Hellboy is dead. Long live Hellboy… in Hell. To mark Mike Mignola’s return to the character that made him an industry legend, Hellboy was killed off and sent into the depths of the underworld, providing the character and its creator a fresh slate for future stories. Since launching in December 2012, Hellboy In Hell has become one of the most experimental ongoing comics on the stands, showcasing Mignola’s incredible talent by giving him the freedom to do whatever he likes, from a puppet-show production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to an adaptation of a Brothers Grimm fairytale. Along the way, Mignola provides the intensely atmospheric, wildly imaginative visuals he’s renowned for while building an epic story about hell’s power vacuum in the background, and delivering a multi-faceted narrative in the process. For the 20th anniversary of Hellboy’s first appearance, Mignola discussed the first five issues of Hellboy In Hell, which have been collected into one volume to be released on May 21, a week after #6 is released. (Dark Horse Comics has also provided The A.V. Club with an exclusive sneak peak at Hellboy In Hell #6, which is presented after the interview.)
Hellboy In Hell #1: “The Descent”
The A.V. Club: When did you decide you were going to kill Hellboy?
Mike Mignola: It’s hard to remember. For years, I’ve known I would eventually kill him, but because I knew I wanted to draw a much more fun world than the regular world, so I was going to head there eventually. When I started [Hellboy: Darkness Calls] with [artist] Duncan Fegredo, I knew that’s where we were going to end it, but I wasn’t really sure how.
I always have these big arcs sketched out. Like, he’s going to go here and then something’s going to happen to take him to this place and then something else will get him to this place. And as I started doing this book with Duncan, I realized, “Ooh! This is headed in that direction.” But you never really know what players are going to participate, so when I started setting up Duncan’s book, I realized this pig guy [Gruagach] is going to be this vehicle for doing this, so I have all the pieces on the board and then it starts working itself out.
I did know once I had Hellboy underwater with mermaids, and once I got him back and made him the heir to the throne of England—I did know that I’d gotten so far from where that character used to be that he was headed for hell. There are certain things you do with a character where you go, “I can’t turn back now.” Sometimes those dominoes start falling faster than you anticipate and you get some place you knew you were going, but you get there sooner than you thought and that’s what happened.
AVC: You describe Hell as a “fun” place you wanted to go. That’s a very interesting choice of words for what people normally associate with hell. But in these five issues, there’s a real sense of unpredictability and unbridled fantasy.
MM: I’ve always been much more comfortable with drawing fantasy stuff. And with Hellboy, I had stepped away from drawing the book, which I think worked out great. We got these three great books by Duncan Fegredo that I could not have done justice to that storyline. But coming back to the character, I knew I didn’t want to draw the real world again. I’d done it, I’ve never been terribly comfortable drawing the real world, and I wanted to come back to a comic where anything was possible and would be entirely made of these things I liked. So Hell really is this made-up fantasy world very close to this world I started making up when I did The Amazing Screw-On Head and these other odd little just-for-fun stories. It’s just my little fantasy world.
AVC: There’s that great sequence at the start of the first issue where Hellboy’s heart is falling into Hell and turns into Hellboy, followed by the full-page splash of him, no longer red, standing on a rock above strange crawfish monsters. What really sticks out is the coloring, the really intense red becomes this bright green used often in this environment. How close is your collaboration with colorist Dave Stewart in choosing the colors for each scene, and are you thinking about coloring choices when you’re drawing?
MM: I’m thinking about color all the time. Sometimes even as far back as the plotting sequence. That descent into Hell was there in the earliest plotting of that story of how we transition from this torn-out heart into Hellboy? To be able to do that entirely with color and take that red heart and turn it into a speck and then zoom in on that dot to become Hellboy. I thought that was such a nice, smart transition, having the big impact of Hellboy where we go all red and just blow it up and then when the light goes out, Hellboy’s light has almost gone out. Then we go into green, which is something that’s hard to do with Hellboy. A red Hellboy in a green scene starts to look like a Christmas picture. But we’d been tied to Hellboy being red for years, Dave Stewart and I, so there’s the idea of once we throw Hellboy into Hell, his red is variable. His color will change depending on his environment, which was never the case when he was in the real world.
