Appreciation Post: Hellboy

Happy Hellboy Day everybody! It’s hard to believe, but one of the most highly-acclaimed indie comic book series has just turned 20. It’s a good a day as any to delve into what, in my opinion, makes Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and its sister titles so popular and worth celebrating.

Be warned, spoilers for any and all corners of the Hellboy universe ahead!

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A Well-Written Mythology

First of all, it should be noted that Hellboy cannot appeal to everyone due to its genre often delving into horror fiction. If that doesn’t stop you a priori, Hellboy and its expanded universe are, simply put, very well-written. The dialogue is realistic and characters are written consistently, but with a clear view of their evolution. Even in an action-packed team book like B.P.R.D., complex characters with complex histories are given their space in the midst of complex events. There’s even a few moments of humour written in which manage to mesh well with the somber tone of the stories. In fact, I’d say that even the weakest outings are ‘just’ good.

Copyright Dark Horse Comics

Copyright Dark Horse Comics

The Hellboy universe is rich enough to have differing titles with differing sub-genres, which cater for different tastes while still feeling like they belong in the same space, no matter how far apart. Hellboy sticks to gothic, occult and horror themes with a dash of superheroism. Lobster Johnson brings back the more simplistic pulp fiction style of yore with modern sensibilities. B.P.R.D. covers the exploits of an organisation akin to Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The X-Files with the added horrors that the context of Hellboy offers.

It also helps to have the Hellboy books effectively amalgamate a variety of mythologies into a cohesive whole and to respect the source material at the same time. The creation of the world is very much tied to Judeo-Christian tradition. Witches and vampires from European myth make their appearance often enough, and are tied to Hecate, a goddess from Greek mythology long associated with witchcraft. The Baba Yaga featured and her behaviour are straight out of Russian folklore. In The Hunt, The Storm and The Fury, Hellboy delves into Arthurian legend as he faces Nimue (and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation) and being offered a sword to be the rightful King of England. Stories such as WitchfinderGoodbye Mister Tod and Johann Kraus’s history refer to the  form of spiritualism popular in the late 1800s and the 1920s.

Mignola also includes a bit of modern iconography of evil by choosing Nazis as villains, who have a tendency to represent the best human villains ever with their beliefs, fashion sense and overall representation of the worst of humanity. More importantly, their fascination and dabbling with the supernatural and the occult is well-documented historical fact. Having already been in such classics as the Indiana Jones and Wolfenstein franchises, they’re a perfect fit for Hellboy, and used to great effect in Seed of Destruction, Wake the Devil and Conqueror Worm in particular.

Literature is also an important part of Hellboy‘s mythology. The first stories in particular include excerpts from the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, but there is a level of diversification from then on. The Ogdru Jahad and their monstrous offspring seem spawned directly from the twisted imagination of HP Lovecraft. Midnight Circus heavily references Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio (in its original form), and Hellboy in Hell takes a cue from A Christmas Carol, in a Hell that is as much its own thing as something of a successor to Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divina Commedia. Wherever inspiration from literature is not acknowledged in-story, Mignola makes it a point to list his source in a footnote. In fact, the attention to detail in the story-telling is also a joy to behold. Where persons speak in languages other than English, the languages are listed with the article they would have in actual proper language (‘the Russian’ as opposed to ‘German’, for example), while dialects are also recognised (the Canton and Kansai dialects in Lobster Johnson: A Scent of Lotus, for instance).

All in all, if there’s any comic book series worthy of being called a graphic novel, the core Hellboy series is definitely one of them.

A few classics given a new twist. Copyright Dark Horse Comics

A few classics given a new twist.
Copyright Dark Horse Comics

A Mosaic of Stories

Continuity across different titles and stories has long been an issue for The Big Two and their fans, but Dark Horse, Mignola and the other authors and editors are the ones who get it right.

Memnan Saa encounters Sir Edward Grey, the Lobster and the B.P.R.D. in their respective series. Sir Edward Grey is informed that a terrible fate looms over him in the form of a hooded figure with  the name ‘Acheron’ burning on its brow in Witchfinder. It is only in Hellboy in Hell that we learn what the vision means when Sir Grey tells Hellboy of his fate. The strange creature in a jar Ben Daimio discovers in B.P.R.D. is revealed to have belonged to his grandmother, a Japanese Imperial agent and witch by the name of the Crimson Lotus later in the series, only for both to be seen in action back in the day in Lobster Johnson: The Scent of Lotus. The first Black Flame’s remains and a photograph of him attacking the ‘Flying Wing’ are seen in Landis Pope’s office in B.P.R.D., and we learn more about Raimund Diestel through his encounters with the Lobster and ‘the Sledgehammer’ in Lobster Johnson: The Burning Hand and Sledgehammer 44: Lightning War, respectively. (For a better view of the inter-connected stories and mythology, I suggest Mark Tweedale’s Hell Notes over at Multiversity Comics.)

