Mike Mignola Interview
by Andy Diggle
Mike Mignola has always been respected for his moody, Gothic artwork, and now Hellboy - his creator-owned title published under Dark Horse's Legend imprint - is gaining him a devoted following as a writer too. In a market swamped with carbon-copy superhero titles and pseudo-intellectual 'dark fantasy' ramblings, Hellboy stands out as a paragon of cool: offbeat storylines, flawless artwork, dark, sinister, thrilling and funny in equal measure. With the new two-part Hellboy mini-series Almost Colossus about to hit the shelves, and a Hellboy merchandising onslaught planned for June, I tracked him down to find out how the big red guy came into being and to ask - Just what is it with that hand, anyway?
Andy Diggle: Before you created Hellboy, what would attract you to a particular project? Would it be the writer, or what you get to draw, or what?
Mike Mignola: In just about every case, it was what I got to draw. That's exactly it. In a few cases I took on a job because it was the kind of work I'd never done before. In a lot of cases I took on work because there was some kind of horror element or fantasy element where I was able to create stuff, to show off. So jumping into the middle of a superhero book never really appealed to me very much, because I was just drawing other people's stuff. But on something like Fafhrd And Grey Mouser there was really a chance to show off, to create a whole environment and invent all these characters. And the same with this book that no-one bought called Ironwolf - that was a chance to really create two or three different distinct looks and environments and technology and all that stuff. And that one was a real labour-intensive job, and it took me a whole month before I started it.
AD: It had a very distinctive look and I think it paid off.
MM: Well, it hasn't paid off yet, though actually I'm up for a job doing some design work for a film, and one of the reasons they wanted me was because they had seen Ironwolf. I think the strongest stuff I've done has been the stuff where I was actually able bring my own style to it.
AD: P. Craig Russell did a great job inking your pencils on Ironwolf. How do you feel about other people inking your work?
MM: It's wonderful working with Craig. Al Williamson inked Fafhrd And Grey Mouser and it was wonderful working with Al. I've just gotten to the point where I can ink my own stuff really fast, and at this point it would take longer for me to pencil stuff for someone else to ink it. My pencils don't make a lot of sense these days, they're a shape, rather than filling in all the black areas and stuff, and to make myself clear to an inker, it's faster for me to ink it myself. The only people I would be interested in working with now as an inker... well, I'd love to work with Craig again, but I would like to work with people who would have a distinctly different look, so that when we worked together there'd be a weird combination of two different guys. As far as somebody just to trace my pencils, I do that better than anybody else, so I'll keep the job.
AD: How did you become involved with the Legend imprint?
MM: Boy, I'm starting to forget the specifics of how that came about. Let's see... Art Adams and I both decided we were both going to do creator-owned material, Arthur was talking to Walt Simonson, Walt Simonson was talking to Frank Miller, and somewhere in there, somebody just decided, "Why don't we create an imprint?" I was all for the idea because, rather than Hellboy just coming out as another Dark Horse comic, it stuck me in a nice little package with some really big-shot heavy-hitter guys, all of whom I really respected tremendously. The Legend line up, when you read it, you'd say, "What the hell's Mike Mignola doin' there?" Or "We've never heard of this guy." So I was one of the people who had the most to gain by that imprint. It went through some difficult starts, and actually I had already spoken to John Byrne about writing my book, so I brought John into the Legend thing.
AD: Why did you bring John Byrne in to script the first Hellboy mini-series? Didn't you feel confident in your own ability to write it?
MM: Yeah, I had no confidence - and only a little confidence now. Originally, I didn't realise how much of the work I was gonna be doing. My original thought was, I've created this character, I've created a few supporting characters, and now I just want to have someone else come up with stories for me. I just thought, if I could have a relationship with someone where I could say, "I want a four-issue story that gives me an excuse to draw a haunted house" or "This time I want a two-issue story that would involve Frankenstein monster laboratory stuff." I didn't realise that I was gonna do all the plotting. By the time it came around to actually working on that first mini-series, I had thought of so many things I wanted and all the pieces started bumping together, and I realised that by the time we started, I had a plot. And then I didn't tell John Byrne the plot, I just started drawing it, and then when it came time to send him pages I found I had to write this stuff, because otherwise how would John know what was going on? When I sent stuff to John, in some cases it was like 90% done, and he really just had to go in and copy my script. And John from day one was saying "You can be doing this yourself. You don't need me, you should be doing it yourself - I'm just doin' what you tell me," and we actually got into a place where he was over-writing places and I was editing his script. And I felt really uncomfortable doing that, and I though well, if I'm actually gonna tear up what this guy is doing, it's really not fair to subject him to that. I always felt like John was doing me a huge favour. There was nothing really in it for him, except to help me out. But that's kind of why I wanted John on this - I didn't want another kind of writer who would go in and try to bring in their own stuff and make it "Somebody Else And Mike Mignola's Hellboy". John was always very prepared to make it "Mike Mignola's Hellboy," and if I said "I wanna do this," I can't remember a single case where John said "No, this would be better." John always kind of sat back and let me make the mistakes I was gonna make. And I made a lot of them.
