While I was talking to Gary Gianni, the illustrator of the new Hellboy
comic Into the Silent Sea
, he brought up a quote from Adam Gopnik, a writer for the New Yorker
: "All grownup craft depends on sustaining a frozen moment from childhood." For Gianni, now 62, it still rings true. "I still have all my Marvel
comics from when I was a kid, pre-superhero comics," he says. "Comic books helped me learn how to read...The art of Jack Kirby flowed so nicely that you didn't need to read to follow a storyline."
Gianni's path into comics was a less conventional one: he illustrated his first comic when he was 35, after serving as a courtroom sketch artist and newspaper illustrator. In the years that followed, he worked on everything from the legendary Prince Valiant to Batman: Black and White, as well as illustrating the stories of Ray Bradbury and George R.R. Martin. Listening to Gianni talk about his journey is almost as fascinating as his work, and it makes reading Into the Silent Sea even more rich.
Comic Books and Coca-Cola: The Early Life of Gary Gianni
One of Gianni's early memories is of helping the owner of his local drugstore set out the comic books on the display racks, which would score him a free copy or two. These were the days before superhero comics, when weird tales were all the rage. "I'd sit on a stool, order a coke, read a comic book, all the old monster comics…soon after, all the new superhero stories started coming out. I remember when the first Fantastic Four
comic came out, and I immediately took to that stuff."
Looking back on it, he admits that if he'd come across comics when he was, say, a teenager, things would have been very different. "These things, if they hit you at the right time, they'll change your life. It's just part of your DNA [at that point]."
After talking to Gianni and Chris Roberson, another Hellboy collaborator
, as well as P. Craig Russell
, the artist scripting the American Gods
comic with Neil Gaiman, one name keeps appearing: Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian. Gianni worked on a number of adaptations of Howard's work, including stories involving Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, and Conan himself. "I've always loved heroic adventure, the romance of the hero's plight, from Ulysses through the stories of Middle Ages," Gianni says. Weird fiction, despite being almost unknown in contemporary circles, lies at the heart of Gianni's fascination with comics, and at the heart of Hellboy
, which draws heavily from writers like Howard and H.P. Lovecraft.
The closest thing modern fans have to experiencing the old medieval adventure stories of Gianni's youth may be George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones
series, which Gianni helped to illustrate. He recalls the one question he had to ask while working with Martin: "...I had to ask George a question that I wish I could ask all the great authors, living or dead: why would an author who has the skill to transport a reader to another world through the use of the written word want an illustrator to get in there and muck around? His answer was music to the ear of any artist and it's easy to understand why they give George their best. He said "I like to see what an artist can do with my work."
From Popeye to Rembrandt: Gary Gianni's Journey Into Comics
When I asked Gary about some of his influences, the list included everything from Steve Ditko, the co-creator and artist behind Spider-Man
and Doctor Strange, to Gustav Dore, the 19th-century artist and printmaker, and Frederick Remington, who created some of the seminal depictions of the Old West at the turn of the 20th century. Also on his list was Popeye and Rembrandt van Rijn, the Dutch master.
The eclectic mix of inspirations reflects Gianni's view of himself as an artist: "I don't think of myself as a superhero artist. I never had the conventional journey...The first comic I did, I was 35 years old. I fell into it…there was a comic book company in Chicago that was doing classics illustrated, and they thought my work would lend itself well to classic literature...I adapted some O. Henry stories."
Then, in 1990, his friend Geof Darrow encouraged him to pitch himself to Dark Horse. To his surprise, he was brought on to work on an Indiana Jones comic, The Shrine of the Sea Devil. Gianni was warned that the liaisons at Lucasfilm were extremely exacting when it came to art and stories using their properties, to the point that he was told straight out "This won't be easy." But the Lucasfilm people loved his work and the comic was published without a hitch.
