Mike Mignola’s most famous comic-book creation, Hellboy, first appeared in 1993: a demon from Hell raised from infancy on Earth, who’s grown up to become an investigator of the supernatural. Twenty years later, Hellboy is the cornerstone of a sprawling comics franchise, known as the “Mignolaverse,” and has been adapted into four films (two live-action, two animated). Mignola, after a long sabbatical from drawing much more than covers, has returned to writing and drawing with the sporadic Hellboy in Hell series, following Hellboy’s adventures after his death. There are ongoing B.P.R.D. and Abe Sapien series, both Hellboy spinoffs co-written by Mignola, as well as occasional miniseries set in the Mignolaverse: Witchfinder, Lobster Johnson and Sledgehammer 44.
December 3 sees the first issue of another new project: Hellboy and the B.P.R.D., a series of miniseries that will follow the group’s “lost” adventures year by year. Mignola and Arcudi are writing the initial sequence, 1952, which is being drawn by Daredevil and Moon Knight artist Alex Maleev. And yet another Hellboy spinoff is planned for next year: Mignola is writing, and Ben Stenbeck is drawing, Frankenstein Underground, starring the version of the monster introduced in the Hellboy: House of the Living Dead graphic novel. I spoke to Mignola by phone about the history and future of the world he’s created.
When you drew the first Hellboy stories in the early ‘90s, “creator-owned comics” were kind of the hot new thing. Twenty years later, Hellboy is one of the very few from that period that are still going strong with their creators’ direct involvement. What’s kept you interested in this particular project?
It’s my thing! It’s a chance to do everything I’ve ever wanted to do. When I created Hellboy, I didn’t imagine that I’d do it for 20 years, but I thought it was the only thing I was ever going to make up. So I had to make it something I wouldn’t get tired of. I wanted to create a world where you could do Victorian-era ghost stories, and do Nazi robots, and leave room for a Western if you decide to do a Western. I wanted everything in there. Which is why I’m still excited about doing it 20 years later, because it’s still drawing on everything I love. If I was going to be around, I could imagine doing it for another 30, 40, 50 years.
What keeps this industry alive is creators doing their own work. Once you change a costume or origin enough times, it’s a dead body — you’re just electrocuting it and keeping it sort of shambling on. There is a lot more creator-owned stuff now, and some of it I look at and go, “Oh, that’s his pitch for a TV show. That’s his pitch for a movie. That’s him saying oh, this kind of thing sells.” I didn’t do that. My one piece of advice to people who are saying “I wanna do it, but DC and Marvel pay so well…” is that in between your big paying gigs, just find time just to do one comic! It doesn’t have to be a 6000-page epic! It doesn’t have to be Hellboy! Ten years down the road, when you’re scrambling for work or drawing some book you hate, at least you did something when you had fire in your belly that’s really you.
How do you think your personal vision has managed to translate into success outside comics — in the movies, for instance?
That’s the bigger risk. How do you take this thing and make it into a successful movie, or even a moderately successful movie? And that’s a question for Guillermo del Toro [who directed Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army]. I never said “I want to make a movie” or “I know what this movie should be”; he came to me and [Hellboy publisher] Dark Horse and said “I want to make this movie, I know how to do it, I want to capture the spirit of the comic; I’m going to make certain changes that will make it a little more palatable to a movie audience.” A comic takes me a couple months to do, but a film is a commitment of years. That’s why I could never do a film; it’s just so long a process! Even though I’ve been working on Hellboy for 20 years, it’s a bunch of different stories, a bunch of different starts and stops. It’s not like I’m drawing a 10,000-page comic.
But in some sense you are.
Yeah, but if I thought of it that way, I’d blow my brains out. When I came up with what turned into a three-book story, the arc that Duncan Fegredo drew [Darkness Calls, The Wild Hunt and The Storm and the Fury], I knew I couldn’t do it, because it was too big. The movie stuff was going on, and I’d lost all confidence in the way I draw. Hellboy in Hell is a little different, but even that, when I went into it, I thought it was going to be a parade of odd little stories. It’s only when I was five or six issues into it that I thought, oh wait, it’s a four-book epic. But I never would have gone into it if I’d thought that’s what it was going to be.
How did that loss of confidence happen? And how did you get it back?
I think I started worrying that people expected more from me than I could deliver. I don’t know what happened, except I started seeing three ways to do one story. And I would start it, and go “oh, well, maybe the other way would be better — but maybe the other way’s better…” And it was pulling a thread, and it all started unraveling. I can’t blame the movie for it, I don’t know what it was, but something went terribly wrong, and I fled to being a writer. And I’ll never consider myself a writer, but for whatever reason, I thought, “Well, I can write the comic.” And then I missed it so much! I decided that if I was going going to go back and draw it, I needed to draw completely within this comfort zone. Not only a comfort zone, it was a challenge, to say that I’ve got certain visuals that are entirely me, that are just the world that lives inside my head. The new big challenge is: can I put that world on paper? I’ve done it once or twice with The Amazing Screw-On Head and a couple other odd stories I did. Can I take Hellboy and plop him into that world and then explore that world? I thought, I’ll just call that world “Hell.” “Hellboy Inside His Own Creator’s Head”: it’s too long for a logo.
