Mike Mignola is a legendary artist, storyteller, and art collector. He is best known for creating Hellboy. We had an exclusive opportunity to visit Mike in his studio/home to understand his thought process behind creating some of the most memorable characters, and to get advice for new artists entering the market. ––Iqvinder Singh
Iqvinder Singh: Mike, what’s the future for the Hellboy franchise? Is there a Hellboy 3 in the works, or do you have any influence in the process of script writing or pitching the idea to Hollywood?
Mike: Yes, we actually started the third Hellboy movie. It’s not the Guillermo Del Toro and Ron Perlman version, but a totally new reboot.
With this reboot, does it tie into any of the previous movies or is it a whole new story?
It’s loosely based on one of my books, but it bares no resemblance to the Del Toro stuff, except where Del Toro is drawing from my materials. We’re adapting a different story, called “The Wild Hunt." When we originally started working on the screenplay, it was going to be a continuation of what Del Toro had done but once we had a new director, Neil Marshall, and a new actor, Dave Harbour, the thought was "Why try to continue with somebody else’s version of Hellboy? let this be Neil Marshall’s and Dave Harbour’s Hellboy version." We didn’t want to tie their hands trying to make it flush with what Del Toro had done before. At the same time, we respect what Del Toro did, so let’s not have anybody try to second guess what Del Toro would’ve done, and not tie Neil’s hands with something the other director had started.
I’m sure it will be amazing. When can we expect to see this new Hellboy?
January 11, 2019 is the opening date.
There are so many comic book artists taking the leap into the fine arts world. Even your work is considered “fine art” by a lot of my contemporaries. With the absence of some of your characters, I can see some of your backgrounds and sets as a fine art painting. Can you give some insight into your process on how you create these mesmerizing worlds?
I generally don’t use models. I like using photo references and I love doing architecture. One thing that I was/am much more interested in, especially as I got more towards the end of Hellboy series, was hell. When I put Hellboy in hell, hell was an entirely made up thing that I wanted to draw. That’s where I think this gigantic transition out of comics started to happen, because I was drawing a lot of old buildings, a lot of architecture, trees, and more of the environment, rather than just drawing people. That was one of the reasons I threw him in hell in the first place, so I would just be drawing the things that I wanted to draw, and the compositions I wanted to do, including odd little cities, buildings leaning at funny angles, and stuff like that. I was getting away from the rigid structure of story and it was more about these parades of interesting images. A lot of that stuff is based on photo references. I go through all the references and do a lot of drawings in my sketchbook so I can exaggerate buildings in weird angles and shapes. When I begin actually drawing for production, I reference my sketchbook so I get that transition away from the photos. It would be fun to just render a cool old church or something, but I need to throw it into my world and exaggeration.
I was always curious on your take on heaven and hell. There’s a lot of mythology and folklore in your work. What kind of references did you use to depict hell in your work?
Hellboy in hell is really a great name and it was a good idea for a story, but my hell is just inside of my head. It was just a place where I would get to draw whatever I wanted. Basic geography of my hell is sort of based on Milton’s idea of these kind of concentric circles and I put his city, Pandemonium, smack in the middle, and I put in the lake. Beyond that, the bulk of what I did in hell were these cities, and that was me just wanting to draw old buildings.
I was reading your Wikipedia profile and Alan Moore described your style as “German expressionism meets Jack Kirby”. I think that’s a great compliment, and pretty accurate. What do you think?
That’s pretty good. I think that simplifies it quite a bit but certainly the angles and the shadows are very German. It’s very old German cinema, you see it in their poster art and in everything else. I never consciously said I wanted to do work like this, but it is the kind of stuff I’ve seen a lot of and I think I respond to those kinds of shapes. Ever since the beginning of my career, I’ve used a lot of shadows, which is really just the way I render. It’s always been stark black and white and it’s only gotten more starkly black and white over the years. From there I started adding and drawing the exaggerated angles to architecture and stuff, just another reason why it was important for me as an artist to get Hellboy out of the real world and put him into a place that had no rules. I’ve been never been terribly realistic, but when I was drawing Hellboy on Earth, it was always the thought of we are dealing with gravity and there should be cars and things like that. I stepped away from drawing the book for about 6 years and when I came back, it was really important that I come back to a place where I was going to be entirely in my own world as an artist.
As an artist and writer, how much control do you have on character development and story lines working with publishers?
