The History and Pop Culture That Inspired ‘Hellboy’

From pulp fiction to weird folklore, ‘Hellboy’ was born from Mike Mignola’s multitude of fascinating interests.
By  · Published on April 11th, 2019

3In 1991, Mike Mignola drew a demonic sketch to be used in a pamphlet for a comic book convention. At the time, the drawing bore no resemblance to the character who would later be known as Hellboy, but that moment marked the birth of the demonic dynasty that’s wowed comics readers for almost three decades.

Initially, Mignola had no idea what to do with his creepy creation. All he knew was that he wanted to launch his own creator-owned series based on a hero who looked like the embodiment of all that is evil. Over time, though, he created a compelling series that enabled him to celebrate his vast array of oddball interests. And Mignola’s enthusiasm for these interests has kept fresh and exciting after all this time.

Reading a Hellboy comic is akin to hearing a spooky campfire tale, reading a pulp adventure yarn, and learning all about the stranger aspects of our world. Mignola has poured these various influences into a cauldron, mixed them up, and produced a magic formula that never fails to hit the sweet spot. With Neil Marshall’s reboot giving Big Red another cinematic outing, I thought now would be a perfect time to explore some of the pop culture, history, and folklore that gave this franchise life in the first place.

Red Dots

Dracula and Gothic Horror

Mignola has an affinity for Gothic settings and spooky storytelling that’s laden with atmosphere and mystery. This can be traced back to him reading and falling in love with Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a kid. In an interview with NPR, he recalled how discovering the blood-sucking villain changed his life and forever influenced his own style.

“I don’t know what I’d been reading up to that point, but when I read Dracula I said, ‘I’m done thinking about other stuff. I’ve found my thing!”

Mignola also discussed his love of Dracula in a conversation with BLDGBLOG, claiming that the story instilled in him a love of old-fashioned scare fare that’s now a part of his DNA. The Gothic vampire tale paved the way to him discovering an abundance of old school chiller writers, including William Hope Hodgson, whose maritime ghost stories have also had a significant influence on Mignola’s work.

Pulp Fiction

The Hellboy comics are more inspired by pulp magazines from yesteryear than they are traditional comic books. The authors of these stories have also been cited time and time again by Mignola as some of his foremost influences. H.P. Lovecraft is an obvious one, mainly when it came to Mignola creating his own cosmic mythos. That said, he isn’t Mignola’s foremost favorite by any means.

“I think that the bigger, fundamental structure of the Hellboy stuff came from pulp magazine guys like Robert E. Howard and Manly Wade Wellman. Specifically, the idea of this kind of character who kind of wanders around and runs into stuff, Mignola told 13th Dimension. “Also, the short story format, which, at least in most mainstream comics is not the most common way for doing stories, but after the first miniseries, I went quite a bit to doing short stories, and not just short stories, but short stories that don’t take place in a chronological order.”

Some of these stories of wandering heroes include Wellman’s Silver Jack stories, which chronicle the adventures of the titular character as he encounters danger in the Appalachian Mountains. Elsewhere, Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane stories also follow lone wolf warriors who explore the lands, facing trouble and saving the day along the way.

Bernie Wrightson

Mignola got into the comics business so he could draw monsters. And if you’re familiar with the creatures who dwell within the pages of his spooky tales, you’ll know that many of them are more than just beasts hellbent on inducing nightmares. Red and his creature cohorts are prime examples of monsters with depth. Because of this, Mignola is rightfully celebrated as a unique artist. However, who knows if he’d be the same artist if it weren’t for Wrightson’s impact.

According to Mignola, the legendary illustrator, whose Swamp Thing work is widely regarded as the apex of monster art, inspired him to give his own monsters soul. It’s plain to see Wrightson’s influence in Mignola’s own art, though I’d argue that the Hellboy creator is more original than he gives himself credit for.

The other artists Mignola claims he took his style from are Frank Frazetta and Mike Kaluta. Of course, he’s not the only creator who was awed by these greats.

History and Folklore

The Hellboy comics are an endless well of references to world history and folk tales. For a start, the character’s origins, which saw the demon summoned to Earth by the Nazis in 1944, are rooted in the belief that Adolf Hitler and his stooges dabbled in occult practices during World War II. Furthermore, Rasputin, who aided the Nazis in bringing Red to Earth and has remained a fixture in the Mignolaverse throughout the years, is loosely based on a controversial real-life Russian mystic of the same name.

If we had to go through all of the history and folklore that influenced Hellboy, this article would be a book. Russian and Norse folklore has been especially prominent in the comics, and Mignola has a fondness for WWII. That said, the beauty of these stories is that they pluck inspiration from far and wide and thus invite us to learn about various cultures. For the purposes of the exercise, though, let’s just focus on the lore that inspired the stories which the new movie has mined from.

As noted by our own Brad Gullickson, The Wild Hunt serves as the main arc for Marshall’s reboot. In those comics, Hellboy visits England to conquer some giants, only to get mixed up some other foes. One of them is called Gruagach, a pig-like fairy creature whose name is derived from Scottish mythology. Red’s main antagonist, however, is Nimue, a witch named after the British Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend.

Another supernatural being featured in the new movie is Baba Yaga. This spooky character is based on a witch from Russian fairytales who dwells in a forest hut that stands on chicken legs. This is one of many esoteric references that fill Hellboy’s pages, and their real-life stories are equally as fascinating as their depictions in tales featuring the cigar-chomping demon.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.