Recently, casual Hellboy fan (and Multiversity Comics news manager) Christopher Chiu-Tabet decided to ask hardcore Mike Mignola expert (and Mignolaversity columnist) Mark Tweedale for his thoughts on the future of the character and his world outside comic books. Here follows their conversation, which touches on, among other things, the pros and cons of live-action and animation; if Hellboy himself needs to be the star; how faithful it should be; and ends by completely switching to discussing Hellboy in another episodic medium.
Christopher Chiu-Tabet: Believe it or not, it’s been over a year since the Hellboy movie reboot bombed in theaters. Of all things, Days of the Bagnold Summer reminded me of how long it’s been since there was a critically and/or commercially successful Hellboy film, so I suppose really, if the character has a future outside comics, it’s on television. So since you have a much better recall of all things Hellboy than me (or possibly anyone really), I wanted to know your gut reaction to the words “Hellboy TV series,” and what shape such a venture would take on.
Mark Tweedale: My gut reaction is to flinch, honestly. At this point, I feel three times burned. I know there are people out there that love the Hellboy movies, or at least some of them, so it’s something I don’t talk about very often, because I don’t want to take the wind out of their sails. If someone enjoys them, I want them to keep enjoying them. Besides, I’ll always have the comics.
That said, I’d like to see the Hellboy Universe make it to the screen in a way that’s faithful to the spirit of the comics. The del Toro films took the visuals of the comics, and the Millennium Films reboot took the plot and tried to hammer it into a Heavy Metal–shaped hole, but I’m yet to see the characters and tone on screen. Given the sprawling, serialized nature of the comics, a television series makes way more sense to me than a film. It has the space to slow down and tell smaller stories.
But clearly this is something you’ve been thinking about, so I’m curious what you’ve got in mind.
Chris: I get that, I love Guillermo del Toro, but he didn’t exactly approach Hellboy like Pan’s Labyrinth or The Shape of Water (although, there is some pretty goofy stuff in the comics). I suppose it’s unsurprising given Hellboy and Geralt of Rivia basically have the same job, but I was thinking of Netflix’s approach to The Witcher, with a live-action series consisting of eight-part seasons, and animated spinoffs in-between. (Incidentally, I remember enjoying those two DTV animated films del Toro’s cast did.)
Mark: Yeah, I remember in the third episode of The Witcher, “Betrayer Moon,” I got to the bit with Geralt spending his night with the striga, and it felt very much like a classic “Hellboy” short story. Obviously, Geralt’s a different character, but there were certain notes there, like when Geralt and the striga fall through the floor, which were handled in a way that was tonally consistent with the horror aspect without feeling cartoonish — something every screen version of Hellboy to date has lacked. The Witcher’s approach to action in that specific scene felt like the “Hellboy” comics.
The Netflix model, with short six-to-ten-episode seasons, seems to be the way to go. Anything more than ten and the budget would crumble under the weight of the production. As soon as you have actors on set in full-body make-up, the shooting slows down and starts getting expensive. Cards on the table though, I’m an animator, so I have a bias towards animation. I’d be much more inclined to take the whole thing to an animated series rather than just having animated spinoffs. Plus, when you have characters like Varvara who remains a little girl for well over a century, it’s much easier to do that in animation, than to deage a child actor that won’t stop growing up.Continued below
Chris: We don’t have to fight, we live in a pretty ideal world for comic book fans generally anyway, with great live-action and animated adaptations of many stalwart characters — I think the issue is that, unless you have a great advocate for an animated take, like Adi Shankar was for Netflix’s Castlevania, a broadcaster is almost certainly only going to be interested in a live-action take, because so much of the money in animation is bound up in merchandise, and sadly Hellboy is still a controversial character. (If I mention the character at church, I immediately have to make clear it’s a story about nature vs. nurture.)
I gotta look into what exactly happened to the animated Hellboy films, because somehow the money for them dried up while Warner Bros. Animation keeps making DTV DC movies.
