“Hellboy” page from Dark Horse Presents #151 (2000). Mike Mignola.
Mike Mignola’s Hellboy universe might be the most common place for readers to notice something different is being done with the sequencing of the imagery that makes up the comics they’re reading. A large part of what makes Mignola’s stories so wonderful is the way they behave like typical examples of action-adventure comics until they suddenly refuse to do so any longer, and parachute off into far weirder and more interesting realms. The same thing can be said for the way Mignola (and the numerous notable artists who’ve followed in his stylistic wake on the property) puts his pages together. If any post-Jack Kirby artist can be said to have created a truly unique and formally innovative style of constructing action comics, Mignola’s undoubtedly a strong candidate for the top of the list. And as far as the influence that style has had on the form, he’s peerless.
Appropriate enough, then, that Mignola’s art, no matter how outre it gets (which is considerably), always trails deep roots back to the basics of the grammar laid down by Kirby. He knows his fundamentals, and he practices them with no shortage of skill or attention to detail. It’s no accident that the first panel on the page above is an establishing shot — and not just that, but one that gives us the scene from its protagonist’s point of view just so we can situate ourselves that much easier. Nor that we don’t see anything backgrounded by flat color in one panel unless we’ve seen it against a setting beforehand. Nor that the balance of black space and color across the page, not to mention in every individual panel, is so evenly judged that it seems like Mignola must lay his inked pages across a scale as he finishes them. As with every great cartoonist, clarity of content is Mignola’s primary goal, and here things are crystal.
Mignola is similarly deft at hitting his Kirbyist “point of impact” action beats, even on a page with content as restrained as a man watching a bird. The back and forth between the two is impossible to miss even though the two never appear in the same panel, and Mignola succeeds in creating plenty of tension with a single line of dialogue and some sharp framing. The simple one-two of Hellboy with his back to us and then turning combined with that of the bird singing and then silent builds up a rhythm as compelling as it is easy to read. Notice how the camera subtly cuts in on Hellboy, the bird, and the flowers that act as a background motif for the page as things ramp up and the flat-colored backgrounds focus pull our attentions from landscape to character toward the end.
Speaking of those flowers, though, it’s what this page does in addition to its sterling storytelling that really makes it worthy of notice. It’s the same thing anyone who’s read an issue of Mignola’s comics has seen dozens of times: panels of background imagery with no direct connection to the plot at hand dropped in to punctuate the action beats, in what feels close to open defiance of the usual faster/louder mode of comics about fighting. The most obvious effect of this is a massive injection of atmosphere: suddenly a basic establishing-shot-into-action transition is alive with the rustle and hum of nature, with a landscape that goes from cool green to suspenseful yellow via portentious black, adding a symphonic level of harmony to a simple content phrase. And those flowers! Beautiful drawings in their own right, Mignola’s creamy lilies manage to lend even a gothic horror story starring the Beast of the Apocalypse a headspinning element of psychedelia.
Mignola’s tendency to pull visual elements beside the action’s main players into his page layouts is a maximalistic urge; one that strikes a deeply pleasurable contrast with his drawing’s concerted minimalism, which at times goes so close to the bone with its use of stark blacks and resolutely scrawled, scratchy lines that it verges on abstraction. It’s action artwork that fully picks up on an element rarely noticed and sorely missed in genre comics: beauty. As committed as Mignola is to making comics about awesome creatures punching each other (and make no mistake, that commitment runs deep), he’s just as drunk on the surfaces of the things he draws, and his pages go from rock-solid to sublime and back again, incorporating a dizzying attention to details that no other artist would bother with. It’s the action storytelling we all know and love plus, introduced to something entirely its artist’s own but just as powerful and iconic as anything that’s come before. When all the good violent comics look like this in a few decades, we’ll look back at Mignola and know the reason why.