Who is Hellboy?

By

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.


28 Comments

  1. Loren Eaton

    Alex, I never really had an interest in the series until I read this. Thanks.

    By the way, don’t give up completely on horror as a genre. There are a few good specimens, particularly in literature (i.e. Bradbury’s The October Country).

  2. Tony Heringer

    Alex…wow! Thanks for the post. Like Loren, I had zero interest in this series and just saw it as second or third level comic fare (e.g. Punisher or Phantom). But, I did catch the beginning of the movie on TNT the other day and felt it was oddly watchable. Now, when it comes around again, I’ll give it a look.

  3. Greg Fisher

    I tried and failed to get into reading comic books. But I do rather enjoy the movie genre. And the first Hellboy movie was about as good as I’ve seen. I plan to see Hellboy II Saturday. The previews look quite visiually poetic. Many of my friends look at me confusedly when I list Hellboy among my favorites. But I can’t recommend it enough.

  4. Tom Bubb

    Rock on! Thanks for bringing HB to the fore here at the Rabbit Room Alex! I really enjoyed your article. I adored the first Hellboy movie and I’m very excited about seeing the sequel tomorrow. I haven’t read a whole ton of the comic book but I plan to change that very soon.

  5. Ben

    Alex,

    Great job on elucidating the finer points of Hellboy. I have anti-comicbook/horror blood running through my veins, but your arguments for Hellboy, both on an off the Web, have done a lot to change my mind on the subject. Good work!

    Ben

  6. Peter B

    Great intro. Pete would be proud — or rather, I imagine that he is.

    Can’t wait to see the sequel in two weeks (which is the first time I’ll have an open evening).

  7. Jeff Cope

    I first discovered and fell in love with Mignola’s artwork in the early 80s in a magazine devoted to the RPG RuneQuest. He drew an illustration in there that was just head and shoulders above all the other artwork in that periodical.

    I followed his work as he broke into comics. He did a mini-series for Marvel called Rocket Raccoon, and went on to do some work on The Incredible Hulk and Alpha Flight. He did some stuff for DC including an amazing one-shot called Gotham by Gaslight that was a ‘what-if’ tale of a Victorian-era Batman hunting Jack the Ripper. Highly recommend that tale!

    Later when he announced his own creation, Hellboy, I felt a sense of disappointment. I was still young in my journey with Christ and was, of course, conditioned to avoid anything that smacked of the satanic. Surely something entitled “Hellboy” featuring a demon as the main character had to be satanic. Right?

    So, feeling a little rebellious, I picked up the book anyway…and have been a huge Hellboy fan ever since. There truly isn’t anything else like it.

    Most of the comics have been collected into trade paperbacks, and they (like the periodical editions) are published by Dark Horse Comics.

    http://www.darkhorse.com/Zones/Hellboy

    There is a series of prose novels, as well as a few prose anthology books (Odd Jobs, Odder Jobs and the just-released Oddest Jobs). So if the comic medium ain’t your bag, there’s other options to get your Hellboy fix. However, the prose stuff isn’t written by Mignola…but it’s approved by him.

    There are also two animated DVD movies: Sword of Storms and Blood & Iron. The cast of the movies lends their voices to their cartoon counterparts.

    Sadly, Mignola hasn’t been handling the artwork on the more recent stories, but he’s still writing them. The character is moving and growing and is on his own journey of self-discovery. Meanwile, the BPRD are off doing their own thing in their own series of books.

    Enjoy!

  8. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Alex,

    A well-written post from the heart. You’ve inspired me to get the comics, and after that I’ll likely watch the movies.

  9. Chris Slaten

    Thanks Alex. I enjoyed the first movie and am looking forward to the second. After reading your post I am now definately more interested in the source material.

  10. Alex Taylor

    Jeff, thanks for posting all the “practical” information that I didn’t have time or space to include in the article—very helpful! You seem to have covered pretty much all of the relevant facts of the matter—good job!

