Written by Jason Green Tuesday, 31 July 2007 17:00
In an expansive interview, the Hellboy creator looks back on his entire career, from the early days at Marvel and DC to the creation and development of Hellboy, and looks ahead at where the demon-turned-paranormal investigator is headed in the next chapter of his life.
A quick glance is all it takes to recognize his work. The rich gothic architecture, the moody, stylish layouts, the fine, angular linework shaded by dark, inky pools of black: all are trademarks of Mike Mignola, one of the most distinctive and visually fascinating artists in comics today. The writer and artist, whose style Comic Book Artist editor Jon B. Cooke once described as "the ungodly spawn of Alex Toth and Jack Kirby," has cemented his place in comics history as the creator of Hellboy, the paranormal investigator who also happens to be a demon himself. After a dozen years chronicling the character's adventures in a series of intermittently published miniseries, Mignola brought a close to the first chapter of Hellboy's life with 2005's two-issue series The Island. Now, as the writer/artist begins the next chapter of the Hellboy saga, he does so by making a surprising choice and, for the time, turning over the artistic reins on his flagship character.
Though other artists have tried their hand at drawing Hellboy in short stories like the Hellboy: Weird Tales anthology series, his latest miniseries, the six-part Darkness Calls, marks the first time that Mignola has allowed another artist, in this case Duncan Fegredo, to illustrate a full Hellboy miniseries. The first seeds of this changeover began with the 2006 two-issue series Makoma, or, A Tale Told by a Mummy in the New York City Explorers' Club on August 16, 1993, an unusual tale where Hellboy played a stand-in for an African legend. Mignola drew bookend sequences set in the traditional Hellboy world, while legendary Heavy Metal artist Richard Corben handled the main mythological story.
Conducted in May of 2006, this expansive interview covers Mignola's entire career, from his early days at Marvel and DC to the creation of Hellboy, the development of the Hellboy mythos, and where the character is headed as the next chapter of his life begins. | Jason Green
PLAYBACK: When you were first trying to break into the industry in the late 80s and early 90s, your style was very at odds with the kind of Image style that was all the rage. Do you have trouble finding work at the big two publishers?
Mike Mignola: Well, actually, I broke in in the early 80s. I started working for Marvel Comics I think in ‘83. So, I predate all that Image stuff. But the thing is, when I broke in, I didn't think I could draw well enough to draw comics, and really I couldn't. I actually broke in as an inker, but it turned out I was a really horrible inker. So, I had an editor up there, Al Milgrom, who was pushing me to try penciling stuff. So my inking career crapped out after about a year. I started doing penciling for just little jobs. A couple of backup features... I did this funny animal miniseries for Marvel, Rocket Raccoon [published in 1985 -- JG]. But I wasn't a superhero guy, so there was a lot of trying to find something that I could do. I was in New York, I knew people, they wanted to give me work, but my style was too rubbery and too non-superhero for most things.
But at the time, in the early and mid 80s, Marvel was producing so much stuff, that they did do things like a Rocket Raccoon miniseries. Once I started penciling, I never didn't have work. It was usually just work that I was kind of ill-suited to, or hated doing.
PB: Do you have any particular favorites of your pre-Hellboy work, or any books you wish you hadn't done in the first place?
MM: Well, I don't know. I don't have a lot of regrets about stuff I did, because I think I did learn on everything I did. But I think the best of my non-Hellboy stuff... I did a one-shot Batman that was called ‘Sanctum' for Legends of the Dark Knight [issue #54, co-written by Dan Raspler -- JG] that was very much the tryout for Hellboy. It was me plotting my own story, and it was a Batman ghost story kind of thing. So when I did that, I kind of went, "Ooh... I like that, I like that kind of story. Hmm... maybe I can make up my own character to do these kind of stories with." So that's right before Hellboy, that was pretty good.
A year or so before that, I had done a miniseries for Epic called Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and that, of all the stuff I've done prior to Hellboy, that's the one thing that's currently out of print that I actually would be pretty happy to see back in print, because that's some of my strongest stuff. [Since this interview was conducted, Farhrd and the Gray Mouser has been brought back into print in a new edition by Dark Horse Comics. -- JG] But most of it, I'm very content to have it fade into dust.
