Touch of Evil

Cartoonist Mike Mignola cast his shadow over Atlantis.

Disnola in motion: Mignola casts his shadow over - Atlantis.
Disnola in motion: Mignola casts his shadow over Atlantis.
Mike Mignola's world is crawling with zombies, ghosts, demons, and Nazis. The comic book artist's work centers on "Hellboy," a bulky, red-skinned hero with a tail who files down his horns every morning the way most people shave. In the world of graphic art, Mignola doesn't exactly ooze the fuzzy charm of a talking candelabra, so it came as a surprise when Disney tapped him to be the visual consultant on its latest animated feature, Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

"Out of the blue, I got a phone call," Mignola recalls. "I literally had no idea that they knew who I was. I mean, it was really the last place I expected to hear from."

Mignola, a transplanted Californian who lives in Portland, Oregon, started his career in the early 1980s as a comic book grunt, working for The Big Two: Marvel and DC. He escaped the world of capes and spandex in the mid-'90s and created Hellboy for Dark Horse Comics. It's a horror/humor title inspired by his love of folktales and '20s and '30s pulp fiction. His unique style was a hit with fans, who were drawn to the simplified, iconic images, full of contrasts of light and shadow. It also piqued the interest of Atlantis co-director Kirk Wise.

"It involved lots of black shadows and silhouettes, shallow overlapping layers as well as angular shapes," says Wise, who incorporated Mignola's touch into everything from backgrounds to character design. "The combination of Mignola's style with what we do at Disney was sometimes referred to as 'Disnola.'"

At his first meeting with Disney execs, Mignola was greeted with blown-up pages from his comic books that had been converted into diagrams. He admits to being flabbergasted as they dissected his work. They were "explaining how I do what I do -- this kind of foreshortening or this kind of pattern of shadows -- in terms that even I didn't understand. It was very, very strange: probably one of the most out-of-body experiences I've had."

Speaking in the disoriented tone of a UFO abductee, Mignola recalls his introduction to Disnola as "designs of the main characters that were done in a more traditional, generic animation style, and then a board right next to it that was 'Mignolaized' -- my style taken to the nth degree."

"Mignola's style was challenging and fun," says John Pomeroy, who supervised much of the picture's animation. "I didn't have to worry if the anatomy was correct, as long as I had a good graphic representation of the structure."

Despite the studio's enthusiasm, Mignola was still doubtful his vision would ever make it to the screen. "I had in my mind throughout the whole process, 'Well, this will never happen. All my ideas are going to get abandoned; they'll end up adding songs.'"

Fortunately, he was wrong on all counts.