It was very liberating to let go of Hellboy being red, and Dave and I work really closely together on this stuff. I generally have some vague coloring idea. Like that green scene, I knew that was probably going to be greens. The coloring for the abyss, this part of Hell, this outer rim, this chaos thing, was always green, in my mind.
We generally discuss the book panel by panel as we go, and more and more, it’s become mood stuff. I’ll say to Dave, “This scene is sad,” or, “This scene is quiet, but then at this panel we start heating things up, and this panel explodes and this panel cools off again.” So there’s a rhythm to the color and that’s really important. That’s something that Dave can’t necessarily tell by looking at the artwork so I’ve got to tell him what I want the mood to be, what I want to the emotion to be, because you bring a whole element of storytelling to the stuff with the color. The color is so important, I can’t imagine leaving the color to somebody who didn’t make up the story.
To say that it’s quiet, I don’t know how many colors there are that can say that, but Dave and I have been working together for so long, we have our own language now. He knows what colors I like, what colors I don’t like. I can reference other jobs we’ve done or “that sky color I like,” and we speak a certain language. It’s 15 years we’ve been working together. I’d be lost without him.
AVC: This first issue also really gives you an opportunity to indulge the Jack Kirby influence in your work, with those giant monsters and the metallic/stone demon Hellboy fights.
MM: Yeah, and in the [previous] Hellboy stuff, I never had a chance to do Kirby. Or to do what, to me, was old comics. Where I was going to add some sort of wizard guy who does magic spells, or this lightning-arcing stuff. It was so much fun to do that, to really make an obvious nod to that sort of stuff. Yeah, that was something I was really excited about and am really looking forward to doing it again before too long.
AVC: The last part of the issue is such a radical shift when you go into the Christmas Carol puppet show, depicting Scrooge being visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley. What was the influence for that scene?
MM: It was my favorite sequence in literature, and I thought it was appropriate to the tone of the book. The things that were spoken of in that puppet show, they had some resonance with what was going on. The whole sequence builds to: “And here’s where we’re going to enter into a thing, and you’re going to get a tour.” Scrooge is going to get a tour, and that segued really nicely into Hellboy getting a tour. But I also knew I wanted to put something right in the first issue as a warning: Kids, I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want. I’m going to do some crazy shit, and I’m doing this scene entirely because I want to do this scene. Mechanically it works really well with what’s going on, but it also served as a warning that anything can happen in this book.
Hellboy In Hell #2: “Pandemonium”
AVC: This issue begins Hellboy’s journey into his own personal history, with him entering an environment that is the shade of red Hellboy used to be back when he was on Earth. What was the reasoning for that color choice?
MM: The practical lighting effect of when you enter somewhere hot, you get Hellboy back into his colors. It also works on a level where this is the environment he came from, the environment he was meant to function in, so yes, he’s red here. But when we get him out of Pandemonium and away from that red fire, we’ll knock his colors back down. He only exists, really, as Hellboy or the classic Hellboy or the “Hellboy that is meant to be” in that place. So when we get him out in the other boroughs, he gets back to being a character that isn’t quite so Hellboy-ish.
AVC: After the statues in Pandemonium offer their warnings, Hellboy says, “Holy crap!” It’s a very simple but effective way to inject humor quickly and create a sense of disbelief and wonder. What is the importance of humor in your Hellboy stories?
MM: When I started the Hellboy series way back when, I wasn’t really thinking consciously about the humor, but Hellboy does have my personality and that’s an important part of my personality. Also in this issue, I don’t know if “pretentious” is the right word, but it’s ominous and I love writing characters making big statements. It’s Shakespeare, biblical kind of stuff, these big, ominous statements, and after I do that, I get kind of embarrassed that I’m writing like that. So Hellboy has always been the character, that part of my personality, that can show I don’t take that kind of stuff seriously. Even though I was taking it really seriously when I wrote it, there’s part of you that goes, “We have to deflate this bubble a little bit,” so that’s when Hellboy will make his little comments. I always imagine the readers are rolling their eyes, so whenever Hellboy makes his sarcastic comments, it lets the readers know that Hellboy is also rolling his eyes at the big, speechifying characters.
