Welcome to the CBR SUNDAY CONVERSATION, a weekly feature where we speak in-depth — and at-length — with some of the most interesting members of the comic book community. These discussions run the gamut in terms of topics, from current projects to classic stories, talking trends, tastes and wherever else the conversations lead. And while today is not a Sunday, it is the date Dark Horse officially designated as Hellboy Day, and to celebrate we’re turning this space into the SATURDAY CONVERSATION to join in on the celebration.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Anung un Rama, occult investigator and taciturn wanderer. Both scion and scourge of the underworld, Hellboy now finds himself at the gates of PandÃ¦monium, his kingdom long promised and always rejected. Though the character remains uncertain, creator Mike Mignola cherishes the setting as the sandbox he always longed to explore after a long road paved in good intentions.
We look back with Mignola on this twenty-year milestone, his matter-of-fact opinion on the afterlife, and the celebrated story he often wishes he never told.
CBR News: What’s changed in twenty years?
Mike Mignola: So much. It’s a much bigger operation than I ever thought it would be. What’s funny is that while it got pretty big, I’ve now really narrowed my focus. I’m overseeing a lot of stuff, but more and more, I’m back to the way I started: getting up each day and writing and drawing one comic.
I’m looking at this drawing, the first you ever drew of a character called Hellboy back in 1991. Relatively symmetrical hands. Not quite the Hellboy we’ve come to know, but undeniably Mignola. What can you tell me about the guy who drew this picture?
The guy who drew that picture had no idea he would ever be drawing his own comic, or creator-owned comic. I wasn’t there yet. I was still having a good time drawing regular mainstream comic stuff. Though, I think when I did that drawing, I did start thinking about doing — briefly entertaining the idea of doing some kind of fantasy comic with a monster as a main character. I was still a couple year from getting really serious about doing my own stuff. I always said that as long as I was having fun doing the other stuff, I would never get around to trying to do my own book. I certainly never thought of myself as a writer, so I didn’t see how doing a creator-owned book was ever going to happen. The guy who drew that was a couple years from really getting serious about all this.
What was important to you back then?
Having a good time doing what I was doing. I think by that time I was creating my own projects within Marvel and DC, so it was important to me that I could create projects I could do well, doing what I wanted to be doing, not scrambling to get whatever work I could get my hands on as in the beginning of my career. By that time — that piece is ’91? — I was comfortable enough and I knew enough people that I could go in and say, ‘Let’s do something like this.’ I wasn’t writing, but I was helping to create the kinds of things I wanted to work on. I was in a comfortable place.
Do you remember the act of drawing that picture, when and where you were?
I do. I remember exactly where I was. I was in my studio in the West Village in New York. I distinctly remember looking at that drawing, and it had that belt buckle kind of thing, writing in ‘Hellboy.’ I just started laughing. I thought that was the funniest, stupidest name. There’s such a distinct memory of that moment. Never thinking I’d draw this character for twenty years, just that this was a funny name.
What kinds of things were you looking at that might have inspire you, directly or indirectly? Do you remember what you were reading at the time?
Oh, I have no recollection of what I was reading. Not that much different from what I read now. Books about ghosts and shit like that.
What’s in your personal library, and where did you come by those books?
I’ve been a book guy as far back as I can remember. I’ve been haunting used bookstores. I grew up in Oakland, California, used to go in to Berkley, which was made of used bookstores back in those days. I’ve been amassing a collection of books — primarily fiction, ghost stories, old occult novels. I’ve been collecting that stuff since high school. It’s a little of a narrow focus if you look at all of literature, but as far as this kind of stuff, the stuff I’m into, I’ve got a pretty massive library. Everything from the pulps to the Victorian era. Not much contemporary stuff. Mostly from the early 1800s to the 1940s or ’50s. That’s probably my range for supernatural literature.
What’s the attraction?
I have no idea. That’s a question for the therapist. For whatever reason when I was a kid, I remember being in elementary school and finding a book on ghosts that I checked out a dozen times from the school library. I remember a book on Norse mythology and “The Pilgrim’s Progress” — which I’ve still never read — that had these fantastic illustrations of knights and this giant snake. I checked all of those out a dozen times. For whatever reason I was attracted to this fantasy and monster stuff from an early age. Then I read “Dracula” when I was around 12 or 13. I remember consciously thinking this was it. This was the stuff. This was what I want to read. This is what I want to draw.
At what point did Hellboy become Hellboy as we know him? Or as you know him now?
