Hellboy Creator Mike Mignola Almost Wishes He Hadn’t Let His Comic Character Go

Excerpt from a Hellboy comic. Photo: Mike Mignola/Dark Horse Comics

It’s been a rough 24 hours for everyone’s favorite crimson-toned paranormal investigator. Hellboy, a character created for comic books by writer and artist Mike Mignola in the early 1990s, was the lead in two Guillermo del Toro–directed film adaptations during the aughts, but his latest cinematic effort is a total reboot. This time around, The Descent director Neil Marshall is at the helm, a shockingly jacked David Harbour (Stranger Things) is in the title role, and the story is adapted from “The Wild Hunt,” a Hellboy comic that Mignola and artist Duncan Fegredo put together a decade ago. Alas and alack, critics have not been kind to the film so far — as of this writing, it’s rocking a 12 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. But that’s hardly Mignola’s fault, and his Hellboy comics will surely remain classics in the canon of sequential art. We caught up with Mignola to talk about avoiding the reviews, the cameo from fan-favorite character Lobster Johnson, and his desire to get back to drawing comics.

What were your conversations with director Neil Marshall like?
Well, I never … I mean, I never really had much of a conversation with Neil. I only met him once or twice, I guess, before filming began. That’s an entirely different planet from the relationship I had with del Toro, ‘cause del Toro and I had been talking literally for years before he made the film. I was a huge fan of Neil’s work, especially The Descent, which is still one of my all-time favorite horror films. There were a lot of discussions about Neil and how Neil would be great for this. But no real conversations with Neil about what to do. It was kinda like, “Oh, you’re Neil Marshall; you’re here to do what you do, so you don’t need any help from me!”

The conversations I had, other than with the producer and the writer … I did talk to David Harbour quite a bit. He kept texting me questions. Really interesting questions about, “What were you thinking when you created him? What were you thinking about this?” I remember him asking, “Were there any particular animals you had in mind when thinking about how Hellboy moves?” I know we did at least one night where I was like, “Man, I can’t keep texting! Just call me!” So that turned into a two-hour conversation about God knows what. Everything under the sun. Did any of that affect his performance? I don’t know. But he clearly wanted as much background on where Hellboy came from to figure out his own version of the character.

Why allow a new, rebooted movie to happen?
I have no say in these matters because I don’t hold the film rights. There’s never been any real stop to the discussion of continuing to do more films. The producers have been on this since the very beginning and have never let go of the idea of continuing the Hellboy films. Did I ever believe it would happen? Nah, probably not. But for whatever reason, they picked that time to really get things moving and, y’know, a reboot made sense when you realized you weren’t gonna be doing it with del Toro and you weren’t gonna be doing it with [del Toro–era Hellboy actor] Ron [Perlman]. I think everybody’s feeling was, if we’re gonna start with a different director, are we gonna saddle the director with continuing the story line that del Toro started?

I know you don’t have the film rights, but I guess I figured you would have an informal veto if you didn’t want a movie to get made.
I mean, I could’ve said, “I don’t want you to do it.” It doesn’t mean they necessarily would’ve listened to me. Thank God we never had to have that conversation. The best I can do with something like that is say, “I don’t wanna be involved.” But I’m very lucky to have producers that want me involved, and especially since with this one they wanted to go closer to the source material, well, it’d be pretty stupid of me, as the one guy who does fully understand the source material, to say, “Good luck, I want nothing to do with it.” So I was very happy that I got a chance to go in. Especially with “The Wild Hunt,” which is a very complicated story. If you’re gonna move the pieces around, then, yes, it’s good to have me there to say, “If you’re gonna move these pieces or you’re gonna substitute this character or that character, let’s use this character, not that character; let’s put this piece over here, not put that piece over there.” With all my stories, there’s a certain logic that … not all of it is on the page. It’s nice that I’m there to say, “What this means is this, and if we’re gonna use this, we need that.”

But you co-wrote a draft of the script, right?
At one point, yeah. Chris Golden and I … I hate typing. Chris Golden and I, who had done a couple novels together, we did take a shot at a couple drafts of the script somewhere in the middle. That was before it was a reboot. We took a couple shots at a draft of the script and then it went back to [sole credited screenwriter] Andrew [Cosby]. That’s the way this stuff works. This thing bounced back and forth for so long that, at one point, we did put our thing on it.