AVC: Is there any sort of historical influence on this “Revolution in Hell” story? All that red and the architecture give off a very Russian vibe.
MM: As far as the political structure, the beauty of this stuff is that I usually do it so vaguely that anybody can attach whatever era they want to attach to it. I always think of Rome and, granted, I’m not a historian and I don’t know this stuff backwards and forwards, but the idea that the senators have their private estates someplace else, but they met in Rome. If something went wrong, or someone disbanded the senate or whatever, everyone went to their private estate. I always thought that’s what Hell was like and, at some point, if you do have some kind of revolution, especially something that would topple Rome, everybody would scurry off and hide in their private estate and wait for the soldiers to show up and execute them. So that vaguely Romanesque thing was probably the most that was in my mind in terms of a political structure: the idea of Rome disintegrating in a different way than it did.
AVC: That scene when Hellboy is given a dagger and kills Satan has shades of Macbeth and Julius Caesar. You use two quotes from Macbeth in that sequence, one from before the murder of Duncan and one after, but the actual killing isn’t revealed until the next issue. Why did you decide to keep what happens between the panels a secret in #2?
MM: Originally it was going to be you were never going to see what happened between panels. I liked the idea of having a missing panel, which is really what you have in issue two. You have the possibility of doing something and a missing panel that leaves the reader going, “Did he do it or not?” I thought the idea of killing Satan is such a big thing that I like the idea that Hellboy did it, but I don’t know if I really want to tell anybody he did it. I realized really quickly that you just can’t not do it. If he’s going to do it, [Laughs.] you can’t just not mention it. Though I do like the idea of people saying, “Oh I heard Satan is dead! Did you hear about that?” “Oh, really? That’s weird.”
I didn’t see any way to keep going without saying that Hellboy did it. There is still the big question of why he did it, so I know there’s still a scene that’s missing. Even with issue three we expand on it, but there’s still a missing piece there. I’d be lying if I said I knew that whole scene when I wrote it. I know it now and will get back to it eventually, but the trick with writing this stuff for me has always been to kind of go, “Something went on here, and I’ll figure out what it is but I don’t want to write myself into a corner too early.” So you play these things vague, you go, “Oh, I know this happens and I’ll show this much of it and eventually I will figure out more of it and it will all make sense.” Hopefully.
AVC: The issue ends with Hellboy’s birth, which is a pretty big moment that has been hinted at but never fully shown.
MM: We’ve seen him appear on Earth before this and we saw his mother hauled off to Hell, but there was a pretty gigantic gap that we saw none of. There was the sense doing this series that readers have been waiting a long time for certain things and it’s my big return to the comic. I’ve got to make sure I deliver some stuff that, whether they’ve been asking for it or not, explains some things without explaining everything. So I thought this moment where he gets his hand chopped off is big. If the kids have been waiting, they will have gotten something.
Hellboy In Hell #3: “Family Ties”
AVC: This issue has Hellboy running into his uncle and his two brothers. Why the choice to incorporate Hellboy’s family?
MM: I have two brothers, so I thought it was important to have a parallel there. I always thought the father relationship with Hellboy was complicated whether he knew it or not. It’s a complicated relationship where the father created him to be something. He sacrificed to make you something special and just because you didn’t want it, does that make it less of a sacrifice for the father? I thought that was a nice idea and it was easy, at the beginning, to write the father out as this one-dimensional, demonic character.
Any character that is going to stick around for a while, I need to understand him. So coming to something with the father, I thought, was important to me. The brothers come across as one-dimensional and if they’d stuck around a few more pages, we’d have gotten some interesting stuff with the brothers. But, again, I have to go back to that Shakespearean idea of the scheming family; this was meant to be ours. “No, you got it. Now I want it!” There’s not anything in there that’s too autobiographical, but it was mostly going back to this Shakespearean idea of how families function.
AVC: At the end of the family reunion, you have the Leviathan breaking through the ice and ending everything very quickly. It’s one of those moments that shows anything can happen. When you’re writing, are you looking for those spontaneous moments to end a scene on a weird, wild note?
