For the last 20 years, Mike Mignola has been building an empire. Brick by brick, mini-series by mini-series, the cartoonist has written, co-written, drawn and provided covers for over 100 interlocking issues. Through sheer force of quality, the Hellboy character has become one of publisher Dark Horse’s most recognizable characters, and his popularity has grown with feature film adaptations, animated films and action figures. The shared universe the big, red paranormal investigator exists within continues to grow larger and larger each month, and the Mignolaverse line comprises a significant chunk of Dark Horse’s publishing slate.
Initially following the solo adventures of Hellboy, a demon summoned to earth by a Nazi occultist, the series quickly expanded its foundation to encompass the whole of earth and other planes of existence; other characters and groups branched off into their own titles. The Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (the organization Hellboy works for) was the first, but individuals like the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman, the fish-man Abe Sapien, the disembodied spirit Johann Krauss and more eventually got their time in the spotlight. This March, Frankenstein’s Monster gets his.
The character was first introduced into the Mignolaverse in 2011’s Hellboy: House of the Living Dead original graphic novel, and now Mignola and artist Ben Stenbeck are giving him the floor for his first five-issue mini-series. Mignola was nice enough to discuss the series, its origins and future, as well as what his plans for the rest of the Mignolaverse are.
Paste: I read the first two issues of Frankenstein Underground and my first question is: why? Why Frankenstein’s Monster? I know you had introduced him a couple years ago in the Hellboy: House of the Living Dead graphic novel, but why Frankenstein’s Monster? Why this character? And why now?
Mike Mignola: You know, I’m trying to remember why. So much of the stuff that we do is determined by having work for certain artists, and Ben Stenbeck had been doing the Baltimore book and he kind of felt like, ‘Y’know…I’ve done this for a long time.’ He was looking for something different. And once I realized we had the Frankenstein’s Monster—which wasn’t the original intention with House of the Living Dead—but when I realized that is the Frankenstein’s Monster at some point I started thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun and really different to do just a book that’s a parade of monster action?’
And talking to Ben, it was something that would be a nice change from doing Baltimore. So the original idea was: we’d create this kind-of-crazy book which is just a parade of monster action. And then the plot started coming together in my head and I realized it really did shape-up to be just one book. So it started off as just this fun thing to do with Ben, and then it turned into actually a really important piece in this puzzle we’re putting together that resolves everything in the Hellboy/B.P.R.D. world. So once I started plotting it, it just tightened up in a way that I didn’t actually anticipate.
Paste: The series begins in 1956…
Paste: It sounds like a lot of thought went into what we’re seeing with the finished product, so why that date? It seems pretty specific. Why 1956?
Mignola: Basically because that’s when we saw him last. That’s when House of the Living Dead is set. I kind of wanted to pick up directly after that. There was enough time to deal with the Frankenstein Monster—the fact that he’s been running around since…god knows,1790…1812? I’m not sure what it is. I just thought, ‘Well, since we’ve introduced him in ’56, let’s just pick up straight after, so we don’t have to talk about what he’s been doing since House of the Living Dead.’ Basically, once I recognized we had him, I said let’s do something with him. There was nothing particularly significant about that book taking place in the ‘50s, especially since it almost entirely takes place underground.
Paste: That was something else that I noticed. The character comes from a Gothic, Romantic novel, but in Frankenstein Underground I saw a lot of Lovecraftian, Victorian influences and horror influences from the early 20th century, but there was also some, like, Fritz Leiber, High Fantasy stuff, maybe even a little of DC’s Warlord character. I was interested in what you were looking at; it doesn’t seem like the same things that people associate with Frankenstein or Frankenstein’s Monster.
Mignola: That was basically the fun, simple kernel of an idea: take the Frankenstein’s Monster and throw him into the Edgar Rice Burroughs Hollow Earth, which I think is what a lot of the stuff you were referring to is—[it] really comes from that Edgar Rice Burroughs/center of the earth stuff with the troglodyte people and lost cities and shit like that. It was just, ‘Oh, this’ll be fun.’ It was simple as that. And then, once you start justifying that stuff by saying, ‘Ok, in the Hellboy universe, we’ve got this prehistoric stuff and…’ It was a place for me to trot out a bunch of the mythology that hasn’t really been developed. I’ve got so much of that ancient Hyperborean stuff worked out—the way this prehistory of the Hellboy universe works, and also the Victorian era stuff. It was a matter of taking that fun idea and then saying, ‘Well, once we’ve got that, let’s bring in these various things that connect it to the bigger mythology that I’m developing.’