Was there anything from your script that made it to the screen?
Let’s see. There are some bits I had a hand in. Like the Baba Yaga stuff: There are two extra little Baba Yaga scenes that were added actually pretty late when we realized we wanted to up her involvement in the story. I mostly wrote those couple little bits. So, yeah, there’s stuff there that I go, I think I wrote that, or I think I was in the room with Andrew and said, “Hey, let’s do this.” But it’s such a collaborative thing that it’s really hard to pinpoint specific moments. But when Hellboy goes rolling out of Baba Yaga’s house and she curses him as he goes out of the house, that was an interesting bit because I believe it was [Hellboy actor] David Harbour who said that Baba Yaga should have some parting curse or some parting jab at Hellboy. That note came to me and I believe that bit, the things she says to Hellboy as he goes out the door, I believe that was my writing based on Harbour saying, “We need something there.” That’s one of my favorite little things I look at and I’d like to think, Ooh! Yeah! I wrote that bit!

What did you think of the finished film?
Again, it’s so surreal to me to see so much of it that’s lifted directly from the comic. Some of the pieces are moved around and some of the scenes are longer than what I did and some are shorter than what I did. I’d never before had the experience on set where I looked around and went, Holy crap, this is straight outta the comic. The day I was on set in Bulgaria, it was the Wild Hunt out in a field. So there’s Hellboy on horseback and the Wild Hunt guys looked so close to the design that Duncan Fegredo did in the comic. That was pretty surreal. And the costume for Lobster Johnson is spot-on, or 99 percent exactly what was in the comic. That’s taken a lot of getting used to, seeing my work so represented on screen. So that was pretty cool.

Have you read the reviews of the movie?
I have not.

You have not.
I’m aware of the reviews, but I have decided not to read the reviews. I’m anxious to hear what the fans think of the film. I certainly want the fans to be happy. But, no, I’m gonna stay away from the reviews.

You have greater strength than me. I always end up reading my bad reviews.
I mean, the internet is so much more of a toxic place than it was ten years ago when we had the last movie out there. It’s been quite an ugly experience seeing just how different the internet response or the internet rumor mill, all that stuff … It’s just a different planet than it was ten years ago.

Whose decision was it to include the “Hellboy in Mexico” mini-adaptation in the early part of the movie?
I don’t know where that came in. I think that was one of the relatively late additions to the script. It always started with something else, with something before the main Wild Hunt story, to introduce Hellboy as a character. I can’t remember what it used to start with. But I do remember the phone call I got — and maybe it was Neil’s idea — to do the Mexico scene, which I thought just worked beautifully.

It prompted me to look at the comic again and remind myself of how much I love Richard Corben, who did the art.
It’s been one of the great pleasures of my career to get to work with the two guys who get a thank-you on this film: Duncan, who did the Wild Hunt story; and Richard, who drew some of my all-time favorite Hellboy stuff. I’ve been a lucky boy.

Take me back to the origins of “The Wild Hunt” as a comic, way back in the day?
Oh, my memory is so bad. I’m not sure when that thing started cooking. It’s funny: It was around the same time that I decided I couldn’t draw the comic anymore because I was suffering a major loss of confidence in my own abilities as an artist. So at the same time as I was going, Oh, no, I can’t draw comics, I was cooking up this three-book epic. Thank God Duncan Fegredo said yes to working on it or I’d have this massive story clogging up the back of my head. I’d always wanted to do something with King Arthur. Years ago, I had talked about doing some kind of adaptation of the Holy Grail story line and I guess that just never quite went away. Most everything I’ve ever wanted to do has found its way back into Hellboy, so I think, for a long time, this idea of connecting Hellboy to the King Arthur thing was in the back of my head. How it turned into this story? I honestly don’t know. I do know that, once it started … I never set out to go, I want to do a gigantic, three-book epic, but these things sometimes turn into that snowball rolling down the hill.

Whatever one thinks of the movie, it would be wrong to say Harbour doesn’t do a good job of embodying the character. Which Ron Perlman also did, of course. David really dug in and tried to make it his own while being truthful to the core ideas.
Yeah, he was fantastic. And, again, it’s very different … It’s interesting that both actors come from my work and both maintain certain aspects of the character from my work, but they’re such radically different stories, and the tones of the two films — or three films, I guess — are so different that it can’t help but call for a different kind of actor. The fact that David’s relationship is a father-son thing, whereas Ron and [original Hellboy co-star] Selma [Blair] had that kind of romantic thing at the core of their story, it made for two very different types of performances.

