Mike Mignola Interview
by Jason Heller, The A.V. Club
July 24 2008
Mike Mignola created the demonic, cigar-chomping paranormal investigator Hellboy in 1993, and the character quickly became a hit in the comic-book world. A lot of that had to do with Mignola's angular, shadowy art, a style Alan Moore once called "German Expressionism meets Jack Kirby." But there was also some honest-to-gosh pathos to Hellboy—an angle that filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has played on in his two adaptations, 2004's Hellboy and the new Hellboy II: The Golden Army. The sequel didn't have an easy birth: Its predecessor performed unremarkably at the box office, and the dissolution of Sony-backed Revolution Studios last year left the project homeless until Universal scooped it up. Mignola—who, besides being credited as del Toro's writing partner on Hellboy II, manages a mini-empire of Hellboy comics and spin-offs published by Dark Horse—spoke with The A.V. Club about what it was like, sending his big, red baby off into the world.
The A.V. Club: How does it feel to open at number one?
Mike Mignola: It feels good. [Laughs.] It was a tight one, you know. It's hard to beat Will Smith, but we did. It was touch-and-go there for a while, getting this made. Hellboy is such an odd film. But I'm really happy, and the studio's happy. We did what they wanted us to do for opening weekend. Yay! Hopefully that means we'll get to do more of these.
AVC: How was Hellboy II touch-and-go?
MM: There were a lot of ups and downs. We pitched the movie to Revolution, and they said yeah. But then, of course, Revolution went away. I'm blurry on this stuff, 'cause I'm not in most of those kinds of meetings, but somewhere along the way a couple other producers talking about doing the movie. Then Pan's Labyrinth came out, and I was so excited for Guillermo. But at the same time, I was like, "Oh, crap. Now we're not going to get to do Hellboy II." The way I seem to remember it, Universal came almost out of nowhere at the last minute and said, "We'll do it." Universal is not a name I had heard associated with Hellboy since way back before we did the first movie. They swooped in at the 11th hour. So opening weekend was good: We wanted the movie to perform so we could say to the studio, "Thanks, and you made the right decision."
AVC: Why did the sequel get juggled around so much?
MM: Part of the problem was, the first film didn't do the magic number that immediately makes people say, "It's a hit, let's do another one." The more time that went by, the more people said, "Hellboy, that's a weird thing." It's never going to be a regular superhero film, so when you see Spider-Man and X-Men making all this money, you have to realize that Hellboy isn't quite one of those. It's an odd, quirky, weird little thing. It doesn't have the name recognition of all the other big comic-book films. It always felt kind of like a gamble. But Universal certainly seems to see the potential of a Hellboy franchise. There are so many superheroes out there in the movies—quite frankly, it's nice to have one that's no so… regular.
AVC: How much of an effect did Pan's Labyrinth have on Hellboy II?
MM: I think it had a huge effect. It certainly redefined Guillermo. But at the same time, we needed Hellboy II to be a more commercial film than Pan's Labyrinth. Certainly Pan's Labyrinth elevated everyone's perception of Guillermo, and that helped. It was just a riot when I saw the first trailer for Hellboy II, and it started with a fairy skittering across the screen. It was clear they were building Hellboy II on Pan's Labyrinth. So yeah, it worked out real nice. It's an interesting progression through Guillermo's career: Blade II was the commercial film he needed to make to get to do Hellboy, and after Hellboy he got a little more freedom to run off and do his personal film. Then when he comes back to Hellboy, he's building off that personal film. It's a really nice chain of events.
AVC: What did you want to accomplish with Hellboy II, especially compared to the first film?
MM: This one was interesting. I went in to Guillermo and basically said, "What do you want to do?" It was his call. I put these characters so much in his hands. He started out wanting to do an adaptation of one of my comic-book stories, like the first movie was. After a couple hours of talking, though, we hit a snag with this one story, so we both said, "Let's go do a fairy tale instead." He was writing Pan, and my stories for the Hellboy comic at the time were all folklore- and fairy-tale-based. That's just where both our heads happened to be. The first film focused more on this H.P. Lovecraft stuff, but what we didn't get at all in the first picture was the whole folklore thing, which is such a big part of what I put in the Hellboy comics. Rather than mixing all those things together in the second film, though, we decided to focus totally on the folklore. Between those two pictures, you really get a sense of the range of Hellboy's supernatural world.
AVC: It seems that folklore aspect—Russian, Irish, even Appalachian—keeps getting larger in the Hellboy comics.
MM: Yeah. The first 10 years of the comic was just trying out different things. My goal when I created Hellboy was to do a little bit of everything I like: ghost stories, folktales, mad scientists. Little by little, those pieces start dictating where the main storyline was going. This wasn't a big plan at the beginning, but the comic has definitely started leaning in one direction. Hellboy has basically been swallowed up by the whole folklore world at this point.
AVC: What's drawn you in that direction?
