The Preternatural in the Works of Mike Mignola. Semiotic Frames, Literary Functions and Pop Cultural Context

Scientific Essay, 2013

29 Pages




1 Introduction

2 Narrative Settings and Pop-Cultural Environment

3 Types of the Preternatural in Hellboy and Lobster Johnson
3.1 Fusing Christian Semiotics and the Superhero Tradition
3.1.1 “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free”
3.1.2 Liminal Characteristics and the Preternatural
3.2 Retrofuturist Combinations of Secret History and Modern Age Mysticism
3.3 Paranormal Phenomena and Abilities

4 Framing Mythologies in a Cosmological Meta-Plot
4.1 Inter-textual Reconciliation of Mythologies
4.2 Biblical Aniconism in the Hellboy Narratives’ Worldview

5 Depicting the Multitude of the Preternatural in a Transmodernist Approach

6 Conclusion



Mike Mignola is one of the most prominent writers and graphic artists in contemporary comics with a comprehensive œuvre particularly in the adventure/fantasy horror genre. In series such as Hellboy, on which I will focus in this article, he fuses the superhero tradition in mainstream comics with a large variety of narratives about the preternatural, combining elements of folk tales, mythologies, Christian figures of thought and last but not least the tentacle-armed Ancient Ones of H.P. Lovecraft. Eventually, the story arcs and series are connected in the frame of a cosmological meta-plot. His protagonists are heroes in contact with the preternatural: some of them are preternatural beings themselves, while some are humans who gained knowledge about the preternatural and learned to deal with its dangers. Mignola’s narrative universe is not a very safe place, it is threatened by primordial powers. This article explores the functions of the preternatural-themed images, how they are related to each other and in which general contexts of culture they are located. Types of the preternatural employed in these stories range from magical effects to cosmology, from transcendent spheres to metaphysics, and the artistic means depicting the preternatural in its various shapes include stylistics of light literature and B-grade movies as well as pictorial language from classical cinema and modern avant-garde graphics. Moreover, the diachronical and synchronical contextualization of Mignola’s narratives pointing out the story elements discussed here go beyond their entertainment values and touch on basic cultural notions such as freedom of will, forms of sociality and ideas about the general character of the world.

1 Introduction

Does a demon have a free will? And what happens to fairies and elves when their homeland is Christianized and people cease to believe in them? Mike Mignola, author of several comic book series including Hellboy, B.P.R.D., Witchfinder and Lobster Johnson, shows in his fiction works that such rather scholastic questions can make for entertaining fantasy adventure stories. In this paper, I will discuss how Mignola uses images of the preternatural, how he connects them and how they are situated in their cultural context. In doing so, I will rely largely on the Hellboy stories, his most comprehensive work, which was picturized twice in 2004 and 2008, and discuss other Mignola comics to highlight aspects which appear more prominent in the latter. After outlining Mignolas narrative universe in relation to other comic books und pulp fiction, I will discuss several types of preternatural aspects, their literary functions in his works and their manifold connections with narrative mass culture traditions. This allows for the following further exploration of (neo-)mythological and religious motifs, their relations and embedding in these stories. This analysis will show that the author uses semiotics of the preternatural for a new take on pop culture elements, and that this usage draws from and comments on “social imaginaries” (Charles Taylor): a society’s general attitudes towards social relations, convictions, the natural world, and all things that are deemed solid and given.

2 Narrative Settings and Pop-Cultural Environment

Starting in 1993, Mignola introduced certain types of superheroes and adventurers in contemporary comics. They are heroes in contact with the preternatural: some of them are preternatural beings themselves, while others are humans who gained knowledge about the preternatural and learned to deal with its dangers. To understand his adoption of religious and mythological motifs as well as the functions of the preternatural story contents, we have to first examine the pop-cultural environment with its motif traditions to which these stories belong. – Since the trade paperbacks that collect Mignola’s comics are unpaginated, I cite them with volume number and chapter, respectively story title.

Superhero stories explain their protagonists’ powers in various types of origin narrations. Their abilities can differ from those of humans because they belong to another species; they can be humans and gain their powers by external causes; or they can be humans with special abilities due to “mutation”. For example, Superman is a being from outer space. The species to which he belongs happens to have a humanoid phenotype, but is gifted with superhuman abilities. Peter Parker is a human who was bitten by a radioactive spider that somehow induced spider-like abilities so he could become Spiderman. The X-Men mutants are a classic example for the evolutionary explanation of superhuman powers.

