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A very long time ago, when LiveJournal was still a thing, my standard user icon there was an old convention sketch that Mike Mignola had done of what would later become his signature skull-head guy. I used it so often, in fact, that I came to sort of be known for it.

Back then, I was also doing some work for a now-defunct magazine of classic-style weird fiction called The Willows. Ben Thomas, editor of The Willows, was putting together a masthead for the magazine that included little portraits of all the staff, done by my old friend Reyna. I asked if I could have her draw her own take on the skull-head guy to use as my staff portrait, and Ben agreed.

To go along with the portraits, we were all supposed to contribute a short bio. I’ve never enjoyed writing bios for myself, and so I was dragging my feet, as usual. In order to do layout, Ben composed a one-sentence bio for me as a placeholder. It read, simply, “Orrin Grey is a skeleton who likes monsters.” It has been my bio ever since.

Because the skull-head portrait was now sort of made official by its inclusion in the bio, when it came time to publish my first collection, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings, I decided to check with the publishers at Evil Eye Books to see if I could stick with it. They agreed, and Reyna drew up a new version, which decorates the back cover of the first edition of Never Bet the Devil. By then, my identity as a skeleton was cemented, and there was no going back.

I used a version of the portrait on my website and my business cards. Before I started using it officially, though, I felt like I had to make sure it was okay. I reached out to Mike Mignola, told him the story, and asked him if he’d mind. He was kind enough to give me his blessing.

A few years later, I asked Mike Corley to do up a new version of the skeleton portrait, which currently decorates my website and business cards. Mike Corley would also illustrate the Strix Publishing reissue of Never Bet the Devil, where another take on the skeleton portrait appears as my “author photo.” A stand-in for my skeleton persona has since appeared on the covers of just about all of my books, with Nick Gucker handling the art duties on both Painted Monsters and Guignol and Thomas Boatwright doing me up for Monsters from the Vault.

TattooAll of this sort of came full circle recently when I saw someone post a photo of their tattoo on a Mike Mignola appreciation group that I’m a member of on Facebook. I recognized the tattoo immediately as… my author photo! The individual in question had never heard of me or Mike Corley, and didn’t know where he had gotten the image. He had made a couple of minor changes and embellished the whole thing with some tentacles, but the resemblance was unmistakable.

We had a nice conversation about it, and I sent him a copy of Never Bet the Devil, because it’s not every day that someone gets a tattoo of me, even by accident.

It’s not the only time that the resemblance between my skeleton persona and Mike Mignola’s skull-head guys has been noted, and it probably won’t be the last. It isn’t something I did on purpose, but I’m pretty happy about it. After all, Mike is probably my single biggest influence and inspiration, when it comes to the kind of work I do, and it’s nice to have my infatuation with his work tied up in my authorial persona this way.

Today is his birthday and, because I am good at stuff, I didn’t plan anything for it like I normally would, but the tattoo thing happened not that long ago, so I’m telling this story now, to mark the occasion.

As anybody reading this is probably already aware, I love Hellboy and all things Mike Mignola. To the extent that there’s any one person I want to be when I grow up, it’s him. Except for the part where I can’t draw, so I have to stick with writing, instead. (Which he is also better at than me, curse that handsome devil!) Anyway, what you may not already know is that I am also a huge fan of games with room tiles, even though they have let me down so many times in the past. Put those two things together, and you’ve got this Kickstarter that I backed within a few hours of it going live.

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As of my writing this, the Hellboy board game has already raised well over a million dollars, unlocked piles of stretch goals, and opened up an optional add-on in the form of one of my favorite Hellboy storylines, “Hellboy in Mexico.” Now I’ll finally have some luchador models to fight that tube of knockoff Universal monster figures I bought a couple of years ago. And it’s still got ten days to go!

Backers already get more than a hundred miniatures, several of them pretty big, as well as a Conqueror Worm expansion and tons of other stuff including, of course, room tiles. Honestly, I don’t know where they’re going to fit them all in the box, which, incidentally, also boasts a new piece of Mike Mignola art.

If this sounds like an advertisement for someone else’s Kickstarter, well, it kind of is. Not because they need my signal boost–did I mention they’ve already raised over a million bucks?–but because there’s a really big cross-section of the people who are likely to be reading this blog who are probably also interested in a Hellboy board game. If you’re in that cross-section and you somehow haven’t already heard about this before now, here’s your heads up. Don’t say I never gave you nothin’.

So, good grief, I guess it’s been four years ago  already that I wrote a blog appreciation post on Mike Mignola’s birthday that said just about everything that I’m going to say here again, today. In the years that have passed since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet Mike several times in person, and chat with him frequently on Facebook. (I think I had already met him a time or two by then, as well.) In fact, there’s a fair-to-middling chance that he’ll read this, although maybe not, because he’s on the set of the new Hellboy reboot movie (!) right now, which probably means that he’s got better things to do.