AD: You think so?
MM: Hell, I don't know. I'm not really unhappy with the stuff, so I guess I didn't make any mistakes I couldn't live with. It's a learning process, and I think the stuff is getting better. It's okay for it to not sound like professional comics, that's fine. I took the slickness out of it, and it has much more the quality of a guy who doesn't know what the hell he's doing.
AD: One difference I did notice from the John Byrne-scripted Seed Of Destruction to the later stories is the removal of interior monologues and this kind of stuff...
MM: Yeah, John and I discussed those being in there. I think it was even my idea that that stuff be in there, because I wanted that pulp, film noir kind of thing; and it wasn't that John couldn't do that well, it was that once I saw it, I realised almost immediately, I don't like it. This doesn't work. I don't want to have this guy's thoughts on the paper. I can do that with the artwork. Certain people do that stuff brilliantly, John did a nice job with it. It just didn't suit the character to me. So we were stuck keeping that through the whole mini- series, but that was the first big conscious thing I took out. And when I started editing John's scripts, by issues 3 and 4 I was taking whole paragraphs of that stuff out of there.
AD: One of the things I like most about Hellboy is that the storytelling is extremely visual--
MM: When it became clear that I could do it myself, I sat down and really looked at what my strengths were - and I realised there are a lot of guys doing wonderfully professional mainstream comics out there, but what I wanted to do was something I maybe hadn't seen before, or hadn't seen much of before, certainly not in American comics, something where it's okay to spend a lot of time developing a mood and developing everything visually, y'know - spending a lot of time roaming around the inside of a room, and almost treating things like a still life, and saying we'd like to show this sequence of images silently and we'll create a certain kind of atmosphere, a certain kind of mood, and I'll move this story in a non-verbal kind of way. So that's really what I've been interested in experimenting with, repeating certain images so the reader is kind of forced to say, "Am I looking at this for a reason, is there some significance to this symbol?" Y'know, I'm not trying to be Alan Moore here and say that "everything means something" to put it together, but it's an MTV kind of mentality of showing quick shots of a bunch of stuff that creates some overall impression.
AD: I think the whole mood and feeling is wonderfully gothic.
MM: That's kind of what people expect from me now, so I'm kind of locked into doing that. Which is fine, and it's a kind of storytelling that I find very interesting and that not a lot of other people are doing.
AD: One thing which strikes me as interesting is that you can be very slow and build a mood, and then bring in really slam-bang Jack Kirby-style dynamism to it - and there's really no clash between the two styles...
MM: The book is pretty much everything and the kitchen sink. I mean, it's me. I love Jack Kirby stuff and I love old German expressionist films, so it's the idea of sandwiching those two things together. I love Jack Kirby monster comics and I love old Victorian ghost stories. Or better yet, I love a Frankenstein movie and I love Victorian ghost stories - how can you fit both those elements into the same story? Whereas saying "I'm doing an M.R. James type ghost story here, and I'm gonna do a Frankenstein monster thing over there," it's saying, let me see if I can work elements of both into the same story.
AD: Was it the character of Hellboy that came to you first, or did you decide the kind of stuff you wanted to draw?
