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    Hell Notes: Celebrating 20 Years of Hellboy

    By | August 19th, 2013
    Posted in Annotations | 11 Comments
    Logo by Tim Daniel

    Twenty years ago today, Hellboy made his debut appearance in a four-page, black-and-white story in San Diego Comic-Con Comics #2, distributed at the 1993 San Diego Comic-Con. He wouldn’t get his own miniseries until March the following year, but the 19th of August, 1993 is where everything began. Jump forward twenty years and there are four Hellboy-related comics coming out in this month alone.

    Today we not only celebrate the birth of a character, but of an entire universe. Though everyone’s been busy with Artist August, the Mignolaversity team has still found time to put together a few things I’m sure you’ll enjoy, so be sure to check back in later today. But for now, let’s kick this thing off!

    Hell Boy
    From Concept to Page

    An idea rarely arrives fully formed, and Hellboy was no different. Mike Mignola’s attributed the genesis of the character to a picture drawn for a convention program book. The similarities between this first version of the character and his final form are largely superficial, save one detail; the name “Hell Boy” written on the character’s belt written at the last minute. Mignola’s reason for keeping the name was simply that it sounded funny, and it was important that the series have some humor about it.

    Over time the idea grew, and other characters were added as Mignola explored making a sort of paranormal superhero team book. As you can see in the image below, Hellboy’s final design is starting to emerge. He has his stone right hand, and his shorn-off horns. Also present here are two characters that didn’t make the cut (but would continue percolating in Mignola’s brain to eventually become the basis for Captain Benjamin Daimio and Johann Kraus), plus an early Liz Sherman, and “Dr. Douglass Hogg,” who would later be renamed Abe Sapien. This team worked for the “Sidwell Institute for Paranormal Research and Defense,” a secret organization with its headquarters hidden underneath an old water tower.

    Hellboy, Liz Sherman, “Dr. Douglass Hogg”, and two others from the Sidwell Institute for Paranormal Research and Defense

    As the concept evolved, many of the superhero tropes fell away. The Sidwell Institute became the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, and no longer a secret. Hellboy became smaller, and his shoulders began to droop. His whole design suppressed the heroic aspect, emphasizing instead that he was just a regular working stiff (a trait many of his fans will tell you is a huge part of his appeal).

    Early sketch of Hellboy’s
    Mignola fleshed out a surprising amount of his universe in these early days. Before he had even started drawing the first Hellboy miniseries, he had already started designing Hellboy’s father, Azzael, and his sister (who still has not appeared in the comic to this day, though she has been mentioned… We’ll meet her soon enough). Vladimir Giurescu, one of the primary antagonists in the second miniseries, appears in these early sketches almost exactly the same as his final appearance.

    Oh, and there were plenty of frog monsters and Nazis, of course. That much at least seems to have been there since inception.

    Early Days

    On the 1st of March, 1994, the four-issue Hellboy: Seed of Destruction miniseries began, introducing the B.P.R.D. and Hellboy’s fellow agents, Elizabeth Sherman and Abe Sapien. Though the art and story were by Mike Mignola, he didn’t trust himself with scripting. This duty fell to John Byrne, whom Mignola had worked with previously and felt comfortable. His plan had been to tell Byrne what he wanted to draw and Bryne would write something with all that stuff in there. It didn’t quite play out that way though. Byrne later said that while he was technically the scriptor, he had not really done much at all. But working with him gave Mignola confidence, and Mignola insists to this day the book simply would not exist if it hadn’t been for Byrne.

    For the next story, The Wolves of Saint August, the training wheels came off. Originally published in Dark Horse Presents in black and white, this was truly Mignola alone. It’s a great story, and it introduced Dr. Kate Corrigan (My favorite character. Incidentally, she’s modelled off of Mignola’s wife, Christine). There’s a definite shift in the pacing of this story compared to the last, more silent moments with little beats to take in the environment and its history, making it a much more active part of the story. This is an element of storytelling I think of as synonymous with all Mignola’s modern works, and it is a joy to see it evolving so quickly here. Plus Hellboy yells, “BOOM!” as he hits a werewolf.

