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I was working in a high school library just as teachers were beginning to appreciate the educational value of graphic novels. They finally understood what I had long known; they aren't just picture books, they are an expressive, immerse form of storytelling that is very appealing to readers who struggle with a page full of words. To someone who doesn't have personal experience with them though, they can be intimidating to choose from (because there are so many titles) and to keep up with (because there are so many volumes). But when students, teachers, and librarians ask me where they should start, I don't hesitate: Hellboy.

 

The title is goofy, and I understand why it might keep people away. In the books, the characters even recognize this, that Hellboy is a goofy name considering the arch heroism of his actions. But just as we were once warned not to judge books by their covers, I caution people from judging books by their titles as well. Hellboy, at first glance, is a goofy name. And it betrays a goofy original concept. Creator Mike Mignola just wanted to draw a demon punching nazis and gorillas and monsters and junk. It was a loving tribute to 1950s B-movies and pulp fantasy.

 

Hellboy began as just sketches and drawing that Mignola did not intend to do anything with. In 1993, these evolved into a series of short stories, six to ten page mini adventures in which much punching of nazis or monsters occurred. In 1994, Dark Horse published the first issue of an ongoing Hellboy series, which ran intermittently until 2011, and has since been collected into 12 volumes. It was here that Mignola began to craft a back story, an emotional centre, and a depth for the character. It was here that Hellboy became a classic tragic mythological hero. 

 

The backbone of the Hellboy stories is folklore. Mignola is an admitted myth junkie, collecting stories throughout his life, and weaving them into eventual Hellboy adventures. A trip to Europe and hearing a legend of the ghost of a gambler became The Vampire of Prague. A session of Greek myth make-believe with his daughter became The Hydra and the Lion. A half remembered Japanese folk story became Heads. Mignola used Hellboy to explore these cultural touchstones from a new perspective. Plus, they provided a lot of monsters to punch (or explode).

 

Somewhere along the way, the Worlds Greatest Paranormal Investigator (as HB was known) allowed Mignola to build his own mythology. The Hellboy stories can be fairly evenly divided between short fist fights with beasts and trolls, and a longer arc dealing with the character's destiny. Following in the footsteps of Tolkien, Mignola builds an entire universe from origin to apocalypse, with Hellboy the fulcrum of machinations by evil wizards, desperate gods, and the occasional alien. Drawing inspiration from Arthurian legends and the terrors of Lovecraft, Mignola’s stories are an ode to myths from around the world, and a poignant eulogy for old world paganism.

 

Summoned to Earth by Rasputin in the closing days of WWII, to bring about the end of the world, Hellboy is adopted by the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) and from 1952 until the late nineties worked as a government agent investigating and punching ghosts, vampires, and all manner of foul creature. His right hand though, the Right Hand of Doom, is a carved stone wanted by heaven, hell, and man for it is the key to summoning a great ancient Elderich horror from the abyss. As the story develops, Hellboy is confronted by, and rejects, the destiny others define for him. He doesn't want to destroy the world; he likes it too much. He just wants to live a simple life eating pancakes. His tragedy is that no matter his actions to avert his destiny, it seems unavoidable. Over the course of his story, his apathy turns to torment turns to anger. 

 

So, the short stories allow for easy digestion of action oriented fun, and the longer arcs draw the reader into a deeply realized world and the pathos of a character struggling against what is expected vs what they actually want. But those aren't the main reasons I recommend these books. I do so because, 1) they are very funny, and 2) they are gorgeous. Mignola seeds humour throughout his stories, usually in the form of other characters being very serious and Hellboy being very flip. His usual retort is to call whatever he's fighting "you horrible thing!" He complains about his back hurting after getting knocked around by Anubis, God of the Dead. He can't shoot straight. Mignola also draws on the absurdity of the situation, painting as often as possible the red demon with an apocalypse hand as the only sane man. 

 

Mignola, who was an artist before he was a writer, lavishes his works with nonverbal story telling. Entire pages will often feature only one brief piece of dialogue (or none at all), letting panel after panel of minimalist art pull you along. The lack of detail in the drawings accentuates the importance of elements, and sparse flashes of colour draw the eye to where it needs to linger. Mignola's style is wholly unique (so unique that Disney brought him in to help design Atlantis: The Lost Empire in the last nineties).  He fills the page, but he fills it with as little as possible. 

 

Hellboy was the favourite comic of director Guillermo del Toro, so much so that he made two Hellboy films in the 2000s. They are wonderful. A reboot film came out last year, starring Stranger Things' David Harbour. It is not wonderful. Two animated movies have been made adapting some of the short stories, and the comic series remains one of Dark Horse's most successful properties.

 

It has had multiple spinoffs, including BPRD, featuring the merman Abe Sapien, firestarter Liz Sherman, homunculus Roger, and ghost Johann Krauss. This series expands on the human perspective of the foretold apocalypse. Hellboy's early adventures are currently being chronicled in Hellboy and the BPRD, set during the fifties. And a host of other minor characters from the Hellboy world have gotten their own books, like nazi hunter Lobster Johnson, or Victorian Witchfinder Edward Grey.

 

Each book strikes its own tone, checks the box of a different genre, but are all united by the vision that Mignola originally set in Hellboy. If all you want to do is see a demon punch nazis, the series gives you that. If you want to do a deep dive and immerse yourself in the world of Anung Un Rama, there is material enough to last you ages. 

 

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Yours, Fictionally

 

*all images are the copyright and property of Dark Horse Comics and Mike Mignola.

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