About a week ago I read (though, I can’t for the life of me recall exactly where) a brief, capsule-sized write up of a recent collection of Mike Mignola material. It was HELLBOY: THE FIRST 20 YEARS, I believe, and the writer was complimentary of Mignola’s linework, his ability to compose both a cover and a page, his pacing—broadly speaking: his aesthetic. But what stuck with me was the writer’s acknowledgment (and understandable befuddlement) of a large contingency (whose existence I’ve yet to see proof of) of people who found that Mignola was growing lazy as he got older.
These people, the writer claimed, noted that Mignola sought to strip as many lines as he could out of his figure and background work, cutting it down to its barest essentials. They view this as laziness—“Mignola just doesn’t want to draw all those lines,” or somesuch. And they’re right, sort of. As Mignola gets older, more experienced, his work does get starker, leaner, cleaner. Their observation that his work grows increasingly more minimalist is a correct one.
But the problem with their thinking (i.e. that this is a bad thing) is that it belays a fundamental misunderstanding of one of comics unspoken goals. Admittedly, it’s not a school of thought that every comic book artist, or even most artists, subscribe to, but it is the school of thought laid down by Alex Toth, an artist whose work is universally revered for its beauty, clarity, and communicative power.
With a career that depresses me about as much as Carl Barks and Bernard Krigstein’s (all for different reasons), Alex Toth never found a story that was as good as his art. There are some that almost sorta kinda come close, but no comic he helped produce was as well written as it was drawn. And yet Toth persists as one of the most important artists the medium every produced. His style was lean and clear, and he spent his whole career trying to whittle each drawing down, more and more, to its barest of bare essentials. He wanted only the lines that truly and genuinely needed to be there for him to communicate what he was trying to communicate. It was a lifelong struggle towards an unprecedented mastery of comics and storytelling and art.
If you trace the timeline of Mignola’s career, you can see that he’s similarly working towards this goal as well. He’s honing his technique, and trying to figure out how to go simpler, cleaner, starker seems to be one of his biggest artistic goals. This is most obvious within HELLBOY IN HELL, which at only #6 issues over nearly two years is already a microcosm of sorts for Mignola’s stylistic evolution.
In fact, it was because of the aforementioned comments about simplicity and laziness—which have stuck with me since I heard them—that I read the very recent HELLBOY IN HELL #6, “The Death Card,” with particular acuity, reading it through and beginning again without even the slightest pause (a similar reaction to when I read #5, “The Three Golden Whips.”). As always, Mignola’s writing is—much like his art—functional, and he’s sharpened his skills as a short story writer to a fine point. His ability to produce so many self-contained stories is enviable, and is, within the medium, almost without compare. But what I noticed on the second read-through was just how minimalist his artwork has become. And the minimalism here is such that a close reading of the book actually reveals an interesting abstract quality to its starkness and functionality.
If you go back and look at the work he was producing at the start of his career—ROCKET RACCOON, COSMIC ODYSSEY, BATMAN: GOTHAM BY GASLIGHT—and then follow him just a few years to FAFHRD AND THE GRAY MOUSER and the very first appearances of Hellboy in SAN DIEGO COMIC-CON COMICS #2 and NEXT MEN #21, you can see, even in that short amount of time, a clear progression towards minimalism. It’s slight at first, and he clung to a certain level of detail and usage of a conventional comic booking language, but it’s there—he’s made the progression in leaps in bounds in more recent years, though. Even in the first art he ever
produced featuring what would become Hellboy, Mignola still drew with a little flair, a little detail, a little bit of an eye for memesis. His characters were hairier, their muscles more defined, their costumes more ornate and detailed. His eyes were more like the conventional eyes (created using the template established by his idol Jack Kirby—and Kirby acolytes like John Buscema, Jim Steranko, Walt Simonson, and others).
