Reading Hellboy: An Interview with Scott Bukatman (Part Two)

You evocatively but fleetingly describe comics as “little utopias of disorder.” What do you mean by that phrase? I can see this phrase evoking a tradition of visually dense comics representations, running from Outcault to Kurtzman/Elder, and going back to Hogarth and other pre-comics graphic artists, even to the splash pages of Jack Kirby. But it relates oddly to Mignola, whose work seems so precise, so disciplined, and as you suggest later, so static. So walk us through the tensions you see at play in Hellboy stylistically.

Yes, I introduced that “little utopias” thing in my last book, The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit, where I indeed deployed it with reference to early comics and the “chicken fat” of Will Elder’s work. It’s much more evident in that context. But I continue, in Hellboy’s World, to explore is the “subversive” power of images and what Walter Benjamin referred to as “riotous” colors.

Comic books have ever been far from true respectability, even in this age of graphic novels and superhero films. They presented (and present) avenues of escape for many kids, adolescents, and adults.

Mignola’s work has the precision that you describe, but Hellboy is still proudly a COMIC BOOK, with all the “BOOM” sound effects that that implies. It’s aimed at a sophisticated comics reader, but proudly retains more than enough of that original, primordial punch, that utopic, disruptive power.

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This is why I emphasize what I call the “monstrousness” of comics — their marginality within our culture gives them a sneaky irresistibility that Jules Feiffer honored in his recent memoir, and that creators like Feiffer, Harvey Kurtzman and R. Crumb fully recognized.

I couldn’t resist bringing in the marginalia of medieval illuminated manuscripts, images that often commented ironically on the “official” text. My colleagues in art history were surprised that I was so interested in illuminated manuscripts, but really I was interested in the scholarship — Michael Camille and Martha Rust write about these objects in terms that speak very clearly to the ways that comics work. Camille’s writing on the “monstrous” helped me to recognize that Hellboy is a monster, but so is the Hellboy comic.

Your focus on world-building in Hellboy seems at once familiar given the wide-spread use of worlds as a concept in our field at the moment. But then it becomes clear that you are breaking with a concept of world that emerges from Tolkien’s focus on secondary creation to focus on one which emerges from Eric Hayor’s On Literary Worlds. What do you see as the key differences between these approaches and what do you see as the advantages of drawing on Hayot? In what ways do you need to go beyond Hayor’s notion of the literary to account for world-building in comics?

I’m indebted to Hillary Chute for steering me to Hayot’s work in her (then) anonymous reader’s report on the Hellboy’s World manuscript. It was a game-changer for me. I’d been focussed on what you call “secondary creation” in thinking about the world of Hellboy — the cast of characters, the cosmology, the look-and-feel of the comics, but Hayot’s emphasis on the necessary intersections of our world with a literary world, and the ways that those intersections are articulated helped open up new ways of understanding Hellboy.

Hayot emphasized internal cohesions, meanings that emerge within the network of the book’s language (an allusion here and another one there), the broader network that could encompass a book’s relation to its larger genre, or the world that emerges over the course of a series, or even to literature itself. Hayot also emphasizes the extent to which aspects of the world go unarticulated, and the ways that texts encourage or discourage questions about such “off-camera” elements.

To put it way more briefly, On Literary Worlds helped me to grapple with levels of “worldedness” that would have otherwise eluded me. I actually had little trouble applying his work to comics — other parts of his book were less relevant to me, but not because they were inappropriate to writing about comics.

You introduce here the concepts of Chromophobia and Chromophilia. Why do some people fear colors and others embrace them? Why do we lack a conceptual vocabulary for discussing the roles which color plays in popular art forms like comics, even as the potentials of comics as a medium have often been shaped by their expanding capacity to reproduce color with more and more nuance? To what degree is our ability to write meaningfully about color as scholars shaped by own printing processes and the fact that the press allowed you numerous color illustrations?

What great questions. Before turning to comics, we could note just how little writing there is on color in cinema studies. The canonical Film Art: An Introduction by Bordwell and Thompson lacks any dedicated exploration on color (and this is a book that places everything in some kind of taxonomy), and even the index entries are minimal. There are two areas where studies of film’s aesthetics and affect continually fall short: color and performance. And when they are taken up, it’s often through the lens of semiotics: the “meaning” of color in a symbolic system, for example, or the “star” as a signifying system.

I think we lack vocabularies for dealing with both of these with any precision, but it may be that they’re simply ineffable and resistant to quantification and even description. David Batchelor’s book Chromophobia does a wonderful job of detailing western culture’s and art history’s resistance to color, which is frequently aligned with the childish, the primitive, the Other. I wonder whether the suspect place of comics in American culture has something to do with all that color (“All in Color for a Dime”). Images are already suspect — add some saturated color and the sensory/sensual experience threatens to overwhelm rationality and control.

