Monday, June 13, 2011

Mike Mignola Before (And After) Hellboy

As I've mentioned many times over the course of this blog, I'm a fan of the comic book art form. Over the nearly 30 years that I've been in it, my tastes have evolved, as has how I enjoy the hobby. I can't even remember the last time I bought what one thinks of as a "comic book". I stick with collected editions, known as trade paperbacks, which group several issues that comprise one storyline or theme together into one you-can-actually-put-it-on-a-bookshelf book. And even within that parameter, I only buy books by certain creators. I've never really cared about one character or another, I'm just interested in good writers and artists. Within the confines of the story, of course I'll care about the characters, but that's because of the high level of the writing and storytelling due to the quality of the creators. And one of those high quality creators is Mike Mignola.

I was first introduced to the artwork of Mignola way back in around 1985. A schoolmate of mine named Steve Moy, also a comic book fan, encouraged me to check out books he'd drawn. And, as I am wont to do, I'm going to go off on a slight tangent here, as Moy was a good friend for around a decade or so. All thru junior high and high school we would go to each other's houses, read comics, watch movies, play baseball, and just hang out and have a good time. I met him thru another school friend who I still keep in contact with to this day, and comics was one of the things we all had in common. Moy used to bear a striking resemblance to Bruce Lee, particularly from his Game Of Death film. Somewhere along the way, I lost touch with him, as he went to college in Syracuse, New York, a good 250 miles away from Whitestone, where I lived. I think I'd heard something about him living in Seattle at one point. A quick Google search reveals way too many people with that name, and seeing as how I'm not on Facebook, we're not going that route either. Regardless, he was a good friend, made even more so by opening me up to the world of Mignola.

At the time, Mignola was an up-and-coming penciler in the comic book world. He definitely had a unique style, one which the word "quirky" would be very appropriate for. He's never gone for anything even remotely resembling photo-realism; from day one, he was always more concerned with the use of light and shadow and composition over pretty figures. His ability to establish a mood and advance the story with his pictures was always paramount in his work. He would even use his light-and-shadow talents to disguise the fact that he wasn't the greatest artist in the world, as he always struggled drawing hands and feet, and would often shroud them in mist or cloak them in darkness to avoid having to actually render them. You stick with what works.

There was something about his style that I almost instantly gravitated to. I liked the boxiness of his figures, the mysteriousness that his pages seemed to portray, and I really enjoyed the overall look of his work. His work was SO different that it demanded your attention. He was definitely a polarizing force, as you either loved or hated his art. There was no way to be indifferent about it. He was working on the Incredible Hulk in that summer of 1985, and then went over to a book called Alpha Flight. Even though he only lasted on that book for 3 issues, he made an impression on a 14-year-old me. I started to notice him here and there on other things, mostly superhero titles. At the time, there really wasn't much of a choice as to subject matter, as Marvel & DC, the 2 big comic book publishing companies, had well over 90% of the market, and practically their entire output consisted of superhero books. Thankfully, the narrow field of choice was just about to break wide open in the comic book world.

Thru sheer persistence, or force of will, or from just being able to produce pages in a timely manner, plus a healthy dose of actual talent, Mignola started to get higher profile projects to work on. He would fill-in on many titles in the Marvel Universe, doing one issue of a title when the regular wasn't going to be able to meet the deadline, or just to give the regular a break, allowing them either a vacation or a chance to catch up. He would also do many covers at Marvel. Over at DC, he was getting more regular interior work to do. He did a Superman mini-series that filled in some backstory of his home planet of Krypton, and a very highly publicized 4 issue bookshelf format comic called Cosmic Odyssey that starred all the major players in the DC Universe. He also did the covers for 4 issues of Batman's regular series when they were doing a story in which the at-the-time Robin's fate would be decided by the readership. Depending on which 1-900 phone number you called, you were voting for Jason Todd to survive a severe beating by The Joker, or succumb to his injuries and die. It was a marketing ploy that succeeded to immense proportions. When that book came out in late 1988, it made national news. The book sold out instantly everywhere, as all the press it received had ordinary citizens, ones who hadn't bought or even looked at a comic book in years, if ever, coming in to try and get a copy of the book. Although Mignola didn't draw the interiors, the mere fact that he did the covers on such a phenomenal selling book obviously helped his career a great deal.

