Hellboy's World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins

Hellboy's World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins

by Scott Bukatman

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520288041
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/07/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 1,278,357
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Scott Bukatman is Professor of Film and Media Studies in the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University. He is author of Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century; Blade Runner, BFI Modern Classics; Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction; and The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit.

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Hellboy's World

Comics and Monsters on the Margins

By Scott Bukatman


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96310-8


Enworlding Hellboy

Cosmology and Franchise

Mike Mignola has succeeded in building a world (or cosmos) for Hellboy and his associates and nemeses, and at the same time he has succeeded in building Hellboy into a successful franchise. The first is an aesthetic and structural accomplishment, the second a commercial one, but these successes are interrelated; the strategies of one also proved useful for the other. In both, stylistic consistency and a combination of authorial and editorial control provide a coherence that feels unique in the history of American comics.

Perhaps because of the rise of game and comics studies, world-building has become a central concern of scholars. The first part of Eric Hayot's On Literary Worlds provides a nuanced model for thinking about world-building in literary texts, much of which is easily extrapolated to other media. What is the relation between work and world? Citing Heidegger and Jean-Luc Nancy, Hayot points out that there is "mutual connection to totality governing both objects. The work and the world name a self-enclosing, self-organizing, self-grounding process. This process is neither act nor event, subject nor object; it is the ground of activity, eventfulness, subject- and object-hood, and of procession." Further, there is "no common word for what the work and the world share, unless it is 'world' itself."

Works first constitute worlds through their diegetic totality, the system of relations within the work that constitutes the whole. But aesthetic worlds are never entirely whole and sufficient unto themselves; readers and viewers bring their normative sense of experience to bear upon the world of the work. "Aesthetic worldedness is the form of the relation a work establishes between the world inside and the world outside the work." The work constitutes a world, then, but it's a world that shows us worlds; the work "worlds" us both through the world in the text and in the ways those worlds intersect one's own lived-world experience.

Hayot proposes the category of "pure romance" to describe works that, at their extremes, define their worlds as either "microcosm — a ship, a city, an apartment building — or ... a completely formed alternative to the lived world in which it is produced. So with fantasy, utopia, science fiction. Such created worlds often leave open an aperture to a realistic version of their contemporary world." Actually, some fully extrapolated alternative worlds present themselves to readers either through or as microcosms: the generation ships that travel interstellar space in Brian Aldiss's Non-Stop (1958); the compacted and unbounded urbanism of J. G. Ballard's "Concentration City" (1957); the buildings that structure Thomas Disch's 334 (1972) or Robert Silverberg's The World Inside (1971). Indeed, the concept of world-building is most frequently used with regard to such "completely formed alternatives" of imaginary realms, worlds, universes, or even multiverses. Tolkien's richly peopled Middle Earth, to take one of the best-known examples (although "peopled" is surely the wrong word here), contains hobbits, orcs, Elvish cities, a rich linguistic tradition, and a long, imagined history, all of which inform the shape of a narrative traced across four volumes. Hellboy and its spin-off series now consist of twenty-plus years of stories set across a seventy-year span, all undergirded by a rich cosmology and intertextually connected to folkloric traditions as well as to the work of other writers and artists. And as Hayot points out, even in these worlds that are presented as worlds apart, there remain, implicitly or explicitly, relations to the lived world.

A surfeit of SF and fantasy novels become part of a series. Having expended so much energy in the creation of geographies, politics, technospheres, biologies, physics, characters, and societies, authors — and readers — are understandably loath to leave it all behind. While many of these series use their abundant length to convey narratives of Byzantine complexity, it can also be said that many of these series exist primarily to present their worlds, complex but increasingly familiar spaces in which readers can dwell (much fan activity is organized around such works, demonstrating, or in many ways performing, the possibilities of increased audience investment).

But world-building is not only a function of rich narratives or detailed backstories; it also derives from aesthetics and style. The length and rhythm of sentences, the selective use of detail, and the tone of the language together generate an experience for the reader of a novel that is also constitutive of the "world" that the work creates. Leonard Bernstein has said that "Any great art work ... revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world — the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air." (In "The Third Wish" [2002], a shaman tells Hellboy that "all your roads lead to strange places.")

Book designer and reading theorist Peter Mendelsund has argued that reading is an act of completion; the indeterminacy of language (he asks: What exactly does Anna Karenina look like? Do we know? Do we need to know?) solicits an engagement by a reader who necessarily fills in visual or contextual detail according to her own experience: "Words are effective not because of what they carry in them, but for their latent potential to unlock the accumulated experience of the reader." Mendelsund finds something almost mystical in the combination of author and reader: "We take in as much of the author's world as we can, and mix this material with our own in the alembic of our reading minds, combining them to alchemize something unique." He further proposes that "this is why reading 'works.'" Phenomenologically, "reading mirrors the procedure by which we acquaint ourselves with the world. ... [T]he practice of reading feels like, and is like, consciousness itself: imperfect, partial; hazy, co-creative." Wolfgang Iser, another phenomenologist of reading, has written that "The convergence of text and reader brings the literary work into existence [but] this convergence can never be precisely pinpointed" — a point to which I'll return in a later chapter.