It’s hard to say. Probably by the end of the first miniseries. The beauty is that I never wrote this character wrong. Never completely wrong. John Byrne and I had a completely different idea how he should be written in the first miniseries, but the plot — which was my part — was consistent with what that character is now. I certainly didn’t have him figured out then, but I kept him vague enough that I didn’t write myself into a corner with him. The approach of the script was completely different, with internal monologue like a film noir. That didn’t work. That wasn’t John’s fault; I think we came up with that idea together. When I took over writing that book after that first story I ditched that, though I think I did a pretty weak job with my first script. But it was pretty much what that character is now without the background. The personality was all there. Visually he was a mile away from where he was going to end up. Then the third story, “The Corpse” — which a lot of people still consider to be the best thing I’ve done, which is a little depressing because it was such a long time ago — that’s the one where I really knew who that guy was. Without getting into the whole Beast of the Apocalypse crap, which came later. I think the humor was there. The folklore element was there. That’s the first one where I felt it worked completely. The first two have some moments I think are nice, but “The Corpse” was the one where I felt if I could get away with it, I could do this forever.
In my conversation with Chris Samnee last week, he spoke about an ongoing battle with the version of himself from five minutes before, whether it was trying to outdo him or make up for his mistakes. Bringing up the popularity of “The Corpse,” do you feel like you’re in competition with the Mike Mignola from 20 or 15 or 10 years ago?
I’m not worried about the guy from 15 years ago. The guy from 10 years ago, though, did some stuff that is pretty good. I have gone through phases where I’ve been almost paralyzed by trying to live up to some of the stuff I’ve done in the past. More than that, it’s been reader expectation. I’ve always found it much easier to do work when no one was expecting anything. When you’ve done a couple good ones and you’re aware that people are looking at the stuff, that’s when you start second-guessing things. Yeah, I do struggle with the voices in my head that say this isn’t good enough. That’s just the way I am. I try to keep my head down and just keep moving. One thing, fortunately, is that I’m not trying to do the same story over and over again. I’m doing a different kind of story 10 or 15 years ago. If I was trying to tread the same territory I think it would be more difficult. Since I’ve turned a couple big corners where there’s really no going back — especially the whole Hell thing — there’s nothing to compare it to. It’s completely different to what I’ve done in the past. That lets me off the hook a little bit.
You’ve talked the locales in “Hellboy in Hell” as being partially informed by Milton and other literary sources. Do you have a personal vision of Hell? Is that something you believe in?
No, I don’t believe in anything, really. Not on a conscious level. That is the beauty of it. I was raised Catholic. I was taught a bunch of stuff. I find religion fascinating, but at no time does any of that tie my hands. I get to play with stuff without getting to reverential. There’s some Miltonian stuff to the geography of my Hell, the Hell I’m doing is much closer to the world I created in “The Amazing Screw-On Head.” It’s this pile, this jumble of old buildings for the most part. It’s entirely made out of everything I want to draw. When I cut myself free of drawing the real world, I really did make up my ideal fantasy land. It’s not informed by any pre-conceived Hell-thing as much as it is personal landscape for me. It’s ideal setting for everything I want to do from now on in my career.
Sounds almost Heavenly.
I do want to roam Hellboy through different neighborhoods of Hell where I take things like Asia or, I dunno, India would be interesting, and do the Hell version of that. It wouldn’t be dealing with that culture’s idea of Hell necessarily, though there might be some of that. It’s more that I don’t really know how to draw China. I don’t really know how to draw Japan. But I will do the Mignola version of that, just filtering these real places through this Hell filter or this Mignola filter. I’m not tripping over what these things would look like if it were a real location. If that makes any sense at all.
It does, but if I could play devil’s advocate: Some would argue that there’s photo reference for China and there isn’t photo reference for Hell. To some, that represents more of a challenge.
I know. But I know what Hell looks like. With China, yeah, there’s photo reference. But in between those photos, what happens? What goes on? There’s nothing worse, for me anyway, than being a slave to photo reference. I did one story set in Japan and I had photo reference for the exterior of a house and for a great little cemetery and things like that, but I didn’t know things like how the doors worked. I could’ve gotten this out of Akira Kurosawa movies. I could’ve studied the interiors from various films, but that seems like an awful lot of work. I always felt that if I’m drawing the real world, I need to get it right. Some guys don’t have that. Some guys feel very comfortable playing fast and loose with the real world and real world locations, and I tend to get hung up on things like how doors work. Maybe part of it is a laziness thing. If I take that Japanese setting to Hell, then the doors will work the way I want them to work, or there’s won’t be doors. I can throw in the details I want, exaggerate them, and not worry about the mechanics of how the real world works. It’s a maturity thing too. Do you know that point where you want to draw things the way you want to draw them, and you don’t want to be tripping over the realities? That’s why it was the perfect thing to relocate Hellboy into Hell, because I know what I want my world to look like and how I want my world to function.