I have complete control because I own it. I must say Dark Horse has been terrific. When I approached them with something called Hellboy, I said I wanted to do this thing and I want to own it and I want you to give me the same deal as Frank Miller. A bunch of us went together to Dark Horse with the idea that we would all create our books for them and they would give us a sort of separate imprint within Dark Horse. It’s good when you do this with guys like Frank Miller and other heavy hitters. The publisher said sure, and we moved forward with Hellboy. I don’t ever recall them asking me what Hellboy was. I, coming out 10 years of DC and Marvel comics, was doing fine but I wasn’t like someone like Frank Miller who was famous for a particular book. I’ve done some commercial and non-commercial stuff so for a publisher to give me that freedom to do my own thing was huge. And I assumed that if it didn’t sell, they would’ve said at some point “Thank you very much, and what else have you got,” but it did okay. At no point have they told me anything about how we like the book to come out faster, we like this kind of story or that kind of story. They made some suggestions along the way but for the most part, I’ve been left alone to do the book as I wanted to do for 20 some odd years. I am very, very spoiled at this point.
Iqvinder: Superhero movies are hot right now and it seems like every few months , there’s a new DC or Marvel movie out in theaters. Hellboy has it’s own cult-like following because the characters are so unique, and it stands out from traditional superheroes like Superman, Batman, or the X-men. Where does Hellboy fall in comparison to some of the other franchises that are out there?
It’s definitely more of a niche thing which is why it was not easy for Del Toro to get that first movie made, because it’s not Spider-man or Batman. It was one of his big frustrations. First of all, he wanted to make something called Hellboy, which most people didn’t know about. He wanted to star Ron Perlman, who most people did not see as a leading man, and he wanted what he wanted as a budget. It took him six years to find a studio that said we don’t get it but we trust you, we’re not going to give you this much money but we’ll give you this other amount and let you have Ron Perlman. That was a gigantic uphill battle that I don’t think anybody would’ve fought other than Del Toro. The movie we’re doing now is, in superhero film terms, a very low-budget movie. I think it has the potential to be a big movie, but it doesn’t have that superhero name recognition of those kind of superhero things, and it’s not quite meant to be a superhero film, but not quite meant to be a horror film either. To me, the beauty is that you can twist this thing in a lot of different ways, you don’t have any kind of rules where you have to say a superhero has to be this way and horror film has to be this. This is some kind of odd thing in between. One thing that makes Hollywood nervous is when they can’t put something into a very specific slot, is it a comedy? is it a drama? is it a superhero movie? And when you say it’s a little bit of all that, there’s some hesitation on the other side.
Speaking of Del Toro, his recent movie The Shape of Water had a character very similar to Abe Sapien. Was there any Hellboy influence?
I haven’t spoken to Del Toro about The Shape of Water recently. But he did tell my wife and I about this particular story. From what I know, this particular character is a fish man, and Del Toro made a very prominent fish character in Hellboy played by the same actor. I think there are some design similarities, but again, it’s a fish man. I think it would be hard to make one that isn’t somehow similar. Del Toro had two films that featured a fish man so there’s going to be some parallel. I know Abe Sapien was Del Toro’s favorite character and he was very involved in Abe’s design. So he’s definitely got his aesthetic of what a fish guy should look like, so it’s a surprise to hear about the similarities between the two characters. If you look at the details of the costume closely, it looks to me like if you took the Creature from the Black Lagoon and made him much sleeker and shrink wrapped and put it on Abe Sapien, and that’s what this new guy looks like to me. But it obviously will be compared and some people even said that it was an unofficial Abe Sapien movie. I think it’s a movie that features a fish man, but people wanna read into and try to make it something else, and that’s fine but it’s not Abe Sapien. It’s just a different fish guy.
I would personally love to see an Abe Sapien spinoff.
You know obviously, me too. I never thought when I started doing this stuff that I would get to do Hellboy for 20 years. I certainly never thought we would see so many spinoffs of the comic. It was really just me trying to do a book that I would like to read as a fan of that kind of a material, so it never occurred to me that it would blossom into all these other related books and in the same way, I never thought they would make it into a film. But at this point, I have no idea what will happen. We could get a TV series, we could get spinoff movies but who knows, or this movie could come out and not find an audience and that’s it. I’m open to possibilities but I’m not banking on anything, I’m not expecting anything. What I’ve done in my career and the places I’ve been is so far beyond anything I ever imagined. If it all stops tomorrow, I did million times more than I ever thought I would do, so I made my peace with that.
What other projects can we expect to see from you in the near future?
I am wrapping up the comics stuff. Working on few Hellboy related projects that I can’t talk about at this time. When I did Hellboy in Hell last year, I said I’m done with comics for at least a year. I’m gonna take a year off and paint. I painted for about four months and did some paintings that I was pretty happy with. Then I got dragged back into doing comics and I did actually start another comics project that I was writing and drawing. I got 19 pages into it and I said you know what, I wanna go back to doing paintings again. When I’m wrapped with the comics by end of the year, I’m really not sure what I’m doing. I wanna draw and paint for fun. I feel like I started creating a world, and now rather than drawing stories about a guy wandering around in that world, I just want to draw this world or the people in the world. It’s hard for me to let go of a story, but at this point I just want to focus on this. I never set out to be a writer, I always wanted to be an artist and I just want to see how good of an artist I can be.
