(Once a month through 2012, CCLaP staff writer Karl Wolff is examining the question of what it means to "be human" through a diverse series of books, movies and television shows. For all the essays in this series, please
By Mike Mignola
Review by Karl Wolff
Mike Mignola's mid-1990s comic book Hellboy, published by indie press Dark Horse, spins the tale of a group of heroic misfits working for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. The misfits include the eponymous Hellboy, a demon snatched from the pits of Hell by occultist Nazis and saved by a crack force of US Army GIs. There is Abe Sapien, a sentient aquatic humanoid found in the basement of the White House during the Lincoln years. And there is Liz Sherman, a human blowtorch. When she gets angry, look out! In the comic books, they fight to save the world from Nazis, demons, and all manner of Lovecraftian horrors. (Mignola dedicated the first volume, Seed of Destruction to Jack Kirby and H.P. Lovecraft.)
Genre fusions are a tricky business. They don't always succeed. Cop Rock is just one example of a respected craftsman (Steve Bochco) blending genres in a show that ended in unmitigated disaster. In terms of writing craft, consider the Cosmopolitan. For this cocktail to succeed and actually taste good, specific ingredients must be mixed in exact proportions. Mignola mixes a heady concoction together. The ingredients are a cigar-chomping, back-talking, trench-coat-wearing badass hell demon as the hero; occult-obsessed Nazis; a resurrected Rasputin; and monsters and villains coming from world mythologies and Lovecraftian nightmares. It's a miracle this unwieldy combination didn't collapse into a vortex of suck. But to the credit of Mignola and the Hellboy writing and artistic staff, he wraps these disparate elements around a coherent mythos. Not only was it successful, Hellboy continues to be published in individual comic issues, but also in graphic novel collections. It even spawned a successful spin-off series, B.P.R.D., which started in 2003 and continues to this day. One final note, this time on the graphic style, then we shall plunge into the narrative meat of the series. As you see from the cover art, Hellboy is drawn in a flat blocky style, full of shadows and solid colors. Mignola's style uses a lot of chiaroscuro, making his work look like 19th century posters. He conveys a lot through very few pen strokes.
The spare style complements the storyline. The comic books chronicle the story of Hellboy's origin and B.P.R.D.'s battle with Grigori Rasputin. Seed of Destruction begins in 1944 on a remote island in Scotland, where the Nazis, along with Rasputin, attempt to initiate Project Ranga Rok, to create a doomsday weapon to vanquish the Allies. Instead of summoning Ogdru Jahad, the dragon from Revelation, Hellboy appears and is taken into the custody of the US Army. Trevor Buttenholm, an academic working for B.P.R.D., cares for the young hell demon. (From Buttenholm's upbringing, Hellboy becomes a practicing Roman Catholic.) Throughout the books, Hellboy and Rasputin battle each other until Rasputin's spirit is imprisoned in an acorn after Hecate refuses to do his bidding.
Hellboy continues the tradition of stereotypically evil races (used in the fantasy sense) fighting for humanity. We see this with the vampire Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the trade paperbacks, Hellboy is granted "honorary human rights" by the U.N. and the Pope. Being human is less about the species than about politically based sanction. "You're human because we say you are." We can see this today in the way that the Republicans have legitimized Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate, even though the Evangelical Right and Mainstream Christianity in general has less than positive things to say about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. "The Mormons are an evil cult that is not Christian. But Romney, oh, he's cool." In a more literal sense, being human in the Hellboy universe is a very sketchy thing. Humanity is constantly threatened from supernatural evils of all varieties. It's almost as bad as the Warhammer 40K universe. Because humanity is small, weak, and soft, it requires a different kind of hero. In this case, Hellboy, Abe Sapien, and the others who work for the B.P.R.D.
For those who like the pulps of the Thirties, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a dense dark mythology, Hellboy is a great place to start. It has everything: hell demons, heads in jars, Nazis, Rasputin, Hecate, golem, and frogs. That pesky plague of frogs.
Coming September 21, Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch