Hellboy, David Harbour
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Credit: Summit Entertainment

Why Hellboy is the most significant superhero creation of the past 30 years

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Apr 14, 2019, 12:00 PM EDT

He doesn't look much like that original sketch these days.

That's probably for the best. The black and white sketch comic creator Mike Mignola drew up of a demonic mace-wielding behemoth certainly isn't bad (I think you'd be hard-pressed to find any bad art by Mignola). Still, what we have now is better. What we have now isn't just a great superhero design. It's an iconic one.

It has been 25 years since Hellboy first graced the pages of a comic book and in those 25 years, the character has become one of the most recognizable superheroes in modern comic book media. This weekend he's even going through what may be his final rite of passage in the field: an onscreen reboot. The original two films directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Ron Perlman as the titular hero gave way to a new incarnation directed by Neil Marshall, with Stranger Things actor David Harbour suiting up as Big Red.

The new movie may be a flop, but that doesn't mean Hellboy is any less important. Hellboy holds a special significance in the grand scheme of superhero media. He is indisputably the most important superhero comic creation of the last two and a half decades, because Hellboy is an independent comics creation.

Making a new character with enough resonance to stick around beyond their first few appearances is hard enough. Doing so without the financial and cultural clout that comes with Marvel or DC is a mountain few manage to climb.

Hellboy: The Crooked Man #1

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

There has been an embarrassment of riches of great new comics characters introduced over the last few years. Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel is a massively special and resonant character for my generation. Damian Wayne might be my personal favorite addition to the Batman mythos since Year One. And Red Hulk is... actually let's not talk about Red Hulk. But there are some important differences.

When you compare the success of Hellboy to other contemporary superhero creations, there are two differences that elevate his importance to the field. The first is largely textual: Hellboy is in no way derivative of a preexisting creation. He's not a legacy hero. He's not a pastiche of an already iconic character in the way that so many of those early Image comics were (shoutouts to Cabbot, who definitely isn't Deadpool in a new costume, promise). Hellboy is just Hellboy, a wholly unique character who provided the base for a whole new world of unique superhero (or at least superhero-tangential) storytelling.

That Hellboy is textually unique is appropriate as the story behind his creation and publication are just as uncommon. We may take for granted today the idea of creator-owned comics being viable platforms for writers and artists to build their careers on but this hasn't always been the case. Superhero comics published by Marvel and DC may account for a good chunk of industry sales today but back in 1993, they were more or less the only game in town.

Hellboy, Seed of Destruction cover

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Mignola's work on Hellboy isn't wholly responsible for making creator-owned comics a viable option. To claim that would do a disservice to the founders of Image Comics, who left Marvel and DC at the height of their influence as creators to set out on their own. It'd also be a huge slight to the small press renaissance that built the foundation for indie comics as we know them today. Still, what Mignola did with Hellboy feels uniquely revelatory — the character is entirely creator-owned.

Marvel owns Kamala Khan and Deadpool. Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert didn't maintain the rights to Damian Wayne when they created him. Both publishers have made strides in recent years in taking better care of the creators who generate their IP, and it's unlikely that anyone responsible for the creation of successful new superheroes for either publisher will get the Bill Finger treatment. The viability and longevity of Hellboy has to be part of that.

On the other hand, while Dark Horse Comics may publish Hellboy, Mignola owns Hellboy. The rights to the character belong to him, granting him financial and creative control over Big Red. The movie studios who have acquired the rights to produce film adaptations over the years have had to do so by dealing with Mignola rather than his publisher. Editors at Dark Horse can't order him to orchestrate a big summer crossover or dictate the book's direction. Hellboy is Mignola's to control. And the importance of that cannot be understated.

Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson knows this as well as any anyone, telling SYFY WIRE that Mignola, “is a living example of the success that can be achieved by a talented and dedicated creator willing to take the risk of owning and controlling his own creations."

Hellboy blazed a trail, and many comic creators have found success in independent comics in the years since its publication. Some of their creations even rival the character's popularity — it's easy to notice the parallels between the successful business model of Hellboy and that of Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's The Walking Dead. And even Mignola himself would probably sacrifice a limb for the sales numbers Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples' Saga sees.

For a comic creator to find success with Marvel and DC as Mignola did and, rather than enjoy the stability of that path, branch out on their own is admirable enough. That in doing so Mignola created a superhero so fresh, so unique, and so resonant that the world of the character now spans thousands of pages of comics, three live-action movies, animated films, and video games is more than admirable — it's a titanic achievement, one we haven't seen matched since then.

In creating Hellboy with that original black and white sketch, Mignola began an endeavor that would change the game of superhero comics. The heights he and his creation are hard to reach. But comic creators young and old would be doing Big Red and Mignola a disservice to stop trying.

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