Friday, 8 July 2016

Demons, Aliens and Pancakes - Remembering Hellboy

All too often when we delve into the comic book world, it's to complain about something. Not always admittedly, but when this blog does take the time to truly examine something fun it's usually from yesteryear. Having said all that I personally wanted to say on the Captain America issue, and with DC Comics desperately trying to court controversy to retain readers, our usual wheelhouses are out of the question for anything remotely praiseworthy. As such, instead this article will salute the passing of a giant from outside the big two. 

After over twenty years of paranormal tales to excite comic fans everywhere, Hellboy's saga has finally drawn to a close. Offering his famed creation a final moment of peace amid the realm of demons, Mike Mignola has decided to end his involvement with his greatest creation. While the universe itself will go on under new writers, Hellboy himself will likely remain in hell, likely left by other creators out of respect for this conclusion. Rather than focusing squarely upon his end however, it seemed fitting to instead focus this latest article upon the Mignola 's accomplishments, and just why this icon endured for so long. As such, consider this a brief reflection upon Hellboy and an examination of just why he worked.

If you were to try and pick any comic, any one at all, which pinned down the best elements popularised by the big two, Hellboy is the one which truly gets it right. While he might not have worn a cape or donned a mask (besides one very fun side story), his universe was so rich, vibrant and vast that you could accept damn near anything. In the opening trade paperback alone, the comic established the existence of demons, Cthulhu-style ancient monsters, aliens and 1950s style Nazis with rayguns, all supported by a demonic Gregori Rasputin. Things only went further from there of course, pushing deeper and deeper into mystic concepts, insane science and the kind of horror rarely seen outside of a high quality Hammer film. It could blend all those together at once, switch back and forth between so many varied concepts at the drop of a hat, and all thanks to a bizarrely hands off approach.

When the likes of Marvel or DC Comics add something to their setting, they have this habit of going in whole hog. They'll give all the details they need, try to make it some massive, critical part of the setting linked into everything and lay out all you need to know about it. This does have its advantages in that it allows bright, bold new frontiers to explode onto the scene (Rom: Spaceknight being one such classic example) and it gives a sense of depth to the setting. However, at the same time that same sense of weight can easily screw things up for people. After all, it's not the continuity which tends to be an issue for the readers so much as the writers, and if someone opted to skip a few vital details that's half the universe gone tits up. In this case, by keeping certain villains broadly defined but focused upon a singular concept, Hellboy was able to play about much more freely with its ideas. While it didn't go into exactly how certain foes had bionic arms or robots in the 1920s, you were given a good enough of an idea of how it all slotted together.

Rather than creating frustratingly nebulous or ill defined concepts however, this approach only created a sense of intriguing mystery. There was always an aura of the unknown about them, keeping things simple and direct whenever they could, allowing for a great deal of directional and creative freedom on the books. Rarely did anyone attempt to re-write something from scratch or map out the entire history, era by era of a species, meaning the multitude of existing elements could be worked about one another. To that same degree, new ones could be added without issue, building them between the gaps in information. What's more however, the fact the comic was not telling the reader everything helped keep it engaging. It was never presented in a Lost style manner, constantly jingling answers just out of reach. Instead, it took the Cthulhu Mythos or Discworld route of telling you just enough to keep you satisfied, but making it clear there was always more on the horizon.

Even when the comics did delve deeply into the lore, establishing the entire history of the planet and its inhabitants, it was done in such a way that there was always a great deal left out. It was akin to reading about the Deep Ones - While it detailed their history to a point, their existence, even their very goals, much of their culture, nature, ambitions and even the exact source of their power was kept out of sight. As such, the comics laid the seeds for future development and promised more, but would rarely push ahead with it until needed. On those moments that it did, introducing some new twist or unknown being, it rarely felt out of place. Keep in mind, these could often come from seemingly nowhere or be left years at a time without any hint of development; one key example of this being the surprise twist of Iosif Nichayko. First featured as little more than a zombie foe briefly seen in an old story, he would return as a prominent character in the B.P.R.D. books years later. Despite its apparent absurdity, this reveal never felt contrived or forced, fitting completely into place with the series as a whole.

Sticking with the Lovecraft comparison for a moment, this "mystery" approach ensured that the black magic and supernatrual forces of the setting remained an eternal threat. The beings Hellboy fought never became the sort of cartoon villain he would punch out every week only to have them escape swearing vengeance. While a few key powers would keep emerging, even speaking and taking a frontline position in the fighting, the extent of their power was rarely fully detailed. Readers were given a good impression of it to be sure, even how it related to real world mythology, but nothing so great as what you would find in many other works. 

