Film fans may know Hellboy first and foremost from Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 movie Hellboy and the 2008 sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, both of which feature Ron Perlman as the big, red, wisecracking noir-hero demon who fights supernatural incursions on Earth. But the character is a decade older than the films: Writer-artist Mike Mignola launched the first Hellboy comic-book arc, Seed Of Destruction, in March 1994. Since then, the Hellboy comic has inspired two animated films, Blood And Iron and Sword Of Storms, as well as videogames, prose novels, and multiple spin-off comics series, by Mignola and other partners. To mark Hellboy’s double-decade anniversary as a creator-owned character, and the recent publication of the sprawling, career-encompassing art-book Hellboy: The First 20 Years, Mignola talked with The Dissolve about the films he grew up with, the ones that most inspired his sensibility and his work.
Mike Mignola: There’s a lot of stuff in there that made a huge impression, but that battle with the skeletons, the idea of a couple guys fighting an army of them, especially when the skeletons shriek and charge—I guess the phrase I will use over and over is, “It’s something I never recovered from.” Not that it was scary, but I just went, “Oh my God, that’s got to be one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. Guys fighting skeletons, and those skeletons are screaming.” They have character! I’d never seen anything like it, and haven’t seen many things like it since. It’s the perfect movie to see when you’re a kid. I think kids today are very spoiled, because they see so much spectacular special-effects stuff, but for a kid of my generation, you just never saw things like this.
The Dissolve: Most of the films on your inspirations list have a portentous gothic tone that’s familiar from Hellboy. This one is much lighter. What did you take from it for your work?
Mignola: I think that sense of that fun, and that adventure. There’s always a lot of humor in Hellboy, and a lot of fun. Maybe I got that out of Jason And The Argonauts. It’s a riot. The skeletons have a sense of humor. There’s a bit where a skeleton gets his head knocked off, and it’s reaching for where its head used to be—that’s one of the things I responded to. It isn’t a grim film, though it’s got some pretty horrific imagery. I like to mix it up. For whatever reason, that’s always been in my work and in my personality—dark stuff with a sense of humor.
The Dissolve: This one also has a much clearer tie to folklore, which has always been a major part of your work.
Mignola: Yeah, I don’t know the roots of my interest in folklore, but I know Greek folklore never really did it for me. Even though I love this movie, I’ve never read the story of Jason and the Argonauts. I’ve read enough Greek stuff, mostly because they do have some pretty good monsters, but the Greek stuff never caught on, I think, because of the outfits. The guys are wearing skirts; it just didn’t work for me. Especially once I discovered Norse mythology—better monsters, and everyone was wearing better outfits. They were still wearing skirts, but they were skirts made of fur, as opposed to little white dress-looking things.
The Dissolve: There are definitely characters in Jason And The Argonauts who appear to be straight-up wearing diapers.
Mignola: But it does have the best Hercules. The guy who plays Hercules [Nigel Green] is fantastic.
Mignola: There’s one scene in that—I have no idea how young I was when I saw this, this one could go back really early, but the scene where Pip has gone back to Miss Havisham’s place, and is tearing down the drapes, running around this room pulling down these heavy drapes covered in cobwebs, and letting sunlight into this room. That scene made such an impression on me as a little kid. I think, going back, it might be the first really, truly, fantastically gothic thing I can remember seeing. I don’t know when I saw the Universal Dracula, but it didn’t make anything like the impression of that scene. The scene is very dramatic, and it’s just beautiful in that gothic, cobwebby kind of way. Fairly recently, I picked up a copy of that film and saw that scene again and went, “Oh yeah, that’s exactly the way I remember it as a little kid.” So that thing made such a stamp. I don’t remember having seen any of the rest of the movie—maybe I just turned it on for that scene, but that scene ingrained in there so much.
The Dissolve: In the first Hellboy arc, Seed Of Destruction, the isolated widow Lady Cavendish seems an awful lot like Miss Havisham. When the characters are talking to her in her parlor, there’s a picture in the background that looks like it came straight out of Moby Dick, with a whale biting a boat in half. Then the underground below the house is reminiscent of the tombs in Black Sunday. Are there a lot of direct visual references in your work, where people can find Easter eggs if they’ve seen the same films you’ve seen?