Did you interact with Ian McShane at all?
No. I saw him from a distance. Frankly, he scares me to death. Nobody introduced us and I was kinda like, I’m fine. It was cool to see him walk by. But, no, it was just the one night in England when it was raining so hard that I was just looking for a cup of coffee and an awning to stand under. I saw him from a distance.

I interviewed him a few years ago and was similarly terrified, but he ended up being as open and agreeable as anyone I’ve ever interviewed. So, if you get another chance to meet him, don’t be afraid!
I think what’s fascinating is, apparently, he was very good friends with [original Hellboy co-star] John Hurt. So the fact that he was playing the character that John had played, I thought, was actually very cool.

At this point, between the comics, the movies, the animated movies, and so on, you’ve let a lot of different people interpret Hellboy. What do you think you’ve learned about the character from other people’s interpretations of the character?
It’s a tough question. I don’t know that I’ve learned anything about Hellboy, but I have learned about the whole creative process and what it’s like to have a character that’s yours and, little by little, he slips out of your grasp. Y’know? He takes on this other life, and more and more, you’ll run into people who know Hellboy, or think they know Hellboy, but they actually have no idea of the original comics. So it’s an interesting process of creating something and letting it go. There’s always gonna be a part of you that says, I almost wish I hadn’t let him go. Y’know? It’s not really mine. The books are mine; that’s great. But at a certain point, it’s like watching your kid grow up and move away. They’re doing shit you don’t know anything about and you kinda miss when they lived in the house.

The fact that I have the comics that are 100 percent me or it’s me collaborating with another artist — that, to me, is always gonna be the real Hellboy stuff. Because, at the end of the day, that stuff wasn’t done until I said it was done. When you loan out the character and let other people take the character, you have to make your peace with the fact that it’s not going to be exactly what you would’ve done. Different doesn’t necessarily mean worse; it just means it’s different.

What’s coming up next for you?
I’m kind of in between things right now. I’m writing several issues of Hellboy — doing that today, as a matter of fact. But every few years, I get that itch to draw comics again. It’s been way too long since I was sitting there, actually drawing comics. And writing is no fun. Making shit up is fun. Sitting around, writing something for someone else to draw, is no fun at all. So I’m starting to cook up some comics stuff so I can sit there and I can be the guy having fun.

You mentioned that you hate typing — do you do everything longhand and then someone else types it up?
No, no, I do type. I just hate typing. Typing is work. Explaining to another artist what goes on in a panel is work. And it’s not naturally what I do. So, yeah, the whole process of sitting down and actually typing up a script, I find it very painful and it’s really work. But pacing around the kitchen, making up a story, that’s fun, until you go, Oh, shit, now I gotta write it down for somebody. I’m looking forward to pacing around, making up a story, and then sitting down and drawing it myself. Not that that doesn’t have its own challenge, but at least I can do it with the TV on and it’s kinda fun. I’d much rather be drawing than typing.

They got the Lobster into the movie! The character was rumored to be in the works for Guillermo del Toro’s unproduced threequel, but how did he end up onscreen here? When did he start coming up in conversations about the film?
Well, del Toro wanted to use everything in the third movie. [Laughs.] I have no idea what a third movie actually would’ve been, but every other day, he’d mention something that was going to be in there. So God only knows what he would’ve done. But, yes, we discussed early on that Neil did want to have the origin sequence in there and he wanted to go back and do it closer to the comic version than what del Toro had done. And, in the comic version, there’s a superhero character there, the Torch of Liberty. But I’d pointed out, when they mentioned they wanted to use that character, that that character was actually on loan from [comics writer and artist] John Byrne. I said, “Let’s not use the Torch of Liberty. But had I created Lobster Johnson way back when, I would’ve put Lobster Johnson into that scene.” I’m glad they checked with me instead of just putting the Torch of Liberty in. But I said, “Yeah, this is a perfect place to insert Lobster Johnson.” Which is really a good example of me getting to go back and touch up and add details that I just didn’t know yet when I did the comic.

So, in a way, this movie’s version of Hellboy’s origin is the ideal one for you?
Yeah, yeah, exactly. I just didn’t have my own pulp/adventure/superhero character when I started the comic.

I love the idea of them not asking you about the Torch of Liberty and then putting him in the movie without asking Byrne, because, of all the people in comics, he’s probably the least likely to be calm and forgiving about it.
I don’t think they would’ve done it without telling me, but I do specifically remember the phone call and being like, “Wait, wait, let’s not do that!”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Mike Mignola Almost Wishes He Hadn’t Let Comics’ Hellboy Go