For the three of you who haven’t gone to the movie theatres since December, you may not have noticed the posters and trailers for a movie with a big red guy. And for those of you who haven’t been in a bookstore or a comic shop in the last month, you may not have noticed the newly redesigned graphic novels featuring that same big red guy.
To say that Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy” series is the next big thing would be an understatement.
With the adaptation of the long running comic book property set to hit theatres in April (check out CBR’s Comic Reel for more info), interest in Dark Horse’s “Hellboy” and all things BPRD has never been higher, so CBR News caught up with the series’ writer/artist for an introduction to all things Hellboy.
“You’d think this would be the easiest question, but it’s really the hardest,” laughs Mignola while trying to explain the driving concept of “Hellboy.” “‘Hellboy is about this: at the end of World War Two, the Nazis conjure up a baby demon who is intercepted by the Americans and raised to be a good guy. It’s very simple, it’s ‘what if the beast of the Apocalypse was the good guy?’ Basically, it’s taking everything I’ve been reading since high school, everything I ever liked, everything I ever read, old movies, tons of pulp magazines and stuff I read in college, fairy tales- all that stuff I’ve read, going back to ‘Dracula’ in sixth grade, all that stuff I’ve been thinking about since then, I boiled it all down and made it into Hellboy. The character of Hellboy is my personality, the physical presence of my father, who had all these jobs building cabinets and came home busted up, with dry blood all over him and he was so matter of fact, saying, ‘oh yeah, I got my hand stuck in this machine and all chewed off.’ That’s a lot of what Hellboy is and I just wanted to draw monsters. If I made Hellboy a human paranormal investigator, I would have gotten tired of drawing him, but I was fortunate enough to come up with a character I really enjoy drawing and was distinct enough so it worked out pretty well.”
With the character of Hellboy being so honest and tempered with sarcastic wit, some have drawn comparisons to fellow monster The Thing, from Marvel Comics’ classic “Fantastic Four” series and while Mignola can see the similarities, he doesn’t feel they’re that closely related. “I guess it’s not too far off, but I never though about that. I read the ‘Fantastic Four’ growing up, but Ben Grimm always seemed a bit surlier. I never think of Hellboy as surly, but more matter of fact. I’ve never had Hellboy break a glass- he’s never thrown temper tantrums and the Thing was always busting stuff. Hellboy is a lot more subdued I think.”
At it’s heart, “Hellboy” is about acceptance of one’s place in the world and using the opportunities in front of you to make a difference, though Mignola never went into the series with an intent to profess any certain message. “None of this was planned- I never thought it would be about that. My original plan for Hellboy was to do these six or eight pages that are his origin and never say another word where he came from, just having him be like a regular guy with him looking so absurdly demonic, which would be the running gag and nobody would ever mention it. But I realized when I wrote the second series, where there’s a moment that Hellboy realizes he doesn’t think about what he is and I realized this guy is just in denial, which made it so much more interesting to deal with because you have a guy who says , ‘Yyeah, I’m sure there’s something going on there because I have a tail and hooves, but I choose not to think about it because if I look into it, it’s not like I’m going to find anything good, so I’ll just ignore that.’ But little by little, as the series goes along, it’s like you get to a point where you have to deal with your situations. As the series goes along, we’ll deal with it more directly and address who he is, what his purpose was and really what I’ve come up with, is that he’s screwed [laughs]. There’s nothing he can do. He can make peace with who he is, but he can’t escape it and this is because I read too much Michael Moorcock in school [laughs]. All these characters saying, ‘Thank god, I’m finally dead and does that mean the pain will end?'”
