Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy in Hell” functions as a warped tribute to his character’s past that functions solely on having a ton of fun with the character. Scott Allie’s “Abe Sapien” buries an emotional character’s core amidst the backdrop of chaos. Both titles are hardly what you expect after twenty years, but there is a method to this madness.
Mike Mignola’s Hellboy has become a household name. Countless books, spinoff titles, videogames, and merchandise make the character inescapable. But not eternal. Mignola has never been concerned with protecting his character’s legacy. Instead he’s more concerned with telling a good story and rewarding readers for sticking with the character over twenty years. So naturally he decided to kill Hellboy as a lovely tribute to fans.
Enter “Hellboy in Hell” a new ongoing series that sees Hellboy venture through hell. The game has completely changed and the book defines the character in a brand new way. Meanwhile the Earth that he left behind is falling to ruin and Abe Sapien may be connected to it all. He wanders the Earth in anguish, trying to escape his own origins. Hell has come to Earth, and Hellboy has found a playground in hell.
This is no event. This is just the next chapter. Bloody-Disgusting sat down with Mike Mignola and Scott Allie to talk about making these intense tipping points for the Mignolaverse and why good storytelling eventually careens itself into an abyss of insanity. They have a profoundly interesting look at serialized storytelling and aim to change the way stories are told in comics.
Bloody-Disgusting: Your approach to the Mignolaverse has always been routed in shorter form arcs. Why do it and what’s your favorite part about of doing it?
Mike Mignola: When I think if shorter form I think of eight page stories. I’m a short story guy and I’m not a big comic book reader. It never occurred to me that was ongoing. I’ve never done a monthly book until BPRD. For me a lot of it was schedule. Even the last several years of my pre-Hellboy career I was a special projects guy. I always thought of small projects because unless you’re doing a monthly book you don’t want to leave a million ongoing threads. That pisses people off as they wait maybe six months for some resolution to the story. John Arcudi is much more experienced writing monthly comics. He thinks more in terms of the long drawn out story.
Scott Allie: Big stories. We push him sometimes to do the shorter bits. He really likes to go five and even six issues.
MM: Which is great and he does it really well, but even with our stuff being relatively shorter self-contained things they do really add up. That’s the trick. You do things that mostly stand on their own but when you get the collection you see it’s going somewhere.
SA: We’re a little older. So we come from a time where all comics were standalone issues. Every time you picked up a comic you got a whole story. I remember when Neil Gaimen was first doing “Sandman.” Those first seven issues were great. Every issue was standalone but that first trade added up so well. Alan Moore was doing the same on “Swamp Thing.”
MM: The beauty of the shorter arc is giving readers the chance to come on board the book. Someone told me this morning that issue six of “Hellboy in Hell” really does function as a standalone story and also a really good place for someone who’s not familiar with the character to step on. I don’t know if that’s true, but at least you don’t come into the middle of a thirty-six-issue fight scene.
BD: Right now is a pivotal moment for both series. Twenty years in and Abe is about to have a new starting point issue and Hellboy in Hell just began its second arc. It’s a celebration of the history but also an entirely new status quo for these protagonists. It’s easily digestible. Why should new fans jump in after twenty years?
SA: Hellboy and Abe and these members of the BPRD are in such tense moments of their histories. I think in a big way “Hellboy in Hell” is the comic Mike always wanted to do. These characters are all in really interesting places. Abe is on the cusp of learning more about himself and finding out if he is indeed responsible for this end of the world stuff that’s going on around him. In BPRD the characters are going through some really tense times. Kate Corrigan is about to get one of her best stories we’ve ever done. Everybody is really at a tipping point in terms of how to deal the end of the world scenario that is really specific and unique to the world Mike’s created.
MM: We live in the world of trade paperbacks. I don’t feel too pressured to make these perfect standalone stories. I just want something where somebody is not so lost that they put the book down. We want people to go back and pick up the trades if they’re interested enough. All that material is out there and readily available. This thing is one big story; we are halfway through it, maybe even more than that.
Things are going some place. It’s not some book that will circle around forever. Which is a little spooky and makes it a little more difficult to find the perfect stepping on place. We are further down the road. Maybe this is a world people won’t recognize. It’s been radically altered in the last ten years. It’s not a post-apocalyptic book yet but its definitely drifting in that direction.
BD: Hellboy in Hell is a celebration of the character. Mike you seem to be having the most fun with Hellboy you’ve ever had. Whereas hell has come to Earth with Abe stuck in the middle of it. Why is Abe is running from his future, and why force Hellboy to confront his past?
SA: Hellboy’s not much for confronting.
