Gary Gianni On Hellboy: Into The Silent Sea – Voyaging Into The Unknown With A Master Craftsman

by Staff

 

Next week, on April 19th, a major new Hellboy story is arriving in shops, presented in an attractive hardcover, titled Hellboy: Into the Silent Sea. Written by Hellboy creator, writer, and artist Mike Mignola, and drawn by writer, artists, and illustrator Gary Gianni, the book takes Hellboy places we’ve never seen before, but have very briefly heard about, in an aside about Hellboy once being lost at sea. While seafaring tales have occasionally popped up in the Mignolaverse, for instance in Baltimore, this is virtually unknown territory for Hellboy, and in Into the Silent Sea, we are taken into new territory artistically, too.

Gary Gianni’s long career working in adapting literary classics, and his mode of illustration bring a wealth of tradition to the art in this book, guaranteeing that you will see the Hellboy Universe in new ways. Colored by longtime Mignolaverse cohort Dave Stewart, the look and feel of this haunting story are, nevertheless, quite simply like nothing we’ve encountered before with Hellboy. In both art and story, this book is an exciting voyage into the unknown.

I had a long conversation with artist Gary Gianni about his approach to working on Hellboy: Into the Silent Sea, reflecting on the ways in which format and style influence readers, how one handles a large number of flashback scenes, and of course, about populating a comic with monsters. Lots and lots of monsters.

First off, I explained that like many fans, I have a special place in my heart for the standalone Hellboy stories that come in neatly designed, slim hardback editions like Hellboy: Midnight Circus. Hearing about Hellboy: Into the Silent Sea only piqued my imagination further. These books form a complete experience for readers, and therefore have a unique quality.

Gianni agreed that they are great for the casual reader, and are “accessible”, so they may generate more interest for new readers. That format has a way of allowing readers to “get in” and “get out”, he said, forming a bridge for them. I commented that in this book, there’s even a framing device which leads you in and out of the story, which speaks to readers and allows them to think about it afterwards.

He confirmed that there are several “devices” in this book, including a story-within-a-story, and even a “story-within-a-story-within-a-story”, and that work well, also allowing him to get to draw several environments, rather than just being confined to the ship.

That forms a big part of the story in Into the Silent Sea, discussions of other places, and other times. I asked Gianni how difficult it was for him, as an artist, to jump from one place in time to another, almost from panel to panel, so quickly, telling stories from Hellboy’s life and the history of the world.

“I will say that if the whole thing had taken place on one set, on the ship, I think not only would the reader have been bored, but I would’ve been as well. I looked forward to the chance to create these otherworldly images. It was actually a treat to imagine these environments”, Gianni answered. He continued, “Hellboy finds himself on such a broad stage that artists can generally find all kinds of personal connections and things they like to draw, and bring them into Hellboy’s world without jeopardizing the consistency at all. It was fun to draw. I looked forward to those other worlds”.

I noted that it seems like any artist who approaches working in the Hellboy Universe has to be familiar with all of its history in order to be able to move around in such a way, and asked Gianni about his history with Hellboy. He had, of course, once contributed back-up stories to the title.

Gianni said that he’s known Mike Mignola for over 20 years and been aware of the evolution of his character throughout Mignola’s whole career. Gianni wouldn’t say he’s a master of “subtle plot points” for Hellboy, but he feels he has a good grasp of the “nature of the character”. Mignola has actually had this project bookmarked for Gianni to draw for the last few years. He had Hellboy mention the “time he was lost at sea” in a book a few years ago, and Mignola had always envisaged Gianni “filling in that storyline”. Since the two creators know a lot about what the other likes, “the two worlds blended very easily”, Gianni said.

Gianni did have some reservations about drawing Hellboy, telling Mignola, “I don’t want to be the guy who screws up Hellboy”. But Mignola said, “Leave that to me. It’ll be fine”, according to Gianni. I added that Gianni must have been the only person nervous about his involvement, since anyone who has seen Gianni’s work knows what an amazing fit he would be for this project. But, of course, it’s good to have “nervous energy”, since it “keeps me on my toes”, Gianni added.

Realizing the importance of this project, Gianni is glad that the work will finally be out in the world, however, he was always aware that he should not take Hellboy too seriously, since there’s a “whimsy” and “light-heartedness” to the Hellboy Universe that’s very appealing to him. He feels that people wrongly describe the comic as a horror comic, since there’s so much “romantic magic-realism” in the stories. At most it figures more into “Gothic romance”, like the poets of the 19th century, mixed with pulp writers like Hammet and Chandler, Gianni said.

I observed that something that is becoming more obvious as various artists work on titles like Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. is that you can change up the art style of the Hellboy Universe and yet it’s still recognizably Hellboy and his world. It seems to me that it’s a world about stories and storytelling, so many traditions can be brought in to that elasticity.

