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Hellboy... Graphic Novel and TPB Reviews ~ Page 2
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cover by MignolaHellboy: The Seed of Destruction 1994 (SC TPB) 112 pgs.

Written by John Byrne, Mike Mignola. Illustrated by Mike Mignola.
Colours: Mark Chiarello, Matt Hollingsworth. Letters: unbilled. Editor: Scott Alie, Barbara Kesel.

Reprinting: The four issue mini-series, plus some additional shorts.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Additional notes: intro by Robert Bloch; early character sketches by Mignola; art gallery by various

Number of readings: 2

I first read Hellboy some years after he was already established -- but shortly before the release of the first motion picture -- when I read the first five TPBs in a bunch as part of a review job for the website, UGO. Since then, I've re-read some of the stories over the years, and seen the first movie, and now figured I'd take a whack at re-reviewing the books -- particularly as my original piece (which I re-posted here) was done as an overview of all the (then published) TPBs.

Hellboy is, of course, a red skinned, cloven hooved demon...who was raised by humans, and so, as an illustration of nurture over nature, appearance and super strength aside, is actually just a regular joe who investigates the paranormal as an agent of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense.

Seed of Destruction collects the first Hellboy story arc (as well as a couple of even earlier short pieces that were published as promos for the new property). In it we learn of Hellboy's genesis in the waning days of World War II, then cut to modern times as the now adult Hellboy investigates the murder of his mentor, which leads him to the cursed Cavendish family on a forlorn peninsula of the American coast, and a showdown with an evil that ties into his origins.

Creator Mike Mignola was already receiving good notice for his art, but with Hellboy he arguably cranks it up a whole other notch, and it was his first major project as storyteller, not just a drawer of someone else's story. Mignola was presumably a bit insecure about that, because for this first arc, he brought veteran John Byrne on board to actually write the dialogue (Mignola would subsequently fly solo). What's interesting is that you can't necessarily detect Byrne's influence. I don't mean that as either good, or bad. I just mean you don't read this and detect much sense of Byrne's style, or much difference from this and the later Hellboy stories Mignola wrote on his own. Well, except there may be fewer of the trademark dry quips the series would later employ. But that may simply be because, as the first story, they wanted to establish a serious tone. After all, a red skinned demon investigating monsters could so easily slide into self parody that it was probably important to establish the serious tone before letting its hair down -- in much the same way that TV's The X-Files worked hard to establish a serious tone at first.

And the X-Files was, no doubt, very much in Mignola's thoughts doing Hellboy, being as both are about paranormal investigations, with a lot of deadpan talking heads and expository scenes as if ghosts and demons are no stranger than a burglary.

Visually, the story is richly rendered with lots of dark, brooding shadows, and landscapes that manage to be both minimalist and yet hauntingly evocative. The panels reek of atmosphere, so that you can fairly hear wind whistling spookily in the distance. Mignola's style is at once craggy and even cartoony...yet oddly realistic, suiting a story that tries to make the unbelievable seem almost commonplace, where as veteran investigators, Hellboy and his comrades, Liz Sherman and Abe Sapien, have seen it all before, occasionally dropping cryptic references to past investigations. The colours beautifully complement the drawings, being both sombre and brooding -- yet not oppressively so. While Hellboy himself stands out on the page, a blazing red beacon of hope.

Yet for all the genuine mood and unsettledness, this is generally a clean, fun horror. People die, and dark things are afoot, but this isn't some nihilistic, grisly horror comic that can leave a bad taste in your mouth ala Hellblazer.

The story is paced out well, managing to mix a slow building, creeping spookiness with some bombastic action scenes as Hellboy proves that when it comes to battling monsters, he can give as good as he gets. The story manages to tease us along, not playing all its cards at once, so there can be bizarre happenings, and cryptic comments, that only make sense in a later context. Because this is the opening story in what is, after all, a series (albeit an irregular series, told not in an on going comic, but in various mini-series and one-shots), it ends with some threads left dangling, including a final epilogue meant to hint at things to come. Yet with that being said, it does tell a story with a beginning, middle and end, and one that ties back into Hellboy's origin, making it satisfying as a story to be read for itself.

There can be a tad superficiality at times, the scenes maybe trying too hard to evoke a kind of deadpan cool. The catalyst for the investigation is the murder of Hellboy's mentor, Trevor Bruttenholm (pronounced "Broom"), yet Hellboy never quite gets that worked up over the death of a man he regarded as a father figure. And his relationship with Liz Sherman is strictly platonic.

