Oriatur, or a Bigger, Richer World: The Interview with Hellboy Creator Mike Mignola

Hellboy creator Mike Mignola talks about a character who by his very nature resisted his fate and hoped to shape new options by his own hand.

Dave Brockie’s dead now, and if The Great Ralph Steadman is to be taken at his word (literally at his word, as laid out in The Joke’s Over, and also, in all fairness why should he be taken at his word?), right around about now, HST would be calling up his son Juan and reaching for that S&W 645 and then… in a few hours time we’d find that one shell kicked back into the oven’s hood.

The fun was at an end, Ralph announced to us a year or so after. Not the fun, the possibility of fun, the idea that we can have fun in the future again. That the changes to the Executive, the power the Bush Administration had retained would be the very end of even the possibility of fun, would be more than just an interregnum. Would be an End, in the Fukuyaman sense of things.

Naturally, we’re almost bound to accept this as how things must be, how else could they be? At a time when Guns ’N’ Roses struggled for authenticity and Metallica struggled for purity and even later when Nirvana struggled for a kind of pop asceticism and struggled for these things on display for all to see in the public spaces, GWAR really did take us to that Playland of extreme postmodern fun that HST imagined and Steadman writes of late into the evenings and in hushed tones. After Metallica, what comes next? After recoding social devastation and the equal-parts abandonment, equal-parts deterioration of the public sphere (an abandonment-deterioration so extreme that it almost begins to prefigure a kind of conflagration on Biblical terms, the kind President Reagan always seemed to speak of in such casual terms), what greater ceiling could possibly be attained pop culture?

Maybe what comes next is the postmodern brio of GWAR. You’d need an alien war-mongering space demon, thousands of years old, to be able to address that inherent commercial logic that reroutes societal decay to the self in conflict with easy-authoritarian structures like your parents. Maybe what comes next is Dave Brockie. And maybe, what comes after someone of the intelligence and the wit and the sensitivity and the humor of Dave Brockie is the kind of thing that’s outlasted Dave Brockie. Maybe what comes next is Mike Mignola, who much like that famous Ken Auletta anecdote about Microsoft and Google, appears on the pop cultural horizon busily working away on an idea that is every bit as postmodern, but postmodern in an entirely different kind of way, as anything GWAR hoped to achieve.

Some time ago now, I found myself experiencing a kind of secular piety while reading Jeph Loeb’s “Feminist Nightmare” issue of Ultimate Comics. An issue that offered up the only true nightmare experienced by feminists; that the sound, rationally-argued, well-reasoned thought proffered by feminists can be easily marginalized by a mainstream view that sees the movement as given to marching down Main Street with men in chains. What Dave Brockie gave us, what GWAR gave us, was a direct, head-on redress of that kind of Heavy Metal Nightmare. What Mike Mignola gave us was something far more subtle, far more measured—a kind of headlong rush into the dynamics of wrestling with the ultimate mode of social and societal control, fate.

In the handful of days before Dave Brockie’s passing, Mike Mignola and I spoke at great length about the then-upcoming 20th anniversary of Hellboy, a character who by his very nature resisted his fate, and hoped to shape new options by his own hand. It’s a cultural mythography borrowed from the Greatest Generation, as much when they headed out to push back the real demon of Nazi Germany back through the hole from whence it came (General Patton said, “Play Ball,” and the War was won…), as when they returned home and built the infrastructure that would allow for the Boomers. Like the Greatest Generation, Hellboy was born in the dying fire of the Second World War, according to the character’s fictive biography. But here in the opening days of 2014, we’re only 20 years on from those first steps taken by Mike in forging the character.

We do end by talking about the future. “Just recently,” Mike begins “well… The Hellboy in Hell stuff has taken on a different shape than I intended. I wanted to get away from big, ongoing storylines, the big, ongoing storyline I’d done with Duncan Fregredo, so when I did Hellboy in Hell I looked at that as pressing a restart button, where I would just do these odd, little standalone stories. But what happens, unfortunately, for me, is I come up with little standalone stories that connect up and turn into something,” there’s a kind of a pause when Mike says “into,” or maybe just an inflection, as if we’ve reached the crescendo long ago and, look behind us, we’re now well past the tipping point of hitting something deeper and more profound. “So I find myself now, telling a pretty large story that definitely goes someplace and does transform this character. It’s is always very spooky to me, when I turn a certain corner with the character and go, ‘If I go there, I can’t go back,’ but at the same time, that’s what makes this stuff work, or least makes it different to what certain other people are doing because this character, this series is not intended to be around 50 years from now, as a the same thing. I’m not in the business of selling movie rights or pajamas or whatever else. This is a story that is intended to end at some point, so it’s definitely going someplace, and it is going somewhere spooky when it turns those corners. So I do see one of those corners coming up, relatively soon.”

