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Thousands of Characters, but Only Three Cars

The Creator of Hellboy on Building a World from Spare Parts and Fairy Tales

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MIKE MIGNOLA has been drawing comics professionally for nearly 30 years. The first 10 years of his career were spent refining his blocky, chiaroscuro style on mainstream superhero comics—the Hulk, Batman, Wolverine—before he launched his own character, a paranormal investigator named Hellboy, in 1994. What began as the simple story of a demon struggling to overcome his hellish origins while wrestling giant monsters multiplied into a wealth of supporting characters and an intricate backstory. The Hellboy universe has expanded steadily ever since, encompassing dozens of series and thousands of characters entangled in one long story—as of this month, Mignola has written and drawn nearly one thousand pages' worth of Hellboy material and written another thousand pages that have been illustrated by other artists. We talked about his growth as a writer, his influences, and the future of Hellboy.

MERCURY: So much of your work is constructed on folktales and fairy tales and mythology. What kind of research do you do before you start writing a story?

MIGNOLA: I've read a lot of this stuff over the years. A lot of it washes away, and a lot of it sticks to me. The third Hellboy story I did was based on a folktale that I had read 10 years before that—I had always played with doing a comic-book version of folklore at some point. Like so many other things, I've taken a story that was meant to be something else, and said, "You know what would make that work? Boom! Put Hellboy in it."

One story I did in the last couple years was an Appalachian folktale. I'd read stories by a guy named William Hope Hodgson who did wonderful stories set in the Appalachian Mountains. The last thing I wanted to do was base one of my stories on one of his stories, but his stories had a very folklore root to them. Having read those stories years ago, I always knew I wanted to have stories set in those areas, doing that kind of thing. Over the years, I've collected tons of folklore from around the world. Fortunately, along the way I discovered a few books of Appalachian folklore. I know the feel I want, so I just pulled out those books and started reading through them, circling this bit, circling that bit. So it wasn't based on just one folktale.

The first time I used a folktale to base a Hellboy story on, which was a story called "The Corpse," it was a little short for what I needed. So while I had the core of the story already, I did a lot more reading on Irish folklore and—same gag—I pulled other bits in. Usually I have some idea of what I want to do, some idea of what kind of story or root of story I want, and I go back and comb through stuff to find other bits to throw in there. The last couple of years, I've been doing a King Arthur thing. I've read enough so that I could rough out the kind of story I wanted, the characters I wanted, and little wrinkles to add to the story.

What was your primary Arthurian text?

The King Arthur stuff shows up in so many places in so many different variations. The Once and Future King by T.H. White was a huge one, but that wasn't folklore; it was fiction based on folklore. Over the years, I found all these different Arthurian bits I wanted to work in there. There are so many variations on the same couple of stories. Certain times, maybe the Lady of the Lake is this character, or maybe it's this character, or maybe this character is King Arthur's mother. At some point, you have to pick and choose what serves your purpose best. That's why I like going back and using mythology and oral tradition. It gives me license, more so than with real historical people.

Are there any other authors you think are doing interesting work with folding folktales into their narratives?

I keep away from a lot of people, because I don't want to find out that they're doing the same thing I am, and I don't want to find out that they're doing it a hundred times better than I am. I know there's a book at DC called Fables, which takes all these characters and treats them as if they're living in one big world. I have no idea how that stuff is done; I've never read it. I've glanced at it, and it's not really what I do. It's taking those characters and bringing them into our world. I kind of like to leave characters in their own worlds. I'm not looking to change them into modern characters. I kind of like to keep the weirdness in the folktales.

Besides The Amazing Screw-on Head, just about all your work has been Hellboy-related for the last decade or so. Do you have any ideas for characters that stand separately from this larger universe you've created?

The Hellboy world is kind of a big black hole that sucks in other ideas. There have probably been a couple things I've created that may have started as something that wasn't going to be Hellboy-related, but at some point, I realized, "You know what would make this character work? If I threw him into that Hellboy world." It's much more fun to build the mythology of one particular world. I've had much more commercial friends than me who have said, "Why make it a Hellboy story? You could make another main character the center of the story and then you own a separate property." That does make a certain amount of sense, but I wanted that story to take place in the Hellboy world. Everything that I like, I want to have in that one world. It's a comfortable way for me to work. I'm not selling a bunch of different characters in that world, separately, to Hollywood, but that's not my concern. My concern is just to make this one particular body of work.

Did the world or the Hellboy character come first?

I guess Hellboy came first. I created Hellboy and thought, "That's kind of funny, okay." Then I threw him into the real world—but as that world got built, it was very much my version of the real world. [Do] I love old pulp magazine heroes? Well, then, I need one of those guys to populate the world, to represent that kind of thing I like. I love Victorian literature, Victorian occult detectives, so I wanted them in that world. The world became entirely made up of all the stuff I like. In all the time I've done Hellboy, I think I've drawn maybe four cars. I don't think I've ever drawn a bus. I've drawn an airplane maybe three or four times. Those things are all in the world, but I don't have any interest in them. I know I've never drawn a shopping mall.

How do you select artists to draw the material that you write? So many artist/writers try to find artists whose work looks exactly like theirs, but you don't have a bunch of clones working for you.

It's much easier finding artists to do the BPRD series, which is the spin-off of Hellboy, because I just needed the best guy who could pull off these comics. There was no sense of "Can he pull off Hellboy?" Hellboy is a little trickier, because he so entirely comes from the way I draw. When it came time to pick the artist to replace me on Hellboy, I needed a guy who could draw a little bit like me and had some of the same sensibility, but I wasn't looking for a guy who could fool the audience into thinking I was drawing the book. I was looking for a guy who could do some of what I do, but bring his own stuff to it. Which is why I don't try to get a guy who was brand-new and still in that phase of using imitation to learn. I wanted to get a guy who had been in the business as long as I have but does his own thing, but who still shares some of my sensibilities.

