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B.P.R.D.: Hollow Earth and Other Stories
see my review here


cover by Mignola Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Others 1998 (SC TPB) 64 pages

Written and illustrated by Mike Mignola.
Colours: various. Letters: Pat Brosseau. Editors: Scott Allie.

Reprinting: Hellboy: The Corpse and the Iron Shoes, Hellboy: The Wolves of Saint August, Hellboy: Christmas Special, Hellboy: Almost Colossus #1, 2, plus Hellboy stories from Dark Horse Presents #100, and original to this collection, "The Baba Yaga", plus some of the other stories contain additional pages. (1994-1998)

Additional notes: commentaries by Mignola; introduction by P. Craig Russell; pin-ups by other artists,

Rating: * * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

Published by Dark Horse Comics

There's something weirdly undiscrimnatory about the Hellboy TPBs I've read. That is, if I were to read five Batman TPBs, or Spider-Man, I'd expect some good ones, and some not-so-good ones. Yet with Hellboy, I'll admit -- I tend to like them all. I liked them after a first reading, and enjoyed them even more after a second (more forgiving of any flaws).

With that being said, if you were looking for a good sampler/starter TPB of Hellboy, The Chained Coffin and Others is probably a good nominee. Many of the Hellboy TPBs collect single, long form stories, originally published as mini-series. Whereas The Chained Coffin is one of a few that collect a variety of stories between a single cover, which is why it makes a nice sampler. And the variety allows for different tones and feels.

The longest piece was first published as a two issue mini-series, "Almost Colossus", and stands out as a particularly strong tale. Though it follows on the heels of a sub-plot in the previous TPB -- Wake the Devil -- it still is reasonably self-contained. Hellboy's colleague, Liz Sherman, is in a semi-coma after essentially having her life force stolen to reanimate a homonculus, and Hellboy and Kate Corrigian scour the Romanian countryside trying to capture the creature -- unaware another, more sinister presence also seeks the wayward homonculus. I'd commented before that both the strength, and the short coming, of Mignola's writing/art is a certain deadpan style, eschewing the more obvious emotion of the motion picture. Yet here he seems to have mastered that low-key style, so that there's actually some powerful, deep emotional undercurrents, even as it's handled in a quiet, unobtrusive way. Scenes of Abe Sapian standing vigil by Liz's hospital room are quite touching. And the homonculus is given more depth and sympathy than as simply the monster of the week.

Because of its length, Almost Colossus acts as the centre piece of the collection, and harkens to the long form stories fans are accustomed to from the longer Hellboy mini-series.

Yet almost as long is the moody, spooky one-shot, "Wolves of St. August", and there are some other "feature length" (ie: comic book length) tales, such as "The Corpse" and "Christmas Underground", as well as some tasty little short pieces, including the title story, "The Chained Coffin" which, given its length (10 pgs.) might seem an odd choice for the title...but is significant as it shines some light on Hellboy's murky origin.

Part of the appeal of Mignola's writing is that he doesn't just write a quirky horror series inspired by the latest cinematic scare fest. Rather, Mignola is clearly a student of traditional folklore and legends, steeping Hellboy in a tone and style that is actually quite different from the average 20th/21st Century pop horror series. And that becomes even more explicit here than in the earlier TPBs, as in his various commentaries introducing the stories, Mignola frequently alludes to the actual folk tales that inspired the stories, how some stories he had wanted to adapt for years (presumably before he'd even created Hellboy) while with others he set out to write a Hellboy story, and searched around for a folk tale to provide inspiration.

As such, there is often a dreamlike sense to the Hellboy stories, where logic can be rather tenuous. Yet instead of just seeming like a narratively confused mess, it adds to the richness, the sense of ineffability. Partly because it does seem so evocative of the logic and narrative rhythm of folk tales. Yet with all that being said, the stories do generally hold together -- I don't want to leave the impression they don't. It's more in the little asides that there is a certain surrealism...the way skeletons will offer warnings, unbidden, or animals will start speaking, as though in a dream.

Of course, much of the success of the series is that it's all about the mood, which is why the dreamlike narrative flow suits the stories. You open a Hellboy story and it's like your slipping into a vivid dream, rich in mood and atmosphere. And an enormous part of that is Mignola's art, which is almost breathtaking in his ability to evoke a sense of place, of gothic castles and lonely, midnight draped open fields, all with some deceptively simple line work. And it's all wrapped in deep shadows, adding to the sense of spookiness...yet also adding a comforting warmth, strangely enough. In all this he's aided by the colours, which with a penchant toward sombre hues and earth tones captures the sense of darkness, without going overboard and making it just visually dull and murky. And by contrast, we have the bright read Hellboy at the centre of it, fairly glowing like a stained glass portrait.

