An interview with Mike Mignola, part five

Blood and iron

Hellboy 2 noticeably moves towards the mythology angle evident in the comics, instead of concentrating on the action and ‘Lovecraftian’ elements of the first.
That was a conscious decision that Del Toro and I both made, because the one element that was not in the first film at all was the folklore and mythology stuff. There was Lovecraft-meets-pulp-magazine-mad-scientist stuff. And so we decided for the second film to do the other side of Hellboy, the folklore and mythology. If you look at the two films together, you kind of see the range of Hellboy.

I was very happy to go in this direction, especially once we’d seen Pan’s Labyrinth, which I hadn’t seen when we made up the story. And maybe it would have been difficult, but when we went in and explained it to the studio—because we’re pitching a story where Hellboy fights fairies and elves, and no matter how much we tapdanced around, sooner or later someone would have to mention fairies or elves, and the other guy would have to jump in and say “It’s not what you think! It’s going to be really dark and really scary”—after Pan’s, it was a lot easier. We could say it’s kind of Hellboy meets Pan’s and everyone knew what we were talking about.

And when I actually saw Pan’s, we were going through a phase where the studio that was going to do the picture wasn’t going to do the picture, and it looked like it wasn’t going to happen. So suddenly all these things that I was reading in the screenplay where I was going “this is cool, but I’ve never seen them doing anything like this,” and “I wonder what it could look like”, once I’d seen Pan’s, I was like “Oh my God—now I see the flavour of Hellboy 2”. To see Pan’s and think we’re not gonna get a chance to make Hellboy 2, that was kind of a rough evening.

It’s kind of funny having to excuse your inclusion of elves and fairies. If you read the old myths, they’re dark and evil creatures.
Del Toro and I understood that, but people either think of cute fairies down the bottom of the garden or they’re thinking Lord of the Rings. With elves, people think of pointy ears, and when you talk about fairies, they only know cute ones. Well, they’ll see a nasty kind of fairy in Hellboy 2! It’s just not what what the film audience is used to, and it’s certainly not a guy sitting in a studio office is used to!

Hellboy also had an animation spin-off, with two DVD features. Where did the idea of that come from?
Well, Del Toro had talked about an animation a lot, but I think it was Revolution Studios that set up the whole animation thing. I wasn’t the driving force behind it—I’m never the driving force behind anything other than the comic. And so when I heard they wanted to do animation, I knew that there was a Hellboy fan named Tad Stone who’d been at Disney for years, but who was now available.

The first thing I said was: “Listen, if you guys are gonna do animation, hire Tad Stone, so someone up there understands the comic.” Because, clearly, Del Toro wasn’t gonna have the time to devote to the animated thing, and I didn’t have time and I’m not an animator. I knew what I’d do story-wise, but again it’s a different medium than the comic, so we needed somebody up there who knew animation, and knew the material and I that I could work with.

Fortunately for me—although I think the fans feel otherwise—they also said they didn’t want it in Mignola style… That was a studio decision, which I was fine with, because if it was in my style, I’d sit there going “Oh, they don’t understand it, they’re not doing it right!” Like when I see people imitating my work, I just see the mistakes. So when they wanted a different style, I thought this was great—one more thing to distance it from the comic and make it an alternate version of Hellboy. Just like Del Toro’s Hellboy is the live-action Hellboy, the animated Hellboy is the ‘Tad Stone’ Hellboy. Both of them are really faithful to the spirit, and the animation is probably closer to the stories that I did, but they’re both their own thing.

How do you personally correlate all the different versions of Hellboy, and which for you is the definitive version?
For me, it’s the one that came first—the one that I do—that’s the definitive version. There are things that I got to do in the animated films that were actually cooler than what I came up with, especially in the third film that it doesn’t look like we’ll get to do, but which was written. It was kind of a retelling of Hellboy’s origin, and a fun opportunity to revisit my material and do it differently.

But the way I did it in the comic is the real Hellboy. It’s my version, and my version has a beginning, a middle and an end that I hopefully will get to one of these days! What’s weird and takes a lot of getting used to now—and this is a good warning for people who are going to go into having work adapted—is that the real version, my version, is the version that the general public will be unaware of. I said to Del Toro the last time I saw him, when we were discussing our various ‘legacies’, that when I die—if anybody remembers and if Hellboy’s still a going concern—and someone says the creator of Hellboy died today, they’ll show a clip from the movie! They won’t show a panel from the comic, because that’s not what the public will know.

