I have a fondness for monsters — the fanged, scaled, hairy, be-tentacled sort. They make our world a more interesting place, give us some respite from the darker things out there that aren’t as up front about what they really are. You know what to expect from a scary-looking monster.
And when they prove you wrong, it can only be for the better.
I know Hellboy from the Guillermo del Toro films. In fact, I recommended them in a Breakfast Recommendation a while back, saying something to the effect of, “I hear the comics are good too.”
Yes. Yes they are.
3P Reviews Series: Hellboy (graphic novels), Omnibus Volume One – Seed of Destruction
Audience Assumptions: None
Content Warnings: Mention of violence, Nazis
Star Rating: ****
Part One: The Big Red Guy with the Goggles
I have chosen to review the omnibus edition of this series, but that’s not the way I first read it. I’d been meaning to get around to Hellboy for a while, given that it’s one of the staples of non-Marvel or DC action comics, and I loved the films as a teenager. However, I was combing through a lot of comics when I first got access to the Hellboy graphic novels, and I was mainly checking them out from my local library, so I had to finish them all on a deadline. Deadlines, as you may have noticed, aren’t really my thing. As a result, I was inclined to make snap judgements of what I was reading, rather than settle into the books at my own pace. So, about a year or two back, I picked up the first book of the collected volumes version, also called Seed of Destruction, and… it was a bit underwhelming.
I liked it well enough, but it wasn’t something I ever thought would really grab me. I think I enjoyed it more as a companion piece to the films I already knew, rather than for its own story. The art was nice, the colors were bold, and I collected a few pictures of the panels, but the writing wasn’t my style and the pacing was a bit off. It seemed like just another monster-fighting comic featuring a snarky bad boy as its main character. I didn’t really feel I needed another big beefy man who deals with problems by punching them in my fiction, so I put the rest of the Hellboy series on the backlog so I could focus on others.
Serve me up a dish of my own words, because boy howdy should I have kept going.
Well, actually, I was probably unintentionally wise in waiting. Guess who decided mid-March was a good time to check out the first two omnibus editions of the Hellboy series and force myself to read them? Yeah, so I’ve been in lockdown with a bunch of library books for the past few months, which has coincidentally given me enough time to read them. And get the other two Hellboy omnibus books. And the B.P.R.D. books. And the Abe Sapien books. Look, I’m twenty books and many thousands of pages in, and by this point I’m starting to incidentally translate the eldritch language set dressing in my head because I’ve seen it so many times. Please send help.
What I’m saying is I love this series. Deeply. It’s exactly the sort of thing I hold onto for dear life and squeeze like a fluffy, rotund cat despite its desperate attempts to escape my grasp, so expect to be inundated with everything Hellboy for the next… while. There’s a lot of it.
But back to the beginning.
Hellboy is a comic series created by Mike Mignola in 1994 (ish), continuing in some form or another into the present. Despite being an ongoing series, its plot is largely self-contained and has multiple stopping points, one of which is at the end of the main series (VolumeThree in the omnibus editions), or the main series plus a special arc issue, Hellboy in Hell. I’m going to be going through these in the order in which I read them.
The first book opens with a brief backstory, showing us a crumbling church where a paranormal investigation team composed of a hodgepodge of U.S. soldiers, researchers, a psychic, and a superhero have all gathered in anticipation of some terrible event. Elsewhere amidst monoliths, Rasputin (yes, that one) and the Nazis are performing an evil summoning ritual (because of course they are). The ritual seems to go awry, opening a portal to Hell, not on the hilltop with the Nazis, but in the abandoned church. A demonic creature comes through, and at first the investigators fear it, but a few of them, including a young professor named Bruttenholm (pronounced “Broom,” as the books will remind you periodically), see that it’s just an infant. Bruttenholm calls him Hellboy and raises him as his own son.