Mark: Mike Mignola’s often mentioned that if he wanted to make a marketable character, he wouldn’t have named him Hellboy. In a way, the name is even more of a problem now though, because there’s a lot of people that only think of Ron Perlman as Hellboy, so they see the name and bring all the baggage of the Perlman/del Toro characterization with them. So I think making a series titled “Hellboy” is really a non-starter.
I have no idea what you’d call it, but I’d like to see a series about the Hellboy Universe rather than Hellboy himself.
Mark: That’d be one way to tackle it. I imagine a B.P.R.D series set in the 1940s would be fun, with a cast that audiences haven’t really seen before. Plus you could get several episodes deep before even introducing Hellboy, and even when we do meet him, he’d be a kid — no one would expect Ron Perlman to play a kid, and no one expects a kid to act like the screen versions of Hellboy we’ve seen so far. It gives the creators the chance to redefine Hellboy from the ground up.
That said, if we’re talking wish fulfilment (and I’m very aware this would never actually happen), I’d like a series to go even further than just the B.P.R.D. I’d like to see an anthology series full of standalone stories with all kinds of characters across the timeline. I’d aim for stories without Hellboy, that showcase smaller stories instead of the continuity-heavy stuff like ‘Seed of Destruction.’ Let’s visit Sir Edward in the 1880s, Sarah Jewell and Marie-Thérèse LaFleur in the 1920s, the Lobster in 1930s New York, Dai and Shengli in 1930s China, Professor Bruttenholm in World War II. . . and there would be enough Easter eggs in there so that someone paying attention will realize the stories are all set in the same universe, like seeing two-year-old Hellboy reading “The Lobster” comics, or multiple references to the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra.
It sounds like the sort of house Hellboy would visit.
Mark: That’s not far off what I had in mind. Certainly the idea of focusing on small-scale stories built on atmosphere is very important to me.
There’s a scene near the beginning of Blade Runner 2049 with Dave Bautista playing this large, but quiet and gentle man. The whole scene is likewise quiet, with a focus on atmosphere until the fight scene begins. That sequence is what I’d like a Hellboy series to feel like. Bautista may not look like Hellboy, but he’s got his body language, his weariness, his speed of movement, the way he transitions from talking to action. And Denis Villeneuve’s storytelling is focused on strong composition, color, and sound design.Continued below
Chris: I get it, ’cos obviously with a big red bloke who’s got a massive stone arm, there’s a tendency to lean into the camp side of it. We both enjoy The Witcher, but for a lot of folks, it still came across as rather camp, as reverentially as it tried to adapt the books.
Mark: Oh, The Witcher is absolutely campy. That’s what I love about it. But this is another reason why I’d like to see a Hellboy series as animation instead. It gives you a more expressive palette to play with without necessarily taking it in a camp direction. I mean, you look at some of the stuff in LAIKA’s Coraline — that could’ve easily veered into campiness, but instead it leans more spooky.
Which brings me to the other reason I want to see it as an animated series: LAIKA. Their approach to horror in Coraline and to fantasy in Kubo and the Two Strings is just what the series needs. Plus stop motion animation has a texture to it that CGI or hand-drawn animation lacks. Most importantly, LAIKA is a studio that shares a lot of sensibilities Mignola has in his own storytelling. They aren’t afraid of silence. They’re interested in visual storytelling.
In Kubo, the main titular character has one eye. The film uses this to its advantage — if Kubo’s happy, they show the right side of his face, the side that still has an eye, and if he’s sad, they show the left.
And LAIKA’s interested in symbolic compositions. Spoiler warning, but when Kubo’s parents die, the film doesn’t show their bodies, instead it shows the broken Monkey statue and his father’s broken bow.
Anyone familiar with the “Hellboy” comics is already familiar with this sort of stuff — Mingola and company do it all the time.
Chris: I love Kubo. I’ll have to keep an eye on that next time. It’s funny, ’cos I thought 2D animation would be perfect for those black inks the comics are heavily saturated in, but I also recognize there’s a gnarled quality to Mignola’s characters appropriate for stop motion puppets.
Mark: I think Mike’s art looks like sculpture in ink, so using sculpted puppets feels like a way to be faithful to that aspect without apeing Mike’s style. It isn’t trying to recreate the comics, but it is trying to tap into the same visual language. Plus, I’d want to see very stylised lighting, and LAIKA’s got an incredible track record in that regard.
