In 1993, writer-artist Mike Mignola introduced comic book readers to Hellboy, a demon discovered and raised by American soldiers after World War II that ended up fighting against forces attempting to take over the Earth. It was an almost immediate hit, and Mignola went on to expand the world with an array of new characters and a related comic series.
One big part of that universe has been a series called B.P.R.D., which follows the titular government agency dedicated to protecting the country against paranormal threats. Mignola brought Hellboy’s story to a close with Hellboy in Hell a couple of years ago, and this month he launched a new arc called The Devil You Know that will bring B.P.R.D. to an end as well.
I spoke with Mignola about what it’s like to say goodbye to beloved characters, what’s next for the sprawling Hellboy universe, and what fans can expect from Neil Marshall’s upcoming film reboot, Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You ended Hellboy’s story with Hellboy in Hell in 2016. What made you want to give the character a definitive end?
Hellboy in Hell was was supposed to be a series with a lot of one- or two-issue stories, but it turned into what I didn't want it to turn into: one big story. I restructured it a couple of times to be one of three books, and there was just a point where I realized that it’s here where our story comes to an end.
I had to scrap some stuff I planned to do, but I analyzed what I wanted to do and realized it was just more of the same. It felt ready to wrap this up. It’s one thing I always try to do with all of these books — it’s the case with B.P.R.D., too — where these things are going, but you try not to put too tight a rein on it. Sometimes it turns out longer than you thought it would be. You look around and go, “Oh, that guy is now where he needs to be, that guy is now where he needs to be.”
Sort of like a road trip, where you plot out where you want to go, but let it play out on its own.
Yeah. You say, “It’s going to take us six months to travel the country,” but in reality, it takes you two weeks, because it turns out that it’s just a big fucking desert.
The larger Mignola-verse isn’t over with the end of Hellboy. Are you surprised at how this world has evolved and grown over time?
I hate to say Mignola-verse. It’s spooky whenever I use it! It’s certainly nothing I ever imagined doing, and the thing I’m most proud of — and I wish I could take all the credit for it — is the fact that it’s all happened very organically. The beauty of being able to do stories set in various time periods and stuff, they all work together really well. There's still a lot of ground to cover.
Twenty-five years of Hellboy, B.P.R.D., and related books... you can read all that stuff and it's a coherent, complicated story. That’s not something I ever set out to do, but I’m happy with how it turned out. I just don't think there's anything like that in comics right now, now that Marvel and DC keep scrapping their continuities and starting over.
On a logistical level, how do you keep your continuity and characters straight?
We did this book a few years back, The Hellboy Companion, for us. We would say things like, “We know in one of the books, we established the year Abe Sapien was found,” but we would always forget what book that was in. So we came up with a book with a timeline. There are also people online who keep track of this stuff. [Dark Horse Comics Executive Senior Editor] Scott Allie is very good at keeping track of that.
What’s worked really well is that we’ve only had me, [writers] John Arcudi, Chris Roberson, and a couple of others work on the whole run of this series. We haven't had to bring in an outside guy that we had to bring up to speed on continuity.
As this became a big, sprawling story, how did you keep it true to your original vision?
I’ve always been the broad-strokes guy. I do have specific things I wanted on the books I worked on. When we expanded to B.P.R.D., the first couple of books with John [Arcudi], I was much more heavily involved as co-writer, but at some point, I realized I had a general direction of where the B.P.R.D. story would go, and a general idea of how it would ultimately end.
When John committed to the book, I very quickly stepped back and said, “I want you to feel like this is your book.” I encouraged him to create his own characters or mess with the ones I created, and not just write the stories I was telling him to write. I always feel like I get the best work out of people if they feel like they’re creating the work themselves. It keeps me surprised at how things are going, and I figure if I’m surprised, the reader will be surprised.
The Devil You Know is the next big story arc for B.P.R.D. It comes after the big Hell on Earth arc, Hellboy in Hell, and the end of the Abe Sapien run. How did you guys develop this ongoing storyline, and what do you hope it will do?
John Arcudi had been writing the book forever, and at some point, he just felt he had done everything he wanted to do. So when he decided to wrap up Hell on Earth, we were really in a funny spot with, “Who do we get to finish this thing?” I always knew we had one big arc left to do, and he didn’t leave where it ended.
Scott Allie was just finishing up Abe Sapien, and we talked about bringing in a new writer. But it’s almost a closed shop, and it’s not fair to a new writer to say they have to close up the book. So I asked Scott if he could just close it out. He’s been involved since the beginning, and he’s been keeping track of all the plot threads for 20-some-odd years. I think he was relieved I asked him.
That’s made it comfortable, because we did have a pretty clear idea of the broad strokes of this last B.P.R.D. arc, so I spent a couple of days talking with him about what would happen next.
Why do you think it’s time to close up B.P.R.D.?
We’ve done a lot of damage to the world and characters, and I’ve had this story in mind. You look around and go, “Oh, all the pieces are lining up the way they’re supposed to.” We’ve gone back and forth on the length of the series. We didn’t want to wrap it up super-fast, it was just: “Here’s what needs to be done, now see how many issues that needs to be.” You don’t want to keep something running artificially long. I think that’s something that separates us from mainstream comics. If you want to do a world and characters that evolve, you have to let them do so at their own pace.