MM: With a lot of these bits, it comes down to me thinking, “It would be funny if this happened.” So when I plant a scene, one of the earliest things is I know certain things need to be discussed in these scenes, but at the same time, what’s really important is how I get out of that scene. We’d already fought these characters, we need a way to end that conversation and in most cases, I want to end that conversation before it reaches any sort of natural conclusion. So to be able to build to some kind of a climax, then throw in something completely unexpected, certainly you don’t just need more fighting. This was one of the earliest scenes I came up with for Hellboy In Hell: something jumping up out of the ice. And, quite frankly, I was tired of [uncle] Astaroth, I figured the reader was tired of Astaroth. Astaroth has shown up a ton of times to bitch and moan about Hellboy’s destiny and blah, blah, blah. The audience wants this guy gone, I want this guy gone, so let’s get rid of him really fast and really suddenly.
AVC: After the reveal that Hellboy has killed Satan, there’s that beautiful splash page of Hellboy surrounded by squids in the middle of the abyss, pondering the nothingness of his existence. It’s such an interesting way of showing that he’s not the most unique thing in this world anymore, and how that destroys him. What can you tell us about the composition and ideology behind that picture?
MM: One of the things people always comment on is how influenced my stuff is by H.P. Lovecraft and I think they’re usually referring to how shit usually comes up with tentacles on it. But the bigger, Lovecraftian idea, or at least where I was introduced to the idea, is this gigantic, unknowable universe and how humanity is dwarfed by this giant, unknowable thing. I wanted that moment. Hellboy kills Satan, he’s doing all of these things, and he’s going to be the beast of the apocalypse. It’s so easy to make him the biggest thing in the story. To put things in perspective—if I were to draw a map of Hell, Hell would be this tiny little dot in this sea of unknowable, chaotic, vast universe—the idea is to reduce Hellboy to a speck in this bigger, unknowable thing.
In my mind, the way this universe works is that it’s this chaotic blur of weird jellyfish-like blobs, and this little world he functions in is this island in that vast sea. This idea of Hellboy being, for the moment is seems, stripped of any kind of purpose and having him drift off into that unknowable universe and just be consumed by it, I thought it was a really powerful idea. Also, it comes from the end of Frankenstein. The end of the Frankenstein novel is him, on a block of ice, floating out to the sea, and I always thought that was such a wonderful, sad, quiet, poetic end for a character to just drift off into space. I wanted that moment with Hellboy.
Hellboy In Hell #4: “Death Riding An Elephant”
AVC: Issue four reveals Edward Grey as the hooded man from earlier in the series, shown in a flashback with Edward that has you incorporating a pulpy action influence that was really strong in those early issues of Hellboy. What attracts you to that type of story?
MM: The whole Hellboy thing is made of all the stuff I love and that pulp hero stuff is a part of Hellboy. The pulp occult stuff is a part of Hellboy, and I like to acknowledge the roots to all of that stuff. So we’ve got this one panel with the Heliopic Brotherhood Of Ra and these very spooky Victorian things of these guys sitting around with these big masks, but we also have to have a picture of one of those guys with clunky machinery and a rod with cable sticking out of it shooting lightning bolts to the sky. I can’t just do sober, old-school Victorian; as much as I love that, there’s also got to be the crazy, Jack Kirby comic-book type element to that. The trick is to find the balancing act, but you do want to reference that different kind of stuff.
The Ed Grey scene was an interesting bridge. Scott Allie and I wrote a story in B.P.R.D. about that room. It was before this comic came out, but I knew Ed Grey had this scene with this demon and was torn to pieces and thrown into hell. I knew I had that scene and I thought it was interesting to write this story in B.P.R.D. called “The Abyss Of Time” that took place in that room years after this happened. So when you read “The Abyss Of Time,” you had no idea; you knew it was a building in Chicago. I don’t think anyone knew, “It’s a building in Chicago where something happened,” and then, “Oh, it says in The Hellboy Companion that Ed Grey disappeared in Chicago.” I don’t think anyone was putting those pieces together. So it was nice to do this scene so that people can now connect all of those elements together. It is one of those things that’s exciting to me about the Hellboy universe: These different elements that happen in these different books connect up in certain ways.