Chris: Thing is, if we waited for LAIKA to start on a Hellboy project, we’d be very old men when it’s done, and that’s fine, but I think we want another thing sooner, whether it’s a serialized live-action TV series or the animated anthology you prefer.
Mark: I’d go looser. I’m not a fan of strict adaptations. I think you need to adapt for the medium, and part of that involves thinking about set-up and payoff in a very different way, which fundamentally alters structure.
I’ll pick an example from Harry Potter (spoiler warning). In the books, the writing leans on repetitive descriptions deliberately. Professor Trelawny’s glasses are always described as hugely magnifying her eyes. So in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when the prophecy is shattered and an identified figure emerged with “hugely magnified eyes,” readers can put two and two together and satisfyingly guess that the figure is Trelawny.
The same rule applies for objects. There’s a wardrobe in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets that reappears in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as a major plot point, and the repeated description can work as a hint to make readers put it together. . . but you can’t do that in a film. If the filmmakers wanted to set up a connection here, they’d have to take a completely different approach, otherwise this set-up and payoff is gonna be an utter clunker.Continued below
Chris: It’s funny, ’cos I see Harry Potter as a very slavish adaptation: unlike what Steven Spielberg proposed when he was courted for the first film, they rarely restructured the sequence of events in the books, which is how we wound up with eight films. But as you were saying. . .
Mark: I do like having eight films, but I would’ve taken all seven books and shuffled things around massively, taking scenes from book six and dropping into book two. . . but I’m getting off topic. My point is too often what I see is adaptations like Watchmen, which for all its rigid faithfulness, completely misses the intent of the scenes.
And scene intent is what I want to see preserved, not the scene around it.
So as an example of an adaption done well, I present Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. (More spoilers, this time for a story that’s 150 years old.) In Louisa May Alcott’s book, Beth gets sick, then gets better, then gets sick, then dies. For the sake of efficiency, most filmmakers would cut the redundant sickness — simply have Beth get sick once, then die. But when Gerwig was adapting Little Women she wanted to explore what is what it’s like to live through this happening twice, so she created this incredible sequence where both moments play out side by side, contrasted against each other.
The structure was radically different from the book, but Alcott’s intent was preserved. Most importantly, it was cinematic; it told the scene in a way that leaned into the advantages cinema has over prose, with matching shots and contrasting colors.
So if someone decides to make a Hellboy TV series, I want to see the Hellboy story told as only a television series can tell it.
Chris: Gerwig’s Little Women was a very clever meta take, though events still happen (more or less, depending on how you interpret the scene under the umbrella) like the book. I get you though, you don’t wanna see what the comics have already done — would your endgame be the same as Mignola’s? Namely, Hellboy dying, going to Hell, and returning for the “B.P.R.D.” finale?
Mark: Mignola’s story has always been about the long defeat. It was never a story about winning, but rather a story about how we meet our end. That said, there’s a very long road from “let’s tell a story about Hellboy walking into a haunted house” to the end of the world. I think you’d need to approach it as a series of phases (maybe like three-ish seasons long), each still built around that core idea of the long defeat, but with milestones along the way that can function as endings if need be. I don’t think you write a good season one by structuring it around what’s going to happen in season twelve, and there’s always a chance the show’ll be canceled at season three.
Chris: Hellboy leaving the B.P.R.D. is certainly a dramatic potential series finale ending.
Mark: That was exactly the example I was thinking of! Ultimately, a TV show needs to be flexible.
Chris: Are there other characters you think would make for a great miniseries or ongoing one? Again, fate of the world scenario here.
Mark: Miniseries, huh? That’s an interesting idea. Doing a Hellboy TV series as a series of miniseries instead of strict seasons seems oddly appropriate.
As I mentioned before, I’d love to see more of Bruttenholm and the B.P.R.D. in the 1940s. And I like the idea of jumping around the timeline. Potentially, you could set up the Vampire Apocalypse plotline, and then play it out from the 1940s to the 2010s. It’d be a storyline that can build to end-of-the-world stakes, while establishing itself with smaller stories in creepy old houses.