It’s funny how many people still don’t see comics as just another storytelling medium. In the UK and USA, you get people flocking to comic-book movies—many of which are actually dumbed down—but they won’t pick up a comic book!
Yeah, there’s still a prejudice against the subject matter, which is why it’s kind of funny they’re flocking to see something that they wouldn’t read, and that they think they know. Maybe with things like Spider-Man and Batman, they saw it as a kid—like the TV show or read the comics. But, you know, those things are in pop culture.

What’s a much bigger struggle is selling a movie like Hellboy, a character that the audience doesn’t know. How do you make it something that more than the 25,000 people that are buying the comic want to see? How do you get beyond that audience?

With thanks to Mike and Christine Mignola, and the guys at Dark Horse. The official Hellboy website can be found at The Hellboy movie website is at

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August 16, 2008. Read more in: Film, Graphic novels, Interviews

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An interview with Mike Mignola, part four

Family story

The presentation of the Hellboy comic is quite cinematic. Was the potential for a movie always at the back of your mind?
It never occurred to me! I never even thought I was going to get to do a second Hellboy story. I thought that when I made up Hellboy, I’ll do this once… I tend to be fatalistic! I thought I’ll do this once, and then when nobody buys it, I’ll limp back to doing whatever job I can get from Marvel and DC Comics. What I wanted was something I’d be able to look back on and say at least once I got to put my personality on the page, before I went back to drawing fill-in issues of Iron Man or whatever it would be.

I was just so thrilled that I got to keep doing it as a comic, and I couldn’t get over the fact that I’d made up something that I still wanted to draw, because I’d never really drawn any one character for more than a couple of hundred pages. The fact that I enjoyed drawing this thing over and over again… I thought I’d won the lottery right there!

The whole film thing, even when it first came up, when Dark Horse first said they were interested in developing it as a film, I went: “Pfft! Sure! I’m very happy to take the movie-option money, as long as you guys want to keep optioning it. That’s great, because no-one will ever make a film of this!” It was beyond anything I imagined.

And then when I met Del Toro, I thought if anybody was going to make a film, he would be the guy to do it. But it was always such an uphill battle that I really never thought it was gonna happen. So, no, it was not something I ever anticipated.

When it was clear the movie was going to happen, what changes were required for the character to work on-screen, and how did you go about adapting it?
I’m not one of those guys who says it needs to be like the source material. In fact, one of the very first conversations I had with Del Toro, I said: “Listen, you turn it into whatever you want to turn it into. I’d love for you to keep true to the spirit of the character, but I actually have a different idea in mind for what I think would be a much easier sell for a movie”. Not that I was ever pitching it, but I thought of a way he could do it. And Del Toro said no, and that he wanted to make it like the comic. So, he was the one wanting to be faithful to the source material!

Yeah, he felt the love interest [between Hellboy and Liz Sherman] was necessary. I think as much as Del Toro loves Hellboy, he brought to it his own things he wanted to do. There were scenes in the first Hellboy film that he’s been trying to put on film for years, and he found Hellboy a great vehicle for some other stuff he wanted to do.

But that’s great. I didn’t want a filmmaker who’d just say, “Oh, this is what it is? OK, fine”. I wanted a filmmaker who went in there with his own agenda, because that’s where you’re going to get an interesting film. You want a filmmaker to make the film they want to make, not a film where they just take some money and put something up there.

So do you think this is a good way of creating a successful comic-book movie? Some, such as Sin City, are slavish, and some, like From Hell, barely resemble the original. But with Hellboy, it remains true to the original’s spirit, but with no effort to tie it into the comic’s continuity. It’s its own thing as well as still being Hellboy.
Right, and I think that basically there’s a lot of factors that have to fall into place, and the more I see of Hollywood, the more I’m amazed when something like that does work. I think in my case with Del Toro, we spoke so much the same language, even to the point that when he came over to my apartment right after we met for the first time, he noticed that we both put certain authors next to other authors on our bookcases, and that we’d read similar stuff.

We speak a very common language—film-wise, not quite as much, because he knows so much more about that—but I think we’re different guys with enough common ground to know we weren’t coming from completely different planets.

Despite the fact you said Del Toro should make the Hellboy movie his own thing, you were actively involved. Most creators either get the hump about translations, or take the money and run, but you wanted to be there. Why was that?
Del Toro wanted me involved, and he didn’t give me a choice! I want you there! I can certainly understand, having gone through it, a creator saying “Go make it, just give me the cheque,” because it’s really a difficult process.

I managed to work with Del Toro while we were hoping to make Hellboy—I’d done pre-production on Blade II, and that was fine, because it was someone else’s thing. Del Toro would say make up this, create this, and that’s fine. When we’re working on Hellboy, and we need to make up something different to what I had done… It’s one thing for me to say change it, and it’s another thing for me to be there changing my thing.