AVC: In this issue you also get the inkling there is something controlling Hellboy because he’s doing things he doesn’t remember. Does he just not want to remember, or are there outside forces at work here?
MM: Going back to that moment where he kills Satan, I like that idea of “I don’t remember doing it,” which is another way for me to keep that door open until I figure out why it happened and how it happened. Keep that door open so it isn’t him just not wanting to think about it. But, at the same time, I know there’s got to be some sort of trigger. It couldn’t just be, “I have nothing else to do, so I’m just going to put a knife in his hand. Why not?” There had to be more to it, but even as I was writing this scene, I hadn’t yet found that trigger and if, in fact, somebody else made him do it or if there was some weird part of his wiring that kicked in and made him do it.
So if I didn’t know, if it’s a question for me, let me bring it up in the comic and make it a question. Chris Golden, when we were working together, mentioned to me, “If you think the reader can go, ‘Wait a minute! Why did this happen?’ and you don’t know, have your character address this thing. Otherwise, it just looks like bad writing, like you don’t have it figured out.” And if you don’t have it figured out, the characters talk about how it doesn’t make sense and it’s not figured out. Eventually, in this case, I have figured it out. I just haven’t written that scene yet.
Also, this was an interesting scene because this was something my therapist told me ages ago. This thing about people being like houses and some rooms you explore and some rooms you just keep locked. I don’t know what I said to my therapist to make her say, “Some rooms you just keep them locked, and you never go in there again.” Maybe I wish I remembered what I said to make her say that, but I just thought that was a great place to trot that out and use it for what Hellboy, is asking a lot. You killed Satan. Maybe you ought to not think about that a lot. It’s kind of like the whole Beast Of The Apocalypse thing and how I played it for years. Well, maybe we just won’t think about it. Maybe that works in the short term, but sooner or later, it’s too big an idea not to resurface. So I don’t know how successful he’s going to be in keeping that door firmly locked and bolted.
AVC: At the end of the issue, you have the speech about Hellboy being free now, or at least letting him embrace this illusion of freedom while he has it. Is there anything autobiographical about you having the freedom to do whatever you want in this world that doesn’t play into this larger universe you and John Arcudi and your other collaborators have created in B.P.R.D and all the spin-offs?
MM: It very much is that. My original idea for Hellboy In Hell was once I get him there and once I jump through these hoops in these first four issues, then it’s going to be a parade of little standalone stories where Hellboy just roams around and wanders into this and wanders into that. It’ll all be standalone stories like I used to do with Hellboy before he was the Beast Of The Apocalypse. Before he had all these destiny things thrown at him. I will have successfully had all of that behind me and I can just roam around. Though I did know, and it’s in the very first issue, there were a couple of major things Hellboy still had to do. I knew he had to do those and he would do them eventually, but, for now at least, I could just not worry about that stuff. He could roam around the Japanese neighborhood in Hell and do some stuff there and then wander into the Arabic corner of Hell and do some weird Arabic type of folk tale stories. And then I realized as soon as I started doing that, all of these things sort of connect up and, you know what? I have this big, epic story on my hands. So I wanted to cut him free, but, yeah, he’s got a couple more giant hoops to jump through. Ultimately, the goal for Hellboy is to put all of this big shit behind him and have him just be able to wander off and have a good time in this little fantasy world I’ve created for him. But I keep running into the fact that he still has a couple of big jobs he has yet to do.
Hellboy In Hell #5: “The Three Gold Whips”
AVC: This issue is essentially an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairytale “The Devil And His Grandmother” starring Hellboy. What inspired you to take influence from the Brothers Grimm?
MM: It’s one of the lesser-known Grimms’ fairy tales that I read a zillion years ago and went, “Hey, there’s a Hellboy story.” There’s a story that I can adapt. And then I like to do stories, periodically, where Hellboy isn’t the center of attention. Especially after those four issues, I thought it’d be such a nice break for Hellboy to keep a guy company in that guy’s story. But also I knew because you would have this demon and the demon’s grandmother—I always loved the idea that the demon had a grandmother—it would be a great place to have these characters discuss the current state of Hell which is, for the most part, happening off-stage. So I wanted to have Hellboy be able to eavesdrop on two guys discussing how things are starting to crash and burn without having to have Hellboy directly involved in the scenes where we see that happening.