    Continued below

    But I think it’s the next story, The Corpse, where the Hellboy series really discovered what it was. Written as a series of two-page installments, Mignola considers this one of his favorites, though at the time he considered it to be unpublishable and his all-time worst story. This story really brings out the folklore element of the series, the playful humor, and more than ever before Hellboy’s really portrayed as a working stiff as he lugs a grumbling corpse around from graveyard to graveyard.

    It also introduced many key characters for the series; Gruagach, the changeling, Dagda, High King of the Tuatha De Danann, and Alice Monaghan, who later become Hellboy’s girlfriend. The most significant addition though, was not on the page. Up until this point Barbara Kesel had been Mignola’s editor, but she was departing Dark Horse, so a young Scott Allie was given the job of temporary editor until a real editor could be brought in. Although instructed to only check for spelling mistakes, Allie felt strongly enough to point out that there was a hole that didn’t really look like a hole. It was the first time in fourteen years that someone had asked Mignola to fix anything, and he was so impressed that he went to Mike Richardson (founder of Dark Horse comics) and requested Allie be made his permanent editor. Today, Scott Allie is the Editor in Chief at Dark Horse and handles all Mignola’s various works, including Abe Sapien, of which he is the regular writer.

    The next miniseries, Wake the Devil would introduce another key member of the Hellboy team, colorist Dave Stewart, though in these early days he was a color separator for James Sinclair. This would also be Mike Mignola’s first solo multi-issue story, and frankly, it’s great to see him having fun in this one. Just take a look at how easily the page below shifts through various moods without breaking the atmosphere or tension of the story.

    The opening page of Wake the Devil #3

    Mignola has often said how when writing his characters that they take on a life of their own. In Wake the Devil it caused a bit of trouble for him when Hecate emerged and started talking about all that beast of the apocalypse stuff in the fourth issue. Suddenly his planned ending was too small, and issue five was rewritten to have a bigger, much more epic conclusion. Plus it gave him an opportunity to demonstrate that the sawn-off horns on Hellboy’s head were not goggles.

    “The Middle Period”

    From Pancakes
    …which is not really the middle at all. It was a term Scott Allie used in his introduction to second Hellboy Library Edition to refer to the shorter stories that came out in the five years between Wake the Devil and Conqueror Worm, stories that explored what Hellboy could be. They are largely free from long-term plotlines, focusing on the pleasure of storytelling, further establishing the visual aesthetic of Hellboy, and drawing whatever crazy monsters Mignola wanted. There’s so much experimentation in this period, especially in terms of tone. This is the period that gave us stories like Almost Colossus (in which Liz Sherman was originally going to die, but was saved by Glen Murakami’s insistence that she live), Heads, Box Full of Evil, and the utterly brilliant Pancakes. (Pamcakes!)

    Each of these stories is so much fun.

    In this period Mignola attempted to explore Abe Sapien’s past for the first time in a story he called “Dark and Terrible” (a name that would later be inherited by an arc in Abe’s solo series over a decade later). He did some early sketches and some rough cover layouts, but ultimately scrapped the story. The sketches (from The Art of Hellboy and the second Hellboy Library Edition) for this story look amazing, even Mignola comments it looks like it would’ve been a fun series to draw… from which he deduces the story must’ve been really bad if he decided to abandon it. Abe Sapien’s past eventually came up later in Plague of Frogs, though it was certainly not the past glimpsed at in these sketches.

    Continued below

    This period also introduced the first Hellboy spin-off, the often forgotten one-shot Abe Sapien: Drums of the Dead by Brian McDonald with art by Derek Thompson. And there was a ten-page story introducing Lobster Johnson, who would play a major role in the next Hellboy miniseries, Conqueror Worm.


    Conqueror Worm is markedly different from Wake the Devil. The Hellboy series knows what it is now, even though it will continue to grow and change over the years. There’s confidence in the storytelling now, and boy does it show. Which is actually rather odd considering Mike Mignola wasn’t even supposed to draw it. Matt Smith was the artist selected for the task, but when that fell through, Mike Mignola took over simply because he wanted to get the book out there. But this story changed everything. Up until this point there had been a status quo. Hellboy would be sent out to investigate some paranormal situation, stuff happens, all is resolved, Hellboy comes back to headquarters and awaits a new mission. But he wasn’t going to be coming back any more. Hellboy quit the Bureau, and suddenly the comic was split in two.

