Every comic fan has stories they love to go back and reread. I know I do, as there are a slew of comics – single issues, runs, arcs, strips, etc. – that I just have to come back to every once in a while, either because they mean a little something special or are just so good I can’t help but return to them. That’s what my new recurring column – which I’m calling Revisitor – is going to be all about. It’s going to look back on the stories we can’t help but revisit, 1 hopefully working in perspectives from the people who made these comics we can’t help but love in the process. 2
And this new column is starting with the comic book equivalent of comfort food for yours truly – I reread this short story sometimes when I’m having a tough day and it never fails to put a smile on my face – which doubles as a comic that just so happened to turn 20 years old last month. It’s “Pancakes,” a two-page Hellboy story from the 1999 Dark Horse Presents Annual. Even better? I’ll be getting a little insight from the man behind that brilliant comic, as Mike Mignola shared the story behind this delightfully quirky entry into the Hellboy oeuvre and how it came to be.
So why is “Pancakes” an all-timer for me, as well as a comic I can’t help but revisiting time and time again? There are a lot of reasons for that, but there are two that stand above the rest. For one, it’s a comic that showcases a huge part of what makes Hellboy special in that – despite his history-altering importance and the fundamental nature of his being – he’s really just a kid at heart, and one that craves things as basic as the friendship of a dog and the comfort hot noodles provide him. While we all love the insane adventures and the living myths the character gets involved with, Hellboy is special because, in spite of that, he’s kind of just a normal guy. In the face of the extraordinary, he never loses touch of the ordinary. That’s present in “Pancakes.”
Also, let’s be real: it’s really funny and a straight comedy story, which makes it an anomaly for the character in some ways. Don’t get me wrong, Hellboy is a comic that has long had humor as an aspect of it. But it’s not what I’d call a “funny” comic overall. Entertaining? Absolutely. Haunting? Yes. Poetic and arresting? Of course. By and large, though, comedy is an element that exists within it while also not defining the series, especially when you consider the whole. Most of the funniest parts of the series are small sequences or even just panels within issues and arcs, with arguably the most commonly cited humorous beat – besides “Pancakes,” of course – being the famously meme-worthy “Is that a monkey?” “He’s got a gun!” from Hellboy: Box Full of Evil #1. 3 Humor is present throughout Hellboy, but it’s rarely a straight comedy.
But “Pancakes”? It’s all humor, even following a pretty classic joke structure of first page setup, second page punchline. That makes it stand out amongst the rest of Hellboy’s adventures. Let’s take a look at the first page real quick to see that in action.
Like I said, it’s all setup. The page even ends with the action being committed to, with the turn revealing the result of eating of said “pamcake,” even if said result isn’t the true punchline that sells the whole thing. But this page is a requirement for that hammer to hit, as even readers who aren’t super familiar with the character are delivered everything they need to make the whole thing work just on this page.
Who is Hellboy? He’s a young kid, and one that sure looks like a demon of some sort. What’s he like? A typical kid, as he’s being picky as heck about breakfast, desiring something besides what he’s been given. What’s he doing? Being forced into it by a General at the Air Force base he resides at that’s at least somewhat responsible for him. It’s 12 quick panels of informational download that also sets up the gag to follow. It’s economical comic book storytelling at its finest, even charming us into loving the kid that Hellboy was in the process.
A big part of that comes from Mignola’s character acting, which is always good, but feels dialed up to 11 here because of the inherently humorous nature of the story and the often-expressive nature of kids. Every face of Hellboy’s on this page speaks volumes, but for me, it’s the 11th panel that takes the gold medal. The “AAAAAAHHH…” with his eyes closed and mouth open is sheer perfection, showing the blind hopes of a kid who has no idea if he’s being swindled by this pancake pushing surrogate parent. I love it.
Let’s look at the punchline now.
Of course Hellboy loves pancakes, because he’s a kid and it turns out that fluffy discs of batter covered in butter are in fact right up the alley of most children. But that’s not the punchline, as unlike most kids, Hellboy is a half-demon whose destiny may or may not be to free the Ogdru Jahad 4 with his Right Hand of Doom. The residents of Hell are invested in Hellboy eventually realizing that fate. Or at least they are until he has “eaten the pancake,” an action that sent the realm into chaos and ensured “he will never come back to (them) now,” if only because pancakes are delicious and who wants to release monsters into the world when that would limit access to said pancakes?