Mignola’s method and that of his collaborators has been to litter his stories with minute details which hint at the world’s rich history and then revisit them and expand them into proper stories. By comparison, for instance – as much as I love it – Batman: Hush suffers a wee bit by having the character of Thomas Elliot having never been mentioned before and inserted retrospectively into Bruce Way’s history. Mignola explains in one interview how he and John Arcudi in particular avoid these trappings:

That plotting technique of stitching together the Hellboy/B.P.R.D. universe out of what’s come before has become Mignola’s storytelling focus as the franchise has expanded. “In a lot of cases, this is me going back to really early stuff I did and saying, ‘Does this lead to that?’ or ‘Can we bring this into this?'” he explained. “With Lobster Johnson, it was a matter of bringing in some of the history of the world that I’ve been carrying in my head. That way, Lobster Johnson always feels connected to what’s going on in the other books. At the same time, we’re looking for things that happen in ‘Lobster Johnson’ that can impact the history of the other books.” […] I’ve got another series I’m writing in the next few months where I’m taking an incident from ‘B.P.R.D.’ where I don’t think anyone would have ever said ‘There needs to be a prequel for that,’ and now there will be a completely unrelated ‘B.P.R.D.’ series that adds some backstory to that relatively minor incident. So I am always kind of doing that. I come up with rough plot ideas and then go, ‘What can I use from what we established already to build new pieces connecting all this?’ I’m not trying to fill in every single blank, but it’s nice to have these threads so when people re-read this stuff — especially when they re-read it — they’ll make the connections.”

What results is each story in a different part of the Hellboy universe being a beautiful tile which is pleasing to look at individually, but forming part of larger mosaic of inter-locking stories.

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One big, happy family with quite a shared history
Copyright Dark Horse Comics

The Human Core

The common element underpinning this universe is often not just a belonging to a grand epic, but also the human element as brought out so well in its core protagonist, Hellboy. As one reviewer puts it, Hellboy is a blue-collar hero:

 Hellboy was unabashedly, unashamedly blue collar. When he got hit, he’d yowl “Oww!” When he hit someone else, he’d enthusiastically embellish with a loud “BOOM!’ […] He used a gun. He wore a toolbelt. He liked beer. This was my kind of supernatural investigator! I mean, Dr. Strange is cool and all, but can you imagine spending more than 10 minutes with him without strangling him? (And, yes, Constantine is another blue-collar supernatural character, and yes, I like that about him, too. But he’s also a jerk, whereas Hellboy is not.)

As noted in a previous review of mine, while not seen too often together, we also learn that Hellboy had a loving relationship with the father figure of his life, Trevor Bruttenholm.

More importantly, Hellboy’s humanity reflects a much deeper theme of his story which cannot but resonate to our most intrinsic values and sense of self. Born as a (half-) demon whose hand was replaced with the key to the Apocalypse, Hellboy’s story is one of a constant struggle against the destiny so many have imposed on him. This comes to the fore in A Box Full of Evil, as Hellboy learns the meaning of his ‘true’ name, Anung Un Rama: the World Destroyer, the Great Beast “upon whose brow is set a crown of fire”. Hellboy manages to make a choice nonetheless and rejects his destiny, and realises he has lost that name altogether. Hellboy’s choice finally allows him to determine his future, as Sir Edward Grey continues to remind him (and us) time and time again.

Hellboy's choice Copyright Dark Horse Comics

Hellboy’s choice
Copyright Dark Horse Comics

The humanity of the other heroes of the Hellboy universe is much less of a central focus of their stories, but their characterisation is also very human and real. We see Bruttenholm struggle with his own failures in the events of the 1940s B.P.R.D., and subsequent feelings akin to post traumatic stress disorder affecting his relationships. All members of the B.P.R.D. in the present try to deal with the challenges they face however humanly possible, and tensions are not uncommon. Liz Sherman and Johann deal with what they are and what they’ve lost or experienced. Abe Sapien’s history is revealed in B.P.R.D., and he continues to struggle with his identity in his own series as the world around him falls apart and perceives him as either a saviour or a threat, neither of which he agrees with. Sir Edward Grey learns that his quest of revenge against the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra will lead to his ruin, but keeps to that path because of his emotions. The Lobster probably gets the least characterisation of the protagonists (if at all), but being a walking deus ex machina for Justice has its own charm.

To the credit of Mignola and his collaborators, the villains of the Hellboy universe are in a few significant instances also given a touch of humanity and emotion. Rasputin retains a genuine love for his homeland and, more importantly, is not satisfied with simply being the harbinger of doom for our world. He wants to do it his own way, and in his naivete, seeks not to simply remain a mere pawn in the plans of higher powers. Even when others like Kroenen decide to simply give in and accept their fate as pawns, a sliver of humanity remains: he continues to view his respect, however twisted and misplaced, for his colleague Herman von Klempt as one of the highlights of his past in the Third Reich.

