Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Short Story Long About Meeting Mike Mignola (and “Hellboy”)

Before the release of the first Hellboy movie, Mike Mignola came to NYC in April 2004 to do a signing/promo-tour at St. Mark’s Comics—
but the store had forgotten to publicize the event! I was the only person there—and I had never even read the comic before!

I had no idea who the guy was but took pity and started a conversation with Mike Mignola. He was gracious and kind, and very willing to promote his creation. I asked him which graphic novel a neophyte should start with, and he recommended The Chained Coffin and Others (1998).
I bought it, and asked him to sign it. (See above)
I’ve been a Hellboy fan ever since.
Thanks, Mr. Mignola!

(This originally started out as a tiny brief on The Facebook; in fact, what’s written above the break was precisely my post on the “Mike Mignola’s Art” page there.)

And now here’s
The REAL Short Story LONG About Meeting Mike Mignola (and Hellboy, Essentially)

Sometimes meeting someone (semi-) famous whom you admire, or even idolize, can be a complete bust—a total crash and burn—leaving a bitter taste in your mouth. I know; it has happened to me, with authors, filmmakers, and musicians.

But if you meet someone (semi-) famous before you even know who they are or what they’ve done? Well then, it can turn into out quite magnificently!

An incredible Hellboy poster by Mignola
There was once a time when I wasn’t a fan of the Hellboy comics, and was not even aware of the art and style of Mike Mignola.
He is a lovely, sweet, charitable man, whom I didn’t even know existed before I met him.
The first version of the Hellboy film was released “wide” on Friday, April 2, 2004, so the following adventure probably happened during the preceding week (the week of March 29).

Our meeting took place at St. Mark’s Comics (R.I.P. 2019; due to NYC’s unwanted and unnecessary hyper-gentrification). The shop was a routine pit-stop for me, so there was no special reason to visit—just checking in to see if there was something new before catching the “L” train back to Bushwick.

Anyone who visited would remember that St. Mark’s Comics had a décor and merchandize placement that rarely changed. It was cleaned and dusted, but like the comfortable living room of a beloved grandma it never seemed to change. (However, like grandma’s cats, the cute goth/punk/new wave cuties who worked there did occasionally change. How many loser comic book dudes—like me—kept coming back to catch a glimpse of a “dream gal”? That store was one place where I would routinely get a guaranteed “insta-crush.”)

Mignola & Hellboy at Cannes, 2018
But this night, the store had been…rearranged. WTF? There was a fold-up table set up with a cloth over it, and a pleasant and unassuming (perhaps even harmless) looking gent sitting behind the table. Black Hellboy T-shirt, glasses, semi-roly-poly, and if the head wasn’t shaved, the hair was very close-cropped. The cloth tarp covering the table had writing all over it which I cannot remember, but considering the circumstances, probably had “Hellboy” on it, and other things related to either the comic, the movie or both. On the table were, of course, several piles of his graphic novels, other ephemera for sale, and the Sharpie pen for autographs, ubiquitous at these sorts of events. 

Mignola illustration of
Pandemonium, the capital
of Hell
At the time, I was only familiar with the name of the comic, having seen it on T-shirts and on the back of black leather motorcycle jackets. I like heavy metal music, but the name sounded TOO heavy metal for me. I am not sure what I thought it was, actually, but something punky-cyber-goth—something that was trying SO HARD to be cool. (It’s hard to believe I thought that way, but we’ll get to my change of mind in a moment….)

I stepped down into the store (remember? St. Mark’s Comics was slightly lower than street level), looked around, wondered about the rearranging (where did they put all the stuff they moved?) smiled at the man behind the table, nodded at the employees around, and then looked for my usual purchases.

Finding nothing to buy, I focused on the man and the table. Aware that a movie called Hellboy was coming out, and knowing that it was based on a comic book, I quickly surmised that the store had forgotten to do publicity about Mignola’s signing! Someone’s head was probably going to roll! But that wasn’t my concern: I felt bad for this guy sitting behind the desk. Here Mignola was—a major comic book creator (I recognized that at least) on a promotion tour—whose creation had received the Major Hollywood Treatment (multi-million dollar budget, big name stars, etc.)—in (at the time) one of NYC’s major comic book stores, at around 7:30 in the evening (prime retail time for shops like St. Mark’s Comics), and aside from the staff, there was only one clueless goon there: me.