While fire and brimstone play a role in Hellboy’s adventures, the tales are never “grim n gritty” as one might expect from a series named “Hellboy” and Mignola admits this, too, was never part of his plan. “Again, I didn’t think of that, I didn’t consciously put humor in the book, that’s just my personality- I have multiple personalities when I’m plotting the book and when I’m actually scripting the book because I love Shakespeare. I love listening to Shakespeare, love the rhythm, I’ll have bad guys yakking on and on, sometimes based on something Shakesperean, but then I catch myself and get kinda embarrassed with what I’m doing and Hellboy’s voice steps in, punching a whole in the kinda pompous balloon, y’know, Hellboy interrupting the bad guys and saying, ‘Big talk for a guy with no pants’ or whatever he’s saying. It kinda lets the audience know I’m not taking it too seriously- obviously I’m serious about the work, but I like having a guy who lightens things up a bit.”
Perhaps attesting to the uniqueness of Mignola’s vision, there’s been no comic in the 10+ years of Hellboy’s existence that captures the same spirit or feel as good ol’ Big Red and it’s something else Mignola calls a happy accident. “I certainly never thought about it, I guess I knew there wasn’t anything quite like it, but I don’t read most comics, so I didn’t know for sure that there wasn’t something like it. In the end, I knew nothing could be exactly like it, because it’s taking so many of my influences and no one else is going to take the same influences I have and combine them the same way. It wasn’t a conscious decision to say ‘here’s something different from everything else,’ as much as making the book I wish someone else was doing, because it’s the kind of book I’d like to read.”
Launching “Hellboy” over a decade ago wasn’t a walk in the park, but Mignola explains that situations seemed to conspire towards a successful introduction of Hellboy. “I was very, very fortunate because around the time I started talking about doing a creator owned book, about a year or two after the Image stuff got going, creator owned stuff was still a viable alternative and there were publishers out there looking to do creator owned material. I was talking to people like Frank Miller, Art Adams, who were all planning on or working on creator owned material, so a bunch of us got together and approached Dark Horse, saying why don’t you take all our books and we’ll create this separate imprint within Dark Horse. The great thing about that is I was the one guy who didn’t have this great track record. You had Dave Gibbons from ‘Watchmen,’ Frank Miller from ‘Dark Knight,’ John Byrne from ‘X-Men’ and everything else, Art Adams from everywhere. Geoff Darrow from ‘Hard Boiled’- I was the one guy kinda along for the ride and so you had this high profile group of people, with the spotlight shining on them because of this Legend imprint, so my book got seen. Without the Legend thing, it might have just been another mini-series from Dark Horse and people saying, ‘oh there was this demon thing, we don’t know what the hell it was’ [laughs]. You had, for a brief period of time, people buying or looking at everything from this new imprint and I benefited from it the most.
“It was definitely very scary launching a book alongside all these greats and I had never written a story completely before, which is why I ended up teaming up with John Byrne, because I had made up my own stories, but hadn’t written them, so I didn’t think I was up to it. I talked to John Byrne and he said he would help me out- I gotta say, I couldn’t have done it without him. I came up with the visual for the characters and John & I talked about it and I thought I would be able to tell John Byrne that I wanna do this four issue story about Frankenstein, or vampires, and let him come up with the story, but when we got around to doing the miniseries I had the whole thing plotted and when I drew it, I had temporary dialogue for most of the stuff, so by the end of the mini, I was giving John an almost completely scripted book and asked him to touch things up. It was very clear by the end of the mini series that I should be writing it myself and it wasn’t fair to John to ask him to write it since I was doing most of the writing and in some places he would write things that would make me say ‘hmmm….no let’s take that line out’ so when it got to the point where I was actually editing John’s stuff, I thought it was completely unfair to him. It was scary to do the second comic, ‘Wolves of St August,’ because I didn’t have a safety net and didn’t have anyone else writing it with me. John gave me a shove out the door and said, ‘here, you can do this.'”
