Exquisite ‘Corpse': Why The Best ‘Hellboy’ Short Story Is A Perfect Comic Book [Fantasy Week]
Hellboy: The Corpse is a perfect comic book.
Originally published in two-page installments back in 1995, it's of the best stories in Mike Mignola's considerable catalogue, and still stands over 20 years later as the single greatest Hellboy short. It's a great introduction to Hellboy and his world, action packed and full of a moody atmosphere that's spooky without being scary, built on the foundation of half-remembered folktales and Jack Kirby monster comics; but more than that, it's an incredible example of craftsmanship and accessibility.
And it all starts with Hellboy fighting a baby.
To be honest, as much as I like the ongoing story of Hellboy and his literal world-changing (and potentially world-ending) destiny, I've always enjoyed the short stories a little more. I think it comes down to the way that they're structured, and how they blend the folktales that Mignola so often draws on for source material with the world-traveling action of an adventure hero.
Because that's the thing about fairy tales. They always hint as a world that exists just outside of what you can see, a hidden world where standing stones hop across moonlit plains and lure travelers to a secret cache of gold, and where the spirits of the dead complain about overcrowded cemeteries. They paint a picture of a world that's beyond our understanding, with rules that have a logic all of their own, that occasionally slips through into the lives of regular people who just happen to brush up against something older.
But when Hellboy shows up, that formula is twisted back again. It's not necessarily that he's a bridge between the supernatural and the mundane, because as a character, he doesn't exist comfortably in one or the other. It's more that he's a piece of that supernatural world that twists things back towards what we understand, someone for whom battling the evil forces of myths and legends is as much of a day job as it is a calling.
That's the whole gimmick of Hellboy, especially in the early stories and the shorts that come between them. It's this idea that he's not just a seven foot tall bright red demon who shows up to help people who find themselves on the wrong side of a haint, but that for him, it's routine. It's a hassle. It's a mystical world full of immortal, incomprehensible forces that will ultimately control his destiny, but more often than not, it's just something he has to deal with today.
And that's also where the comedy of the story comes in. For all its spooky atmosphere and literal, on-the-page darkness, The Corpse is a very funny story. Hellboy's increasingly frustrated conversations with the corpse as he carries him around Ireland looking for a grave are not only solid bits of comedy, they also don't conform to the usual structure of comedy in a horror story. They don't serve to lessen the tension, but, along with Hellboy's usual very realistic reactions to magical beasts showing up to try to kill him, they illustrate and heighten the frustration Hellboy's feeling with the entire situation.
It's a simple formula that always works. That's what The Corpse gets across better than almost any other story, and it does it right up front. I imagine that's partly a function of format --- when you're dealing with two-page installments, riffing on a folktale that was chosen specifically because it could be broken into a handful of short scenes, you don't have a lot of time to get everyone up to speed. And that, in turn, became one of Hellboy's signature elements. For all the complexity of his history, for all the Anung Un Ramas and Rasputins and Plagues of Frogs and King Arthurs thrown in there to create that massive tapestry, the individual stories tend to keep things incredibly simple.
In The Corpse, a lot of that comes down purely to Mignola and colorist Matthew Hollingsworth's mastery of comics as an art form. Mignola is well known for being one of the best visual storytellers in comics, capable of setting a mood with a simple panel that cuts to a piece of the environment as the characters are moving through it, filling his world with shadows and leering statuary. In The Corpse, though, it's Hollingsworth who does the heavy lifting on introducing Hellboy to new readers.
Without ever mentioning anything about the character's backstory, with only a single mention of Hellboy being "someone who can help us," we know he's a good guy from the moment he steps into the panel. In a story full of shadows, which takes place entirely in a single night, where everything around him is dark, grey, or the washed-out brown of stone under moonlight, Hellboy himself is always bright red.
He is, in fact, the only thing in the entire story that exists in primary colors, except for a bunch of flaming skeletons and a pile of gold capped off by a skull, but to be fair, I think those panels have imagery that supersedes color palette just a little bit.
In terms of story, The Corpse is a simple twist on an old legend. A baby is stolen and replaced with a changeling, and Hellboy shows up to get the baby back. To do that, he strikes a deal with three of the Sidhe, agreeing to bury a corpse they've been carrying with them before dawn. The catch, of course, is that every time he gets to one of the burial sites they've demanded, he finds the current occupants are a little less than cooperative.
And that's pretty much the story, flavored with other stray bits of folklore, like a cameo appearance from Jenny Greenteeth. That simplicity, though, is what makes it work. In telling a simple story --- a story that actually has a pretty convenient resolution involving an open grave that's just waiting at Hellboy's final destination --- Mignola and Hollingsworth put the focus on storytelling and craft.
The end result is a story that's short, it's simple, it exists at the nexus of superheroes, horror, and fantasy that gives Hellboy such a broad appeal, and it does everything right. It communicates in the language of comics, blending visual cues with dialogue to tell you everything you need to know at a glance, but holds up to re-reading again and again --- say, every year at Halloween, if you're looking for a new tradition.
It is, in short, the kind of story that they should just hand every reader the first time they step into a comic book store to show them what comics are all about. If you like comics, odds are pretty good that you're going to like this, and if you like this, well, you're probably going to like comics -0- even the ones that aren't quite as good as The Corpse. Which is to say, you know, most of them.
"The Corpse" is one of the stories collected in Hellboy: The Chained Coffin And Others, available digitally and in stores, published by Dark Horse.