eels, some of a rather large size…

I wanted to ask about is Laydeez Do Comic which is something you’ve been involved with. I really enjoyed the events as they really showcase creators in a relaxed atmosphere. Any future plans?

Yes, it’s been on hiatus for a while, partly to do with my schedule, and the fact that I’ve been in charge of organising the entire comic book programming track at Worldcon in London, which is taking place in August. In all likelihood Lynda and I will be back to planning an event for the late autumn.

As we’re getting to that time of the year, what is your con schedule like?

I’ve got a busy second half of the year: It’s kicking off by attending AracdeCon in Dublin, then WorldCon in London, ShamroKon in Dublin, FantasyCon in York (where the British Fantasy Awards are being handed out – Jennifer Wilde is nominated for the Comic Book Award), New York Comic Con in October, and finally Thought Bubble in Leeds. After all that travel I may never want to leave the house again!

Witchfinder: The Mysteries of Unland #1 is out this Wednesday, June 18th, and Maura McHugh will be doing a signing in Sub City Comics on Dame Street on Saturday June 21st from 12 to 4pm.