Mignola: None of that is consciously put in there, but I do wear my influences very much on my sleeve. Moby Dick was huge for me as a kid, so that did definitely inform the idea of, “Well, if there’s going to be a wealthy family, I want them to be whalers.” I love harpoons. Everything I love about that stuff comes from Moby Dick. That idea of whaling was so big in my head because of that movie that I wanted to have those whaling roots in there. Moby Dick was entirely my introduction to that. I have not read any history of the whaling industry, or anything else about it—everything I know and love about the idea of whaling is in that film.
The Dissolve: When did you first encounter Moby Dick the movie?
“I love drama, and I love big tragedy. I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with me, but that’s what I like.”
Mignola: Our local TV channel must have owned three or four films—they played them repeatedly. Jason And The Argonauts was one, it played on Saturday afternoons, and Moby Dick was on fairly often. I watch that movie now, and I can see, “Oh yeah, that’s the commercial break.” Certainly by the time I was 10, I had seen it several times, and I just went back and watched it for a film thing I did. [At Seattle’s EMP Museum in December 2013. —ed.] They invited me to come in and pick a fantasy film, and I picked Moby Dick because there’s something about that movie. It does feel like a fantasy film, because once you’re on the boat, or once you get into the town, it feels like you walked into another universe entirely. Everything is very dramatic, and almost fake. The whaleman’s chapel is so bizarre, grim, and gloomy, but beautifully designed, with this giant ship’s prow sticking out of the wall, and walls that look about 40 feet high. Watching it this last time, I realized there are whole scenes where almost nobody talks. It’s like Orson Welles as the preacher is getting up and making a speech in front of ghosts. When the ship pulls out, the people on the dock are like ghosts, and they’re all dressed for funerals. There’s something very “ghost ship” about that whole movie.
The Dissolve: It’s such a high-flown philosophical work about the relationship between God and man—it’s fascinating to think of it as having obsessive 10-year-old fans. Did you get any of the thematic underpinning back then?
Mignola: The whole funereal feel was something I was really paying attention to. Some of that stuff hit me on a subconscious level. The monster at the end is great, and it’s almost a stop-motion creature. It’s fake—it’s wonderfully fake, not stupid-fake, but it was almost like they’re fighting a big toy at the end, and it’s super-dramatic. Drama appeals to me, and it’s probably run through almost every movie on the list, this extreme drama. The storm and Ahab are just presences, with him making these great, in some cases extremely abstract, speeches. It’s just huge.
Moby Dick is the only thing on this list I’ve directly referenced in Hellboy. There’s a scene in one of the Hellboy stories where Hellboy is fighting a monster, he ends up on the monster’s back, and he’s been drinking. It was my excuse to have Hellboy say something that was wildly out of character, so because I didn’t know what else to do, I had him quoting Gregory Peck’s lines from the end of Moby Dick. [In Hellboy: The Island #1. —ed.] It was a great joy to me to be able to put in a liner note that said, “Because he’s drinking…” I didn’t want to say, “He’s quoting from Moby Dick,” because I’ve never read the book, but I said, “…he’s quoting Gregory Peck as Ahab from John Huston’s Moby Dick.” I thought that was kind of a riot. And they’re some of the greatest drama lines I’ve ever heard.
The Dissolve: There’s a shot in the film’s opening where Ishmael’s walking down to the town, in front of a waterfall and a riverbed, all in these stark grays and greens, simple washes of desaturated color. The riverbed in particular looks like a Mike Mignola panel. Did any element of your overall design technique come from the films you love?
Mignola: It might be. Again, certainly not consciously, but somehow you do fall in love with certain colors and certain kinds of composition. I always think, “It must come from artworks,” but I’ve always been a big film guy, and I’ve watched a lot of film. I don’t remember, consciously, ever drawing something and saying, “I want it to be like this moment in this film.” I just think that stuff is so ingrained. Films stick like almost nothing else. Some artwork does, but films, at least for me, they stick in there and they kind of build up that visual vocabulary. I’m not one of those guys who draws and says, “I’m drawing something like a panel from this comic.” I’m drawing on whatever images are in my head, wherever they came from. I watch film constantly. I’m one of those guys who works with the TV on—I’ve always got movies playing in the studio. So yeah, I’m kind of a film guy.
