Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


Hellboy stories have been collected in the five volumes Seed of Destruction, Wake the Devil, The Chained Coffin and Others, The Right Hand of Doom and The Conqueror Worm

Written and illustrated by Mike Mignola (co-scripter John Byrne on Seed of Destruction).
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting the various Hellboy mini-series, one-shots, specials, and short stories

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Cover price (each volume): $17.95 USA

Mike Mignola's Hellboy has been generating good buzz among comics fans for a while, and now hits the silver screen in a big budget celluloid spectacle. (It took Superman 40 years to get the big budget treatment; now less familiar comics seem to get scooped up by Hollywood sometimes before the ink has even dried on the pages.) The character also has reached the bookstores in the form of a series of original paperback novels.

The Hellboy comic is a curious masala of disparate influences. Originally premiering around the same time as TV's The X-Files, one can suspect that show may have encouraged this like-minded, irregularly-published series about paranormal investigators. But it's obvious that this is something that sprang, not out of some voguish passing fancy, but Mignola's genuine passion for the medium of comics and the milieu of horror. He cleverly mixes those elements, injecting deadpan humour, and rough and tough superhero-style roughhousing as well. It's clear Mignola really is into tales of horror and dark fantasy, and one can imagine his bookshelf crammed with dog-eared copies of Lovecraft and Stoker and Poe, books of occult lore and European folk tales -- next to old pulp hero adventure mags and Indiana Jones videos...all sources that are mined, without apology, for Hellboy's adventures.

Hellboy is a demon investigator for the U.S.-based Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Or rather, he was born a demon, but raised among humans and has no recollection of life in the nether realms. What makes the character oddly refreshing is Mignola's nurture over nature approach. Super-strength and sawed-off horns notwithstanding, Hellboy is basically just a regular guy -- or at least a slightly hard-boiled gumshoe type. In one of the series' recurring -- and very comic booky -- quirks, no one seems to think it odd that a tall, red skinned, cloven hoofed, cigar smoking demon is politely interviewing witnesses to some bizarre paranormal encounter. Of course, Hellboy's not alone in being unusual at the BPRF, with supporting characters including Abe Sapien, a fish-man.

What first strikes one about the stories is the devotion to atmosphere. These are as much super hero adventures as they are horror, with Mignola's spartan, stylized art serving to mute the shockingness of the occasional bouts of grisly horror, as does a wry, deadpan sense of humour. All of which makes this a horror series for people not necessarily fans of shock horror. And the character's very name -- Hell-boy -- has an ironic light-heartedness to it. Yet for all that, it's told with a brooding, gothic tone that owes considerably less to a lot of modern visions of horror and more to the past giants like H.P. Lovecraft. As strikingly illustrated by Mignola, the shadow sheathed buildings and crumbling castles haunted by past evils, and the craggy, windswept landscapes, are as much characters in the tales as any creature that walks or crawls. You can almost hear the wind howling forlornly. In contrast to many modern horror stories, which attempt to re-invent or update concepts, Mignola's vision fairly drips with timeless archetypes. Despite the BPRD being a modern American organization, most of the stories take place in the traditional milieu of English villages and European castles where even the villains, like Nazis, are often anachronistic.

The art is quite stunning at times, and gorgeously coloured. Mignola employs a deceptive simplicity, often relying as much on shadow as on light to illustrate a scene. I had first seen Mignola's art in more mainstream, superhero efforts (such as DC's Cosmic Odyssey) where, though not unappealing in its way, it was less suited to the material. That's partly because Mignola's faces aren't exactly expressive: features masked in shadows, poker-faced characters talking through tight lips. In a story where you want emotive characters, it can be problematic. But in Hellboy it works well, partly because the very impassiveness of the characters creates an odd sense of plausibility (not unlike TV's The X-Files) -- it also serves the series' droll wit as Hellboy observes the most startling phenomena with a kind of perpetually deadpan expression, dryly remarking: "That's interesting." (Although, when truly startled, he can be as shocked as anyone).

Much has been made about the influence of Jack Kirby (the legendary comic artist responsible for The Fantastic Four, Captain America, The Hulk, etc.) on Mignola's style (though I would also suggest a similarity to the ever changing Frank Miller, back in his long ago Ronin series). Nowhere is the influence of Kirby more evident than in Hellboy himself, who could be a cousin of the Fantastic Four's Ben Grimm and even the very idea of this group of paranormal investigators harkens back to Kirby's Challengers of the Unknown. And with some of them possessing powers themselves, it evokes the Fantastic Four itself -- though Mignola fluctuates between whether he wants to write a solo Hellboy series, or whether, as in some stories, it's about more or less equally important co-protagonists. The blocky pencil work is, of course, reminiscent of Kirby, though, particularly in the earlier stories, there's more realism at work, and the brooding shadows and dense atmosphere is more than Kirby could generally do...although, conversely, Mignola maybe doesn't quite have Kirby's explosive kineticism.