  11. david

    Alex –
    i think it’s rather important to clarify that the ‘father’ theme in the Hellboy film isn’t nearly as obvious or even intentional in Mignola’s work as del Toro decided to make it (with Mignola’s blessing, though)
    i’m beyond pleased with the directions that del Toro takes with Hellboy, but it is notable, just as Jeff points out with the books, that the movie is more properly del Toro’s vision for Hellboy, and not purely Mignola’s anymore…

    Nolan’s Batman is nowhere near as accurate to the source material as del Toro’s Hellboy.

    regarding Mignola’s art – it’s mesmerizing. He uses shadow and darkness better than most, and the pervasive nature of the visual darkness translates into deep mystery – you’re never quite sure what might come out of the darkness next…

  12. Alex Taylor

    David, that’s a great point. Thanks for clarifying that! I’ll admit, I left that part a tad fuzzy in the article.

    Del Toro really has done some wonderful things with the character and story in his film version. I still think Mignola’s work is better in many ways, but there are certain new themes, images, ideas, and events present in the film that would leave the new telling greatly impoverished by their absence—for instance, the already mentioned ‘father’ theme as well as the romantic involvement of Hellboy and Liz Sherman.

    In other words, I’m not sure I would even want to see a ‘pure’ Mike Mignola Hellboy film, any more than I’d want to see a ‘pure’ Pauline Baynes Narnia film. Del Toro captures the spirit of the original work while enriching the content for the purpose of effective communication and emotional range within his own medium.

    Mignola’s Hellboy is undergirded by a magnificently rich and storied mythology (the Watchers, the Ogdru Jahad and Ogdru Hem, the Right Hand of Doom, Hyperboria, the Hollow Earth, etc.) that is only hinted at in the film. His short story works (Pancakes, A Christmas Underground, The Corpse, Heads, and The Nature of the Beast are all great examples) are all marked by a consistent and craftsmanlike genius, but they would not be well served by direct adaptation to another medium—they work much too well as they are. Del Toro takes Mignola’s already interesting characters and adds further layers of psychological depth, complication, and motivation. I for one think we’re very fortunate to have access to both visions of the story, each for its own distinct merits.

    As for Nolan’s Batman (the only other comic book adaptation I’ve actually watched start-to-finish and thoroughly enjoyed), what source material are you referencing? The nature of corporate-owned characters (i.e. the entire Marvel and D.C. stables) prevents any true “canon” of style and intent from being established. Please correct me if my ignorance of superhero comics is preventing me from seeing the folly of my intended point, but to me, Nolan’s vision of Batman seems very much in line with some—though obviously not all, or even most—of the Batman comics.

  13. Tony Heringer

    Okay…so you guys are comissioned to come back and do a tag team on The Dark Knight series and films.

    Hellboy was on last night and I recorded it and will catch it this week-end. These follow up posts have really piqued my interest.

    Thanks guys!

  14. Jeff Cope

    Ooooh, I’d be game for a Batman article. Hellboy is certainly one of my favorite comic characters, but the Batman (in his many incarnations – which is one of the great things about the character) is my all-time favorite character.

    Did I mention that I own a comic shop? 😉

  15. david

    you’re right, Alex, the ‘canon’ is hard to define when it comes to DC and Marvel characters, and Mignola’s close relationship with his characters has kept them close to his original, phenomenal vision. i fully agree that the two different media are used SO well, individually and viewed/read together, regarding Hellboy. we are indeed fortunate to have both.

    but, don’t get me started on the Batman thing… Bale mentioned in passing that he’d ‘never do a Batman movie if there was a Robin character in it,’ and this has sparked a couple blog posts at slashfilm and RottenTomatoes in which i’ve been seeking to defend the ‘canon’ and character of Robin to little avail…
    i was referring to the written sources, which span 60 years, but there are still themes that persist even when the corporate monster wants to sell more by tapping into a certain cultural trend (Batman’s broken back, Robin being killed, etc… after all is said and done, Bruce is STILL Batman, and Batman STILL needs a Robin).
    Nolan is a fantastic director, no argument there. and, his Batman film was certainly enjoyable – i saw it twice and own the DVD. and you are fair, Alex, in saying that there are SOME incarnations of Batman that Nolan could have been inspired by…
    HOWEVER… he took several concessions with the Batman myth that were inexcusable to the purist nerds like me (and maybe Jeff). Bruce’s origin had him and his parents leaving a Zorro movie, not a silly ballet in which lil’ Brucie gets scared – the fear theme was key to Nolan’s vision, but not at all consistent with pretty much EVERY other incarnation of Batman’s origin. The character of Rachel Dawes was completely invented for this impending trilogy, and yet played a very key role in the film. how’s that for ignoring the depths of the source material? and i’m sorry, but that batmobile (although very cool-looking) was in NO way related to ANY incarnation of the batmobile from the ‘source material.’ the scarecrow character was a LOT weaker than the comic would leave you (read any of Loeb/Sale’s work), and the Ra’s Al Ghul character was totally emasculated from the power of the character in the comic as he has been written over the years. even Bruce Timm recognized how great Al Ghul and Talia (where was SHE?) were as foils for the Batman, but Nolan took a great villain and chipped away until only a sliver of the greatness remained, and plugged him into a blockbuster film.

