Later on with Hellboy: The Mike Mignola Warm Up

Today, we kick off the lid on a month full of Hellboy, to celebrate the character’s 20th anniversary.

“Er, no…” Mike Mignola says we get begin wrapping up our hour-long, but I’m already gone. Still lost with dealing with what he just said, lost in the emotional weight of it, the courage and resilience of it. But thank God for the iPad on my desk that’s recording everything in this conversation but my thoughts, and thank God that I’ve finally figured out how to switch off that damnable tick-tick-tick of the auto-on metronome that comes with this newest version of GarageBand.

Thank God, I think. I won’t be missing out on any of what Mike’s currently saying. Because what he’s saying is as much the gold standard of artistic dedication as the very thing he’s just said, the very thing I’m still dealing with at an emotional level.

I hear pieces of it, pieces of the answer to my current question about how to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hellboy, or at least how Mike himself might be celebrating the 20th. “How to celebrate” is a dead giveaway. I’m still looking to Mike for answers, in the same way I did when his creation Hellboy blasted onto the scene All Those Many Years ago, and completely redefined comics in terms of their storytelling, their distribution and above all business model. I was of a generation, perhaps the first of generations, but weren’t we all were back then, that would come to feel the great interminable hope of something new in the world. It was the promise of a new way of doing things, the promise of being able to set aside the shame of, on the cusp of our various and sincere maturities, still being involved with the kids things of comics. Back in 1994, who could argue that an Heir of the Prince of Darkness, raised like a blue-collar American by working joes of the Greatest Generation, now hunting sinister, otherworldly threats that stalk the American heartland, was kids fare? And who could make that argument even now?

But the past 20 years have seen an intensification, and have seen the promise of Hellboy come true in even wilder and even more unexpected ways. We’ve seen Mike work the fertile soil of an entirely new business distribution model, let’s call this new model the maturation of the same pulp model embraced by pioneers like Walt Disney, like Windsor McCay, like the newspaper dailies of old. Let’s call it that, because that’s what this new model is. We’ve seen the transmogrification of Hellboy into other media; we’ve seen two Hellboy movies helmed by director Guillermo del Toro, we’ve seen Hellboy adapted for cartoon TV shows, and for children’s storybooks. And we’ve seen Hellboy expand into the broader world of B.P.R.D. and Lobster Johnson. And even now, two decades gone, it seems like we’re only at the beginning.

I hear pieces of what’s Mike’s saying because, part the way, I’m lost in what he just said, because talking with Mike underlines how very much he is a profound and worthy font of artistic integrity in a time when Kickstarter seems to lower the bar of our expectations (but for those very, few, very rare cases), and part the way for something entirely else. It’s that second part that gnaws at me. Because I’m in awe of what’s been built, of what Mike built.

You’ll know the story really well, by now. Something changed in 1992, with the birth of Image Comics. The new publisher opening its doors for business wasn’t simply “a new challenger enters", but a gunshot heard round the world. Unlike other publishers of the day, Image would make no attempt to purchase copyright and trademark from writers and artists. But with that line in their vision statement, Image also opened the door to something else, something simpler, something grander. The idea that the true measure of this new generation of comics, lay in how effectively the ideas and stories and iconographies could compete with the more established ideas and grand narratives and iconographies of superheroes from the Gold and Silver Ages, from the '30s/'40s and '50s/'60s.

In those early days it was great reading Spawn, and about a decade later even greater watching the HBO cartoon (yes, HBO cartoon) and about a year after that, reading Hellspawn, the darker, adult theme-oriented version of Spawn and of course in the interim, buying all those toys and watching the big screen theatrical release of the summer blockbuster (a flop to be sure, but really the only flop) and was there a Spawn Rubik’s Cube? It was great fun, but, it also began to pose but not entirely answer a larger question—Could Spawn or indeed any of those comics icons from this new generation, emerge as being able to compete with a meme like Spider-Man? By the '90s, Spider-Man had touched some of the fabric of every childhood you experienced of could think of experiencing. It was impossible that you’d have spent your childhood not in the company of Spidey PJ’s or Superman jumpsuits or Batman lunch boxes or Iron Man face masks or some part of the anatomy of your ordinary day-to-day existence being imprinted with these phenomenal ideas.

But could Hellboy or Sin City or Spawn or Wild C.A.T.’s (remember Wild C.A.T.s?) or Witchblade or the Darkness even compete at that level? Could the idea massify and become worthy of a mass medium? Or was our pop culture being fractured? And were those earlier heights of Spider-Man Saturday morning cartoons and the like entirely unassailable?

What Mike Mignola proved slowly over time was exactly that—no, the doors are still wide open, and any idea that’s good enough, and any writer and artist who’s dedicated enough can build that abstract empire, and weave in new strands into the universal warp of pop culture. So as we begin to wrap our hour-long, I’m still intimated by Mike Mignola, the sheer scale of what he’s built with Hellboy is daunting, and at a level that really can only be equated with Walt Disney or Osamu Tezuka.

And Mike’s as humble about it, as he is humbled by this success. At some point earlier in the conversation he uses the word “improbable” as if to suggest that somehow he stumbled into this. And in a certain way he did, because this was never about any kind of commercial empire building, with all the attendant palace intrigue and co-promotional deja vu that these things often slide backwards into. The abstract iconographic empire that is Hellboy is a wonder that comes from the hard work and dedication of Mike to his art, it comes from Mike never turning his back these past two decades now, and it comes from Hellboy himself always surprising Mike, always catching him off-guard and turning the story around.

But that’s not for today, and that’s not for right now. We spoke about that, Mike and me, earlier, but I’ll not repeat those words over the course of the month to come. This next month, the Iconographies will be host to a boxful of Hellboy. We’ll get into what Mike had to say, we’ll get into the thoughts of his collaborators, we’ll end who-can-say-where. But for right now, for today, think back to 20 years back, even if you weren’t there to witness it. And think of the enormity of what’s been built, steadily over time. And at daybreak tomorrow, on the actual birthday of Hellboy, enjoy the poster.

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