However, for decades, there have been comic heroes who gained their powers through personal efforts and studies. In 1984, the first issue of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic series was published; its protagonists are humanoid turtles who do not have super powers, but are trained in martial arts (cf. Eastman and Laird 2011). Even earlier, in the so-called Golden Age of comics, there were masked avengers without superhuman abilities: since 1940, The Spirit featured crime stories with a mysterious, masked detective (cf. Couch and Weiner 2004), and the first series with the title The Sandman, debuting in 1939, introduced a crime-fighting character with prophetic dreams, a gas mask and a sleeping gas gun (cf. Fox 2004). These dreams of Wesley Dodds alias the Sandman are an early example of preternatural motifs in comic stories. Eventually, E.C. publishers’ horror comics of the 1940s and 1950s incorporated preternatural aspects by populating their pages with the living dead and other monsters who differ fundamentally to nature as we know it (cf. Geissmann 2005).

Mignola’s works build upon these traditions as well as on their broad mass culture context comprising movies and light literature. Cinema discovered the ghastly sides of preternaturally-themed folklore with horror movies like Häxan (1922), Nosferatu (1922) and White Zombie (1932). Not only do they display witchery, demonolatry, vampirism and the magical reviving of the dead as will-less minions, but, as I will explain later on, they also share visual aesthetics with Mignola’s drawing style. H.P. Lovecraft’s mythology-inspired horror tales left their traces in Mignola’s stories, but the latter also strongly reflects pulp fiction motifs. The heroes of the “sword and sorcery” pulp stories since the 1930s by authors such as Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian, Solomon Kane) and Fritz Leiber (Fafrhd and the Gray Mouser) regularly encounter magicians and demonic beings in archaicizing worlds. This branch of pulp literature has several connections and crossovers with comics. There are not only comic adaptations of titles like Conan, Solomon Kane and Fafrhd, but “sword and sorcery” tales also provided protagonist models and narration structures for comics. Strange, dubious outsider characters (barbarian warrior, lone ghost buster, professional thief) must fulfill quests confronting them with preternatural powers over which the heroes finally and typically triumph. Such plots are obviously suitable for short stories that may stand on their own or be connected as chapters of a miniseries. The comics we will encounter here extensively display these types of narrations and employ the aforementioned topic of constellations of comics, prose and movies.

3 Types of the Preternatural in Hellboy and Lobster Johnson

3.1 Fusing Christian Semiotics and the Superhero Tradition

Introducing the preternatural in comics and pulp magazines opened up a new variety of fiction characters, their abilities and story lines, which would now adhere to mythological, religious and folklore semiotics. Before Mignola started his own series, he had already penciled the 1991 Fafhrd comic adaptation (Chaykin et al. 2007), and such fantasy adventures would become a major influence on his works as a writer. Mignola takes up motifs from pulp fiction and mystery comics concerning story setting, narration and characters. His adventure/horror plots resemble pulp fiction as they consciously build upon naïve and absurd settings and novelette-like, unheard-of events. Their characters stand between the superhero and the (paranormal) detective type, and the narration ideally goes through a number of weird and dramatic thrill scenes, quickly pushing the course of events towards an exciting finale. Hellboy, for example, shares some characteristics with superheroes, but clearly differs in others. He is of tremendous physical strength and stamina, but as a demon, he would rather be an antagonist than a protagonist. Devilish, demonic creatures usually played the role of the heroes’ opponents in fantasy stories such as those in the Solomon Kane series (cf. Howard et al. 2009). How this semiotics of a potentially frightening preternatural was re-encoded so that Hellboy could become a sympathetic figure is the subject of the following paragraphs.

Hellboy’s original story in short reads as follows: During World War II, occult Nazi circles hope to change the course of war in their favor with help from the Russian sorcerer Rasputin. He summons a demon child, but American soldiers interrupt his ceremony, take the demon child with them and name it Hellboy. The squad is lead by young scholar Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm who researches paranormal phenomena and becomes the mentor of the newly founded B.P.R.D., the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, a group of human and non-human individuals some of whom are paranormally gifted, their existence held secret by the US government. Hellboy is raised isolated from the outside world and joins the B.P.R.D., where he investigates cases of paranormal incidents (Hellboy Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction; Hellboy (2004)). The timeline of his adventures ranges from 1943 to the present, although the series consists of multiple story arcs and single stories are told non-chronologically. The preternatural sphere as his provenience is a new variation of the superhero’s origin story, allowing for the combination of innate mystical and socially acquired aspects of the protagonist. This origin story’s narrative function is to explain the character’s superhuman traits, connecting elements of superhero comics to the tradition of adventure/horror tales in mass media. Particularly the combination of an absurd plot, characters with cartoonish traits and the earnestness of narration put these stories into the tradition of pulp fiction and early detective/vigilante comics. Despite Hellboy’s origin, his intellect and character equal the human average with neither moral superiority nor baseness. In this regard, he is “just like us”, and so he can be re-encoded as a likable figure. Both Hellboy movies show their eponymous character as sometimes jealous, churlish and drunk and nevertheless, he saves mankind from dangerous preternatural beings.

