One of the thoughts about comics & cartooning knocking around in my head for a while is that the way comics works has something in common with puppetry. I’m not thinking of Jim Henson-style puppetry or the complex animatronic creature-machines that CGI hasn’t quite yet (as far as I know) made obsolescent in the movies. It’s carved or molded puppets that I have in mind, and the kind of performance they make possible or likely — performance not very concerned with an illusion of lifelike action, but built of routines, with a catalogue of stock elements both verbal and visual. I don’t mean to suggest any particular historical connection to puppetry in the emergence of comic books. (Maybe there is, who knows. I imagine it would be a hard thing to demonstrate, if so.) All I’m thinking about here is the way things work, basically, in the comics.

Won’t try to discuss the idea much further here. But I will say that it seems to me that there are comics creators who largely take for granted that this is how it works (often with banal result and sometimes — see e.g. Hergé — with brilliant result), creators who resist and try to ‘elevate’ or transcend the comics’ nature in this sense (the kind you have to think would really rather be working for the screen), and then creators who do more than accept it — who seem deliberately to heighten the puppetry-like effect or to play on it. Mignola, to my mind, is in the third category in some way; though I’d guess he isn’t very conscious of being so, or wouldn’t want to be bothered with being conscious of it, at any rate.

Among artists who work on Mignola books, there are those who seem to me to catch or match up with his approach to the material in this respect (Guy Davis on the B.P.R.D. series, for instance), and those who don’t. The signal thing, to my eye, with those on the Hellboy range of titles, is whether the artist treats Hellboy like a mask or like a man. Mignola himself — later Mignola particularly, but you can see it in the earliest Hellboy books (and undoubtedly in his pre-Hellboy work) — treats every figure like a mask. That’s not to say he makes the face rigid and expressionless, but that all its nuance & variation is graphically reductive, with the superhero artist’s typical dependence on low-budget ‘realism’ pared to a stylistic minimum. The work of Duncan Fegredo, who took over as illustrator on the Hellboy title from 2011 until last year, makes for a nice contrast. Fegredo draws Hellboy (and all his characters) with a relatively rich depictional fluidity & depth. Alex Maleev, drawing the new Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. series, does too, but his style allows at the same time for Hellboy himself to be more mask than man alongside the other characters, interestingly.

Here’s a new Hellboy sketch. I always want to find the man rather than the mask (as you’ll know pretty well if you’ve followed me on this subject) when I draw him. What if I were drawing a book instead of the (very) occasional casual sketch, though? Would I move more toward the ‘mask’ side of the spectrum? Does Mignola’s writing call for it, and would I feel the pull? I wonder how Fegredo, say, would answer.


4 Replies to “Mask”

  1. I think I actually called the Del Toro treatment ‘Muppet movies’ in a post a couple of years ago! Your comment’s reminded me. I’ll find it.

    But a screen approach that would be puppetry-like in the way I’m thinking of it here would be something else entirely. Tough to imagine. Something overbearingly stylized like Sin City suggests a direction, maybe — but that’s not a very appealing image to my mind! Anyhow, I should develop this puppetry notion a bit further.

    This sketch above has (unintentionally) a hint of the well-aged Willem Dafoe in it, I think, by the way. I don’t believe all the camera tricks in the book could make him look big enough to be a convincing movie Hellboy, but it is kind of fun to imagine a Dafoe version.

  2. When I think of successful comic book puppetry translated to the big screen I tend to think of the Laika films — Coralline or, especially ParaNorman. They have the necessary suspension of gravity that Jim Henson, for one, never managed to convey.

  3. I haven’t seen either. All the attention Coraline got when it came out did get my attention; I meant to go. (Hey, we’ve come back around to Gaiman here, haven’t we.) Ought to see if S. wants to watch it with me.

    It’s a great suggestion, in any case. If I’m thinking about this relation, there is a whole side of animated film that winds up in the picture somehow.

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