A Beginners’ Guide to Hellboy
Part One: Volumes 1-4
With a new, higher-profile Hellboy movie in theaters today, it seems like a great time to consider the series of graphic novels that inspired Guillermo Del Toro’s productions. In part one, we look at the four collecting material published before the first Hellboy film, which debuted in 2004.
Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comic has been around since the early 1990s, but unlike Superman and Wonder Woman has never been an open-ended monthly series. In what should be a template for the entire comics industry, Mignola has done Hellboy when he’s had a good story to tell, in as many pages as he needs to tell it. Eight pages in some anthology here, a two-issue miniseries there, maybe six for a longer story. Any given tale may advance the main plotline, which is Hellboy being confronted with a monstrous destiny he repeatedly rejects, or it might put interesting bits of folklore and mythology through the unique sensibilities of the very talented Mignola.
There have also been prose books, and a series of graphic novels about Hellboy’s supporting cast in the ghostbusting Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. Because Mignola’s involvement in the BPRD books is much less than with Hellboy proper, and ’cause nobody’s giving the rest of the BPRD its own movie series, we’ll be considering only the eight volumes, to date, of Hellboy graphic novels. Oh, a note up front for fans only of the movies: The films’ biggest deviation from the comics was the addition of a love interest for Hellboy. There is a dour BPRD agent named Liz Sherman, and she does set things on fire, but our hero’s heart is not one of them.
Book One: Seed of Destruction
The original story lays out much of the groundwork that is refined in Guillermo Del Toro’s first Hellboy movie. A mysterious sorcerer, allied with Nazi occultists in the waning days of World War II, conducts a bizarre ritual that materializes a demon on earth—a tiny red devil-baby with an enormous right hand made of stone. Found by the U.S. military and nicknamed “Hellboy,” he grows over the decades to become a demon-hunter in federal employ. We meet him half a century after his mysterious birth as a case with a painfully personal undercurrent leads him to encounter that frightening wizard, who reveals that Hellboy’s destiny is to aid him in freeing Lovecraftian chaos demons who will raze the Earth.
Hellboy says “Bite me,”—or would, if Mignola had had the confidence back then to script his own work. Instead, veteran writer-artist John Byrne put words onto Mignola’s art, and the result, to anyone who’s seen the character’s later development, is a little jarring. The text overlays are too wordy and a touch too florid, and Hellboy just doesn’t talk right. The blunt, world-weary sarcasm is either missing entirely or just off. It’s not Byrne’s fault—he didn’t have any example of the character done “right” to learn from. Here, we must enjoy Mignola’s still, shadowy art, his deliberately blocky character designs and expert sense of mood and wait a volume for Mignola to put the words to his stories.
Book Two: Wake the Devil
Now this is Hellboy. Mignola has cited Dracula as a formative reading experience, and in this book creates his own version of an undead Romanian nobleman, fleshing out the history of his vampire with a sweep and precision that makes you think he’s using some historical character or well-established legend to his own ends. Thematically, his fascination with Nazi villains, shadows, and clockwork science is on display again, and he ups the character ante by having the dark goddess Hecate join the returning shade of that mysterious Russian wizard to drop a few more clues to Hellboy’s destiny. For one thing, we learn he’s supposed to have long pointy horns instead of two stumpy discs. For another, we learn his true name: Anung un Rama.
The draws to this book are the way Mignola makes Stoker-era vampire legend both familiar and new, his obvious delight in research, and the way he tops the first book for big monsters, foreboding and dry humor. He weaves in just enough new material about Hellboy’s disputed destiny (in an afterword he says he surprised himself when he wrote it in) and the hero’s feelings about it to propel our investment in the character, and I don’t know what kind of joyless reader you’d have to be to not want to come back for more. And if you do come back for more, you’ll see Mignola suborn his desire to tell big rousing Hellboy stories in favor of well-researched dips into eerie European folklore, a critical part of the evolving atmosphere of the Hellboy books.
Book Three: The Chained Coffin and Other Stories
This book collects a series of short adventures, some of which saw initial publication before the Wake the Devil storyline (hence a footnote in Book Two referring to “The Chained Coffin,” though the story wouldn’t be collected until now. Confused? Don’t be—Mignola is never afraid to jump through the years.)
In short story form we see Mignola’s love of folklore more clearly. He introduces each short piece with a paragraph or two on its inspiration, usually mentioning which parts of an old legend he changed, and which bits he might’ve left out. A standard Hellboy rhythm: Our hero arrives on the scene as someone explains the weird goings-on in the place. Resigned to the inevitable monster fight, our hero goes in, encounters the weirdness and overcomes it. Mignola’s ability to meld action with his trademark stillness and sense of foreboding is pretty impressive.
The title story is an immediate sequel to Seed of Destruction, as footnoted in Wake the Devil. Mignola identifies it as an origin story for Hellboy, and it’s certainly a creepy explanation for where that little red baby came from, back in ’44. Otherwise, though, the stories here are folkloric explanations, most set before Seed begins its revelations about Hellboy’s heritage and alleged destiny.
Book Four: The Right Hand of Doom
This is also a short story collection, arranged in chronological order, its stories going from the late 40s into the new century. When Mignola draws Hellboy as a younger man, the big red guy is slightly less big, and seems not to have grown into his omnipresent trench coat yet. It’s an amusing detail, but no surprise given the obvious care Mignola brings to his art choices.
The 10-page title piece is a concise recap of all pertinent information about the greater Hellboy myster, and it emphasizes one that’s been overlooked: That giant right hand made out of stone? That can’t be good.
The recap is a lead-in to the long final story, “Box Full of Evil,” in which Hellboy’s backstory is central to the plot. It has a nice epilogue, too—our deepest look to date into the taciturn hero’s thoughts about all this “you’ll destroy the world” crap.
The book’s highlight, though, is the two-page lead story, “Pancakes.” It’s a great little joke played entirely straight in the art, and I defy you to go stand in your local Borders, read it and not want to read more stories by this artist and about this character.
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These first four books cover material up through 2003, before the first movie debuted the following year. Much of what appeared in the comics was adapted to the movie version of Hellboy’s background, though the movie’s assertion that the stone hand is literally a key to setting free the lovecraftian horrors of the abyss is … hinted at, but unconfirmed.
What’s confirmed is Mignola’s mastery of stillness and gloom, and how well he’s able to contrast the eeiriness of an old statue or even a small bird, watching from the ruins of an ancient castle, with knockout slugfests against giant pig demons and brimstone pronouncements from the greater forces of Hell.
Part two, covering the most recent four volumes, is here.