Hellboy creator Mike Mignola standing next to a picture of Hellboy comic character
Hellboy creator Mike Mignola at the Cannes Film Festival last year. (Photo courtesy of Mike Mignola)

How did a doodle on a tablecloth turn into a massive fictional universe? Hellboy creator tells his tale.

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When visiting artist Mike Mignola — the creator of Hellboy — comes to Virginia Commonwealth University on Oct. 29, don’t expect a comic-con kind of vibe.

TyRuben Ellingson, chair of the Department of Communication Arts, wants to have a more academic conversation with Mignola, his friend and former colleague. He doesn’t want Mignola to have to answer the same old questions he’s asked at every interview or convention he attends.

Rather, Ellingson hopes the event, sponsored by the Department of Communication Arts and VCU Libraries, will be more about Mignola “as an artist who has developed from being what all of our students are: young, impressionable individuals with likes and dislikes.”

“That's where all of our students start,” Ellingson said. “That's where I started and that's where he started.

“So rather than talking about what's it like to work on a Hollywood movie or what's it like to meet all these actresses and actors — you know, the usual kinds of audience-driven questions — I'm really hoping the evening will open up a conversation and shine a light on his development. What are his studio practices? What were the inspirations that got him from point A to B? How was it that he found inspiration after doing work year after year after year? Those are questions that are really interesting and they may never get asked because most of the time people are talking about the last 15 minutes, not the last 15 years,” Ellingson said.

Mignola created Hellboy, “a good guy who happens to be the beast of the apocalypse,” 25 years ago after bouncing around between jobs at Marvel and DC Comics for 10 years. Since then, the character has spawned numerous spin-offs, trade paperbacks and two films, with a third slated for release next year.

“It went so far beyond anything I ever thought it would be,” Mignola said. “So I'm very happy having a one-sentence bio: ‘Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy.’”

Within a year of launching the Hellboy comics, producers at Dark Horse Comics approached Mignola about turning it into a film.

“I never thought there was any way anybody was ever going to make a movie out of this thing,” he said. “So I said, yeah, sure, good luck. It didn't go anywhere until Guillermo del Toro read the comic. … And he approached us and said, ‘I want to make this movie. I'm the only guy out there who can make this movie.’ Of course, then he wasn't the Guillermo del Toro, Oscar-winning director he is now. He was just a crazy kid who had made a couple movies and he worked like a dog and eventually found somebody crazy enough to trust him with some money.”

By then, Mignola had already worked with del Toro as a concept artist on “Blade II,” which is also where Mignola met Ellingson.

“What little I know about working in film, I learned from Ty [Ellingson],” Mignola said. “That kept me out of trouble 'cuz I had no idea what I was doing. Working on a movie for a gigantic chunk of time is a bonding experience, and you know, we're good friends and [the VCU visit] is a good excuse to hang out with him and basically talk about whatever he wants to talk about.”

The two reunited to work on the first “Hellboy” movie. And while reboots are often derided for lack of originality, both are stoked about the upcoming film.

“That universe that Mike created is so broad that del Toro really approached it from a certain lens, drew from it what he found most appealing and then added to it,” Ellingson said. “And so it left a lot of that universe open to be cultivated in a new way. 

“I always find it funny because I know people who think this model of reinvention is just remakes, but they're not. I mean, you can revisit a universe that large in a new way that's actually very different from previous versions of it. So I'm excited because it feels like a property that still has a lot going that I would like to see as an audience member.” 

What does Mignola think of the reboot? He shared his thoughts with VCU News on that and more, including how he unexpectedly landed his dream job by starting out small and working with del Toro.

Hellboy creator Mike Mignola and VCU Communication Arts Chair TyRuben Ellingson
Hellboy creator Mike Mignola and VCU Communication Arts Chair TyRuben Ellingson in front of some of their pre-production art at Guillermo del Toro’s museum show. (Photo courtesy of Mike Mignola)

How did you first get interested in comic books?

It goes so far back it's hard to remember where it started. I guess I got serious about it around the time I was a junior in high school and really started collecting comics. Then I got away from comics. In art school, all I wanted to do is draw monsters. As you get to the end of art school, you start going, “Well, if I want to draw monsters for a living, where am I going to go to get a job drawing monsters?” So then it kind of circled back to comics as kind of a practical career direction.

What were your first favorite comics?

I was a Marvel comics kid and my favorites were the Jack Kirby things. The Fantastic Four was my favorite. That was some of the stuff my cousin had when I was little, so I was exposed to that stuff really early on. So Fantastic Four and Thor. Between my brothers and I, we collected all the Marvel comics. We didn't go anywhere near Batman, Superman and that stuff.

When did you develop your interest in monsters?

