In keeping with our spooky Halloween theme, let’s take a look at one of the best horror-themed characters ever to hit comics: Mike Mignola’s Hellboy.
What’s a Hellboy?
HELLBOY is a series of miniseries and graphic novels created by Mike Mignola and published by Dark Horse Comics. HELLBOY first made its debut back in 1994, as part of Dark Horse’s short-lived “Legend” imprint, which united new series by writer-artists like Frank Miller, John Byrne, Walt Simonson, Art Adams, Mike Allred and Mignola under a single banner. While “Legend” didn’t turn out to be an overall success, and rather quickly dissolved due to the usual “creative differences,” several of the books that came out of it went on to lengthy, successful publishing runs, such as Miller’s SIN CITY, Allred’s MADMAN and of course, HELLBOY.
Yeah, yeah, but what is he? He’s that big red guy in the trailers, right?
Hang on, we’re getting there. As detailed in the first HELLBOY collection SEED OF DESTRUCTION, in the waning days of World War II, Hitler dispatched a team of Nazi technicians to England, under the command of a mysterious sorcerer, to undertake what was known as “Project Ragnarok,” which the Nazis believe will raise a powerful miracle to reverse the fortunes of the war. The sorcerer, however, is working toward his own ends.
Meanwhile, Allied forces have caught wind of the mysterious project, and with the help of a group of local psychics and paranormal experts, led by Trevor Bruttenholm, have determined where they think this paranormal event will take place – on a small island off the Scottish coast. American and British forces converge there, and await the arrival of whatever is coming. And suddenly, in a burst of flame and smoke, it arrives: a little demon boy, not more than three feet tall, with an enormous stone right hand.
So what do you do with a baby demon? What else? You raise it as an American. Sure enough, Hellboy, as he’s dubbed by Bruttenholm, is raised on a U.S. Army camp and growing at an unnaturally fast rate. Soon the adult Hellboy is working for what has become the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, (or B.R.P.D. for short) a federal agency that investigates, and with the help of Hellboy and other agents, super-powered and otherwise, and quashes paranormal threats to humanity all over the globe.
So, he’s red because he’s actually a devil?
A demon, yes. At least he guesses he is. He doesn’t like to think about it.
What are those round things on his forehead?
Those are the spots where his horns would grow out, if he would let them. On several instances in the HELLBOY books, Hellboy is confronted with his demonic heritage and an attempt is made to reclaim him, at which time his horns usually sprout out. Both times, Hellboy has snapped them right off again, and once even put them to good use.
Does he have super powers or anything?
Not so much, other than being really, really tough and really, really strong. Plus, that stone right hand of his packs a wallop like a sledge hammer.
He also carries around with him a particularly nasty handgun, as well as various charms, totems and talismans picked up over the course of about 40 years of demon-hunting, which occasionally allow him to mix it up with a creature or mystical entity that might otherwise be beyond his grasp.
Okay, so I think I get Hellboy now. But who’s the green fish-looking guy?
That’s Abe Sapien, Hellboy’s best friend and fellow B.R.P.D. agent. Abe is an amphibian fish-man who’s even more of mystery than Hellboy. Abe was discovered dormant in a tank in the basement of St. Trinian’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., sealed behind a long-forgotten door. The only clue to his origin was a scrap of paper pinned to his tube reading “Icthyo Sapien – April 14, 1865.” As that date had a more famous connotation, as the day President Abraham Lincoln died, the creature was dubbed “Abraham” in a bit of dark humor.
Abe can breathe underwater, and is also a tough son of a bitch, which comes in hand when he has to face things, like, say, a monkey with a handgun.
And the flaming girl?
Another of Hellboy’s fellow B.R.P.D. agents, Liz Sherman, a pyrokinetic who was taken in and raised by the Bureau after accidentally setting off a massive blaze as a child that razed a city block and killed 32 people, including her family.