MM: Although there will be more of that. Originally I wanted to strip Hellboy of all the baggage he was carrying within the first couple issues of “Hellboy in Hell” and do this fun standalone adventure book. It turned out he’s got quite a lot of issues to resolve. That’s why I’m looking at four trade paperbacks that tell one big story. Hopefully they strip Hellboy of all the things piled on his shoulders that have to get done. Ultimately I’d love to get to the place where he can just have fun.
You do make a good point. Hell while it’s still got some pretty bad spots it doesn’t look nearly as bad as the Earth right now. I think Abe might have more shit on his shoulders.
SA: The difference between the two characters is that Hellboy has always willfully turned a blind eye to what he is and what that means. Abe has always been more willing to look at it. Now Hellboy can’t avoid who and what he is. Wherein Abe is stuck in this apocalypse in the making. His whole question is how much to I have to do with this?
MM: All these books are about evolution, of the world and of the characters. It’s not just the sixteen millionth time we’ve fought Magneto. I don’t have any idea how the big two keep that stuff going. How many times they can circle the block. We’re not circling the block. We’re walking from one coast to the other.
SA: We’re knocking the block down.
MM: And burning it all as we go.
SA: There’s no reset button for all this. If you’ve seen what we’re doing to Manhattan lately, it’s going to take a long time to rebuild that place.
BD: It’s interesting you mention that. If any other publisher was doing what you guys are in the Mignolaverse. It would be called an event comic and here it’s just another month. You’re celebrating twenty years by dragging your beloved characters through the most shit they’ve ever been through.
MM: I’ve always been against the whole event thing. I do think that stuff is very effective for short-term sales. I just want to tell stories. People asked what we had planned for the twenty-year anniversary, and to be honest it snuck up on us. I didn’t want to do a special issue because ten years from now nobody cares about that special event. It just becomes one part of a collection of books. I’m not looking at artificial landmarks. I’m just looking at giving the story the organic room it needs to tell itself.
SA: The events are in the story. When Hellboy died our marketing department was going insane. They wanted to talk about it. Mike was very particular about what we could do. I think he did an interview that wouldn’t air until the day after.
MM: Right. I desperately wanted people to turn the page and be in shock. I didn’t want banners proclaiming it. Where’s the surprise in that? Also me being very insecure, my whole fear is that if you make a big noise I’m just waiting for people to think it wasn’t that great. But If I go here’s nothing special, and people go holy fuck! They blew up New York City! We can sit back and go yeah, we did that.
BD: What goes into working with Dave Stewart in coloring the comic?
MM: I just apologize for how terrible the comic looks and I beg Dave to make it look like I knew what I was doing. That’s about a third of our conversation. The other two thirds is me painstakingly taking him through it panel by panel. I torture Dave more than anyone on Earth.
SA: You don’t torture him anywhere near the way you used to torture him. I think it’s relatively easy now. We’ve been doing this together for so long. There was a time where Mike lived in town. Every single time Mike would do a comic we would wind up at Dave’s house staring at a computer screen. We’d average eight hours for every twenty-two page comic.
MM: This was after he’d colored the comic. We’d sit down with him and make adjustments. He must have been so happy when I left Portland. I think it was good for our relationship early on. We established a lot of short hand and now we get each other quite easily.
SA: Dave and I learned so much from doing this, we do other projects together and we use the same vocabulary there. We use so much of the stuff we talked about in that space.
BD: Hellboy in Hell has reduced Hellboy to a common occurrence. He’s surrounded by cosmic weirdness and no longer unique. Why does this seem to affect him in such an odd way?
MM: He’s anonymous. I think he really likes it. He’s talking to people who don’t make a big deal about who he is. He’s no big deal in Hell. Although people there seem to be a bit more disoriented and childlike in the way they talk about things. Hellboy has always been red no matter where he was on Earth. Dave and I talked. We decided to adjust his color for his environment. We wanted the flesh tone. He’s a bit more of a chameleon in this world. There are still moments where he lights up his regular way but it’s things like lighting a cigarette. We drained the color out of him to blend him into this world.
BD: Abe is a victim in his story. Is he lost? Does he have a purpose? And what is driving him at this point?
SA: He is lost. He’s lying about his own purpose. He keeps saying he’s out to find the truth about himself but he’s running from the truth about himself. People have called him on that but it comes to a head in the arc that kicks off with the new issue. He starts getting honest. He’s about to get more active about really solving the mystery of what he is. He ran away from the BPRD because he was faced with this idea that he was responsible for the end of the world. He said he was going to run out and prove it, but really he’s running away from anything connected to it. Ultimately the whole series is about that question.
BD: He seems desperate to forget his problems and relate to those around him. In doing that things seem to go to shit.
