On March 22, 2014, comics fans across the world celebrated Hellboy Day, a special day commemorating the release of the first issue of Seed of Destruction, the first Hellboy mini-series from Dark Horse Comics, twenty years ago in 1994. In those twenty years, creator Mike Mignola, together with a number of talented collaborators, has expanded his most famous character into one of the coolest and most satisfying franchises in comics, with stories branching out into such spin-off series as BPRD (aka the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense), Lobster Johnson, Abe Sapien, and Sledgehammer '44.
Although I am sure Mignola has many more years' worth of stories about Hellboy and his compatriots left in him, now seems as good a time as any to look back at what has come before. While this list is by no means exhaustive — a complete list of awesome Hellboy moments would easily be one hundred times this length; sorry if yours got left off, pancakes fans — here are ten moments that I believe are emblematic of what makes Hellboy one of the most enduringly excellent and exciting books on the shelf.
NOTE: while I have tried to discuss these things in more general terms, this post by its very nature contains SPOILERS for the entire Hellboy series. Proceed with caution.
Hellboy Hits a Horse So Hard It Explodes
The elevator pitch for Hellboy can be gleaned from the dedication of the first collection in the series, Seed of Destruction, namely that it's Jack Kirby versus HP Lovecraft. With that in mind, you know there are certain things you can expect in the series: monsters, tentacle monsters, cosmic horror monsters, and giant fists punching those monsters until they explode. When you throw in the influence from the Universal Frankenstein movies, you realize you can expect a castle to blow up at the end of every story (you will not be disappointed).
This Little Girl Is a Wolf
However, for all the monsters that populate the series, one element at which Mignola excels is in making those monsters human. This can be found not only in the titular protagonist of the series, but also his friends, such as unpredictable firestarter Liz Sherman, mysterious fishman Abe Sapien, and Roger the Homunculus, who was made from poop in a jar. And if that weren't enough, the antagonists are, if not sympathetic in the case of this little girl cursed to turn into a wolf and then be the ghost of a little girl cursed to turn into a wolf, then certainly human: while many monsters meet their end via Hellboy's red right hand, just as many are undone by jealousy, greed, petty squabbles, or an unslakeable thirst for revenge.
This One Sequence from “The Corpse”
One criticism often lodged at comics is that it is an unnatural medium for horror storytelling: the tight control of pacing and sound necessary to raise suspense is lost when the reader is the one who controls how fast their eye moves from panel to panel. Often Mignola, rather than trying for the essentially impossible jump scare, uses imagery and mise en scene to evoke a particular unsettling feeling that heightens tension. But this sequence is a brilliant example of how Mignola, a master storyteller, shows that comics can not only evoke a spooky mood, but even surprise.
We Learn the Nature of the Beast
The throughline of much modern genre fiction has to do with the protagonist finding and then fulfilling their destiny. Lots of Chosen Ones filling the role that has been laid out for them by the fates, usually to destroy some great power. Well, Hellboy's unspoken mantra since day one has been “F**k destiny.” He is constantly bombarded with the temptation to claim the power that is his birthright and fulfill his role as a destroyer of worlds. This story shows us that, despite genetics, it's simply not in Hellboy's blood to be a destroyer.
Despite all this heavy talk about destiny, sympathetic monsters, and the tools of horror storytelling, the fact is, Hellboy is often a very funny book. Sometimes you just gotta give the monkey a gun and see what happens.
The Story of the Hand is the Story of the World
Hellboy is also a book with a deep and rich cosmology, drawing on a long tradition of weird fiction, folklore and mythology. But just how deep and rich that cosmology is was not readily apparent until this issue, in which a man made out of Hellboy's blood (don't worry about it) reveals just how tied into the history of the world Hellboy is. You ever notice how one of Hellboy's hands is way bigger than the other one? Yeah, funny story about that.
“You Are Your Father's Son, but You Also Had a Mother”
Even when all the world's history is laid out for you, the book can still surprise you. A close re-read of the series will reveal that the story is rich with foreshadowing, but you'll nevertheless find yourself blindsided by certain revelations. One of those came in the latter half of the mini-series The Wild Hunt, which featured art by Duncan Fegredo, in which we learn that we've been so focused on the hellish destiny Hellboy's been resisting since the beginning, he's had a whole other parallel destiny that he could fufill. (Don't worry. He resists that one, too.)
The Crooked Man Is Terrifying
THE CROOKED MAN IS TERRIFYING
Hellboy Wrestles a Luchador Bat God for Possession of His Friend's Soul
All right, let's stop thinking about the Crooked Man for a minute. Let's talk about Hellboy in Mexico, where Hellboy gets drunk and teams up with three luchador brothers to fight vampires and a turkey who is probably the devil. Let's talk about how in this book and in House of the Living Dead Mignola and artist Richard Corben take elements — Santo movies and Universal's monster rally flicks — that are not, ahem, good in the traditional sense, and makes something awesome out of them. Let's think about that and not how these stories are also tragic in their own way, and let's definitely not think about the Crooken Man.
Mignola works the long game, man. If there is any doubt about that, consider Hellboy's ongoing feud with Russia's premiere witch, the Baba Yaga. Their conflict stretches out over about fifteen years in real time and over fifty years of in-universe time before paying off in 2010's mini-series The Storm, with art by Duncan Fegredo. But this is merely one plot thread that's been woven across multiple titles, each bringing resonance to the rest.
And now that Hellboy has reached a new act in his life (so to speak -- he died and went to Hell), we can only imagine what other secrets set up twenty years ago will unfold...