Despite a quarter-century of professional comic-book illustrating — and having drawn some of the most popular superheroes ever — artist Shawn Martinbrough still had a “bucket list” character who had escaped the lines of his pencils for so many years.
Hellboy, the stone-handed, horned creation of Mike Mignola, had always been one of Martinbrough’s favorite characters. Mignola’s early years drawings for Marvel and DC Comics were a heavy influence on Martinbrough as a young man.
Over time, the two artists became friends over social media where Martinbrough frequently shares examples of his artwork, including cover and interior page work from “Thief of Thieves,” the Robert Kirkman-created series from Image Comics that Martinbrough has been illustrating for years.
Mignola reached out after liking many of the illustrations Martinbrough posted online, and told him if he ever wanted to draw Hellboy to just let him know.
“I was totally blown away,” Martinbrough, a resident of Alexandria, Va., told The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs.
Mignola connected Martinbrough to Mignola’s editor at Dark Horse Comics, Scott Allie, who asked Martinbrough what type of Hellboy story he’d like to do.
“I told them I didn’t care if it was a ‘Hellboy meets the Village People’ story,” Martinbrough joked. “As long as I got to draw Hellboy, I would be happy.”
But the tale he ended up actually illustrating — “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. 1955 — Secret Nature,” a one-shot adventure available now — takes place in 1950s Oregon, as Hellboy teams up with Woodrow, a young, scientific mind, to investigate rumored otherworldly happenings.
Martinbrough, who is African American, is known for going out of his way to add diversity to the comics he works on. If a story’s script doesn’t specify the race of a supporting or background character, he’ll frequently draw that character as a person of color.
That wouldn’t be necessary with this Hellboy story (written by Mignola and Chris Roberson), in which Woodrow, Hellboy’s partner, is a brilliant African American from Chicago.
In the story, Woodrow is offended but not shocked when he brushes up against some racism even noticing that the white man he and Hellboy have questions for is more comfortable around a giant demon from hell than a black man.
“Hellboy is an average Joe in the form of a large, fantastical red demon with a large stone hand and tail,” Martinbrough said. “The idea of a white guy accepting Hellboy without skipping a beat, but questioning the legitimacy of a black scientist is tragic but, unfortunately, very realistic. The social commentary was a very pleasant and welcome surprise.”
Martinbrough felt proud to draw the panels that showed Hellboy defending Woodrow, but also lamented that when he began illustrating the series, he assumed it took place in the present day.
“I didn’t catch that the story took place in the 1950s. Considering the year is 2017, that’s pretty sad. So I drew Woody holding a smartphone in a number of panels,” Martinbrough said. “Once Scott reminded me of the story date, I later changed the phones to appropriate props from the time period.”
When it came time to design Woodrow’s look, Martinbrough instantly thought of a teenager named Miles Burke, the comic-book-loving son of a close family friend who also resides in the Washington area. Martinbrough believes representation in comics is important and hopes the experience makes Miles a comic-book lover for life.
“When I read the Hellboy script, I thought of Miles, who is into pop culture and a cool young man. I thought he would make a great reference model for Woodrow,” Martinbrough said. “Seeing himself in a fun story interacting with a famous figure like Hellboy must be a thrill for Miles on a number of levels.”
Now that he’s crossed drawing Hellboy off his all-time to do list, Martinbrough said if called again, he’d jump at the chance. Perhaps another adventure with Woodrow could be in order — this time in the present day — to see how times have or haven’t changed.
“It’s fascinating to talk with an older person of color, especially with a black person, about how things have changed yet still remain the same over the years. My grandmother recently passed away at the ripe old age of 92,” Martinbrough said. She shared “stories of growing up in the small town of Windsor, N.C., in the 1920s then moving to New York in the 1940s. I think the juxtaposition of similar stories with the evolving supernatural world of ‘Hellboy’ would be a very intriguing approach for an older Woody tale.”