Everything about these two pages and 19 panels is perfect, as Mignola’s natural pace as a storyteller isn’t just effective at telling haunting, thoughtful tales of adventure, but laugh-out-loud gags as well. The cadence makes every beat hit extra hard, especially when it comes to the final four panels. A completely sincere “Truly this is our blackest hour” coming from a Grand Duke of the Infernal Regions 5 is a tremendously funny note, especially when followed by the simple image of a cleaned plate. Many cartoonists would skip that last panel. But like the panel with the fork engraved with “USA” on it that closed the previous page, it’s the cherry on top of this comedic sundae, and something that makes this comic quintessentially Mignola.
Interestingly, though, this beloved two-pager was effectively a by-product of Mignola trying to get out of ever doing this gig. As he shared with me, the editor of Dark Horse Presents at the time called him explaining that they were doing a special issue – called DHP Jr. – filled with short comics about Dark Horse characters back when they were young. The editor wanted to see if Mignola would be interested in telling a young Hellboy story in it.
“I didn’t want to do it, had no intention to do it, but as a joke I said something like ‘How about two pages of Hellboy eating pancakes?’ It was a silly idea and meant to mean that I didn’t want to do a story, but the editor right away said ‘okay,’ and there you go—I was stuck,” Mignola told me. “At the time my very young daughter seemed to eat pretty much nothing but hot noodles with butter, and if you tried to feed her anything else she’d go rigid, like you’d just put a snake on her plate.
“So I decided to just do something like that with Hellboy.”
As a breakfast obsessed human, there was a part of me that always wondered one specific question about this comic: why pancakes? There are so many delicious food options available to woo Hellboy away from the forces of Hell. How did it end up being that food in specific? It wasn’t that complicated, it turns out.
“I don’t really remember why pancakes—it’s just what popped into my head when that editor called. Maybe we’d tried to get our daughter to eat pancakes,” Mignola said. “I do remember that I didn’t think of any other food. I didn’t really give it that much thought.”
So the fussy eater angle was easy to figure out. Mignola knew what he wanted to do there from the jump, but what he had was one page, tops. That wasn’t a complete story by any means. It needed some sort of payoff.
“I didn’t know where to go after the first pages and then came up with the cut-away to hell, just because I thought it would be funny,” Mignola shared.
The funny thing about that second page is it’s one you can read into a whole lot, if you so desire. It could be a statement about Hellboy’s position as a figure of destiny! You could say that those pancakes changed his life forever, pushing him to the side of the angels for good that fateful day in 1947! It’s cited as Astaroth’s first appearance, so maybe it’s important in that way!
It’s nothing like that.
“I was not giving any thought at all to Hellboy’s destiny—not much thought at all about anything. I just thought it would be a good, fast gag,” Mignola said. “At the time I wasn’t even thinking it would ever be reprinted, it would just be an odd little curiosity.”
Yet “Pancakes” endures. Not only did it bat leadoff in the first volume of Hellboy: The Complete Short Stories last year – making it (at least) the third time this two-pager has been collected – but references to it managed to make its way into future Hellboy-related comics, most notably B.P.R.D. 1947 #4, 6 a comic that finds Hellboy getting B.P.R.D. agent Archie to make him a hellacious stack of pancakes. “Pancakes” even earned a reference in Guillermo del Toro’s first Hellboy film! It left a heck of an impression for a comic that happened almost by accident.
But as Mignola told me, “you never really know what’s going to click with people.” “Pancakes” is a perfect example of that, as the legendary cartoonist described the comic as having “taken on a life of its own,” earning references by fans regularly. It’s something he said he’s “gotten used to” eventually, as this story’s popularity was hardly by design. But hey, that’s the magic of comics at times. You never know where the wonder is going to come from, and sometimes, it’s the smallest stories that can have the biggest impact. “Pancakes” certainly is a reflection of that, as it evolved from a curiosity that almost never was to a comic fans of the character will never forget.
Thanks for reading the first edition of “Revisitor” a new recurring column here at SKTCHD. If you enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing to SKTCHD for more features like this, longforms looking into the world of comics, regular columns, and a whole lot more. Learn more about a SKTCHD subscription here.
Although I may occasionally zero in on creators or characters instead.↩
And we might even have guests stepping in for one of these columns down the line.↩
Which, incredibly, also happened to arrive in August of 1999, the same month as Pancakes. It was a great month for fans of funny Mignola.↩
Some Lovecraftian monsters that can only be loosed upon the world with Hellboy’s assistance.↩
aka Astaroth, a character that becomes much more important later on for non-pancake reasons.↩
From Mignola, Joshua Dysart, Fabio Moon, Gabriel Bá and Clem Robins, which if you haven’t read it, you really should because all the stories in this world from the Twins are brilliant.↩