Robot 6

Your Wednesday Sequence 41 | Mike Mignola

“Hellboy” page from Dark Horse Presents #151 (2000).  Mike Mignola.

Mike Mignola’s Hellboy universe might be the most common place for readers to notice something different is being done with the sequencing of the imagery that makes up the comics they’re reading.  A large part of what makes Mignola’s stories so wonderful is the way they behave like typical examples of action-adventure comics until they suddenly refuse to do so any longer, and parachute off into far weirder and more interesting realms.  The same thing can be said for the way Mignola (and the numerous notable artists who’ve followed in his stylistic wake on the property) puts his pages together.  If any post-Jack Kirby artist can be said to have created a truly unique and formally innovative style of constructing action comics, Mignola’s undoubtedly a strong candidate for the top of the list.  And as far as the influence that style has had on the form, he’s peerless.

Appropriate enough, then, that Mignola’s art, no matter how outre it gets (which is considerably), always trails deep roots back to the basics of the grammar laid down by Kirby.  He knows his fundamentals, and he practices them with no shortage of skill or attention to detail.  It’s no accident that the first panel on the page above is an establishing shot — and not just that, but one that gives us the scene from its protagonist’s point of view just so we can situate ourselves that much easier.  Nor that we don’t see anything backgrounded by flat color in one panel unless we’ve seen it against a setting beforehand.  Nor that the balance of black space and color across the page, not to mention in every individual panel, is so evenly judged that it seems like Mignola must lay his inked pages across a scale as he finishes them.  As with every great cartoonist, clarity of content is Mignola’s primary goal, and here things are crystal.

Mignola is similarly deft at hitting his Kirbyist “point of impact” action beats, even on a page with content as restrained as a man watching a bird.  The back and forth between the two is impossible to miss even though the two never appear in the same panel, and Mignola succeeds in creating plenty of tension with a single line of dialogue and some sharp framing.  The simple one-two of Hellboy with his back to us and then turning combined with that of the bird singing and then silent builds up a rhythm as compelling as it is easy to read.  Notice how the camera subtly cuts in on Hellboy, the bird, and the flowers that act as a background motif for the page as things ramp up and the flat-colored backgrounds focus pull our attentions from landscape to character toward the end.

Speaking of those flowers, though, it’s what this page does in addition to its sterling storytelling that really makes it worthy of notice.  It’s the same thing anyone who’s read an issue of Mignola’s comics has seen dozens of times: panels of background imagery with no direct connection to the plot at hand dropped in to punctuate the action beats, in what feels close to open defiance of the usual faster/louder mode of comics about fighting.  The most obvious effect of this is a massive injection of atmosphere: suddenly a basic establishing-shot-into-action transition is alive with the rustle and hum of nature, with a landscape that goes from cool green to suspenseful yellow via portentious black, adding a symphonic level of harmony to a simple content phrase.  And those flowers!  Beautiful drawings in their own right, Mignola’s creamy lilies manage to lend even a gothic horror story starring the Beast of the Apocalypse a headspinning element of psychedelia.

Mignola’s tendency to pull visual elements beside the action’s main players into his page layouts is a maximalistic urge; one that strikes a deeply pleasurable contrast with his drawing’s concerted minimalism, which at times goes so close to the bone with its use of stark blacks and resolutely scrawled, scratchy lines that it verges on abstraction.  It’s action artwork that fully picks up on an element rarely noticed and sorely missed in genre comics: beauty.  As committed as Mignola is to making comics about awesome creatures punching each other (and make no mistake, that commitment runs deep), he’s just as drunk on the surfaces of the things he draws, and his pages go from rock-solid to sublime and back again, incorporating a dizzying attention to details that no other artist would bother with.  It’s the action storytelling we all know and love plus, introduced to something entirely its artist’s own but just as powerful and iconic as anything that’s come before.  When all the good violent comics look like this in a few decades, we’ll look back at Mignola and know the reason why.

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11 Comments

You nailed something that I always loved about Mignola’s stuff and could never place, when you are just reading through those little focus points really don’t catch you always but they work so well at immersing the reader into that space.

Yeah, focuspoints and graphicality. But I feel to like how it never feels forced on me, or done on a constant along the same vein and all the time.

Like stuff seems just so subtle, but also as made to conflict for pointing one-and-other out, as being always there in front of my eye-balls, should I wanna see it. As flows or moods being to change or get interrupted.

Urging me to seeing everything that would be going on or either making space for stuff to start happening.

What happens when you walk into a forest, other than that it makes you being aware of that, like with being vast or – well – ‘foresty’. Nothing will make demons on official missions be to look way buff or wonderous as how pristine flowerbeds would, or silent statues, or singing birds.

Although I guess a sudden sound or pointy spear here or there wouldn’t hurt. Or would they?
I’m gonna read Hellboy now.

Great sequence and a great critique as ususal. I’d add that there’s a strong influence of Manga too in the accretion of atmospheric detail.

My boy Sean Witzke nailed it — that’s Akira Kurosawa all the way, baby!

mignolas work is fascinating. what really strikes me about his work is that its impossible to separate the reasons why it works, from the man that makes it. Over the years plenty of people have taken bits of Kirby (Mignola included) and grafted those bits onto their own, amalgamating the two with varying levels of success. this happens all the time. it’s one of the things i most enjoy about reading comics- figuring out who shaped each artist, and where they finally came into their own. It happens with with mignola too. Plenty of artists attempt to recreate his story telling. pulling out his lessons on insert shots, which you pointed out, and dropping them into their own work. usually with no success. i know, i’ve attempted this many times over the years. it took me along time to figure out why it doesn’t work (outside of the obvious gap between the skill levels involved). mignola is not a confident artist. by all accounts he is not just his own worst critic, as many artists are, but given his place as the driving force behind his own book he has the time to do something about it. drawing and redrawing. overworking his pencils, creating in a way that for most others would create stiff, lifeless work. thats the magic, that is what makes it work. he has turned that limitation on its head and embraced it. his work flows so well beat to beat not just because of his amazing storytelling skill, its in his process. hellboys world is made of granite, everything carved out of stone and stamped on the page. his “stiffness” gives you pause, each beat drawn in a way that forces you to stop, that gives the page its rhythm. each image creates a very real, solid moment. no matter what he draws. whether its hellboy fighting a dragon, or an image of a lilly- it has the same weight. its hefty. it cant be copied because its not on the surface- what makes it work doesn’t print.

Jonny the homicidal drummer

February 11, 2012 at 10:02 am

You are dead on
This is exactly what leaves you with a certain feeling when you read a mignola verse comic
Makes them stand out so much these days an stick in your head long after you put them
Down

Plus the sweet monsters :)

For me, those quiet insert watching have always powerfully added a sense that the scene was being watched… by nature, ghosts, elder gods… whatever, but it made for an extraordinary sense of background depth to the story.

“quiet insert shots have” grrrr stupid fingers

Don’t forget the clever way of the use of negative space.

Really well written article. I’d never been able to articulate Mingola’s work quite like that, but you nailed it.

"O" the Humanatee!

February 16, 2012 at 12:58 pm

I’m coming into this conversation rather late, but your excellent dissection explains why I consider the Hellboy movies misguided – because Mignola’s work is so much about the comics form itself, as much or more so than it is about plot or character. You just can’t replicate or even approach what makes Mignola’s comics special in another medium. They’re close to “pure comics.”

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