Again a tipping point moment at “relatively.” I’m beginning to feel a little sense of disquiet now. Like it’s late at night, like there’s a fire in the hearth and the simple act of reading Poe out loud might cause the occurrence of things none of us here would rather see occurred. But of course it’s not this at all. It’s easy and casual conversation, and Mike is as easy a human to speak to, as he is a phenomenal mind that simply invented the future.

“At the same time, I have structured Hellboy with a lot of empty space in his past, so as I go forward, and Hellboy turns into something,” tipping point “something,” “There’s a lot of room for me to write the classic Hellboy,” a new inflection, when Mike says, “and that’s something I plan to do,” it’s the kind of inflection that seems deeply promissory, deeply hopeful, that Hell or highwater, Hellboy will be here Mike’s hand, then by the hand of another.

Earlier we spoke about exactly that, about inherent longevity of Hellboy and the new kind of distribution model Mike seems to have almost singlehandedly constructed with Hellboy.

“Well, you see things in like Sherlock Holmes,” Mike suggests, “where they’ll reference other cases that you never get to read, and that Conan Doyle never wrote. You create a history and you create the idea that a guy has been wandering around for all these years and interacting with a lot of different people and little by little you just flesh out a life, and you flesh out a world. I was one guy trying to create a world and a history for one character, so being able to do it in one picture.”

Mike references something I ask in the question, the first page of “The Wolves of St. August,” a hauntingly beautiful and psychically vivid werewolf story to be found in the pages of The Chained Coffin and Others. The first page is a single black backdrop upon which rests, somewhere near the middle of the page, a single caricature of an old sepia photograph. In it, Hellboy stands victorious, arm-over-shoulder, with a man who will clearly become an old friend eventually, if he isn’t one as yet, Father Kelly. The title under the photo simply reads “Saybrook, CT.” And on a separate line, “1962.” And the photo itself, speaks volumes. That something happened there, that we cannot say what. That there was a kind of a bond formed. That some terrible price was paid, and some great evil assuaged or perhaps merely postponed.

“My struggle over the years has constantly been, it only takes 10 minutes, or an average shower to come up with a mini-series or two, but it takes a year to draw them. So for me it’s been just trying to find a way to get all these ideas and all these incidents on paper. So however, whatever ways I’ve managed to do that, it’s always been ‘Oh crap, I came up with this thing, or this character or this historical incident, so how can I work into this world?’ And certainly commercially, and again this is completely different from what a guy like Chester Gould was doing,” again, referencing Chet Gould, Mike’s responding to one of the concerns raised in my question, “for me, I’ve had so many people say, ‘Why are you creating all these new characters and making them part of Hellboy? We’re in the era of selling your different characters to Hollywood, why make Lobster Johnson part of Hellboy? Create him separately, own him separately from Hellboy, so you can sell the movie rights.’ But my response to that has always been, it makes that world richer. So if I’ve ever had any conscious goal it’s been to put all my eggs into that one basket. Because it makes it a much richer basket.”

The fierce humility of the warrior spirit turned to creativity. Mike demonstrates in a single thought that the grandeur of Hellboy, the pure scale of the story is a simple byproduct of the grandeur of Mike’s own commitment to storytelling, to build richer, more involved worlds. And to make this choice again and again in the face of ever-increasing barter-rights for a heavy-with-plunder-laden-transmedia-ship-ready-to-sail seems to put Mike in the same arena as those resiliences displayed by Charles Schulz, as essayist and novelist Jonathan Franzen apprehend them in his introduction to The Complete Peanuts, and although from vastly different intellectual traditions, Hunter S. Thompson and Dave Brockie.

Interviewing Mike Mignola gives a clear window on the origin of the runaway success of Hellboy. It’s rare that great intellect combines so readily with powerful creativity and abundant humility. And yet, in answer to that near absence of such a mix, there’s Mike himself, busily working away at a bigger, richer fictional universe.