Mignola: How old was I? Maybe, again, probably around 10, 12 years old? It was my coming-of-age movie. I went to the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, where we saw all the Disney films, and our father would drop us off there to see whatever was playing. One week, it was Beneath The Planet Of The Apes. Skipped Planet Of The Apes, had heard about it, hadn’t seen it, used to seeing Disney films. Suddenly I was seeing the end of the world, apes with machine guns, the Lawgiver bleeding, mutants. I remember when the movie was over, my knees were shaking so bad, I had a hard time standing up. I just thought I had seen an entirely other planet that changed the way you looked at things. I think it’s one of those films, like Jason And The Argonauts, where you’re given so much—there are so many spectacular scenes, one on top of the other, it’s so stimulating and overwhelming. It’s got great dramatic moments, great dramatic speeches, which are the things that always stick in my head. The general’s speech about how the only good human is a dead human, that’s a great speech, and it’s staged really well. Then you’ve got this spectacular image of all these apes crucified, and this gigantic statue of the Lawgiver that bleeds and topples onto these apes, and Zaius rides out on a horse to make a speech about how it’s all an illusion. It’s something I can still watch to this day and get that same charge that I got as a little kid.
The Dissolve: There’s always a moment in childhood when you read your first book or see your first movie with a serious downer ending, and it blows your mind—“I didn’t know stories could end like that!”
Mignola: This has got to be one of them for me. It never occurred to me that a film could blow up the whole planet, and kill off my heroes in front of me. I don’t know if that’s the first time I ever saw that, but it could be. They just kept upping the ante. James Franciscus is mowed down, “Oh shit, didn’t see that coming!” Then Charlton Heston is shot. “Oh no! He’s going to die? Oh, he’s taking the planet with him? That’s pretty huge.”
The Dissolve: That movie is pretty intensely nihilistic.
Mignola: A lot of people will talk about how it’s not nearly as good as the first one, and the first one’s so much smarter, and the first one’s really about something. I can’t argue any of that. But this was such a pile of amazing stuff. There’s a lot of ideas in it, but it’s mostly just a colossal pile of spectacular imagery.
Mignola: Another spectacular pile of imagery. There are a lot of good movies I heard about as a kid but never saw, and Bride Of Frankenstein is a film I didn’t see as a kid. I was older, maybe even out of high school. Some movies you hear about don’t live up to their reputations when you finally see them. All the Hammer films, when I finally saw them, every one of them was a letdown. But Bride Of Frankenstein was so much better than I imagined. Again, dramatic and sad, and so much weirder than anything else I had seen of those kinds of movies.
The Dissolve: More than in the first Frankenstein, it’s clear here that the monster is the sympathetic figure, and humanity is to blame for failing him. Did that aspect of the story interest you with Hellboy?
Mignola: I don’t think so, not consciously, because I never thought of Hellboy as a monster. I never played him as a sympathetic monster. There’s some of that in the movie version, maybe, but I never really treated Hellboy as an outsider. The standout scene, for me, in Bride Of Frankenstein is one of the most tragic things; it’s just so weird. When the blind man tucks the monster into bed, and a tear rolls out of the monster’s eye, and the screen goes to black except for the crucifix. It only holds for a frame or two, but there’s a black screen which only contains the crucifix that was on the wall behind him. I just remember thinking, “Oh my God, how did they get away with doing something that beautiful and symbolic and overt?” It’s just one of those great moments.
The film is chock-full of great imagery. This wonderful chair that the monster gets chained into. The little guys in the jars. And I love tragedy. I love blowing shit up at the end, and having the good guy go out in a big explosion, and the tragedy of being rejected by the Bride. Then it’s just like, “Fine, we’re just going to blow the whole place up.” That is certainly the kind of thinking that is always running through my head every time I’m plotting a story. Always, at some point when I’m plotting a story, “Well, how are we going to end this?” “Well, we’ve just got to find a way to blow up the castle.”
The Dissolve: People often compare your work to German Expressionism, which also shows in James Whale’s films. Do you have any sense for where you first encountered that style?