    For Hellboy this meant he was free to slip into stories that drifted further from human reality, but for Abe, Liz, Kate, and Roger back at the Bureau, this meant trying to figure out how to tell paranormal investigation stories minus their usual lead. There was no way for Mike Mignola to draw both Hellboy and the new B.P.R.D. series, and he was too busy with the first Hellboy film to be the regular writer, so the search began for a new creative team for the book.

    Previously Mignola had handled all the work himself, so finding a way to work with others was somewhat of an experiment at first. Various writers and artists tried their hand with the series at this time in an attempt to see what worked and what didn’t. The B.P.R.D. stories in this period play it fast loose at times, and it really demonstrates all the many different directions the series could have gone.

    Hollow Earth art by Ryan Sook, There’s Something Under My Bed art by Adam Pollina and Guillermo Zubiaga, Night Train art by Scott Kolins & Dave Stewart, The Soul of Venice art by Michael Avon Oeming, and Another Day in the Office art by Cameron Stewart

    Although no writers from this period would write any further B.P.R.D. stories, one particular artist stood out. Guy Davis’s work was quite a departure from Mike Mignola’s art, but it worked. The next miniseries, Plague of Frogs, was written by Mike Mignola and it was the story the finally discovered what B.P.R.D. was and gave it a direction, so much so that twelve trades of the series would later be collected in omnibuses called B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs. And when John Arcudi came on board as the writer for the next miniseries, The Dead, the creative team was finally complete.

    Around this same period of time, the ongoing Hellboy stories were running into difficulties. While Conqueror Worm had a relatively smooth journey to the page, the next miniseries was not taking shape as planned. Originally intended to be a tale in Africa, the story quickly shifted instead to the ocean depths for The Third Wish. Mignola struggled with the cover for the second issue, finally settling on his fourth attempt.

    Yeah, those first three are rejected covers...

    The Island ran into even more problems. Whole pages were completed and then discarded. The story was a one-shot, then three issues, and kept changing back and forth until finally landing in the middle. It was Mignola’s most difficult story to date.

    Hellboy: The Island #1, my favorite Mignola cover

    However, the difficulties of The Third Wish and The Island don’t show on the page. They are decidedly more somber pieces, true, but these two stories are stunning pieces of work. The Island in particular is one of the finest comics I’ve had the pleasure to read, and even years later, I am still finding new things in it to appreciate. And all those discarded pages make for one hell of a sketchbook section.

    Continued below

    Embracing Change

    After The Island, Mignola had something big planned, an epic story spanning three trades, but he wasn’t going to be drawing it. Another artist drawing Hellboy had been on the cards for a while. Matt Smith nearly drew Conqueror Worm, Kevin Nowlan nearly drew The Third Wish, but this time there was no nearly about it. Mignola would be writing and another another artist would be stepping in on art duties. It was unthinkable. Sure, Guy Davis was drawing B.P.R.D., but Mignola’s distinctive style was so much a part of Hellboy, without him how could the magic possibly be preserved?

    Once again, we owe Glen Murakami a debt of gratitude. It was he that championed Duncan Fegredo for the job, and what a revelation he was. In retrospect, no one else could possibly have delivered on such an impossible task.

    Darkness Calls was not drawn by Mignola, yet that ineffable Mignola-esque quality was still there. And Fegredo could draw the downright bizarre without pulling the reader out of the story. At one point he was drawing the Baba Yaga locking lips with a goat and yet this was not hilarious. It was creepy and powerful and stunning. He also brought his own sense of epic scale to the series, which he would upstage with each subsequent story.