Paste: I noticed the first issue was really, really dense, and then the second issue…I can see how the series evolved out of that idea.
Mignola: Yeah, yeah, that second issue was actually really fun to write, and it was mostly sound effects, because it was just a parade of ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ kind of monster action. Again, that’s kind of what I originally imagined this ongoing series being. But me being me, I do one issue of it and I go, ‘Yeah—okay—we’ve done that. What next?’ So this thing does change quite radically from the first issue to the second issue, and [with] the second issue to the third issue it becomes very different again. So we start dealing with a lot of the mythological elements and stuff like that and some ghost story elements. So this one’s got a lot of different stuff, and my editor kept saying, ‘Y’know, this is the weirdest thing you’ve ever written.’ Which, I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but yeah…it’s…it’s an odd one.
Paste: So is it going to be more tied into the mythology?
Mignola: Yes, you know, we did—at the end of the second issue we see this city, and what we get is some of the mythology that involves the Hyperboreans and what was up with these ancient cities and these ancient civilizations. You also introduce elements of the Victorian era stuff that I’ve dealt with—the Heliopic Brotherhood, and stuff like that. So if you’ve never read Hellboy before and you don’t know anything about that mythology, it’s fine, it’s just a lot of really weird shit. But you won’t be lost. You’ll just be like, “I didn’t see that coming. Oh, I didn’t see this coming.” But, as with all the books we do, the more of this stuff you’ve read, the more you go: ‘Oooooh, that’s that guy!’ or ‘Ooooh, they’re talking about this kind of thing.’ But you’re always bringing more of that stuff in there. [The] ongoing struggle with all the stuff I do is to find a way to introduce all these things I’ve made up without [it] suddenly turning into a boring history lesson. So you find a way to go, ‘Okay, we’re going to talk about this, but we’re going to add an extra piece of the puzzle here.’ And we get more into that as the series goes on.
Paste: You mentioned writing this specifically for Ben, but you’re also writing it solo. Typically you co-write; you wrote the Baltimore books with Chris Golden, and the B.P.R.D. books with John Arcudi. What was the impetus for writing this solo?
Mignola: Well, the idea sprang into my head, and it was so my own thing that I just couldn’t imagine asking somebody else to do it. First off, Scott Allie and John Arcudi are both amazingly busy, so I didn’t want to bother them. It’s kind of a pain in the ass thing when you go, ‘Hi, I made up a new book but I don’t want to write it. Here, you write it for me.’ So if I was going to come up with this book, and I did, I thought, ‘Wellll…I kind of have to write it. Ben wants to do it; I mentioned it, so I’m on the hook. I gotta write this thing.’
Most of the books we see that I’m co-writing started with me as the writer and at some point I stepped away. So because this is the first of the Frankenstein books—and actually, I think the last of the Frankenstein books—it follows my usual pattern of starting it, and then, actually, at some point if someone says, ‘Oh, we really need to do more of these Frankenstein books,’ then I would say, ‘Fine, let’s talk about it. But if you really want to do more Frankenstein, then you’ve got to write it, or you’ve got to find a writer to write it.’ Because I will have set it up the way it’s supposed to be set up.
Paste: So what’s the kind of process of working with Ben, then? Do you work full script or do you do more of the Marvel style?
Mignola: I do this kind of thing that’s sort of half way in between. I give him closer to a full script, I just haven’t got the finished dialogue in there. So I will break down page-by-page, panel-by-panel, and, actually, on the Frankenstein stuff I’ve done something for Ben that I haven’t done in quite a while—I actually do kind-of rough thumbnails. In most cases just to say, ‘This panel’s big, this panel’s small. Three small panels and then a big panel,’ just to get the rhythm and pacing. And most of that’s just because it’s easier to draw that quickie little layout than it is to try and explain in a script.
For whatever reason, with the Frankenstein book I had a very clear idea of how that stuff should work. When I write for other people, I almost always have to kind-of thumbnail the story for myself to make sure everything fits and everything flows the way it should. I write a lot of the dialogue, but it’s all temporary dialogue, so that when Ben draws it I can go back and say, ‘This guy looks like he’s saying this’ or, ‘This guy looks like he’s saying that’ or, ‘This guy in the background who I didn’t imagine, he looks like he should have a line.’ So it keeps it very organic. I can’t imagine writing full scripts. I think I’ve only written full script maybe…once in all the time I’ve been writing comics and I’m just not comfortable with it.