The main story begins fifty years later. In the present, the professor is now an old man, and Hellboy has grown up to become a pivotal part of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.), tasked with tracking down monsters and supernatural phenomena. Hellboy is visiting the professor after the latter’s return from an ill-fated expedition to the Arctic, but during the visit, the professor is attacked and killed by a half-human, half-frog monster.
Curious about his surrogate father’s death, Hellboy traces the professor’s research back to a rickety old house called Cavendish Hall. He searches the house with his two close friends and coworkers, Liz Sherman and Abe Sapien. Inhuman like Hellboy, Liz is a pyrokinetic with the typical pyrokinetic’s tragic backstory, while Abe is a fish man found in a jar in an old basement. Before long, the frogs return and wreak havoc.
Rasputin is back and has captured Liz via the frog monsters. Hellboy rushes off to rescue her, but falls into a trap and is pulled beneath the house by an enormous squid-like creature. With Hellboy trapped in the flooded basement, Rasputin explains to him that he summoned Hellboy to earth all those years ago so that he could use Hellboy to release an ancient dragon and destroy the world. Now that he has Liz and the fire inside of her, Rasputin has no need for Hellboy any more.
However, his plan is thwarted when Abe, who has been exploring the underwater ruins under the house, throws a harpoon he’s found through Rasputin’s chest. At the same time, Liz wakes up and burns her captor and the massive squid monster that he serves. Hellboy fights off one of the frogs, then, while his friends are evacuating, he confronts the mortally-injured Rasputin. Rasputin tells him he knows who and what Hellboy is and hints at a disturbing power Hellboy doesn’t know he posesses. However, Hellboy opts to punch Rasputin’s crumbling corpse to finish him off rather than know his intended purpose. The story ends with Hellboy and his friends gathered outside the wreckage of the house, Hellboy withholding Rasputin’s final words.
As you may be able to tell, the plot of this first story is simultaneously very lean and very haphazard. I won’t make many comparisons to the films (I would eventually like to do a Lessons in Adaptation on them), but I think for anyone who’s seen them, the disorder of the first Hellboy story is even more pronounced. While there are many divergences, the first four chapters and the arc they entail roughly correspond to the plot of the first film. While it’s presented here as just one of many adventures for these characters, because the plot goes by so quickly and breezes past what would otherwise be emotionally significant events in a few lines or less, the comics don’t offer a lot of initial promise. The story seems like it’s eager to cut right to the action and show off its characters fighting monsters, which is appealing to a certain audience, but has a limited shelf life for others.
Take for instance Hellboy’s backstory. It’s only a few pages long, and he appears for all of three panels in it. One character says something to the effect of, “It’s a demon come to destroy us!” Another says, “It looks like a little boy,” and someone else calls him, “Hellboy” out of nowhere. The person who absentmindedly names him becomes his adoptive father, but we hardly see any interaction between the two of them before Hellboy’s father is gruesomely killed. Presumably they were close. It comes up a few times that Professor Bruttenholm meant a lot to Hellboy, but the audience hardly has any time to register the tiniest hint of sorrow before he chases after the frog monster. He reports the incident, including his father’s death, to the B.P.R.D. like he’s a building inspector reporting termite damage. I’m not even sure this is a case of telling instead of showing; there’s so little of either, it’s just kind of noise.
Even outside of the pacing, the story leaves a lot to be desired. It has certain comic hallmarks I tend to dislike, such as over-bolding of words that need no special emphasis, and redundant text passages that are twice as long as they need to be. Although this first arc avoids the trend of later ones which favor long sequences of untranslated fictional languages, there is still nonetheless a lot of jargon in the opening chapters. Rasputin is the sort of antagonist who likes to monologue regardless of whether anyone is following his train of thought. While it’s amusing to see the characters pay exactly as much heed to these tirades as the audience, the book is more than willing to give Rasputin free reign to speak for as long as humanly possible.