Mignola: No. That’s the kind of stuff I probably didn’t see until I was in my art-school years, when I was spending a lot of time at one of these little arthouse theaters in Berkeley, seeing things like Nosferatu. You do see that kind of stuff in the Universal pictures: very unrealistic sets, and dramatic angles, and things like that. Probably as a kid, if I was exposed to any of that, it came from things like the Universal pictures.
The Dissolve: Speaking of films with really blatant crucifix imagery, where does Black Sunday fit in?
Mignola: I don’t know what I’d be like if I had seen that film as a little kid. I lump that one with Bride Of Frankenstein because of the spectacular imagery, and the fact that as a story, it’s all over the map. I’ve read essays where people have pointed out, “They must have changed their idea about who this character was at this point, because this scene doesn’t make any sense with that scene.” The story doesn’t really work, but it’s so wonderfully crazy. It’s such a parade of really strong scenes, starting with the mask getting nailed onto this woman’s face. It’s not enough that we’re burning somebody at the stake, we’ve got to hammer a big spiky mask onto her face. Then, secret passages through fireplaces, and one of the greatest scenes I’ve ever seen in any supernatural film: this wonderful moment where a guy goes down into a crypt, and this coffin explodes, exposing this woman lying in a pile of dirt. It’s just fantastic. I’ve never been a big fan of Mario Bava after that—I’ve seen a bunch of his other movies, and they’re fine, but there’s just something about this one. It’s so spectacularly, wonderfully gothic, and so rich in those kind of images. Again, one of those movies I could watch every three days.
Mignola: One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Again, one of those arthouse movies, never saw it as a kid. There’s imagery in there that’s so stuck in my head. It’s one of the films in my mind as I’m creating the world in Hellboy In Hell. There’s a fireplace where the posts that hold up the fireplace are actually actors painted to look like stone, so their eyes track the characters through the room. One moment that is just so in my head: a cut to the fireplace, where one of the human stone columns has smoke drifting out of his mouth. It’s just spectacular. Spooky-but-beautiful is a big thing with me. There’s also a scene where you see the beast, and his hands are smoking. He’s killed an animal, and there’s wisps of smoke coming off of him. [Jean Cocteau explains in the film’s prelude that this is an old fairy-tale superstition, that a murderer’s hands would smoke. —ed.] It’s some of the most powerful, beautiful, striking images I’ve seen in a movie.
The Dissolve: As I said earlier, Jason And The Argonauts is an upbeat, boyish adventure, but the rest of these films have a heavy emotional burden, usually of grief and despair. Is that part of the appeal?
Mignola: Yeah, I love sad movies. If I can cry in a movie—I don’t know that any of these movies have ever made me cry, but I’m one of those guys that loves to cry in the movies. I love drama, and I love big tragedy. I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with me, but that’s what I like. Even if I go back as far as The Wizard Of Oz, it’s the sad stuff in Wizard Of Oz. It’s Dorothy crying, it’s Dorothy being held prisoner, it’s the winged monkeys. This is the stuff that strikes me. I’m not a big fan of the singing and dancing—I want the drama.
The Dissolve: And most of these movies end in tragic places, or at least hard-won, bittersweet ones.
Mignola: I don’t like the movies where everybody dies, and it’s horrible, and it’s a downer. Most of these, the people die in a heroic way, or they save somebody by dying. Killing guys off is always a neat way to end these things, and I only think it’s tragic if a guy dies without doing what he wanted to do. If he dies and he’s accomplished something, or by dying he accomplishes something, that’s different.
The Dissolve: Any last words on your film influences or your thoughts on film in general?
Mignola: I’m a big fan and, more and more, it’s the old movies these days. It’s the simpler kind of story telling. Movies these days have become so over-complicated, they’re like computer games where you’ve got to get this to get this to go here to go there. I love the simple structure, even something as complicated in a weird way as Black Sunday, there’s a compact simplicity to that movie. It’s got a lot of crazy elements going on within it, but you can wrap your hands around it. It doesn’t have 32 press conferences, it doesn’t have halfway through we introduce a different villain and this whole other different scheme or this big trail of bread crumbs we have to follow. It’s guys running around in one building most of the time.