The creator reflects on his eclectic 24 years in the biz, from his ‘nightmare’ early days to his struggles with the scorching success of ‘Hellboy’
By Andy Serwin
Posted July 23, 2007 9:40 AM
Mike Mignola sat crouched over his drawing table, inking Ernie Chan’s layouts for Power Man & Iron Fist #100, when he was hit with an epiphany: Inking was hard, and the fledgling comic book artist had no idea what he was doing. In the early 1980s, his dream of being a professional illustrator was turning into “a nightmare.”
But that nightmare turned out to be the impetus Mignola needed to take his career in a different direction. After leaving New York City to return to his native California—he was born in Berkeley and grew up in Oakland, where he attended the California College of Arts and Crafts—Mignola concentrated on penciling rather than inking, and though he struggled to find his footing for a few years, he eventually became a full-time penciler, a career move that has helped Mignola not just survive but thrive over the last 20-plus years of his career. And while many creators with two decades in the comics industry normally see their careers heading into a downturn, Mignola—thanks to his signature creation, the monster-hunting demon of the apocalypse with a heart of gold called Hellboy—finds himself as busy as he’s ever been. Dark Horse’s Hellboy: Darkness Calls is currently on stands, while the highly anticipated movie sequel “Hellboy 2: The Golden Army” looms on the horizon, in addition to a host of Hellboy spinoff titles, including the ongoing B.P.R.D. series of minis, forthcoming projects starring Abe Sapien and Lobster Johnson and his very first prose novel, Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire.
|“The fact that I ended up rambling through this career, where I was basically looking for jobs where I would get to draw monsters or not have to draw superheroes, where I would end up is beyond my wildest dreams—but it’s so much exactly what I would’ve wanted to do,” notes Mignola. “The only thing to complain about is that there aren’t enough hours in the day!”|
Luckily, the 46-year-old husband and father found some free time in his busy schedule to talk to us about everything from those early nightmare days trying to break in, to his various dealings with the Hollywood machine and, of course, how a demon from hell with a giant right hand changed his life forever.
(Marvel, Feb. 1983)
Despite the fact that it’s Mignola’s very first comic work, Marvel’s so-called “non-team,” starring Sub-Mariner and a host of also-rans such as Son of Satan, Beast and Gargoyle, turned out to be more of a “non-project” for the aspiring inker. He provided just five pages of inks over series artist Don Perlin—for which he received no credit.
“It was Al Milgrom who gave me my start in this business. He was actually thinking of me for inking Butch Guice on Micronauts. I did those five pages of Defenders, and he was pretty underwhelmed. So through my whole inking career, which only lasted about a year, he was constantly urging me to draw because my samples, with one or two exceptions, were me drawing pinup shots. So he was going, ‘Well, I don’t see any storytelling here, but maybe you should try learning that’—but I was too lazy. I just knew that I couldn’t draw comics. I had already decided at that point to go to New York and break into comics as an inker, and so I had done these five pages of Defenders, which were horrible, but I already had my plane ticket. So I went to New York and just basically begged at the office until finally some inking work surfaced, and that was three issues of Master of Kung Fu. [I worked with] a guy named William Johnson who, to my knowledge, isn’t in the business anymore. He did Master of Kung Fu, and then he went over to Daredevil and I inked one issue of Daredevil over him and then I got fired. I don’t think ‘discouraged’ even comes anywhere close to [describing] it. It was panic!”
|ROCKET RACCOON #1-#4|
(Marvel, May-Aug. 1985)
After kicking around various titles throughout the early ’80s and trading in his inking duties for pencils, Mignola was offered the headlining art gig on this offbeat miniseries, written by Bill Mantlo, about an anthropomorphic outer-space raccoon and his freedom-fighting group of zoological companions.
“I was never a superhero artist. I mean, in the first place I never thought that I was going to draw comics at all, and then when the inking career didn’t pan out it was like, ‘What do you do with this guy?’ So I limped into drawing comics. I was excited about [Rocket Raccoon] because I needed a job. I wasn’t in a position to pick and choose, and the fact that it wasn’t a regular superhero book was good, and it was a book also that I would get to make up most of the stuff. It wasn’t a funny animal book. I mean, the animals were drawn as realistically as I could, considering what they had to be doing. I remember that book being a lot of fun. But it wasn’t a real career launcher, let me tell you. [Laughs]”
|THE INCREDIBLE HULK #311-#313|
(Marvel, Sept.-Nov. 1985)
On the surface, Marvel’s Green Goliath seemed like a perfect fit for the monster-happy Mignola, as the Hulk has always been portrayed as a creature playing superhero. But just three issues into his run, Mignola’s Hulk train was derailed, and he was ignobly “traded”—to Canada of all places.