I approached the table. (Conversations are approximate.)
“Are you Mike Mignola?”
Big smile: “Yes, I am.”
“Congratulations about the upcoming movie, you must be very proud and excited.”
“Yes, I am. The movie looks great, and it was a joy working with Guillermo Del Toro.”
“Ummmm…” I looked around nervously. “I hate to say this, but I’m completely unfamiliar with your work.”
Mignola was nice enough—and polite enough—to be nonplussed. “That’s okay. Where would you like to start?”
Unfortunately, I cannot remember the specifics of what he said, but whatever it was, it completely piqued my interest: the supernatural and folklore; the illustrative influences of Frazetta, Mike Kaluta and Berni Wrightson; “weird” history and conspiracies; H.P. Lovecraft’s stories….it went on. Also, I had noticed that he seemed to use a very Jack Kirby-esque “krackle”—Mignola told an interviewer in 2018, "I was a Marvel comics kid and my favorites were the Jack Kirby things." 
Our interests dovetailed and I was hooked.

A page from The Chained Coffin
“Okay, I’m hooked,” I told Mignola, who could probably sell ice to Eskimos, and still be nice about it. “But there’s so much,” I continued. “I wouldn’t know where to start. What would you recommend for a beginner?”
He pulled out a volume from one of the piles: The Chained Coffin and Others (1998; published by Dark Horse Comics). “This collection should be a good introduction to the character, and what the overall stories are about,” he said, handing the pristine copy to me. The $17.95 price tag would have made it iffy at any other time, but I’d already jumped. (Of course, I was really hoping that he’d take pity on me, and give it to me for free—but I guess maybe I was taking pity on him…)
I paid for it, then returned to the table. “I hope I’m not being too much of a nerd, but would you mind signing it?”
“Of course!” he chirped (Mignola probably would have been more upset if I had not asked him to sign).

Then we both started talking at the same time: “Would you mind personalizing it?”/ “To whom should I make it out to?”

We laughed, and I added: “‘Ivan.’ Please make it out to ‘Ivan,’ spelled the regular way….”

He did, and added a drawing of a cool profile of Hellboy himself, with a word-balloon containing “To Ivan.”

I went home, only reading The Chained Coffin when I got there (I don’t like reading comic books on the train; I think it will attract “the wrong people”).
It was a fab read, and later that week, I went and blew some disposable income on more of Mignola’s graphic novels. 
I’ve been a fan of Hellboy since, and while I haven’t read them all (or all of Mignola’s various spin-offs), I have greatly enjoyed all that I have read.
Thanks, Mike Mignola!

The world of Hellboy is a blast, a crazy combination of a variety of old legends, superstitions and quasi-spy action—drawn impeccably—and a veritable joy to amateur researchers of the arcane and occult (like myself) as well as fans of 1960s style comic book adventures (like myself). Forgotten vampire legends, Russian super-witch Baba Yaga, various nasties from Norse mythology, LOTS of werewolves, blood-drenched Aztec-Catholic mash-ups, weirdness out of the craziest Dario Argento flick (there’s a serious giallo vibes going on in these comics!), Nazi cyborg-apes, ancient Sumerian hoo-hah, et cetera, et cetera are all mixed in, but carefully slotted into this Alternative-History world Mignola & Company has created.

Of the Hellboys, after The Chained Coffin, I have the interconnected collections Seed of Destruction (1994) (dedicated to, among others, H.P. Lovecraft and Jack Kirby—whose The Demon comic is a kissing-cousin to Hellboy, although Kirby mines the horror fields of the Classics, like Frankenstein and the Phantom of the Opera, sometimes to his detriment; his better Demon stories feature more original stories and villains, like Witchboy or Asmodon);
Wake the Devil (1997); The Right Hand of Doom (2000); Conqueror Worm (2002); Strange Places (2006); and the (perhaps non-canonical) omnibus Weird Tales: Volume One (2003).  

Of the spin-off B.P.R.D. (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, the semi-secret U.S. government agency that employs Hellboy) series, I have three: Hollow Earth (2003), The Soul of Venice (2004), and The Universal Machine (2007), with the last being my favorite of these three, involving alchemists, vampires, golems, entrapped princes of Hell, and wiseacre professors of the occult.
(All the Hellboy books are available through Dark Horse, and highly recommended.)

But I have read a lot more than the above: Bless the Lord for the New York Public Library! The NYPL has LOTS of Mignola and Mignola-related material on hand, ready to be routed to your local branch. The list is too long, but two faves consumed via the library were:

A page from Aliens: Salvation
Aliens: Salvation (1993)—obviously not part of the Hellboy series, but a cool read/look, nonetheless—
written by Dave Gibbons (the illustrator of Watchmen), and drawn by Mignola. Aside from my enjoying this work’s expansion on the Dan O’Bannon/Ridley Scott/HR Giger-inspired (with heavy world-building from James Cameron) ALIEN franchise, Aliens: Salvation has a twisted religious theme about it, and I can’t help but wonder how this may have been an influence—there IS a weird and religious, or supernatural, belief system in Mignola’s universe. Aliens: Salvation, on the other hand, is horrifically nihilistic and awesomely bleak. With Mignola and his Hellboy universe, there is always hope—even if that hope comes in the form of a Lord of Hell…. (It’s the choices you make; even a demon like Hellboy—ordained to destroy the world, it seems, can stray from his determinist future….)

