Someone lent me volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 9 for the weekend, so I read them all. I must say, reading them in sequence helped a lot.
Robert Bloch’s introduction in Seed of Destruction was condescending at best. Fortunately the volume was a strong start for the series that, as I said before, seems to carry the horror torch where Maturin and Lewis would have taken it were they writing in the twentieth century. Mignola cites Jack Kirby as a major influence, and the period of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s seems to be a favorite of Mignola, worked over and over. The first volume sees the “birth” of Hellboy (manifestation is perhaps a better word), which starts us off at the traditional place, the beginning. All of the motifs you might come to expect are here: lots of corpses, anthropomorphic monsters (I keep waiting for Hawthorne-style horror), gore, myth, and lots of evil Nazis. Among the Nazis is the mysterious and gas-masked, looking for all the world like a plague-doctor, and the recurrent butch S S woman. (Speaking of which, a possible criticism of Hellboy is that, for all the low-key heroism you might find in the eponymous hero, there isn’t much in the way of a female role model. Liz Sherman, Professor Corrigan, Alice are all sympathetic and on the good side, but they really don’t have all that much to do.)
I’m getting ahead of myself. There are far too many Gothic influences in Hellboy to mention, but some of Mignola’s best artwork are surreal collages hearkening back to medieval tapestries and nineteenth-century daguerreotypes. I loved Abe Sapien’s origin story (so PT Barnum, somehow), and it only occupied half a page! Rasputin as a Nazi collaborator with an agenda to bring Ragnarok is rather Indiana Jones and quite satisfying when taken in that frame of mind! It’s strange to think that the opening story is rather simple by comparison to the later ones!
Mignola dedicates Wake the Devil to “Dracula and all those other vampires I have loved.” It’s a natural choice that volume 2 should venture into realms vampiric—a page spread on a museum fo vampire relics reminds me of Lloyd Rose’s City of the Dead and more concretely, the Orlando Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not. Unfortunately it’s watered down slightly with the return of the evil S S woman, Ilsa Haupstein, the tail end of whose story I caught earlier in volume 7. Her allegiances are torn between a vampire lover and Rasputin her master, who leads her to spend some unpleasant time in an Iron Maiden (images from Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, or is it the other way around?). Hellboy’s response to a skeletal vampire’s dissertation on Vladimir Giurescu’s vampire ladies (definite shades of Carmilla in the drawings) is “Kiss your ass goodbye, freak!”
This story also introduces the homunculus (later named Roger) which is a very bizarre, Frankenstein-esque concept that gives me the willies. I always recognized it in terms of Mr Sin from “Talons of Weng-Chiang,” but according to this, it’s “an artificial person made from blood and herbs, stewed in a jar and incubated in horse manure . . . sort of a medieval test-tube baby.” Baba Yaga makes her first horrible appearance, a floating head in a jar ends up in South America: it’s all par for the course. Perhaps most importantly, for those of us like me and Benicio del Toro, who thought Hellboy was wearing goggles on his head, this volume shows that they are actually horns he ripped off.
I think I may not be alone in saying that I enjoy the shorter Hellboy stories—they have a symmetry and a simplicity to them. The Chained Coffin and Others collects some of these. “The Corpse” is basically a re-telling of the Irish folktale called “Teig O’Kane," but it’s important in that it introduces Alice (the baby) and the changeling, both of whom will reappear in volume 9 (and 10, it is presumed). I really like “A Christmas Underground,” it’s visually stunning, very sad, and makes for a melancholy, ghostly Christmas atmosphere to rival Chimes of Midnight. It has a bit of the flavor of Cupid & Psyche in it, as well. “The Chained Coffin” is very important for Hellboy’s origins, is quite disturbing, and ends with the wonderfully off-the-cuff, “Abraham Sapien dreams of fish.” “The Wolves of St August” brings Prof. Corrigan to the fore (rather Benny Summerfield-like) with a gory werewolf tale. Mignola says he’s particularly fond of the girl with the wolf’s head; I agree, it’s a striking image. The whole thing brings to mind Marc Platt’s Loups-Garoux; the fight scenes highlight what Alan Moore calls Mignola’s “slab-black shadows.” “Almost Colossus” is Roger the homunculus’ story.
The Right Hand of Doom is another collection. “Pancakes” is a bit of fun about a very small Hellboy; possibly my favorite story of all. I even think Milton would have enjoyed the joke (speaking of which, Mignola should illustrate the graphic novel version of Paradise Lost!). “King Vold” is highly cynical and because of that, a short, elegant tale. I also really like “Heads,” which is again, quite elegant and takes us to Japan. Mignola has perfectly adapted the courtly Japanese inking style. Chimpanzees show up yet again (Mignola and his apes!) in “Box Full of Evil,” which nevertheless has a wonderfully creepy scene with a “hand of glory,” “the hand of a hanged man, dried, dipped in wax, made into a candle.”
Conqueror Worm brings back the Nazis, but at least it’s all timed to Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry and prose. It’s also the first outing, as far as I can tell, for Lobster Johnson. Unfortunately it proves no blonde Germanic ladies are to be trusted, they all turn out to be S S women. There’s another ape (a gorilla wired up like Kong) and a mysterious figure not unlike the Shade from Phantom of the Opera; this is a strange thread in the story, but ultimately the one I liked the most. The mysterious man confirms out belief in what we like best about Hellboy: “free will.” This adventure sees Hellboy quitting the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.
Skipping far ahead is The Wild Hunt, which is very Tolkien-esque in its ambitions. The Wild Hunt, with Herne the Hunter at is head and the quarry of giants, quite appeals to me. Gruagach, a supernatural being with a grudge against Hellboy (he was the changeling in the earlier story), is revealed to have had a tragic, romantic past; eat your heart out, Kopit/Yeston. The Wild Hunt is wonderfully Arthurian, and the twist at the end is well worth reading 9 volumes for. Queen Mab and Morgan Le Fay vie for Hellboy’s attention; Mignola retells the Merlin legend about the red dragon and the white dragon, but he replaces the Welsh with “the Britains.” Hmph. I hesitate to say too much to spoil this one.
I think this benefits from being read in sequence. I also think I need to get hold of the movie, just out of curiosity.