The protagonists are a breath of fresh air by comparison, but their characterization is sharply hampered by one simple problem: the narration. The opening chapter is narrated by Hellboy, who has something of a YA protagonist’s affinity for explaining everything he’s doing and why, as though there are not images accompanying him that already do just that. He very much feels like a teenager’s creation, always wise-cracking while showing fairly little emotion other than anger. Not all of the jokes are weak, but many of them are in the vain of “I wonder if froggy can feel pain.” The internal monologue tries to backfill everything between the prologue and the present, like what Hellboy’s life was like at the B.P.R.D. and what his big hand is, but it’s just not the time or place for that when you’re wrangling a frog man under a sinking castle, Hellboy. The protagonist comes across as marginally more appealing than a typical snarky boi simply by way of being humble on occasion, like how he’s a terrible shot despite using a big handgun as his main weapon, but he’s still too much of a video game protagonist for my liking.
Liz and Abe, however, are genuinely fascinating. I’m biased a bit because the fishman is my favorite character in the films, the team’s sort of Spock (when we get to B.P.R.D., you’ll realize how hilarious that statement is), but the comics do a good job of getting you invested in the side characters. Abe is introduced in disguise, unlike Hellboy, and has a largely unknown but tantalizing past. He can come through despite being far less physically powerful than the other two.
Liz, meanwhile, appears at first to just be there as the love interest who gets captured and held against the hero by the villain, but in the end, she’s the one who brings down Rasputin, the squid monster, and the house, all without even trying that hard. She doesn’t get much to do in this arc (and that’s a recurring problem for the Hellboy series in particular), but you get a sense of her personality here and there, especially through her backstory: the girl who lost her family as a child and probably isn’t thrilled to have powers, but has learned to tolerate them. In fact, she’s not even a love interest; Rasputin kidnaps her to use instead of Hellboy when he realizes how powerful she is, not to hold her against him. I did a double-take when I realized there’s no explicit romantic tension in the series. I’ve often resigned myself to expecting the obligatory romance subplot in every story I read, but it’s refreshing to have characters whose good friendships appear to be simply platonic.
There’s a fair bit of untapped potential for the series in both Liz and Abe. Actually, the whole opening is brimming with untapped potential. What makes this series excellent is present from the start in bits and pieces, like the humor and characters and the art (oh man, the art). It’s almost there, it just hasn’t figured out exactly what it wants to be yet. It thinks it’s another superhero comic with all the trappings of The X-Men or The Fantastic Four. Over the course of Hellboy and its many spinoffs, the aesthetic changes from homage into something all its own; the internal dialogue will be mostly dropped in favor of quiet atmosphere; the pulpy events of this arc will be revisited and given surprising new weight; the pacing will slow down, but the writing will become sharper, the dialogue often witty and acerbic, full of character.
I’ve come to enjoy the Seed of Destruction arc as a part of the comic’s history, but I’ll readily admit it’s one of the weakest points in the series. I’m so used to a series steadfastly continuing down a bad path despite its better qualities that I never would have guessed the turns this one takes. I doubt it’s changed my general policy on whether to keep going with a series I’m not loving yet, but I am glad I continued with this one. If you’re in a similar position and don’t really get the appeal of Hellboy after the first arc, keep pushing; it’s worth it, and it doesn’t take long to find gems.
Part Two: Ah, There It Is
Aside from Seed of Destruction, there are three short stories and one more long arc that make up the Hellboy Omnibus Volume One. The curation of this series is excellent, and a big part of why I would recommend it to newcomers, especially as it continues past Seed of Destruction and almost immediately improves from there.
The second story after the introduction is a short one-off called The Wolves of St. August. It’s much more like an X-Files episode than Seed of Destruction, which very much fits the typical B.P.R.D. encounters. It works in three simple parts:
- Prologue where a priest has arrived at a small town and runs into trouble
- Hellboy arrives a week later to investigate the disappeared priest and discovers the town is full of werewolves
- Monster fight
This is how most of the Hellboy short stories go, more or less, but the format works. It’s simple and provides a good bit of character interaction in the first half with impressive visuals finishing the story off. Beyond its relative simplicity, though, there are subtler elements that make this story very different from its predecessor.
Kate is one of those elements. The story introduces us to a minor associate of Hellboy’s, Kate Corrigan, a folklorist at New York University. Kate is a squishy civilian who is hardly on par with Hellboy when it comes to combating monsters, but she more than makes up for that in her knowledge of mythology and legends. She has a wonderful dynamic with Hellboy as an old friend who isn’t as close to him as Abe or Liz, but is willing to call him out on his shit, which is often hilarious. She’s a bit foolhardy, but in the same way all of these characters tend to be — it makes her personable, but also serves as a point of tension. The priest from the beginning of the story was also one of Hellboy’s friends, and while I doubt the series would kill off Abe or Liz this early, Kate is exactly the sort of character who will always be at risk of plot-related death. The series knows this, and uses it to its advantage, refraining from exploiting her for plot convenience but still keeping her role in the story at the back of the audience’s head. She survives for the time being, and proves useful in providing exposition that works as a dialogue rather than an info dump.
Another element that works is the humor. This is the story where I realized Hellboy (the character and the comic) is actually very funny. A lot of the humor comes from the protagonist’s one-liners, but in a self-deprecating way. Hellboy very rarely makes fun of anyone else, even the monsters he’s fighting. Instead, the common sort of comedy gimmick the series employs runs something along the lines of Hellboy exploring some ruins, stumbling across a large beast, saying, “Well crap” when the creature sees him, fighting and yelling at it for a bit, getting flung out the window (probably screaming, “Hey!” in the process), dusting himself off, and storming back into the room wagging his finger and telling the monster, “I‘m not through with you.” That sort of thing happens a lot in this series, and it’s great. It’s a surprisingly wholesome sort of comedy, which is a precious thing in popular comics.
The Wolves of St. August isn’t an ideal starting point, but it’s not a bad one either. You can see the series coming together, and you can see a lot of the common stylistic touches of the series at play in Hellboy’s behavior, the structure of the story, and the monster design. It’s not a crucial story to read, but I’m glad they put it in here.
The rest of the stories are heavier. The second short story, The Chained Coffin, gives a taste of Hellboy’s personal arc and is far more representative of the Hellboy series as a whole than I think even the series knew at the time. It’s not long, but it’s the most personal story the series has addressed so far, and that lends it an emotionality that greatly expands Hellboy’s character.
In it, Hellboy is writing to his friend Abe about a recent visit to the church where he appeared on earth some fifty years ago. The place is a ruin as it has been for decades, but Hellboy’s recent encounter with Rasputin has gotten him curious about his origins, so he pokes around the place and spends the night, eventually dreaming about what destroyed the church long ago. A witch repented on her deathbed all of her sins, and asked her children, a nun and a priest, to see that she was buried undisturbed. It was all in vain, for the witch had sold her soul to a demon years ago, and at her death, the demon came to claim his payment. He wrecked the church, killed the priest and the nun, and dragged the witch to hell, explaining to her that she was pregnant, even in death, with his child. Guess who that child was.
The Chained Coffin is only ten pages long and consists of fairly rote backstory drafting, but it introduces a major theme for the series — the major theme, perhaps. If you sum up Hellboy in a nutshell, he’s a monster who fights other monsters and sometimes feels conflicted about that. Most often he’s conflicted because, despite acting human and living around humans and being raised by humans, he’s constantly reminded that he isn’t one. He’s not too eager to find out what he is, either, for a couple of reasons. Hellboy fears others seeing him as something to be hunted, he fears hurting the people he cares about, and he fears that if he embraces his demon side, he might not hate it as much as he wants to. Getting a look at his father rattles him; it shows him what he could become himself one day, and whatever it is, it’s not Hellboy.
