This year marks the 25th anniversary of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy: Seed of Destruction, which introduced fans to a hero who was technically the Antichrist, but was also the world’s greatest paranormal adventurer.
This weekend, Dark Horse Comics is celebrating the occasion with Hellboy Day, with various goodies and gifts for participating comic shops to hand out, and even signings with the talent behind Hellboy, if you’re lucky enough to live close enough.
For our own part, Polygon is happy to offer an exclusive look at Dark Horse’s upcoming art book Hellboy: 25 Years of Covers. The compendium won’t hit shelves until July 3, but you can read its foreword by Mike Mignola, in which the Hellboy creator reflects on his history of cover art, and his process in crafting it — alongside 10 covers from the artbook itself — below.
So, 25 years.
Of course when I created this silly thing called Hellboy I never really expected him to be around for 25 years, but I’ve written about all that before and hopefully will again when he turns 30. But here I’ve been asked to write something about covers — Not as easy to do, as I’ve never given the subject a lot of thought. They’re just something you do, right? But the fact that I’ve been doing covers for almost 35 years ... That’s something.
Going way back ... In 1982 when I first moved to New York to try and get work at Marvel Comics, my portfolio was all single-page illustrations, the kinds of things that might be used for pin-ups (or covers?). I had no sample pages, as I wasn’t looking for work drawing actual comics. I was trying to get work as an inker. I had some vague idea about someday drawing a ten-page backup feature somewhere, just so on my deathbed I’d be able to gasp out “Yes, once I drew a comic,” but that was really it for real comics. I did have a slightly less vague idea about doing pin-ups or some kind of filler illustrations, the kind of stuff they would use to fill out an issue of Savage Sword of Conan (I was really into Conan at the time). I had done some illustrations for game magazines and fanzines, I’d majored in illustration in school, so I thought I might someday be able to do some of that kind of stuff once I snuck into comics as an inker. Well, I’ve told the story of my failed inking career a bunch of times so we can skip over that — I ended up as a not-so-great comic book artist, stumbled through a couple very forgettable short stories, then onto my first four-issue mini-series, Rocket Raccoon. And I did my own covers. Never thought about it until asked to write this piece, but looking back it seems odd that they would let this unknown kid do his own covers. Maybe they figured it was just some odd raccoon comic so who cares. I don’t know, but I would have thought conventional wisdom would have been to put some established pro on the cover to try and sell the book. But no, it was me. And while doing Rocket Raccoon, I started doing covers for The Hulk. Now that seems really crazy to me as I look back — They might not have cared about a raccoon comic but they sure as hell must have cared about The Hulk. I suppose all that comes down to Carl Potts, a very good editor who had a whole lot more faith in me than I did myself. So hey, Carl, this book’s for you.
Bill Mantlo, the writer I worked with on all my early comics at Marvel, once told me that I needed to put more character into my people — more naturalistic acting — and not “try so hard to make every panel look like a Frazetta painting.” And I guess that’s it right there. I think like a poster or book cover artist. That’s the stuff that influenced me more than comics. Eventually I figured out a way to make comic storytelling work for me, but my stuff is still more graphic, more focused on overall page design, than on the naturalistic acting of the characters in the panels. I could go on and on about that but I’d need to draw diagrams. And I’m here to talk about covers.
My editor has suggested I say something about my approach to designing covers, but to a large extent that’s like asking about my approach to writing or laying out a page — I just bang away at it till I get something I like. No one way of doing it — I just do it, and sometimes it’s easy and other times (too often) it’s not. I do tend to do more symbolic covers rather than action covers. Usually I’m trying to give a suggestion of the story — or maybe a hint or tease as to what the story is about, rather than show some very specific scene from the story. I’m almost always drawing the cover long before the interior of a comic is drawn, so most times I don’t even know what the actual comic is going to look like. Very often I rely on what I call the “Doc Savage Formula” (based on those great James Bama book covers) — Throw the main character into the lower center of the cover, half crouched, ready for trouble, and fill in the background with whatever weird thing he’s up against that issue. The trick after twenty-five is to keep coming up with different stuff to throw into the background. It’s a great day when a rhinoceros shows up — That’s not going to happen too often and he’s a lot of fun to draw. Or the severed head of Blackbeard the pirate — You know that’s probably only going to happen once. Or a bunch of Goya paintings, a giant worm, a demonic Mexican wrestler ... Those are the easy ones. When all else fails it’s statues and bones — a lot of statues and bones over the years. They have served me well.
Also one of the great pleasures of this whole Hellboy thing has been getting to work with so many other terrific (sometimes legendary) artists. I’m happy to include some of their covers here along with my own. As I’ve said many times, there is no way I could have kept this machine running this long all by myself.
I am very, very lucky, and believe me, I know it. And I try to never forget it. Hellboy is mine and his world is my odd little box of toys. For 25 years I’ve been mostly left alone to do whatever I want, and I don’t know too many people who can say that. Some days it does feel like work, but it’s a job I am very lucky to have. I’ve gotten to create a body of work that I’m pretty proud of, so I’m going to get out of the way now so you can look it.
Enjoy eight more covers from Hellboy: 25 Years of Covers below.