    believe it or not, i tried to keep that critique short… 🙁

    but here’s to The Dark Knight being a great popcorn flick next weekend! i’ll still be in a sold-out show 🙂

  16. Josh

    I don’t know David I actually liked some of the changes they made to the Batman canon. I liked how the new batmobile was just a scrapped military vehicle that never made it to production. Sure it looked different but it also made it believable. Doesn’t seem so far fetched that a billionaire like Bruce Wayne could get his hands on a little known army bridge maker vehicle and use it for his own purpose. Also the suit being explained as a new type of body armor that was too expensive for mass production made the wild looking costume make a lot of sense as did the cape material and the listening devices in his “bat ears”.

    I really don’t know enough about ras alguhl or any of those people to really be affected by whatever changes were made to those characters though. But having no prior knowledge of the characters made me able to really like their role and all that good stuff cause I had nothing to compare it against.

    The only thing that bothered me was the way they just completely threw away the whole thing about Jack Napier (aka the joker) killing Bruce’s parents thus starting his path towards becoming batman. I really wish they’d left that alone and can’t for the life of me figure out why you’d change something so crucial in the plot for no good reason.

  17. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Not to derail from the Batman discussion, but I just found this quote from an interview with Doug Jones, the actor who portrays Abe Sapien (and the Angel of Death) in the movie. (He was also the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth.) Doug is a Christian, and here’s what he said when the interviewer asked him about his faith:

    “I’ve been a lot of denominations over the years but I call myself a generic Christian, yes, and am attending a church now that would remind you of Catholicism. It’s more orthodox. On the first Hellboy, when I was given the script the first day and was told to go home and read it that day and get back to him that night, I’m reading the script called Hellboy and he’s a demon from Hell. I’m thinking, “Okay, I have to respectfully find a way to tell Guillermo I can’t do this movie.” That was my first thought before I cracked open the script. Then I started reading it and realized, “Oh my goodness, I am so not offended by this. In fact, I’m enlivened by it. I’m finding my faith being nurtured and challenged by this story. This is good.”

    I loved seeing images in that first movie, where Hellboy had a decision to make. He was being enticed and tempted by the nemesis in that film to regain his princely place in Hell. “Here is the power you can have. Here is what you were meant to be really. And here’s what I can offer you.” That’s when his horns grew back, during this decision, when he was feeling tempted by that offer. Well, that’s when our young agent Myers was watching this, got Hellboy’s attention, and tossed him the rosary that his father Professor “Broom” had given him and that he grew up with as a boy demon. Hellboy caught that rosary in his hand and the image of the cross was burned into his palm. Looking down at his palm is when he realized who he is now and what decisions he had made in the life he’d chosen for himself. That was such beautiful imagery for me. Anyone who comes from the faith that I come from can relate to it and understand.”

  18. Josh Kennedy

    Last night Hellboy just happened to be on TV and my wife started watching it (I know, I was shocked too). I’d seen the movie before, but I had completely forgotten about entire scenes – like the one that Doug Jones mentioned in the quote. With recent posts from the Rabbit Room floating in the back of my mind, I saw for the first time what everybody’s been talking about. That Hellboy’s name has the “H” word in it, or that there is mention of the occult is far from what the story is about. If you give it a chance and watch it through to the end, I’m guessing you’d be surprised at how close Hellboy’s struggle is to that of every Christian.

