Imagine the MCU, if it were found in a series of cursed leather-bound tomes in the basement of a turn of the century explorers league. It has the literary mouthfeel of Jules Verne; ancient machines rumble and toil in the earth, while Lovecraftian schemes tick away, ensuring the end of days. But fear not! The Mignolaverse has its champions, beleaguered though they are by a litany of vague prophecies foretelling a terrible truth: they’ve already lost. The question, then, becomes how they choose to shunt their fate, even a little, away from complete defeat.
Somehow, it works. At the core of the Mignolaverse is Hellboy, Mike Mignola’s most iconic hero. You’ve likely seen him portrayed onscreen by Ron Pearlman in Guillermo Del Toro’s infamous adaptations, or by David Harbour, who gave a criminally underappreciated spin on big red in the recent remake. Hellboy works for the B.P.R.D., a group of paranormal investigators who soon become the only thing standing between humanity, and the end of the world.
But who is Mike Mignola, really? What drives him, and what impact has he had on the world of comics, art, storytelling and film? MIKE MIGNOLA: DRAWING MONSTERS is an extremely ambitious new documentary that dives deep into the life and works of Mignola. It’s currently at the very, very tail end of a truly fascinating Kickstarter campaign – the list of tier rewards are, whether or not you’re a fan, full of the kind of goodies which should make people stand up and take notice. Here’s the official rundown of the project from the Kickstarter page itself;
Hellboy has appeared in countless graphic novels and comic books, prose novels and short story collections, acclaimed role-playing games and video games, three live action films and two animated features, and has inspired toys and collectibles. Now it’s time for award-winning Hellboy creator Mike Mignola to get his turn in the spotlight in the all new documentary MIKE MIGNOLA: DRAWING MONSTERS, the definitive story of one of the most influential and important comic book creators of all time.
MIKE MIGNOLA: DRAWING MONSTERS is a feature-length film that tells the story of how Mike Mignola came to create a world-renowned comic book universe. The film includes never-before-seen interviews conducted with the legendary creator at his studio, drawing demonstrations, behind the scenes footage from workshops and comic book conventions, and interviews with some of the most influential people in entertainment.
As one of the most successful independent comic book creators, Mignola has inspired generations of writers and artists. This film provides an in-depth look at his legacy, from the beginning of his career to his success with Hellboy. We are already well into production and are here on Kickstarter asking for YOUR help to finish this film!
Mike Mignola is also, however, the kind of creative who doesn’t rest on his laurels. During. The COVID lockdown, he’s created a sumptuous sketchbook full of drawings he’s made whilst in isolation. MIKE MIGNOLA: THE QUARANTINE SKETCHBOOK is a treasure trove of truly odd works from the mind of a man whose imagination often strays to some truly deep and dark waters. Because I wanted to find out more about both the documentary and the sketchbook, and because I’m a self-confessed devotee of everything nestled inside the warm, mysterious recesses of the Mignolaverse, I went straight to the source.
I sat down with Mike Mignola and asked him what made him tick.
PAUL: Hi Mike! Thanks so much for chatting with me. First off, lockdown has been an incredibly odd time to be a creative. Among other things, you turned out your wonderful quarantine sketchbook. Could you talk us through the project, but also perhaps discuss what you think being locked down during a pandemic does to the brain and the output of an artist and storyteller who is, perhaps, trapped with his own thoughts a little?
MIKE: In the early days of the lockdown, I found I just really didn’t know what to do with myself. Nobody knew how long this thing would go on, and I couldn’t really focus on doing “real” work, especially as my publisher was putting so many of the Hellboy projects on temporary hold. I needed something to distract myself, so really the sketches were mostly a way to entertain myself and the people who follow me on social media. I was just playing, and as I did them, and as people seemed to like them, I just got addicted to doing them. I did them pretty much all day every day, and after a while, they really started to stack up.
Eventually, my wife and I decided to start a weekly auction, with proceeds going to José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen. Almost from the start people were asking us to publish the drawings, and I was super happy with so many of them, I thought they would make a nice book. I approached Dark Horse (or they approached me, I can’t remember now), and they agreed to donate all the profits to World Central Kitchen. So not only was I able to distract myself in those early, very uncertain times, but we managed to raise some money to help feed people. I feel pretty good about it.
PAUL: Hellboy, the B.P.R.D., and all of the other various denizens of your universe (the Mignolaverse, as it’s often called) are chiefly occupied with the end of the world. What’s it been like watching things unfold over the last year, in a (god I hope this isn’t the case in the end) real end of the world scenario?
