So, this is the first in a series of horror-and-monster-themed retrospectives I'll be doing this month, because Hallowe'en is the best holiday and I like to stretch it out.
This was the book that launched 20 years and counting
of Hellboy comics.
Nitpick: Technically, before this there was a guest appearance in John Byrne's NextMen
, an obscure Italian fanzine called Dime
, and San Diego Comic Con Comics #2
. However, none of those really count unless you're an obsessive collector. For all intents and purposes, it starts here.
Mike Mignola didn't just appear out of thin air. He cut his teeth at DC and Marvel Comics, doing everything from Batman to Conan the Barbarian. His style was already fairly distinct, although he had yet to achieve what I would consider the height of his particular style, and his writing credits were few.
It's always kind of amazing to go back and see a cover and go "Wow, that was Mike Mignola."
Was Hellboy really weird when he came out? I would say yeah. I mean, you had John Constantine, so occult detectives weren't completely off the radar, and Howard Chaykin refurbished some old pulpish properties like The Shadow
, so it's not like that was completely off the table either. Yet...
...okay, confession time: I initially resisted Hellboy. The art was off to younger me. I hadn't yet completely succumbed to Lovecraft and the Weird Tales
circle. I was at that young age when I was still almost exclusively involved with superhero comics, to the point of going through the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe
and Who's Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe
like they were holy writ. I was...and, if I'm to be honest, still am...one of those people that love to see possibilities between established elements, before going outside and introducing new ones. Fun times as a fan, not so good as a writer. So the Hellboy tagline ("World's Greatest Paranormal Investigator") didn't immediately drag me in, and the art aesthetic was (while tantalizingly familiar) not what I was quite accustomed to. Hell, this was a point when I thought John Byrne and George Perez were the gods of good comic book art.
It was the 90s. I was young. And when I did finally fall for Hellboy, I fell in a big way.
Mignola's art lives in the shadows and his palette is a mix of the colors of darkness, against which reds, yellows, and oranges look explosive. The debt to Jack Kirby is immediate and devout; Mignola loves the crackle, the big dieselpunk machinery, Hellboy with his big stone hand channels something of Jack Kirby's Thing, a regular blue-collar guy that's specialty is commonsense, not violent but never shying from a fight, and a man that knows the rest of the world looks at him like a monster.
Note to self: I need to do a retrospective on this at some point.
More than that, I like Mike Mignola's sprawling world, the tremendous mythology behind it all, the nods to Clark Ashton Smith and William Hope Hodgson, Roger the Homunculus and Lobster Johnson, vril and vampires. It's a massive mess, almost...and I say almost, because of course the 20+ books of Mike Mignola's Hellboy/BPRD/Lobster Johnson/Abe Sapien/Sledgehammer/Witchfinder/etc. series is much more consistent than you get from a comic 'verse that has twenty or forty writers producing material at monthly intervals. So the continuity is impressive, but less impressive maybe than three writers in a row keeping Carol Danvers' characterization consistent. And all of that started here...almost literally. The very first scenes of the comic are basically Hellboy's origin story in a nutshell, one that's simple enough it could have been a five-pager installment in 2000 AD
and yet leave so much unspoken that it would be years before the finer bits were explained...and even then, mysteries remain.
Also, CGI demon-baby aside, I think the intro scene to Hellboy the movie was perfect.
Is it perfect, though? Eh. Re-reading Seed of Destruction
, I think most people agree that as good as it is, as well as it begins things, as central as it actually is to the Hellboy mythos and all the 20+ years of stuff that came after...I don't think this is Mike Mignola's A-game. Let's start with the elephant in the room.
Mignola turned to John Byrne for help on this one. I think this might dilute some of Mignola's voice a bit; the book reads a little too like a regular comic book, the pacing of the panels isn't quite as free as some of Mignola's later stuff. Maybe I'm nit-picking, again; it's really hard to tell where one man's work begins and the other ends. I do think including the Torch of Liberty (one of Byrne's characters, who never appears in pretty much anything in the Mignolaverse ever again, except for a very uncanonical short story in one of the anthologies) was a bit of a mistake. Don't get me wrong, it's a great
use of the character, but the fact that Mignola didn't own him, and couldn't use him again after this...it feels like a gap in the series, even though it shouldn't.
