The Sword of Hyperborea is Hanging Over His Head – An Interview with ROB WILLIAMS
COMIC BOOK YETI: Rob, thank you so much for joining me here in the Yeti Cave to discuss The Sword of Hyperborea #1. How have you been doing?
ROB WILLIAMS: All good, thanks. I haven't picked up a thousands-of-years-old mythical sword, but neither has my world been overrun by giant Ogdru Hem monsters. So, can't complain. CBY: It's good to keep things in perspective. The Sword of Hyperborea #1, co-written with Mike Mignola, is your first foray writing in the Hellboy Universe. How did this story and your involvement in it come about? RW: Laurence Campbell, the excellent artist on The Sword of Hyperborea, and I had just done a creator-owned book together (a tale about the haunting of gangsters called Old Haunts, from AWA). Laurence had previously drawn B.P.R.D. for Mike Mignola for five years or so, and he had been talking to Mike and the Dark Horse folks about doing a Gall Dennar barbarian book. Laurence asked me if I might be interested in writing what became The Sword of Hyperborea, and I'd previously met with Katii O'Brien, the Hellboy editor, and discussed my maybe doing some B.P.R.D. work. I think someone had read Old Haunts recently, so it all came together. CBY: The Sword has popped up a number of times throughout various and sundry comics. How familiar were you with this bit of Hellboy Universe lore beforehand and did you have to take a deep dive into the various issues to write this story?
RW: I'd read B.P.R.D. throughout its run and was a big fan, so I knew about Agent Howards and Gall Dennar and the sword. That said, my memory is awful, so I went back and reread a bunch of the stories the sword features in, including Sir Edward Grey: Witchfinder - In the Service of Angels. Laurence and I talked about the history of the Hellboy Universe a good deal, and then we had a few Zoom calls with Mike to discuss the sword and our ideas for the book, and he told us the good stuff––what the sword actually is, where it got its power, etc. It turns out Mike knows a lot more about the Hellboy world than he's actually put down on paper. And Mike had a plot in mind for Gall Dennar, our barbarian warrior. So we followed that and built outward from it. CBY: Do you think this series, once completed, will work as a good jumping on point for new readers or is this more for the longtime fans that want a deep dive into the lore. Will this series have implications for future series?
RW: Hopefully both. We're definitely dancing between certain established points in Hellboy history, but we're also introducing three brand-new protagonists in issues two through four, and taking them on their own individual journeys. We're also, without giving any spoilers, showing something beyond the end of Ragna Rock and Hellboy's story. Sort of inadvertently, through discussions, Mike told us a few secrets that could lead to a bunch of new storylines. That's pretty exciting. And the bottom line for me is always to try and make you care about these characters so, regardless of your knowledge of this world, you'll be invested in their fates, both tragic and incredibly tragic (joke...maybe). CBY: How do you decide which elements of the past to mine for a story like this and which elements do you want to bring in to leave your own mark on the Hellboy Universe? RW: Well, the hook of the series is "who else carried the sword? What were their stories and how did the sword get passed on?" We know from the existing Hellboy Universe books that the sword was carried by a barbarian warrior in the post-Hyperborean age, thousands of years ago. Then it ends up in Edward Grey's London at the close of the 19th century, and finally it ends up in a ruined temple in Chicago in B.P.R.D. How did it get there? So, we have our existing points on the map, and it was up to us to navigate between them with new characters and new stories. We have a bunch of new players we're really excited about: a German noblewoman spy with a secret in World War I, an egocentric deep-sea diver in World War II, and a Mississippi bluesman in the electric Chicago scene of the 50s, who had a strange voice that whispers secrets to him. In its own way it's a book about a team, even though they never meet.
CBY: You’ve worked with artist Laurence Campbell before, on the series Old Haunts as you mentioned, was your collaboration this time any different due to his experience in the Hellboy Universe?
