Powerful Panels: Hellboy: In the Chapel of Moloch by Mike Mignola

While it was certainly exciting to open up an issue of Hellboy and see Mike Mignola's shadow-obsessed, brilliantly indistinct but somehow exact art again, the main appeal of Mignola's work for me is his experiments with panels and panel placement. This isn't like Jim Starlin-style frame-less whirls of images colliding and contrasting with one another or anything, Mignola works all his magic within the classical constraints of different sized squares.

In David's review, he spoke of the way Mignola sets-up all kinds of interesting juxtapositions (this one is especially brilliant) throughout different panels to odd, hypnotic effect. In many ways, Mignola's work eschews some of the McCloud Understanding Comics reading of comics as "what happens in the space between the panels" because every panel gets wrapped up in a whirl of visual rhyme, complement, and contrast. Sometimes, Mignola will slow the narrative down to give you a series of intense, film-like close-ups.

In Moloch, there's a point where Hellboy looks at the artist's work and there's four large, square panels that provide a detail from some of his paintings. It reads and feels like a scene in a movie in which a series of affecting images are shown in sequence, punctuated by a lack of music or sound.

Another strangely affecting "trick" by Mignola is to quicky interrupt the narrative or a character's speech with a panel that illustrates what the character's talking about or discussing. Again, it's very filmic in the sense of relying on inter-cutting and has the same eerie effect. The reader's quickly and temporarily transported to that which is being discussed. It's actually something that's used even in series' only written by Mignola--it happens frequently in The Crooked Man and Abe Sapien: The Drowning--but again, is particularly striking in Moloch where for three panels, we see the Knights of Saint Hagan that Hellboy's talking about. Mignola uses the transfer from the cool colors (save for Hellboy) of the current setting to the reds, oranges, and yellows of the flashback to sort of further shock you.

But the best details of Mignola's panel-work are the even smaller choices. It's clear from every page of any and every "Hellboy" comic that Mignola thinks a lot about comics and his concern moves beyond fanboy replication and into a vested interested in trying to expand comics grammar while at the same time, not being a super-stylish douche about it either. And so, you get a particularly mind-blowing panel like the one above. It's a panel that's deceptively simple--it's illustrating the lighting of a match--but what it's capturing is the 1/8th of a second when you light a match and the room glows.

That's a strange and impossible-to-present image in any art form other than comics. A film or video camera can't really capture and freeze that moment, and a still image wouldn't have the same effect because it wouldn't have before and after images and it would in some ways, become an exercise in technical proficiency as you'd see the image and be like, "Woah, it's hard to get a photo of that part of a second when a match glows its brightest...". It's the sort of panel that I've never seen, a totally innovative and fun way of illustrating a simple action.


david e. ford, jr said...


this is an excellent post. i think we are in complete agreement in regards to this particular aspect of mignola's art. the first hellboy series i read was that batman, hellboy, starman two issue mini i picked up at cosmic. i can remember just being blown away by those little non-narrative, narrative panels--the ones with the gargoyle and the high relief baby.

i don't know if you've read 1946, but there is a lot of the sort of stepping outside of the narrative sequences in it as well. in a response to karen's comment on the post i alluded to the way that they shift the color pallet for these sequences in that book as well.

the insight on this particular panel is like perfectly spot on and it is an example of the tendency in these books to be deceptively complex. mignola et al are getting so good at writing these books and the art is always so immediately pleasing that i think it belies the depth that repeated readings uncover. as you say, it is an example of mignola challenging and expanding the grammar of comics without being a douche and that's what makes him like, Great with a capital Gee.


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