The beauty is that we have this Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. series that Chris [Roberson] is writing, where we’re filling in this gigantic gap between Hellboy’s first appearance to when the first comic was published, which takes place in the ‘90s. That’s 40 to 50 years of untold stories. There’s definitely places to go beyond where B.P.R.D. is. There’s also the Victorian era that hasn't been fleshed out. There's prehistoric stuff I'd love to do.
How are you balancing writing a story that appeals to new readers and to longtime fans?
You know, I’m probably not great at that. The thing we’ve always tried to do is say that you don’t need to read what’s come before to understand what’s happening, but I think that, as we’re wrapping things up, we’re trying to recap where it fits with the series. For example, with some of the characters that have been gone for a while, we try and explain what’s gone on with them.
It seems as though you have prefigured the modern movie cinematic universe concept like Star Wars or Marvel, where they establish a framework to drop stories into.
I was reading Marvel comics in the ‘70s, and one of the things that was great about those stories was that they felt like a whole giant world. You could read Captain America and find stories about him in the 1940s. Then, you find out that there were other characters in the ‘40s, and what happened them. You got the sense that this was a big populated world with a history that made sense. Now, most of that is pretty much gone now, but that’s the feeling that I’ve tried to keep with Hellboy and B.P.R.D.
What I didn’t want to do is a story that begins in Hellboy but continues in [the spinoff series] Lobster Johnson. My feeling was if you want to read B.P.R.D., you’ll get as much as you need to make the story work. But the more of these books you read, the more you see the history and how the threads connect.
Sort of an anti-Marvel Civil War concept.
I never want to do comics where it feels like a trick to get readers to buy books that they don’t want. If you hate the 1930s, you don't want Lobster Johnson. That’s fine. If you don’t give a shit about the Victorian era, don’t read Witchfinder. But if you do read Witchfinder, you find threads that connect to Hellboy and B.P.R.D. You’ll find a consistent history behind everything, but you’re not missing much if you don’t read the entire thing.
You’re back to writing full-time on a couple of new books, like Koshchei the Deathless. What’s that about?
That's a six-issue miniseries that I wanted to do for a long time. Once Hellboy was wrapped up, I told [illustrator] Ben Stenbeck I would finally write that book. I first introduced Koshchei in Hellboy. He’s a Russian folklore character, but I created an origin that draws on a couple of different folktales. There's a tremendous amount of great, weird stuff in Russian folklore, and the more I read, the more I realized that it just scratches the surface. People have called Hellboy an antihero. If Koshchei is a hero at all, he’s an extremely anti-hero. He’s a very dark character who’s done a tremendous amount of really dark things.
Hellboy really began to draw on Russian folklore later in the series. What draws you to it?
Monsters. Russia just has fantastic stories about monsters. Norse mythology was always my favorite because they're the best monsters, and Greek mythology has always had terrific monsters, but I’ve always been put off by the costumes they wore. I wasn’t familiar with the Russian stuff, but I did like Baba Yaga. When I began using her, I started looking at Russian folklore to flesh out her story, and discovered all this other stuff.
I love those bizarre, rambling folklore tales where a person has to go to this place to get directions to go to that other place, where they get a magic ball of string they have to follow. So I like to embrace the really odd parts of the story. I’m hoping the overall feel of this new miniseries will feel like a Russian folktale set in the Ozark mountains.
I just saw that Ian McShane is joining the cast of the new Hellboy movie. How closely are you involved with the new film?
I’m a weird kind of co-executive producer. I’m not actually sure what my title is, but unlike the del Toro movies, where I was active in pre-production and design, I’m not doing that this time around. When the decision was made to do another movie, I got involved, basically saying, “If you’re going to do that story, don’t do this, or that, change this, and that.” I helped to steer it. Christopher Golden and I did write a couple of drafts of the screenplay and got it on track, and then the decision was made to do a reboot. I really just get questions about how things work, and while I’m not doing a lot, I’ve been talking with the creature-design guy and the makeup guy to get the look of Hellboy and his hand, and things like that.
The film is aimed at an R rating, as opposed to the del Toro films which were PG-13. What are you hoping this will bring to the story?
That’s been the feeling from day one. It’ll lean in the horror direction, more so than the fantasy direction del Toro was doing. When Neil came on, we decided to go for an R rating, so he doesn’t have his hands tied, and so he can go as dark and as tough as he wants to go. I was a fan of his, and when he came onboard, I thought it was terrific: now it’s really going to be an action-horror film.
It’s not that we want to wallow in blood, but when you do a PG-13 rating, you bang your head into rules about how intense certain things can be. I think it helps that Deadpool and Logan were R-rated, and what I’ve been telling people is that the tone of it will be much more the Logan approach: lean, dark, tough, and not something that stops to show limbs flying through the air.
Is there anything you’ve learned from Hellboy and B.P.R.D. in the last 20 years that is now translating into the film?
Yeah. It’s a very loose adaptation of one of the Hellboy graphic novels. When you have more books out there, you have a lot more to sift through. You can look around at how big the world is, and borrow pieces from here and there. You want to sell a larger world, but you have to pick and choose what goes in there. The challenge for us has been to not lose sight of the specific story, but suggest the elements of a larger story. My hope is that this introduces a lot of stuff that then expands into a Hellboy Cinematic Universe.