The art plays a big role in this story, even more than usual for this series. Hellboy is visually-driven — the character started as a drawing before he had any story attached to him. There’s a lovely little appendix at the end of this book that details the evolution of Hellboy through Mike Mignola’s sketchbooks, and as he puts it, “I wasn’t trying to create a character. I just wanted to draw a monster.” But over the years, Hellboy has become refined into one of the best character designs I’ve ever seen, to the point that it makes me deeply jealous that I’ll never come up with anything as good as it. You can often tell a good character design by the strength of the silhouette — is the character readily distinguished, especially within their own property, even if they’re only partially visible or in shadow? Hellboy is always instantly recognizable, even when he’s little more than a smudge in the distance or a hand coming from off-screen. I’m not sure how I can effectively communicate to any non-artists how batshit banana bonkers hard that is to accomplish, but maybe this will help. There is one Hellboy; find him:
Pretty cool, yeah?
Posing plays a big role, of course, as does the surrounding environment; Hellboy has to stand out in silhouette because unlike many comic characters, he’s in silhouette a lot of the time. The art style of the series varies a bit depending on who’s drawing a particular issue, but the main aesthetic of Hellboy is high-contrast, semi-geometric forms with bold colors. It’s a somewhat simplified art style compared to other superhero comic books in particular, and as such, more weight has to fall on the character designs and composition to communicate the story effectively. If half of the panel is flat black and the other half is blue or red with just a faint figure standing between them, that figure better be perfect. And it is. I probably wouldn’t even be talking about this series if the art didn’t hold up; it’s a big part of what got me through Seed of Destruction, and even when the story picks up, the art continues to push its expression and spectacle to new heights.
Case in point, all of this comes together in the wild ride that is the fourth story in this book, Wake the Devil. Wake the Devil is, in many ways, similar to Seed of Destruction (even their names have the same ring), but it falls after Hellboy has become comfortably established in the series, and that makes a huge difference. This story is full of monsters that have nothing to do with anything else, disparate subplots for the side characters, a main plot that jumps all over the place, discontinuous logic, and jargon galore, and it all somehow works. Well, most of it does, anyway.
Okay, plot plot plot… there’s something about a vampire and Nazis, but the basic gist you need to know is that Hellboy & Co. are on a seemingly regular mission that splits them up into three teams; Liz goes with a newbie and another B.P.R.D. agent, Abe goes with a seasoned agent, and Hellboy is on his own because he’s a tank. They’re looking for a vampire in one of three castles (guess who finds it), and all of them run into trouble that cuts them personally.
Liz’s team comes across an old alchemy lab with a corpse-like homunculus lying on a table. Sensing an opportunity to rid herself of her ability, Liz dumps her fire into an energy-draining cavity in the homunculus’ chest and it springs to life. When the seasoned agent with Liz tries to stop the creature from taking her fire, the monster kills him and then runs off.
Abe and his teammate find nothing in their castle, but when they see Hellboy’s castle explode and run to the nearby town to investigate, they find it booby-trapped and haunted. The other B.P.R.D. agent dies in a pit of spikes but saves Abe in the process, and Rasputin appears from the gloom to foretell Abe’s doom. While Rasputin’s body is gone, his spirit lives on, and seeks revenge against the trio who defeated him before.
In doing so, Rasputin manipulates Hellboy into a vulnerable position and sends out the goddess Hecate to kill him. Which she does. That’s where things get interesting.
Hellboy can’t really die. Not yet. When killed, he enters a sort of hellish voidspace, where a voice recites a prophecy about him and tells him to fulfill it. The prophecy says that his coming heralds the apocalypse, and that his big stone hand will somehow release a cosmic dragon to help him destroy the world and rule its ashes. This is the first he’s hearing about this properly, mind, so he’s more than a little hesitant to kickstart the end times. His horns grow back from the nubs on his brow, and he starts to transform into something more demonic. He’s not overly happy about this new development, and even less so about his lack of a say in it. He yells at the void voice “Screw you!” and, with some effort, breaks off his horns, bringing him back to the physical world.