Copyright Dark Horse

Kroenen shows us his sentimentality for the Reich goes beyond black leather in ‘B.P.R.D.: Reign of the Black Flame’
Copyright Dark Horse Comics

The Art

Mignola’s distinctive art style is quite unique and definitely one of the highlights of the Hellboy series. While deceptively blocky and simple, quite a lot of detail is to be found, especially with his masterful use of form and composition and light and shadow. The interplay between Mignola’s light and shadow in particular manages to give his pages a sense of space, while giving facial expressions that additional depth. Hellboy in particular is given something of an aura of mystery by having his eyes almost always shrouded in darkness by the shadows cast by his forehead and horns (filed or otherwise).  It also has to be said that the use of  shadow and colour, especially when the latter is subdued, helps colourful characters such as Hellboy stand out from their surroundings and differentiate them from the monsters they face. Even if certain design choices such as the somewhat enlarged torsos may turn some people off, it’s very diffcult to argue that Mignola’s work being nothing less than refined and professional.

Later artists like Duncan Fergardo do manage to echo Mignola’s work – right down to his particular style of drawing skulls – while retaining their own flourish. The commentary by Mignola and Fergado in the Library Editions of their shared Hellboy work in particular provide quite the amusing insight into their creative process and how well they work together.

Out of the dark. Copyright Dark Horse Comics

Out of the dark.
Copyright Dark Horse Comics

The art of other artists have been brought in to bring the rest of the Hellboy universe to life is different but of equally high quality. Guy Davis’s B.P.R.D. is a beautiful exercise in detailed environments and true terror-inducing demons and creations. His humans are also believably down-trodden whose history is worn on their faces and he has no problem showing them expressing a wide range of emotion. The great John Severin provided the art on Witchfinder: Lost and Gone Forever, and was working on Sledgehammer 44 before his death. None of them is quite Mike Mignola, but all of them are excellent artists who continue to do brilliant on the franchise.

The Adaptations

Could such a particular artistic vision be adapted into a live-action film, as is so common nowadays? Well, before Marvel dominated the comic book live-action film industry, Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army were definitely two major gems in the genre. Both were directed by Guillermo del Toro, whose Pan’s Labyrinth should leave no doubt regarding his suitability. The first film is based on the Seed of Destruction story-line, while the second is more of an original creation. While changes in both have been made, such as Hellboy’s love for Liz and Kroenen being an assassin, both films manage to capture the quirkiness and respect for mythology and folklore of the originals. It also helps to have had Mignola himself involved in the story production of both films. Both Hellboy and Hellboy II are well-produced, artistically intriguing and well-shot, and find a healthy balance between practical effects and CGI. When it comes to casting, Ron Perlman was born to play Hellboy; and John Hurt definitely brings out Bruttenholm’s wisdom and fatherly nature; and Selma Blair, Doug Jones and Jeffrey Tambor are great as Liz, Abe and Tom Manning, repsectively. Marco Beltrami and Danny Elfman also prove to be great choices for score composers.

The only thing missing from the film series is the third and final installment. With occasional glimmers of hope and del Toro and Perlman’s reunion for Pacific Rim (another favourite of mine) seemingly re-invigorating their efforts, it’s always a possibility. As Perlman has stated in one interview:

Everything that was done in both movies was leading up to this destiny, written in stone, of what Hellboy has been summoned to Earth to do. To not do it, particularly in light of the scope that Guillermo is thinking of for the resolve, would be in my mind a little bit of a shame.

The success of the films helped secure the production of two animated films as well, Hellboy: Blood and Iron and Hellboy: Sword of Storms. Both seem to be closer to Mignola’s comics rather than the films in terms of design and story, which definitely works in their favour. That being said, Perlman, Hurt, Blair and Jones reprising their roles for the animated features is a very welcome touch. Unfortunately, much like the live-action films, a third film featuring the Lobster was planned, but has never been green-lit.

The video games Hellboy: Asylum Seeker and Hellboy: The Science of Evil are admittedly less than stellar, but given the history of bad film and comic video game adaptations prior to Batman: Arkham Asylum, I’d generously let this one slide. The latter even includes the voice of Bruce Campbell as the Lobster, who would also be perfect for the role in live-action if the third film ever gets made. That definitely counts for something, right?

After all’s said and done, I dare anyone to not hear Ron Perlman’s voice in their head when reading Hellboy after having seen the adaptations.

Conclusion: A Well-Deserved Anniversary Celebration

Hellboy is, quite simply, a magnificent series. Well-written, well-connected and even well-adapted, it definitely deserves its place in the spotlight. As the 20th Anniversary year has also been marked with Dark Horse’s unfortunate loss of Star Wars and subsequent re-focussing of their efforts, one should remember that they will always have Hellboy. I’m perfectly fine with that because Hellboy is easily the best thing Dark Horse has ever had. Even if Hellboy’s story seems to be reaching its conclusion, I’m sure Mignola’s tales will be remembered with the same fondness in the next 20 years as we do today.

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One response to “Appreciation Post: Hellboy

  1. Pingback: Remebering World War II: Magneto: Testament and Red Skull: Incarnate | The Maltese Geek·

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