It's all a little creepy and scary, sure, but it's also fun and inviting.

After all, in addition to the scary stuff, the creeping mood, the portentous utterings of otherworldly beings -- there is a nice contrast with Hellboy's deadpan wisecracks, and his gruff but good hearted phlegmaticness dealing with things he's seen before. In The Wolves of St. August, when asked if he's seen anything like it before...he casually rattles off a series of previous incidents. And part of the humour of Hellboy is precisely that his comebacks and wisecracks can be lame, making them funnier in the context, calling monsters, "you horrible thing!" It's funny precisely because he doesn't always have the perfect retort waiting on his tongue.

Hellboy is long lived, and the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, though a US organization, seems to operate globally, so in a collection like this Mignola can play up that, as the stories take place in various locales, and various times (from 1961 to 1994) -- not that it's necessary to the narratives, but adds to the sense of filling in the holes in Hellboy's exploits.

In addition to Almost Colossus, probably the best of the tales here is The Corpse, in which Hellboy must find a final burial place for an animated corpse, yet being turned away at every likely spot. Inspired by a real Irish folk tale, it's a story where the very minimalism of the premise adds to the elegance of the narrative, mixing a spooky darkness, with the humour of Hellboy's nonchalance. And even a kind of melancholy ambivalence, as the story involves Hellboy bargaining to rescue a human baby from fairies, but once this is accomplished, a fairy tells him the age of the fairies is almost gone, leaving the reader with a certain melancholy, as the "monsters" become more sympathetic.

Wolves of St. August is also memorable. Though, admittedly, a lot of the climaxes to the stories can be just big fight scenes, rather than anything that clever -- Hellboy just tougher than his opponents.

Some of the stories are maybe little more than fillers. But as a collection, a sample of Hellboy, with some long, well plotted pieces, with shorter, mood-heavy vignettes, it's a nice tome to have. And though making some references to other Hellboy adventures, overall it is among the most cleanly self-contained of the TPBs.

Original cover price: $__ CDN./$17.95 USA

cover by MignolaHellboy: The Conqueror Worm 2002 (SC TPB) 112 pgs.

Written and illustrated by Mike Mignola.
Colours: Dave Stewart. Letters: Pat Brosseau. Editors: Scott Allie.

Reprinting: The four issue mini-series (2001)

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Additional notes: intro by Guillermo del Toro; sketchbook by Mignola

Number of readings: 2

Conqueror Worm is a return to the long form story for Hellboy (after the previous two TPBs were anthology collections) -- the four issue mini-series Conqueror Worm (with, I suspect, a few pages of epilogue done exclusively for this collection). And it arguably emerges as one of the best of the (early) Hellboy stories...which maybe isn't saying too much, as -- heck -- I kind of like them all anyway! But what could be a weakness in these longer sagas is, in fact, a strength -- that writer/artist Mike Mignola tends to throw in a lot of different aspects that could just seem like a jumbled mess, but actually results in a story that, if not technically that convoluted, can seem so, with enough characters and agendas weaving back and forth that it remains interesting for subsequent reads.

It's also a throwback to the themes and ideas inherent in the earlier long stories -- Seed of Destruction and Wake the Devil. Once again Hellboy is traipsing around a twilit European castle inhabited by reneged ex-Nazis involved in supernatural conjuring that could bring about the end of the world. The Nazis had been involved in such an experiment during the war, and officials in the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense are worried someone's starting it up again. So Hellboy and fellow B.P.R.D. agent, the artificial homonculus, Roger, are sent to investigate. This pairing actually provides one of the strongest emotional/character basis of the Hellboy sagas, as Roger is regarded as non-human and, therefore, expendable by their bosses. Roger's struggle with the nature of his own existence, and Hellboy's bitterness at the callousness of their superiors provides a nice, emotional heart to the story...even as Mignola doesn't belabour it. Along the way, they encounter the enigmatic Lobster Johnson -- a near forgotten 1930s pulp hero believed to be a myth.

