Mike Mignola walks downstairs every morning in his sunny Southern California home, enters his studio and descends straight into hell.
“Hell is my place where I get to indulge. It’s my fantasy land,” he said, sitting at his work table earlier this week.
Perhaps Mignola’s comfort in the fiery pits of the nether world should come as no surprise. He is the creator of Hellboy, the beloved, red-skinned half-demon and world’s greatest paranormal investigator of comics and film fame.
But it’s hard to imagine Mignola on holiday in Hades. As the sun streamed into his book-lined studio, Mignola, dressed casually in denim and a T-shirt, smiled easily and was relentlessly humble while looking back on a career of which most comic book artists dream.
He was quick to point out that Hellboy Day — Saturday’s festivities celebrating the 20th anniversary of the comic’s debut — was something he never expected.
“When I started ‘Hellboy,’ I thought it wouldn’t work but at least I could look back on my deathbed and shakily point to this one thing and say ‘once I did a book that was about what I wanted to do.’”
Mignola said he “crawled” into the comics business in 1982 as a “terrible inker,” but he built a steady career as an artist at Marvel and DC Comics.
After a decade in the industry, he found himself at a crossroads.
“I was in a place where the next job was going to be another one of these things that I’d already done.”
Remembering a sketch he had made for a comic convention in 1991 of a clunky monster with a belt buckle that said “Hellboy,” Mignola set off on his own.
In March 1994, Dark Horse Comics published “Hellboy: Seed of Destruction,” and readers were properly introduced to the gruff half-demon who was summoned by the Nazis, rescued by the Allies and raised by the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.
Mignola said the character was inspired by his father.
“Hellboy is a real working-stiff guy. And that’s my father to me. He was a cabinet maker and his hands were these dry, callused working hands. I knew I would never be anywhere as tough as my father. But I wanted my guy to be that guy.”
As Hellboy grew in popularity, his evolution surprised even his creator.
“I didn’t expect all this baggage to get attached to Hellboy. All the ‘beast of the apocalypse’ stuff. Which is weird because I made it all up. In various points of the book, I would have Hellboy say, ‘I don’t want to think about that.”
In addition to saving the world, Hellboy would often save Mignola from the dreaded fate of ponderous writing.
“I love Shakespeare and I love epic biblical-sounding dialogue but I get so embarrassed by the part of my brain that wants to write that stuff. Hellboy is the other side of my personality that says, ‘you’re boring me to death.’”
Eventually, Hollywood came calling. Of course, Mignola was initially skeptical.
“I thought, ‘Sure, option the movie. No one’s ever going to make it.’”
Mignola was wrong again about Hellboy’s potential success. 2004’s “Hellboy,” directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Ron Perlman, appealed to hard-core fans, created a new audience and brought in $99 million worldwide at the box office. Mignola called the experience “so exciting and so crazy.”
The sequel, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” released in 2008, also earned positive reviews and grossed even more than its predecessor. But the collaborative process leading up to the second picture highlighted for Mignola the need to return to the work he did best.
“No one can offer me a better job than my day job,” he realized.
Currently, that day job centers on his newest ongoing series, “Hellboy in Hell.” The stories find Hellboy coming to the exasperating realization that his recent death has brought no abatement of enemies and existential questions. For Mignola, it’s a chance to work with fewer restrictions than ever before.
“Once I came back to the book, the plan was that only I could draw ‘Hellboy in Hell’ because hell was going to be entirely made out of everything I wanted to draw.”
Mignola also has been busy preparing for Hellboy Day. He curated a collection of his favorite covers and illustrations for the hardcover release of “Hellboy: The First Twenty Years” to coincide with this week’s celebration and will be appearing at Meltdown Comics in Hollywood on Saturday.
Sounding as brusque as his most famous creation, Mignola reflected on the looming celebrations and said, “I’ll be so glad when it’s all over.”
Then, with a laugh, he added, “I kind of just want to get back to work.”
— Justin Sullivan | @LATHeroComplex
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