"Around that time, I met Mike, who was just getting started on Hellboy. [We realized we had] similar interests in books and films, and he asked if I wanted to work on a backup feature in Hellboy." This became Gianni's recurring feature, MonsterMen. Soon after, however, Gianni began working on a series of illustrations for the work of Robert E. Howard, and had to put the MonsterMen series on hiatus. Mignola told him that if he ever decided to work with him again, he had a story waiting for him. This would be Into the Silent Sea.
Into the Silent Sea: Hellboy's Moby Dick
After reconnecting years later, Mike told Gary that he wanted to collaborate on a new project. "Mike had bookmarked a moment in Hellboy
's timeline, when Hellboy was lost at sea. Mike worked on an outline, I tweaked it, and started working on it." At first, Gianni was afraid his distinctive art would end up marring Hellboy
's reputation: "I told him 'My style is so different from Duncan or Corben,'"...Mike said 'I want you to do what you do.'" After that, the project went incredibly smoothly—after 10 months, it was ready to go.
Silent Sea, Gianni says, was inspired by one of his and Mignola's favorite films: John Huston's 1956 movie Moby Dick, which Ray Bradbury had worked on. The work of Gregory Peck was particularly influential, as were William Hope Hodgson, H.P. Lovecraft, and Samuel Coleridge, whose poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is quoted throughout Silent Sea. Gianni reflects that one of the reasons the Hellboy series is so universally beloved is because "there is generally some kind of poignancy or melancholy, or heart that's attached to those stories."
Into the Silent Sea itself is a short, self-contained story that has Hellboy being taken captive aboard what appears to be a whaling ship. Upon asking what year it is, he learns he's somehow been transported to the 1800s. He then meets a scientist woman whose search for knowledge has led her to unearth Lovecraftian secrets. Silent Sea looks more like a 19th century engraving rather than a comic book at times, especially the sky and ocean, which makes it all the more magical. The characters, including the long-bearded sea captain, look like they could have stepped out of an illustrated first edition of Moby Dick, and the incredible level of detail gives the whole story a sense of authenticity.
Two especially interesting plot points stuck out to me: one was the ancient Hyperborean city of Tunungar that the scientist woman describes excavating, which may be the same city Chris Roberson hinted at in his interview (and filled in the blank in his lore document). The other is that the whole arc of Silent Sea came about because Hellboy offhandedly mentioned being lost at sea at some point in the series. It's a throwaway line, but nothing in the Hellboy series is ever a throwaway line, as Chris Roberson's work on The Visitor showed.
"Call Me, and We'll Talk About the Future": The Future of Storytelling
After speaking about Silent Sea
and his long journey through comics, the conversation turned toward the future. Not just of comics, but of storytelling. "I'm a very nostalgic character, because looking into the future scares me, but on the other hand, the wonderful technological inventions have helped me immensely...we're at a point now where a paradigm shift has been happening." Virtual reality was one point that came up. "It's an exciting time for artists. It's not quite there yet, but when the visual language for virtual reality develops, the storytelling [possibilities] will create a new art form."
This kind of anxiety isn't anything new, though. Gianni recalls talking with the legendary Jim Steranko in the 1990s, who told him "Comics are already old-fashioned. We are on the verge of creating new storytelling." It was a shock to hear that coming from Steranko, Gianni says, but his predictions were already coming true a few years later. However, looking toward the future, he remembers a project he worked on with Ray Bradbury, and a call that set things in perspective.
"[Ray Bradbury] left a message that's still on my machine...'I misplaced your drawings, if you could send them back to me, Gary, I'd really appreciate it. Call me, and we'll talk about the future.'" At that point in time, Bradbury was in his eighties, in deteriorating health, but when Gianni heard that last phrase, 'Call me, and we'll talk about the future,' it made him think that the call would be about more than just the lost drawings. There was the promise that it would be about what was to come.
Hellboy: Into the Silent Sea will hit comic book shops on April 19th and bookstores on May 2nd, 2017.