The story mixes Nazis and science fiction (and robot apes!), with folklore and Lovecraftian-style elder gods, spooky horror with action and fisticuffs, unsettling creepiness with the series' signature wry quips and deadpan humour -- humour derived from how the heroes take even the most bizarre happenings in stride. All these things are reflected even in the very title of the story -- the Conqueror Worm is taken from a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, quoted in the comic, in which the "worm" is meant to symbolize death and decay (as in, we're all food for the worms in the end) yet Mignola cheekily plays with the phrase by having the story involve a giant, rampaging worm...literally a conquering worm!

I tend to try and review TPBs from the point of view of asking: how well can this be read just for itself? The Hellboy stories can be a weird mix of continuity...even as the recurring themes and characters can just seem to reiterate what went before (as opposed to developing on it). In the case of Conqueror Worm, although Mignola is drawing upon familiar tropes and themes, it starts out more self-contained -- yes, it's Nazis, attempting to contact elder gods, but it's not the same cabal of Nazis as in Wake the Devil. At least, not in a way that's relevant -- the leader of the scheme is Herman von Klempt who had appeared in Wake the Devil...yet Hellboy refers to them last having met in 1959 (in a short tale reprinted in Seed of Destruction) -- then you realize, oh, right, even though von Klempt was in Wake the Devil...he and Hellboy never came fact-to-face in that story. Yet despite a plethora of asterix footnotes, including filling in background on Roger (made more confusing as last we saw, Roger had "died" in the collection The Chained Coffin, and references are made to his being revived in a story that was reprinted, not in a Hellboy TPB, but in a B.P.R.D. collection, The Hollow Earth).

BUT...for the most part, these things don't really hurt your ability to read this story for itself. Yes there is background and backstories, but it is actually reasonably explained as you go, so that all you really need to follow the story, and any accompanying emotional undercurrents, are contained herein.

Until we get toward the end, that is, then things might seem a bit more cryptic and muddled, as suddenly out of nowhere Rasputin -- the chief villain in Seed of Destruction and Wake the Devil -- appears spectrally to one of the villains (and is featured in the epilogue that, as I say, I suspect was done solely for this collection -- an epilogue featuring even more returning figures). Yet even here, if you don't know who he is or why he's still doesn't really affect the plot, his scenes more an oblique cutaway than a necessary plot development. And, of course, if you are familiar with him, it helps tie together the various stories.

Admittedly, as much as I really love Hellboy -- Mignola's emphasis on continuity can be a bit frustrating. And that's simply because he keeps teasing along certain references, resurrecting recurring characters and presences...without ever really seeming like the scenes are building upon each other, or developing much on what we knew. So, yeah, Hellboy was meant to bring about the apocalypse...and yes, he's rejected that heritage in favour of his human upbringing, and yes, there are some elder gods sleeping in space that various villains try and wake from time to time. It's not really like it's a narrative being teased along in sub-plots from story to story. It's as if Mignola wants to create the sense of some grand epic building through various seeming independent stories...without having bothered to come up with one!

But, a part me says: so what? The strengths of the series easily overshadow the flaws. And those strengths include a genuinely likeable hero, compassionate beneath a phlegmatic exterior, and a twisty little plot that keeps you turning the pages -- even if you suspect it only tenuously makes sense at time. Drily witty dialogue that counterpoints a genuinely spooky, eerie atmosphere created by the sombre colours and Mignola's moody art -- not just his basic drawings, but his use of composition, of storyboarding. The way he'll insert cutaways to a fresco or etch out the castle against a darkening sky, creating mood in an almost cinematic way, where the environment itself is a character.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$17.95 USA.

cover by MignolaHellboy: The Right Hand of Doom 2000 (SC TPB) 112 pgs.

Written and illustrated by Mike Mignola.
Colours: various. Letters: Pat Brosseau. Editors: Scott Allie.

Reprinting: Hellboy: Box Full of Evil #1-2, plus shorter Hellboy stories from Dark Horse Presents #151, Dark Horse Presents Annual 1998, 1999, Gary Gianni's The Monster Men, Abe Sapian: Drums of the Dead, plus a completely re-drawn version of "The Varcolac", the original first serialized in Dark Horse Extra, and a never before published tale, "King Vold". (1998-2000)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Additional notes: commentary by Mignola; sketchbook excerpts

Number of readings: 2

Officially listed as the "fourth" Hellboy TPB, the Right Hand of Doom (like the previous -- Chained Coffin) is an anthology of tales rather than a single, long form story. And though the fourth TPB, it collects stories published over a few years, in a variety of venues, some that might technically have been published inbetween stories from the earlier TPBs. As well, part of the mythos of Hellboy is that he is long lived, and he and the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense have been active for decades, so the stories here are set in different decades. In general, it's not actually relevant to the tales, other than a date arbitrarily placed at the start of each story. Steeped in a gothic atmosphere, Hellboy's adventures taking him to decrepit castles and confrontations on rural, moonlit fields, the stories are deliberately timeless. Creator Mike Mignola doesn't try and root the stories in specific eras -- no adventures set against a backdrop of 1950s Cold War paranoia, or 1960s flower power.