PB: Get lost in the quarter bins, right?
MM: Yes. Well, and that's where most of it is.
PB: In the back of Hellboy: Seed of Destruction, there's what's labeled as the first Hellboy drawing that's kind of a bit of a goof. When you first drew that character, were you expecting to go anywhere with it?
MM: Not really. Around that time, the early 90s, I guess like 91, at conventions, people would come up to me, and I guess everybody at that point had a drawing of Batman by me. So people started saying, "Just draw whatever you want." And I started drawing something kind of like that, just kind of a big lunky monster thing with a tail, kind of inspired by old Kirby monster comics, and when I did this particular drawing for a convention, I wrote in as a joke on it, I wrote ‘Hellboy' because the name just occurred to me as I was drawing it. I never thought it would go anywhere, but I did really like it. I did feel like, if I were to make up my own thing, I wouldn't mind doing something with this kind of guy. But at that time, my thinking was if I ever did something, it would be like just some kind of fantasy book with this kind of guy. Almost, you know, now having seen things like Shrek, I guess what I had in mind was almost like a Shrek kind of thing, where you have this kind of guy just roaming around in some kind of weird fantasy landscape. It wasn't until a couple of years later, when I started thinking about seriously doing a creator-owned thing, that I went back to the idea of that character, but realized that the fantasy thing was a little too... odd. I didn't think it would go anywhere. So I did come up with something a bit more commercial-minded.
PB: Do you have any regrets that you haven't used the fantasy element at all, or any plans to try and explore that kind of story?
MM: It's always been part of the Hellboy plan to get that kind of thing. Certainly when I did Hellboy going underwater with mermaids [in 2002's Hellboy: The Third Wish -- JG], it was actually a very weird moment, because I said, "Oh! Here I am. I'm getting pretty darn close to doing that weird of a thing." And eventually, I don't want to say too much, but there will be more and more of that kind of aspect in Hellboy. That's part of pulling Hellboy out of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense and putting him out on his own, so he can just disappear into the weird fairy tale folklore world more and more.
PB: Is the Makoma miniseries a step in that direction, where Hellboy is more of a cipher for the main character rather than the actual main character himself?
MM: Yeah, in a way. Though I've done a couple of other stories with the same Makoma formula, where I basically plucked Hellboy into an existing old folktale. Makoma was the first one that had a completely fantasy kind of a setting. So, without consciously doing it this way, it did serve as kind of a test for the kind of stories that I want to do.
PB: When you first came up with the character, you had this big hulking brute named Hellboy, which most people, when coming across a new comic book concept, would think it's some kind of teen sidekick or something. Why was the decision made to keep with the ‘boy' appellation instead of ‘man?'
MM: Because ‘Hellman' is a mayonnaise company. And it just sounds funny, Hellboy's funny. The whole point was to be a joke. Hellboy sounds like...you know, every other character at DC Comics, or Marvel for that matter, is ‘Something-boy.' I just thought, nobody's done ‘Hell-boy.' I just thought it was funny. There's a lot of aspects about Hellboy that are there just because I want people to know I don't take it too seriously. I was in my mid-30s when I created Hellboy, and I didn't want to be sitting next to somebody on an airplane, and have somebody say, "What do you do for a living?" and have to say, "I draw Axelor, Demon-slayer!" (Makes barbarian roar noise). You know, I'd kill myself. I wanted to say something that sounded kind of funny.
PB: When you started the Seed of Destruction miniseries, how did John Byrne get involved and what was the collaboration like?
MM: The collaboration with John was great. I never could have done this book without him. I wouldn't have done it. I created the character, and I had the idea of doing a creator-owned thing, but I'd never written before. I'd plotted a couple of things, but I wanted somebody who I could plot with, who I could bounce stuff off of, and basically where I could draw what I wanted and not have to worry about what people were saying. I couldn't conceive of doing the whole thing. I needed a professional at some point to come in after I did my thing and make it all work. The original idea was that I would just tell John, "Here are the characters, write me a story that gives me an excuse to draw H.P. Lovecraft monsters, or Frankenstein," or whatever the hell it was going to be. And then the idea was John would pitch me a plot, and I would get to draw what I wanted. But what happened was, I was working on something else while I was plotting the Hellboy stuff, everyday more and more the story fit together. So by the time John and I got down to doing the first one, I had the plot. So I ended up plotting the whole thing myself, he filled in a few names for me, but the whole plot was mine. I drew it, and then I wrote temp-dialogue, so John would know what everybody was saying, because John really didn't know what the story was.
