Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Alex Taylor, and I’ve been asked by the Proprietor to tell you all a little something about Mike Mignola’s Hellboy.
At first glance, I may appear to be an odd choice for the job: I have never had any special regard for comic books or super-heroes, have a generally low tolerance for darkness and violence in the arts, and loathe and despise the whole horror genre with every breath in my body—and yet, I love Hellboy pretty much unreservedly. Why? And, more importantly, why should you care?
Hellboy is a great oddity, for many reasons. Mention the title to a group of friends, and you’re likely to be met with blank stares (at best) or disapprovingly raised eyebrows (at worst). It’s no wonder, really—many potential readers are turned off at once by the sheer silliness of the name. It smacks of pulpish violence, puerile eeriness, and dime-store deviltry—sure to be no better than any of the other tasteless horror and action comics fighting for shelf space at Barnes & Noble. Further inspection, however, reveals Hellboy to be made of much richer, deeper, and truer stuff than its nearest competition.
This begins, at the most primary level, with Mike Mignola’s art. Mignola’s genius as a visual artist and technical mastery of the forms and language of his chosen medium are unparalleled—his books have much the same effect on me as The Lord of the Rings, in one small sense: reading them squelches any chance I might have of enjoying anything else the genre or medium has to offer. I’ve read some other comics, and found them passably entertaining, but I have yet to find any other artist possessed of such a thorough grasp of what the medium can achieve. Mignola is aware of his limitations, and does his best to avoid them—but what he does, he does with absolute and unfailing confidence, deftness, and grace. His style is unlike anything else in the field, blending a dynamic kineticism with classic illustrative technique, brilliant use of colour, chiaroscuro lighting, and strong German expressionist influences.
Mignola’s chosen subject matter in the Hellboy stories is pure delight. Their content is superficially similar to Indiana Jones, but always far superior to that franchise’s legion of imitators for one simple reason: Mignola doesn’t imitate Lucas and Spielberg; he imitates their sources—and those sources are a nigh-inexhaustible well. This authenticity of intent and delivery is one of the principle factors setting Mignola’s work apart from the rest: it has deep roots. Globe-spanning folklore ranging from Irish to African to Russian and beyond is blended magnificently alongside classical mythology, 19th century Romantic and Gothic literature, early 20th century adventure fiction in the vein of H. Rider Haggard and William Hope Hodgson; and weird esotericism, conspiracy theories, and pseudo-history ranging from medieval alchemy and saint’s lives to the lost lands of Atlantis and Shambhala. The books are liberally scattered through with references to writers as varied as Melville, Poe, Milton, and Blake, but Mignola’s gleeful exuberance as a storyteller prevents such literary name-dropping from ever feeling pretentious or contrived—he’s simply taking the opportunity to tell us “a few of his favourite things.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What about Hellboy’s hero? Half-demon, half-man, brought into the world at the close of WWII by a desperate Nazi plot for victory through occult means, the infant ‘Hellboy’ was rescued by allied forces and raised in the war’s aftermath by a kindly professor—nurture trumping nature in the truest sense of the phrase. Hellboy soon found employment in the service of the U.S. Government, working as an investigator for the newly formed “Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense” (B.P.R.D.), pursuing strange and unearthly menaces that would surely have baffled the likes of Mulder and Scully.
Although seven feet tall, bright red, cloven-hoofed, and horned; Hellboy does his level best to live a normal life. He grinds his horns down to little stubs (trying to “blend in”), and treats his work with a wisecracking, no-nonsense, blue-collar attitude that flies delightfully in the face of his darkly epic surroundings. It sounds much sillier in theory than Mignola makes it in practice, but much of the series’ appeal stems from seeing its hero’s bluntly pragmatic and underwhelmed reactions to the mad, maniacal ravings of its absurdly operatic villains. For all the apocalyptic struggle and strife present in Hellboy’s world, the tone of the series remains essentially friendly and accessible due to the likable charm and warmth of its often very quirky characters. Finally, and most importantly, there is the underlying moral and spiritual framework of Mignola’s world and hero. This is where the real substance of Hellboy may be said to lie, as its maker has spared no effort in detailing a richly imagined, intricate universe imbued with real meaning and depth.
Although I have yet to learn anything of Mignola’s personal religious persuasions, a careful reading of his work reveals an undeniably and essentially (if only hereditary) Christian framework of understanding and reference (i.e. theolo-vision™). Symbols, types, and images are used in their proper, God-ordained context. The Serpent, or Dragon, is utterly evil: the archenemy of the human race. The Cross is consistently representative of goodness, sacrifice, justice, and love. Throughout the series, Mignola makes striking but subtle use of the visual nature of his medium to communicate these ideas in ways far more powerful and imaginative than any the didacticism of written description could ever allow.
Hellboy himself is, rather curiously, the paradoxical exception to this rule: he is a “good demon.” He is a creature made and fated for evil. His nature is evil, his prophesied purpose is evil; he looks evil. And yet, in spite of these and other constant reminders that he is born in sin as the enemy of mankind and the harbinger of its destruction, Hellboy consistently and unwaveringly chooses to deny his fallen nature and do the right thing, no matter the personal cost. Why? The selfless love of his adoptive father, Trevor Bruttenholm.
This is illustrated most clearly in the beautifully symbolic climax of Guillermo del Toro’s film adaptation, wherein a broken, defeated, and sorely-tempted Hellboy finds the strength to follow truth and goodness against impossible odds when another character tosses him a rosary once owned by Bruttenholm and earnestly exhorts, “remember who you are!” The great key here is, of course, that what his friend says he “is” is what he has chosen to be out of love for his father, rather than what he was born or fated to be. And that, in the end, is the essence of Hellboy’s message: that it is not the circumstances of our birth that make us who we are, but rather the choices that we make—not how we start things, but how we finish them.