There's a lot of exposition. There's a lot of dialogue. There is the weird deus ex machina of Abe Sapien possessed by the ghost of Elihu Cavendish, spearing Rasputin from behind. Rasputin
, I might add, has always been a supremely weird choice for me. I mean, we're already in a series where issue one has Hellboy punching Nazis and shooting giant frog-men, so seven-times-killed Russian mystics shouldn't be a major stretch, but somehow it always left me slightly agog. I think it underlines how weird
this series was, in a day when Nazi-punching was generally restricted to Captain America and Indiana Jones.
There's also something to be said for the format. I don't think Hellboy actually shines as a "series of series," even if that's what really made Dark Horse's system viable. For me, it was Mignola's shorts - his one shots, his little anthology eight-pagers, even his two-page spreads like the magnificent "Pancakes" that really defined the character and what he was capable of to me. Because the core of Hellboy, the one that really got me, wasn't so much the core story at the beginning but stories like "The Wolves of St. August" and "A Christmas Underground" - the kind of thing where Hellboy really is playing at the World's Greatest Paranormal Investigator, and playing it straight before he got caught up with destiny and prophecies and the mystery of his origins.
Custody fights among comic creators are often ugly, and only the lawyers win.
What is it about "Pancakes" that works so well? In part, it's the juxtaposition. Young Hellboy, crochety old general. Something as mundane as pancakes, the wailing and caterwauling in Hell. The perfect little details, like the USA printed on the back of the fork, and the end box showing the fork and the empty plate. It works because it's a simple idea, well-paced - almost drawn-out, but only enough to really tell the joke. And that's it. There's no embellishment on it besides the hyperbole of demons wailing because he ate a pancake. It takes place in a wider context, sure, but you don't even need to know what it is; I think you could come into this cold and you'd be like "Okay, that's weird" - but you'd still sort of get the joke. You might even smile. Maybe familiarity has me making more "Pancakes" than it is, but it's just one of those perfectly framed moments of the mundane and the surreal that Mignola does so well.
The art, too, isn't Migola's best work. Part of that is understandable, he was still new to drawing these characters, finding his groove. But you can also tell that he hadn't worked out everything yet. Take the frogs for instance.
I won't say that this basic character design for the frogs wasn't used by other artists in the series. Arcudi, for example, obviously used it as a general template. But at the same time, Arcudi also definitely softened the look, made it more frog-like, clamped down on some of Mignola's more obvious influences from Giger's xenomorph and whatnot. A lot of the little character designs in Seed of Destruction
are like that, rough around the edges, especially if you compare it with Mignola's later Hellboy one-shots, where the art, writing, and layout just hit that sweet spot between gorgeously gothic surreal and folktale.
Case in point, from the first issue, I think the very best bit is at the end where Mignola gives and African myth about frogs:
On a day when little water was to be found Man spent awhile in thought and realized that he might one day die, never to rise again. Man sent Dog to God to ask that he might come back to live again, like the flowering plant, after death.
Dog went off and followed his nose toward God. He was soon distracted by the smell of soup, and followed his hunger toward the source. Leaning close to watch it boil, Dog was content and forgot his mission.
Seeing that Dog was lost, Frog took it upon himself to go to God and tell him that Man did not want to live again. If Man were to be reborn, thought Frog, he would soon muddy the rivers and destroy the birthplaces of frogs.
Dog finally arrived to tell God Man's message. Leaning low, he crooned Man's need for rebirth in the song of his howl. God was touched by the devotion of Dog for Man.
But God granted the frog's wish, because he got there first.
It seems like a non-sequitur. But that's just it, really: it doesn't tie in directly to the story. It helps set the mood. It talks about beginnings and endings, in very human terms. It's very quintessentially a simple folk tale, potent but not terribly complicated. Simple language, very direct, very effective.
I miss the camaraderie.
In hindsight, we've had more comics where Hellboy and the BPRD have been apart than we have when they've been together. Yet Hellboy was conceived as a team book almost from the beginning, complete with an ectoplasm guy. I like that he works well with Liz and Abe. I like that they have that almost family-like bond. It translated well even into the movies and cartoons, which is rare enough.
