Thursday, February 17, 2011
Many readers may be familiar with Hellboy, Mike Mignola’s cigar-chomping, son-of-the-devil supernatural detective. There have been two Hellboy movies and nearly a dozen volumes of his self-titled comics—not to mention novels and resource guides and art books. There’s even been a review here on guyslitwire not too long ago. There was also a review of the Lobster Johnson novel, and that points to a lesser-known aspect to what is informally known as the “Mignola-verse”—Hellboy may be the biggest character in his world, but he’s by no means alone. He occupies an entire history or mythology of human (and otherwise) contact with the mysterious, the horrific, and the unknown.
In the world of Hellboy, Lobster Johnson was a 1930s pulp-hero, similar to Doc Samson or the Shadow. There’s also the Victorian-era supernatural detective Edward Grey, also known as the Witchfinder, a title he shares with the Puritan era Witchfinder Henry Hood. Each of these characters has fought demons and monsters in the pages of Hellboy, but there is one set of characters that have as many volumes of comics out as Hellboy: the brave heroes of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, or the B.P.R.D.
Many of the main characters are familiar from the movies—amphibious man Abe Sapien, pyrotechnic Liz Sherman, ectoplasmic medium Johann Krauss—but there are others as well. What makes the B.P.R.D. titles so great is the way they develop character, establish mood, and build story, all the while telling action-packed horror tales. It is obvious from the books that this is due to the dedication and focus of everyone involved, from the great writing of John Arcudi and art from Guy Davis, to the editorial direction and vision of Mike Mignola and series editor Scott Allie. Even the coloring contributes to making every book connected to Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. titles feel like they’re part of a larger story. Dave Stewart’s work keeps a steady, unified tone to all the stories, whether they are set in England in the 1890s, Southeast Asia in 2008, or the pulpy New York of Lobster Johnson in the 1930s.
The ongoing plot of all the B.P.R.D. books is Lovecraftian in its insidiousness—ancient, horrific, otherworldly elder beings unleash ever-growing hordes of monsters on the world in their never-ending attempts to breach the barriers between their world and ours. What stands in their way are heroes that, in any superhero comic book, would win the day, and that would be that. But here, the terrible demons and gods of primordial ooze never stop, and the tide of evil always threatens to completely overwhelm anything the members of B.P.R.D. do.
If the B.P.R.D. tales only managed to demonstrate that the superhero/adventure/horror hybrid tales Mignola tells in Hellboy aren’t a fluke, they’d be worth it. Each of the heroes of the Mignolaverse are firmly grounded in sturdy hero (or antihero) archetypes of their time periods, so it is natural that the B.P.R.D., the heroes for today, are odd reflections of four-color teams like the X-Men or Doom Patrol. If you squint, you can see the superhero team model bubbling underneath the set-up of the B.P.R.D. In fact, the line-up of characters has the same elemental members as the Fantastic Four: Water (Abe Sapien), Earth (Roger the homunculus), Fire (Liz Sherman), and Air (Johann Krauss). But there’s no superheroics here.
Instead, we see the complicated grind of an overwhelming evil and the messy emotional toll of characters caught in the tides of history, both epic and personal. Even when they face an ostensible supervillain, like the Black Flame, everyone involved, the Black Flame most of all, is subsumed in the madness of the ancient horrors they face. If Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were replaced by H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, they may have produced something very much along the lines of the B.P.R.D. tales—great horror adventure tales, anchored by characters you invest yourself in, and connected by a complex, rich history. I found myself, once I’d started the series, hunting down every volume.
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