A first type of the preternatural thus appears as a reality that transcends or lies beyond the empirical world and as beings inhabiting this transcendental sphere. In this sense, hell and its demons are preternatural. Such transcendental spheres are subjects of religious, magical and folklore traditions, and Mignola draws motifs from all of them. The story The Chained Coffin emphasizes the predominant Christian frame of basic Hellboy motifs with several semiotics of Christian faith and of Christian inspired superstition: crucifixes, a monastery, nuns, a devil’s pact and the devil appearing to take a former witch to hell (cf. Hellboy vol. 3). Later it is revealed that the nun and former witch is Hellboy’s mother, the devil appearing in the monastery is his father. Although the series integrates a large variety of preternatural traditions, Christian motifs serve as a starting point and as a constant background. The main character’s physical features symbolize his devilish origin with red skin, horns, cloven hoofs and tail. This is a striking depiction at least for readers accustomed to certain semiotics of the narrative and figurative traditions in Christian contexts. In contrast, devils were and are not always portrayed in the vein of Hellboy. The folk tales of the Swedish-speaking inhabitants of Finland, for example, do not envision the devil as a figure with animalist traits, but as a gentleman wearing a dress coat withrefined manners (cf. Wolf-Knuts 1991). Hellboy’s visual design thus fulfills two functions. It symbolizes extraneousness and distance to the human world, and it points out the semiotic base from which the plot lines set out and integrate other preternatural motifs.

3.1.1 “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

If Hellboy’s demonic nature does not prevent him from protecting mankind, then this gives the impression there is a great chain of moral beings, who connect not only humans, but also preternatural entities. But what is it that constitutes this chain and how is such a chain possible in the logics of this narrative?

In the first Hellboy story cycle, its protagonist learns that he is meant to be the beast of the apocalypse, when Rasputin, the sorcerer who once summoned Hellboy, meets him again and tries to convince him that it is his destiny to end the world (cf. Hellboy vol. 1: Seed of Destruction; Hellboy (2004)). This seems to be the protagonist’s main temptation during this series. At this point, it becomes clear that Hellboy’s coming into the physical world can be seen as the antipode of Christ, the ceremony in which the demon child appears as an inverse Nativity. The 2004 Hellboy movie elaborates this temptation scene as its narrative peak. Hellboy first seems to lose his human behavior and begins to perform the ritual that should lead to the destruction of the world as we know it. However, a fellow agent manages to throw a necklace with a cross pendant at him, shouting that he should remember who he is. Hellboy catches the tiny cross, and as it burns into his hand, he eventually remembers his human friends and rejects his appointment. After a showdown fight against Rasputin, Hellboy returns to the B.P.R.D., the social context in which he grew up.

His confrontation with Rasputin follows the lines of prototypical scenes displaying conflicts of disparate principles. Cultural memory casts the knowledge of such situations in images like the temptation of Christ or Martin Luther standing before Charles V.and preserves this knowledge in winged words: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” ­Cultural imaginaries provide such images and dicta for the interpretation of occurring problems. – At this point, Mignola’s narration touches a difficult topic in the history of ideas, namely the connection of assumptions about preternatural, transcendent issues, freedom of will and ethics of freedom. Rasputin stands for a determinism, which allots to everyone being the one and only place in a great cosmic drama. First and foremost, one would have to figure out one’s place and act accordingly, i.e. one would have to fulfill one’s predestined fate. The sorcerer takes an authoritarian standpoint since he claims to know how things will develop and to have proper insight into the world’s character and constitution. He is so convinced by his intuitions that he can hardly imagine anyone would refuse his claims. Hellboy however shows a liberal attitude as he demonstrates that he is able to resist the claims of necessity and fate: the world is open for interpretation, and the belief in predestined fate is just one among others. (This is a recurrent topic in the Hellboy universe. Some characters discussing Hellboy’s position between fatalism and free will are the Celtic spirits in The Third Wish and the dead priest in The Island (cf. Hellboy vol. 6).

By denying his apparent fate and claiming the freedom of decision for himself, Hellboy implicitly restates the Christian doctrine of free will, one of the sources of what is discussed today as basic or human rights. As parts of an ethics of freedom, these rights aim for practical respect of every person by conceding and protecting positive and negative freedom. In this perspective, people are equal in having a free will, which is not determined by biological or social characteristics. This equality of being able to relate to oneself, to see oneself in the eyes of others, to reflect and decide with reason, is the patristic “inner man” and the morally most relevant characteristic of humans (cf. Kobusch 2006). This figure of thought can be traced back to Christian tradition, which brought up concepts of an equality beyond ethnic origin and social status etc.: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3, 28.) St. Paul determines this equality further: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5, 1.) For this reason, reflections on the human condition turned to human subjectivity: “The truth lives in the inner man.” (St. Augustine 1991, ch. XXXIX, 72.) This implies that ethical and epistemological questions of right and wrong, true and false cannot be answered by mere observations about the world, but need to take into account how people relate to themselves, to other people and to the world they live in. This quickly leads to questions about non-empirical issues, which nevertheless have to be answered if we want to communicate about how to act and about our practical self-conceptions. As the aforementioned episode illustrates, how one thinks about necessities and freedom can make a serious difference.