Chris: I was thinking more along the lines of characters like Lobster Johnson or Sir Edward Grey.
Mark: As a big Sir Edward fan, he’s right at the top of my list. I’d love to see a whole miniseries about him. The Lobster, as much as he’s a fan favourite, is a character I’d rather build towards over time. As fun as he is, he’s not really the main character in “Lobster Johnson,” but he is the hook for that series. You sort of need to establish him well enough through other series in order for viewers to trust you enough to tell the story through Cindy Tynan and Harry McTell. I think in order for a Lobster Johnson TV series to work, it needs the context of Hellboy, the B.P.R.D., and the Black Flame to give it thematic weight, otherwise it might play too much as a pastiche.
The thing is, even after twenty-six years, the comics have so much territory that’s left unexplored, which could potentially be explored in a TV series. How great would it be to dive into the prehistoric world of the T’shethuan shamans with characters like Gall Dennar and Shonchin? It could lean heavily into the fantasy element of the Hellboy Universe, especially if they journey into the Hollow Earth (something the comics have only hinted at) with all its Pellucidar-like monsters.
Chris: I bow to your knowledge. I feel we should wrap this up, with one last question: a new Hellboy video game — what do you do?
Mark: Oh, man, this is too big of a question! There’s so many directions you could go. For one, there are a lot of people that invested in del Toro’s Hellboy films and they never got the closure of a final film. For those fans, I would want to see a story-focused Hellboy III game, with all the original actors back as the voice cast. Guillermo del Toro has already shown an interest in developing his own video games. I’d love to give him carte blanche to do whatever he wants with it.
As for something based on the comics. . . I’m almost paralyzed by indecision. Thing is, while I love games, I’m not much of a gamer. I don’t really have the time for them, so usually I’m several years behind the rest of the world. I’m currently playing PS3 games (though the Final Fantasy VII Remake has got me seriously considering picking up a PS5). I recently borrowed a Nintendo Switch off a friend for a few months and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild ate my life, so clearly that sort of open world gameplay is very appealing. But there’re so many directions you could go, and almost all of them seem interesting to me. The only thing I’d say for sure is that it’d have to be story driven. I don’t want a shoot ’em up based on Mignola’s art style. Few things could be less appealing.
Chris: Sounds like a topic for another time then. Me, I’d basically want a reskin of the Batman: Arkham games, ’cos they are so comic booky and creepy. I wouldn’t mind a Hellboy game that’s like Journey or Night in the Woods, but I’d like to just be Hellboy hanging out with Abe and co., y’know?
Mark: Journey is my go-to relaxation game — I could certainly see a “Hellboy in Hell” game with that kind of energy, though it’d be hard to market it to find the right audience. You put “Hell” in the title and straight away a certain kind of gamer thinks it’s a game for them and it really wouldn’t be that. Man, wandering around a Mignola-style Hell and chatting to ghosts and skeletons and mummified cats and Koshchei the Deathless sure sounds like fun. . .Continued below
I’d love an old school SNES-era kind of RPG in the vein of something like Chrono Trigger, but considering that’s my favorite game of all time, this is clearly just going through the filter of “that thing I like + that other thing I like,” which is a great way to make something very derivative.
I like the approach James M. Hewitt went with for Hellboy: The Board Game, where he used the comics as a starting point, but treated the whole thing like an alternate universe. It means the story can hit some familiar beats, but also dive into some radical departures, like having Johann Kraus as a part of the B.P.R.D. team back in the ’90s instead of joining in 2002 after Hellboy’s departure. The game should still be able to surprise the player, even if they’ve read the comics, y’know?
One thing I will say: Nobuo Uematsu (of Final Fantasy fame) should be the composer.
Chris: I’ll have to check out his work — and thank you so much for your time Mark.
And thank you for reading all that! Please share your own thoughts on a possible Hellboy TV series (or video game) in the comments. (By the way, if you’re still wondering how Days of the Bagnold Summer sparked this conversation, two words: Barry. Manilow.)