We saw eye-to-eye 95 per cent of the time, but the five per cent where we didn’t was really difficult, because it’s his film and so he’s got the final say on certain things with my character. So the only thing I could do to survive that process is really say the comic’s the comic, the film’s the film, and I’m here working with a guy I really like on his movie. I’m not working on my movie.

This is the one thing we had words about—when I’d say to him, “It’s your movie”, he’d say, “No, it’s our movie”. I’d say, “Well, OK, some days it’s our movie”, and there were a couple of days where it was his movie! For the most part though, it was a really smooth thing.

It’s the same for the second one—a very similar working experience. But more and more the film is Guillermo’s film, especially as the story veers further away from the comic. In a way, it’s actually easier for me the more it veers away from the comic, because it’s much easier to look at it as purely his film. I mean, when I was on the set of Hellboy 2, people would say to me, it must be amazing to see your characters walking around. That was funny, because I wasn’t even thinking of them as my characters—I was thinking of them as the Hellboy movie characters!

There are a couple of scenes where Hellboy is actually bare-chested, but wearing his coat, which is the way I’ve always drawn him in the comic, and he didn’t appear like that in the first film. When I saw Hellboy looking like the character in the comic, that was the only moment when I kind of went “Oh cool, there’s my character”. For the most part, I’ve gotten used to those characters as live-action characters being part of a Del Toro film.

With thanks to Mike and Christine Mignola, and the guys at Dark Horse. The official Hellboy website can be found at The Hellboy movie website is at

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August 15, 2008. Read more in: Film, Graphic novels, Interviews

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An interview with Mike Mignola, part three

The nature of the beast

You have a very distinct way of drawing and inking—a lot of flat colour, plenty of light and shadow. How did your style come about?
The first artist I definitely wanted to be was Frank Frazetta, and I got ulcers in high school because I wasn’t as good as him. It took me years to realise not only was he much older, but he’s also kind of scary freakish good. But at least I was trying! And then I went through a phase where I really wanted to be Bernie Wrightson. The thing is, I was looking at really good guys, and I learned a lot. I studied their work, and then I went through a phase where I wanted to be everybody—every two days I wanted to be a different guy!

When I started working in comics, I realised you don’t really have the opportunity, because stuff’s done so fast, to figure out how so-and-so would have done this. Suddenly, you’re just working. What I found was all the people I wanted to be, all of the little pieces of inspiration, were floating around at the back of my head, and comics is a great place to learn how to draw, because you have to do so much of it.

All those styles start mixing together, and then it’s a case of just being really bad and trying to get better. Every job I did I hated, and so every new job I went into, I’d say this kind of worked, what if I did this with it, and I’d put too many lines here, so let me get rid of some of those, or the colourist messed up this, so next time I’ll just make that solid black and then they can’t wreck it…

There was a lot of that kind of stuff. I think there was at least ten years of just fumbling around, trying to figure out what I was doing before I started to feel like maybe I kind of do know what I’m doing. I’m still trying to figure a lot out. But at least the last ten years I’ve kind of gone, yeah, I guess that’s what this stuff’s supposed to look like!

And now your style’s being imitated by others!
And it’s very flattering! Mostly, people point it out to me and I don’t notice it. I notice it when someone makes the same mistakes I do. If someone does it really well, I go, wow, that guy can really draw… But if he’s doing it badly, I go woah, he got mixed up by the way I do this or this.

I think because I’m influenced by so many different people, the nice thing is no-one can look at my stuff and say I’m doing an imitation of so and so. You don’t want to be the third-best ‘this guy’ or 15th-best ‘that guy’, which unfortunately is what you see a lot of in comics. So when I see people influenced by me, the one thing I’m hoping is that it’s a phase they’re going through and eventually they’ll evolve into their own guy.

During Hellboy’s early years and up until recently, you’ve done almost everything yourself—most of the art and writing—but most comics creators script or illustrate. So how does it feel to have that much control over your creation, and how did it feel when others took over?
It’s interesting because I started out as a guy inking other people, but I was terrible at that so I started drawing other people’s stories. Even when it came to doing Hellboy, I never wanted to write this stuff. I liked making up the stories, but I loved the safety net of having a real writer that’d come along and put the words in there.

John Byrne came along and co-wrote Hellboy with me, because my plan when I talked about doing Hellboy was that I’d just make up the character and a list of stuff I wanted to do—this laundry list of things I wanted to draw—and give it to John to knock into a story. But at that point, I was making stuff up pretty fast, and little by little I was piecing the story together, before I could give it to John, and then John just came in to script it.

