Hellboy, Mike Mignola’s horn-shorn comic book hero, returned a couple of weeks ago, despite having been killed off at the end of 2011 – but unlike recent high profile comic book deaths, such as Captain America and the X-Men’s Professor X, Hellboy is dead and staying dead in a new series called ‘Hellboy in Hell’.
We last saw Hellboy in ‘The Fury’, a strip that had him discover he was in fact a distant relation of King Arthur, battling a witch army in the English countryside and giving up one of his blazing yellow eyes to former foe Baba Yaga in order to steal a march on the dragon-witch Nimue . Having had all manner of crap kicked out of her, Nimue informed Hellboy she was being dragged to Hell by five hundred drowning witches and if she was going, well, he was going too. In one of those comic frames that really land a punch we saw Hellboy’s fiery heart in Nimue’s hand. Hellboy’s last words? ‘Son of a…’ Hellboy creator Mike Mignola told me, ‘We didn’t want to hype it at all. We wanted people to turn the page and have a sharp intake of breath. Is he…? That’s why we included mention of ‘Hellboy in Hell’ at the end of that book. I wanted people to know that [Hellboy dying] wasn’t the end of the story…’
‘Hellboy in Hell’ sees Big Red, as he is sometimes affectionately known, having to come to terms with the fact of his demise. ‘The first four issues are all about settling Hellboy into Hell.’ I asked Mignola if we could expect to see any familiar faces turning up in future issues. ‘There are a couple of recurring characters in the first few issues but really I’m closing the book on certain characters for the last time. I don’t want this to become Hellboy versus people we’ve seen already. Saying that, I’ve always thought Hellboy works best when he’s bouncing off other people. And there’s at least one character I’ve written but never drawn that I’m looking forward to working in…’
One of the most compelling things about Hellboy’s development as a character over the course of the last decade or so has been the sense many readers have that Mignola knows where he’s going, that there is a very definite trajectory. When I ask him how long he’s known Hellboy was going to Hell, he answered, ‘It’s hard to say. Almost from the beginning, I knew I wanted to shift to a fantasy location at some point. At what point did the fantasy location become Hell?’ He trails off. ‘When he left the Bureau [the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense or BPRD, kept alive in the strips masterminded by John Arcudi], when he was trapped under the sea for three years fighting mermaids, I knew he couldn’t go back.’
The world in which Hellboy exists has become a lot more complicated – the BPRD have their own comic now, with variant storylines set in a world torn apart by monsters and the past, as well as loosely connected offshoots Lobster Johnson and Witchfinder. I ask Mignola how he keeps track of the continuity of this unwieldy beast he’s helped create. He chuckles. ‘The simple truth is I can’t,’ he says. ‘[For BPRD] All of the actual plotting is John. I may come in and offer a detail or ask him to spin something in a certain way. I have veto power. But my focus is on the mythology, the supernatural mechanics, the history of this world.’
Superhero deaths and the inevitable ensuing resurrections make for good business in comics. I ask Mignola if he was worried that the Hellboy death would be lumped in with the likes of Professor X, who recently died for the second time. ‘I wasn’t worried about that,’ he said. And as for resurrections… ‘I’ve had people say, ‘Is [‘Hellboy in Hell] a miniseries?’ No. Hellboy is in Hell for the foreseeable future. Everything I want to do in comics fits in ‘Hellboy in Hell’.’ He tells me that he’s talking to me from his library, a place full of books of folklore and mythology, books he’s spent years collecting. ‘I know that I could probably get about 32 Hellboy stories from a single shelf.’ He changes tack, slightly. ‘I did a single issue with Hellboy in Japan some years ago. [A story called ‘Heads’ collected in The Right Hand of Doom.] In Hell, I’m going to have Hellboy travel around. It may be that at some point he’ll end up in the Asian neighbourhood of Hell which can be sifted through my lens.’ The implication being that he can pretty much do as he wants now and he’s fine with that.
Mignola tells me he’s having a lot of fun writing the new stuff. A lot of the press around the publication has trumpeted that ‘Hellboy in Hell’ is the first time Mignola has drawn the strip since the heady days of ‘Conqueror Worm’ but that isn’t the case. ‘I drew the stories that made up ‘Strange Places’ and I’ve done a couple of one-shots. But ‘Hellboy in Hell’ is the biggest thing I’ve done since ‘Conqueror Worm’. I was surprised by how smoothly the first issue went. I was rusty. I hadn’t done one in a while and I’d thought about this particular issue for a long, long time. I was so enthusiastic, it countered the rustiness.’
So thankfully this is one time when the comic book universe – described in the Guardian as a place with ‘squishy physical and metaphysical laws’ – eschews the revolving door character policy that has seen everyone but Spiderman’s Uncle Ben kick the bucket at least once. From now on, if you’re looking for Hellboy, he’ll be in Hell. And if the first issue is anything to go by, falling into a hole full of giant bugs and having the tar beaten out of him by a big iron guy with a hammer might be the least of his worries…