RW: In a way, no. Laurence and I have worked together a few times. We discuss everything along the way. The creator-owned approach we had with Old Haunts we pretty much used here, too. It's not the frequent work-for-hire dynamic where writer writes script, hands artist script, artist draws it, and you rarely talk. There are characters and plot beats that are Laurence's. The whole core concept of following the people who carried the sword came from him. His experience in this universe meant that he knows a lot of the history, so that was useful too to a newcomer like me. And, first and foremost, he's an amazing artist. He does mood and tone so well, which is perfect for the horror that's often integral in the Hellboy world. CBY: I appreciated the pacing of this issue, both in the panels and the dialogue, as the reader really gets a sense of time passing as Gall wrestles with crises both real and existential. Was it difficult to plot this story out knowing ultimately where the Sword had to end up or early on did you know which story beats you wanted to hit?
RW: Thanks. Yeah, if we were going to do a barbarian quest we wanted to make it epic. Gall Dennar's search for the warriors of myth who gave power to the sword isn't him just popping down to the shops. We wanted that journey to feel like it took years. Like it really cost him. I think Laurence sells that with the incredible landscapes in issue #1. He really takes you to that world, shows you vignettes of the adventures Gall had along the way. And, as I mentioned before, Gall's plot here comes from Mike. He had an idea for where Gall would go next. Really, where the sword follows beyond issue #1 was then really up to us. We discussed it with him and the editorial team. It's a trick to interweave something new with what's previously been established, and making it all feel like it counts. CBY: I understand for future issues we’ll get to see the Sword throughout history, similarly to looking back at past issues of B.P.R.D., were there any historical settings that you had to research? Are you someone that does a lot of research before setting out to script a story? RW: Issue #3 takes place at the start of World War II. I'm a bit of a history buff when it comes to the Second World War, so I didn't need to do much research there. Issue #2 though, in World War I and Belgium––I did a wee bit of reading up there. There's a sequence there that always stuck with me, and I wanted to write about the first people to die from zeppelin attacks on London. I always wondered what people must have thought, looking up into the sky and seeing what must have appeared to be monsters up there, what with flight being so new. It must have been an astonishing, terrifying thing to see. I felt that was very in tone with the events of B.P.R.D. and its giant monsters. Issue #4 is the Chicago blues scene. I did some research there, and we had the benefit of a talented sensitivity reader. I especially wanted certain locations to be authentic. That was fun. CBY: Since I have you here, and because you have written several series that I really enjoy, if you would indulge me. You’ve written Doctor Who for Titans Comics and Suicide Squad for DC Comics. Do you have a favorite character that you’ve written for in both of these series, someone that you felt you really understood when writing them or was just a lot of fun to rite?
RW: Suicide Squad was funny because when I took the book on, I looked at Captain Boomerang and thought "what can I do with him? He's ridiculous." And when you start digging into a character and you look for what makes them tick, and lo and behold, they become your favourite characters in the book. I did a Boomerang eight-pager with Ivan Reis in issue #2 of my run, which is, I suspect, one of the best things I've ever written. Boomerang was funny and damaged and offensive––how can you not enjoy writing a character like that? In Doctor Who, the intimidation is in writing not just the smartest person in the room, but the smartest person in the universe. But I did very much enjoy writing the 11th Doctor, the Matt Smith iteration. He often had that angry, playful god vibe, which was fun. CBY: Are you working on anything else that CBY readers should check out? RW: More in the Hellboy universe, I'm pleased to say. More Judge Dredd and Hershey for 2000AD. And my World War II creator-owned horror comic Out is currently on issue #4, with a trade paperback out in March. Fans of Hellboy and B.P.R.D. might enjoy that. The core concept is that it's "The Great Escape," but there's a vampire in the camp with the prisoners. It's very John Carpenter's The Thing and Ridley Scott's "Alien" in tone. CBY: That sounds awesome! Where can you be found online?
RW: Twitter is @Robwilliams71 Instagram is robwilliams1971 Website robwilliamscomics.co.uk CBY: Rob, thank you very much. I appreciate you taking the time to talk about The Sword of Hyperborea #1 . RW: Thanks very much for the questions!