I first learned of the existence of Mike Mignola only in 2007 when I received an email out of the blue from a writer and editor by the name of Christopher Golden. His message informed me that he was editing an anthology of Hellboy stories by various writers, and would I like to contribute? I had no idea who or what Hellboy was, but the email made it sound interesting, and I always enjoy a challenge, so I replied along the lines of, “Yes, I’m interested. But I’ll have to do some research on Hellboy first.”
It may seem a bit odd that I didn’t know who Hellboy was, but I do tend to be behind the times in my cultural reference points. I’ve always been that way. I usually gravitate to a life that is rather isolated from popular culture. True, at the time of the email I was based in Madrid in Spain, one of the most culturally vibrant cities in the world, but I’d only just arrived there from a remote farm in Andalusia where I had been working and living without electricity, without shops, without access to any postal service, and certainly with no computers or telephones. It was like a physical analogue of the inside of my head.
Incidentally I was never aware of any ghostly activity in that almost forgotten region.The nights were dark but not scary, and I began to wonder if only areas of high population density produce phantoms? Nor were there any myths or legends of strange monsters in the hills and woods. It was a calm place, completely without any supernatural ambience. I eventually left on foot, walking over the Sierra Nevada mountain range, sleeping under the stars as I went. A wild boar gave me a fright one night, but nothing more demonic or spectral than that harassed me. Finally I reached the ancient Moorish city of Granada, where I caught the long distance bus to Madrid.
Madrid had computers and email access! I received the email and after I had expressed my interest, Chris Golden responded by immediately sending me a dozen Hellboy graphic novels. When I received the large parcel I ripped it open without knowing what delights awaited me. The covers of the books riveted my attention at once. I began reading them in chronological order and soon I was whistling through my teeth in utter amazement. The quality of the artwork and writing, the skill of each frame in both visual and story dynamic terms, was of an incredibly high order. I became an instant Hellboy fan!
Whenever I am asked to write a story, my mind pulls together lots of bits and pieces that have been floating around in my subconscious for years, and I start to find linkages between all the separate elements. Hellboy was an excellent frame on which to hang some of these ideas and visions. I imagined the big red demon with the broken horns standing on a dead world, a rogue planet that was on collision course with our own. I imagined him trapped inside a palace so large that storm clouds formed under the roof, and mountains and rivers were contained in the rooms. I also imagined him descending through tunnels into the centre of the Earth in the style of a Jules Verne explorer. I didn’t want to discard any of these scenarios, so I found a way of incorporating all three, and I added several others too. That’s the way I like to work.
As it happened, Chris Golden liked my story, which was published in the Dark Horse Oddest Jobs anthology in 2008. But I had no idea what Mike Mignola thought of it and I didn’t even know if he had read it. The whole process seemed a straightforward case of receiving a commission, doing the work, then forgetting about it. But it didn’t quite pan out that way, for the simple reason that I didn’t forget about Hellboy. I liked the creation too much, not just the main characters, the varied monsters and spectres they kept coming up against, but the core set-up of a supernatural defence agency. The truth is that I envied the concept.
I began daydreaming my own Hellboy stories, imagining them as a mix of graphic novel and brief film scenes. In fact I thought about getting in contact with Mike Mignola and petitioning him to set a Hellboy story in Porthcawl in Wales, the town where I grew up, because there’s an area of sand dunes nearby that has a lot of weird folklore associated with it, and in fact there’s a mediaeval village that got buried by the shifting sands and the castle still sticks above the dunes, and it’s all haunted. The whole place is overrun with ghosts. There’s even an old mansion there called Sker House that is the most haunted house in Wales. I still think it would be perfect for Hellboy. In my mind’s eye I can see him striding over the dunes, the setting sun turning the sand the same colour as his body, and the spooks already starting to rise up from the sands, the ghosts of those villagers…
Eventually I decided I had no choice but to create my own monster hero, my own supernatural defence agency, and plenty of grotesque villains, and write a book about them. It had to be a tribute to Mignola, but it also had to be sufficiently different from his creation. Hellboy is a demon, so I made my hero a golem. Hellboy has two stumps where his horns should be, so I gave my golem a single spiral horn. Hellboy is red, so my golem is a blue-grey colour. Hellboy is generally calm and laconic, so my golem is hotheaded and garrulous. Hellboy is brave, clever and gets it right, so my golem is reckless, stupid and incompetent. Hellboy is loyal to his friends, my golem isn’t. And so on.
I called my creation Twisthorn Bellow and wrote a novel about him. I was proud to have to my credit a darkly humorous fantasy that owed its inspiration at every stage to Mignola and Hellboy and yet didn’t step on either of their toes. It was always important for me to stress throughout my novel that Twisthorn was no match for Hellboy. Indeed in one scene they meet in a bar in Chicago and Twisthorn starts a fight. Hellboy snaps off Twisthorn’s horn without even blinking. That was my slightly offbeat way of thanking Mignola, of paying him homage and acknowledging that he was the master.
I can’t draw. I wish I could but I can’t. Despite my lack of talent in that direction I do make occasional doodles and sketches of monsters, ghosts and weird beings. While writing Twisthorn Bellow I felt an overriding desire to draw the grotesque entities that my golem and his colleagues were forced to face. I soon gave up the effort in favour of constructing simple models of them and photographing them. My model-making skills are no more accomplished than my drawing skills, and I don’t have much talent as a photographer, but I enjoyed myself enormously. And that’s the main point of my book, really. Fun. Twisted fun, but fun nonetheless.
As I wrote each chapter I reconstructed one of the monsters from the book. Here is a selection of them,including: Crystalbonce, the robot; Ptula Graark, the calmodactyl; Ruby dubDub,with her infamous indoor sundial; Bob the Lock, with his wife and child; Enid Hans, the flying corkscrew; Janrel MacScabbard, the triple headed fiend, doing his balancing act in Patagonia; Baddie TwoShoes, who doesn’t smink and doesn’t droke; Highly Contrived Name, at home in the metropolis of Moonville; Snagtooth Toasta, the pitta bread monster; the Sweet Tamarind Hand, playing Japanese chess with Twisthorn himself; and finally the chief villain of all, République Nutt, in a variety of situations, including not only the time he got his foot stuck in a bottle of brandy but also the immediate aftermath of his messy death.
I finished the novel and sent it to a publisher, who accepted it. Then I began wondering if Mike Mignola would read it and maybe give it a blurb. With some trepidation I emailed him. To my delight he replied almost immediately. I was immensely flattered to learn that he already enjoyed my fiction and would be happy to read my book and blurb it. Needless to say I was happy and wanted nothing more… And yet I still daydream about Mignola turning Twisthorn into a graphic novel. This daydream runs parallel with the daydream about him setting a Hellboy story in the haunted sand dunes. We’re all allowed our daydreams and they aren’t taxable just yet.