Every bit of Mike Mignola's success has come from the tip of his pen. The artist and writer has shaped the cape and cowl of Batman; his sketches transformed Francis Ford Coppola's "Dracula." Praised by critics for his light touch on gigantic monsters, Mignola has collected a dozen Eisner awards and a passionate fan base. But this week he's putting down the pen on his biggest creation, "Hellboy."
At least for a little while.
"I can't say for sure this is the last 'Hellboy' thing I'll ever be involved in. I don't want to put that final of a note on it," Mignola warns from behind his studio drafting desk in Manhattan Beach. "But for now, this is the end of my run of writing and drawing the Hellboy stuff."
Outside Mignola's work room, yoga-panted neighbors trot along in the blazing California sun. But inside, shielded from the ungodly blazing light (thanks to a collection of strategically placed black-out curtains), the artist offers a portal into his dark hellscape. Laid out are the last pages of "Hellboy" he'll draw for Dark Horse Comics, a look inside Mignola's mind.
Sitting inside the studio where "Hellboy" is made is akin to being inside a cabinet of curiosities. Animal skulls linger in the peripherals; black-and-white portraits of P.T. Barnum and 1850s opera singer Jenny Lind are tacked to a corkboard.
But the collection that takes up the most space is his library. A cursory look at one shelf reveals a series of titles too perfect to be believed: "The Book of Ceremonial Magic," "Werewolves, Shapeshifters and Skinwalkers," "Rasputin: Rascal Master," "Ghosts in Irish Houses" and even "More Ghosts in Irish Houses."
An emerald-colored vampire marionette hovers in the corner, discovered in Prague, Czech Republic, while scouring the city with "Hellboy" director Guillermo del Toro for a Kafka puppet.
"He eventually found one," Mignola says, "It didn't work for me, because my feeling was, Kafka needed a hat."
Not everyone has stories about searching the Czech Republic for rare Modernist puppets, but then again, not everyone has spent the last 22 years crafting their own, unique supernatural universe, one that would grow into the successful superhero-esque franchise, "Hellboy."
Few creators have the ability to conjure up whole worlds at the mention of their name, but the fantasy world of the Mignola-verse is a very real place with a style and host of characters uniquely its own. Mignola's strikingly peculiar look beautifully combines bold black shadows, jagged edges and wide-open spaces. He has a way with dimension: Three simple lines on the page can give a demon's skin texture or reveal the scraggy ribs on the underbelly of a winged hell beast.
For the uninitiated, Hellboy is a half-demon, half-human creature summoned to Earth from the underworld. Eventually growing from a hell baby to a hell man, the character is known for his large stature, one hand made entirely out of uncrushable stone, a brusque (but often humorous) delivery, and his trademark pair of sanded-down stubs on his forehead (where his devil horns would grow, if not kept in check).
A mindless Hulk Hellboy is not. Instead Mignola pulled inspiration from pulp writers Robert E. Howard and Manly Wade Wellman and their classic characters that roamed around and got into trouble. Hellboy is also just a wandering soul looking to do right, but with pit stops
And now, after two-plus decades of sketching and plotting the future plans of his red-tinted half demon, two feature films and numerous spinoff comic series, Mignola is taking a break.
For what? To focus on his painting.
"I want to focus on just being an artist for a while," he says. "Writing and drawing, for me at least, the art was getting a little bit shortchanged. I started thinking, 'Wouldn't it be nice to just to artwork for awhile. Not have any kind of narrative.'"
The character of Hellboy could probably use a break as well. Throughout his storied career, Hellboy has fought werewolves, vampires, Nazis and sometimes even vampire Nazis. He's traveled the globe, voided the apocalypse. And 10 issues ago, Mignola killed him and sent him to hell, as a vacation. This would become the "Hellboy in Hell" comic series and Mignola's farewell tour.
"My idea was that he would just roam around forever and just have a good time," Mignola explains. "I was trying to get him away from all the crap that I'd heaped on this guy over the years. This will be his vacation. He gets to go to hell, which will be kind of a nice place, and he can just hang around and talk to fish [and] skeletons."
Of course, Hellboy wasn't the only one looking for a change-up. Mingnola reveals that removing his hero from the real world and placing him in the underworld has been an important aesthetic change for the creator as well. Mignola had little interest in drawing modern-day conveniences and acknowledges that throughout his "Hellboy" run he's probably only drawn two cars, "just sitting in fields," and one plane. Apparently there aren't a lot of Honda Civics in this hell.
"When I killed off Hellboy, the truth is, he didn't go to hell, he went to the inside of my head," Mignola says. "Because the world that's in 'Hellboy in Hell' is the world that I started making up when I started doing these things for myself. So the world that I'm drawing and painting is, yes, it's the background in 'Hellboy in Hell' but the reason it's the background is because it's just the stuff I want to draw anyway. I took Hellboy and threw him into a world that was entirely made of things I wanted to draw. So now when I'm drawing for fun, painting for fun, I'm still drawing that same world."
So no, Mignola isn't leaving to test out landscapes of chubby-cheeked shepherds playing in the hills, no matter how brilliant a Mignola-style French pastoral would be. Rather, he's looking to expand on the world he's been playing in for years.
As for the actual act of writing and drawing out Hellboy's last pages, that proved to be a bit more difficult than anticipated. The final issue of "Hellboy in Hell" No. 10, "For Whom The Bell Tolls," wasn't troublesome as a whole (Mignola confesses he's known the end was coming since he drew Hellboy smoking a cigarette under a tree in No. 8), but the last pages were another story.
"I'd always known what I was going to do, but when it came down to actually doing it, I kind of lost my nerve," Mignola says. "I didn't lose it completely, but I did kind of keep waffling back and forth. It's one thing to say you're going to do this weird thing, it's another thing to actually do it."
As for Mignola's goodbye, small spoiler alert, the comic doesn't end with fire and brimstone, but rather a sense of calm.
"I don't want to say that this ending isn't satisfying for the fans," he says, "but it's not an easy ending. It doesn't spell anything out in a real comfortable way. It's an odd ending. So I did start wondering: 'Oh, what is the audience going to think? Is it going to be too weird?' And then I said: 'Well I can't come up with an ending that's any less weird. This is the ending I've always wanted, so this is the ending we're gonna do.'"
Mignola die hards will no doubt pick up the reference in his final pages to his previous book that the writer wistfully describes as "the best thing I've ever done." Hopefully the devout Hellboy followers will think the same for Mignola's last days on the comic as well.
And now that the chapter is closed on Hellboy (for the creator at least, the Mignola-verse will still exist at Dark Horse Comics), the artist has another mission at hand, the simple task of figuring out what he's going to do for the rest of his life. "Thank God I've told everybody on Earth that I'm taking a year off, because after doing two paintings and going, 'Ehh maybe I'm better off doing comics,' I've already told everybody I'm taking the year off to do paintings," Mignola says, laughing. "So there's really no backsliding on that one. I don't know how many paintings I'll get done. But there's at least a year of not drawing comics. And I don't have any solid plans for what I'm doing after. Which is pretty exciting."