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But I very much like your point about the dearth of color reproductions in books on film and comics —  you just cannot illustrate a discussion of Black Narcissus with a black and white image. And Mike Mignola is composing black and white art but with specific uses of color firmly in mind. I could not imagine writing anything significant about Hellboy’s aesthetic without foregrounding the work of Dave Stewart (one of the great colorists in comics, for the Mignola-verse and elsewhere).

I had a publisher interested in Hellboy’s World, but without any color images, so I had to look elsewhere. Mary Francis at University of California Press fully understood the need for vibrant (and accurate) color, but I was floored at the press’s willingness to give me 70 color images spread throughout the book rather than stuck in a separate section. Frankly, I think the physical object of Hellboy’s World raises the bar on what scholarship on comics should look like, and I’m hugely indebted to the designers.

I’m delighted, by the way, to see that Hillary Chute’s new book, Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form, is super-careful about reproduction, including color comics pages presented in color. Will books like these, and publishers willing to produce them, change comics scholarship? There’s still too much writing on comics that doesn’t effectively deal with images, so a full consideration of color might remain the province of a few aesthetes like myself. I hope not!

When we’re discussing the need for color images as well as plentiful images, I have to stress how lucky it was that the comic that most compelled me to write was a creator-owned property. From the start, when Mignola quickly granted permission to reprint a couple of images in my initial Critical Inquiry essay, to the book, where he not only raised no objection to my using ever more of his work (including on my book cover) but had the folks at Dark Horse Comics send me high-resolution files of every single one, his cooperation made the work of this book possible.

Had I been writing about a corporate-owned character, my image options would have been far more limited, and would have affected the direction of the book. This is a huge problem for comics studies and I unintentionally dodged a bullet there. I can say that, without question, this book wouldn’t have existed without my ability to illustrate it effectively. Oh, and Mignola sat down for lunch and conversation with me one afternoon, which didn’t hurt either.

You are attentive throughout the book to the materiality of comics as a printed and bound format, an issue that interests me very much also in my own current book project. To what degree is our awareness of the materiality of comics shifting as we move from the disposable form of the floppy towards a more durable format associated with today’s graphic novel? And to what degree has, say, the size and nature of the page, as a physical surface, shaped our experience of reading comics going back to the early newspaper strips you discussed in your Slumberland book? 

I was amazed at the dearth of literature that really dealt with the materiality of the book as an object. Phenomenologies of reading by people like Wolfgang Iser are really effective at exploring the ways that texts address and position their readers, but the actual object in one’s hands receives scant attention. Georges Poulet goes so far as to claim that the material book disappears once one begins to read it. Um, no.

And it seemed to me that comics have an emphatic materiality of their own through which the broader materiality of the book can be brought to light. Comics images have an indisputable presence on the page that printed words don’t. Different editions of A Tale of Two Cities will use different fonts, but this is considered a pretty immaterial difference — a difference without a distinction — whereas the comics page  bears, in addition to its symbolic signs, an iconic and even an indexical presence. We read comics, but we also look at them in ways that we don’t look at blocks of text.

It’s a big claim, but I think that consideration of the comic book (and the illustrated children’s book) can foreground aspects of the process of reading more broadly, even as they also have their own unique pleasures. And I do think that my awareness of this comes with the explosion of lustrous comics publications, from elaborate book-objects by Chris Ware to full-scale reprints of Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Comics have an undeniable material presence in my life and on my straining bookshelves, and much of my own engagement with comics is inseparable from my engagement with those particular books. The Hellboy bug bit me when I saw Mignola’s art in the Library Edition reprints from Dark Horse Comics. Final thought: I actually read a lot of comics on my iPad, and enjoy them just fine, but some things demand something more… physical.

Does the emergence of web comics render the idea of print an option rather than a feature of comics and thus invite contemporary graphic artists to really wallow in the pleasures of the printed object?

I really like this question, and I think there’s something to it, but I wouldn’t want to reduce this to a technologically determinist argument. I think Ware’s dedication to the book speaks to something more fundamental in him, though a lament for the “decline” of print might well be a part of his motivation by now.

 Scott Bukatman is a cultural theorist and Professor of Film and Media Studies at Stanford University. His work examines how popular forms (film, comics) and genres (science fiction, musicals, superhero narratives) mediate between new technologies and human perceptual and bodily experience, and explores phenomenologies of viewing and reading. His books include Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, the British Film Institute monograph on Blade Runner; the essay collection Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th CenturyThe Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit (University of California Press), and the forthcoming Hellboy’s World: Comics and Other Monsters on the Margins (University of California Press). His work has appeared in, among other places, Camera Obscura, October, and Critical Inquiry.