Which brings us to reflecting on the comparison to the original motion picture. This TPB was subsequently marketed as having inspired the motion picture. I was a bit skeptical of that when I saw the movie (having forgotten this plot), but re-reading it, I can see that the movie both followed it...and diverged from it (indeed, the movie, where it stays faithful to the comics, actually borrows from both this, and the next mini-series, Wake the Devil -- as well as lifting scenes from other Hellboy stories).

Both this and the movie detail a similar WW II origin for Hellboy, and both have the main plot climaxing with a modern day attempt to summon an apocalypse by the instigator of that war time incident. Yet in the details it's interesting how both versions are better -- and lesser -- than each other. The movie cranks up the emotion/human factor, giving arguably more character to Hellboy, establishing a romantic tension between him and Liz, and giving more weight to his relationship with Bruttenholm. Arguably rendering the movie more sophisticated, more adult, than the comic. At the same time, the movie Hellboy was an embittered outsider, his very existence kept secret from the outside world. Yet there's something almost more intriguing, and endearing, about the comic book Hellboy...whose a much more level-headed, easy going guy -- and one whose existence isn't a secret. There's something wonderfully weird -- both comic booky yet eminently human-- about the cigar smoking, trenchcoat wearing Hellboy casually interrogating witnesses as if there's nothing odd about a seven foot tall red demon dropping by for tea.

And in concept, in style, the comics are arguably more ambitious, or at least, more literary. The movie was very much a Hollywood movie, chock full of bombastic action scenes, chases through city streets, big budget fights on subways, where the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense is a hi-tech, James Bond-y style organization -- much of it taking place in New York city. But Mignola's influences are clearly more literary and traditional than that, the Hellboy comics rooted in a gothic milieu of cursed family trees, deserted castles, and ancestral homes crumbling, generation by generation, into the sea. In fact, I'm not sure a Hellboy story comes to mind that ever took place in a big city! Mignola is drawing upon a literary provenance of Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraftian lore and ancient fairy tales (some later Hellboy stories were, literally, reinterpretations of old folk legends). He also captures the essence of such tales with a story where we're not sure if we'll ever understand all that occurred -- while explaining enough that it doesn't feel like he was just too lazy to come up with a logical plot. At one point, a ghostly figure intercedes in the events, and Hellboy remarks they might never know why the apparition acted as it did...but that doesn't stop them from at least positing an explanation (unlike some comics that come to mind where the writer will toss in a convenient solution, then simply have the characters shrug it off with no explanation whatsoever).

Of course, the down side to traditionalism is there can be elements of cliche, such as the chief villain being the ressurection of the real life Russian monk, Rasputin -- a guy who has been conjured up as the villain in a zillion supernatural tinged stories over the years. (And, honestly, given all the real life monsters and creeps and serial killers throughout history, how did Rasputin get typecast as the ultimate evil?)

The movie was a big -- and yes, enjoyable -- Hollywood summer action flick. But Seed of Destruction is, arguably, a more stylistically ambitious tale, going as much for a low-key eeriness as often as it is super hero hijinx -- and there is a super hero flavour, of course, with Hellboy a decidedly more formidable protagonist than Mulder and Scully ever were, as if The Fantastic Four's Ben Grimm moonlighted as a ghost buster (Mignola's style even slightly evocative of Jack Kirby). But the comics have a spookiness the movie didn't.

As the opening arc in the Hellboy saga, Seed of Destruction is effectively sure footed -- even if those feet have hooves!

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


cover by MignolaHellboy: Wake the Devil 1979 (SC TPB) 112 pgs.

Written and Illustrated by Mike Mignola.
Colours: Dave Stewart. Letters: Pat Brosseau. Editor: Scott Allie.

Reprinting: The five issue mini-series, plus a new epilogue

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

Additional notes: intro by Alan Moore; afterward by Mignola; art gallery by various

Number of readings: 2

Wake the Devil collects the second major Hellboy story -- a five issue mini-series. And is the second TPB collection (sez so on the spine). Though that's rather problematic, as inbetween the first mini-series, Seed of Destruction, and this, were a couple of short stories and one shots, which this story makes passing reference to...but for page count reasons don't get reprinted until the third Hellboy TPB volume!

I've said before that I try -- however inconsistently -- to review TPBs as stand alone works. That is, if you see this particular book on a shelf, is it worth picking up, and comprehendible, on its on? The problem here is that I read this immediately after reading Seed of Destruction, so it's hard for me to separate the two (and, ironically, I re-watched the first Hellboy motion picture at the same time, further muddling scenes and revelations in my mind!) And though Wake the Devil tells its own story with a beginning, middle, and end...it also draws upon, and arises out of, events in Seed of Destruction.