What the collection does pretend to do is arrange the stories in a chronological way, breaking this collection up into sections like "The Early Years", and "The Middle Years". But only the first story -- well, a two page vignette -- really reflects a sense of being from another time, as it features Hellboy as a little boy. Called "Pancakes", it's just a quirky, throwaway little joke piece that, strangely, has a weird resonance, as if Mignola has somehow tapped into some profound human truth. It's cute, it's funny...and it's oddly memorable.

The rest of the tales all feature an adult Hellboy doing what he does best.

And it's another solid collection, the stories (many just ten pages or so) mixing dreamlike atmosphere, spookiness, comic book action, and wry quips and quirky humour. Mignola is a student of folklore, and many tales are based on (or loosely suggested by) genuine folk tales, adding to their sense of resonance and dreamlike logic. The collection is a mix of purely stand alone tales of Hellboy encountering ghosts and demons, with other stories that hint at the over arcing themes throughout the Hellboy saga involving his origins and supposed destiny. As such, it's perhaps helpful this collection includes the story "The Right Hand of Doom" which is little more than a synopsis of relevant earlier adventures, getting you up to speed on the Hellboy mythos.

The short stories are all generally good and compelling, but many are fairly simple -- more concerned with mood and atmosphere than in plot twists or character development. But, again, that reflects perhaps Mignola's folk tale inspirations.

And, as always, Mignola's craggy, deceptively minimalist art is powerfully effective. It's moody and haunting, both understated and deadpan, yet dramatic and bombastic, full of deep shadows and gothic atmosphere, yet also evoking the humour and, yes, the humanity of the characters.

The longest story here is "Box Full of Evil", originally published as a two issue mini-series. It starts out particularly well, full of mood and spookiness, as Hellboy, and pal Abe Sapian, get embroiled in the schemes of some occultists -- as always, the story creating a sense of "reality" by suggesting a history between the characters (Hellboy supposedly knows one of the villains from a previous -- untold -- adventure). Mignola cleverly mixes the eerie notion of a story where not everything is explicit to the characters, with the fact that we, the reader, see and know things the heroes don't. So while the story might end with Hellboy and Abe left slightly befuddled by events, musing "That's strange." -- we actually have a better idea of what's behind certain incidents.

At the same time, "Box Full of Evil" is a mixed bag. As the story progresses, both Hellboy and Abe end up captured and, um, mistreated for a spell, making for a story that is actually a bit unpleasant. That's actually the funny thing about Hellboy -- for all that it's a "horror" comic, and with some genuinely spooky mood, it's generally a clean horror. That is, though nasty and violent things happen, it usually does so with restraint, either leavened with humour, or by Mignola's stylized art, where the gore isn't really that gory. It's horror for those who find the excesses of the modern practitioners of the genre rather...excessive.

The story also dives fully back into the Hellboy mythos, dealing with Hellboy's supposed destiny, and the plan the forces of darkness have for him. In a way, it's actually meant to be an end to that, as Hellboy firmly rejects that destiny. But perhaps the problem with Hellboy is that for all that Mignola is teasing along recurring threads, it's not really a complex backstory, so it's less like he's developing threads...and more like he's just repeating himself. Also, there are some appearances from otherworld beings that don't really make much sense if you haven't read earlier Hellboy stories, including a goblin previously seen in The Corpse (collected in The Chained Coffin TPB) -- not that it's that important. As mentioned, part of the appeal of Hellboy is the dreamlike sense where not everything is explained.

Still, "Box Full of Evil" is certainly a good Hellboy story -- moody, exciting, creepy, yet with some funny quips and wisecracks. Other highpoints in this collection include the aforementioned "Pancakes", as well as "Heads" and "King Vold" -- the latter original to this collection, not having been published previously. As a sampler collection, I'd still give the nod to the previous TPB -- "The Chained Coffin" -- but this is a perfectly enjoyable assemblage of Hellboy tales, too.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$17.95 USA.

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