Then, in the summer of 1989, 2 major projects that Mignola drew were published. For Marvel, he had done a hardcover graphic novel starring Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom, involving the hero and the villain teaming up in an effort to rescue Doom's mother. A beautiful book, it was definitely a project suited for Mignola, as he got to draw demons and monsters and other denizens of Hell, something that he always wanted to do. Over at DC, he did a bookshelf comic starring Batman in an alternate universe in which he was in London investigating the Jack The Ripper murders at the time they were occurring. Gotham By Gaslight, the title of the Batman/Jack The Ripper book, is another terrific use of Mignola's talents, as the foggy and shadowy London nights were perfect for his drawing style, and seeing as this was one of DC's flagship characters, it really helped to solidify him on the artistic map. Remember, 1989 was the summer of the Bat, as the Tim Burton, Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson Batman film was about to debut. Mignola was much happier with these projects as well, because he had been starting to get known as a superhero guy, and he realized this was a category he did not want to be pigeonholed into.

He then branched out a bit more with subject matter. While he did a Wolverine bookshelf comic, and continued to draw many covers for Marvel and DC, those things paid the bills while he drew the smaller profile projects that he REALLY wanted to draw, like a little Swamp Thing story with a then-relatively-unknown writer named Neil Gaiman, a 4 issue adaptation of Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser characters with Howard Chaykin, a Hellraiser story set in the universe of Clive Barker, and a massive Ironwolf hardcover graphic novel that Chaykin himself had approached Mignola about doing. And even the Wolverine book involved him in The Savage Land, where dinosaurs still existed, so he got to draw monsters there, too. The cover, owned by a Comic Art Fans friend, is also his best Frank Frazetta homage, an artistic hero of Mignola's (and basically everyone who's ever been an artist or art fan).

I can't remember if it was the summer of 1989, or January of 1990, but I really don't feel like digging thru boxes looking for some evidence to pinpoint it...and frankly, it isn't that important anyway. What does matter is that at one of those 2 times, I went into Manhattan to attend a comic book convention at which Mignola was going to be a guest. This was only the second or third big show that I had gone to, and I'd seen at the others that some artists would do sketches for people for a fee. I knew that I wanted to get something from Mignola, in addition to just being able to meet him, talk with him, and have him sign some of the books of his that I had. As I stood at his table waiting my turn, he was finishing a piece for someone else, and it was a drawing of the aforementioned 2 Dr.'s. I was so taken at just how cool it looked that when it came my turn, I said something to the effect of "Can I get one of those?" And so began a relationship that got to the point that he recognized me at shows, as he would be a guest at one in New York every 6 months, and I of course would be there as well. I wound up getting 3 sketches over those years, but the best part was just getting to hang around his table and talk with him about art, the comic world, and his origins.

As a directly related aside, I've always enjoyed finding out about the creative process as much, if not more, than the actual creations. If I really like a movie, I want the 3 disc DVD with the bazillion extras that gives all the behind the scenes stuff, and the commentary tracks, and the making-of features, and so on. And the same goes for the comic book creators I admire. The ones whose work I really enjoy, who've done work that has had an impact on me, are the ones who I go out and seek the trade publications that have interviews with them. And as I would talk more and more with Mignola at these conventions, I realized that no one had ever published an interview with him, and that in talking with him at show after show, I was practically conducting one. Hmmmmm...

So at the NYC show in June of 1991, I broached the topic of doing an interview with him. What I find amazing, to this day, is that here was this dopey long-haired 19 year-old kid, with no affiliation with any publication, and no real writing experience to speak of, asking Mignola to be the subject of an interview...and he said yes! I'm shaking my head as I write this. Now, I can't remember if I had contacted Fantagraphics (publishers of the comic book news and interview magazine Amazing Heroes) first, or if I'd gotten Mignola to agree to the interview first, but all of a sudden it was all set up, and the interview was a go! I got a list of questions and topics ready to discuss with him, and left early from my summer job in Long Island one sunny day in July to make my way down to his apartment in Greenwich Village. I took a small camera with me as well, so when I arrived at his apartment, we just chatted for a while as he toured me around the dwelling, and I took some pictures of him in his studio.