SA: He wants to be the good guy rather than dealing with the question of what he is. He had that big disaster in Arizona where he failed to save the town. He’s now more eager than ever to prove he can do some good in the world.
BD: Issue 12 really captured that for me. The ongoing narration mirrors Abe’s pursuit to plant himself in the minds of other people. Was that thematic connection intentional?
SA: Originally what happened to Abe was going to happen over two issues of BPRD. Mike and I wanted to show the world from a ground view. BPRD was operating on too high of a level. It’s too grand of a scale. Abe was our opportunity. He’s always been viewed as a more sensitive character even if Mike didn’t really play him that way. He’s just walking across the face of the Earth as it goes to hell. The main character is still the main character but the other people in the story think they’re important too. Issue 12 takes it to the extreme.
MM: It’s almost the exact opposite of the kind of stuff I do. I’m so not concerned with regular people. I love that kind of stuff but I only want to deal with the stuff that’s fun to draw. I love the big monsters, the supernatural, and the mystic. Scott and I talked about where Abe needed to go and broad strokes personality stuff, but ultimately this story belongs to Scott. I knew nothing about issue 12. It’s such a beautiful comic and I feel guilty about my name being on it. I had almost nothing to do with it except for saying “Hey Scott you should write Abe Sapien.” Which is probably one of the better decisions I’ve ever made. Fortunately the editor went along with that decision.
SA: He signed off almost immediately.
BD: Why make the violence in issue 12 is more grounded and as a result almost more intense than anything we’ve seen in the Mignolaverse?
MM: It’s funny you mention that as intense as compared to what’s happening to James Harren’s BPRD but a guy on a roof with a rifle is so much more relatable. It’s harder to draw a guy talking on the phone than it is drawing a guy punching someone else through a planet. You know what the phonecall is supposed to look like. When you can do something that grounded with an artist that can pull it off.
SA: I think you’ve seen much bloodier stuff in BPRD. You don’t see the wounds that these men give each other.
MM: The woman situation inside the house. Her being tied to the bed is so disturbing. We’ve put characters in so many disturbing situations but a woman tied to a bed in a house is more disturbing than killing off 32 BPRD agents by Yetis and flying monsters.
BD: She’s definitely scarred from what’s happened to her and she’s definitely not going to react to well to Abe coming in as her savior.
MM: It’s a weird and disturbing way to end a comic. It’s an amazing issue.
SA: The ending is abrupt. Obviously the whole issue is a little bit of a Twilight Zone episode and Abe’s not the star of it. This issue was a storytelling trick I wanted to play but it was about putting a character on the map in a really interesting way. The woman in the house whose name will be revealed in the next issue will be an important character in the series. Readers will know her in a way you seldom get to know characters in comics.
BD: What’s the most challenging part of doing “Hellboy in Hell” and “Abe Sapien?”
MM: You were right earlier when you called “Hellboy in Hell” the most fun I’ve ever had. It really is. This is the book I’ve always wanted to do. But I’m never satisfied with the way I draw. I come up with stuff and I chicken out. I have to call Scott and get guidance. On one hand it’s really easy for me to come up with these bold moves but as I get closer to doing them I have to remind myself that I went into this book to embrace the stranger elements of my world. I want to careen this book into the abyss. There is logic to almost everything. You turn corners and get so far away from what the book used to be.
Hellboy became the King of England. That made sense in comparison to this next move. It’s just so much stranger. That’s been happening all along. When I did Hellboy underwater I thought I had gone crazy. You get used to the climate. I keep turning corners into weirder and weirder things but after twenty years I’ve reached the book I’ve always wanted to do.
SA: When we first started we would talk about having to do certain scenes. We didn’t want to do them but we had to do them. There are never scenes that we have to do anymore. There is no external blueprint we have to plug the story into. He tells me these crazy ideas and I just want him to do it. If only he drew faster he would have it before he could doubt it. The conversation has evolved around these weird, surprising and interesting elements and why he’s doing this book. If anything seems too crazy isn’t that the point?
MM: It’s really good for me to tell Scott all this stuff. I need him to remember the bits I pitch. I need him to hold me to it. It’s fine if I come up with something crazier but I can’t slide back the other way. There is a plan within this insanity. It does all have something it’s building to.
SA: The mental outline in Mike’s head is the perfect outline. He knows that he’s going somewhere. He knows the great ending. He knows certain things along the way but there is ample room to wander around hell.
MM: We’re taking as much room as we need to tell the stories we want and still hit loose markers we’ve laid out. I want the book to breath.
SA: We know we’re going somewhere good. I think great endings are one of the biggest things we’re missing in comics in general. I feel good about all these things we’re doing.
MM: We want people to be rewarded for investing so much time with these characters.