It’s incredibly difficult to say what exactly made Mike Mignola’s Hellboy such a breakout success when the character first appeared 20 years ago today. In those early appearances, whether in the first issues of the “Seed of Destruction” story arc and in the earlier appearances, it’s the little moments which define the character but there’s so much to unpack, so much richness that it’s somewhat unsurprising to see the character become such a multimedia phenomenon.
Much of the success of Hellboy as a character and as a media franchise are in the details. Physically, there’s no character that looks like him. Hellboy pops off the page, alternatively lithe and burly, with a distinctive color scheme often used in contrast with washed out backgrounds. He’s alien and the other, even moreso than the other bizarre characters in the series. Mignola never shied away from giving these characters a sense of place as well, through consistent visual characterization, such as the otherness of the aquatic Abe Sapien to the mentally and physically scarred Liz Sherman.
When Hellboy began appearing on comic shop shelves in the early ’90s, its art style set it so far apart from its competition for good reason. Mignola’s work is heavily inspired by Jack Kirby, the hard chins, defined features and taste for outre alien creatures with inhuman details. It’s a style which has inspired legions, from David Aja’s minimalist designs which character specific details to Francesco Francavilla’s moody and evocative renderings of altered worlds and larger than life personalities.
Part of what made the Hellboy franchise so appealing from the very beginning was an authorial voice that was as distinctive as the art. In a series full of Nazi occultists, soul crushing deals and a consistent, creeping sense of doom, Mignola’s characters are often charming and even funny. Hellboy quips like Spider-Man while smashing like Hulk and the intersection between fairy tales, Lovecraftian horror and good old fashioned dime-store pulp often creates situations which are ripe for a couple of cutting quips. The key to the franchise and really the key to any piece of media is the way Hellboy had a true sense of history, even from right out of the gate. From Rasputin’s rebirth in the early part of the century to Hellboy’s summoning in 1944 to constant references to past adventures readers weren’t always privy to, this was a series that felt like it was going on before readers found their way there and one that felt like it was still going to continue to exist after they left. The mysteries of the series, from Hellboy’s lineage and role in the future to Abe’s past and the various adventures and secrets hidden throughout the world, never felt like a gimmick or something reader were waiting to learn about it. It always seemed as if the clues were there, as if someone knew the arcane horrible truths but dared not speak them. It’s an exciting, powerful sort of world-building that’s still rare to see, even in creator owned books.
In an interview with USA Today, Mignola said his goal with Hellboy was just to do an occult detective series, something he’d wanted to do without the trappings of an established universe. What came out of that was so much more and looking back, it’s amazing to see the way the entire franchise grew and expanded building off of a host of secrets and details, both dangerously arcane and wonderfully mundane.