    Duncan Fegredo’s trilogy of Hellboy books

    Hellboy: The Crooked Man #2
    Suddenly the idea of other artists drawing Hellboy became a very real possibility. P. Craig Russell, Jason Shawn Alexander, Scott Hampton, and Kevin Nowlan each had a shot at the character. But it is horror comics legend Richard Corben that really defines the stand-alone stories of this era, especially the Eisner-winning work on The Crooked Man and Double Feature of Evil. He brought a different kind of creepy to the books.

    Meanwhile, in the pages of B.P.R.D. real and lasting changes were unfolding. The Black Flame claimed fan-favorite Roger, and the The Universal Machine made it clear he wouldn’t be coming back. “Let’s break the things that can’t be fixed,” became the mantra for the universe. Cities were destroyed and weren’t back to normal a few issues later. Characters died and didn’t come back.

    John Arcudi really dug deep with the characters and their relationships with one another, and with this a bunch of morally ambiguous gray areas started to emerge. And Guy Davis brought so much nuance to the performance of his drawings, to layout, and design. During this time, Hellboy was continuing its slower pace, while B.P.R.D. was speeding up. In 2007 B.P.R.D. starting coming out on a monthly basis, and in 2008 a series of miniseries covering the early days of the Bureau with 1946 and 1947 written by Joshua Dysart with Mike Mignola was added to the schedule (This series was originally planned to go on into the 1950s, but it was ultimately cancelled when Mignola became too busy).

    The universe began expanding rapidly at this point. A Lobster Johnson spin-off launched, closely followed by Abe Sapien and Witchfinder. These spin-offs shared direct links to characters and plot points in B.P.R.D. and this, combined with the increased output, caused the series to shift into the role of the flagship title for the Hellboy Universe. With the coming of the Scorched Earth trilogy, B.P.R.D. now had more volumes than its parent series. This trilogy was an arc designed to bring a close to twelve volumes of the Plague of Frogs cycle and set the stage for something new to follow…

    Mignola had always spoken about the end of the world in his comics, but in the new B.P.R.D. story cycle, Hell on Earth, it finally became a reality. The world was overrun with monsters and constant natural disasters. Liz left the Bureau, Daimio died, Abe got shot up by a psychic teenager… With so many of the core cast incapacitated, the regular human agents stepped to fill the void that was left. But the biggest change for the series came in 2011 at the Emerald City Comic Con.

    Guy Davis’s B.P.R.D.
    Continued below

    After more than fifty issues on the series, Guy Davis was stepping down as the artist on B.P.R.D.. It came out of nowhere and it left us all stunned. Guy Davis had become so synonymous with B.P.R.D., it really felt like he should always be a part of it. At the very same panel it was announced that newcomer Tyler Crook, fresh off the original graphic novel Petrograd, would be stepping up as the new ongoing artist. However, unlike Guy Davis, he would not be solely responsible for the ongoing story. Other guest artists would now come on board for arcs, creating many shorter arcs, unlike the standard five-issues story arcs in the Plague of Frogs cycle. The Mignolaverse was starting to accumulate a collection of semi-regular artist working on various series.

    Tyler Crook, James Harren, Jason Latour, and Laurence Campbell drawing Hell on Earth

    I really feel I have to mention the work of Dave Stewart here. He has colored virtually everything in the Hellboy universe since 1998, and thanks to his efforts, despite all the many artists at work on it now, it still feels unified, even though he changes the way he colors depending on the artist. His mark is on everything, and I couldn’t imagine it without him. It’s no wonder he’s won eight Eisners.

    And then there was that other big change. Hellboy had been going through a lot in Duncan Fegredo’s run. He discovered he was King Arthur’s heir, fished Excalibur out of a lake, got impaled by an angry hedgehog, gave one of his eyes to the Baba Yaga, got the crap beaten out of him by a dragon… then on the 10th of August, 2011, Hellboy died, and he wasn’t coming back any time soon, if he came back at all.

    Despite Hellboy being dead and all, there was some good news. Mignola was going to return as the ongoing artist of the series. Set in Hell. Oh, and the series was going to be an ongoing series from now on (though only a handful of issues per year). For its one-hundredth issue, B.P.R.D. also became an ongoing, and shortly after Abe Sapien woke up and got his own ongoing series too.

    Which pretty much brings us to the present. So, what’s next?

