Although over the years there have been a number of creators who have played in Mike Mignola’s sandbox of characters, there are only a handful that have carved out their own niche; Christopher Golden, Tom Sniegoski, John Arcudi, Guy Davis, Richard Corben, Duncan Fegredo among them. I had the opportunity to speak to New Zealand artist, Ben Stenbeck, one of the major contributors to the Mignola-verse (his work includes Frankenstein Underground, Lobster Johnson, Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels, and Baltimore).
His latest work, Koshchei the Deathless, Stenbeck reunites with Mignola to tell the story of Koshchei the Deathless’ long and tragic life before being enslaved to the Russian witch, Baba Yaga. Now, Koshchei, on his road to immortality and beyond, must relive every horrible act with Hellboy himself.
Ben took some time to discuss with FOG! his career in the Mignola-verse, his influences, and the visual appeal of Koshchei.
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FOG!: Congratulations on Koshchei The Deathless #1. It’s a beautiful book. How did you initially hook up with Mike Mignola?
Ben Stenbeck: Thank you! Around about 2006 I was offered a position at Valve Software. It was a huge opportunity, But at the same time it would have taken me further away from what I really wanted to be doing, which was always comics. It was really tough saying no to that kind of security (and money), but I thought if I can get my foot in the door of the comic industry I can work my ass off for ten years or so doing books I don’t like and then eventually, maybe, I can talk Mike Mignola into doing one book with me.
So my first series was this book called Living with the Dead, which was a silly, fun book. And Mike just happened to see it and mentioned to our mutual editor that he wanted to try me out on a single issue, So I did B.P.R.D.: The Ectoplasmic Man. Mike was happy with that and that lead to the first Witchfinder book, and Mike was happy with that, and on it went. So things just kind of weirdly worked out really well!
You and Mike seem to share a similar visual aesthetic, but it’s your sense of pacing an storytelling that I think you have most in common. What is your method of working together? Does Mike write a full script? Thumbnails? How much latitude do you have with the pacing?
Mike is much more hands on with something he’s written himself than if another writer is involved. I get a full script, and Mike will thumbnail maybe one page per issue if there’s something that’s easier for him to explain with a drawing. Sometimes he just sends a sketch for a single panel. I do have a lot of room, if I want to change something slightly I tend to get away with it.
Koshchei’s presence in the Mignola-verse has been around for a decade since Hellboy: Darkness Calls. What do you find so appealing about the character both visually and storywise?
He’s such a cool looking character.
That first shot Duncan drew of Koshchei with the cobwebs over his eyes was so compelling, I instantly wanted to know more about him when I saw that. So if you’re anything like me, you’ll find this series pretty satisfying! A lot of it for me is the world building, getting to draw this medieval fantasy Russia.
This has easily been my favourite project to work on.
Who or what have been the biggest influences on your work?
Obviously there’s Mignola. I’ve never tried to copy anyone, but I’ve always tried to understand why other artists make the choices they make. Geof Darrow is a good example of that, you wouldn’t look at my work and think he was a huge influence but he is, mostly in the way he composes pages. There are so many great artists out there. I tend to get most drawn to the guys who drive me nuts, like Mignola, Geof Darrow, Moebius, Otomo, James Harren. I’ve started getting more into Kirby, I think you see that creep into Koshchei around issue 3/ 4.
I’ve had Duncan Fegredo’s stuff in front of me the whole time I’ve been working on this book, I’d like to think that’s influenced me but mostly these guys just make me shake my head and think that I’ll never be any good at this.
Also when I was storyboarding on The Lord of the Rings, our office was right next to Alan Lee and John Howes’ office. So at least once a day I’d stick my nosy face in their door and see all that incredible concept art come together. The big thing I took away from those guys was environments. This idea that you don’t just throw away environments.
Every chance you get to draw a place or location or landscape you try to make it unique, interesting and epic. That’s the theory I came up with anyway. I don’t think I always live up to it, but that’s always sort of in the back of my mind.
Are there any of Mike’s characters that you’d either want to revisit or want to tackle that you haven’t yet?
There’s two I might be doing over the next couple years, so I’ll stay quiet about them. I
always wanted to draw the wilderness adventures of Ben Daimio and the Wendigo. That whole thing always makes me think of the old Incredible Hulk show from the 80s with that sad theme music, wandering from town to town getting in adventures and helping people. It’ll never happen. I think everything has been said about that that needs to be said, and also how do you top that fight between them that James Harren drew?!
Also Gruagach and the cheeky, potty mouth Hedgehog guy. I would love to draw those guys.
After Koshchei The Deathless, what do you have coming up?
Not 100 percent sure at the moment, but definitely more Mignola stuff. I think it’s a thing that fans will be happy about, it’s something I get asked about alot.
What are you currently geeking out over?
There’s so much! Geof Darrow is drawing comics again! Dave Cooper has a new Eddy Table book coming out this year. I think there may be more Age of Reptiles coming from Ricardo Delgado this year. The Last of Us ruined games for me, I haven’t enjoyed any games since finishing that. It just felt to me like a giant leap above and beyond what other games are trying to do. So I’m looking forward to part two.
I’ve been watching a lot of those VICE documentaries on YouTube at the moment, some really fascinating stuff there. And I’m halfway through that new season of Black Mirror, that’s always brilliant.
Koshchei The Deathless #1 is available in stores and via digital today!