The wholly original aspect of the story is that Hellboy and the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense investigate a murder at a curio shop that seems to involve the stealing of the corpse of one Vladimir Giurescu -- a man whose legend dates back to the Napoleonic wars and was rumoured to be a vampire. Possibly even the inspiration for Dracula. So Hellboy and friends head off to Romania to investigate and, if necessary, prevent Giurescu's resurrection, the group splitting up to seek out different likely spots, with Hellboy alone coming upon the dead nobleman's castle.

How this ties into the previous tales is that the theft of Giurescu's body was performed by the same cabal of ex-Nazis whose occult ambitions first resulted in Hellboy coming to earth -- a cabal led by the resurrected Rasputin, still determined to use Hellboy to bring about the apocalypse. As such, there are characters running about, and cryptic references, that will have greater resonance if you've read the previous tales.

At the same time, a lot is explained as you go...and still more, part of the mood of Hellboy is its very obliqueness. The series' appeal is that Mignola isn't just some guy who developed his love of horror and dark fantasy from Stephen King novels and Hammer horror films, but a guy clearly well versed in the real thing -- ancient legends, myths and fairytales. And Hellboy is steeped in that sense of folklore and fairy tale, of interventionist god-like beings, all combining for a certain dreamlike ambience, where not everything has a rational explanation. Yet it holds together well enough that it doesn't just feel like lazy storytelling by a guy unable to put his imagery into a coherent pattern. Indeed, when you reach the end of the tale, Hellboy even remarks he's not sure what happened, that he "was right in the middle of things, and I think I only saw the tip of the iceberg". Yet the reader actually has a better grasp of what transpired, because we were privy to scenes and conversations Hellboy wasn't.

At the same time, there is a sense the story kind of wandered away with itself -- or was dragged in a different direction (Mignola acknowledges as much in an afterward). Giurescu, which is what/who the story seemed to be about, kind of gets sidelined into being a secondary plot as Rasputin and his plans for the apocalypse retake centre stage. Mignola remarks this was his most ambitious project (at least, at that point) and if all the threads and characters don't fully coalesce into a natural whole, that very complexity adds to the enjoyment while reading, justifying the five issues and keeping you turning the pages, cutting from one agenda to another, one set of characters to another.

And, of course, a huge appeal of the Hellboy stories is Mignola's art -- craggy and deceptively simplistic in a way, yet astonishing in the mood and environments he can evoke with just a few lines, a few brush strokes. Artfully rendered with thick, spooky shadows, and often deadpan characters (kind of evoking the low-key tone of TV's The X-Files). Hellboy's adventures take place against deliberately traditional, gothic environments, such as here, much of the action taking place in a deserted European castle -- or in the seemingly cathedralesque caverns beneath the castle (a recurring trick in Hellboy stories is floors caving in depositing the characters in subterranean caverns). And he captures an almost cinematic language by cutting away to close-ups of statuary or frescos, that add to the sense of mood, and place -- and slow building tension, as if even the inanimate is sentient.

Mignola's writing isn't maybe terribly heavy on the angst or emotion (unlike the motion picture) yet nonetheless does nicely capture personalities and a sense of camaraderie and relationships, with even the villains having some nuance, different agendas and personalities. His writing is good -- not always realistic, deliberately so, by evoking a folkloric feel as otherworldly creatures utter cryptic pronouncements. Some of the exchanges between Rasputin and his followers are deliberately evocative of Biblical conversations between Jesus and his disciples -- sacrilegious? Maybe, but not really. It just further adds to a sense of resonance, and of apocalyptic grandeur, Rasputin the dark priest of his own religion.

Yet there's also some nice, human exchanges, and witty -- if very deadpan -- quips and dry observations.

And, of course, with all the mood, the creeping horror, this is still a comic book about a red skinned demon paranormal investigator, so there are also comic book-style action scenes, and smashing through walls!

Wake the Devil is a thoroughly effective instalment in the Hellboy saga (even the title has multiple meanings), but though readable on its own, ideally isn't the best volume to start with, evolving as it does from Seed of Destruction. Indeed, though both sagas tell their own story, they also form a combined epic (a sense further emphasized because the 2003 movie essentially combined scenes and ideas from both mini-series into a single story). And since Rasputin and the Nazis don't really recur for a while, there's a greater sense of temporary closure to the themes as well (even if there are a few -- minor -- dangling bits, like a sequence involving a homonculus!)

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


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