• Brad Gullickson

'Mike Mignola: Drawing Monsters' is the Doc You Want it to Be

'The Secret Origin of Hellboy' had its North American premiere at the Chattanooga Film Festival and we were there.

The Chattanooga Film Festival went virtual this year, which means that all of you could have attended if your time and wallet were willing. As usual, their lineup was as electric as it was eclectic, but Mike Mignola: Drawing Monsters was easily our most anticipated screening. Here's our review.

 

Obsession is a killjoy. When you love a creator and their work deeply, you seek as much information as possible about how they and their creation came to exist. After a few years, you've heard all the stories and seen all the behind-the-scenes material. Interviews and articles on your faves eventually become dull. This was the fear before going into Mike Mignola: Drawing Monsters - The Secret Origin of Hellboy.


The new documentary will contain infinite discoveries and delights for those who've never heard of the artist or only have a passing familiarity with him, thanks to the three cinematic Hellboy adaptations. Told primarily in linear fashion, directors Jim Demonakos and Kevin Konrad Hanna slowly guide their audience through Mike Mignola's childhood and into the dreaded New York City, where Marvel and DC demanded their workers' presence. From Mignola's perspective, we hear how wretched he was as an early inker and penciler and how he secured work just by being in the room when desperate deadline-crunched editors appeared.


Friends and artists Arthur Adams and Steve Purcell recall Mignola's early struggles in superhero comics. They describe his journey to Hellboy as an arduous endeavor where Mignola seemed to have an idea of where he wanted his style to go but couldn't quite manifest it. Drawing Monsters lingers on Legends of the Dark Knight #54 as the watershed moment, the Batman assignment that allowed Mignola to embrace his reduced gothic linework and send his mind tumbling into possibilities. From there, Mignola dove into Cosmic Odyssey and Jack Kirby extremism.


At Drawing Monster's core is Mike Mignola's singular obsession with drawing what he wanted to draw. DC Comics would never allow him to take over Batman indefinitely. Marvel Comics would not give him the keys to Wolverine. To do what he wanted to do, he needed his guy. Enter: Hellboy.


The steps toward Hellboy's creation are well documented and fetishized. The character's first iteration (Hell Boy) appeared in the 1991 program at the Great Salt Lake Comic Convention. The sketch contains certain familiar elements, but as Drawing Monsters details, Mignola refined the design over the course of several illustrative sessions. This labored tinkering speaks to Mignola's frustration and determination; he refuses to settle.


Throughout the film's first half, we catch fleeting references to Mignola's temper, which grabs your curiosity. These tidbits from friends and collaborators crescendo when the doc eventually reaches director Guillermo del Toro and his two Hellboy movie adaptations. As the character's creator, Mignola clearly exudes anxiety over someone else taking his kid and playing with him.


While their partnership on Blade 2 was nothing but a party, their work on Hellboy apparently got a little rockier, and by Hellboy II: The Golden Army, things that could not be unsaid got said. On-screen, Mignola and del Toro reflect warmly about this moment, and while they seemingly don't reveal the heights of their disagreements, Drawing Monsters exposes a previously imagined tension. Hold up! How did Guillermo del Toro score four pages from Mignola's masterpiece, "The Corpse?" Yo, you may not believe it, but you gotta hear about it.


Undoubtedly, this documentary portion will catch the most attention since, sadly, as Mignola points out on multiple occasions, the Hellboy movies inevitably created a more significant cultural imprint. Mike Mignola's relationship with them is complicated, and Drawing Monsters sizzles as it navigates those emotions. Del Toro's movies brought many eyes to the comics and were the Big Bang for "The Mignolaverse" (a term the artist loathes, BTW). Based on how the documentary celebrates Mignola's dogged determination, spurned on by his wife Christine Mignola, Hellboy's world would still be chugging away whether or not the movies happened. However, Mignola does grapple with the idea that Hellboy might not be what he is today without the adaptations, and while he never comes out and says he's thankful for them, he does acknowledge their importance.


Drawing Monsters is best when it surfs around Mike Mignola's unease. The artist issues measured responses. He gives credit where credit is due, explaining his father's gruff exterior and interior as a driving force to Hellboy's character as well as his own brusque attitude. He marvels at how Hellboy has taken off and requires input from more collaborators than he ever thought possible. But he implies a distance too. Mike Mignola will not splay himself out on the operating table for dissection and our amusement. Ultimately, the work is the work, and we should keep our obsession to it.


Considering Mike Mignola's extensive career, Drawing Monsters was never going to revel in every nook and cranny. Bits are missing. Regarding Mignola's artistic evolution, Legends of the Dark Knight and Cosmic Odyssey are the stars, but what about his Topps Comics adaptation of Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula? While it's rad to hear from Arthur Adams, Steve Purcell, and Mignola's brothers Scott Mignola and Todd Mignola, I wish the documentary captured some voices from his Marvel bullpen days. Yeah, we've seen those early inks and pencils, but did everyone in the office think Mignola was as bad as Mignola thought of himself? Editor Al Milgrom is still around, and his talking-head segment is sorely absent.


And how dare the filmmakers ignore my favorite Hellboy adaptation, the 2019 movie starring David Harbour!? Oh, am I alone in that lovefest? Sad. I guess I better wrap up this review.


Drawing Monsters is crammed with folks highlighting Mike Mignola's contribution to comics and pop culture as a whole. We get appearances from Neil Gaiman, Ben Saunders, Patton Oswalt, Adam Savage, etc. Rebecca Sugar offers one of the documentary's most emotional moments discussing how Mignola's knowledge and advice shaped Steven Universe. I was hit with a ravenous desire for the blu-ray release when the credits rolled. Jim Demonakos and Kevin Konrad Hanna must have hours upon hours of content in their databanks. I want to watch it all.


Quickie Review: Mike Mignola: Drawing Monsters - The Secret Origin of Hellboy can either serve as a gateway for curious potential readers or as a meditative survey for the Hellboy diehards. Like the best documentaries, Drawing Monsters provides a feast to consider but leaves you wanting more. What about this? How about that? Answers could arrive in the deleted scenes, or they may be out there in your own obsessive quest. At the very least, if you already like Hellboy or Mike Mignola in the slightest, the documentary is essential. 9/10