In that four-year-old post, I mention a story that Mike often tells about how reading Dracula as a kid made him realize that all he wanted to do was draw monsters, and I say that it was Mike’s work on Hellboy that made me have a similar realization. That’s all still just as true today as it was four years ago. I’ve been in a lot of Lovecraft-themed anthologies over the years (more than any other kind). I came to Lovecraft early on, along with Barker and others, and he definitely had a big impact on my work. But if you really want to understand what I’m trying to do in my stories, you’re better off looking at guys like Manly Wade Wellman, William Hope Hodgson, and E.F. Benson. And I came to most of those guys through Mike.

More than just an artist, I was inspired by Mike as a storyteller. When someone asks me who my favorite artist or my favorite writer is, the answer is pretty much the same. His approach to the supernatural. His way of repurposing his own inspirations. His ability to make surrealism approachable, to make horror both creepy and fun. Those are what I aspire to in my own work.

If I had an inspirational quote tacked up above my desk (instead of a framed Mignola print), it would probably be this line from Alan Moore’s introduction to Hellboy: Wake the Devil, “… the trick, the skill entailed in this delightful necromantic conjuring of things gone by is not, as might be thought, in crafting work as good as the work that inspired it really was, but in the more demanding task of crafting work as good as everyone remembers the original as being.”

That or perhaps this perfect line from Joe R. Lansdale’s introduction to Baltimore: The Curse Bells, “Isn’t that the job of all great art, to kick open doors to light and shadow and let us view something that otherwise we might not see?” Put those two together, and you have a pretty succinct summary of what makes Mike’s works so brilliant, and what I strive toward whenever I sit down in front of the computer.

In that previous blog post, I mentioned that my first collection was dedicated to Mike, and that, if there were any others, they just as easily could be too. Since then, there has been one other, plus a variety of chapbooks, a collection of essays on vintage horror films, and even a licensed novel for Privateer Press. None of them are dedicated to Mike (I already used that dedication up early on), but most of them probably could be. And maybe it’s no coincidence that my first collection is due back in print in a new deluxe edition sometime in the next few weeks, with pre-orders closing literally tomorrow. When it’s released, that dedication to Mike will still be there, front and center.

So happy birthday to my favorite creator and my biggest creative inspiration. If you are (somehow) reading this and are unfamiliar with Mike’s staggering body of work, do yourself a favor and go pick up one of his many books. They’re all good.

Why can't they all be that easy

934No one is surprised that I’m a fan of Guillermo del Toro. Even when I don’t like his movies, they’re always full of plenty of creative nutrients for me to absorb and convert into something of my own, and his commentary tracks are, invariably, some of the best in the business, and always worth the price of the movie by themselves. Del Toro and Mignola are two influences that have been with me pretty much throughout my writing career, and both have been huge inspirations for me, not least in how they, themselves, proudly display their own influences and inspirations in their work.

So, of course, I’ve always been intrigued by GDT’s bizarre personal museum Bleak House, and when the opportunity came to get a tour of at least part of it in the form of the At Home With Monsters exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of of Art, I jumped at it. Along with some other local writing friends and colleagues, we piled into a couple of cars and made the seven-and-a-half hour drive up to Minneapolis, just long enough to see the exhibit and head home, pretty much.

It’s probably good that we didn’t budget anything else to do while we were there, because I could have spent all day inside the At Home With Monsters. Walking around the exhibit was a lot like walking around a physical projection of the inside of my own head. The overlap between GDT’s obsessions and my own may be less pronounced than mine and Mignola’s, but there’s certainly still plenty of overlap there, and I was overjoyed to find comics that I owned on the walls of comic books that the collection held.

949More than anything, it felt like a creative space, like a direct conduit between inspiration and generation. Highlights included, well, most of the place, really, but perhaps the most exciting was seeing the actual original sketches of one of Mike Mignola’s original designs for the Sammael creature in the first Hellboy movie, which has always been one of my favorite monster designs. I had seen most of the sketches before, but as is always the case with art, seeing it in person was a world of difference from seeing even a high-quality reproduction.

Speaking of that, there were a couple of original paintings there by Zdzislaw Beksinski, including one (unfortunately, I didn’t get the title) that was so jaw-dropping to see in person that I practically had to reach out and touch it to reassure myself that it wasn’t three dimensional. (I didn’t touch it, because the signs specifically asked me not to, but the urge was certainly there.)

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03william-mortensen-l-amour_900I first discovered the work of William Mortensen on Pinterest, of all places, when someone shared the image that accompanies this post, “L’Amour.” Upon seeing it, I immediately knew that I had to learn more about its history and context, and, in my seeking, I wound up learning more about the man who had created the photograph.

Called “the anti-Christ” by Ansel Adams (and we writers think that our squabbles get heated), Mortensen was a fascinating photographer who used various techniques to create captivating, often grotesque photographic effects that frequently look as much like paintings or drawings as photos. Thankfully, about the time I was being introduced to his work, he was experiencing something of a renaissance in popularity, and I had several books available to learn more about him, including the recently published American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen and a reissue of one of Mortensen’s own books, The Command to Look. (If my story intrigues you at all, I highly recommend both.)

In researching Mortensen, I became fascinated, not merely by his methods and the images they produced, but by his life. And gradually, I knew that I would eventually write a story about him, at least roundaboutly. And that story eventually became “Mortensen’s Muse.” In it, I took as my jumping-off point the real-life relationship between Mortensen and then-undiscovered ingenue Fay Wray. Given my fascination with Golden Age Hollywood stories, the combination was too tempting to resist.