Gianni said that this point underscores the craft of the “architect”, Mike Mignola, in being able to orchestrate those qualities, and there are some “universal truths” in the Hellboy comics that make it feel “consistent” regardless of who is working on it. Much in the same way that Sherlock Holmes is always Holmes regardless of pastiches and reboots. Somehow the character remains himself, in a  mysterious way, and Mignola pulls that off. Hellboy is a character who can “stride across this very broad stage and he seems to be comfortable in a lot of different milieus”, Gianni said, but also laughed at using the word “milieu” for the first time in a long while.

I questioned the artist about what stage in the process Gianni found out he would work on the project, and what information he knew at that time about it. Gianni felt that Mignola tailored the story to what he likes to draw, and once he said yes, Mignola sat down and came up with an outline, which he gave to Gianni. That excited him even more about the project, and they went back and forth on the broad outline, filling in gaps. He describes the experience as “seamless” and a “mish-mash” of both of their minds at this point. The people who Mignola dedicates the book to, including William Hope Hodgson, are all influences on Gianni as well, and he seconds that dedication. Ranging from monster films to Popeye, the influences on the book are vast.

I asked if, beyond working with Hellboy, some of Gianni’s motivation in accepting the project had to do with a particular interest in drawing oceanic stories or tales involving ships and sailing. He said that was somewhat true, though those elements didn’t have to be part of the story to convince him to do it. He followed Mignola’s lead in wanting a sea story. Mignola felt that “only” Gianni could draw the story because Mignola wouldn’t want to, since there was “too much rigging involved” in the process. Gianni said that knows for a fact that Mike could’ve drawn it, but since he’d always envisioned Gianni doing it, it was flattering, and he accepted.

There was, however, a lot of “pre-work” involved, because of the whaling ship. Since Gianni wanted the reader to understand “spatially” how the ship worked and where action was going on within the “set” of the ship, he took great lengths to find a “model ship club” in the Chicago area. He tracked down model ship artists, who build ships at 5 or 6 feet long, and showed up at one of their meetings. Gianni told them what he was doing, and though they were surprised, they were interested and extremely anxious to provide him with information. They gave him lots of information, and one of them had spent three years building a whaling ship in his basement. He visited the ship, and took lots of many-angled reference shots for the book. Though he was aware that there is a whaling ship you can visit in Connecticut, at Mystic Seaport, these photos were better for the project because you can get bird’s eye views and unusual angles needed for drawing, according to Gianni.

The model was so detailed, down to “marlin spikes” and “links in chains”, that the pre-drawing research was totally worth it. It made his job easier in the end, Gianni said. He feels the reader will appreciate that detail on a subconscious level, at least. They’ll understand the “structures” better, he said. I agreed that you can see the detail of the ships in Into the Silent Sea, because Gianni, specifically, uses several lines for each element whereas other artists might use one or two and leave room for guesswork or the imagination. In these panels, it’s remarkable how much Gianni can fit in terms of detail without the lines becoming confusing or blending together too much to be useful, I told him.

Gianni commented that other artists who have worked on Hellboy, like Duncan Fegredo have been very “high-contrast” in style, and therefore “removed in style” from his own work, and that worried him, but at the same time, it was clear what Gianni’s style would be when he was asked to do the project. Mignola said, “I want what you do”, so now there are a “million lines in this story”, Gianni laughed. He’s waiting for fans to deliver the final verdict on his effort.

I predicted, fairly confidently, that Gianni is going to be overwhelmed by fan reactions to this book. I observed that when you consider Gianni’s career, he has done so much work with comics and illustration, dealing with classic literary properties, and even in handling pulp traditions, that when we see this comic, we see an engraved or etched effect that harks back to older artistic traditions in illustrated books. And when we see that brought to a Hellboy comic, it’s as if Hellboy is being elevated to be on par with great, classic literature. At the same time, it’s being done in a way that doesn’t forget that Hellboy is whimsical and funny, so it forms an interesting hybrid for the reader. People who have been reading Hellboy for years, or even for new readers who know how pervasive the character is in our culture are going to see it, and think, “Yeah, that’s something that Hellboy deserves”.

Gianni was happy with this comparison, and commented that artists aren’t always the most “verbal” people, but some of those points are “exactly” what he was hoping to convey in the comic. Using the word “hybrid” particularly, in connecting the comic with the past in a playful manner. The “wrong approach”, though, would be handling it in too “reverential” a manner, Gianni reminded. The humor is “nicely balanced” alongside the “melancholy of the whole ethos”, he explained. These two things “play off” each other, in Gianni’s observation. “In the best of these Hellboy stories, there’s always a heart”, he said. Like you find in the old movies that people love, such as the Bride of Frankenstein. They aren’t just scary horror stories with slaughter and flowing blood. Instead there is something much more like “romantic heroism” in those films, which is subtle, and hard to illustrate and write about. That might be part of the “elasticity” that makes Hellboy great, he said.

