Picturing Hellboy

A 20th Anniversary Appreciation


WHEN I FIRST SAW MIKE MIGNOLA’S Hellboy twenty years ago, I was flabbergasted with delight. Here, I thought to myself, is what comics can be: a purely engaging demonstration of how pictures and words can create more than surface visual excitement. Although visual excitement eventually triumphs over words, Mignola is still telling stories with pictures not just making pictures. Having thought all this to myself, I then wrote it all out, a paean to superlative comics art—pretty much as follows, those twenty years ago:

            No, Hellboy is not Dante’s Inferno or Milton’s Paradise Lost. Not great “lit-trachure.” But it is an exemplary display of a particular kind of storytelling that can be achieved in comics.

            Mignola’s pages are drenched in black. The figures in the panels are cloaked in shadow, almost always partly obscured. In order to permit maximum shadowing, Mignola draws simply, with outlines and no feathering or cross-hatching. The shadows—and the colors—define shapes and model them.

            And the colors, by whatever colorist, complement the black-soaked drawings. Flat solids in grays and rusty browns and the absence of variegated hue echo the general feeling of restraint the pervades Mignola’s Hellboy stories. (There are, however, brilliantly insightful moments of coloring—like the ice-cold blue on the shadowy side of a snow-clad mountain ridge, for instance.)

            Mignola’s dark visuals create the haunting, sinister mood that permeates his work. Medieval streets are lined with creaky Victorian mansions, individual panels focus momentarily on ornate diabolical sculptures that evoke the occult, skulls talk amid graveyard rubble, hooded beings mutter in mystic Lovecraftian albeit meaningless syllables—calling out, we assume, to the dead and decomposed. Forms and figures are often elliptically rendered, body parts—legs and feet mostly—fade into the surrounding gray gloom, floating in a silent, placid sea of muted color.

            He is so successful at sustaining this mood that we can overlook the otherwise comical fact that the foes his hero fights are flying lizards and/or frogs—vampire frogs, maybe, and giant-sized, but frogs nonetheless. (And when they attack, their victims get—warts.)

            If we celebrate Mignola for the mood he creates by shrouding his drawings in solid black, we risk overlooking another, equally vital element of his storytelling style: pacing.

            Simply speaking, “pacing” is the speed at which a story moves. Technically, “pacing” is achieved by narrative breakdown—in this case, divulging information at a deliberate rate. And in Mignola’s art, pacing creates mood just as surely as shadowing does. His plot develops slowly, as if finding its way in the dark shadows of his pages—slowly but steadily, inexorably.

            Pacing is the manner in which a story unfolds. Mignola’s pictures—the simplicity of his linework—complement his pacing. Both are deliberate, considered. Methodical. Both reek with reticence.

            In contrast to the usual superheroic mannerisms, Mignola’s comic books are understated action through much of the stories. Superhero comics are overstated: they are all action, all movement, all bursting skyrockets. Mignola aims to create mode; superhero comics, spectacle.

            Spectacle is an end, a climax; mood is atmosphere, a surrounding, enfolding ambiance. Spectacle lasts an instant; mood has duration—it haunts. While mood is an objective, an effect (something Mignola purposely creates), it is also the means by which Mignola achieves other effects.

            In his shadow-saturated pages, characters do not so much move as they lurk. Their movements seem inhibited, restrained, until they spring into action. In the same spirit, Mignola is sparing in his use of such graphic devices as “speed lines”; instead, his pictures depict key moments in the action, his figures frozen in mid-movement. Again, restraint.

            Until the page explodes. Monsters suddenly loom, buildings collapse and crumble into rocky rubble, oceans rise. Visual catastrophes abound. The quiet, coiled power is released and springs forth.

            And the layouts—the size and arrangement of panels on the page—contribute to the over-all effect. Panels are seldom arrayed in simple grids. Instead, they go from tiny, instantaneous glimpses of drowsy horrors or cryptic glyphs to looming caverns of gloom and foreboding. Page-high vertical panels emphasize the heights from which Hellboy falls or the towering size of his opponents. A full-page panel, divulged suddenly with a turned page, shows our unlikely hero confronted by a scaley demon five times his size. Such layout variety, panels ticking moments away like clockwork, sustains mood but can also supply exclamation points, thundering visual crescendoes that startle as well as haunt.

