Wednesday, October 21, 2009


The two Hellboy movies directed by Guillermo del Toro introduced a new audience to the demon with a heart of gold. They were great popcorn flicks, and Ron Pearlman is one of my favorite character actors, but they barely scratched the surface of Hellboy's story. Since it's October and the season for all things dark and strange, I thought it'd be a good time to take a look at Mike Mignola's beautiful, grotesque, Eisner- and Harvey-award winning comic.

Mike Mignola has been telling Hellboy's story bit by bit--through irregular miniseries and one-shots--since 1994. (The Hellboy universe also includes an ever-expanding number of spin-off characters, including vigilante Lobster Johnson, who Jesse wrote about back in July.) Like in the movies, Hellboy is a demon brought to Earth during a Nazi experiment. He was adopted by an American professor and joined the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, protecting the world against various supernatural threats.

One of the things that set the Hellboy comics apart, not only from the movies but from other comics, is Mignola's flat, contrast-heavy artwork. Mignola was originally inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, and Alan Moore once called his style, "German Expressionism meets Jack Kirby." It seems like people either love it or hate it, and I'll admit the strange art made me avoid the Hellboy for years. Once I finally read it, though, I started to understand. Mignola's style reminds me of stained glass windows or Medieval icons. It wouldn't work for most superheroes, say Captain America or Spider-Man, but for the types of stories Mignola tells, about hoary evils, about demons and dragons and destiny, it fits perfectly.

Many of those stories reflect Mignola's deep love of folklore. Besides stories revolving around mythological creatures like homunculi, changlings, and Baba Yaga, he's also written stories directly modeled on the legends of Teig O'Kane and the Corpse, The Flying Huntsman, and "an Irish legend about St. Patrick cursing a group of pagans so that every seven years they would turn into wolves." (That story, "The Wolves of St. August,"remains one of my favorites.) Mignola has an incredible talent for breathing new life into these half-forgotten tales.

But the biggest difference between the movies and the comics lies in the over-reaching story arc of Hellboy and how the character has developed over the years. Where the movies were fast-paced bust 'em ups, Mignola's comics are set in a lower gear, moving slower but also providing more emotional torque. The pull between fate and choice is a major theme. Other demons recognize Hellboy as Anung un Rama, the Beast of the Apocalypse, destined--or doomed--to start Armageddon and bring the legions of Hell to Earth. Hellboy has sworn he'll never let that happen, but even while he continues fighting the good fight (and remains a proud white hat in this age of morally gray superheroes), gears are turning and things are constantly happening on the edge of the stories that neither Hellboy nor the reader ever quite see clearly. If Hellboy has a tragic flaw, it's that his disgust for his origins have kept him from examining his past or future too closely. At one point he says, "I like not knowing. I've gotten by for fifty-two years without knowing. I sleep good not knowing." But as more and more of his history is revealed, it's becoming clear that Hellboy will have to confront his destiny head on if he ever wants to break free of it.

The movies were great, but they never captured the sense of all-encompassing dread that Mignola weaves so skillfully through the original.

(Cross-posted on my blog)


Jesse said...

You hit the Hellboy right on the head, as far as I'm concerned. Mignola's art is incomparable -- I wish we were seeing more of it these days. And thanks for the Lobster Johnson plug, too!

Kristopher said...

I had to get through two of the trades before I finally got used to his art, but it's surprising how it grows on you. Now, if I see a picture of Hellboy drawn in anything other than Mignola's style that looks weird.