You know, I don't know where it started because if I think back to being in elementary school, I remember certain books that I was kind of obsessed with in the library. There was something on Norse mythology. There was, of all things, a copy of "The Pilgrim's Progress" that had illustrations of monsters. These are the things I remember really early on. And a book on ghosts I was fascinated with. Then around age 13, I read "Dracula" and that was the turning point of my — weird to say — turning point in my life. When I read "Dracula," I just went, "That's it. That's my stuff." Really from then on, I've always been kind of a monster-horror-fantasy guy. Yeah. That was it. I found my thing.

It went so far beyond anything I ever thought it would be. … I’m very happy having a one-sentence bio: ‘Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy.’

Where did the idea for this particular character come from? Do you remember how it developed?

It definitely wasn't a character I made up a long time ago like when I was a little kid. I'd been doing stuff at Marvel and DC Comics for 10 years. I had drawn once or twice just, you know, when somebody just throws out something, when you draw on a tablecloth and you just stream of conscious draw something. I had drawn this kind of monster character. The first drawing of him, there was kind of a belt buckle or something on him and it needed something. So I just wrote Hellboy on it. I thought that was funny but didn't give it a lot of thought.

Then I did a Batman comic that I plotted myself. There was a supernatural story and it was the first time I did a comic that was just made of all the stuff I liked drawing: ghosts and vampires and that kind of stuff. I thought, “Gee, that worked. Why don't I do more stories like that? But if I'm going to do those kinds of stories, who do I use for a character? Do I keep trying to do stories like that with Batman or other company characters? Or if I know the kind of stories I want to tell, why don't I just make up my own guy?" Since I had drawn the Hellboy character purely for fun, I thought if I could use that character— certainly I never thought I would be doing it for 25 years. But I thought, “If I take this character that I drew entirely for fun, if this thing works out, maybe I won't get bored drawing him.” I have a very short attention span, which is weird to say after 25 years of doing Hellboy. But up until then, I'd never done anything for any length of time. So it was really important to me that I use a character that was fun to draw. And that was it. Not much thought went into who this character was. I just knew the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. Then as I started doing the stories, little by little, I figured out who the character was and he got more complicated and his world got more complicated.

It's not like one of those things I've been thinking about for a million years. It just kind of snowballed as it went along.

Was it difficult seeing your creation in somebody else's hands on the “Hellboy” film?

More difficult than I thought it was going to be. I had worked on a couple of films before, and it's much easier to work on somebody else's movie. I would come up with ideas on other movies and if they used them, or they didn't use them, it was fine because it was their movie. But on “Hellboy” it was very strange to come up with ideas that got shot down when you're used to being the guy who has the final word on Hellboy stuff.

But you know, it was such an exciting process that it's fine. It just mentally, emotionally, it took some getting used to the idea that it's somebody else's version of my thing. And I do realize how lucky I was to have a director who wanted my input, who wanted me there, who wanted me on set and who really wanted to make me happy. On one hand, from one perspective, I said, “Listen, I've done it my way. I'm happy to let you do it your way.” I'd rather it be a really interesting horror movie than, you know, kind of a half-assed version of somebody thinking what a Mike Mignola movie should be. I found it was a lot easier to say, “do whatever you want,” than to actually be in the room when somebody is taking liberties with your thing. 

I never thought there was any way anybody was ever going to make a movie out of this thing. … It didn't go anywhere until Guillermo del Toro read the comic. … And he approached us and said, ‘I want to make this movie. I'm the only guy out there who can make this movie.’

What is the biggest difference between the movie version and your original version of the character?

There are so many. Talking about the del Toro film, his Hellboy was much more juvenile, was much more like a lovesick teenager. A major plot point was a love story between two characters who, in the comic don't have that relationship at all. That was probably the most obvious big change that he made.

I try to remind myself and I try to remind the fans, who get upset about certain things, that the comics are the comics and the films are another thing. As long as it's true to the spirit of my thing, as long as you don't turn Hellboy into a psychotic, murdering monster. As long as it's got the heart and soul of the original thing, I'm fine with other people doing other things with it. I think at this point, I've helped co-create three or four different versions of Hellboy where the relationships between the characters are very different. To me, the comic will always be the real version. I hope people who see the movie will find the comic and read that. But, yeah, they're different things. Things that work in the comics don't necessarily work in a movie. I've tried to keep my comic from turning into something more like the film. I'm trying to keep my vision, you know, my pure vision. 

How did you feel about the casting of the original movie with Ron Perlman as Hellboy?

I thought it was great. Again, I never believe anything like this is ever going to happen, so I never gave it a lot of thought. Somewhere along the line, a friend of mine said, “Oh, you know who would be great for Hellboy is Ron Perlman.” Once this friend mentioned it, I went, “Yes, that's perfect. It'll never happen. It's probably never going to happen. But that's perfect.” And the very first time I met del Toro, we met for breakfast and the way I remember it, literally the first thing he said to me was, “I know who should play Hellboy.” And I said, “Yes, so do I.” It was like we put our cards on the table at the same time and we both said Ron. I was hoping that would be the case because Ron had been in Guillermo's very first movie.