Paste: You talked about having this idea to work with Ben while he was working on the Baltimore books, but what was the process of finding him for those, or deciding that was the right person to work with on those? I’ve noticed a lot in your work [Ben] will have an opaque black panel that does a really excellent job of denoting the passage of time.
Mignola: Yes, it’s a gag I do. That’s not a stylistic thing on Ben’s part, that’s me in the script saying, ‘Now this is a black panel.’ If I was writing a real Marvel style, a lot of that stuff would be open to the artist to interpret. But since I’m writing this kind-of half-assed full-script/plot, that kind of stuff is all specified in the [script].
Paste: I just noticed that he had such a similar style to you, but I guess that that’s just something you had written in the script. He seemed like such a perfect fit that I was curious how you went about finding him for the first project that you guys had worked on together.
Mignola: God, that’s going back so many years. He was doing another book for Dark Horse a gazillion years ago, some kind of zombie thing, and I just liked his stuff. I thought it had a really nice, solid…feel to it. I can’t remember exactly what I liked except that generally when I go with artists, there’s usually a gut thing, it’s kind of a ‘There’s something about this guy’s stuff I really like; it’s different.’ I guess on some level he does things I respond to. He doesn’t look like he’s doing me, but we have a similar approach to certain things.
And I think the first thing he did for us was a B.P.R.D. one-shot that maybe John Arcudi and I wrote together, but when it came to Baltimore, I loved the solidity. I’m trying to think what order things went. Did he do Witchfinder before he did Baltimore? Maybe. I know he impressed the hell out of me on the Witchfinder stuff, because he did so much research.
His stuff is a little cartoonish, but it’s very solid and he grounds his stuff in the real world. He puts a lot of information in there, he does a lot of research, so doing time-period stuff with Ben is great because he will find the right buildings and do the right costumes and things like that. Whereas a lot of guys—you get into that kind of stuff and they start faking [it]. And it looks fake. And I wanted somebody who was going to put the work in and give it that real authority. He’s been a dream to work with.
Paste: Switching gears a little, I had read the first two issues of Frankenstein Underground; the end of the first issue and a little of the second issue reminded me a lot of the beginning of Hellboy in Hell and parts of the first story arc. Was that intentional, or was it just happenstance?
Mignola: It doesn’t have a specific relationship to Hellboy in Hell, except I did realize that I was rerunning some of the ideas from it, and throughout the series it travels a similar path. All the details are different, but there is something thematically a little similar. I feel that’s just where my head is at these days. But there’s no conscious tie to the Hellboy in Hell stuff. It’s going to radically impact the future of the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. world. It’s going to say significant things about the earth that we’re dealing with. But it doesn’t really have any repercussions on the hell stuff.
Paste: So the Hellboy stuff and the B.P.R.D. stuff is being kept pretty separated for the time being then? There’s no plans to converge them again?
Mignola: There’re all kinds of plans for all kinds of things that I’m not going to tell you, but I mean…hell is hell and earth is earth. Definitely the lines are going to get blurry between the two; there are, again, some things in the works that I’m not prepared to give away. But…um…I should leave it there before I say too much.
Paste: [Laughs] I want you to say too much!
Mignola: It is all connected, but Hellboy is in his own little…place, for the time being.
Paste: I know you’ve talk about that series being the story you want to do for the foreseeable future, so it sounds like you’ve got a pretty good plan for where that’s going to go.
Mignola: Yes. I’m looking at a definite four-book plan, a four-trade paperback plan for the Hellboy in Hell stuff. That gets Hellboy through all the things that I see that, at this point, he needs to get through. I’m going to say everything I need to say about who he is and where he’s going [and] what he’s going to do. But I love that world. Even though it’s hell, it is very much my fantasy world where I can do whatever I want. Where I can have a goldfish tell a story. So I can’t imagine me drawing anything in comics that couldn’t be set in that world. Whether I call it “hell” or not; it’s really not far off from all the stories I did in the Amazing Screw-On Head collection. It’s these odd, little wonky stories. So I would love to do stories set in that world that don’t necessarily have Hellboy in them. Not that I’m necessarily wrapping all of Hellboy up in four books, but I could be.