Then I’d send artwork to John and have to write in what everyone was saying, because he didn’t know what the story was. So I kind of wrote it, and gave it to John to rewrite. What I then found was there were places where he changed what people were saying and I went hmmmm. It sounded more polished and professional written by John Byrne, but I liked the oddness to the way I wrote it. Some of the quirks and humour didn’t translate.

John knew this, and I was actually editing him as we went through the first Hellboy miniseries. John would always say to me that I should be writing the book. To his credit, John never tried to make this his book or even our book—he always treated it like he was the training wheels on the bicycle, like he was there to help me out. And I can’t thank him enough for that, because at the end the miniseries he said “you’re on your own—you don’t need me!”

So I got to practice writing the book, and then the scariest moment was when I took over the next one, drawing and writing myself. Because I’d never been faced with a situation where everything on the page was gonna be me. And the second Hellboy story was published in black and white, so I didn’t even have a colourist to come along and make it look like a professional job!

But what I found once I relaxed into it a little bit was that there were so many things I could do as the writer and the artist together. So often when you’re working with a writer or an artist, you kind of trip over each other. One guy overstates something, or the writer over-explains something, or the artist doesn’t quite understand what the writer was asking for. But because I was in charge of that vision, I found there was this whole set of tools that I didn’t even realise existed.

To let that go here for a while where I’m turning over Hellboy to someone else to draw… Frankly, it’s been really difficult, because I’ve had to explain to someone else what I’m thinking. I’m so used to knowing what I’m thinking when I’m writing the stories. I know what I’m going to do as an artist, and when I’m drawing, I know pretty much what the writer was thinking. But to have to sit there and write a script where I have to explain everything to somebody else, I always back it up with a phone call to make sure they know that the hell I’m talking about!

What’s happened is that I’ve been writing these past couple of years, and I’m really getting that itch to go back and draw and write some stuff myself, because it’s the real thing. There’s so much interesting stuff you can do when you’re doing it all yourself.

When I go back, it’ll be to do some really odd stuff. I’ll step in periodically to do bits here and there on Hellboy, but I wanna do some stuff that’s more experimental where I’m playing a little more with the artform.

With thanks to Mike and Christine Mignola, and the guys at Dark Horse. The official Hellboy website can be found at

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August 14, 2008. Read more in: Graphic novels, Interviews

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An interview with Mike Mignola, part two

Strange places

With Hellboy, where does your inspiration come from? There’s a real mix of mythology, horror and fantasy.
The first couple of Hellboy books are like an explosion—everything and the kitchen sink is thrown in there, because who knew how long I was going to get a chance to do this? I just wanted all the things I’d ever wanted to draw in the book. I only planned on making up one thing, so I wanted to make sure that everything I wanted to do was in there: pulp-magazine horror stories, b-movies, horror-movie kind of stuff… everything from that to Victorian-era ghost stories… So, basically, everything I’d ever read, everything I’d ever seen, was the inspiration for Hellboy!

And then once I got through the big explosion of stories, the thing I gravitated towards was the folklore. The pulp stuff is really fun to write, but I’ve always loved—since I was a little kid—European folklore. I think it was at the third or maybe even the second story I did, I wanted to do a werewolf story, and it was just a matter of doing enough research and enough reading about werewolves and looking for some kind of folklore hook that I could base the story around. That Hellboy story was almost a straight adaptation of an Irish folk tale.

I’d always wanted to do something with folklore, and I’d actually planned on doing straight adaptations of these tales, but I realised that once I did Hellboy, and once I realised people liked Hellboy, I could do these same stories, but using Hellboy as a device to get people to read them. If I did straight adaptations of Irish folk-tales, it would narrow the audience tremendously, but Hellboy injects this nice ‘everyman’ appeal, even though he’s the beast of the apocalypse, and this is a good way to deal with these old-fashioned stories.

What is it about these folklore stories, myths and legends that really grabs you?
I have no idea. When I was a little kid, I read Dracula, and I said this is a world I wanna live in—obviously not really with him—but this is my kind of subject matter. And there’s always been something about not just gothic literature but folklore and myth that that I’ve found fascinating.

I think one of the things I love about it is that there’s an element of the absurd—in the stuff I like anyway. There’s stuff that happens where you just go: “wow, there’s no way in hell I’d have made that up! It’s like, I don’t know why that works, I don’t know why that happens, but the beauty of that stuff to me is that it does happen.

