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In Hellboy's grip

With the film version of his comic book creation about to hit the big screen, Mike Mignola is relishing all that the red man hath wrought.

March 28, 2004|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

New York — Mike MIGNOLA knows weird, in fact weird is his job.

Giant demon worms, talking gorillas, boneless Malaysian vampires that hover like jellyfish -- these are the things he frets about on the subway. He is not a guy you can weird out. Or at least that's what he thought before they came and before they yanked him out of his familiar world like some confused spook snatched to a seance.

They are Hollywood.

"The most surreal moments of my life," Mignola says of the film industry encounters. "And some of the best moments." Mignola is a comic book writer and artist of graphic novels that are sublimely unconventional, wicked smart and, again, just plain weird. His signature creation, Hellboy, arrives in film form in theaters Friday, and the early reaction to previews has been enthusiastically positive.

Hellboy is a hulking, half-breed demon who has a blue-collar approach to fighting evil -- chomping a cigar and grousing, if he's going to hell it'll be in a lunch bucket. There are some other comics-to-movie vibes at work (as a secret government operative fighting tentacled baddies he is among the "Men in Black" crowd, and his uncertain status between Earth and Hades makes him a less dour "Crow" figure), but the mythology is too rich and detailed to require comparisons.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Comic book artist -- An article on "Hellboy" comic book artist Mike Mignola in today's Calendar improperly states that "much of his concept for [Disney's] 'Atlantis' tanked." It should have read: "much of his concept work for 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' was incorporated into key visual moments of the film. As a box office experiment, 'Atlantis' tanked."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 04, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Comic book artist -- An article on "Hellboy" comic book artist Mike Mignola in last Sunday's Calendar improperly stated that "much of his concept for [Disney's] 'Atlantis' tanked." It should have read: "much of his concept work for 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' was incorporated into key visual moments of the film. As a box office experiment, 'Atlantis' tanked.

And despite the Dungeons & Dragons arcana, it is actually quite natural that Hellboy might be a good fit on the silver screen. After all, his conceptual godparents are Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas.

In 1991, Mignola, who works out of his Battery Park studio these days, was a comic book artist drawing familiar heroes like Superman and Batman with a distinctive style -- his exaggerated human figures may not have fit the schematics of Gray's Anatomy, but their barrel torsos, tapered limbs and kinetic quality reminded many fans of Jack Kirby, the most influential comic book artist in the genre's history.

Mignola's eccentric versions of Superman and other familiar heroes were as jolting as a fisheye lens and they made his work a love-it-or-hate-it topic. His affinity for the eerie earned him a gig as the illustrator on the comic book adaptation of Coppola's take on "Bram Stoker's Dracula," and his work was so strong that it was used as an editing guide during the film's final phases.

The work also earned him an unexpected phone call one night. He was home watching "Hearts of Darkness" ("I really was, if you can believe it," he says) when Coppola called to invite him for a pasta dinner at Zoetrope Studios. Lucas was the other guest that night, and after wine and cappuccino, the three sat down for a screening of the still-protean "Dracula" footage.

Mignola's design work on the vampire's castle made a fleeting appearance in the film. The experience had a deep effect on the artist, though. Hearing the filmmakers discuss and dissect the screening -- Coppola all ethos, Lucas all logos -- made Mignola reluctant to return to Marvel or DC Comics, the Pepsi and Coca-Cola of the genre. Before, getting a brand-name assignment, such as his stint on the Hulk, felt like a pat on the back. Now it seemed like backpedaling.

"I don't know how I got into that room with them, really, but I came out of that experience having meandered for 10 years in a comic book career with no direction at all, and suddenly I'm in this place," Mignola says. "I was seeing a world I never imagined. So then I'm thinking, 'What do I do next?' Another Batman book, another Wolverine comic? I decided to stick my neck out and try to do something new, something for me."

So Mignola left the safety and stricture of the major comic book companies and, at a company called Dark Horse, he raised a Hellboy.

The first issue was in March 1994, by which point Dark Horse was an 8-year-old venture modeled not unlike an indie film studio with its artist-friendly attitude and risk-taking material by acclaimed creators such as Frank Miller, Dave Gibbons and Paul Chadwick. Hellboy has published sporadically ever since, although the film labors have kept Mignola so busy it's been a year since the last issue -- which ended with Hellboy trapped at the bottom of the ocean. "I thought he'd be safe there in case this whole movie thing didn't go well," Mignola said.

The premise for the film is this: A Nazi occult project during World War II is meant to deliver a hellspawn agent of apocalypse, but the red baby (with horns and tail) who arrives is rescued by American forces and, as he matures, becomes a federal agent assigned to deal with the paranormal -- a sort of Fox Mulder by way of H.P. Lovecraft.

For Mignola, it was a character that spoke to his fascinations with pulp novels, old Universal horror films and all manner of folk-tale horrors. Those interests began, he says, in the sixth-grade in Oakland when he was mesmerized by a classmate's report on Baba Yaga, the cannibalistic Russian witch of lore who lived in a hut perched atop chicken legs.

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