This weekend Mike Mignola was in attendance at Fan Expo Boston and I was fortunate enough to sit in on his spotlight panel. This was a bit different than the typical spotlight panel where a moderator leads the creator through prepared discussion topics and questions. Instead, Mignola left the ball entirely in the hands of the fans and let their questions drive the panel.
Admittedly I was a little disappointed at first, but I’m happy to report that it ended up working out really well as my fellow Mignola fans asked a lot of great questions and Mike provided some really great insight into his work and his career journey as a comic book artist.
Almost as if it was planned, the first question asked started at the very beginning of every comic fan’s journey: their first comic book. Do you remember the first comic you ever bought? Was it what started your love affair with this wacky community and changed your life forever? Well that would set you apart from Mignola, because he sure doesn’t.
“No idea. I would have been pretty little. Probably Richie Rich or something like that. I used to go to the newsstand with my cousin and he got all the Marvel stuff and I got shoved over to Casper and Richie Rich. I remember looking at Fantastic Four and the stuff he was buying. So my earliest warmest memory of comics were his comics.”
Mignola’s art style is easily one of the most recognizable in comics. As with many other artists before him, it was developed through the simple system of trial and error.
“As I became a storyteller making stuff clear and readable was my goal. Trial and error. Realizing that if the arc was too complicated, the colorist/artist would always get confused,” said Mignola. “Learn to simplify your work so it reads simply and clearly. I don’t want people to have to stop and decipher what they’re looking at. I want people to see it, recognize it and move on with the story. It takes you out of the story when you have to stop and figure out what’s going on.”
The fan who had asked Mignola about his style followed up Mignola’s statement on style with, “I wish they took that approach on the latest movie and Hellboy’s makeup.” The Hellboy artist appeared to take issue with this comment. “Well first off, comics and film are so radically different. So you don’t know what you’re saying. The approach they took on the movie was that they wanted it to look real. They didn’t want a completely smooth red person.”
Mignola is synonymous with Hellboy, but the harbinger of the apocalypse isn’t the only famous comic book character that he’s worked on over the years. Many folks aren’t aware of the fact that he was part of the art direction team for the legendary Batman: The Animated Series and was responsible for the original design of Mr. Freeze.
“It is the iconic version of Mr. Freeze because I copied it from an old DC comic,” said Mignola when asked how he came up with the iconic design for Mr. Freeze. “I had one of those old ‘history of DC Comics’ books and I flipped through it and copied the costume. I may have added the eyebrows. I deserve almost no credit for it. I did the same thing with The Riddler. For Killer Croc I just drew a man with a crocodile head.”
Having drawn Hellboy for over 25 years, you might think it would start to get old, but the creator of our favorite demon is happy where he’s at. “I don’t know what else to do. It’s the only thing I’ve only ever been slightly good at,” Mignola said on what inspires him to keep drawing. “I’m lucky that I enjoy doing it so much. As a kid I loved monsters and drawing and I thought some day I’ll figure out how to make a living doing this, and I did. I’m in a funny stage in my life where I’m very happy with what I’ve done. So I consider myself the poster boy for getting away with murder.”
But just like every other creator out there, Mignola didn’t start with a wildly successful comic book and several feature films inspired by his work. He started where everyone starts, at the bottom.
“I suffer from a tremendous lack of confidence. I never thought I could be good enough to draw comics. I was desperate to be in comics, bound and determined to be an inker who would go on to do comic covers. My editor saw a whole portfolio of covers and suggested I draw comics and my I told him ‘No, I’m not good enough.’ So inking failed and that same editor said ‘Are you ready to try drawing comics now?’ So I went from being a failed inker, to an okay comic artist and decided I wanted to be better. So I started drawing more than ever, was self-critical and constantly tried to evolve and find ways to improve myself. You build up confidence just by getting away with stuff. I got away with stuff long enough that I got to the point that no one told me to stop and by the time they did tell me to stop, I was comfortable enough to do what I do, and that’s when I jumped away from DC to do Hellboy.”
The latest Hellboy film was released less than six months ago, so naturally the fans in attendance had some questions for the man whose character inspired it.