What's more, the few who did keep arising to be beaten back were always mortal men rather than great powers. No matter their strength or experience they were expendable by comparison, and their failures did not reflect upon their gods. The comics would even take the time to occasionally remark upon their cartoonishness in the face of such failures, severely diminishing them as a result or making it clear they were little more than a tool by a greater power. Herman von Klempt, the Nazi head-in-a-jar, became little more than a punchline. However, his chilling remarks and the looming power of beings such as the Conqueror Worm always overshadowed his worst traits as a punching bag for Hellboy.

Perhaps more than anything else though, what made the books remarkable was their willingness to just let go when it was needed. While we will see Superman combat Lex Luthor until the end of time, and Captain America combat the Red Skull, when someone died in Hellboy they were dead. Countless villains and heroes met their end on either side, never returning or awaiting the inevitable resurrection which so many expect from comics. von Klempt, Roger the Homunculus, Lobster Johnson and many more would meet their final end at various points in the series, and would never return to life. Even those who did somehow escape the reaper were utterly changed by the experience. Abe Sapian re-emerged from his brush with death as a less human, more deformed, being. Rasputin never fully recovered from his first defeat, and over time became little more than a comatose toy for Baba Yaga. Even Hellboy himself would meet his end at the hands of vengeful spirits, descending into hell and never returning to the mortal world.

The sense of real finality to events helped constantly raise the stakes and kept readers engaged. When someone was threatened with death, there was never that innate safety net in the back of your mind telling you they would live to fight another day or eventually emerge triumphant. No, instead it ensured that readers were hooked, and knowing the grim fate which awaited their heroes with Armageddon right around the corner, mentally ensured they always expected the worst. Yet, in spite of this, no comic fully surrendered itself to complete nihilism. It would have been easy to let crushing despair ruin the book or pessimism be passed off as drama, but instead it always retained its humanity. 

The heroes involved always felt human, always kept a level headed, down to earth style which made them relatable despite the comic's often grim supernatrual situations. Rather than becoming caricatures, focusing exclusively upon a handful of key traits, their personalities were far more dynamic and broadly written. After all, while it was a key part of his existence, Johann Kraus' insubstantial form was not the beginning and end of his character, nor some pain to perpetually angst over. Equally, Hellboy himself opposed much of what people would expect from him. Ask any person to describe what they would expect from a demonic anti-hero fighting for humanity but destined to bring about Armageddon, and they would usually picture the worst aspects of the 90s. However, rather than becoming Bloodgunn Mk. 2, the big red ape would approach things in a the nonchalant, unflappable manner. With a love of pancakes, cats and even old film serials, the audience was given enough to see him as more than merely just a demon fighting other demons.

What's more, even the comics themselves didn't feel the need to wholly focus upon impending Armageddon all the time. Unlike what is so often found among Marvel and DC these days, the Hellboy comics were extraordinarily open to one-shot stories, from brief one-page outings to isolated historical events. From the infamous page of him eating pancakes for the first time to going undercover as a luchador, the creative team always knew when and how to break up a work. They never became so focused upon the doom and gloom, the world ending threats above all else and the big events, that they stopped letting the characters pause to have fun once in a while.

Finally though, perhaps the greatest strength of the series more than anything else was simply this - Patience and momentum. This links in somewhat with the above paragraph in that Hellboy is not a comic which rushed in trying to do everything at once. In fact, it did the complete opposite, with its story gradually snowballing over time, picking up speed and weight as it gradually branched out into a bigger universe. We were gradually introduced to characters, gradually presented with new ideas, and slowly the writers built up the universe story by story. It took time for the B.P.R.D. to branch out from this comic, and longer still for loosely linked tales to be established such as Witchfinder and Baltimore. Even the basic mythos was not entirely hammered into place within a single trade collection, and Mike Mignola never pushed to start things with a earth-shattering bang. Well, at least not a bang he could not later surpass, anyway. Compare this with the New 52, with DC attempting to kick-start a whole new universe at once, start countless ongoing series with the biggest event possible, and it's clear just how well this restraint paid off. It's just a shame that Dan Didio didn't watch and learn from his betters before dragging Superman and co. into the gutter.

While this won't be the absolute end for Hellboy's universe, it certainly won't be the same without Mignola's guiding light or his flagship hero. B.P.R.D. and its counterparts still stand, and with an ever expanding horizon of new tales, ideas, characters and Doomsday itself to explore, it's unlikely we'll see it all end in fire just yet. The past still offers too many story opportunities to ignore and with a grand finale in the far distance, the world itself is will keep chugging along for some time yet. However, without those first few issues focusing upon the humane demon, without the experimentation and groundwork laid out, none of it would have ever been possible. 

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