On Saturday, March 22nd, Mike Mignola's Hellboy will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the publication of his first comic with celebratory events in comic stores around the world and a massive collection of Mignola's artwork, titled Hellboy: The First 20 Years. We asked the artist to pick his favorite 10 pieces, and tell us the stories behind them.
An important message from Mike Mignola before we begin:
I should say upfront that this might come across sounding like I like my own work, which is a completely skewed version of me 'cause I generally do not like anything I do. But if you look at 20 years worth of my work I can pick out a couple pieces I'm kind of happy with. I'm going to apologize right now for anything I say in the upcoming bit that makes it sound like I know what I'm doing or that I'm actually pleased with my own stuff.
The First Drawing of Hellboy (1991)
Mignola: This is the first drawing of the thing that became Hellboy. It was the first time I wrote the word Hellboy. I remember distinctly drawing it. I needed to do a drawing for an upcoming convention, they asked for me to draw something. And since at the time I wasn't known for any particular character, I just made up this clunky thing and as an afterthought wrote Hellboy on it. At the time I thought that was the funniest damn thing I'd ever came up with. There was no serious thought about doing a comic about this guy. But a couple of years later, when it was time to do my own comic I went back to this and thought I liked drawing that monster and that was the only name I ever made up that I thought was funny, so there you go.
You can tell it's much obviously much more of a fantasy thing than what Hellboy turned into. But by the time I came up with the idea of doing the comic I was thinking a little bit more commercially than just some wandering aimless monster guy. Well, not that I made him that much more commercial, but certainly the idea of a book that took place not in the fantasy world but more or less in the real. He's not just some big shaggy monster with a crab on his belt. He's functioning in more or less real world. I did have to shave him and carve him down a bit. There are in existence five or six drawing that kind of show the transition from this guy to the guy that ended up in the first issue of the comic. But mostly it was a matter of shrinking him down and putting a coat on him.
Hellboy: Seed of Destruction #1, Page 8 (1994)
Mignola: I guess that's the first page where Hellboy shows up in the first issue of the comic. It was important to me because of the comics I grew up reading I wanted Hellboy to have some kind of roots in World War II. A lot of my favorite comic stuff — Captain America, and certainly some of the villains, the Red Skull and all these Marvel characters — all come out of that World War II era. So I wanted Hellboy to at least appear at the end of World War II so we could see him as an infant surrounded by GIs. I just always thought that's the kind of background I wanted that character to have. That's what that is. And of course it became kind of iconic because they more or less used this scene in the film.
That [photo drawing] was a bitch to do. Believe me. I do seem to remember that that was a pain in the ass. Because my tendency as an artist is to do the fantasy stuff, but to make this character work to make a character that I thought had the possibility of sticking around, I needed to root him in the real world. So I did have to struggle to do these real world kind of scenes to ground the character as opposed to being just a parade of fantasy images.
Hellboy: The Third Wish #1 Cover (2002)
Mignola: This is one of those very few drawings that I'm really happy with because it conveys this nice sense of quiet which is not necessarily what most people see in comic book art. It's also a great example of why I never want to be parted from Dave Stewart, who colors my work. It just really works for me and conveys this nice quiet mood.
The lions are part of the story. And again it's hard to tell which came first. Did I just want to draw lions or did I have some significant plot point? I think, if I remember correctly, I read, when I was doing my research on Africa I found this thing about the spirits of African chiefs kind of coming back in the form of lions. It seems like I read something like that enough that I said "oh that's a cool authentic feeling bit that I will work into the story." So as part of the story we have this kind of dream sequence where Hellboy is surrounded by lions who basically tell him "we don't want you here, get lost."
B.P.R.D.: Garden of Souls #3 Cover (2007)
Mignola: This is just an odd one. I did a couple of covers like this for this particular series. Part of the idea in the story was that these crazy Victorian scientists who now exist in these metal suits are breeding these composite animals. And instead of just drawing the composite animals I thought it would be fun to stitch together different photos, it's based on photo reference, but stitching together the different animals by superimposing the pictures over each other. I quite often feel like I'm really lazy when it comes to doing stuff, and certainly if you've got a comic that's got monsters in it or weird creatures the easiest thing is to just draw that creature. But for this one I just thought…there was a little more thought than usual went into these, and again it's the case where color wise and everything it I thought it just worked perfect. Guy Davis who is the artist on the series, he and I, bounced designs back and forth for these Victorian diving suit robot guys which I was super happy with. This is just one of those pieces that I just think overall works.
I'm not a big believer in throwing something on the cover to sell the comic. My feeling is when the series has been going on for a while, and it says BPRD on it, either you know what that is or you don't know what that is. It's not like the newsstand where kids are going to go in there and go, "Oh boy! I want to go in there and buy a comic. Hey look! that cover looks exciting." My feeling was I'm selling to the people who are already buying the series. Let me just put something cool on the cover and not worry about trying to grab you
Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #4 Cover (2008)
Mignola: Yeah, this is kind of a nice contrast to that lion one. I've certainly done more pieces like that lion one, I think, than I have like this. This is a super rare action cover, and really it's a nod to Frank Frazetta, who was probably my biggest influence as a kid. And again, it was a real pain in the ass to do. But I think it works. And I don't know that I've done another Hellboy cover even remotely like this. I've started a couple and just gone ugh, the nightmare of trying to compose all those figures together… well, is a nightmare. You know, I should do another one one of these days…
I'm such a design guy when it comes to composing things that the more elements I have to compose, I know the longer the piece is going to take. I like to compose objects, but when it comes to composing a lot of figures there are so many variables. Like this guy's arm crossing that guy's arm and blah blah blah blah blah. Plus then I start adding all the shadows and blacking in certain bits and can become very chaotic. I can do it, but it's a gigantic effort, labor, and it's… I don't need that much more gray hair!
Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #7 Cover Line Art (2009)
Mignola: This is Hellboy: The Giant Religious Painting. I thought this was a great example of how huge this book can be, should be. The threat the promise of what this character is which is so far removed from anything I ever thought he was gonna be. And I thought it worked. Again, it's something I don't do very often — the big, glowing sky thing — but yeah, it worked. I don't know that I would do a piece like this now. it's very much of its time. It nailed that version of what this character may well be one of these days.
It's not meant to be Godzilla stomping on a town. There's an awe and majesty to what Hellboy is, will be. Whether it's the god of destruction or something else, there's a real godlike quality I wanted as opposed to just a giant monster stomping the town quality.
Hellboy: Double Feature of Evil Cover (2010)
Mignola: This is simply just one of my favorite covers. Composition wise and everything else it worked fine. There is actually a really funny story to this one… I actually kind of wish I had put this in the book. The story is called Double Feature of Evil, and it's presented as two completely different stories. The original idea was to put Hellboy in front of two different movie posters. I did it, I drew it, it was pretty much fine except it had this kind of too much detail feel to it. You have these two complicated images. What I ended up doing was smashing the two movie posters together into that one background, so the skull and the coins and that head, that was one poster. And the other one with the mummies, that was the other poster. I mean, there was more to it than that, but mashing them together it just worked so well. I think if I look back at that original version, the two poster version, I'm sure there came a moment when I looked at the two posters and thought that would look good next to each other. There's probably a little doodle somewhere on that original that shows this piece. And, color wise, Dave Stewart just killed this thing. it's a beauty.
Abe Sapien: The Devil Does Not Jest Cover (2011)
Mignola: Some days it's nightmare [to draw] and some days it's just a pleasure. This is an abstract pile of stuff — it's tricky to do, but I love to draw abstract stuff. I don't remember if this picture went really fast or if it took three days of pulling my hair out — I sense that this one went really fast or at least it was a very pleasant experience otherwise it probably wouldn't be in the book. It's stuff that you can only plan out to a certain extent. And I probably did a rough configuration for some of that stuff above Abe Sabian, but most it's just a game of adding shapes and subtracting shapes and putting a black shape behind here to pop this tooth out. It can be a very pleasant therapeutic kind of experience.
When I started thinking about this cover, I knew the photo reference I had for that house, so I knew the house was going to work. I knew this light shape was going to work coming down and tying into the house, and then there was just all this crap up above. It's one of those pieces that just worked.
B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: The Long Death #1: Year of Monsters Variant Cover (2012)
Mignola: This is again one of those things where the idea was there in the very first sketch. I was thinking of Winslow Homer and these paintings he would do of a guy in a little boat on this big ocean. The ocean is, for me at least, next to impossible to draw. The gag was that all these different covers [for the series] were all going to be about a different monster; I knew I wanted to do a sea monster, and I liked the idea of a guy in a little boat, but I had no idea how I was going to draw the ocean. So coming up with this design solved the ocean problem without overdoing it. Those little suggestions of waves on the left hand side were there in the first sketch, and when I did the finished piece I didn't try to add too much. I kept it as simple and odd and graphic as the original sketch. And again, I'm very proud of this one. A lot of these pieces we're mentioning are pieces that I still own. Every once in a while you do a piece and you go, I don't know if I'll ever do anything better than this, and I'm gonna want to look back at that, so I'm not going to sell this one.
Hellboy in Hell #4 Cover (2012)
Mignola: The way that I've mapped up my version of hell is that it's surrounded by this vast abyss of abstract, wobbling, semi-transparent shapes. I always had jellyfish in mind, because they just have that creepy "what the hell am I looking at" kind of feel. Some of these shapes turned out perfect, and some of these I labored over. But it's such an interesting process to draw this really abstract pile of goo. There's nothing that says this thing needs to be shaped like this or this thing needs to be shaped like that. It's purely abstract. Other than that little drawing of Hellboy in the center, and that initial idea of lighting it like this, it's purely abstract pattern. And it's really fun — it's something I'm really excited about in the kind of work I'm doing these days is not being tied down to drawing concrete objects but just wallowing around in these kind of abstract pure composition kind of things.
Again, I'm trying to do a picture, not trying to do something that's going to spring off the stands. Because we do have that very recognizable Hellboy logo splashed across the top. It's all about making it work as a picture, not making it work as something that comes screaming off the stands at you. When I go into these things I almost always have some kind of idea of how they're going to work, and I knew Hellboy would pop to a certain extent, but I didn't want him to be red. The whole idea of this cover is to mush him into this stuff — he's lost in the swirl of chaotic elements. Again, thank God for the brilliant Dave Stewart…