The beauty of working with John, and this is where I really picked the right guy to collaborate with, John never tried to make it his book. John and I had worked together once or twice in the past, and it had been really comfortable and real casual. John probably made a few suggestions, but he never tried to make it his book; he never tried to make it our book. He always had in mind that it was my book and he was just there to help me out. And many, many times over the course of writing the book, he said to me, ‘You're going to write it. I'm just helping it. Eventually you're going to write this yourself.' And by the end of that miniseries, my temporary dialogue had gotten to be more and more and more... so that I was almost writing it, John was just rewriting it. At the end of the book he said, ‘You don't need me,' and just cut me loose. It was like the training wheels walked off and left me not quite knowing how to ride the bicycle.
PB: When you wrapped up Seed of Destruction, it had an open-ended ending. Did you know already that you were going to keep working on Hellboy at that point?
MM: I didn't know, because we didn't know what the sales were going to be. I didn't expect it to do very well, but I thought, "If it does do well..." I don't remember exactly how the ending came about. It may have been by the time I got to the end of the miniseries, I was feeling pretty good about it, and really wanted to do more. So I put that open-ended ending on there... which wasn't a cliffhanger, it just showed that there's more here if anybody wants it. Because in my career, I'd never done more than six issues of anything, so the idea of me doing something for a length of time, there was no reason for anybody to expect that. But it did much better than I expected, and as soon as it was finished I jumped into another one, which was me writing it myself, which was the toughest thing I ever had to do.
But I was very careful to create that character so that if it did work, it would be something I would really enjoy doing. There was some talk of trying to create a really commercial, sort of a Batman-ish kind of a character, but I knew I couldn't do what the Image guys were doing, I couldn't do something that commercial, it just didn't interest me. So I made up this thing that was kind of weird and funky, knowing that if it worked then I was stuck drawing something that I'd really enjoy.
PB: Did you expect in your wildest dreams you'd be working on it over a decade later? Did you think there were that many stories in the character?
MM: My immediate reaction is to say ‘no,' and yet when I was in that first year working on the first miniseries, I did keep a notebook, and every day I was coming up with stories, and most of what I've done up ‘til now came from that first year, of just coming up with ideas. Once I embraced the idea of creating my own character, suddenly everything I saw, everything I read, I went, "Ooh! I want to do something like that! Ooh! I want to do this!" I'd watch some funky old 50s monster movie and go, "Oh! Gotta do one of those." I'd read a vampire story and go, "Hmm... how can I use this for a Hellboy story?" So there was an amazingly fertile period of time, where everything was turning into a Hellboy story. The mermaid story I did in Hellboy, The Third Wish, that was a story that I'd created a long time ago, that I always wanted to something with. When I created Hellboy, immediately that went over into the Hellboy file. "Okay, now I've got my character to do all my stories with," so the mermaid one turned into a Hellboy story. And all these folktales that I'd wanted to adapt, it just became a case of saying, "Gee, if I just stick Hellboy in here, then I can do this story."
So... yeah... I didn't expect it, I didn't want to get my hopes up, but certainly I was thinking ahead.
PB: You mentioned folklore as a basis for a lot of your stories. How much of what you used is based straight out of the legends, and how much is extrapolation on your part?
MM: It depends. Certain stories like The Corpse, is a pretty faithful adaptation of a particular Irish folktale. Other stories, I've just taken a name and an idea from a folktale. There's a Malaysian vampire that I always wanted to draw, but I never really found a folktale about the character, I just found a description of the character. So that turned into a story where it's just an excuse to draw the monster. It's basically, "Where's the monster? Oh shit! There's the monster!" Boom boom boom, explosion. It's an excuse to draw that folklore character and through in the odd details of that folklore character.