MM: I'd always had the subject matter and I had just done a one-issue Legends Of The Dark Knight that I plotted myself, that was a Batman ghost story kind of thing. I had no interest really in doing a Batman superhero story. When they asked me to do this thing I thought about it, I came up with this kind of story and it worked fine, and when it was done I thought I'd like to do more stuff like this but Batman isn't really suited to this. I mean he's suited better than most, but if I'm gonna do this kind of story, why not make up my own guy who's specifically designed to fit into these stories. So that's what I did. I'm wide open to a bunch of different stuff. I don't wanna just do the same material. What happened with Hellboy which I didn't really expect is, I've ended up with so much background to the character that I'm kind of forced to do a set of mini-series that resolve a bunch of stuff about this character, the growth process of the character, that I didn't think I was ever gonna deal with. I thought the eight pages or whatever it was in the first mini-series, where this guy appears, that was gonna be it, but it turns out that once I started thinking about where he comes from and who's still there and who knows him, and does he have some kind of purpose in the world, and how does he deal with that? At the beginning of the mini-series, Hellboy says, "I don't want to know where I come from, I sleep better not knowing." And that was kind of my philosophy about the character and I realised that as the mini-series went on, it's fine for him not to want to know. I didn't wanna turn him into one of these guys who's always moaning every ten minutes, "Oh, I don't know where I come from, if only I knew this, blah blah." I thought, if this guy kept getting slapped in the face with where he comes from, that would be kind of interesting to deal with.
AD: Could the character become more important than the stories you want to tell?
MM: No, because I wanna resolve this stuff, I wanna kind of have him say, "I'm gonna put it behind me." This last mini-series, the Universe says, "You're supposed to be the Beast of the Apocalypse", and Hellboy says, "I don't want to be. I reject it, and I'm gonna go back and put my head in the sand." And my feeling is, well, that's hurdle number one. In the next big mini-series I'm gonna do, there's a similar kind of thing where again, somebody sits him down and says, "This is what you can be, and the only way to survive this situation is to do this." And I wanna have Hellboy say, "No, I reject that also." There will be a couple of stories where you find out things about him, and he says, "Okay, now I know it, but it doesn't have to rule my life." And these things would be so overwhelming to a regular person, but he takes these things pretty much in his stride. So in between these big revelation kind of stories I can also do Hellboy abducted by a UFO, goes to another planet, and he doesn't have to deal with, "Oh no, but I'm from Hell" while he's on another planet.
AD: One of the coolest things about Hellboy himself is that he's so understated - he's such a solid, dependable guy who doesn't let all this baggage get in the way of the plot.
MM: There's a completely accidental technique to how I write this stuff. I tend to get very carried away with the bad guy dialogue, and trying to do these pseudo-Shakespearian kind of things, and there's a lot of pretention in it, and I get so embarrased by the pretention - and basically, Hellboy is that other part of my brain that just comes in and says "Shut up! Nobody's listening to you." And so he will come up with these quick lines that pretty much punch holes in the pretention. If Hellboy ever starts talking like that then I'm in trouble. If I watch a Shakespeare film or something, and then I try to write Hellboy dialogue, it's completely wrong. I can watch a great Shakespeare film or listen to Shakespeare and then write the bad guy, that's great. I always have those rhythms in my head. You know, there are speeches in Hellboy that came out of things like Henry V or Macbeth. The words are different, but the pattern of speech was there. But yeah, for Hellboy it's just the opposite of that.
AD: There's a lot of humour in Hellboy. Are you deliberately trying to lighten the horror with little injections of humour and irony?
MM: It was never a conscious decision, certainly at the beginning of this. I never would have said "It's gonna be funny." It's just, I would be very embarrased to write a book that was deadly serious. I mean, I hope there are deadly serious things in it, and if I can do a story that could make a person cry, that would be a huge accomplishment for me. But again, it's part of that embarrassment of taking myself too seriously, that I've gotta lighten the thing up. Also, I'm 36 years old, I was 33 when I started this thing. I had other people say "You need a real serious Image Comics 'Blood Claw' kind of a name for this thing", and I thought I'd just be embarrassed... Where somebody on an airplane would say, "What do you do?" and I have to say, "I draw 'Demon Slayer'." Nah, I'm too old for that. I want something that sounds kind of wonky, kind of goofy, and can be kind of humourous. So that's that.
AD: I think it strikes a very nice balance - an awful lot of comics do seem to lurch over into pretention quite easily.
MM: It's tough when there's horror stuff. I mean, I love a really good pretentious, moody, Gothic horror story as much as anybody else, but for me, I have to keep it a little lighter.
AD: You said you originally wanted to get Hellboy's background out of the way very quickly. Do you know exactly who he is, where he comes from, what the hand is all about and where it's going..?
MM: You know, almost nobody ever asks about that hand? Yeah, I know pretty much. It changes occasionally, it'll probably change in little bits and pieces as long as the stuff's still in my head and not on paper. But the next big mini-series I'm gonna do, Hellboy is actually killed and goes to Hell. It's the origin of Abe Sapien, and it's Hellboy going to Hell and finding out a shitload about himself. I want to kind of play the two characters against each other. Abe Sapien, he has to find out where he comes from, he wants to know. Hellboy doesn't want to know, but he goes and finds out all this crap anyway. And at the end we have these two characters comparing notes, and Abe Sapien wants to find out more, and Hellboy's like, "I already know too much about me. If you have to go find out your shit, that's fine, good luck to ya. But I envy you that you have to look for it. I keep getting slapped in the face with this crap."