That’s the image that sticks with me from the films, and it’s a good culmination for the story. It’s agency, pure and simple. We like having that, even when we don’t know quite what to do with it. Hellboy regaining his ability to dictate his own life is a breath of fresh air after so much chaos that pushes him and the other characters forward against their wills. Hellboy resists mostly because he’s childish and doesn’t like being told what to do, but there’s something more to it, even beyond the typical “hero resisting temptation” concept. He’s afraid. He doesn’t want to be a demon, he wants to be human, and he knows he isn’t, but his very body acting against him to head in the opposite direction of where he wants to be is unsettling for him. He’s not ready for all of this, not ready to face it, much less accept it in any way. Regaining his agency is crucial for him at this point in the way that oxygen is crucial to someone who’s drowning.
But, you’ll notice, we’re only a quarter of the way through the Hellboy books. While this is a suitable climax for this book, it’s far from the end of the story.
Part Three: Good Monsters
I wanted to finish this review as the book does, so I’ve set aside the last story to talk about on its own. There are technically two short teasers in the appendix that were released as promos for the series, but as far as the main story is concerned, the first book ends with Almost Colossus, a small but lovely short story that illustrates what I love about this series.
Almost Colossus is a follow-up to the Wake the Devil arc and a bit of an epilogue to Liz’s encounter. Liz is dying without her fire, so Hellboy and Kate venture off to track down the homunculus that stole it. Meanwhile, the homunculus is having a bit of an existential crisis as he tries to figure out his place in the world in an overt nod to Frankenstein.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen things from the villain’s perspective (Rasputin often gets his own scenes), but it is curious for the series to detail the monster’s story so personally as though they’re a main character. The homunculus is a sympathetic and surprisingly articulate figure despite his first appearance. Confused and guilt-ridden, he wanders the countryside until another homunculus claiming to be his brother finds him. His brother explains that their creator was an alchemist who used them for experiments, eventually discarding them both when they ran out of evergy. The brother killed their creator and has been wandering the countryside, waiting for the second homunculus to awaken. Now that they’re reunited, the first homunculus reveals that he has been rendering dead bodies to melt into a giant body that he intends to pilot with his brother.
Around this time, Hellboy and Kate stumble upon the castle, and the first homunculus’ minions capture Kate to melt along with the bodies. The first homunculus is delighted by the notion of using a live human, but the second finds it repugnant. He rejects his brother’s offer, and in a rage, the brother decides to inhabit the giant body alone. Hellboy shows up just in time to throw a rock at the second homunculus, which is very mean of him. However, Hellboy has to wait to deal with the homunculus he came looking for, because there’s a enormous giant made of human fat that’s now stomping around the hills. Unequipped to bring down a human fat monster, Hellboy is promptly pummeled, at which point our original homunculus, distressed, calls out to his brother to ask for his forgiveness and become a part of the giant. His brother consumes him, but the homunculus uses Liz’s fire to melt his brother’s body.
The second homunculus survives, but Hellboy is less than appreciative of his help and goes to confront him. When the homunculus yells to be left alone and tries to burn Hellboy, Hellboy reminds him that the fire belongs to someone else and she’s dying without it. Eventually the homunculus decides to give it back. Hellboy names the homunculus Roger and they return to Liz, Roger giving up his own life to return the fire he took.
There’s a lot to love about this story; it’s bizarre and creative and tonally appropriate for a series that draws inspiration from classic horror stories. Hellboy naming a monster he’s just befriended something as ordinary as Roger is possibly my favorite part of the book. It’s as adorable as it is tragic; Roger only gets to have a name for a few panels before he’s gone. The story hints that the B.P.R.D. might try to revive him (we’ll get to that), but the story itself is finite. A monster turns out to be a complex person, goes through a whole little arc, then dies, and everyone else moves on.
It isn’t the last time that sort of thing will happen in this series. Ally characters come and go all the time. In just the previous arc, we lost two B.P.R.D. agents who were set up in the same way as other characters who last a lot longer. Few things are constant in this series, but death is one of them. Characters come and go. But every so often, the series has time to slow down and remind us that not all monsters are what they seem on the surface. I think that’s important.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 9
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Main Plot: 7