You know, it's tricky casting something like Hellboy because it's a heavy makeup thing. It's a red character with horns and tail, so you can't really put that on a major movie star. You need a guy who's really good and the public isn't so familiar with him that they're going to laugh and say, “Oh, that's Keanu Reeves, but he's got a tail.” You can't do that. Ron was perfect and he was great. It didn't make making the movie any easier, because again, Ron was not generally considered a movie star. We knew he was perfect, but it took some doing to get a studio to agree to make a very odd movie with a very odd title, starring a guy who isn't usually a movie star. 

Upcoming events

“Master of the Hellboy Universe: A conversation with Mike Mignola” is part of the VCU School of the Arts Visiting Artist Series. (The event is sold out)

Other upcoming visiting artists include:

Department of Graphic Design Objects and Methods Lecture Series:

- Anna Kulachek, Thursday, Oct. 25, 4:30 p.m., location TBA
- Caspar Lam & YuJune Park, Thursday, Nov. 8, 4:30 p.m., Grace Street Theater 

Department of Crafts + Materials

- Suzanne Peck, Thursday, Nov. 1, 12:30 p.m., Art Foundation Program Building, Room 535
- Lola Brooks, Thursday, Nov 8, 12:30 p.m., Art Foundation Program Building, Room 535

Painting and Printmaking

- Lauren Woods, Thursday, Oct. 25, noon, ICA Auditorium
- Sedrick Chisom: Fountainhead Fellow Lecture, Wednesday, Oct. 31, noon, Bowe Street Parking Deck, Room 535
- Eugenie Tsai, Monday, Nov. 5, 2:30 p.m., ICA Auditorium

For more information on visiting artists, visit arts.vcu.edu/calendar/event/lola-brooks-visiting-artist-lecture/.

Let's talk about the reboot that's coming out next year. How did it come about and how did you first respond when you found out that someone wanted to do a reboot?

Well, it transformed as it went along. The original producers had been trying like hell to get the third “Hellboy” movie going. The original idea was, if Guillermo wasn't going to direct, to have Guillermo be involved as a producer and try to continue the storyline that Guillermo had done. But when it became clear that we needed a different director and, when Neil Marshall's name came up — who I'm a big fan of, he made "The Descent," which is one of my all-time favorite modern horror movies — we really quickly started discussing the fact that this thing with Neil could have a completely different tone. It could be much darker. It could be much scarier. Why try to continue the [original] storyline if we've got a new director with a completely different feel?

So that's when it became a reboot. At that point, it made perfect sense. It didn't just come out of the blue that it was a reboot. It morphed into a reboot.

How do you feel about the casting of David Harbour as Hellboy?

In a way, it's Ron Perlman all over again, in that I hadn’t given any thought to who would play Hellboy other than, "Oh my God, how the hell do we find somebody who could play Hellboy?" But again, I was sure this movie was never going to happen. Again, didn't spend a lot of time thinking about who would play Hellboy. And then I was sitting here watching "Stranger Things" with my wife and the minute she saw the Hopper character she went, "That guy should play Hellboy." Out of the blue, out of nowhere, no discussion and she just went, “that guy can play Hellboy.” Because I knew that it wasn't ever going to get made, I never mentioned to anybody that I thought this guy would be great. I let the movie people cast the movie. It was just a couple of weeks later the producers called me and said, "What would you think about David Harbour playing Hellboy?" Literally, the only actor whose name was seriously discussed to play Hellboy. Just like with the del Toro ones, Perlman's name was the only actor seriously discussed to play Hellboy. I was thrilled.

What advice would you give to somebody who has a story they want to tell or a character that they are passionate about?

Do it. OK, I'll dial that one back just a little bit. I do give this piece of advice to a lot of comics guys, because so many people in comics say to me, “I want to do what you're doing, but I've got this job or that job.” I always say, “When I did Hellboy, it started out small.” Again, I started out in '94. It's a different world now. Everybody's got a website, everybody's got whatever social media thing. My real practical advice to people is that if there's something you're dying to do, do it and put it on your website or self-publish a 10-page comic that you sell at conventions, or do something. Just put it out there.

What I see, unfortunately in comics, is so many people who want to do their own thing, [but] really what they want to do is pitch a TV show or a movie. I see too many comic projects where they're trying to cash in on something that's already popular. The thing I always say to creators is if you're passionate about Westerns, if you're passionate about a romance thing, whatever it is, do that. It doesn't have to be a 10,000-page graphic novel. Put it out there in small doses. If you don't do exactly what you want, you'll never know if that thing is your Hellboy. You never know what's going to catch on. 

When there was first discussion of me doing my own comic, I thought about doing some Batman kind of thing and I thought maybe that would sell. And I went, “You know what, I'd rather take a chance putting something out there that's exactly my thing. It's made out of only the stuff I care about. And if it works, oh, for 25 years now, I'm stuck doing exactly what I want to draw as opposed to a commercial thing [that I have to do] for the rest of my life. So at least try doing exactly what you want because, who knows, it could work and then you're stuck doing your dream job.