But as HELLBOY became more and more obviously his opus, and what he would devote himself solely to (with little exception) for the rest of his life, you could see a love and fascination of shadows and the macabre becoming a driving force. Shadows had always been ubiquitous in his work, but it evolved to become a vital part of cover and page composition; it changed from mise-en-scene to being a full-fledged character that acted and reacted. Blacked out panels became a storytelling tool that would denote the passage of time (something that, to my knowledge, no one else has tried to appropriate). His eyes became white or black opaque triangles that shifted this way or that, ever so slightly, to communicate an ever-widening range of facial expressions. His humans become less mimetic and more diegetic; they intentionally drifted away from an attempt to approximate reality and more towards intentional abstraction—for example, compare the way Mignola rendered Liz Sherman or any of the other BPRD members in the earlier volumes of HELLBOY with the Victorian gentlemen that inhabit Hell in HELLBOY IN HELL. Backgrounds lined with macabre imagery and obtuse allusions—details that would serve as callbacks in later stories—became Brechtian set dressing. That’s not to say that Mignola was ever a highly detailed illustrator of backgrounds, simply that there was a clear sparseness of background detail in latter-day Mignola comics that simply wasn’t as pronounced earlier in the series.
But this movement towards minimalism is not regression, not a loss of skill or talent, or work ethic either. It’s a progression, a distinct and linear movement towards a refined version of what fans have loved for decades. It’s a positive, not a negative. Dave Zissou of the Destroy Comics Tumblr wrote of this progression:
Mike Mignola…is another comics destroyer whose art continues to reduce itself into gorgeous compositions of shape and shadow. If a picture is a sum of destructions, as Picasso said, then Mignola is significant in that as he destroys, he does not compromise the storytelling or the density of an image.
And it’s true. Mignola does not sacrifice storytelling for the sake of art. Quite the opposite, in fact. His continual aesthetic refinement is in the service of story. And the recent HELLBOY IN HELL #6 is, to my mind, the finest example of Mignola as an aesthetician. His panel-to-panel syntax is as sharp as ever, but it’s (as far as I can recall) the leanest, most simplified linework he’s ever produced. The issue is filled with nuanced incorporations of shadow and dancing light. Hellboy’s face has become almost a total abstraction: visual shorthand that’s become available as a tool because of the recognizability and near-iconic nature of the character’s visage. The humans that have fallen into Hell are barely recognizable as such. The landscapes are constructed of a dozen lines emanating just so from the side of an opaque gray triangle, rendered just a little lighter by Dave Stewart so as to separate the mountain and the town built into its side from the surrounding pitch.
Every panel and every page of “The Death Card” are good enough to be thrown contextless onto a t-shirt and sold. But in their proper sequence the panels come together to play off each other; suggestions playing off suggestions, with their root in a visual dialect that Mignola (and longtime colorist Dave Stewart (who is himself a master of his craft)) has invented from cobbling together the ligne claire lexicon and the traditions of the canonical “greats” of American comics (Toth, Kirby, Krigstein, et al.). What’s more, Mignola is clearly playing with a set of tools developed from a mutual understanding between him and his audience—for example, his rendering of Hellboy’s face growing more and more abstract is only possible because of an unspoken pact between Mignola and his audience, “We agree that as long as this figure has these very simple, broad components, you will recognize him as ‘Hellboy.’” The resulting book is, oxymoronically, a minimalist epic that is both beautiful and functional, with each line serving a very specific, very purposeful role.
But what Mignola is doing is very difficult. The effort it takes to remove everything that is not necessary from the work is something that some of the greatest artists and writers have struggled with for centuries. So to say that Mignola is doing what he’s doing because he simply lacks the enthusiasm or sense of personal pride to put in more effort? That’s to both fundamentally misunderstand what Mignola is attempting to do with his art, his storytelling, his comics and to miss out on fully and truly experiencing a comic that is heartrending in its simplicity of execution, one that almost ruins other comics for you. It also disparages a person you’ve never met and belays ignorance about how art gets made.
A veteran of comics retailing, Shea Hennum is a Texas-based writer whose criticism has appeared at Bleeding Cool, Comical Musings, and The Comics Alternative. His fiction has appeared in places like Loser City, The Fringe Magazine, and Schlock, and his writing about comics will be featured in upcoming issues of Keatinge & Del Duca's Shutter from Image Comics.
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