The idea of mixing fantasy and history is not new. Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and B.P.R.D. comics have been doing it for years, as have the Wolfenstein games, and David Mack’s Dark Arts novels did it as well. But unless I’m mistaken, writer and artist Clayton McCormack is the first to send Vikings into the first World War. As for what the Vikings think of this idea, well, for that you’ll just have to read McCormack’s new graphic novel Bloody Hel (hardcover, digital). In the following email interview about it, McCormack discusses what inspired and influenced this horror / fantasy / history mélange.
I’d like to start with the plot. What is Bloody Hel about, and when and where is it set?
Well, the quick logline for Bloody Hel is that it’s about five mystical Vikings, imprisoned for a thousand years by the goddess Hel, who are set free when their prison is destroyed by an artillery shell in World War I. It takes place mostly in 1917 during WWI, but there’s some flashback elements in there, too
Where did you get the idea for Bloody Hel?
It actually came from an idea brainstorming session with my friend Dan. We were kicking around some ideas and thought about combining Vikings with modern warfare. I think at the time we were thinking about what might work best for the pages of Heavy Metal magazine, or something.
And is there a reason you set it during the first World War as opposed to the Second World War, an older war, a modern conflict, or future one to be named later?
World War II was on the table, but I felt like it was a very well-worn road at this point, narratively. Also, I’ve always thought that World War I was a bit more interesting as a story setting, just because it’s a much messier war as far as motivations and such. Bloody Hel also has a big horror / nightmare element to it, and the best word I can think of to describe WWI is “nightmarish.”
Bloody Hel sounds like it’s a military fantasy story. Is that how you’d describe it?
I honestly don’t know if I’d call it a military fantasy story. Fantasy yes, horror yes, but probably not military fantasy, necessarily.
In terms of the story, what writers do you see as being the biggest influence on what happens and the dialog? Because Bloody Hel is giving me some serious Hellboy vibes. Or more specifically, some B.P.R.D. vibes, the books set in the 1940s.
I’m definitely a big fan of Hellboy and B.P.R.D. Mike Mignola is definitely one of my favorite artists. But as far as comic writers who are an influence on Bloody Hel, I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever thought about it. I don’t think I had anyone specific in mind when I was writing. I’ve never been shy about wearing my influences on my sleeve, though, so I’m sure some stuff came through without me realizing it.
And do you think the story was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I would say yes, there are a few movies that made their way in there as influences: Valhalla Rising by Nicholas Windig Refn on the Viking side, and both Come And See by Elem Klimov and The Red And The White by Miklós Jancsó on the war side. And maybe some of John Boorman’s Excalibur sprinkled on top as well.
What about the Thor movies, and especially Thor: Ragnarok, which is kind of what people think of these days when they think of Loki and the Norse Gods?
Well, I think Thor and Loki, as portrayed in those movies, are more Marvel Comics characters than they are Norse Gods. I also only name drop them I think once each, partly because they would have been too overpowering to the story, because of their place in pop culture right now.
Along with writing Bloody Hel, you also drew it. Why did you decide to do double duty as opposed to delegating one aspect or another?
I’ve always been a writer as much as I’ve been an artist, and this project has been gestating with me for a long time, so I had always intended to handle both duties. Also, it gives me total control over what you see on the page, which I don’t mind.
Are there any artists, comic book or otherwise, who you see as having an especially big influence on Bloody Hel?
Definitely. For better or worse I am always chasing Jorge Zaffino and Alberto Breccia, and this is one project where both their styles were very forefront in my mind.
How about movies, TV shows, or games? Do you think any of those things had a big influence on how Bloody Hel looks or how individual characters are drawn?
As I was drawing, I was watching my way through History Channel’s Vikings, which was a great source of costume and setting ideas, and really helped me keep my head in that Viking style and feel, creatively. Also, I had a pretty specific idea for what I wanted the colors to look like in Bloody Hel, so when I first started working with Russ Badgett, my colorist, I sent him some color references that were from a variety of different movies: a few Westerns like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and the original Django, some war movies like Come And See, and the Lars Von Trier movie Madea.
And then what did your dog Plissken have a bigger influence on, the story or the art? Because I know from playing Gears 5 co-op with him every weekend that he’s decidedly more into science fiction and abstract expressionism.
Plissken was there for great moral support, as well as reminding me when it was time to go to bed. He actually probably made his biggest mark on the book by being the inspiration for the creature called The Gribb that shows up in Chapter 3.
Now, as you know, Hollywood loves turning comic books into movies, TV shows, and games. Do you think Bloody Hel could work as a movie, TV show, or game?
Yeah, I think it could go either way. I think it works as a stand-alone story, but I feel like there’s also enough in there that you could easily expand upon it in any direction as a series, probably.
So, if someone wanted to make it into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Andersen, Henrik, and the other main characters?
You know, I honestly didn’t really have any actors in mind as I was writing or drawing Bloody Hel. I remember being a little weirded out when I saw the poster for the film 1917 because the main character looked almost exactly as I had been picturing Andersen, though. I guess the best I could do would be to say that Astrior’s look and attitude are kind of a mix of WWE Superstars Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair. I also thought Katheryn Winnick was great on Vikings, so hey why not her.
And would you want to work on it? Like in the art department or something?
I would love to be involved, obviously, but I’m totally aware that those arenas are very different than the comics world, so I don’t think I’m entitled to any specific level of involvement. That being said, I would love to be able to give creative input on the script, if that was an option.
So, is there anything else that people interested in Bloody Hel should know before deciding whether or not to buy it?
Well, the way I’ve been describing it at conventions and in my Kickstarter video is it’s like if an Iron Maiden album cover came to life and ate Apocalypse Now, so I’ll leave it at that.
Finally, if someone enjoys Bloody Hel, what comic book of someone else’s would you suggest they check out?
Check out Winter World from Chuck Dixon. It’s drawn by one of my biggest artistic influences, Jorge Zaffino, and I looked at it a lot while I was drawing Bloody Hel. Also, its imagery is not that far off from a lot of things in Bloody Hel. It’s just a great post-apocalyptic story.