            In seeking to maintain the mood his pictures and his pacing create, Mignola seems to focus on the story as it unfolds. He must concentrate on the means as well as the end of his storytelling. In short, he must emphasize storytelling, which is means as well as end. And good storytelling will produce the desired effects.

            We learn something about the personality of Hellboy as we go along because the means by which the ends of storytelling are achieved involve the interplay of personality and event.

            Hellboy admits that he gets angry too often and too quickly—a character flaw, he implies. But he also cares. It’s clear that the motive for his actions in the first two issues of the inaugural four-issue series is that he cares about those whose lives are threatened (and even destroyed) by the supernatural forces around them.

            And how does Mignola get us to care about Hellboy?

            In pacing his story, in creating mood, he necessarily dwells upon the events of each page as they occur. These events are, in Mignola’s storytelling style, the fundamental tools of his craft, the essential building blocks of the edifice of his story, the very means to the end, as I’ve said. Everything Mignola brings into his story, he uses: all contribute to the effect—the mood, the character of his protagonist—all.

            And in dwelling on events as they transpire, Mignola pauses along the way enough to let us glimpse Hellboy’s feelings. Were the artist not concerned about the ambiance of his story, he might well over-look Hellboy’s character in a rush to get to the next pin-up page. But Mignola is telling a story, not just drawing pictures. And he wants us to care about Hellboy.

            He does this by giving Hellboy a sardonic sense of humor. Hellboy displays an indifference almost cynical about the supernatural myths and monsters he confronts. A winged serpent suddenly looms out of the darkness—“Jeez,” Hellboy growls. Or he grunts, “holy crap” or perhaps “Son of a ...” But he doesn’t run or cringe. He stands there, resolute, unflinching. We admire his courage in the face of the inexplicable—and his flip rejection of fear.

            Hellboy’s feelings, revelatory of his personality, are as integral to Mignola’s purposes as the shadows are to the mood of the piece. Like any good storyteller, Mignola knows that, whatever effects his story might achieve, they will be enhanced by—and perhaps even created by—our involvement with his hero. If we like him, his fate will matter to us. Otherwise, it’s just pretty pictures: a spectacle that momentarily awes us but dissipates as quickly as that burst of fireworks against a midnight sky, leaving us as much in the dark as we were before.

            In short, Mignola gets us to care about Hellboy by caring about the character himself, by devoting time and thought and attention to the personality of this creature. And by making his motives admirable.

            In Mignola’s comic books, we find more than razzle-dazzle pictures—on our way to the goals of a story. And that’s the difference between storytelling and picture-making.

            Not that the pictures are somehow secondary in Hellboy. They decidedly are not. They are, in fact, central to the title’s appeal. They are what comics are all about. The pictures seduce us—and keep us enthralled.

            Here, a confession: I’m not fond of demons or stories about them. I’m not intrigued by satanic machinations. Necromancy holds no fascination for me. So when I saw twenty years ago that Mignola’s title for Dark Horse’s Legend imprint was about some kind of demonic creature presumably from the netherworld, I gave the first issue a pass. Not for me, I thought.

            But I picked up the second issue. And I was hooked. The pictures captured me. And then Mignola’s riveting storytelling style seduced me into buying Hellboy again and again (including the first issue that I’d passed up—just to have it all). And I found that I grew to like this unlikely red-hided monster from hell.

            But why?— if I didn’t like demons?

            Because of the pictures.

            It is a visual medium, after all. The pictures are primary. And in Hellboy, more than in most. Even without being at all fond of the supernatural, I am captivated by Mignola’s Hellboy. The pictures hold me and carry me forward.

            The deeply shadowed drawings create mood and tone, and narrative breakdown pictorially paces the action, which occasionally bursts like the crack of doom upon Hellboy’s sardonic reveries. And page layouts that set rhythmic patterns and then break them for emphases impart drama to the proceedings.

            This is not frozen cinema. This is comics.


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