Other things I've done, like the second big Hellboy miniseries, Wake the Devil, I structured that story, I knew what I was doing, and I knew I wanted to do a story about vampires. I've read a lot of that stuff over the years, so I put together the mechanics of that story and then did research, and as I did more and more research I found more and more peculiar details to just sprinkle in there. So, fortunately, I've got a lot of vague knowledge of a lot of that stuff from reading that stuff over the years. So I'm not dependent on the folklore, but I have enough knowledge of it that I'm pretty comfortable working with it.
PB: One thing about your writing style is you work in short stories -- two-issue miniseries, short stories for anthologies, and that sort of thing. What is it about the short story style that appeals to you?
MM: It's funny... what I read is short stories. I'm a short story guy. I think the kind of character Hellboy was modeled on, the pulp magazine, the cult detective kind of characters, those were all short story things. So I just think the short story form was a real natural thing. And I'm not sure if it came about because the second Hellboy story appeared in a serialized anthology, so there was that idea of, you need to come up with a short story, and I think there were other places where it was "We need a short story here, can you do a short story here?" But it felt great, because you could take a simple idea, and just develop it. The beauty of a miniseries is you can take a bunch of those simple ideas, stick ‘em all together, and you get this big crazy thing where everything and the kitchen sink is flopping all over the place. That's fun. But there's something really beautiful about just a simple idea. It's ‘Hellboy walks into a room and something happens.'
I like both forms. As an artist, I'm more comfortable doing the short story, because I can see both ends of it real clearly. If I'm dealing with eight pages, it's easier to control the pacing and that kind of stuff. I get into a 100+ page story, and it's fun, and it's great, and a lot of wonderful stuff happens, but it's very easy for me to kind of trip all over myself.
I don't know. It worked out nice... it feels like it's one of the things that's maybe a little bit unique about Hellboy, the fact that it does exist as so many little short stories.
PB: As a fan of shorter stories, what is your opinion about decompressed storytelling that's all the rage at Marvel these days where the writers basically write for the trade and stories that could be one issue are stretched out to six?
MM: I don't read much of the comic stuff, so I don't really know what anybody's doing. I think the trade paperback has changed the face of the market. So certainly, we're all working with 120 pages or whatever your page length thing is, you're working with that in mind. When I'm doing my short stories... like right now, I've done with the Corben miniseries and a bunch of other short stories I've done, I'm going, "mmm... I'm 20 pages short from the next Hellboy trade paperback of short stories." So I've always got that thing in mind.
I guess what you're asking is are the guys that are taking what should be a two-issue miniseries and stretching it to be a trade paperback... Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't work. I've tried that once or twice in the past, taking a short idea and trying to make it bigger than it needs to be, and it doesn't necessarily work. But there are some artists... Geoff Darrow is a perfect example of taking what should be a very simple, short idea, and you just put it in this artist's hand, and let him go crazy with it, and just ramble on and on and on, and it can be really interesting. Myself, I've done plenty of stories that Jack Kirby would have done in four pages, and it's taken me two issues. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't work. Even if it's not that strong a story, as long as visually it's interesting, as long as it's fun to watch, then I think it's great.
PB: You mentioned the Corben miniseries, which is the first main Hellboy miniseries which you haven't done the full art for. Why stop drawing it, and will you draw the book solo again in the future?
MM: I will draw it solo again in the future. But right now I'm stretched so thin, there's so many different things I need to do, that I want to do that it's a question of either we don't put out a Hellboy book for a pretty long period of time, or we have somebody else draw them. It's been very difficult finding the right artist to draw Hellboy. The Corben thing was a fluke. Richard and I started swapping e-mails, and I kind of floated the idea of this story. I planned to draw this story myself, but when Richard said, "yeah, I might be interested in drawing a Hellboy thing," I immediately thought of this story and said, "Ooh, I'd like to do that." But as far as continuing the regular Hellboy series with another artist... it's a time factor, because I'm doing other stuff, but also the story I came up with was so long, and it's so involved, and it spends so much time in the real world, that I just don't think that I ever would have finished it.