[A sketch by Gary Gianni for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea]

I commented that his description of old-school horror films reminded me of the scene in the earliest Frankenstein film where Frankenstein’s monster appears alongside the little girl and the flowers. Gianni agreed, saying he loves that moment in the film, and it actually ties in with why he was determined to have a child in this story, Into the Silent Sea. People ask him what his favorite drawings are in this book, and bringing a kid into the story, as well as a dog, was important to him, since it brings “Hellboy into our hearts strongly”. There’s a lot more than just “swinging away at monsters” in this book, though we certainly enjoy that. If that was not “offset” with storytelling that was more nuanced, it might get boring, Gianni fears.

I told him I’d pause in this article and remind fans that Gianni does draw rather a lot of monsters in this book, so don’t worry. Many are interesting and strange sea creatures, each different, and probably requiring a lot of design time. Gianni laughed and said that if Into the Silent Sea were going to be made into a film, it would have to have a “very large budget” based on the number of monsters in the story. They’d need a lot of “creature makers” he said. He enjoyed working on the monsters and designing the “oddities” in the “flashback scenes”.

This book has “something for everyone”, Gianni added.

[Gary Gianni’s work on The Shadow]

As a very basic question we hadn’t yet covered, but I was sure readers would be interested by, I asked Gianni to tell us more about what tools he uses to create his artwork, and what his preferred methods of creation are, and in particular, what they were on this project.

He described his methods as “standard”, using Strathmore paper, with “dip in the bottle pen and ink”, using crow quill points. He uses Hunt 107 for the most part, and generally works his pencils up “pretty tightly”, which you can see in examples online. He starts with tight penciling, then traces the original pencil work, with pencil again, on a lightbox. He pencils the outlines onto a new sheet of Strathmore, then inks it, while looking at his original pencil drawing, which has all the “values” in it. Because he does tight pencils, pencils again, and then ink, he ends up with multiple drawings, but that allows him to make mistakes at the pencil stage.

Another tool he finds invaluable is an electric ink eraser. The latter is a bit hard to handle, but he really does need to be able to ink erase since sometimes he just “puts down too many lines”. To do that, you need a very sturdy ply of paper, though, he explained. The drawings are all done in the “old-fashioned way” basically, and there’s a certain amount of reference he uses. He tries to stay away from being “too photographic” with reference, since he feels it “drains all the energy out of things”.

[Gianni’s work on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea]

So, basically, Hellboy: Into the Silent Sea, is a fully hand drawn book, readers. I got the sense that it was, but Gianni has confirmed that. Some of the pages that show his pen-line work are typical of his style, and he tends to think of his own work as black-and-white. He finds it very hard to express to colorists what they can do with his work, but the great Dave Stewart has colored Gianni’s work before, and he knows what to do, Gianni said.

Stewart doesn’t render too much, Gianni explained, using mainly “flat, water-color-like tones” on the book, so you can still see all the linework. The color is a “nice complement”, he added, and he loves how it turned out with digital coloring.

I added that Gianni’s linework and Stewart’s colors did indeed look great in combination, and that I had never seen anything quite like the effect before. Because the book does have such detailed linework, using careful colors while not washing them out must have been difficult. And yet the balance never tips. The greatest effect, though, surrounds Hellboy, who is so very red in this book by contrast, that it almost looks like the use of spot color. It gives him an extra and strange quality as a character since he stands out in this otherwise tonally quieter world.

[Gianni’s The Shadow]

Talking about the craft of making this comic, Gianni commented that Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” features in this story, and the artist who originally depicted the poem, Gustave Doré, created engravings for it. Gianni found a lot of inspiration from looking at those plates while creating this book. Gianni speculated that my own reaction, placing this book in the context of 19th century literature, might come from that source. I told him that his theory was totally plausible since I’ve seen the Doré engravings many times.

Lastly, I mentioned that there seems to be a tradition of creating paintings or engravings of shipwrecks in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the UK, and that some of the scenes in Into the Silent Sea reminded me of this tradition. Gianni namechecked the famous painting, “The Raft of The Medusa” in response. Asking Gianni why he thought people liked to spend so much time contemplating shipwrecks, he was inclined to interpret those paintings as social metaphors. He thinks they tend to represent social unrest, and that the paintings can be symbolic of what is going on culturally, for instance, a revolution. He laughed and said that he, however, would not want one in his living room, since “the morning paper is enough to make [him] jumpy”. He drinks too much coffee as it is, and having a tragic painting on the wall would push him over the edge, he joked. But another artist who loved huge tempests was Turner, also a UK favorite, and those paintings tend to reflect aspects of civil unrest.

[“The Raft of the Medusa”]

Object no. PAH7401. ‘The Wreck Medusa depicting wreck with exhausted survivors waving for help’, mezzotint by Gericault (artist); James Egan (engraver); S. Hollyer (publisher). 1837.

I told Gianni that when fans see this book, they are going to want him to do another one. He doesn’t know if there will be more Hellboy in his future, he said, but maybe he and Mignola will collaborate again, perhaps something “totally different”.

Hellboy: Into the Silent Sea arrives in shops and in digital format on April 19th, 2017.

Many thanks to Gary Gianni for talking to Hannah Means-Shannon for Comicon.com.