Generally published first as miniseries or in the pages of the anthology book DARK HORSE PRESENTS, all of Mike Mignola’s HELLBOY work is available collected in various trade paperbacks, not to mention the HELLBOY spinoff series B.R.P.D. Let’s take a look at a few highlights.
HELLBOY: SEED OF DESTRUCTION collects the original 1994 miniseries that introduced Hellboy to the world. With story and art by Mike Mignola, the book is dialogued by John Byrne, in a somewhat less-than-successful mix of styles. Reportedly Mignola had never written in comics and asked Byrne for the assist, but in light of the dark, moody style the series would eventually adopt, in retrospect the first-person narration feels like a bad fit. It’s not that Byrne’s dialogue is bad – it just doesn’t feel like Hellboy, who under Mignola’s pen would become a humble wiseass who tends to only speak when it’s necessary (and usually with not much more than “aw, crap…”). Besides introducing Hellboy, Abe, Liz, and the BRPD and showing Hellboy’s origin, SEED OF DESTRUCTION also introduces Rasputin, the famed Russian mad monk who, it turns out, was the sorcerer who brought Hellboy to Earth while working with the Nazis. In SEED OF DESTRUCTION, Professor Bruttenholm, who over the years grew to be Hellboy’s adoptive father, is murdered by some sort of demonic frog creature, leading Hellboy, Abe and Liz into a plot by Rasputin to raise a serpent deity that’s been slumbering for centuries.
Mignola’s art here is more like his previous work for Marvel and DC, more fully rendered and less angular and severe. SEED OF DESTRUCTION ends with Hellboy killing Rasputin, but the mad monk lives up to his reputation and will reappear again and again in future stories.
So much of what makes Mignola’s HELLBOY work is tied up in the mood and the pacing that it’s hard to really convey how good it is in mere prose.
In HELLBOY: WAKE THE DEVIL, the other three remaining Nazi conspirators who worked with Rasputin in bringing Hellboy to Earth (Ilsa Haupstein, the perpetually gas-mask-wearing Karl Kroenen and Leopold Kurtz) are now working to resurrect the vampire Count Giurescu, who is rumored to be able to create a vampire army. When Giurescu’s body is stolen from a New York wax museum, Hellboy and company are dispatched to recover it and stop any attempts at resurrection. It winds up being an eventful trip; Hellboy brings Girescu’s castle down around him yet still winds up once more in Rasputin’s clutches, where he is consumed by the demon goddess Hecate, who once more attempts to return him to his intended path, which we now learn is to use his right hand (referred to as the Right Hand of Doom) to “deliver the world back to chaos.” Just as in the previous book, Hellboy wants no part of it:
Meanwhile, Liz Sherman and two fellow BRPD agents have discovered in a different Romanian castle a long-abandoned homunculus (or artificial person). Liz finds herself compelled to use her powers to ignite an opened valve in the homunculus’ chest, and suddenly the creature springs to life, killing one of the agents and bashing through a stone wall to escape, while the other agent is severely burned in trying to pull Liz away from the creature – Liz winds up catatonic.
WAKE THE DEVIL is where Mignola’s style for Hellboy really crystallized, both artistically and from a narrative standpoint. The dialogue has shifted to a spare, no-nonsense, almost hard-boiled tone, and the art has become more impressionistic, and more squared-off and angular, with a much heavier use of blacks. The narrative style has also progressed from the first series, with more of a sense of chaos and unpredictability, as nothing goes quite the way it should, and events often barrel uncontrollably to resolution, with Hellboy and company mostly just hanging on for the ride. There’s a subtlety to the storytelling that comes with Mignola’s increased confidence. In the opening pages of the book, Kroenen, Ilsa and Kurtz are met by industrialist Roderick Zinco, a fellow acolyte of Rasputin, who has promised to join their cause. In a sly motif, not only is the “Zinco” brand-name appear on products and equipment throughout the book, but all of Hellboy’s equipment that mysteriously malfunctions and blows up when he needs it most? A careful eye will discover the “Zinco” brand-name on those items as well.