There's a real liberty in writing for someone else, because you don't have to sit there going, "But I don't want to draw that, and I don't want to draw this, and I don't know how to draw this and this and this." And if you get a guy like Duncan Fegredo or Guy Davis on BPRD, guys that are so good they can draw everything, then as a writer you just sit back going, "Wow, I imagine this particular scene, and if I don't have to worry about how the hell I would draw it, and give it to someone who can draw it..." then suddenly you've got this whole world of possibilities.
I'm thrilled to be working with Duncan for these three Hellboy miniseries. After that, the plan is that I will come back to a much stranger Hellboy book.
PB: Duncan Fegredo is going to be doing three Hellboy miniseries?
MM: Yeah. There's three miniseries that kind of make one giant epic. And Duncan's going to be drawing all three of those.
PB: How do you choose which artists you want to work with on these other Hellboy miniseries? Do you look for artistic similarities or just their overall skills as an artist?
MM: Well, on BPRD, Guy Davis doesn't draw anything like me, but was the perfect choice because he's just such a great creature guy. I've always loved Guy's work. And with BPRD I didn't need somebody who drew like me, because that book was going to stand on its own.
With Hellboy it was much trickier, because I did need somebody who could draw Hellboy... I mean, Hellboy is such a product of my style, I needed a guy who worked in at least a similar kind of style, so that Hellboy would still look like Hellboy. And Duncan is just great at it. I want a guy who can draw, and in the case of Hellboy at least, uses blacks and when he does buildings, that they're done with a certain kind of authority. Duncan's just great. I wish there five more of him out there.
PB: What fans look forward to in Darkness Calls?
MM: What's happened in Hellboy is I've kind of put the lid on the first ten or twelve years of Hellboy stuff. The last [collection], Strange Places, is kind of the end of the early part of Hellboy's life, and the beginning of this ‘what the hell's going to happen now' part of Hellboy's life. Darkness Calls is the first of these three miniseries that deal with Hellboy beginning to disappear into this world of European folklore that he's part of. If the first arc is about Hellboy as a kid growing up on earth, the second miniseries is about his mother's side of the family; it's English witches and those kind of folklore things. After that, we'll eventually get into his dad's side of the family, which is particularly horrific stuff. Darkness Calls is the beginning of my giant epic.
PB: The other big thing looming out there on the horizon is the second Hellboy movie. What's the progress on that so far?
MM: Guillermo and I sat down and came up with an original story. Like Darkness Calls, it deals with the folklore aspect of Hellboy, which wasn't really present in the first film. It's a nice companion to the first movie, because it deals with the other part of Hellboy, the other kind of Hellboy story, the non-mad scientist, non-Nazi kind of thing. So we came up with the story together, Guillermo wrote the screenplay, and now we're waiting for a final confirmation from the studio, you know, that kind of technical stuff. Things have gone pretty smooth, it's just we're kind of waiting at this moment. We should know something in the next couple of weeks even.
PB: Were you pleased overall with how the first movie and how it was received when it came out?
MM: Yeah, I was thrilled with the reception. I was happy with the movie. It kept the personality of the comic. I'm not one of these guys who says, "It's gotta be like the comic." In fact, I told Del Toro when I first met him "you can turn it into anything you want." Not anything you want, but I said, "make whatever changes you feel you need to make. My concern is that you make a good movie, not that it be a faithful adaptation of my work." Fortunately he wanted it to be as faithful an adaptation of my work as he felt he could do. He understood the personality of the character, because he was a fan of the comic before he was the guy making the movie. So that worked out great. Cosmetically there's some differences, but it feels like my guy. And we got the actor we wanted, so that was great. And the fact that it did well, I think everybody was surprised. And people love that movie, so yeah I'm thrilled.
I was at a signing, and a couple of people came up to me, and they said that they'd discovered Hellboy from the film. So that's kind of nice. It's nice that a film reaches such a wider audience, that it does change things. In a way you could end up living in the shadow of this bigger thing, which is the movie. And that's fine. If more people know it as a movie than they know it as a comic, that's fine. Just so long as enough people keep buying the comic that I get to keep doing it.
Check out previews of Hellboy: Darkness Calls at DarkHorse.com!
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