Mike Mignola Mastered the Wordless Page in Hellboy

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Mike Mignola Mastered the Wordless Page in <i>Hellboy</i>

Mild Spoilers

As of yesterday, cartoonist Mike Mignola has indefinitely exorcised a demon that’s inhabited his career since 1991. Starting as a convention sketch and evolving into a comic institution, Hellboy has escorted readers through a macabre roller coaster of myth and lore. Yet the title character’s journey appears to have met its end in the excellent Hellboy In Hell #10. And for a comic book about the reluctant Beast of The Apocalypse beating the shit out of monsters with his comically large stone fist, the finale features one of the most melancholic, evocative pages of any comic in recent history. But those descriptors can be applied to the majority of Mignola’s illustrations.

Of note, this issue doesn’t mark the end of the expanded Hellboy universe, including the lost adventures of Big Red and his government buddies in Hellboy and The B.P.R.D.: 1953 and his ominous fishman partner in Abe Sapien —not to mention tangential projects like Joe Golem. Mignola will continue to help guide the overarching stories of these titles alongside co-writers Chris Roberson and Scott Allie, who has also served as editor for the bulk of the character’s existence. Mignola will, however, cease to write and draw Hellboy’s solo narrative, vouching to spend a year painting watercolors. And you know what? That’s okay. One of the most beloved characters in comics received a fitting end after decades of consistently gorgeous, atmospheric serial perfection.

What made this last issue so memorable? Its form and function deviate from the dozens of stories that precede it. To briefly recap, Hellboy has followed a gentle demon fighting his destiny, as well as the dozens of spooks, creeps, myths and gods threatening the human race that’s adopted him as one of their own. More than an investigator of things that go bump in the night, he was a guide to the cultural boogeyman of the world: The Crooked Man in Appalachia, Lovecraftian sea fauna in New England, Baba Yaga in Russia, Changelings in Ireland and a pack of particularly nasty giants in England to name a few. Also: android gorillas. Mignola was as much an expert cartoonist as a grim anthropologist. And as Paste has stated on many, many different occasions, he ably turned his comics into the most relevant vehicle of the gothic legacy defined at the Villa Diodati.

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Hellboy in Hell #10 Interior Art by Mike Mignola and Dave Stewart

We’ll keep spoilers to an ambiguous minimum, but Hellboy in Hell #10 witnesses its namesake both fulfill and reject his destiny as the harbinger of the apocalypse, in ways unexpected yet completely organic. More interesting, he no longer functions as a reader proxy—that role goes to a blinded demon recounting the titular hero’s final battle to his grandmother. Hellboy is no longer a spectator to his fate and the forces of supernature that perpetually engulfed him. He defined his identity. And again…that last page. That. Last. Page. (Not pictured—we wouldn’t do that.)

As is the case with most master cartoonists, Mignola’s storytelling relies on his images and the rhythm created between them, and this issue exemplifies that skill beautifully. Debut Hellboy story arc Seed of Destruction was scripted by writer John Byrne (a Silver Age icon with runs both writing and illustrating Fantastic Four, X-Men and Superman), working off a plot by Mignola. While still a landmark comic, copious word balloons cloud the pages, obscuring the fragile rhythm of lonely landscapes, stray mood panels and thudding fists that would define the rest of the series after Mignola assumed all storytelling responsibility.

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Hellboy in Hell #10 Interior Art by Mike Mignola and Dave Stewart

Combined with the colors of Dave Stewart, who’s worked on all Mignola-drawn Hellboy issues since 1997, the mood is singular. Except in a few subtle instances, Stewart avoids gradients, opting for fills of muted browns and grays contrasted against Mignola’s obsidian-black shadows. That drab canvass allows eruptions of hellfire, streams of blood and, best of all, Hellboy’s bright crimson complexion to seize the eye. The resulting aesthetic—spacial, poetic, bleak, haunting, romantic—lies somewhere between portraits on a decaying tapestry and the last imprints of a fading dream.

(But don’t think that Hellboy is a complete buzzkill comic—the scripts often punctuate the sober tone with sucker-punch humor. Hellboy’s casual reactions to devastating horror and despair always raise a chuckle. Exclaiming “geez” to towering fallen angels carries an undeniable charm.)

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Hellboy in Hell #10 Interior Art by Mike Mignola and Dave Stewart

The sparse rhythm between these panels is a rarity in today’s comic market. Out of Hellboy in Hell’s 22 pages, seven completely lack any dialogue or captions (onomatopoeia aside), while five hold a sentence or one-word description. Mignola fills his pages with small interior panels of wildlife, artwork and flora. The page above is a perfect example: the establishing shot zooms into a skyward seagull and the the cryptic glances of ghouls. So much information is conveyed by, and between, the panels. They almost talk to one another.

This is the mark of superior comic book storytelling, and a strange stylistic omission from Guillermo Del Toro’s film adaptations. Though the director offered hints of that sweeping silence—the scene in Hellboy II: The Golden Army in which the cast witnesses the elegiac downfall of a plant deity—it stands as a quality capable under its creator’s pen and nowhere else. And for that, we thank Mike Mignola for 22 years of comic books nobody else can and will ever hope to emulate. Godspeed.

Check out the gallery above for some of Paste’s favorite Mignola-illustrated Hellboy covers.