The Geek Takes the Helm 

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Hellboy and his Buick-sized fist
The Geek Takes the Helm

By John DeFore


For once, a comic book movie made by a dyed-in-the-wool fan

As hard as it is for comics fans to grasp, there are certain otherwise well-educated people out there who don't know what a "Hellboy" is. So here goes: In World War II, during one of their weirder special projects (see Raiders of the Lost Ark for another example), the Nazis hired Rasputin (it's a long story) to conjure up some really evil stuff. United States G.I.s interrupted the party and kicked a little Nazi butt, but not before one mysterious entity crossed over from the other world: a red kid with horns, a tail, and one hand made of stone.

Giving him the only name that made sense, the forces of good took him under their wing. Sixty years later, Hellboy (who ages much more slowly than we do, and is in his He-Man prime) works for a secret agency of the United States government that travels the world battling evil. And we're not talking about terrorists and drug lords, but eee-villl: black magic, werewolves, ancient curses, and other stuff the government doesn't want you to know is real.

OK, maybe it sounds a little dopey. But as a comic series, Hellboy was a groundbreaking invention, so amazing to look at that you would think other cartoonists would be shamed into tossing their pencils into the trash. The main character had a hard-bitten cool, and he got into spectacularly weird predicaments; creator Mike Mignola drew on a misspent youth's worth of reading obscure folklore and ghost stories, and he combined those tales with evocatively rendered exotic locales (so many crumbling castles, so little electric light!). If you were going to read superhero comics in the '90s, this was the series to read.

Mexican native Guillermo del Toro has devoted his career to the many facets of horror, from the creepy poetics of Cronos and Devil's Backbone to the giddy splatter of Blade II and the compromised studio project Mimic. He approached this material as a true fan, and it shows. He respects his characters, from the big red fella (played by Ron Perlman, one of the few real-life men who could match the comic creature's physical presence) to fish-man Abe Sapien, pyrotechnically challenged Liz Sherman, and the human doctor who has cared for Hellboy through an adolescence that is only now in its final phases.

Hellboy

Dir. Guillermo del Toro; writ. del Toro, Mike Mignola (orig. comic); feat. Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor, Doug Jones, John Hurt, Rupert Evans, Karel Roden, David Hyde Pierce (voice) (PG-13)

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Fans of the comic will be surprised at the changes del Toro has made. HB now officially has a crush on Liz, and it has brought out a side we never see in the series: He's angsty. Abe is now a little bit psychic; Liz hasn't yet come to terms with her powers, and spends a lot of time in a mental institution. But the changes (all endorsed by Mignola, by the way) are all in the service of bringing out human truths latent in the source material. By creating a romance between the Beast and a beauty, both of whom are pretty screwed up, he illustrates a theory about human nature that is dear to him: We like people in spite of their faults; we love people because of their faults.

Yes, around all this mushy stuff is an honest-to-goodness comic book romp, full of action and monsters and Nazi soldiers made of sawdust and clockwork. It's silly and fun, and provides Hellboy opportunities to smash things with that Buick-sized red right hand (which in turn provides a cue to play some Nick Cave on the soundtrack). The characters are brought to life as vividly as can be imagined.

Just as impressive as the makeup effects is the overall look of the film. Very few comic book movies have attained the level of visual artistry here - the heavily stylized Dick Tracy and Tim Burton's Batman come to mind, but neither has the richness that sneaks up on you occasionally in Hellboy. One underwater scene comes to mind that is reminiscent of some ghostly moments in Devil's Backbone and of the filmmaker's devotion to his craft; he goes the extra mile here in ways that surely would never have occurred to most directors.

Of course, this is a getting-to-know-you comic book movie, and as such there's an inevitable feeling of wanting more. Fans who are pleased with the way the big lug looks here will understandably be eager to see him strut his stuff a little more - he's only really hitting his devil-may-care (sorry) peak in the film's last half-hour. Rest assured that del Toro and Mignola are already tossing around ideas for new adventures; all they need now is for a few million people to decide they care about the most good-hearted demon in the comic-book universe. •

` By John DeFore `

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Hellboy on earth

The comics' coolest visual stylist goes Hollywood

Interview by John Defore

Mike Mignola, creator of one of the most visually stunning comics in decades, could have done a lot worse for himself. Having said yes to a film version of Hellboy, his atmospheric series about the world's weirdest paranormal-crime fighter, the project was handed to Guillermo del Toro, possibly the purest comics/horror fan working in Hollywood today. Mignola spoke about his good fortune in a phone interview last week.