Mignola’s gift for short stories is on display in HELLBOY: THE CHAINED COFFIN AND OTHERS, a collection of short tales from various HELLBOY specials and one-shots.
Here we see Mignola incorporate Irish, Russian, and English folktales into Hellboy’s adventures, which I think have a lot more punch in a shorter format. A personal favorite included here is “The Corpse,” in which Hellboy agrees to a bargain with a trio of angry leprechauns: if he finds a resting place for a departed friend of theirs, they’ll return the infant they’ve kidnapped. As Hellboy trudges from cemetery to cemetery, the corpse, clutching around his shoulders occasionally give Hellboy an earful, such as when he passes by a cache of gold…
…or when he accidentally loses a little bit of himself …
“The Corpse” showcases the perfect mix of action, atmosphere and dark humor that makes Hellboy such a fun, compelling read. Also included is “The Baba Yaga,” in which Hellboy encounters the legendary Russian witch, and is determined to put her child-stealing days to an end. The title story “The Chained Coffin” sheds a bit more light on Hellboy’s origin, as he dreams of what he can only assume to be his human mother on her deathbed, being visited by his decidedly non-human father:
“The Wolves of St. August” is a great Hellboy vs. werewolves yarn, and “Almost Colossus” revives Liz Sherman from her catatonia while converting the homunculus (whom Hellboy rather curiously names Roger) to the side of the angels.
More short Hellboy tales are on deck in the fourth collection, HELLBOY: THE RIGHT HAND OF DOOM, beginning with my personal favorite, “Pancakes,” a tale of L’il Hellboy and his introduction to a good ol’ fashioned U.S. Army breakfast:
Who knew that a short stack could have such ramifications:
Mignola delves into English, Norwegian, Japanese and Romanian folklore for some of the stories in this volume, in which Hellboy battles dragons, ghosts, vampires, and even disembodied heads. Also included here are “The Right Hand of Doom,” in which the son of an old enemy gives Hellboy some disturbing evidence about exactly what his stone right hand might be meant for, and “Box Full of Evil,” in which second-rate sorcerer Igor Bromhead and a minor demon called Ualac learn Hellboy’s secret name (“Anung Un Rama”) and use it to keep him captive so that his right hand can be taken from him and used to trigger the apocalypse.
Thanks to a surprising return appearance from the leprechaun from “The Corpse,” Hellboy slips through a mystical loophole and, as mentioned above, puts his once more fully grown horns to good use:
All of this while poor Abe is getting tortured by a sadistic monkey.
“Box Full of Evil” ends with a nice bit of self-examination on Hellboy’s part, which also serves as a transition point to the next big Hellboy adventure, “Conqueror Worm.”
In HELLBOY: CONQUEROR WORM, the fifth Hellboy trade paperback, Hellboy, Roger the homunculus and the legendary wartime crimefighter Lobster Johnson find themselves battling a giant Lovecraftian worm creature, as well as an army of artificial men, which Roger finds more than a little disturbing, and a cybernetically enhanced gorilla (another Mignola truism: monkeys are always bad news).
Just as troubling to Hellboy is what he considers the betrayal from within, as just before the mission BRPD director Tom Manning informs him that they’ve planted a bomb inside Roger as a failsafe, in light of his attack on BRPD agents back when Liz awakened him. Adding insult to injury, Hellboy is handed the detonator, and ordered to blow Roger up if something goes wrong, since Roger “isn’t human.” Hellboy is none too pleased with this development:
And at the end of the mission, he lets Manning know:
I’m giving all of these books terribly short shrift, by the way. Each HELLBOY collection offers its own mix of action, horror and superhero pulp, unlike anything else being published today. Mignola’s writing has only gotten better and better over the years, and his art has matured into a trademark style, instantly recognizable yet still growing and evolving, becoming at once simpler in its looser linework and slightly cartoony aspect, and more complex in its delicate use of shadow and color. I never feel like I’m able to properly express how powerful his art can be, so let’s look at a couple more examples:
Hellboy and Mike Mignola. Both one of a kind.