After a bit of this, we made our way to the nearby Slaughtered Lamb pub to conduct the interview proper. Over a great burger that Mignola paid for (thanks, Mike!), we sat and talked about his life, career, his art, and where he wanted to go with it. A couple hours or so later, I was making my way back home to Queens to begin the task of transcribing the tapes, and then editing the conversation down to the most interesting material that would fit in the space that I had been allotted for the issue, which was to be published just 3 months later! The final piece got mailed off to Seattle, home of Fantagraphics (remember kids, this is the dark ages before the internet was as commonplace as horrendous reality TV shows), and I went back to my life.

Needless to say, it was quite a thrill that October to actually get the published version in my hands. It's still something I'm rather proud of (obviously, if you've read this far...), and while it unfortunately didn't lead to a journalism career (not that I really wanted one), it's still something I can hang my hat on.

Not long after the publication of Amazing Heroes #196, he moved away to the West Coast, and then the conventions in New York disappeared as well. I finally saw him again in I believe 1994, and he told me that a picture I took for my interview with him had just been used in an interview with him in Fantagraphics other, more sophisticated publication about comics, The Comics Journal. I didn't even know he'd been interviewed for it, so I got a copy and yup, there was a now several-years-old picture of Mignola in his at-the-time studio that I'd taken accompanying a new interview with him. Frankly, it didn't really bother me...I just wanted to read the interview.

By this time, Mignola had done enough working with Marvel and DC on properties that they owned, and he struck out on his own with a little creation of his called Hellboy. All he'd ever really wanted to do was draw monsters, so in coming up with his own creation, he could set it in his own universe, where anything he wanted to happen could, and anything he wanted to appear could, and he could put all of these things in any setting he wanted. He had made his own kingdom, so he obviously had the keys to it. Aside from a scripting assist from John Byrne on the first mini-series, Mignola has written the Hellboy comics himself. The Hellboy stories were published thru a company called Dark Horse Comics, who from day one in 1986 have been completely creator-friendly, allowing the artists and writers to retain the rights to their properties. They has gone on to be such a success that it has afforded him the opportunity to do nothing but that for the rest of his life. It has birthed its own universe, with the agency that Hellboy works for, The Bureau For Paranormal Research And Defense (B.P.R.D.), having many series of its own published, written and drawn by people of Mignola's choosing (sometimes written by Mignola himself), and all under his supervision...but he trusts them enough to let them do their thing.

Hellboy even went on to become so successful as to spawn 2 feature films directed by Guillermo del Toro. To go back on the Mignola history a bit, his first involvement with Hollywood involved Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula film that was released in November of 1992. Mignola was the artist of Topps' Comics adaptation of the film, and Coppola's son Roman was a big comic book fan. When Francis decided that he wanted to change the look of certain set pieces, Roman suggested to him that he bring Mignola in to do some of the design work. I remember Mignola telling me a story of one of the most surreal days of his life. He was invited by Francis to come view a rough cut of the Dracula film at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch. Mignola was living in San Francisco at the time, so it was a short drive up to Marin County where Lucas lives. Mignola, expecting this to be a screening for dozens of people, was stunned to discover that the entire audience would consist of him, Coppola, and Lucas. But that began his involvement in the film world.

He then went on to be a concept artist on the 2002 film Blade 2. There is some slight irony here, as Blade was based on a Marvel Comics' character. The director was del Toro, who is also a huge fan of comics in general, and Mignola in particular. While working on the film, the idea of making a Hellboy picture brewed between the 2, and it culminated in April of 2004 with the release of the first Hellboy motion picture, with Ron Perlman starring as the big red guy. A second film was released in July 2008, also helmed by del Toro, with Mignola along fully involved in all phases of production for both pictures. He even makes a brief cameo in the first film along with del Toro. And yes, there is an ultra-deluxe 3 disc DVD of the first Hellboy movie, which, of course, I have...

With the disappearance of a regular big comic book convention in New York City in the mid-1990's, I pretty much stopped seeing comic book professionals for quite some time. Other interests took over my time as well. It wasn't until after I moved out here to Las Vegas in March of 2000 that I started branching out my traveling. I now had more time and money, and the combination afforded me more opportunities. After touring some friends back to NYC in May of 2005, and spending hardly any time seeing my parents, I realized I needed to remedy that. I saw there was going to be a big comic book con in NYC that fall, so I decided to fly in, spend some time at that, and just hang out with my folks at home as well. I had such a good time at the comic book show that I started to look at going to other ones on my half of the country as well, and it was at one in Phoenix, Arizona in January 2007 that I was finally able to see Mignola again. It had been nearly 13 years since I'd last seen him, I wondered if there was any way I could get him to remember me? I realized I'd just bring the pictures of him I'd taken lo those many years ago, when we both were of the long-haired variety. By this time, we were both of the shaved-head variety, I suspect him for the same reasons as me.