The main thrust of Mendelsund's book is to demonstrate that we often don't see (or need to see) when we read. Rare is the writer who provides thorough descriptions of characters, and even then, as with someone like Alain Robbe-Grillet, it can be argued that the reader's encounter is more with the language on the page than with the object so exhaustively described. Citing a scene in Twain's Huckleberry Finn in which a dawning on the river is presented as the gradual accrual of newly visible detail, Mendelsund muses that "description is not additive. Twain's mist does not carry over while I am seeing the log cabin. By the time I reach the words log cabin, I have forgotten about the mist entirely."

"Vision, however, is additive," Mendelsund continues, "and simultaneous." Prose, then, is fundamentally different from cinema or comics. In the camera shot or the comics panel we see character, setting, and action at once, with a taken-for-granted clarity. Comics readers and film viewers need not bring the same knowledges to the acts of reading or viewing, since the artist or director will visualize on their behalf.

It's obvious, then, that images contribute mightily to the act of world-building — N. C. Wyeth's painted plates for Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped are fundamental to the experience of the reader of that volume, not only as a result of the subjects depicted, but also through the richness of the palette, the material opulence of oil paint, and the Romanticism of Wyeth's forms. John Tenniel's illustrations for Lewis Carroll's Alice books create a world less immutable than the one given us by Wyeth and Stevenson. Lines and hatching present a world solid enough to inhabit, but not so fully rendered as to preclude the ensuing metamorphoses. Tenniel's mastery of scale helps the reader feel the corporeal shifts that Alice undergoes, even as his deadpan style permits the absurdity of everything to make itself known. (Mendelsund correctly points out that illustration partly — but only partly — obviates the imaginative work that a reader brings to bear upon a book.)

Comics are an exemplary world-building medium: the interplay of word and image is fundamental to the form, and the comparative immediacy of our engagement with images transports a reader more quickly to the world of the fiction. As with diverse styles of writing, different visual styles create different aesthetic experiences and different worlds, often more rapidly than prose. Some of the formal elements that define and structure worlds in comics include the quality of line, the use (or nonuse) of color, the slickness of the production, the number and regularity of panels on the page, the acceptance or rejection of the grid, the size of the page, the legibility of panel transitions, the presence or absence of text, the placement and style of text, and the overall sense of unity or disjunction that the comic imparts. The medium unavoidably undercuts any pretense of objectivity, as every line reveals the literal hand of the author.

Every comics creator deploys these elements. A prose novel, by contrast, depends almost exclusively on the use of language, with some — but far less — attention to the design of the book: the font choice, the amount of white space on the page, the thickness of the paper. Without taking anything away from book design, it's inarguable that the aesthetics of most books are incidental to the meanings produced (or at least to the meanings intended by the author). Books are reprinted with different designs; e-readers allow readers to choose fonts, font sizes, and the spacing of words on the "page."

Comics, on the other hand, are tied to their aesthetics, and while there may be reformatting from one version to another (recoloring, for example), this tends to be more the exception than the rule. The design of the comic is fundamental to what it is, to the effects it produces, and to the world it builds. Comics critic R. Fiore has written on the pleasurable experience of reading comics, asking how it is that compelling comics can be created around the least promising narrative materials.

What sustains this substance is the experience of inhabiting the subjective world the cartoonist creates. The writer of poetry or prose however vivid his imagery must depend on the reader's internal image of the things he describes. The cartoonist doesn't merely describe a tree, he determines what trees look like. And so with every person and object in the cartoonist's world. While a painter also creates a subjective world, a painting or drawing is not a narrative. ... If the cartoonist's subjective world is vivid enough all the narrative really has to do is be engaging enough to draw the reader into it.

Questions are posed and answered at once: what is the place of the body in this world? Are these bodies like mine? Can they feel pain? Is death a part of this world? Will actions have consequences? Should this be regarded as humorous, satirical, allegorical, or realistic? Before processing a single sentence, or even a single word, the comics reader confronts the ontological gulf that exists between, let's say, the sun-lit, clean-lined, squashy-stretchy world encountered in Carl Barks's Donald Duck comics and the fragmented, chiaroscuroed, and negative-spaced reality depicted in Frank Miller's Sin City, and neither of these would be mistaken for the more realistic, classically cinematic approach taken by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting in their take on Captain America (figures 7-9). The parameters of the universe begin to be established; reading protocols and horizons of expectation begin to emerge.