AD: And then after that mini-series, the plan is to do a mini-series dealing specifically with the hand. The hand has a huge involved history which, some days I like it and some days I don't like it. So, I won't know exactly what the history of the hand is until I sit down and do that mini-series. My original idea for it - it's super-cosmic, tied into the origins of the Earth and the origins of Evil and that whole giant seven-headed dragon thing. There was that line in the first mini-series --
AD: It was "the force that created it" or something like that?
MM: Yeah, which is a line which no-one has ever commented on, but it is kind of danglin' out there. So yeah, again it's gonna be - you're just a guy, ordinarily you just wanna be a guy, but look at this giant super-cosmic thing you're cartin' around. Hellboy is like, "It's just really good for knockin' monsters out with." So how you deal with that - the thing is, you find out what it is, and then you go, "Well, that was something. Hmm." And then you just go on with your regular life.
AD: I think it would be a mistake to have him discover all these new powers and have him become too powerful.
MM: Hellboy wants to be a person. In this last mini-series, the Universe says, "You've got this cosmic destiny to fulfil" and he's like, "Well, I'm pretty sure that if I did that, I couldn't hang out with the guys at the pizza place. Not only would I blow up the world, but it would pretty much cinch that I couldn't be a regular guy." Same with this mini-series in which he's going to Hell. "Would you like to have all this power and be able to do all this stuff and command armies and do all this other stuff" - "No, that would pretty much mean I wouldn't be ever able to go and have a poker game with the guys. I don't want that. I want more than anything else to be a person. I think I'm a person, I was raised among people." Hellboy has always been that to me - you know, you hear about the cat that's been raised among dogs, so it thinks it's a dog? He's that kind of character. I mean that's the reason he cut his horns off, I figure. When he was a little kid it became pretty obvious the other kids were spending too much time starin' at his forehead. Like, "Can I get rid of these things? It's bad enough that I'm red and I've got a giant concrete hand, but these horns are just one thing too many."
AD: Does Hellboy's hand have anything to do with the 'Hand of Glory' from folklore?
MM: The Hand of Glory is great and I would love to do something with it, but unfortunately Hellboy's hand is much more like Thor's Hammer. It's this giant cosmic thing. It would be easier to make his hand something like the Hand of Glory, but unfortunately there's so much of this 'big universe' shit tied in with Hellboy already, that to have the hand be something manageable would be a step backwards. This is a problem I have with Hellboy - it's kind of escalating, kind of steamrolling on me, and this last mini-series was never supposed to deal with Hellboy's kind of coming of age stuff. The title Wake The Devil referred entirely to waking up this Romanian vampire. Then I realised when I got halfway through the mini-series, when I had this character Hecate show up, that she had nothing to say, so she had to start yattering on about, "You have all these great cosmic things" and once I'd done that, it was like "Oh crap. How can I not deal with that?" Because originally the mini-series just ended with this show-down fight between Hellboy and this vampire, I realised it had hit such a high note, there was so much revelation kind of crap going on with the Hecate character, that I was kind of forced into changing the ending and getting into that kind of giant cosmic thing. Which is fine, so long as I don't stay there too long. I don't mind getting to that, so long as Hellboy can get back away from it and be just a person. So the mini-series I'm doing right now, it's kind of a relief, because it's such a small- scale thing. You know - "We're lookin' for a monster." Somebody stole a lot of bodies out of the cemetery, maybe this monster did it, let's go find the monster.
AD: So this is "Almost Colossus"?
AD: When will we be seeing that?
MM: I believe it's going to be June and July. I'm doing the best I can. I ended up spending a lot more time than I expected I would, illustrating this Hellboy novel, so it seems like there's always something. Every time I finish Hellboy, I go right back into another Hellboy thing. But doing as much of the work as I am, writing it, inking it, it's almost... I have amazing respect for anyone that can do this monthly, or even bi-monthly. It's just so much work for one person. The more I do this the more I care about it, and then I get involved with it. I get involved with the design end, and then I get involved with the marketing, and it can be a full-time job handling movie stuff and marketing and promotion and -- it's a full-time job doing Wizard promotions. There's so much of that kind of crap that you can jump on and spend all your time doing. And it seems like, "Well, I did all this promotion, but I never drew the comic." The marketing guys at Dark Horse are always calling up with, "Can you do a five-page insert for this or can you do this or do that" - and I say, "It's physically possible for me to do it, but then there'd be no comic to promote." Because I would do all the promotion and no comic.
