Hellboy, the unique creation of writer and artist Mike Mignola, is one of the most universally beloved independent comic books in history. The success of the series, published by Dark Horse since 1994’s Seed of Destruction, which introduced the character, is a testament to a loyal, if not vast, fan-base. Hellboy may not have the broad audience appeal of a Batman or Spider-man, but he’s featured in two feature films with a third in production, two direct to video animated films, as well as several novelized stories and video games, proof of his wide-ranging popularity.
Despite the fact that he eventually brought on other artists to draw many of the stories, chiefly Duncan Fegredo and indie legend Richard Corben, Hellboy is clearly Mignola’s baby, and represents all the things the artist loves best: Horror stories, folklore, mythology, detective stories, World War 2 yarns and the like.
His fellow comic book artists revere Mike Mignola’s work.
Mignola’s inimitable artistic style is instantly recognizable and reflects not only his personal aesthetics, but also a harmonious fusion of the type of story he enjoys with the perfect graphic approach to telling it. Mignola uses a stark, high contrast style that echoes the work of the renaissance masters who developed chiaroscuro painting techniques, da Vinci, Caravaggio and Rembrandt, as well as the cinematography of film noir from the 40s and 50s.
His command of his line is absolute, as is his ability to spot and place his shadows. Mignola doesn’t use gradients or shading in his work, no cross-hatching or extra line work beyond what defines a figure’s silhouette and its rudimentary details. Instead, brightly lit objects emerge from inky blackness that envelops them like an oil spill. Facial features, particularly eyes that become uniform black sockets, are either singular, simple lines or small deep shadows. Every panel maintains the heavy atmosphere, so appropriate to the stories Mignola spins.
Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro tried to capture that essence in his two Hellboy films, but it resists direct translation to the screen. The animated versions which the director helped produce, were better adaptations, which makes sense; Mignola’s drawing, and more accurately his lighting, style are easier to emulate in that medium. If a filmmaker were to light and shoot scenes in the way Mignola renders a panel, it would either be too dark to see, or seem surrealistically odd. Although del Toro is a talented artist and designer in his own right, with a unique visual sense and imagination, many fans didn’t love his versions. It was clearly “Mike Mignola’s Hellboy as seen through the lens of Guillermo del Toro”—or worse, for some—Hellboy light.
In contrast, Neil Marshall, director of the upcoming film reboot, has promised a darker vision he feels is truer to the source material. He has also insisted that he is going for a hard “R” rating, and plans to walk a fine line between a comic book and horror movie. Though Mignola doesn’t glorify the gore, there is a gruesome aspect to his stories. He doesn’t try to shock his readers, but he certainly wants to send a shiver up their spines. Fans are keeping their fingers crossed that Marshall will be able to translate that to the screen when his film premieres in January of 2019.
Until then, we’ll keep our eyes peeled for a more significant Hellboy sighting: Despite having retired the character at the culmination of his acclaimed Hellboy in Hell series in 2016, Mignola has let fans know the big guy is soon returning to the place he works best, the printed page.
Watch: Mike Mignola working his magic, drawing Hellboy on YouTube!