Mignola evinces recurring motifs in story and art that is both appealing in their consistency...and curious in their repetition. Hellboy, for example, is constantly falling through stone floors into high ceilinged catacombs, often populated by mouldering skeletons. And religious iconography is frequently employed as statues of long dead Christian saints loom over many of the proceedings. As well, Mignola seems to have a thing for goggles, which might explain Hellboy's sawed off horns which catch the light like a pair of goggles on his head. He also has a penchant for, when drawing naked creatures, showing male genitalia (only in crude silhouette, of course), which perhaps explains the decision to depict a homunculus with an iron ring attached to his groin -- Mignola just seems to like to draw dangling things between characters' legs.

Despite my above comment, this isn't an especially "mature readers" comic.

The series is a surprising amount of fun...but just as Mignola's art style owes a tip of the hat to Kirby, so does his plotting. For better and for worse. As with Kirby's legendary New Gods comic, for instance, what works about Hellboy is precisely the wild abandon with which Mignola tackles his plots, so that they almost overflow with wild ideas. Mignola crams Lovecraftian elder gods and ex-Nazis into a superhero adventure told with a dreamlike, folktale ambience as, unprovoked, animals utter warnings of "beware!" and, unasked, skeletons will offer sage advice to our hell-spawned hero. All this is quite effective and unexpected in a contemporary comic. It's in the tying it all together that Mignola, like Kirby, has problems, with too many of the stories ending up a little mangled and incoherent by the end. Part of that is because, for all that Hellboy is published as various mini-series and one-shots, Mignola treats it more like an on-going series. An event in one story might not be fully explained until a later one. In fact, reading all the stories in order, random incidents take on less random significance. It actually makes the books worth re-reading, not just for fun, but to see if in light of later revelations you can pick up on nuances you might have missed the first time. If you're going to lay out the moola, it's nice to have something that kind of demands more than one reading

At other times, though, there's a real sense that it all just got away from him. In his commentary that accompanies the TPB of "Wake the Devil", Mignola proudly explains how he changed his mind about the ending part way through. He feels it makes a stronger, more complex story as it ties in more directly to some plot threads recurring throughout many of the stories. But, in truth, the result is a story that seemed to be about one thing -- ex-Nazis resurrecting a Dracula-like vampire -- but ends up veering off in a new direction. The vampire is just kind of shrugged off and disposed of unsatisfactorily before the climax largely because Mignola, like a child bored of his new toy, has moved on to the next bright shiny story ploy.

The bottom line is that most of Mignola's stories, long and short ones, start out a lot better than they resolve.

When read together, the various stories benefit from each other, as different stories can prop up others, or add insight into events in earlier tales. But if you're on a budget, and would like to sample one book before committing to all of them, I'd suggest beginning with one of the collections of shorter tales. The variety of stories allow one a quick crash course in all things Hellboy, and plotting weaknesses aren't as glaring when there are plenty of stories in the volume to choose from. Of the two anthologies, I'd probably recommend "The Chained Coffin and Others".

But if you're looking for a longer, epic style adventure, "The Conqueror Worm" is probably the most accomplished.

But, you know what? They've all got things to recommend them if you're just looking for a fun mix of chills, quirkiness and heroics.

Maybe that's because Mignola has created an oddly endearing hero in Hellboy. I can't say characterization is Mignola's strongest point, the stories often more focused on the what and why, rather than who. But Hellboy is a likeable guy, who, despite his slightly gruff demeanour, emerges as that rarest of all things...a compassionate hero. Sure, he is quick to bash an offending monster, and has a low tolerance for Nazis, nor does he exactly shed a lot of tears. But when faced with the death of a being he barely knew, will remark quietly, "he seemed like a good guy". In the final collection "The Conqueror Worm", Hellboy is presented with a moral dilemma, weighing the fate of a friend against that of the world. His decision is refreshingly humane...and frankly unexpected in these more cynical days. And if there's any greater meaning to Hellboy, (and y'know, there isn't that much), it is perhaps in the humanness of these inhuman heroes -- including another "monster" who joins the team, and whose inherent humanity is very much at the core of a couple of stories. Hellboy's actions are, essentially, those of, well, a decent guy. But Mignola doesn't see the need to browbeat us with that (as has become common in modern comics), nor does Hellboy or anyone else remark upon it. This is just who he is, what he does.

As Hellboy unselfconsciously remarks: "Gotta do what I do."

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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