The movie is something else to talk about, because obviously Seed of Destruction
was the original basis for the film. Del Toro decided to veer away from the comics after act one - and I can't blame him, really. In the comic, Prof. Bruttenholm dies almost before you care about him at all. It's a pretty blatant Uncle Ben moment for Hellboy, and in hindsight I appreciate Del Toro giving us the extra space to appreciate Bruttenholm and his relationship with the rest of the BPRD. The rest of it? Eh. Great cast, excellent effects. I can't really complain about the changes that were made, except maybe John Myers. I know why
they included Myers in the movie, to give the audience a POV character, a fresh set of eyes on a strange world. He isn't a terrible character by any means, and the actor did well. A couple scenes and the Liz jealousy sub-plot were cheesy as hell, but I love Hellboy on the roof, eating milk and cookies, getting relationship advice from an eight-year old. But you can totally see why they cut Myers from the second film entirely; once the characters are established, there's no need for yet another human.
Which, bringing us back to the comic, is also kind of why Bruttenholm dies when he does. After Hellboy's birth/emergence event, Buttenholm sets up the story and then is killed Hellboy doesn't get - or need - any further introduction than that. Once you introduce Hellboy, it's his comic; the narrative follows him for the most part. Very few asides, and that mostly to flip to Abe Sapien or Liz when Hellboy falls through a floor or something.
I've talked about a lot here without going into the plot; there's not actually a lot of it. A ghost from Hellboy's past is in league with eldritch horrors, Hellboy is out of his league, and yet by pluck, high explosives, and a determined ability to be okay with not needing every mystery explained, Hellboy & crew manage to survive...only to turn the page and see some more Nazis coming out of their cryotubes. Dun dun dunnn! It's practically a 1930s pulp serial.
Which is pretty much the point. Mignola doesn't usually go in for dense
storytelling; his style is choppy, he leaves a lot unsaid, but never in a way that he makes the audience fell like he's trying to be clever. It's very fitting to the style and the subject matter - plenty of books on the paranormal are full of unexplained (and perhaps inexplicable!) happenings, and that's the way the audience likes it. Some mysteries are more fun if they aren't solved. Hellboy gets through this "case" by punching the bad guy wizard until he's a heap of talking bones. He doesn't get all the answers.
He's cool with it.
...and while this comic is obviously a set-up for events to come, at the same time it's very self-contained. There's an origin story there, but no getting-the-band-together montage or any of that. It's part of the charm of the book: everyone is competent enough at their jobs that you don't see any real stupid
moves. Even when Hellboy rushes into a darkened room with a monster, he's smart enough to realize it's a mistake, and it's his experience with these things as much as anything that tell you how badass the villains are. We don't see him reach into his bat
utility belt to solve every crisis - okay, maybe to grab a grenade - we don't see the full extant of his abilities in one go. A lot of comics, they want to bring the reader up to speed quickly on what a character can and cannot do; Mignola has always been comfortable with leaving characters competent in their abilities without always being aware of their own natures. Hell, that pretty much defines the character arcs for Hellboy, Liz Sherman, and Abe Sapien.
What's left to say...
...oh, right. Amazing as it may sound, there are still things left unexplained from Seeds of Destruction
. 20 years on, we don't know much about the aliens. We know they show up again, in The Conqueror Worm
, but that's about it. There's a lot of fan speculation about these guys. They're...fun. It's an unexpected twist, but not unexpected like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
. It's like a slightly surreal Kirbyesque moment, where we get a sense that local struggles can have major consequences. It's "Pancakes" in it's own way, juxtaposing horror-fantasy with sci-fi, united by the pulpy aesthetic of it all. That's where Mignola lives, when he's at the top of his game; in that weird realm that straddles genres, going from gothic horror to body horror, mixing medieval folk tales with the modern day, science fiction next to pseudoscience hokum. It's dark possibilities with a shadowy aesthetic, like watching Batman duke it out with the Joker behind the screen at a theater screening Nosferatu
. It's a place where dark miracles can be made.