For some reason, somebody made up a story where the Russian witch Baba Yaga sneaks into a guy’s house every night to count his silverware. God knows why, but there’s some other logic going on—something I always refer to as ‘fairy-tale logic’. Things just happen and you go: yeah, OK, I buy that, even if I don’t understand it.

In doing supernatural fiction, I find that one of the most important things is that there has to be that element of not understanding why things that are happening are happening. As soon as you understand them, they become science-fiction. There’s gotta be that thing where we don’t know what the rules are, with no regular kind of logic to it. It’s that kind of strangeness that I find really endlessly fascinating.

I guess that’s also a good reason for keeping Hellboy grounded?
There’s a schizophrenic nature to writing Hellboy. I listen to a lot of Shakespeare and old Bible films, and so I have a tendency to write in probably a very bad way, where everyone speaks in that kind of rhythm—especially when dealing with the king of the fairies, or the ghost of Rasputin. They tend to speak in this Biblical or Shakespearian way.

What I find is that I write a couple of pages of that and become really embarrassed by what I’m doing. Hellboy is that part of me that is my father’s son that says “What the hell are you doing?” Hellboy’s the guy that’ll come in and deflate that, and let the reader know that I know that the other thing is kind of silly. That’s been the formula that works real well.

So Hellboy brings things down to Earth, if someone’s finding things becoming a bit much for them?
Being an inexperienced writer, the only way I knew how to write my main character was to think what I would say, and that’s worked pretty well. He’s got my sensibilities, he’s got a little bit of my sense of humour, and he’s also got my father’s real blue-collar working-stiff attitude about things.

With thanks to Mike and Christine Mignola, and the guys at Dark Horse. The official Hellboy website can be found at

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August 13, 2008. Read more in: Graphic novels, Interviews

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An interview with Mike Mignola, part one

Wake the devil

What first got you excited about comics?
Boy, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that! My cousin was a comic-book reader, and I was exposed to great Marvel comics—Stan Lee, Jack Kirby stuff—when I was really young, and while I didn’t really become a comic book collector until later, like in junior high school, the bug kind of hit me early that there was this whole world I was unaware of. As I got a little older, I sort of rediscovered this stuff I’d been exposed to as a young kid, and I was just hooked.

What was it that appealed to you? Was it about getting away from reality?
Yeah, it was a real spectacular kind of fiction—there’s the art and the story, and I was drawing since I was tiny, and so the art obviously appealed to me—but it was mostly the mythology.

So what inspired you to go from being a fan to writing and creating your own stories?
From an early age, partly fuelled by comics, but also from the books I started reading, I always loved the supernatural—I always loved monsters—and as I went through art school, my goal was to somehow make a living drawing monsters. There aren’t a lot of jobs doing that! [laughs] And I’d actually gotten out of comics, and wasn’t really following them at that point.

I was gearing myself towards becoming an illustrator, but at some point you realise there aren’t a lot of jobs for an illustrator that wants to draw monsters. So as I came out of art school, I started looking at comics again as a place where I could get away with drawing monsters. I didn’t think I was good enough to draw comics, but I though that by getting in there and inking other people’s work, slowly, little by little, I would eventually be able to get a job in comics, drawing covers or something like that.

I thought that was the only outlet for what I wanted to do. It never even occurred to me to write my own stories at that point. I was in the business for ten years before I started even playing with the idea of writing my own stuff.

What prompted you to start writing?
Well, after ten years in the business, drawing a lot of stuff that didn’t have monsters in it [laughs], I realised that the only way I was going to get to draw the stuff I wanted to draw was to make it up myself.

There was actually a Batman story that I wrote with someone else, but it was my idea, so basically “here’s a list of the things I wanna draw”. I drew it and someone else scripted it, and it was a lot of fun.

Suddenly, I was sitting there thinking that was kind of nice, getting to do my subject matter, so why don’t I, instead of making up other weird stories like this and trying to stick Batman or some other established characters into them, make up my own characters specifically for the purpose of doing these kinds of supernatural stories?

I knew the kinds of stories and subject matter I wanted to do, so then it was just a matter of making up a character to base these stories around. Hellboy isn’t a character I’d planned to do—not something I’d made up as a little kid. I’d done one or two drawings of a character kind of like him, and on one drawing I’d tacked on the name Hellboy, just as a joke.

I actually wanted to do a cult detective kind of character, and I would have made him a regular human being, except I knew I’d get bored drawing a regular human being, and so I just thought why not take this fun monster and make him my main character, because I won’t get bored drawing him!

With thanks to Mike and Christine Mignola, and the guys at Dark Horse. The official Hellboy website can be found at

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August 12, 2008. Read more in: Graphic novels, Interviews

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