Weird War Stories: Mike Grell & Mark Ryan on The Pilgrim

Mike Grell & Mark Ryan on The Pilgrim

The Pilgrim, installment 3 cover

Comics legend Mike Grell has teamed with writer Mark Ryan to put pen to paper with words and beautiful Grell art in a series that mixes horror, magic and science-fiction – and it's called The Pilgrim.

Getting down to business, The Pilgrim is a comic series focusing on a modern-day special forces operative who, while reeling from post-traumatic stress disorder, finds himself embroiled in esoteric espionage actions that go back to the 1940s – and maybe even further. The book is based on true accounts of paranormal espionage first used during World War II and reportedly continued to this day. The comic debuted as a weekly, episodic graphic novel at ComicMix.com with a print release on the horizon.

While Grell is a well-known name in comic circles for his work on Green Arrow and Warlord, writer Mark Ryan might be new – but in reality, he's not. Perhaps best known as the voice of Bumblebee in the recent Transformers movie and it's upcoming sequel, Ryan is also a skilled actor and stuntman with work on The Prestige and Alias. They first met many years ago and even worked on an annual for Green Arrow, but this collaboration on The Pilgrim is their real coming-out as a creative collaborative duo.

For more, we talked with Mark Ryan and Mike Grell by phone.

Newsarama: Thanks for fitting us in your schedule, Mark. What can you tell us about The Pilgrim?

MR: At its heart it’s a story about two men's journeys. One happens to be dead, and the other is an ex-Special Forces operator. During the Battle of Tora Bora, he began suffering from a sort of stress-related disorder. And during the course of his hospitalization in the UK he discovers he has special abilities.

This book also links back to the Second World War and the work of Col. Charles Kim Seymour, one of the most interesting men in real occult warfare. Although now dead, I wanted to draw these two men's stories – one fictional, and one real – into a cohesive drama.

The backdrop for the story is that during World War 2, a psychic war between British and German forces opened doorways of consciousness. And those doorways pulled things from other realities into our own with traumatic effects.

NRAMA: What say you, Mike?

Mike Grell: The Pilgrim is inspired by actual events that occurred during World War 2 when the Nazis, as anyone who's watched an Indiana Jones movie can attest, were very interested in the occult. The Nazis had a division called Ana Nerva that was specifically dedicated to occult pursuits and esoteric arcane knowledge. They were attempting to use magical forces against the British. Now the British in turn recognized this interest by the German hierarchy, and decided to turn this back against them. If you have an enemy who believes in voodoo, it's good to retaliate with voodoo – even if you don't believe in it.

It's well known that Winston Churchill took part in druidic ceremonies during the war. There was actually a British program that was geared towards attempting to create and manipulate magical energy. And according to some reports, they actually got something. But we haven't been able to tell what that something was – but it was a bit of surprise for everyone involved, reportedly.

A page from The Pilgrim

And if you jump forward in time a bit, the U.S. and U.K. were conducting programs called Operation Stargate, which was a program where they were attempting to use psychic spies to gain information from enemy agents and other sources. Yuri Geller was a part of that program. It had nothing to do with other planets like the Stargate movie, but it was definitely weird. I think there's a film in the works called The Man Who Stared At Goats with George Clooney, about a program that used psychics to kill a goat by staring at it.

But all of that is really just the tip of an iceberg. The Pilgrim is a story about these kinds of operations that involves an entity from those World War 2 experiments that's been unleashed. I see it as a story about an individual struggling to find his way and find his place as much as anything else. I'm trying to best to explain the story without giving too much away – it's heavily based on scientific fact and scientific theory.

NRAMA: What kind of research did you do to get prepared for this project?

MR: Well, I first heard of Col. Kim Seymour 20-odd years ago, but there's not much known about him. And the few that did know facts of his life – and even knew the man – weren't talking, perhaps for good reason.

He was at the forefront of the speculative occult warfare initiative that Britain undertook during the Second World War That particular chapter in Britain history has never been fully researched, but in the 1970s a book was released called Bodyguard of Light. The author of that book laid out the structure of the London Controlling Section, who came up with some spectacular ideas of psychological warfare to use against the Nazis. It was widely known the most of the upper leadership of the Nazi party at the time was into the occult, and the idea to harness that knowledge and use it against them was very attractive to the Britons. Tapping into the beliefs of the opposing force and using it against them, even if the things you're doing you don't believe in yourself, is a viable means of subterfuge and misdirection – wasting their time and energy.