MIKE: Well, it’s a whole different thing ending the world on paper than watching it on the news. Like everybody, I’m sure, I just found the early days of this thing so surreal. Fortunately, I was able to keep busy and try not to think about it.
PAUL: Sometimes when reading your world, or looking at your artwork, I feel like I’m inside a dream. And your characters, too – specifically Hellboy – tend to look at untold horrors and just go “…huh. Would you look at that”. There’s a certain mindset there, a specific way of looking at evil, which I find fascinating, because it’s pragmatic, and comforting (to me, at least). How much of your worldview is infused into your characters?
MIKE: My world view…. Well, I guess it’s in there. Certainly, Hellboy’s PERSONALITY is very close to mine—and a lot of Hellboy is based on my father. He never fought monsters (to the best of my knowledge), but was in the Korean War, and his only stories about that were funny. He talked about stories that involved terrible accidents like they were no big deal. Same with workplace accidents.
I remember him telling me about a guy he worked with (he was a cabinet maker) shooting a nail through his own thumb, and how that guy had casually come over to my father to ask him to pull it out. My father had had to put his reading glasses on before pulling out the nail. Stuff like that was no big deal, and that made a huge impression. And that went into Hellboy. I just elevated it to be about monsters rather than nail gun accidents.
PAUL: Mike Mignola: Drawing Monsters looks to be an extremely ambitious project. What has it been like having your work looked at, pored over and analysed by a documentarian, and by the writers, artists and performers who feature in it?
MIKE: I’ve only seen a tiny bit of it, and it was strange—and a bit emotional. When the thing started I never really gave any thought to what it would be like watching other people talk about me. It’s very flattering, and strange. I can’t even imagine how strange it will be when the thing is actually done and out there for people to see. I guess there was a part of me that never actually believed the thing would really be done. Now it’s starting to feel a bit more real, so mostly I just don’t think about it.
PAUL: Well I can’t wait to see it! Finally, Mike, I’m aware you draw from a (forgive the pun) monstrous wealth of influences. But is there anything you almost created and injected into the Mignolaverse that you didn’t? Are there any genres, tropes, any iconic story wells you almost dipped into but deemed too ambitious, too heady to tackle?
MIKE: I’ve been avoiding mythologies I don’t really understand. Some of that is laziness (I just don’t want to do the research), but mostly it’s the fear of getting stuff wrong and offending people. Asian mythology, for example. So much of that is tied to religion, and I just don’t know that stuff and don’t want to make a mistake. I would LOVE for those kinds of stories to exist and, hopefully, one of these days, with a better writer involved, they will. But I think that’s the only kind of thing I’ve knowingly avoided.
I usually shy away from the real personal relationship stuff, but I did finally give Hellboy a girlfriend (in The Wild Hunt). But I was only able to do that because I was working with an artist (Duncan Fegredo) who is much better at drawing women than I am.
PAUL: While I don’t want to spoil anything for non-readers, your Hellboy adjacent stories are occupied with… well, the end of the world. But there’s an optimism in there.
MIKE: I never really think of myself as an optimist, but I suppose I am—at least in my work. Maybe it’s that when you put so much time and energy into these characters and their world, you make them real, in the end, you want things to work out for them. I love Hellboy. I had to love him or I wouldn’t be able to tell his story over such a long period of time (more than twenty-five years so far). I knew he was ultimately kind of screwed—he was going to have to do stuff and suffer in a way none of the others were suffering before the end. But I knew it was to accomplish something amazing.
So, yeah, I guess my thinking is that things can get really, really bad, but there will be some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. Things might, might change, but they aren’t just going to end. Is that optimistic? I guess so. And I guess that’s also how I had to look at the whole pandemic thing. Maybe things will never be the same as they were before, but there would be some kind of world on the other side.
After talking with Mike (and reaching for my smelling salts, because talking to your heroes is always a heady experience), I was fortunate enough to talk with Jim Demonakos and Kevin Hanna, creators of the upcoming Kickstarter-backed documentary.
PAUL: What was it about Mike’s work that compelled you to make this project in the first place?
JIM: Mike Mignola is a singular creator with an incredible vision. He did something that few others have done, in that he created his own character and built it over the course of 25+ years into an expansive comic book universe. He is one of the only creators outside of what Jack Kirby and Stan Lee did at Marvel in the 60s to not only put together a cohesive universe but to continue to be the driving force behind these characters. Though there have been adaptations of his material into other mediums, it is his comic books that continue to hold an unparalleled level of creative ideas and stories that are not to be missed.