I’ve seen some of your fine arts stuff and I think it looks great. There’s a subtle hint of comics in there, but I like the new direction.
I feel like I was just scratching the surface and I just want to keep going to see where that goes. I am very lucky with the Hellboy machine still running, and the books are getting published, so that gives me a certain level of financial security, to be in the position where I don’t have to grind out comic book pages or hit deadlines. I can keep one hand in that stuff to keep the machine running, but the only thing I’ve ever done is work, so if I’m not actually doing comic pages, I still have to be doing something. It’s hard when what ordinarily would’ve been my hobby became my job. Even Hellboy was a project in between my commercial jobs, and it eventually became a commercial job. It wasn’t a job in a bad way, but it would’ve been something I would be doing for fun for anyway. Most people say I won the game because I was doing something I love to do as a job. So the idea of just working for fun allows me to push my own artistic boundaries. Part of the excitement in doing paintings is that it has no safe commercial value. I know if I just did Hellboy paintings or other type of monsters, I know there’s a market for them. For me, to do a painting of an old house, church, or other architectural structure, there’s really no market for that. Because I’ve been in business for so long, and am still somewhat commercially minded, there’s a voice in my head that asks me what I am going to do with that painting, and I have to remind myself that I’m doing these just for me. I have no plans for a show, book, or anything else. I just want to do work that has no definitive purpose. To me that’s kind of exciting.
To me personally, one of the reasons I picked up your books was because of your backgrounds. I thought there was nothing like that in the market at that time. I would imagine the beauty of the worlds you created by stripping out the story bubbles and characters.
Yeah, it’s been kind of nice natural transition through this career and especially through Hellboy. Coming out of mainstream comics to do Hellboy, it’s almost like a game where I was like, I’m doing this and nobody told me to stop, and I just kept going. At the end of my career, I turned in some drawings at DC comics and they were like "ehhh, it’s beginning to get weird" and they thought I was getting too exaggerated with my people, my characters, and building angles. Luckily, I left around the same time and started doing my own thing, and since then nobody has told me that drawings are too strange or anything like that. I was left to my own devices for 20-some-odd years where "I’ve gotten away with this so now let me try that." Even though I’ve been working in the commercial way, I’ve had the freedom to evolve the way I want to evolve without ever saying "If I want to sell this book, it’s gotta be this or that way." If my goal was to write a best-selling book, maybe I’ve would’ve approached it differently, but I just wanted to do what I wanted to do.
In closing, do you have any advice for upcoming illustrators, writers, and artists?
I’ll keep it to the comics world. I see so many people doing stuff thinking it will be a TV show or movie. I see so many books where it seems like they are pitching for a TV show, and that’s fine, but it’s a totally different thing and I can’t relate to that. My one word of advice to people would be that if you’re going to do your own thing, chances are it won’t work. I got lucky. I didn’t think Hellboy was gonna work, but it did, and over the years it turned into something. If you wanna do something, do exactly what you want. Rather than saying this or that will sell, do what you truly want. If you never put your ideas out there, you will never know if it might be successful. I ended up doing my dream job, not knowing if it will be successful. If I never tried it, I would’ve never found out.
A lot of the artists I know from the 1970s and 1980s tell me that when they went to their respective art school, they simply learned the craft of creating something, but nowadays, schools are bringing in the business side of art world. Young illustrators, artists, and writers are trained to focus on certain elements of being creative so they can be financially stable. They have script writing classes for TV and movies that are molding them think in a certain way.
The problem with that is that even if your teacher is working right now, they are teaching you something that was true yesterday and today. There really isn’t a way to train you for what might be coming, so there are no rules. I think it’s just human nature where people want rules, how do you do this, how do you do that? One of my favorite questions, and it’s absurd to me, is how did I go about creating a transmedia franchise? And they think there’s an answer for that. And I go, “Dude, it’s called Hellboy.” It’s about a guy who’s red and has a tail. If there was any part of me that thought I was gonna sit down and create something commercial, I would’ve not done any of those things. Whatever success I have is entirely despite the way I went about it, so there are no rules. There are certainly things that work better than the others, but I think the exciting thing is to get out there and just try something. But so many people are afraid and some people just want to do the assignment. There are some people in comics whose end goal is to do Batman or Spider-man and they are perfectly content and happy. But what’s frustrating to me is that when people come up to me and say "I really want to do what you do, but you could’ve only done that in the 90s." No, you can do it now. With the advancement of technology, there are so many ways to put your work out there. It’s almost like, I wanna do it, but I wanna have an excuse to not do it. I’m a poster boy for doing a weird thing and turning it into something, so hopefully I’m an example of, "if that fucking idiot can do it, maybe I can do it as well."
Be sure to check out the new Hellboy movie next year, and if you haven't seen the past films or read the comics, DEFINITELY consider immersing yourself into Mignola's Hellboy universe. Thank you Mike!