Hellboy Versus Hellboy: The Competing Authenticities of Mignola and del Toro

[26 August 2009]

By Emmet O'Brein

You can’t contrive an icon. Whatever alchemy happens to create an enduring image cannot be calculated or forced, it has to just happen naturally and usually it is a gradual process . Comics are littered with pop culture touchstones, most of them borne from the early days of the industry when people thrilled to the fantastic, the new. Classic usually denotes something old, a character that has stood the test the time, weathering whatever fads have come and gone through its lifetime. For every Wolverine that strikes a chord a thousand faceless creations get cancelled or fade into obscurity. “Instant classic” comes close to being an oxymoron.

And so to with Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Striking from the very first time you glimpse his bright red visage, compelling when it registers that he has a stone for a right hand, this was a character with no obvious comic lineage but one that instantly grabs readers. Iconic from the first cigar. Even the name had a thrown together feel that seemed like a throwback to older, pulpier sensibilities, fans of Lovecraftian horror finally had a new world to skulk through. The art of creator Mike Mignola was obviously essential to the appeal of the book, a sparse shadow-heavy mix which fetishized antiquated technology in an almost steam punk way, shot through with a somber tone and expressive use of negative space.  This was a world drenched in old fashioned ghost story lore but with the sardonic title character subverting any potentially stodgier elements of the genre.

Suffused with a wonderful array of secondary characters of both the human and otherworldly, Hellboy exploded onto a comics scene which had become stuck in an unusual rut. The superhero being the dominant fixture of comics, was suffering from an identity crisis, the landmark comics of the ‘80s were casting a large, almost Mignolian shadow and had ushered in an era of grim and gritty comics dealing with “adult” and “mature” themes. Faced with dwindling sales the major publishers began to overexpose their premier properties.

Series upon series were being released almost weekly, characters were stifled creatively and novelties began to wear off quickly. With a script by John Byrne and the aforementioned singular art of Mignola Hellboy: Seed of Destruction arrived and (not unlike the portal between this world and Hell in its initial story) acted as a bridge between two distinctive comic styles. It wed a ‘boys own’ adventure to something brooding and gothic. In one strike, both sides of the comic divide were catered for.

Mignola presented a world where a man is confronted by a giant red demon and barely shrugs. The demon itself was not as tormented as certain Horror protagonists are. While still complex and aware of his dichotomy Hellboy seemed content, comfortable even, in his war on Evil. There was a sense of fun behind the gloom, a free wheeling cockiness that fans immediately reacted to and craved more of. The publication process was also a key part of its success. Instead of overselling the character in an on going series the stories were self contained limited series collected eventually as trade paperbacks. This increased the cult hit nature of the piece, as each Hellboy release became not only deeply anticipated, but truly more of an event.

With such a visually arresting style and rich detail, it would not long before ‘Red’ was to make the move into the medium of film. Given the creative sensibilities of director Guillermo Del Toro, one would have assumed a cinematic replica of Hellboy true to the original. A self-professed Hellboy fanatic and already established as a horror director of note, blessed with an eye for more visceral scares, the cinematic Hellboy should have been an unqualified achievement.

Unlike other creators Mignola is savvy enough to know that for better or worse, aspects of a comic must be tweaked for cinematic re-interpretation. While this can lead to bastardizations of work it also allows for things that fail in their cinematic logic to be ironed out. Faith in Del Toro was faith in an upcoming auteur Director critically respected, and deeply passionate about the intellectual property of Hellboy.

Mignola’s enthusiasm for the project remains refreshing. Especially when compared against someone like Alan Moore who seemingly disowns any cinematic attempt of his work as a matter of course. In fairness to Moore, the interpretation of his The League of Extraordinary Gentleman is a comicbook adaptation cautionary tale. Moore writes from the stance that comicbooks should be their own entities, featuring rhythms and strengths which can only be gained from that particular medium. He doesn’t want comics to become just storyboards for potential celluloid spin offs.

With huge input by Mignola, Del Toro was able to affect change in the Hellboy universe,  such as creating a romance between Hellboy and Liz Sherman and granting the wonderful Abe Sapien psychic powers his comicbook counterpart never had. These remained unobtrusive given the much-needed dimming of the original comicbook’s hyperbolic gothic to be replaced with a more polished, popcorn-friendly sheen. It was an admirable attempt to score a slightly off-beat but still palpable to the mainstream, hit. In trying to make a typical summer blockbuster the results left the cinematic Hellboy watered down, robbing the story of the inherent macabre nature of the original comicbook. The casting for the eponymous character was nigh on perfect, Ron Pearlman bringing enough humor and vulnerability to the role while still delivering in the action and tough guy stakes. Strangely however a world that so envelops its audience on the page feels distant through the silver screen. Finding emotional investment in anything the characters were going through would prove incredibly difficult.

The 2008 sequel, Hellboy and the Golden Army would retrace the same difficulties. While the set design would closely approximate the comics in the Mos Eisely-esque “Troll Market” scene, Del Toro would still fail to find the right tone or story to make an authentic Hellboy.

These two underwhelming films wasn’t the only attempts to take Hellboy from its roots and with Del Toro once more involved two animated features were released. Not only were they more faithful, characterization-wise to the original concept the animation seemed to make the whole thing fresher and looser giving us a good Hellboy romp that while still couldn’t match the best of the stories had more in the way of the books distinctive humor. With animation that even tried to ape the look of the comics but still keep it within the style of Cartoon Network these films Sword Of Storms  and Blood and Iron are purer distillations of what exactly appeals to us about this cantankerous rogue.

Yet del Toro’s dedication to Hellboy and Mignola’s setting remains almost palpable. It is easy to imagine, after the wonderful prose piece he wrote about the character for a short story collection Odder Jobs, even hardcore fans of the comicbooks urging him on.

Spooky stories and the scares therein will always have a primitive attraction to man. Something that surprises us, engages us will always find new ways to reach an audience. Hellboy has shown that even though some variations resonate more strongly than others, the potential is there. However it is fitting that with a comicbook about the Beast of Apocalypse, that the old axiom would be true, the devil really is in the details.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/110134-hellboy-versus-hellboy/