“The Hulk was on another planet with weird aliens and sh-- like that. It was actually kind of fun, and I thought, ‘Well, yeah, maybe I can do this.’ My second issue of The Hulk was flashbacks of Bruce Banner as a little kid and it was a nightmare. It was everything that I couldn’t draw! In fact, a friend of mine at the time drew all the children in that issue. Then my third issue was back in space and it was actually a really fun one because every couple of pages, he was on this planet or that planet and he was fighting robots one minute and fighting a giant the next minute. It really felt like, ‘If this is what The Hulk is going to be, then I can do this comic.’ Then John Byrne wanted The Hulk and so the plan was to switch places—John would take over The Hulk and Bill Mantlo and I would go over to Alpha Flight."
|ALPHA FLIGHT #29-#31|
(Marvel, Dec. 1985-Feb. 1986)
The Marvel Universe expanded to the Great White North in the early 1980s when John Byrne launched Alpha Flight, giving Canada its own resident superhero team. But by this time, Byrne was looking for a new project, and he wanted to take over The Incredible Hulk, prompting editors to move Mignola to the book vacated by Byrne. It would prove to be Mignola’s last work for the House of Ideas until 1989.
“I must’ve said no [to Alpha Flight] five times because I knew that was a real superhero book, and there was no way in hell that I was cut out to draw that. If it had been Thor or something, that would’ve been a different story, but this was Canadian superheroes that I didn’t grow up with. I couldn’t have cared less about Alpha Flight and that book; from day one, I hated waking up in the morning. It was so awful. I was desperate to do something else.”
|CHRONICLES OF CORUM #1-#6|
Mignola, a longtime fantasy devotee, jumped at the chance to pencil the comic adventures of Corum Jhaelen Irsei, the literary creation of Michael Moorcock in a series of popular novels. Influenced heavily by Celtic mythology, Corum, with writer Mike Baron, represented the kind of folklore-influenced subject matter Mignola would later tackle in Hellboy.
“There [was] just a blur of horror and disappointment coming off of Alpha Flight. Then there was a graphic novel that I was going to do, and that didn’t happen, and I got so disgusted with the way that things were going at Marvel. I had been offered a different Michael Moorcock project a couple of years earlier which I turned down. But I basically fled Marvel and I called up Mike Friedrich, who had all the Michael Moorcock properties. So I just stepped right into that book and that was great for me. I mean, I didn’t know what I was doing yet, but again, it was a chance to completely make up that world. I felt a lot more freedom. By the end of that, I felt like I had figured out a little bit about what I do. So I felt a little bit less like I was drowning.”
|PHANTOM STRANGER #1-#4, WORLD OF KRYPTON #1-#4|
(DC, Oct. 1987-Feb. 1988)
Mignola tackled two four-issue minis at the same time: He collaborated with Paul Kupperberg and P. Craig Russell on Phantom Stranger, which found the longtime DCU mystic—stripped of his powers by the Agents of Order—battling Eclipso. In World of Krypton, he teamed with Man of Steel creator John Byrne, helping to establish a brand-new history for the newly retconned Superman line.
“We go from like my safe bubble of Corum, which I can’t remember why I left, but I have a very short attention span. I was just antsy to go somewhere else. Mike Carlin, who I had known at Marvel, was over at DC. He contacted me and said, ‘I have these two miniseries,’ [and] somehow he convinced me to do them both. So I went from this safety net back to a nightmare situation where I had to draw so much faster than I knew how. So, with the exception of the first issue of Phantom Stranger, I did just layouts for both Phantom Stranger and World of Krypton. And Phantom Stranger was a horrible book. I mean, I shouldn’t say that, but it wasn’t what they told me it was going to be. Phantom Stranger was this supernatural character, and that’s my subject matter, so I was looking forward to doing a supernatural book, but it was so much more stuck in the real world. There’s one issue that takes place mostly in the White House and Ronald Reagan was in it and it was god-awful. But Craig Russell was inking me, and so that was kind of cool. On the other book, World of Krypton, that would’ve been a lot of fun to do and I should’ve taken that book and really drawn it. It was a change to do a fantasy book and a weird science fiction book and make up a whole world, but I had to draw it so fast and whoever inked my layouts…it wasn’t a good match. [EDITOR’S NOTE: It was Rick Bryant and Carlos Carzon.] So that whole book, it kind of got thrown away. So I ended up drawing two books, neither one of which I look back on and say, ‘Gee, that was my best hour.’”
|COSMIC ODYSSEY #1-#4|
(DC, Nov. 1988-Feb. 1989)
This Jim Starlin-penned, four-issue Prestige Format miniseries found a group of DC’s biggest heroes, including Superman, Green Lantern and Batman, teaming up with the New Gods and Darkseid to stop the Anti-Life Equation from destroying their universe. The combination of mysticism and the space-faring subject matter of the Kirbyverse played to Mignola’s talents and sensibilities, and the format of the book would influence the types of projects he would tackle later.