When did the expanded story of Hellboy and his world come together for you?
It’s hard to say. When I started, I knew that there were a lot of things to do with the character, I just didn’t know that I was going to get a chance to do them. By the time I did the Wake the Devil miniseries, I had a sense that “nobody has told me to stop, maybe I can continue this for a really long time.” So I put a lot more pieces on the board. If I had to stop after that book, it would have been stopping way too soon — there were just so many places to go with things. That’s why we had to spin off the B.P.R.D. series. And around the third B.P.R.D. book, Plague of Frogs; when I wrote that, I remember creating a situation that I didn’t see an easy answer to and didn’t want to. The dominoes are starting to fall, and at some point there’s going to be no way to stop them. I started seeing this thing going in a particular direction, and at some point it’s going to end. We’re going to break stuff that can’t get fixed, so things are never going to be the same again. It’s just going to go until it can’t go any further.
How did you end up making Frankenstein a part of your universe?
The shambling monster with bolts sticking out of him is such an iconic type of monster. When I first wrote that character — I designed him also — for [artist] Richard Corben in House of the Living Dead, it wasn’t meant to be the Frankenstein monster. It was just a Frankenstein-type monster. But when I wrote the back cover copy for that book, it was just funnier to say “the Frankenstein monster.” And somewhere along the line, the title “Frankenstein Underground” popped into my head before there was a story to go with it. Even though I read Mary Shelley’s novel and I love what she did, the Frankenstein monster to me is always going to be Boris Karloff — specifically Boris Karloff in Bride of Frankenstein. So I’ve got some flashback sequences lifted from the novel, and a character who visually, at least, is much more like Karloff’s Frankenstein. Finding a voice for this thing that’s sort of in between the two — they’re not even close! — trying to get them to meet in the middle is quite a stretch.
Your artwork has evolved over the course of Hellboy. What changes do you see in the way you draw?
As a young artist, I always thought that there would come a day when I’d know what my stuff was supposed to look like. And to some extent that has happened, but once I’ve drawn something the same way half a dozen times, there’s part of my brain going “Okay, that’s fine, let’s move on.” I do think evolution is always going to be part of what I’m doing. I just see things differently — I have different concerns than I had when I was younger. It’s much more about storytelling and pacing and composition than it is about fussy rendering. There’s a certain thing where I draw something and go “huh, that’s what it’s going to look like, huh? All right!”
There’s a fairly radical change in style for Hellboy in Hell.
Well, there’s two things there. I hadn’t been drawing the book for a long time, and I changed the location radically. So I don’t know that I specifically changed the way I drew, but I changed everything else. My decision to go back to the book was attached to my decision to kill him off. I wanted to move him someplace that was made entirely of stuff I wanted to draw. When I draw the real world, there’s always something that’s gotta look right. I stylize stuff, but I’ve always felt I had my hands a little bit tied by having to obey the laws of gravity. But Hellboy in Hell is just this fluid dream world. Everything bends and stretches, so there’s a much more organic and intuitive way to draw everything. Perspective goes completely out the window. It’s just a matter of trusting your gut to make shapes. There’s a liberation to a lot of the artwork.
You’re also known as a perfectionist — you very often scrap work you’ve already done and start over.
It can be a nightmare. I’ve gotten used to it at this point, but things like the cover for the first Hellboy in Hell collection… at some point I thought “I’m just going to be doing this cover forever.” I did so many versions of it. I looked around one day and went, “Oh my God, I’ve done it eight times.” Not finished, but I started it eight times. I finished it two or three times. A couple versions are half-finished. A couple versions are just started. But there’s eight of them. Because I’m not fighting a deadline, and I’ve done this stuff for a really long time, I wanna get it right. Within reason. Every page I do, I could maybe do it better the next time, but then I’d still be working on the first issue of Hellboy. I constantly tell myself “It’s good enough, keep moving, the next one will be better” — that’s how I get to the next page — but sometimes it’s not good enough. So, yes. I am a bit of a perfectionist. I try not to let it drive me crazy.
Douglas Wolk is a freelance journalist and critic who writes about music, comic books and other things for TIME, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and a bunch of other places. He’s also the author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (Da Capo, 2007) and Live at the Apollo (Continuum, 2004). He also wrote the Judge Dredd: Mega City Two comic series, recently collected as a graphic novel.