I recently finished reading all six volumes of the collected Hellboy library editions as well as the complete Hellboy in Hell compilation, and as a longtime fan of the character and this series, I have come to a difficult conclusion: Mike Mignola is a terrible plotter, and that’s ok.
From the earliest iterations of Hellboy, Mignola’s weakness for longform storytelling has been on full display. From killing off Professor Bruttenholm before readers could get a chance to internalize his importance in Hellboy’s backstory, to the rushed conclusion of Hellboy’s last standalone title, I’m afraid that despite all of this series’ shining qualities, a well-structured overall plot isn’t one of them.
Note to fellow Mignola fans: Feel free to leave your angry rejoinders below, but do me the curtesy of reading the rest of this article on your way to the comments section. Also, I haven’t read any of the BPRD series yet, though they’re on my wish list.
If you asked me to speculate on why Hellboy’s overarching storyline struggles with its plotting, I’d suggest that it’s at least partially due to Mignola’s literary diet. By his own admission, his personal reading preferences run toward short stories, comics, and the collected mythologies and legends of various world cultures. On the rare occasions when he does mention a novel among his influences, he’ll often admit that he either never read the book or couldn’t finish it despite using it as inspiration for his own works.
Another potential reason for this weakness in storytelling could come from the author’s preference of medium. Based on the commentary in the Hellboy library editions, Mignola readily admits that he is an artist first, writer second. This is very evident in his world building. Despite having an elaborate and complex urban fantasy setting for the Hellboy and BPRD stories, he knows surprisingly very little of the world he has created. Over and over, his sketchbook commentary will include statements such as “The symbol on the knight’s armor used to mean something important. I forget what.” or “There was a whole story I was going to write for this little demon monkey guy. I can’t remember what it was now.”
This lack of planning and organization manifests itself in Mignola’s overarching storylines again and again. Characters are teased, set up, established, and then promptly forgotten and abandoned. Essential plot points are frequently underdeveloped or missing entirely. Perhaps most frustratingly, the conflicts in many of Hellboy’s stories are plagued with sudden, poorly crafted resolutions that either devolve into a problem that miraculously solves itself, or else we see Hellboy conquering some ancient, mysterious, excitingly evil thing by punching it really hard.
And yet, I love these stories, particularly in short-form. “The Corpse” “A Christmas Underground” “The Crooked Man” and “Pancakes” are my personal top picks. My favorite Hellboy stories tend to be his shorter standalone adventures, and I’m not alone among fans or even (according to his commentaries) Mignola himself, who freely admits that he prefers his shorter pieces. Mignola has been quite candid about how frustrated he can get with the process of composing his longer storylines, including the legendary struggle he had while trying to write “The Island” which could well have prematurely destroyed the series if he and longtime editor Scott Allie hadn’t decided to begin delegating some of the creative duties to other artists to ease his workload.
Eventually, Mignola would resume both writing and artistic duties for the series, and it’s a shame that Hellboy’s final standalone adventures feel like a failed attempt to regain what Mignola originally loved about the character. Just as the Beatles struggled to “Get Back” to their roots with the Let it Be album, Mignola’s plan for “Hellboy in Hell” had originally been a return to an ongoing, episodic format of Hellboy’s regular adventures, this time in the far more liberating fantasy setting of the underworld. But the lingering complexities of previous story arcs and an intense pressure to tie everything together into a single narrative apparently proved too difficult, and the volume ends abruptly and awkwardly with the kind of self-preserving exit strategy that reminds me of how Guillermo Del Toro jumped from the sinking ship of the Hobbit movies. There’s no saving her, boys. It’s time to cut loses and just go.
In the end, Mignola’s Hellboy remains my favorite graphic novel series and one of my favorite fictional characters of all time. Whenever somebody asks me for a comparable series to The Adventures of Keltin Moore, I always tell them to check out Hellboy, particularly the shorter pieces. As a writer, I am in awe of the way these stories can invoke so much detail and empathy in a short amount of time. As a reader, I am mesmerized by the overwhelming sense of place and the minimalistic but nonetheless powerful characterizations. So what if the longer plots don’t fit together like a carefully crafted, sweeping saga? Hellboy is about ghost stories, and a good ghost story lasts just long enough to tell around the campfire.
There you go.