The Devil You Know: Mignola's Hellboy in the Chapel of Moloch and the Old Debate
Modernist drama around the popularizing of the cultural archive, or postmodernist deliberation on the redemptive value of art in world awash in mass consumerism, the story of Mignola's Hellboy is also the story of comics' struggle for legitimation both as art-form and industry.
In 2008's In the Chapel of Moloch, Hellboy creator Mike Mignola traces a classic path, both in terms of narrative and visualization for his unique creation. After a page of panels detailing fragments of the garish paintings by an artist in the grips of demonic possession, Hellboy himself plays out a classic Mignola riff; he frames audience perception in terms of human endeavor. "He's ripping off Goya", Hellboy exclaims.
More than simply a doff of the hat at Mignola's erudition, Hellboy's words serve as a reminder of one of Mignola's enduring themes of the Hellboy canon; the idea of choice ultimately overcoming destiny. A bright-red demon-spawn, and the Beast of Apocalypse to boot, Hellboy's words belie his socialization as a blue-collar, honest-to-goodness, rough-and-tumble fighting man. The kind of ordinary hero who fought the Nazis and came home to work at an auto-plant. Beast of Apocalypse perhaps, but Hellboy remains defined by his choice to enter the world, and navigate it, with human sensibilities.
But Hellboy's exclamation is just the start of an exchange with the artist's unnamed publicist. It is an exchange which defines a broader cultural project that Mignola has engaged in for some years now. In broad strokes, this project attempts to negotiate the full cultural impact of his creation. Is Hellboy a modernist project, or a postmodern one? Are Hellboy, his cohorts and his adventures an innovative archive of a large and diffuse canon? Or are they the self-reflexive articulations of the artist's struggle for authenticity in an age of mass production and boutique consumption?
Or so it appears on the surface. Even on the first reading something nags. There is a well-crafted disingenuousness to Mignola's petitions. And a sense of familiarity, a well-worn but kindly tedium as Mignola prepares his audience for a sea change. It is as if, after tabling the debate around Hellboy's cultural authenticity for the first time in such blatant terms, Mignola already gears up for the debate's end. Introducing the debate, making it explicit, is already preparing for what comes after. Mignola's considerable gift lies his ceaseless innovation of the use found for his creation.
The exchange continues.
"You think today's audience knows who Goya is?", the unnamed publicist counters, "Jerry's saving Goya's ass. This series would have made the old boy relevant again, and that would have been Jerry's statement..." and here's the clincher, "using the old to define the modern, to illustrate the relentless and unchangeable nightmare of human existence".
Another look at the painting and Hellboy shrugs off that comment with a little more than phatic, "If you say so".
The publicist retorts. "This show... It would have put Jerry right up there. It would have made him the poster boy for the new gothic in art. He was that close...".
Both comments made by the publicist seem equally credible of Hellboy and his creator Mignola and the cultural project in which both find themselves imbricated. It certainly is true that Hellboy can be conceived of as a modernist project; an innovative knowledge-store that bridges the chasm between old and new. But in a deeper sense Hellboy is also postmodern. Hellboy appears as a fictive stand-in for Mignola himself. Hellboy's ceaseless 'investigations' into the paranormal, his contending with his destiny, his affirmation of choice in the face of predetermination, all read as meditations on Mignola's own career.
In contrast to a Schulz or an Eisner, a Kirby or an Infantino, whose work have been tested over generations represents something wholly different. Like his fictional Jerry, the artist being spoken of in Hellboy's exchange with the publicist, Mignola arrives in a period when the mass-market of comics' readership and its industrialist and corporate machineries are already fully developed. Mignola joins a corporate structure, as a penciller for both Marvel and DC (the only game in town in the 1980s) his work is unique, but it hardly goes on to establish a playbook for future generations. DC's Cosmic Odyssey provides Mignola with a notable work in his early career, but for the most part freelancing seems to ensure regular work perhaps at the cost of curbing creativity.
For Mignola, Hellboy and his collaboration with publisher Dark Horse represent a breakthrough. Not only does Mignola produce and continue to produce a comics worthy of critical acclaim, but he almost single-handedly invents Fourth Generation comics. Neither the mainstream comics of the daily newspaper strip as with First Gen, nor the corporate comics of mass publication as with DC and Marvel's Second Gen, nor the comprehensive gathering of the independent press as with Image's Third Gen, Mignola proffers a Next-Gen comics which balances creator-ownership with corporate mass-marketing. Prefiguring his own words, Mignola becomes a 'poster boy' for the struggles of the '90s; the search for institutional recognition outside of the comics industry, the professionalization of creators and legitimation of their rights to ownership of and participation in properties they contributed to, and the broad-scale access to mass publication and mass marketing.
Mignola's story speaks not only to the concerns of Scott McCloud's seminal Understanding Comics (itself a kind of modernist, looking-in on the inner workings of comics) but also McCloud's later Reinventing Comics (a postmodern assay of comics' struggles for legitimation as both medium and industry). Mignola's story is the story of comics. His successes are measured in the contestations of the industry to produce legitimate works worthy of critical acclaim. And his consummate skill lies in rendering the terms of this debate, modernist claims to a 'worthy' art as archive and postmodernist meditations on the character as artist, as an engaging fiction set-piece. Seemingly expositional exchanges between characters, taps a deeper vein.
But no sooner does Mignola table this debate, making its terms explicit for perhaps the first time in the Hellboy body of work, than he seems to undermine it. Hasn't his audience been wrapped up in this debate for far too long already? Isn't it time to move on?
The coda of the piece provides a clue as to Mignola's own readiness to move on from the modernist/postmodernist frame for Hellboy. With the story's major villain defeated, Jerry the artist must come to terms with demonic manipulations. He'll never paint again. The earlier frame for his publicist's appraisal of Jerry's work as either one of archival record (modernist) or artistic struggle in creation (postmodernist) is rendered meaningless. What remains is for Jerry to find a new means to enter the world.
But the original exchange remains as a kind of last gasp, one last hurrah for the old debate around Hellboy's cultural impact. Why would Mignola include this at all, if he is preparing to reframe the debate around Hellboy's use-value?
Perhaps a similar sensibility can be at the closing of Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus. The play's final line, O lente, lente, noctus equi translates from Latin as "O be still you ever-moving horses of night". Faustus, regretting the bargain struck with the Devil, wishes time to cease. While many Medieval Studies scholars have suggested this line as a yearning for the older, 'purer' times of scholarship when Latin was predominant, recent trends in New Media might suggest a wholly other interpretation.
It is entirely possible, that Marlowe ushers in a 'birth' of a kind of Social Media. Even the 'purer' scholarship marked by the use of Latin proves insufficient to halt the flow of time. In this way Marlowe perhaps suggests a sense of 'one last look before we leave'. In this way he envisions a world where Latin and arcane scholarship fall by the way when confronted with the personalized storytelling of folklore, which Faustus represents as it captures a pop-culture urban legend.
In much the same way, Jerry the artist's new search for meaning, and the casting aside of his publicist's paradigm of analysis, provides a strong and thoroughgoing argument for the authenticity of popular culture. In the final analysis, Hellboy is always more about Mignola's ceaseless innovation and personal creativity than it is about either the role of scholarship, or the redemptive nature of art. Hellboy speaks to us, because Hellboy captures the moment. By this, Mignola once again thrusts comics into the realm of a popular culture, shared by all.