The world of Sin City is literally darker than Duckville, and the bodies that inhabit it are both more solid and, we quickly learn, more susceptible to pain. Donald's squashed body, true to his plasmatic animated origins, snaps back to normal in the next panel, whereas Marv just accumulates wounds and bandages as his story progresses. Yet both Barks and Miller share a taste for hyperbolic imagery that exceeds the strictures of strict realism: in Sin City and Donald Duck, cars happily or grimly bounce above the road bed, while in Captain America (which strove for a more plausible physicality, especially for superhero comics) the laws of gravity seem to be more consistently applied.

While Mignola has worked in film, animation, and prose, his preference for comics is rooted precisely in its world-building power and authorial control: "Comics is the place where you can create a world and not have somebody say, 'we can't afford to film that.' There's never been a close second." He acknowledges the undeniable world-building power of the cinema, but identifies two problems stemming from his own involvement with the two Hellboy films: first, the temporal gap between conception and realization can be maddening; while Mignola admits that it would be "fun" to visualize various worlds, "within a few minutes in the world [of filmmaking] or in some cases a couple of weeks, all you can think of is, I should've stayed at home." A second frustration for him is that "Most of the [art]work you do on a film is invisible, most people will never see it, a lot of it's just destroyed. But also so much of it makes no impact on the film at all. And the idea of doing work that nobody sees, that serves no purpose...." And there are so many intervening hands. By contrast, I have before me a page of original art for the second issue of Hellboy in Hell (2013) and it's evident that no hands other than Mignola's have touched this — word balloons, letters, and color were later added to high-resolution scans of the original art. Mignola employs no assistants, not even to fill in the swathes of blackness that dominate his pages, believing that his involvement gives "a bit of life to it, even if nobody sees it" (figure 10).

A look at the prologue sequence that begins Conqueror Worm will help demonstrate the world-building ability of comics while providing a glimpse of Mignola's idiosyncratic approach. The first page presents an almost unremitting field of black, which is a particularly good place to begin a formal analysis of Mignola's work. Black is a Mignola hallmark. Where most comics artists "spot" black areas to provide visual variety and guide the eye, Mignola's pages are drenched in black, binding all together like some aesthetic aether. Black gives the page a palpable thickness, and envelops the reader as it does the characters. This blackness reminds me of film noir, but not just any noirs — the ones shot by John Alton (Raw Deal, The Big Combo) that swim in an obsidian blackness that has little to do with diegetic shadows and everything to do with an atmosphere redolent of threat. At times, on Mignola's pages or in Alton's frames, black seems to swallow the world, or comes to constitute a world from which there seems no possibility of escape. It sometimes marks states of unconsciousness (see figure 38 [chapter 3] and figure 50 [chapter 4], among others). Black depicts and delimits the world, but at the same time it flattens and abstracts the graphic space of the page. Black does a lot of work, it matters to Mignola, so it should come as no surprise, then, that his are the hands that lay it down on the page.

So, an unremitting field of black. A sky punctuated by violet stars, the introduction of some mountains with that same light reflected in the snow, and narration boxes of pale blue (with a text taken from Poe) are all we see. The following page brings us to a castle, and a Nazi guard. All is shades of bluish-gray, broken only by the pale orange of pulp hero Lobster Johnson's goggles and a brownish splash of blood. Black, blue-gray, and those goggles define the palette of the next page as well. The next pages bring us into that mountain aerie as some Nazis prepare to launch a manned rocket, its mission and destination unknown. The panels on these pages are large, for the most part: three on the first page, followed by a rhythmically even run of pages: six panels, five panels, five again, six.

A flash of yellow illuminates a banner on one page, and that same yellow marks out the rocket on the next; otherwise, black and shades of bluish-gray. Oh, and the orange goggles make an appearance in the last panel of these two pages. "Here is The Claw!" the "Lobster" yells at the top of the next page (it's his signature cry). Guns fire, the palette shifts from murky blue-gray to the yellow of muzzle-flashes (or is it the light from the rocket launch, or is something else responsible for this yellow that washes out all visible detail?). The castle is seen again from without, yellow light now spilling from its apertures. On this climactic page, nine unevenly sized panels convey the chaos. In the final panel, the tower seems to dissolve or erupt into yellow (figure 11). This is how the prologue ends. The action shifts to a slightly more naturalistic palette as, forty-one years later, Hellboy and Kate Corrigan are briefed about the Nazi space capsule that seems to be heading back, not just to Earth, but to the site of that very same tower.


Excerpted from Hellboy's World by Scott Bukatman. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Hellboy and the Adventure of Reading, 1,
1. Enworlding Hellboy: Cosmology and Franchise, 25,
2. Occult Detection, Sublime Horror, and Predestination, 57,
3. Children's Books, Color, and Other Nonlinear Pleasures, 84,
4. Hellboy and the Codicological Imagination, 121,
5. Hellboy at the Gates of Hell: Sculpture, Stasis, and the Comics Page, 149,
Coda: Mignola, Goya, and the Monsters, 197,
Appreciations, 211,
Appendix: List of Works by Mike Mignola, 215,
Notes, 221,
Bibliography, 245,
Index, 255,

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