AD: It does show in the quality of the comic - that you are giving it your full attention.
MM: To me right now there are so many horrible comics out there, and I've done so many horrible comics, that the last thing I want is to do more horrible comics. If I'm gonna do a comic, I want it to be something special. And again, my audience is, I guess, willing to wait. I would rather have the audience upset that there isn't a Hellboy book out there, than have an audience that picks up a Hellboy book and says, "This isn't good any more".
AD: There's a novel on the way - Hellboy: The Lost Army by Chris Golden. Is that a result of the fan-base of Hellboy widening as the word spreads?
MM: Well, it would be nice for it to widen further, of course. The audience I've met, the audience I've received mail from, reads the thing. And I thought, maybe they would actually pick up a novel. It's nice. I'm not keen on writing a novel. The writer came to me originally and asked about doing a prose story that would run as a back-up feature in Hellboy. And I thought about it and I thought, that's kind of interesting, and then somewhere along the line that kind of grew into the idea of doing a novel.
And I'm so in awe of people who can really write. Not this pictures with word balloons crap, but a guy who can actually just fill a book with words. So we ran it past Dark Horse, they said great. To me it's a huge experiment because I don't know how my audience will react; there's a lot of pictures but it's not sequential storytelling stuff. But the big experiment was to put this thing out there and see if some of Chris' audience would buy it. If somebody who had never read the comic would pick up this book because it's a Chris Golden horror novel, and then maybe they would discover the comic. Certainly we need to have some people outside of comics discover this stuff, or we're sunk.
AD: Did I hear you mention something about a movie earlier?
MM: Yeah, like so many things it's been optioned for a film. I'm assuming it will never happen, because I can't imagine it done well. But you know, that's the gamble with these things, you're offered the money, take up the movie option and you say, "Well, it's this much money, and the chances are they'll never make it, so I'll take that risk." I mean, I know people who, when something is optioned, they go "Oh boy! It's gonna be better than Citizen Kane." My feeling is, they probably won't make it, and if they do make it, chances are it's not going to be any Citizen Kane. So the safest bet is sitting here and hope they don't make it.
AD: You'd rather they didn't?
MM: Well, I'd rather they made a great one. I don't know how they would do that. I don't know who out there would be interested in doing it great. I haven't yet heard what anyone intends. I'm supposed to be going to LA for a meeting one of these days, but I haven't had that phone call yet. We'll see. It's certainly not something I'm spending a lot of time thinking about.
AD: If that did happen, would you wash your hands and say "fine guys, you get on with it" or would you want to take some kind of control over it?
MM: That's the problem - I think if you spend all your time down on the movie set, like I think Dave Stevens did [on The Rocketeer]... well, first off - are they willing to listen to you? I kind of get the impression they're not. Dave had a special relationship with the people at Disney, and they actually really were listening to his input. I don't know if they would want to listen to me. And if they did, if they spent that much time, that means a year or two of no Hellboy comic at all. I'd much prefer letting them do what they're gonna do - not washing my hands of it, but saying "Okay, if the right people are involved, and you know what you're doing, you guys do your job, let me visit occasionally, but for the most part I'll be off drawing my comic." So yeah, I can't imagine wanting to direct the thing over the guy's shoulder. And I can't imagine anybody wanting me to do that. So we'll see.
AD: We'll keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best, anyway.
MM: Yeah. As it is I've got a couple of other jobs on the horizon that are like design work for other films, and it's bad enough I've taken on that work, because that takes me away from doing the Hellboy stuff. But at least there I have some idea what I'm doing.
AD: So what is this other design work?
MM: I can't really talk about it now, but they're animated films.
AD: I've noticed a lot of Hellboy merchandising hitting the shelves lately - I'd love one of those Hellboy Zippo lighters! Any chance of seeing B.P.R.D. sweatshirts like the guys wear in Wake The Devil...?
MM: Yeah, well Dark Horse is just gearing up to do a bunch of merchansise stuff. I think they're leery of doing merchansise that doesn't actually have Hellboy on it. But the Bureau T-shirts and sweatshirts - yes, I think that would be kind of a cool-looking item...