On the shock of seeing his comic turned into a movie:

Quite frankly, I never thought the movie would be made. I thought that by signing an option deal I was just scamming whomever was signing the check - because I didn't see any way in hell this thing was ever going to get made. I knew that it was not a well-known comic book property, and I had seen so many people have their work optioned, and I hadn't seen any of them have a movie made. So I thought it was very realistic that I was not taking the whole thing too seriously. You know, worse comes to worst, it was a completely financial arrangement that just allowed me more freedom to keep drawing comics. I was prepared for a situation where I wouldn't be involved at all. But Guillermo insisted on my involvement.

On the role he played in the film's production:

I had worked with Guillermo for a couple months doing pre-production on Blade II, as sort of a warm-up; if we got the go-ahead to make Hellboy, Guillermo wanted to have some practical working experience with me. Then when we went into Hellboy, I did three very intense months of pre-production in L.A. and scouted locations in Prague with him. And then I was present on the set for about a month.

I was there as sort of a jack-of-all-trades sort of guy. I did a little bit of costume stuff: I went in knowing I had an idea for Hellboy's coat. So with some input from Guillermo, I pretty much designed the coat that Hellboy wears in the movie. I designed certain sets and design things, a little bit of everything.

On the way characters were translated to the screen:

Certain characters are very much my character, and certain characters are very much Guillermo's. One thing I told myself all the way through the process was, this is his movie. If he wants a del Toro creature, then he's going to get a del Toro creature. One of the most interesting design things was the character Kroenen: When you first see him in the film, he's almost exactly my character from the comic. But as soon as the guy starts moving, he starts becoming del Toro's. And when he resurfaces, 20 minutes into the picture, he's a full-blown, crazy del Toro thing.

On the title character's personality, which is more volatile on screen than it ever was on the page:

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I've never put Hellboy in a position where he had to deal with emotions. So I don't know that the Hellboy in the comic would react any differently than the Hellboy in the movie. That was something I didn't really think about, though it's certainly gotten a lot of press, the fact that Hellboy is kind of an adolescent. I always played Hellboy like he had been knocking around for 50 years, and had seen and done a little bit of everything; he's a little cool about everything.

I kind of like the fact that, in most respects, the Hellboy on the screen is my Hellboy, but when it comes to the girl, he is an awkward teenager. And since a lot of Hellboy's personality is me, that's really not far off the way I am. That's why I've never really dealt with love interests and stuff in the comic, because it's just not something I feel terribly comfortable with. So Guillermo kind of took that discomfort on my part and stuck it into the screenplay. I was actually happy that a guy wanted to play up the personal stuff, the relationship stuff, rather than just concentrating on the action.

On the sometimes surprising artistic influences of the comic, aside from the obvious Jack Kirby:

Artistically for me, the biggest influence other than Jack Kirby was Frank Frazetta `the illustrator famed for innumerable fantasy book covers, especially for the Conan series`. Whether that is present in my work, I don't know. On the surface, it probably isn't. But everything I learned about shadows and staging and power and massive shapes and stuff, all that came from Frank Frazetta, who was the biggest and first giant influence. Then Kirby was an element that came along that freed me up. Rather than trying to draw things in a very precious, very correct way, I got to a certain point where I looked at Kirby's stuff and said wow, the kind of exaggeration he's got going on is a more effective way for me to tell a story than, say, just drawing pretty pictures. Frazetta wouldn't have guessed `he had influenced me`. I actually met Frazetta when the first Hellboy trade paperback came out, and showed it to him, and he said, "I see Alex Toth; I don't see me." But he's the biggest guy, the guy who artistically changed my life. As a kid, that was probably the first guy outside of mainstream comics that I looked at and said, "Holy smokes, this is what I want to do." •


More by John DeFore

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