MM: It's such a spectacular cast of characters. I look at all of world mythology and folklore as my toy to play with. There are just so many characters and creatures there I want to put on paper. It's something that my readers are mostly unaware of. It's a really exciting thing for me to take material that I really love and put a new coat of paint on it and present it to this audience. And I don't have to make up any of the characters. [Laughs.] I can just pull a book of mythology off the shelf and say, "I'll use this guy." I also hate making up names for fantasy characters. I'll just flip through these books and say, "Wow, this is way crazier than anything I could make up." A crab with the head of a lion? Yeah, I want to draw that. It's what I responded to as a little kid, reading this stuff.
AVC: Other comics creators like Neil Gaiman and Bill Willingham have gotten a lot of mileage out of recontextualizing myths and fairy tales, too.
MM: There's so much beautiful stuff there. I'll never be Neil Gaiman, but it makes me look smart when I pull this old stuff out of books. There are so many wonderful bits and pieces to play with.
AVC: Then you're having your own Hellboy mythos interact with established, even ancient ones.
MM: It is a bit strange. I can't think about that too much. It puts a bit of pressure on you. When Neil and Bill and I play with these established myths, it winds up being many of our readers' only exposure to them. So if I'm doing a story in the Hellboy comic that uses Russian folklore characters like Baba Yaga or Koschei The Deathless, I'm bending them to my purpose. But most people aren't going to know that, so I feel okay taking it further away from the source material. I will always try to direct people back to the original myths, though. But that's the nature of folklore: It changes with time.
AVC: Do you think that process is similar to Hellboy being reinterpreted by del Toro or the writers and artists working on your comics?
MM: I think so. Where I'm altering the Baba Yaga character from Russian folklore, I'm also sending Hellboy out to be altered. And just as most people reading my comics will only know my version of Baba Yaga, most people in a global sense will only know Guillermo's version of Hellboy. It's one of those things you have to make your peace with when a moderately successful film franchise is made out of your work. That's the public face of your creation. Many people who see the Hellboy movies will not be aware that it was a comic first. And most of them will never read the comic. You're going to live in the shadow of this thing that someone else made. Fortunately for me, the Hellboy movies are pretty true to the source material. I could make myself crazy correcting people who talk to me and refer to Hellboy drinking beer, which we've never seen in the comic, or other things like that. You can't compete. You just have to say "It's over there, and I'm over here." I'm going to stick to what I've always done with the comics.
AVC: Does the fact that you reinterpret mythological characters make it easier for you to relinquish control of your own characters?
MM: I've never really thought about it, but yeah, I guess so. Fair's fair. The difference is, whoever made up Baba Yaga is long gone. I'm still here. [Laughs.] At the same time, I did turn these characters over to Guillermo, and I knew I was giving him license to make these changes. It's one thing to know these things intellectually, and it's another to deal with the reality of the situation. And it's fine. I've made my peace with it. The tradeoff is, a lot more people know about this character I made up. If you look at all the articles about this year's summer movies, people are writing about superhero films and mention Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and Hellboy II in the same breath. And that's cool. It's certainly putting me on the map. I can't complain. Plus, you have to look at it this way: One guy created Batman, but a million people have worked on the character over the years. It's kind of hard to say, "Oh, that's Bob Kane's Batman." But with Hellboy, it's still very clearly my Hellboy. It hasn't gone through a million hands before making it onto film.
AVC: At the same time, you've been handing over an increasing amount of work on the Hellboy comics to other creators.
MM: It's the only way the comics were ever going to get done. [Laughs.] Still, almost all of the actual Hellboy stories come from me. My thumbprint is on every single thing that happens with Hellboy. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do professionally, letting someone else draw the main Hellboy comic. He's so much mine. But I still have no intention of ever handing over the writing of the main Hellboy comic to someone else. That character is my baby.
AVC: When you started Hellboy, though, weren't you more interested in drawing it than writing it?
MM: Exactly; it's totally switched around. Hellboy started out as just a list of things I wanted to draw, and the original idea was to give that list to [legendary comics creator] John Byrne and have him write the stories. But once I came up with that list, all those things started bumping into each other and cobbling themselves together into a story. So when I finally did the first Hellboy story, I wrote up a plot to give to John to finish. What I didn't realize was, I had pretty much written the whole thing. That's the only way I would've been able to get into writing: accidently. The process of writing and drawing my own comics at first was just too daunting. I needed the safety net of a professional like John.
AVC: Duncan Fegredo took over drawing Hellboy from you last year, but recently you printed a long, angry letter from a reader begging you to come back and draw it again.