A second type of the preternatural is therefore the metaphysical or non-sensual as the condition of possibility of our notions of nature. That which is “before” nature appears as our presuppositions when we talk about nature, as the non-empirical conditiones sine quibus non of the empirical. These can be, for example, the status of logical structures we use and therefore presuppose when thinking about nature, and these can be ideas about freedom and determinacy.

Of course it is easy to interpret too much into literary stories, and I would not like to argue that Mignola intended to comment on issues in metaphysics and the history of ideas. On the other hand, such a freedom or necessity for conflict can serve as the showdown momentum in an adventure comic. This phenomenon refers to cultural resources, the specific ways that people deal with certain problems in practical and theoretical life and the knowledge about it. Consequently, works of art become parts and interpretations of existing traditions when they take up the semiotics present in traditions. The aforementioned scene aligns the topic of free will and the Christian sphere of thought, symbolized by the cross. That the sight of the cross leads to the protagonist’s change of mind links the topic of free will to divine revelation and thereby roots the narrative’s core in the metaphysical preternatural. Hellboy shows his adherence to values such as solidarity and freedom in this scene, which he obviously adopted in his socialization. His biography reflects the historical insight that reason does not depend on empirical features like race, gender etc. Despite his most uncommon origin, young Hellboy is empathically and empractically socialized in a human surrounding, i.e. emotionally and cognitively integrated in a shared practice by taking part in it. Mignola thus removed nature from the nature/nurture dichotomy. As a narrative function, Hellboy’s strangeness highlights this independence of reason more than an ordinary human character would have done.

3.1.2 Liminal Characteristics and the Preternatural

Extraneousness combined with mental and physical robustness is a typical attribute of barbarian characters in pop culture, for example in the depiction of Norsemen in a movie tradition ranging from The Vikings (1958) to The 13th Warrior (1999) and Valhalla Rising (2009). This observation sheds further light on the Hellboy character. Tacitus’ Germania allowed the image of barbarians to take a liminal position between the primitive enemy and an example of undepraved vitality, which is why such images could be employed for various purposes, including cultural criticism, ideological identity politics and entertainment. Regarding that barbarian characters are usually native to the edges of the known geographical and social world, standing outside of civilization, Hellboy’s hellish origin and his kinship, which is typically inimical towards mankind make him a preternatural barbarian. However, while the mentioned movie barbarians are at least morally ambivalent, Mignola designed him as a sympathetic figure: some humans cooperate with evil, whereas Hellboy stands for a militant benevolence. Besides that he is displayed as morally good. His sporadic humor also reduces the protagonist’s strangeness and adds to his sympathetic quality.

The genre of fantasy barbarian fiction partly includes images of preternatural phenomena which appear either as extrinsic factors, usually as a menace to the hero, or as intrinsic factors, when the heroes themselves bear magical qualities. Conan is such a fantasy character to whom the preternatural is extrinsic, in comics and picturizations as well as in the original tales by R.E. Howard (cf. Thomas et al. 2007; Howard 2006; Conan the Barbarian (1982)). The “sword and sorcery” comic series from 1983, Sláine was about the eponymous Celtic warrior king. This series allowed the preternatural to intrinsically belong to the protagonist as he could fall into a battle frenzy that physically transformed him into a monster. Furthermore, the preternatural also appears extrinsically as a divine or generally as a transcendental sphere into which Sláine enters once to meet his goddess (cf. Mills and Bisley 2012). Instead of Mignola’s starting point in Christian semiotics, Mills employed a (neo-) pagan perspective similar to the one in Robert Graves’ The White Goddess (cf. Graves 1997). Sláine partly fights against preternatural beings, the Fomorians of Irish mythology, who threaten his people, but who also follow a cult of chaos and death as opposed to the religion of the goddess. Thereby, Sláine is also displayed as the goddess’ first warrior, acting also for religious reasons and in league with the preternatural (cf. Mills and Bisley 2012).


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The Preternatural in the Works of Mike Mignola. Semiotic Frames, Literary Functions and Pop Cultural Context
University of Erfurt  (Max-Weber-Kolleg)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
comics, popular culture, mysticism, mythology, metaphysics, transmodernism, religion, graphic novels, mike mignola, cinema, hellboy, horror, fantasy, conan, solomon kane, b-movies, pulp fiction, light fiction
Quote paper
Dr. Jan Leichsenring (Author), 2013, The Preternatural in the Works of Mike Mignola. Semiotic Frames, Literary Functions and Pop Cultural Context, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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