AVC: There’s a moment where the grandmother asks to see Hellboy’s hand, and she asks to see his left knife hand instead of his Right Hand Of Doom. Now both of his hands are damned. Is that something you had thought out?
MM: That happened as I was doing that page. That wasn’t a big point, but I thought it was a fun idea and, again, it was an idea that you can’t really put that you killed Satan behind you. At least this woman knows you are important and, to her, you are important for a completely other reason. Getting away from that gag of that stone hand and blah, blah, blah. It was more like, “No, I’m actually interested in this other shit you did.” So he’s screwed right hand and left hand, he’s a little screwed on both sides.
AVC: Did you see a thematic comparison between Hellboy’s current situation and the fairy tale?
MM: I don’t know that I thought about it that much. I like to not overanalyze that stuff but to just feel on some level that this seems to relate to this and fit with this piece, not in a perfect way, but there’s something that can be gotten by putting this story next to that story. I don’t want to beat the fairy tale so out of shape that it fits perfectly with these other things I’m doing, but that’s sort of the beauty of these things being so vague and characters saying vague things: It allows the reader to draw connections that may or may not really be there. If people are asking questions, then I feel like I’ve done my job, because it means maybe it looks like I was doing something. I like the idea, and I would always refer to “fairy tale logic.” On some level, things seem to sort of fit the way that they should, but not in any kind of super clear, conscious way.
I’ve seen too many things where people take mythology or folklore fairy tales and try to explain them or try to adjust them in a sort of way where they become obvious. The purpose of them becomes obvious, and the way that they function becomes obvious. I never want to lose the magic weirdness of these stories, so I have my ways of how the magic works and how the fairy tale things work, but I never want to over-explain it, I don’t want to take it away from the reader. One thing, which I think a lot of people didn’t get but was very obvious to me because I was writing the story, was that this entire sequence with this guy and Hellboy takes place in the moment where this guy is having a heart attack. So as he’s dying, he’s got this chance to go and try to save his soul. The fact that it’s happening in [the year] 16-whatever and he just happens to show up in hell when Hellboy is there, I didn’t feel like you needed to do a big time-travel thing, there is no linear time logic anymore because we’re in this kind of dream world.
That’s why I ended up doing that last scene, which wasn’t in the original story as I planned it, where we would cut back to this guy dead with this inscription on the wall that says, “His soul his own,” to show that in this moment he dropped dead, this thing happened and he did, obviously, manage to answer this riddle. He cheated like hell to answer so when the demon came to claim him as he was dying, he must have been able to answer that riddle and save his soul.
I came up with this as a Hellboy story a long time ago, and the whole story revolves around getting the answer to this riddle. All the way up ’til drawing the story, I had no idea what the riddle was. I couldn’t remember it. So when it came time to script the story, there was this one panel where the dragon coughs up the answer to this riddle and it was so much weirder and stupider than anything I imagined. I remember thinking it was going to be like the riddle of the Sphinx where it was going to be this smart, answer the riddle thing but it instead ended up being this shitty thing of, “What are we going to offer you for dinner when you arrive in hell?” So yeah, that’s fun sometimes to go, “That was fun, but let me go find that piece and hope like hell it fits.” I don’t know if I would have been able to come up with some profound riddle for a dying man so I was stuck with what the Grimm brothers had.
AVC: What can readers expect from Hellboy In Hell moving forward?
MM: I’ve just finished issue six, where I do something I planned on not doing a lot of: Hellboy has a rematch with a character he met once before. So that was interesting. And, like I said, a lot of stray stories that weren’t meant to relate to each other have all started connecting together into something, at least from where I’m sitting now, that looks like four straight paperbacks of material, all leading Hellboy into one particular direction. So it’ll probably be presented as issue six is a standalone story, seven and eight will be a two-issue story, and from then on, it’ll all be two- and three-issue stories that connect together and eventually get Hellboy in a particular place where, hopefully, I can then say, “You’ve done your job, now just go off and wander around and have fun.” Be a hobo. That’s what I want: I want Hellboy to be a hobo roaming through Hell.
Hellboy In Hell #6 Sneak Peak: