Convergence Culture: the Many Faces of Hellboy

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.