“I won’t say it’s tough, but it is weird. It’s strange when something grows beyond you, like film and stuff like that,” said Mignola on what it’s like to see Hellboy grow beyond the comics. “It’s super gratifying that people know about Hellboy and make references to Hellboy. Walking up to the hallway here I saw a sign that had Hellboy on it and it was an ad for a sandwich. What the hell do you do with that? Most of the people who are aware of Hellboy will never see the comic. One thing I say to creators that are going to have their comic or character made into a TV show or film, someone is going to take that and make it bigger than what you did. If I got run over by a bus, they’re going to show a picture of Hellboy from the movies when the news station talks about my death. So I live in the shadow of this thing, but that thing does give me the freedom to do whatever the f*ck I want. I could be all day every day on the internet saying my Hellboy didn’t have a room full of cats, he had a dog! But you live with it, the trade-off is, people know what this is.”
While most fans today know Hellboy as a trio of mostly successful movies, two of which are borderline cult classics, the truth is they almost never got made. “Nobody wanted to make the movie. No studio wanted to make the movie. Guillermo came to us. Guillermo is very persuasive. Ron in Blade 2 is basically Ron auditioning for Hellboy. Del Toro needed for Ron to show that he could be a tough guy. Del Toro brought bits and pieces of other scripts to the project and used Hellboy as a vehicle to do a lot of stuff that he wanted to do.”
“The first film is very much a collaboration between the two of us,” continued Mignola. “The second one we sat down and tried to do an adaptation of the comics. Within an hour it became clear that he had changed the character so much from the comics that we couldn’t adapt any comic stories. So the first film is very much a collaboration. The second film is very much Guillermo. There was a moment in filming the second film where I said ‘Hellboy wouldn’t do that,’ and Del Toro said, ‘This isn’t your Hellboy, it’s my Hellboy.’ So, you grow a thicker skin and you deal with it. It is what it is.”
Now, if the creator of one of the most iconic and beloved comic book characters is in a room full of comic book nerds, he’s bound to get a few of the same questions every time he does this sort of thing. So when it came to fans asking for advice on how to make their own comic and how to improve as an aspiring artist, Mignola sort of chuckled to himself and answered both questions with a wry smile.
“The only advice I have for other creators is if that I’m an example of anything, it’s that I’m a guy who did a book just for himself. Stupid name, red character with tail, that’s something that I was excited about. If you dream book is a western, romance about the 14th century, if it’s something that you’re passionate about, try that. It doesn’t have to be Dune. It doesn’t have to be 5,000 pages. At least try doing the thing that you love doing. Don’t get hampered by thinking that it won’t sell. Do it. And maybe you’ll find out that it does sell. You’ll never find out if you don’t try. It more than likely won’t work, but at least you did something for yourself and you put yourself out there. So even if Hellboy failed, on my deathbed at least I could say I did a comic that reflected sh*t that I liked.”
“I’ve worked with students a lot in the last few years, and one of the first things I say is figure out what’s important to you and adjust your life accordingly. I never thought I would make money with comics and thought I would live in a studio apartment forever. When I told my wife I wanted to do Hellboy, she said ‘oh I guess we’re living in a studio apartment forever.’ Figure out what compromises you want to make. A lot of people doing art have a day job. It’s such an individual thing. You really need to spend time with yourself and figure out what sacrifices you’re willing to make to get there.”
By this point Mignola had talked about himself for nearly 45 minutes straight and was clearly looking to change gears. Thankfully the last question he fielded let him do just that. When asked if he had ever worked with Jack Kirby, Mignola had this to say:
“I have a sad Jack Kirby story. I’m on a panel with him. He tells the story of how he created the Silver Surfer. Jack’s ranting and raving about Stan Lee crying, worried the company is going to be closed and go bankrupt, but not to worry Stan! Jack saw a guy standing a surfboard on his way home and now he’s going to make the Surfer and save everything. At this point in the panel Jack’s wife stood up in the crowd and said ‘Why don’t you sit down and let the young people talk?’ Jack’s head sags, he sits down, opens his sketch pad and looks over at me. There’s Ninja Turtles on the page, he looks at me and says ‘I like the turtles.’ I thought to myself ‘Oh f*ck. My one and only Jack Kirby moment and it’s a meme.'”
“I like the turtles.” Ladies and gentlemen, Mike Mignola.