Aside from the sandbox presented by Hell as a setting, what are your primary interests with regard to religion? You mentioned that it fascinates you.
It’s those big ideas. The mythology. Not just the Catholic religion I was raised in, but all of these mythologies, stories about gods and creation. That’s big shit. That’s huge stuff. One of the challenges in Hellboy has been to play with that stuff without saying one is true while another isn’t. It’s trying to embrace all these different cultures’ ideas and playing with something in between, to not squash any of them, but to celebrate what’s really cool about all of these things. I’ve tried to shy away from Asian stuff because it’s so complicated that I can’t make heads or tails of it.
It’s so alien to me. But if I get into that corner of Hell where that stuff happens, I’ll come up with some way to play with that stuff. And with Catholicism, that’s all so present in the horror I’ve been reading. Those ghost stories. It’s always been central to the literature I’ve been interested in.
I can’t let you go without asking about a comic that remains a high water mark for me and a number of comics people I talk to. That’s “Pancakes.”
[Laughs] Oh yeah. Yeah.
Boy. I wish there was a big story for that. That story came entirely from trying to get my daughter to eat pancakes. All she wanted to eat was hot noodles. That story was entirely inspired by that wild rigidity, this physical almost-paralysis if you put unfamiliar food in front of her. I just thought that was funny. So when they asked me to do a story with Hellboy as a little kid, I was just being a smart-ass. What I should have said — what I meant to say — was that I didn’t want to do it. What I said sarcastically was I’ll do a two-page story where he eats pancakes. Unfortunately the editor said “That’s great. Do that.” So I was stuck with, “Oh shit. What do I do?” Well, I knew what the first page would be. It was a one-page story, but I didn’t have a second page. I just thought it would be funny if we cut to Hell because I had nothing left to do. I’d already done the gag with the pancakes where he becomes this “Errrrrggggh!!!” paralyzed thing. Where does that gag go? So, yeah, cut to Hell and everybody’s freaking out about it. There was no thought that went into it at all. It was something I didn’t particularly want to do. I had a good time doing it, but I didn’t give it any thought and certainly never thought people would be talking about it so many years later. I never even thought it would show up in any “Hellboy” collections. I just thought it would be one of those weird things you do and then you forget they even happened. Oh well.
You keep saying words like “unfortunately” and “stuck with,” but there’s a whole lot of love out there for those two pages.
Yeah, I could’ve sold those originals for a lot more money then I did.
Do you remember what you sold them for?
I do. And they went to a friend of mine, so they have a very good home. It does go to show how some stories work for people, sometimes much more than stories you labor over. There are things I’ve done where I sweat bullets and nobody cared. Then there are things like that or “The Corpse” which I had a lot of fun doing, but by the time I was done, thought was unpublishable. I just felt like I was goofing around. I was in a panic until I was out to lunch with a friend of mine. He read it and pointed out it was the best thing I’d done to that point. I literally had no idea. You just don’t know. It’s a good lesson for the kids. When you’re drawing this stuff, just keep moving. The more time you spend on stuff, the more you labor on stuff, you’re not necessarily creating the best work you’re ever gonna create.
There’s some poetry in “Pancakes” transcending in that way, given that it represents the enduring popularity of such a simple pleasure. What’s that simple pleasure for you? The thing that makes everything worth it?
I probably should say my wife and daughter. That’s probably the good answer. It’s certainly nothing I ever think about. Just regular human stuff. I don’t have any weird, particular object that’s my thing. It’s certainly not pancakes. I’m pretty lukewarm on pancakes myself. It’s so easy to write a moment like that for some fictional character. That whole, “This is where everything changed for Hellboy.” I haven’t exactly stuck to that. I haven’t felt bound by that second page.
There was never that moment where, in his darkest hour, he flashes back to the fluffy goodness of that first forkful of pancakes. It’s never been a recurring touchstone.
Yeah. I think because so many people picked up the pancake gag. I know I really kind of shuddered when [Guillermo] Del Toro worked it into the movie, and then Hellboy’s mispronunciation of “pancakes.” The fact that it’s one of those running gags with people, sometimes I wish I hadn’t started that. But you know. You do what you do. Let the chips fall as they may.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on “Hellboy” and Mike Mignola’s many other projects, and visit his official site, The Art of Mike Mignola.