I can’t recommend enough that people pick up some Hellboy comics and delve into this amazing world. It’s thanks to all of this that we felt that Mike Mignola was a creator worth profiling and whose story deserves to be told.
PAUL: Documentaries are deeply personal, but they also tend to reveal a lot. What are some things you discovered during the filming that you didn’t know already about Mike’s work?
KEVIN: Mignola spoke very candidly about how he lost his mother at a young age and that, early on, he was a slow reader. A teacher encouraged his interest in monsters by introducing him to various novels and he fell in love with reading. When he discovered Bram Stoker’s Dracula, his interest in reading and monsters were cemented. From that moment on, all he really wanted to do in life was to illustrate monsters and other supernatural things.
He started his illustration career at Marvel and then DC, but he didn’t quite fit in because of his style, and it was until he went out on his own with his creation, Hellboy, that he found his path. To his credit, he had this goal in mind and continued to pursue his vision until it became exactly what he’s known for – Drawing Monsters.
PAUL: And lastly, what do you think it is that brings people to fall in love with Hellboy and the BPRD?
JIM: It’s interesting because, visually, you wouldn’t think that a giant red demon from hell would be so relatable. Yet, Hellboy tends to be the most down to earth “everyman” character in the entire universe of the Hellboy and BPRD books. I think he’s someone people really identify with because of his conflict with his origin. He fights against what it means to be a demon from hell, fights against the instinct to be what he was ‘born’ to be while paving his own road. Though his path is full of supernatural monsters, his personal journey is much like anyone’s – trying to find your way forward in life while not succumbing to the pressure to be something you’re not, whether that’s from birth or circumstance.
Hellboy was raised with a moral centre and uses that as a compass to guide himself through life, which makes him much more human than many of the things he’s sent to fight, and that’s why I feel he’s so lovable.
There were still lingering questions I had, however, about the legacy of Mignola’s work. I thought it might be interesting to talk to someone on the inside, so I chatted with Katii O’Brien, editor at Dark Horse.
PAUL: What is it, do you think, that sets the Hellboy universe apart from other comic (and literary universes)?
KATII: There are a few things that set Hellboy and his world apart in the comics world. First, the Hellboy universe is a single canon, so just one world in which all of the comics are set. We’ve done some prose that isn’t considered canon, in the same way that Hellboy stories in film and games aren’t canon either, but in the comics, it is all part of the one official story. This is wonderful, because everything fits together in one world with no alternate universe versions of events or characters, and there have been no reboots. It can be tricky to keep track of it all! It all needs to match up at the end of the day because our readers will notice.
Second is that the comics have such a distinct visual style: the world and the monsters and of course Hellboy himself has such a specific look. We’re so lucky to work with many artists and writers now who have expanded the world beyond the first comic series, but for more than 10 years Mike was the only one drawing Hellboy, and so the world has a particular (dark, shadowy, gothic) flavour. It’s very recognizable.
The last big distinction is that Hellboy is a creator-owned character. Most big superheroes in comics are owned largely by Marvel and DC, but Mike owns Hellboy and has ultimate creative control in the comics. He gets the final say on everything from which creators we collaborate with, to the character and creature design, spinoff series, story beats and more. It’s inspiring to see a character that has become so big stay under the control of the person who created it.
PAUL: What is it that resonates with you about Mike Mignola’s body of work?
KATII: I’ve always been a fan of horror, so Hellboy was something I was drawn to quickly when I started reading comics. Folkloric monsters, demons, ghosts, vampires, the occasional werewolf, it’s all right up my alley. But of course, stories about monsters are really stories about humans, and that is where the Hellboy epic really hits home. He’s just this half-demon guy with a massive stone right hand that he never asked for, wandering around earth and even around hell fighting demons and trying to be a good person despite the fact that he’s supposed to be the beast of the apocalypse.
It’s complicated for Hellboy! But it’s always complicated for each of us in our own ways, we deal with our problems and maybe we have to fight against something that feels like it’s destined whether we want it or not. The most we can do is just try our best. The monsters may be less creature-feature inspired in our real lives, but it’s still relatable, and it’s a big reason why Hellboy has remained so popular over the years.
There really is nothing quite like the work of Mike Mignola. It’s smart, dry, strange, and it takes you places you never imagined. It strays across genres almost effortlessly, flitting from B-movie pulp hero, to Arthur Conan Doyle mystery, to Lovecraftian horror, to Norse mythology within a matter of pages. If you’re so inclined, head across to the Mignolaversity and do their reading order, it’s a monumental project, but it’ll change your life, if only just a little.