While the titular hero of “Hellboy” is popular in his own right, his supporting cast and BPRD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense) pals have developed their own followings. Fans called them some of the most inspired secondary character creations in years, but Mignola can’t exactly recall the genesis of the characters. “I have no idea. I don’t remember what went on there. I guess it comes out of growing up with Marvel comics and if I think back, my original idea was to do a team book- I have no idea why, it’s too much trouble- but I came up with this team book and one of the first drawings I did of ‘Hellboy’ had him surrounded by this group of other characters. I remembered I was trying to come up for the name of this team and the only thing I could come up with I liked was Hellboy, so I shifted it from being a team book to being about Hellboy with this floating supporting cast. I think Abe Sapien is because I lover the Sub Mariner and loved the visuals of the underwater stuff- there’s no high concept to it, just ‘oh, I like water guys.’ Why do I have a girl who spouts fire? I have no idea, I don’t remember what I was thinking about or why I thought it’d be a good idea.”
Juggling a supporting cast as diverse as that of “Hellboy” isn’t easy and Mignola laughs about the simple way he dealt with them. “Well, the way I dealt with it is I basically got rid of them. As the book became more about Hellboy- again, my original idea was BOOM here’s the origin of Hellboy and BOOM here’s this team- I wasn’t really thinking about developing these other characters and figured BOOM, here’s a mission, go take care of it and in the end they’d drink a beer and say, ‘that was fun- hope we don’t get called to fight another monster’ and that was as simplistic as it was gonna be. When the characters started evolving, it almost happens involuntarily and yeah, the head of this priest spouts some bit of cryptic nonsense relating to Abe Sapien’s fate. It’s just a fun thing you start making up at the time and later think, ‘oh this means that and that and that’ and it just starts snowballing. At the same time I was coming up with stuff I wanted to do with the peripheral characters, I was coming up with all this stuff I wanted to do with Hellboy and there was just no way to juggle it all which is why I put the other characters on hold, spun Hellboy off on his own and now we’ve created the ‘BPRD’ spinoff book to put those characters in and I’ve brought in another write to work with me on BPRD books and we’ll develop those guys together. I’ve developed quite a lot of things with these supporting characters, but I just can’t juggle it all so I’m happy to feed it to another guy.”
Last time we saw Hellboy, he wasn’t in the best of situations and Mignola smiles, noting that it won’t get any better. “Hellboy went to Africa and almost immediately, because it turns out I didn’t have much to say about Africa, ended up on the bottom of the ocean, so for over a year now, he’s been laying on the bottom of the ocean and I’ve got to get the next mini-series going so he can end up on dry land. Basically, Hellboy is learning more about himself and I think he’s sliding out of that ‘denial mode’ and accepting he’s this other thing. I think he’s a little lost. He had this thing to hang on to, ‘I’m just a regular guy,’ and once he gives that up, accept that he’s not that and doesn’t want to be the beast of the apocalypse, what the hell is he? We’re in Hellboy’s awkward rebel without a cause phase where he’s fighting against his fate but he doesn’t really know what he wants to be.”
Mignola has a firm grasp of Hellboy’s future and while he isn’t about to give away spoilers, he will hint at the direction for the franchise. “I’ve got titles for everything- a three book series I’m going to do which deals with European mythology and Hellboy’s mother was a witch, so I want to deal with his mother, his role among English Witches and I’ve had these fairy characters show up from time to time, prominently in ‘The Third Wish’ and I like all that English fairy tale/folk lore stuff and so I’m dealing with that, revealing a lot about Hellboy. So there’s this arc of story that deals with that stuff and eventually I’m going to take Hellboy to Hell and see if we can sort out his family stuff in Hell.”
As both the writer and illustrator of “Hellboy,” Mignola’s challenged himself to find his “voice” on both creative levels and those he’s found both, the creator is loathe to identify which was easier. “I couldn’t say which came to me faster because I’ve only really been writing this stuff since ‘Wolves of St. August,’ so that’s nine years I’ve been writing it, though I was thinking of it for years. I don’t know that I’ve figured out what I’m doing writing wise yet, I’m getting closer. And drawing wise, I’ve been drawing comics professionally for 20 years now and I think the first 10 are almost all crap- I did a Batman story before I did Hellboy, called ‘Sanctum,’ which is a one issue story I plotted and that I think was something I was almost completely happy with and I’ll be happy with something here or there, but that Batman story really worked and that was the model for the kind of stories I would do in ‘Hellboy.’ The first ‘Hellboy’ mini-series was fine and the second was ok, but I think it was a story called ‘The Corpse’ which I thought was unpublishable when I did it, I don’t remember why and I thought, what have I done? I didn’t know if I could turn it in and as it turns out, this is the one that people say is the best one I’ve done. It was probably the turning point story for me and the one I look back at, saying ‘hey ya, that did work and I was firing on all cylinders when I was doing that thing.’ At that point, at least I have a model for what kind of thing I do and I’ve done some things that are almost as good as that, some things that are better and a few things that are worse, but I’m starting to feel like I know what I’m doing.”