Paste: The thing they reminded me most of was Moebius’ Airtight Garage—in the way it felt like it was this outlet to do or say anything that was on your mind at the time. You had so many options available to you; it wasn’t limited.
Mignola: When I returned to drawing comics after such a long stretch of just writing this stuff, I knew that if I was going to draw comics I wanted to do them with really no restrictions as far as what could or couldn’t happen. If gravity isn’t an issue, then I don’t need gravity; if I want a talking frog, I can have a talking frog. There doesn’t need to be any real-world rules. As an artist, I wanted to be as free as possible. As a writer, I wanted to be as free as possible to do whatever weird shit I wanted to do. I’m spoiled rotten, because now I’ve gotten to work like that, and I couldn’t write anything else.
Paste: So does that mean even if Hellboy makes it out of hell, and goes somewhere else and is separated from that setting that allows you that freedom, that you’re going to continue drawing comics that are set in that place, even though Hellboy’s adventures are continuing on elsewhere?
Mignola: You’re really trying to get me to tell stuff that I’m not supposed to tell. As an artist? As an artist, I have almost no interest in drawing the real world. Granted, it’s comics, so there is no real world. And the earth…the way the earth is going, it’s starting to resemble hell more and more, so it’s a fun playground. But yes, the whole “hell” world is my playground.
Paste: It’s just not necessarily tied to Hellboy’s adventures there…
Mignola: Exactly. It’s a much bigger world than just Hellboy. Hellboy’s been our vehicle for roaming around and seeing that world, but I’m very happy to continue without Hellboy at some point.
Paste: And Hellboy’s…what? Twenty-two years old at this point? Did you really think that he would have this long a life?
Mignola: Oh, certainly not. I didn’t realistically expect it to go beyond the first mini-series. So…it’s been 20 years of getting away with murder. And I just keep getting away with it. It’s so far beyond anything I imagined, that it’s…it’s actually kind of nice.
Paste: I know a lot of creators and cartoonists look up to you as someone who really achieved the dream of making your own little empire.
Mignola: I’d like to think that I’m a good example of what can happen if you do your stuff. I’m still a little amazed that more people don’t try doing what I do. I think more people do now; certainly everybody’s got an Image book, but I don’t see a lot of guys creating a character that they want to do for twenty years, you know? It seems like a lot of guys are still doing one book so it can be a movie pitch or a TV show pitch. Me? I’m kinda selfish. I’m selfish and I’m lazy. When I made up Hellboy, I made up a thing that, if it worked, it’s all I ever wanted to do. I took everything that I was ever going to want to draw and put it into this one vehicle. So I’m the happiest I’ve been drawing comics in a really long time because right now, most days, I’m getting up and I’m sitting here and I’m just…drawing Hellboy pages. The writing stuff’s been fine and the Frankenstein stuff’s been a lot of fun to do, but still, the greatest joy for me is just sitting there and drawing my actual comic.
Paste: I’d be remiss if I had you on the phone and I didn’t ask: I know a lot of people look up to you as an ideal, but at this point, the size of the Mignolaverse is something that is really dense, and there are dozens of miniseries and dozens of trade paperbacks, and it’s kind of daunting to new readers. As time goes on, there’s more and more material, more and more continuity, and there’s less and less of a differentiation between what you’re doing over at Dark Horse and the Marvel universe and the DC universe with all of their interlocking…stuff. I was curious what you think does separate you from them.
Mignola: You asked the best question at the very end when we’re running out of time—I could talk about this for an hour. But I think the thing that separates me from Marvel and DC now is certainly the fact that our continuity works. We haven’t had to stop and restart, and as a guy who read Marvel comics in the ‘70s, where the continuity still worked, I loved the fact that there were threads that tied the current comics to comics from the ‘40s and stuff like that. I personally really like the whole continuity thing. And yeah, it is getting to be a big…thing.
It’s a huge line of books at this point. I try to keep it so you don’t need to read all the books to know what’s going on. At the same time, if you do read it, and you do like it—to me, there’s nothing better than saying, ‘I really like this. And there’s a whole lot of it. And it’s all available.’
But yes, it is getting to be a pretty huge thing. The one thing is, our goal has never been to create this gigantic mass of stuff just so we’d have a lot of books. It’s always been an organic growth that’s coming out of, ‘I want to do this character,’ or ‘I want to do this character,’ or ‘We’ve got this storyline.’ So the story has always come first and the idea of adding books is like one of those…’Oh no…not another book.’ But it’s just the way it’s grown.