The Visitor: How and Why He Stayed (2017; written by Mignola, but like much of his work nowadays, illustrated by others—Chris Robertson, in this case), tying back to the adventures in Conqueror Worm—but from a different perspective: an alien observer of Hellboy’s early antics recalls life on Earth and in the Stars, and then trapped by Nazi super-scientists and torturers. Melancholy, beautiful stuff.

But even better, and one which I think I want to own eventually (once I can get to a comic shop—if any are left—after the New Plague), was BPRD: 1946-1948 (2015). I really got into the new faces (aside from Professor “Broom”), and the post-war Europe location and time appealed to me (there’s also a bit of a noir detective undercurrent going on), with supernatural ties to Operation Paperclip, and WWII derring-do (and super-science vampires!).

But since starting writing this, I’ve been looking over my Hellboys, and I’m really in the mood to reread them, treating them as one huge novel, and not just the “usual” graphic novel collection.

This image was created for
the 2004
Hellboy movie—
I LOVE the old-school
Marvel-esque layout and formatting,
as well as how well it mimics
a Kirby cover from the 1960s.
Interestingly, while it was Del Toro’s Hellboy movie which helped me meet Mr. Mignola, I’m not really a fan of that movie, or its sequel The Golden Army. (I haven’t seen the latest Hellboy cinematic reboot.) There’s not anything wrong with Del Toro’s flicks, and there are many parts in both films which are magnificent and spectacular—it’s just missing a special magic something—that no Del Toro film has ever delivered to me, in fact. GDT’s movies start off well enough, have amazing visual style, but… (And it feels bad to slam Senor Del Toro—since he is one of us, as it were—but I have to agree with The AV Club’s assessment of Del Toro: B+.)

While the cinematic Mignola-adaptions haven’t lived up to the potential that I feel they should have, there has been one filmic adaptation of Mignola’s I truly love; love more than its original source material even.
A well-oiled entertainment machine packed to the gills with weirdness and alterno-history madness, and a deranged sense of humor, as President Lincoln assigns robot (cyborg?) Screw-On Head (yep, he’s a metal head that hops around until attached to a body) to stop Emperor Zombie’s plans for world domination via demons.
Much more so than the world of Hellboy, the world of Amazing Screw-On Head as presented is never explained. 
Emperor Zombie about to "smoke"
someone to find out what
they know, from
The Amazing Screw-On Head
No origin stories (per se), no overt exposition, no info dump. Either keep up with the weirdness, or get lost (in both senses…).
You are overwhelmed with bizarre concepts (like “smoking” someone to get their knowledge) and quirky dialogue: “Yes, it’s as I always say: All really intelligent people should be cremated for reasons of public safety.”

Just settle back, viewer, and enjoy. The Amazing Screw-On Head is now on YouTube HERE. Rather than me babble on (Babylon?) about it, take 21 minutes and allow it to wash over you….

Last but hardly least—
Mr. Higgins Comes Home (2017), written by Mignola, but with art by Warwick Johnson-Cadwell, whose style reminds me of the late and lamented Richard Sala.
Similar to the children’s books I would read as a kid in the early-1970s, not the bloodless, simplistic, pathetic literary opiates—full of fluff and niceness—that are today’s children’s books, Mr. Higgins Comes Home is a book
I have often bought and then given away as gifts to family and friends since I discovered it (at the NYPL, if memory serves).

A wistful, almost magical story, Mr. Higgins Comes Home spins a tale of intrepid, if slightly bumbling vampire hunters, an unwilling werewolf’s vengeance, a convention of the undead, and even The Devil himself!
The best descriptive approximation that I could come up with is if you took Rankin-Bass and forced them to work at Hammer Studios, from a script by Edward Gorey and Fearless Vampire Killers-era Polanski. 
Wonderfully weird, if fluffy, and even silly. The children’s book I wish I’d had when I was seven years old.  

A sequel, titled Our Encounters With Evil was published in 2019, but like most folks, I haven’t been able to make it out of the house—but as soon as I can get to a store (or if I have any disposable income after paying the bills….), I’m owning it!

So thanks again, Mike Mignola! To paraphrase Terry Southern’s quote about Tom Wolfe, You should be showered with money and other fine things!

Here's some various Mignola images
that are just plain awesome
(and not from the Hellboy canon!)

Not sure where this is from, but Godzilla
chain-smoking and wearing
a top hat? I'm there!
Vampires preparing a meal from 
the magnificent Mr. Higgins Comes Home
Emperor Zombie proposes, from the
book to
The Amazing Screw-On Head
Xena crucified, from the comic
I have no idea where this is from, but it's fucking PERFECT.
Nightmare imagery from Aliens: Salvation.
Creepy shit that blows Ridley Scott's
Alien: Covenant out of the water

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