Richard Corben is amazing. I don't think anyone would say our styles are similar, but in my mind, he's one of the very few last great comic-book horror guys. So when he said he wanted to do a Hellboy, I said great. When we started, I gave him a Hellboy fantasy story, so if it didn't work, it would just be a fantasy story and not a real-world story. After that, we did more stories together where he was drawing regular Hellboy. He had the perfect feel for the stories I gave him. He drew the Appalachian folktale story, because I couldn't imagine anybody who was better at twigs and falling-down cabins and that kind of mood. I worked with an artist named Scott Hampton to do an old-fashioned misty sad gothic kind of a thing. There aren't that many guys in comics who do that. For that story, Hampton was the best artist. He handles atmosphere completely differently than I do, but I knew his way of handling Hellboy wouldn't be a million miles away from my style.

Did you have to learn how to stop thinking like an artist when you started writing the scripts?

It was a really difficult decision to make—to use other artists. I never, ever imagined handing Hellboy over to someone else. That was tough, but then there's a very particular way to explain to an artist how to do things. At the beginning, with Duncan Fegredo, I gave him thumbnails [sketches of the pages]. What I discovered really quickly was I was tying his hands, and I've gotta let go of some of that and give him some way to tell the story his way. At the time, I'd been telling stories myself for more than 10 years, so it was really hard to let go of that.

I do like to work with the same guys over and over. At some point, you get a feel for how they do things. I have some idea of how Corben is going to do it.

Do you have an ending in mind for this one long story you're telling?

I'd like to think that's one of the things that separate the Hellboy world from a Marvel or DC superhero. It's not meant to go on forever. It's changing this next year, with a radical change to the character, something unlike killing Superman and then bringing him back. We're turning certain corners where you can't turn back. We're not just doing that with characters, we're doing that with the entire world. We're breaking stuff we can't ever fix. We can only do so much of that before we think, "Oh, there's nothing left for me to break." I do have specific endings in mind, there is a kind of an ending for Hellboy. But how we're going to get there? What's going to happen? It's hard to say. And because it's supernatural, I can't say, "Oh, they're dead." I've always said that when characters die in these books, they just become more interesting characters. I have given it a lot of thought.

Has the ending changed as the story has become more complex?

One thing I've learned with this is you can steer it only so much, and certain things are going to take on a life of their own. In some ways, the book does veer off in directions you'd never envision. For example, it never occurred to me Hellboy would end up to be revealed to be the King of England, but I thought it was funny. Same with the whole BPRD stuff: I never envisioned having those characters evolving. He's still going where I always imagined he would go. I've just got a clearer idea of what this means.

Do you have any examples you look to for this kind of massive single-world mythology you're building? Was Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series an inspiration?

I had never read all of the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stuff. The guy who's probably speaking loudest in the back of my head about this is Michael Moorcock, who wrote this whole giant series of related variations on the same type of doomed hero. And I never thought about it consciously, but somewhere in the first couple years, I went, "You know what? That stuff made a big impression." A lot of what I'm doing is influenced by having read Michael Moorcock years ago.

Have you ever told him what an influence he was?

I have met him. I was amazed he knew who I was, it was one of the coolest things ever. We just did something very cool together. I did drawings recently for a book that hasn't been announced yet, a regular prose book. I did four drawings for this book, and those drawings were handed off to different writers to write an explanation of what's going on with them, and Michael wrote one of those.

Do you miss doing as much artwork as you used to do?

I'm so frustrated that I'm not drawing comics that it's not even funny. I collect this giant library of Hellboy stories in big hardback books, and the most recent one that came out this year, probably half of the stories in that book are [drawn] by other artists. I wrote the afterword for this book, and by the end of the afterword I was so disgusted with myself because I wasn't supposed to be gone this long. This was supposed to be a very temporary thing. The movies were happening, and to keep this thing going, I started writing for other people, and I looked up and five years are gone. Now all I'm trying to do is get through all this stuff that has to be done—doing covers for other things, a book illustration job. In the next month, I should be back drawing comics. It was a five-year detour, and what I figured out in those five years is that I want to be drawing comics. I want to be writing and drawing for myself. And that's what I want to do.

The last thing I ever expected was being a writer. I only became a writer because I realized nobody was going to read my mind and write the perfect story for me. It was entirely an excuse to draw what I wanted to draw. I actually gotta say, in this five years of doing writing, I have written things I'm pretty proud of. I could see continuing as a writer. There's no problem making up stories, there are a billion stories I'd like to do and a lot of great artists I'd like to work with. But you gotta make decisions. What's really fun to me is doing the drawing. When I write for other people, I've got to leave them a lot of room to do things their way. There's always a part of me that knows how I would do the story, but the way I've kind of lived with it is "Let them do it their way. This story over here we're going to do ourselves. I do it my way." That's where I am.

You've been to Emerald City Comicon before, right?

I've been to the Seattle con once, and I thought it was great. I was so swamped that I didn't get to see as much as I would have liked to see. The beauty of the Seattle show is it's still a really fun comics-oriented show. That's why I like to go. When [professionals] talk about how horrible the San Diego convention is, the next sentence is "But there are some good shows." Seattle is on the short list of the shows that are really fun. The fear is always that it's really fun and now everyone is going to know about it and it's gonna get bigger, and at some point is it going to become some giant unwieldy monster of a convention like San Diego? But for now, it's nice to do a comics show.

Do you have any weird convention stories?

After a while, they all kind of mush together. Stuff that once upon a time would've been weird becomes so normal that it doesn't register anymore. The weirdest thing about these things is that nothing becomes weird anymore.

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