As mentioned earlier, there’s a “Hellboy” film set for release this April and while Mignola hasn’t seen it all, he has a lot of faith in the end product. “Well, I think it is a movie unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to say, because other than the trailer, I haven’t seen the picture but I know the director and when he sat down, telling me what he wanted to do, I knew it was too good to be true. There was no way you were going to get the movie made. But all these years later, he did make the movie he said he was going to make- it’s not 100% like the comic, but it’s very true to the spirit of the comic. It’s got the same big arc to it and I’m really happy. The director, Guillermo Del Toro, probably the only guy out there who loves Hellboy more than I do, wanted to be as faithful as he could and wanted me as involved as humanly possible. From the very beginning, Guillermo wanted my blessing on the things he wanted to change from the comic and we pretty much agreed on what things would work and what things wouldn’t work in the film, there were a couple of things he wanted to do and I said, ‘man I hate that like poison,’ so they’re not in the films anymore. He wrote the script and I gave him my two cents worth on the scripts over the years, and when it got greenlit and went into pre-production, I went into pre-production with him, with other designers, so I helped with that and was on the set for a good amount of the time.”
There’s a lot of planned work from Mignola to come out in 2004, but it won’t involve the Eisner-nominated one shot from last year. “There’s no plan for more ‘Amazing Screw On Head’ because I was so happy with what I did with Screw On Head, that I’m afraid of spoiling it. I’m very proud of that book. I’d been doing ‘Hellboy’ for almost ten years when I did that book. Ten years ago, I took everything I cared about and tried to do something uniquely me, which was ‘Hellboy’ and to do something ten years later and know I don’t need to do something vaguely commercial, just doing something I find funny and no part of ‘Screw on Head’ was calculated to make money- no movie prospects, no long term series prospects, nothing. It was just me saying ‘I think this is funny and I don’t care what anyone thinks.’ It was very fun, very liberating. I’d like to do things like that down the line, but my immediate plans are to do this two issue Hellboy mini-series called ‘The Island,’ which gets Hellboy off the ocean and onto land pretty soon. Then I’ll be doing a graphic novel that isn’t Hellboy, that is my big nod to all the gothic classics and it’s got some of the feel of ‘Frankenstein,’ some of the feel of ‘Dracula’ and it’s my big gothic machine, lots of angst, lots of churches, lots of bleeding statues. It’s gonna be something.”
While Mignola was raised on classic superhero comics, being a big fan of Jack Kirby’s work, these days he doesn’t find the industry nearly as personally enticing. “I’m blissfully unaware of most of the industry. Right now I don’t read much of anything on a regular basis and I think what’s exciting in comics is what’s coming out of small publishers. I don’t see much in mainstream comics I find interesting, but when you have something like Craig Thompson’s ‘Blankets,’ I think that’s exciting. What I find exciting is guys doing something uniquely their own where you say ‘not only have I never seen anything like this before’ but you get some glimpse of the personality of the person doing the work. And I don’t need to pick up a comic and read about the guy’s art school days, but I wanna read work that only this guy would do. Jim Woodring is a great example, because the stuff he does is something only he’d do and it’s so uniquely Woodring. Dave Cooper’s work or Craig Thompson’s work are so uniquely their work, that’s what I’m seeing mostly coming out of small publishers and that’s what I look forward to.”