At one time, the story was probably going to go ahead and feature William Mortensen, but as I wrote it, I discovered that, as much as it hewed close to the facts in many places, it also diverged from them in important ways, and not just in its supernatural denouement, so I decided to change some names. William Mortensen became Ronald Mortensen, and the names of our “unidentified” narrator’s films all changed subtly, though her co-stars and directors remained the same.

“Mortensen’s Muse” was written for Ellen Datlow’s anthology Children of Lovecraft, where I’m ecstatic to say that it represents two very important firsts for me. It’s my first time in an original Ellen Datlow anthology (my story “Persistence of Vision” previously appeared in her Best Horror of the Year Volume 7) and my first time behind a Mike Mignola cover. Considering those have both been life goals of mine, you could say that I’m pretty happy with this publication, and not be at all incorrect. Below is a photo of my contributor copy, which came packaged very neatly from Dark Horse, and just today a very positive review of the antho went live at Cemetery Dance Online, in which the reviewer says of my story, “If H.P. Lovecraft had written for The Twilight Zone, this could have been the story he would have written.” There is definitely worse praise to get than that…

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skritchMike Mignola has a story that he tells in interviews and things all the time, that when he first read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, he knew what he wanted to do with his life. For me, that same moment came when I read Mike Mignola’s work on Hellboy. Which is just one of the reasons that he is, was, and probably always will be who I want to be when I grow up.

I’d always loved monsters and ghosts and robots and weird stuff, ever since I was a little kid. Literally for as long as I can remember, in fact. It was always inevitable that I was going to write about monsters in one form or another. It’s not that Hellboy made me love monsters, it just showed me exactly how I loved them, the whats and the whys and the wherefores (which are really just whys again, but hey).

Most of the people reading this probably already know all of this. I’ve certainly made no secret of it. My first book is dedicated to Mike, and really, if there are any subsequent books, then they just as easily probably all could be, too. I bring it all back up because today is his birthday. I guess we normally reserve birthday celebration posts for more distant heroes; ones who have already passed on, or who we don’t have much direct contact with. And I’ll admit that it feels a little weird to write this about someone who could potentially come and read it. But I don’t have any bigger inspiration than Mike Mignola, and it seemed a shame to let his birthday pass without marking it in some way.

So today, go imbibe some great Mignola art and storytelling. It’s not like you need an excuse. If you’re having trouble deciding what to read, I recommend picking up a copy of The Amazing Screw-On Head & Other Curious Objects. It’s my personal favorite, so far.

You know I’ve been busy when it takes me over a week to post about this:

Hellboy in Hell, as anyone reading this probably already knows, marks Mike Mignola’s first time drawing Hellboy in way too long. It also marks an entirely new chapter in Hellboy’s existence as a character, and one that I’ve been very excited about since it was first announced. There’ll be some mild spoilers, so read at your own risk.

I like Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. and Baltimore and everything else, but so far my favorite of anything I’ve seen Mignola ever do is the Amazing Screw-On Head & Other Curious Objects book. The big star of that book for most people is the reprint of Amazing Screw-On Head, but the best stuff for me is the more recent stuff that Mignola drew to fill out the rest of the book. There’s a couple of reasons for that. One, it’s Mignola completely unfettered. It’s pure imagination, distilled onto the page, and nobody does that better than Mignola. Two, though he claims to be rusty, Mignola’s art has really jumped up a notch in recent years, and he’s at his best in stories like “The Witch and her Soul” and “The Prisoner of Mars.” The exciting thing about Hellboy in Hell is that, not only is Mignola back on art duties, but both of those things that made the Amazing Screw-On Head book so magical are largely true here, too. Though still telling the larger, interconnected story of Hellboy and his mythos, the move to send Hellboy to Mignola’s version of hell has freed Mignola from the constraints of a story set in the (increasingly complex) real world of the ongoing B.P.R.D. comics, and gives him free rein to pour his imagination directly onto the page again, both in storytelling and in art.

As a result, Hellboy in Hell #1 is probably the most abstract Hellboy comic to date. There’s a fantastic transition in which Hellboy’s heart becomes Hellboy himself. There’s the panel referenced on the regular cover, which may be among the most striking Hellboy panels I’ve seen. Hellboy in Hell #1 is also about as close to what I think of as “pure Mignola” as anything you’ll find. There’s what appears to be a visual nod to Goya, and there’s a fight sequence that’s more Kirby than anything Mignola’s done in a while. There’s weird leaning Victorian houses and portraits of random people, and of course there’s a puppet version of A Christmas Carol, which actually provides some tantalizing hints of the structure of this first Hellboy in Hell story arc. 

Really, the only problem with Hellboy in Hell #1 is that it feels too short. Not that it’s any shorter than normal, it isn’t, but it’s something I feel like I’ve been waiting so long for that I want it all right now. I think this first story arc is one that will benefit from multiple readings over time, and I’m really looking forward to reading the whole thing again when it’s collected into a trade.