Convergence Culture: the Many Faces of Hellboy

Different media means different Hellboys. Mike Mignola's versus Guillermo del Toro's.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor, Doug Jones, Luke Goss, John Alexander, Luke Goss
Length: 110
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Universal Pictures
First date: 2008

Hellboy Library Edition: Volume 1

Publisher: Dark Horse
Subtitle: Seed of Destruction and Wake the Devil
Price: $49.95
Writer: John Byrne
Display Artist: Mike Mignola with John Byrne
Length: 278
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-159307910
Issues: Hellboy: Seed of Destruction #1-4, Hellboy: Wake the Devil #1-5
First date: 1993
US publication date: 2008-05-14
Last date: 1994
Writer website

Convergence Culture

Publisher: New York University
Subtitle: Where Old and New Media Collide
Author: Henry Jenkins
Price: $29.95
Length: 336
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-081474281
US publication date: 2008-07-01

Comics are an important part of what MIT media scholar Henry Jenkins calls “convergence culture”, one feature of which is “transmedia storytelling”, or the distribution of narrative content across more than one form of media (Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York University Press, 2006). Comics, TV, and film have become intertwined, increasingly sharing characters, creators, narrative conventions, and visual styles.

The convergence of comics with film and television seems almost natural. A comic, seemingly, is a pre-made storyboard for a movie or series. The development of sophisticated computer generated imagery makes it possible to break and bend the laws of physics on film and TV in ways that comic book creators have always been able to do on the page. All three media are used to tell stories visually, and the analytical language of all three media is also similar. For example, terms like “close-up” and “establishing shot” have meaning for artists and critics in all three forms. However, as much as these media have in common, they are also substantially different. The successful act of translating one into the other requires thought and artfulness. A case in point is Guillermo del Toro’s adaptations of Mike Mignola’s Dark Horse Comic Hellboy.

Ron Perlman, the man under the make-up in the films, makes for a convincing live-action Hellboy, but the character he portrays is very different from the one created by Mignola. He is more talkative and more human in action and affect than is his two-dimensional sibling. While both Hellboys are caught between their demonic “destinies” and their attachments to the human world, it is only in the movies that this feeling expresses itself in a deep desire for love and acceptance by people in a wider sense (the related secrecy of the B.P.R.D. – Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense – is also unique to the films). And it is only in the films that Hellboy pines for, and then shacks up with, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair).

Given the centrality of the Liz-Hellboy relationship in the films, it would be easy to look at del Toro’s films as high budget fan fiction, and in some ways they are, but that unfairly cheapens the challenges that the writer-director has had to address in adapting the comics for the screen. Two particular challenges are Hellboy’s inhumanity and his taciturn nature.

Part of the charm of the comic comes from the fact that Hellboy looks like a devil, but chooses to have, or act in accordance with, a better nature than his visage implies. In both the films and the comics, there are always demonic agents seeking to persuade him to switch teams or return to the fold, and so far he has always always declined. In the comics, Hellboy shares with many of his antagonists eyes that look more like flames than “eyes”. As much as anything, it is this lack of recognizable eyeballs that marks him as an alien other, one who likely does have more in common with the monsters he fights than the humans he works alongside and protects. It adds an element of danger to the character, while also making his choice to fight “destiny” more poignant.

del Toro’s Hellboy has eyes. Once the realism of motion and an actor in make-up is part of the creative mix, this choice seems inevitable, particularly when dealing with the hero of a movie. Whereas a drawn figure can be stylized in any number of ways without threatening a reader’s identification with the character, there are clear barriers to staking a live-action film on a hero who has inhuman eyes. Even if the technical challenge of reproducing Hellboy’s look from the comics could be met in a satisfactory way, in film and photography the eyes are powerful, always motivated signifiers of character.

Once Hellboy retains his eyes, however imperfectly human they might be, it is fairly easy, and even necessary, to humanize him further, by making love and acceptance a core motivation. And, ultimately, the movie version of Hellboy looks like a guy made up to be a monster. While lacking for realism in a superficial sense, this approach infuses the character with a palpable humanity, which not only helps audiences to identify with him, but also references the comic books, where he is a monster who seeks to protect, rather than destroy, the world as we know it.

One of the additional ways that del Toro humanizes Hellboy is by making him relatively chatty (though hardly eloquent). In the comics, pages can go by without the character uttering a word. Much of Hellboy’s essence is conveyed in individual gestures, facial expressions, and postures. Movies are full of male heroes of few words, but such figures, from Will Kane to Jason Bourne, tend to be loners. In the movies, Hellboy is not only part of an organization, he is part of a team of co-workers, friends, lovers, and flatmates. In such a context, and in a medium where codes of realism are important to how works are made and viewed, making Hellboy more effusive is important to audiences liking him despite his demon-y appearance, especially as we’re to believe that others in the films like and love him.

The Hellboy of the comics is more of a classic Hollywood strong silent type – think Gary Cooper or John Wayne – than is movie Hellboy. He's economical in both word and action. He has an innate sense of justice and fairness, on which he acts rather than pontificates. By comparison, Perlman and del Toro's Hellboy is more fragile emotionally, and, therefore, less self-assured in his view of the world.

In the books, he is friends with the other B.P.R.D. field agents, but it is more a brothers-in-arms kind of friendship than the lovers and confidants relationships he has in the films. He is also more likely to work alone on missions. del Toro's adaptations are more about the team. In the comics, he leaves the B.P.R.D., when the higher-ups violate his sense of right, but he does so by himself, and not as part of a group as at the end of Hellboy II. In all respects, Mike Mignola's Hellboy is much more of a loner than is the approval-seeking character of the films.

del Toro's variations on Mignola's signature creation are not made in isolation. Hellboy and his universe are exemplars of transmedia storytelling. In addition to the comic books and the theatrical films, there are also Hellboy Animated movies, and prose stories featuring the red demon. Mignola routinely collaborates with other writers and artists on both Hellboy and B.P.R.D., and in the Weird Tales series of Hellboy books, other writers and artists got to play in his sandbox all by themselves.

Mignola's original comics may frame all of the versions and adaptations of Hellboy and his world, but different media offer different challenges and opportunities for creators, characters, and narrative. When changing forms, it would be a failure of imagination to attempt to simply reproduce what's available in one media into another. That Hellboy can translate meaningfully across storytelling formats is a sign of the character's richness and of the creativity of the artists who have had him in their care. For any individual viewer reader, one variation or another may be “their” Hellboy, and for creators who embrace the possibilities of convergence, that's only as it should be.





The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.


90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

‘The Avengers’ Offer a Lesson for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.