    As for the Batman debate, after re-watching Hellboy I’d be willing to throw out there that Batman is worse off than Hellboy. Think about it. One the one hand there’s a demon who is doing all that he can to fight off his natural penchant for evil and desires to become more human, while on the other hand Bruce Wayne is busy becoming as frightening and monstrous as he can to fight the same thing, but is constantly at risk of losing his humanity. Don’t get me wrong, I love Batman. Been a fan ever since Tim Burton’s Batman movie (hey, some people like it). But it’s sad how over the years his character has been dragged down to the state it is today: full of darkness and constantly pushing his moral boundaries. If you don’t believe me just go to Borders or a local comic shop and thumb through “Batman And Robin, The Boy Wonder” by Frank Miller (a seminal writer of Batman, but morally out to lunch; also did Sin City) or the regular “Batman” series by Grant Morrison (same as Miller).

  19. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    For me, Frank Miller’s Batman is and will always be the definitive version. His Dark Knight Returns books are maybe my favorite ‘comics’ ever. Chris Nolan’s take on the matter is the best I’ve ever seen on film. I just rewatched Batman Begins a few nights ago and was just awestruck by how good it is. When it comes to comic adaptations, I couldn’t care less how far they stray from the source material so long as it captures the spirit of it and makes a good movie. What legions of comic fans don’t understand is that you can’t translate things to the screen exactly as they are on the page, the screen and the comic are two very different mediums.

  20. david

    thankfully, pete, i do understand the difference in mediums, and will be glad to see the movie at least once on friday, if not twice (that all depends on my wife)

    yet, being a Frank Miller fan also, i find your closing statement ironic – Sin City was praised for being panel-for-panel, and so was 300. similarly-produced ‘watchmen’ will probably be very similar in the translation method…

    but ultimately, those are the exceptions that prove the rule. no matter how cinematic Alan Moore’s the Killing Joke may be, or how well-framed Miller’s work is, the moment you give actual motion to the characters, and give them a voice, and have audible explosions instead of the written “boom,” you have crossed over into a medium with vastly different nuances, and a WHOLE different audience.

    and Mr. Proprietor, thanks for trying to steer the conversation back to what it was originally – thought regarding Hellboy. i love Doug Jones’ work! And it’s so heartening to hear his thoughts on the characters…

  21. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    That’s interesting that you mention Sin City and 300. I’m trying to put my finger on why both of those worked so well (I love both) yet I can’t imagine the same approach working at ALL with Batman. My first reaction is to say that those films (and the novels they are based on) were more about style than substance, certainly true for Sin City, but 300 was actually more than skin deep. Food for thought…

  22. Tony Heringer

    Peter B. glad you said that. I am sure Pete would have expected me to be the first contrarian on that point. I saw neither 300 nor Sin City based what I read in our local paper (Atlanta Journal Constitution or AJC for short). However, I can understand if one follows the thread here, the appeal to see how a particular work is translated to film. The tension is in knowing how that is going to work out in its visual form and should we use our liberty in exploring the work.

    That was a major concern of mine when Peter Jackson was signed on to do Lord of The Rings. Given the body of work prior to that point for Jackson, I was thinking the film would be a mess. However, Jackson and company were quite reverent to the source material and its author.

    Alright Pete, fire away lad! 🙂

  23. Josh

    I agree with you Pete. I think Sin City was very much about style over content. The thing wit 300 though is that it was based (however loosely) on an actual historical event told in a very modern and inovative style. The only real difference between the two is that Sin City is completely fabricated.

  24. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I’m pretty sure the ‘skin’ comment was a joke, Tony 🙂

    The reason I said that about 300 is that it moved me. There was quite a bit of virtue to glean from it. Honor, courage, humility, etc. Where Sin City, while really, REALLY cool, was about a bunch of amoral people without a point, an insight, or anything deeper than shock and awe.

  25. david

    ok… after seeing The Dark Knight, i am almost completely satisfied with Nolan’s take on Batman. even though the nerd purist in me reacted briefly to the method of Dent’s scarring, the movie was otherwise FLAWLESS for a Batman movie… and i was even satisfied with the Two-Face stuff in the context of Nolan’s larger work.

  26. Oscar Cortez

    Fantastic article! I have always been a fan of the genre and character (and as an artist myself, Mignola’s illustration style), but I love this interpretation of its message.

  27. Alex Taylor

    I realize the discussion has died down at this point, but I just wanted to pop in and give a warm and hearty thanks to all those who participated in it! The compliments and other feedback were really very much appreciated.

    Incidentally, I read in a World Magazine review of Hellboy II (which is great, by the way—really fun and astonishingly creative) that Mike Mignola is Catholic. So that answers that question!

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