“I had been a huge Jim Starlin fan in my comic-book-buying days. When he was doing Warlock and Captain Marvel, I thought that was the greatest stuff on Earth, and so the chance to work with Jim Starlin was really appealing. And actually, that’s the first book where I started to really figure out what my style looked like. Unfortunately, [inker Carlos Garzon and I] weren’t a good match. If you were to look at my pencils, you can start to see the angularness and the clunkiness of my style. That came from spending a lot of time looking at Jack Kirby. It really added something to my artwork, and by the end of that book, I really felt like I was starting to have a feel for what my stuff should look like. Unfortunately, you don’t really see it in the finished version of Cosmic Odyssey because while I would do something with three lines, the inker would put 40 lines.
“Both [Marvel and DC] were doing a lot of these miniseries and Prestige Format things, and so I started seeing that this is what I could do. Rather than trying to do a monthly book, which I never wanted to do, I said, ‘I can do one special project, then another and another.’ What I needed to do was slow down and do one right. I needed to have a relationship with the colorists. I needed to work with an inker that was more compatible. I guess it did get a lot of attention. I guess I didn’t realize that at the time, but certainly it was promoted, to me anyway, as being a big book for DC. So the fact that I had somehow crawled up out of these awful miniseries and these failed attempts at drawing a monthly book and landed someplace where I felt pretty comfortable, where you had a little more flexibility in the deadline, I felt like, ‘This is where I fit into the comics business.’”
|BATMAN: GOTHAM BY GASLIGHT|
(DC, Nov. 1989)
Mignola, teamed with writer Brian Augustyn for this tale of the Batman matching wits with Jack the Ripper in a Victorian-era alternate universe, found his niche with this first-ever “Elseworlds” Prestige Format one-shot, a combination of detective thriller with elements of gothic horror that would be an early precursor to Mignola’s work on Hellboy.
“I grew up on Marvel, so I never gave a sh-- about Batman one way or the other. I could never quite understand what all the fuss was about, but I knew Batman would work in my style. Coming off of Cosmic Odyssey, I suddenly had a reputation as a superhero artist—I don’t think a very good superhero artist, but I had this reputation as a superhero artist. It was like, ‘Damn! I never wanted to be a superhero artist.’ When Gotham by Gaslight rolled around, someone said, ‘Hey, do you want to do Victorian-era Batman?’ I thought, ‘Jack the Ripper. Victorian era. It’s more the subject matter I care about.’ Superheroes—in a way as terrible as I am at drawing superheroes—that’s easier than drawing gothic horror stuff, especially the period stuff that was going to involve coaches and horses and all of that kind of stuff, but that is the subject matter that I really like. So I thought, ‘This project will redirect my career. This will change people’s perception of me. This is the kind of work that I would like to be known for doing.’”
|DOCTOR STRANGE/DOCTOR DOOM: TRIUMPH AND TORMENT|
In what is arguably Mignola’s most memorable Marvel project, Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme teams with the dictator of Latveria to travel to hell and free Doom’s mother from the clutches of the devil. Needless to say, the supernatural aspects of Roger Stern’s story appealed to Mignola’s devilish tastes.
|“That’s a weird one. When you get offered a lot of work coming from a time when you didn’t get a lot of work, you say yes to more stuff than you can actually do. The problem is that I was just taking on a lot of jobs and I was doing a half-assed job with everything. So what happened is that I penciled Dr. Strange/Dr. Doom, and then went off and did Cosmic Odyssey. It was just one of those things where I figured somehow that I could do both. Dr. Strange/Dr. Doom was so much my subject matter—it was hell, it was Dr. Strange, it was magic stuff. That was going to be my great book, and it should’ve been, but somehow I got roped into doing Cosmic Odyssey. And Dr. Strange/Dr. Doom got penciled, but I didn’t get to finish it. For whatever reason, I think that maybe because I was off doing this book at DC, someone at Marvel said, ‘Well, we’re going to make an example of him. This guy needs to turn in that finished book now.’ So that’s when I had to bring someone else in to ink Dr. Strange/Dr. Doom [because] I had drawn it really loose for myself. So I had to have Mark Badger, someone who could add something to my loose pencils. As a result, I think that you have a really nice, interesting book, but it’s not necessarily what I would’ve done with it. It’s a beautiful book, but it’s an interesting collaboration as opposed to the definitive Mike Mignola graphic novel.”|
|CLASSIC X-MEN COVERS|
Mignola, who first gained attention as a penciler from Marvel because of his pinup ability, captured some classic X-Men moments in his series of covers for this X-Men reprint book, interpreting storyline moments and putting his signature style on the Merry Mutants.
“There was at least a year there where I think I did nothing but covers. I was always going down the hall at one publisher or the other and someone would say, ‘Can you do a cover for this? Can you do a cover for this?’ It ended up that I looked around one day and went, ‘Oh, crap. A year went by and I did nothing but covers.’ But it was fun and it was fast and it was relatively easy. Classic X-Men was a great job because unlike most times when you’re doing covers, they could hand you the whole comic and you were able to go through the comic and go, ‘Oh, okay. I like this feature. I like this scene. I like this moment. I’ll make a cover out of that,’ as opposed to trying to work from a script which I hate doing. So Classic X-Men was a really fun gig—and I don’t think that I got fired off of that.”