MM: Some people want me to do everything. There would be such a small output of work if I did it all. Believe me, I wish I could do it. I wish I was Jack Kirby and could draw six pages a day. But I can't. At this point, there are so many different books involved in the Hellboy franchise. My main goal is to get back and be able to draw comics again. I've just been so busy with writing and keeping everything up and running. The problem is, I've just got too many ideas. Every character I create in Hellboy, I say, "Ooh, I want to do an entire book about that guy." I'll introduce a little hedgehog, and there are 16 stories I want to write about that guy. It's fun, but my cast of characters is getting dramatically bigger all the time. And all of them are saying, "What about me! Tell my story!"
AVC: Why did you wind up going with Fegredo?
MM: I didn't just want to pick a guy off the street. I wanted a guy I knew, a guy whose work I really liked. Or, like, Duncan, who's 10 times of a better artist than I am. And I need a certain level of communication: I'll tell the plot of a story 600 different ways to an artist a year before we even get to doing that story. Finding someone who will put up with me is a big thing. [Laughs.] In the case of Hellboy, I also needed somebody who had a similar graphic sensibility. Not a guy who would imitate me, but a guy who would do enough of the same things I do.
AVC: In the commentary you and del Toro provide for the DVD of the first Hellboy movie, del Toro continually uses the word "Mignola-esque." How does it feel to be an adjective?
MM: What's weird is when I refer to something as Mignola-esque. [Laughs.] Which I don't do very often. My art style really comes from my own influences, guys like Frank Frazetta and Bernie Wrightson. I learned so much about what I wanted to do from them. But over the years you combine all your influences into your own. Still, sometimes the easiest thing I can reference is my own work: I have created this certain kind of atmosphere and this certain kind of pacing in the comics I do. It's not for me to say if it's particularly unique or anything, but sometimes I do wind up becoming self-referential. I remember in a plot for a comic I read once, the writer was telling the artist, "I need a Mike Mignola cemetery in this scene." Of course, when I was coming up, they would have said, "I need a Bernie Wrightson cemetery." That's kind of cool. And of course it's gigantically flattering when someone like Guillermo uses a term like that.
AVC: Have there been any points where your vision and del Toro's clashed?
MM: After having done the first film, and with the success of Pan's Labyrinth, I think Guillermo really felt he owned these characters this time. He wanted my blessing on everything he did, but he wasn't really asking me. He wasn't asking, "Should I do this?" or "Would Hellboy do this?", which he did a lot on the first picture. He did ask those things sometimes on this picture, but there were scenes where I was like, "Are you really sure?" And he was like, "No, trust me, this will work."
AVC: There's substantially more humor in the sequel than in the original. Was that your call?
MM: No. Guillermo's sense of humor is lot broader than mine. Mine is much more dry. I did not have any influence on that. If anything, my tendency is always to go darker and more serious. The humor that I put into stuff—other than Hellboy's dialogue, which always has a bit of that to it—is absurdist humor, things like Johann having no head. The fact that that character came off as kind of funny in the film was surprising to me when I first saw it. I always think of these characters I've created as being perfectly straight. But he's ectoplasmic gas in a bag with a clear plastic head; that to me is absurdly funny, so you just play the character straight. The real broad humor was Guillermo.
AVC: Are there anything about Hellboy II you have trouble with?
MM: It's hard to have trouble with it, because this is a del Toro picture. The first picture was a bit more of a collaboration. But even though we came up with the original story for the new film together, I felt like I should let him do what he's going to do. There were scenes I tried to get him to modify or take out altogether, but at the end of the day, I realized I was fighting a losing battle. Guillermo is married to this scene, therefore he must have in his head how it's going to work. I'll just back off.
AVC: What scenes did you want changed or removed?
MM: The whole troll market scene is so not my sensibility. I tried like hell to make that scene go away. I wanted it to be more of a Western, High Noon kind of thing, where we just glimpse a couple characters disappearing into doorways and all these shadowy faces looking out between shutters at Hellboy. Of course, the scene as it is wound up being one that everybody loves. If I had gotten to make the exact movie I wanted to, it wouldn't have opened at number one. [Laughs.] I like stuff that's spookier. I would have used a lot less colors, like maybe four. Guillermo uses all the colors; he has the big-ass crayon box. My movie would have been very dark and very gloomy and very sober and very quiet.
AVC: And no Barry Manilow.
MM: Yeah, that. I don't know if I argued to have that scene of Hellboy and Abe singing Barry Manilow together taken out, but I certainly did have a "You're kidding, right?" kind of reaction. Eventually I was like, "Oh, um, okay." [Laughs.] "You're having so much fun, just go with it." I had to trust Guillermo. Even with the first picture, there were scenes that I was so worried about. Especially the emotional stuff. I'd be like, "Really? Hellboy's really going to come out and say this and say that?" Guillermo's much more unapologetically romantic about stuff than I am. Those are the things that made me nervous. I remember one scene in particular, Guillermo told me, "Just wait. People are going to cry when they see that." And he was right: My wife's favorite parts of the first movie are things that I tried desperately to get Guillermo to take out. [Laughs.] So at this point, I just have to trust him.