Peter Fleming was of particular talent in this area – he was the older brother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, and was on the board for the London Controlling Section. Peter did all sorts of ruses to split the Nazis' focus in different directions. These tactics helped during the Battle of Britain specifically.

So something was known about England's occult warfare initiatives during World War II, but the real meat of it has yet to be told. So I started researching this and found the names of Kim Seymour as well as Kristine Hartley. I discovered that Seymour was an intelligence officer during the First World War and was sent to Russia. He retired between wars but was pulled back in on the outset of World War II. Very little is known about what he actually did – he said he was just keeping ink wells filled, but he was a multi-linguist with a tremendous amount of experience doing something.

It's said that he gathered what would become Britain's occult warfare effort against the Nazis. Some of his writings, unknown to this day, talk about going into the crystal with priests – Kristine Hartley being one of them – to do battle with those doing this with the Nazis. Seymour died of a cerebral hemorrhage on June 26, 1943 which happened to be very close to his birthday. He was buried in an unknown grave, but I took time to track it down. While I won't say publicly where it is, I can say this: it was in an almost secret location and was marked as being a burial for a woman.

NRAMA: This is more than just Britons versus Nazis; there's other powers involved, so can you tell us about that?

MR: What Seymour did was apparently raise old British nature demons to battle the ones that the Nazis were working on. Heimler and the SS were into all sorts of strange pursuits. But when they opened these channels to other reality to raise these ancient guardians, the channels never got shut down. So these channels produced entities from other words, one of these being Britain's Green Man – a furry-faced creature that is said to be the spirit of the forest.

NRAMA: What about you Mike, what did you do to prepare you for drawing this?

MG: Oh lord. It's been a huge educational process for me. Anytime I take on a new project, it's difficult enough because I have a strong desire to make things as accurate and real as possible. In the process of doing this story, I gleaned quite a bit of sometimes esoteric knowledge about the working of the worlds that the characters run in. In this case, these worlds mark the characters that live in them. I researched things like the Nazi hierarchy and the Ananerva. Mark and I worked together on a lot of things – it's been great when he shares his vast reservoir of knowledge and provide me with great pieces of research to make things as accurate as possible.

We're trying to make this as real-world as possible, because despite the fact that it has certain sci-fi aspects in terms of the kind of story it is, it is really based in real things.

NRAMA: Mark's the writer here, but with your credentials you've got to be more than just the artist. What role do you take in the storytelling of Mark's script?

MG: Well, I work in terms of the choices that are made in storytelling. Mark and I talked about this project on and off over the years and I had a certain amount of input early on and later on, but the middle part is all Mark. I offered Mark a couple of suggestions that were incorporated – just because I can't keep my mouth shut when I talk to him about this project. I put in my two cents worth – some was viable and valuable and he was able to incorporate it but it didn't materially alter the big story.

Later on when he had already finished his screen treatment we talked about it again and discussed a few structural revisions that helped it work better in term sof how we would translate it to comic book form. Apart from that it's just a simple matter of working with Mark when it comes to the script and sort through the difference between writing for film and writing for comics. In comics I helped with the breakdown of the story in terms of individual panels and pages and we go back and forth.

NRAMA: How long do you plan The Pilgrim to be as a comic series?

MG: We're looking for it to be about 148 pages. It was originally planned to be the equivalent of six 22-page issues, but as we got into it we realized there was more story to the story.

NRAMA: Why did you and Mike choose to publish this book online with comicmix.com?

MR: This all came together with the help of Mike Gold, a longtime pal and experienced editor. He's really good with editing scripts – cutting this down, trimming this there. And he's very entertaining – and that's kind of important to me to work with people who you really like. With that, the road to comicmix.com became a natural avenue and we began thinking about exploring the concept of online publishing as a major marketing tool. This was all new to me, but we started talking about how you could reach out to a worldwide audience via the internet and that's been proven with some of the previous projects I've been involved with.

With The Pilgrim being online, we've been able to tell a very complex and intertwined story with multiple layers.

MG I think online publishing is the way of the future in terms of getting new product out there, but it doesn't preclude physical printing. We intend to offer it as print at some point, but right now our focus is getting out online to the biggest audience as possible.

NRAMA: But is the web a precursor to a print edition?

MR: I believe there are plans afoot for a print edition, with some negotiations going on but we can't talk about that too much just yet.

NRAMA: With this comic currently underway and building up steam, do you plan to do any other comics?

MR: Well, funny enough there is another project with Mike called Pendragon set in modern day times revolving around treasure hunting. If The Pilgrim works out online, I'd love to follow it up with that.

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