Upon arriving at my hotel that was right next to the convention center in Mesa, Arizona (a suburb just southeast of downtown Phoenix), I pretty much went right over to the show. There was a small line at Mignola's table, so I got on, and upon getting to the front, dropped the pictures in front of both him and his wife Christine, and pretty much got a pair of dropped jaws, which made me very happy. Mignola looked up, we shook hands, and started catching up. I spent quite a lot of time at their table at that show, and the 3 of us talked about everything under the sun, including their daughter Katie, who didn't exist the last time I'd seen him. He even showed me copies of the pencils of the first issue of the at-the-time upcoming Hellboy series Darkness Calls. This was to be the first major Hellboy book not drawn by Mignola, as the art chores were to be handled by Duncan Fegredo. I first remember seeing Fegredo do a Kid Eternity series with Grant Morrison, but these Hellboy pages were a completely different style. Mignola said Fegredo was terrific, and only getting better with each issue. I was so impressed that I eventually bought a page from the first issue, which had Fegredo himself exclaim "Ugh! Those stairs!" when I met him in New York City the following April (yup, got to see the folks again, too). I also chatted with Christine about the fact that my parents now live in the same town in Long Island, New York that she grew up in. Small world.

Before I left the next afternoon, he was also nice enough to draw a sketch for me. He was doing free head sketches at the show, as he does at many of his convention appearances, and nearly everyone was asking for Hellboy, so much so that he wasn't even looking at the paper as he was drawing it anymore. In my never ending quest to not be just another cog in the machine, and to retain SOME sort of uniqueness, I asked him if he'd draw a sketch of Fafhrd, especially since a trade paperback collecting the original bookshelf comics was finally just about to come out. He obliged, but actually asked for reference, because it had been so long since he'd drawn the character. I'm pretty happy with the results.

Fast forward to October of 2009, and I'm poking around on an online auction site, and lo and behold, I come across a very interesting piece of original artwork by Mignola. It was the title page to the previously mentioned Ironwolf graphic novel that he was just finishing when I'd actually done the interview with him. This particular piece has a nice double meaning for me. In addition to being something he was working on at the time, it was also based on a piece of reference material. Turns out, the same piece of reference material was also the inspiration for the drawing of the wolf's head that adorns the banner outside of The Slaughtered Lamb pub in Greenwich Village. What better reminder of a terrific day in my life than to have that actual page hanging on the walls of my home.

I've now seen Mike & Christine at several shows since then, most recently in Seattle this past March. It's always a pleasure to run into them, chat for a few minutes, and Mignola is always nice enough to sign whatever books of his I bring. And as a final point of irony, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Although he moved from that address a few years before the publication of any Hellboy comics, when I conducted the interview with him, he was living at 666 Greenwich Street. You can't make this stuff up.

Blog Post Soundtrack; The Doors (live), Louis Jordan, Mike Patton, Patti Smith, Pearl Jam (live), Metallica (live), Republica, Galactic, The Dickies, Beck, Sex Pistols, James Brown, Bad Radio, Sugarcubes, Florence & The Machine, Joe Walsh, The White Stripes, The Black Keys (nice juxtaposition), Mr. Bungle (live), Andy Breckman, Discharge, Van Morrison, Nuclear Assault, Bjork, The Ventures, Down, John Lee Hooker, Primus, The Company Band, Led Zeppelin, Bo Diddley, Faith No More (live), Simon & Garfunkel, Stevie Ray Vaughan (live), Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Cantrell, Fu Manchu (live), Clutch (live), Louis Armstrong, At The Drive-In, Slayer, Unida, Tool (live), Brant Bjork, The Dandy Warhols, KoRn, Portishead, Queens Of The Stone Age (live), Voivod, Orange Goblin, Hermano, Deftones, Pantera

1 comment:

  1. Excellent piece. An even better overview of Mignola's career.