    The Future

    This Wednesday B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth #110 comes out, beginning a new five-issue arc, Lake of Fire from John Arcudi and artist Tyler Crook. You won’t want to miss this one, as it features the return of Liz Sherman after a four-year period of sporadic appearances.

    B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: Lake of Fire covers for parts 1-4 by Rafael Albuquerque

    Abe Sapien #6
    Abe Sapien’s latest arc wrapped up earlier this month, but the series will return in October with The Shape of Things to Come with regular writer Scott Allie back on the title and Sebastián Fiumara on art duties.

    October will also see the release of the original graphic novel Hellboy: The Midnight Circus. This book is truly something unique in the Hellboy universe. It’s a story centered on the young Hellboy, something fans have wanted for a long time, but what really makes this special is the art from Duncan Fegredo. This book features the ink-wash technique used on his B.P.R.D. covers from last year, but this time on story pages. If you’ve seen the previews, you know already it is a spectacular thing to behold.

    Hellboy: The Midnight Circus coming out in an original hardcover October 23

    In December Hellboy in Hell #5 hits the shelves, featuring Mignola’s take on a Brothers Grimm tale. Expect more Mignola unfettered from the limitations of the real world, doing what he does best. We’ll have an exclusive first look at it later today. You won’t want to miss it.

    Lightning War #1
    Even beyond the universe’s three ongoing series, there’s still plenty more going on in the Hellboy universe. Earlier this year, the new spin-off Sledgehammer 44 made it’s debut, and will be returning for more in Lightning War in November with Wasteland artist Laurence Campbell. After a year full of shorter stories, Lobster Johnson will return early next year for a five-issue miniseries with Tonči Zonjić back on art duties.

    Continued below

    The incredible B.P.R.D.: Vampire recently wrapped up, featuring a story from the twins Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, but don’t think for a moment that’s where that story ends. In a recent podcast with Pop Culture Hound Mignola made a point of mentioning that the trade coming out in November will bear a 1 on its spine… There’s certainly more to come, though the twins are busy guys. It might be a long wait.

    Ashley Strode
    On top of that, there’s Ashley Strode, a character set aside for writer/artist Cameron Stewart to return to whenever he wishes. He’s likewise very busy, but I hope we’ll get to see Ash in 2014.
    Sir Edward Grey
    If I’m really holding out for a character I want to see again though, it’s Sir Edward Grey. After his appearance in Hellboy in Hell and B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: The Abyss of Time, it certainly seems Mignola is building to another Witchfinder miniseries. A third has been rumored for a few years now. Fingers crossed we’ll see it soon… and hopefully it’ll involve Jack the Ripper.

    Beyond that, we have a few tantalizing teases in the sketchbook sections of the trades. In B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth – Volume 6: The Return of the Master, released earlier this month, there were several pages of design work for the new Black Flame by James Harren, a glimpse at what the character will look like in his next story for the series.

    Pretty cool, huh?

    And Mignola has been teasing future Hellboy stories in the Library Editions. Volume 1 hints at a tale about a girl encased in an amber block, Volume 2 shows a bunch of demons we’ll see in the pages of Hellboy in Hell someday, plus a bunch of stony guys that will appear in the comic in a few years, Volume 3 features fungus men that were originally meant for a version of The Island but will now appear in another story… Mignola’s said in interviews he has enough stories kicking around in his head to keep him going for many years, and I believe it. Twenty years this universe has been unfolding and expanding, showing no signs of slowing down. Actually the opposite is true. It’s only August and already this year has released more issues than any before, yet the series remains in top form. It is truly a monumental achievement.

    In twenty years we have seen some incredible stuff, but I honestly believe the best is still yet to come. Mike Mignola, you make damn good comics. Cheers!

    The 20th Anniversary print available at www.artofmikemignola.com

    //TAGS | Hell Notes | Mignolaversity

    Mark Tweedale

    Mark writes Hell Notes, The Harrow County Observer, and The Damned Speakeasy. An animator and an eternal Tintin fan, he spends his free time reading comics, listening to film scores, and consuming the finest dark chocolates. You can find him on Twitter here.


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