Mignola’s graphic style in the H.B. and BPRD books evolves quite a bit in the titles’ first few years. That’s a common enough observation, and nothing specially to do with Mignola as an artist or a writer, for that matter. (Take, e.g., my cartooning idol Richard Thompson: the way he drew Cul de Sac — already at the height of his career as a cartoonist and illustrator, his style well established — underwent a similar period of refinement and simplification after it began in the Post Sunday magazine, and then again after he took it to syndication as a daily.) I’m interested in talking more, sometime, about the evolution of Mignola’s graphic approach in relation to his evolving approach to the stories, but for the moment, let’s just look at an isolated aspect or two of the change, in very brief terms.
Check out these spot illustrations published in The Art of Hellboy. Both sets are gathered on consecutive pages in the collection, the first set in the first third of the volume, the second set in the last. None of the drawings is a panel from the stories; each stands alone, to a degree, as a single piece. The first set, published with a hardcover edition, is from ’94, the same year as the first five-title series, ‘Seed of Destruction.’ The latter set comes in ’99, illustrations for a book of Hellboy stories in prose.
In the group above, from ’94, notice particularly the thoroughgoing three-dimensionality in all of them. They’re illustrations first of all, so the rectangular two-dimensional frame is the primary thing, but in these uniform rectangles Mignola uses impression of depth, the ‘space’ of our everyday experience, as a principal design element — and with powerful effect. These feel as though they could have been drawn from period photographs, or from life. (Undoubtedly there are photo sources used for reference, but knowing a little about Mignola’s methods, and inferring from things observed elsewhere in his work (not to mention the fantastic character of the subjects), we can be pretty confident that none of them is simply a drawing from a photo.)
In the later set, below, it’ll be apparent right away that impression of depth is drastically reined back, nearly eliminated in a couple of instances, as design factor. It’s not the only striking difference with the earlier set, but it’s as plain and important as any. In these you have the strictest possible figure-ground dichotomy — something also true of the cover drawings Mignola’s doing for the titles at the same time, five years in in the books’ development. Backgrounds of those covers are often very active and detail-rich, but just as with these little spot illustrations, ‘space’ in the covers is utterly abstracted — a central figure standing/flying/writhing in no definite 3-D relation to whatever arrangement of things it’s superimposed upon. There’s a corresponding reduction in detailing of the spaces characters move through in the stories’ narrative panels, too.
We’ll have to come back, another time, to the question of what this aspect of stylistic shift might have to do with what’s changing overall through this period of about five years of Mignola’s work on the books. Suffice it to say, for now, that I take it as a starting assumption that it’s not just that he was getting bored with the material, or lazy, or what have you. (Though artists will frequently enough offer this sort of explanation about themselves, of course — Richard Thompson, for preferred example, never seeming to miss an opportunity to make a joke of his own laziness).