Graphic Novels and Comics, Hellboy/B.P.R.D.

Greater Depths – Hellboy, Book Two

Hellboy Omnibus A

Sometimes you need to shake things up a bit and turn your monster-of-the-week serial into Moby Dick and get your main character lost at sea for several years to vividly hallucinate and find himself. It happens.

Hellboy Omnibus Volume Two takes an unexpected twist as the titular character continues to run into reminders of his past and his future. Haunted by the being everyone seems to think  he is set to become, he takes solace in mentoring the newest member of the B.P.R.D., but when his long-time home starts to become hostile and make him question his identity, Hellboy needs a break. He sets off for the expanses of nature, finding in it short-lived allies and new strangers, all of whom echo the voices in his head.

Try as you might, you can’t run forever.

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3P Reviews Series: Hellboy (graphic novels), Omnibus Volume Two – Strange Places

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Spoilers: Yes

Audience Assumptions: None

Content Warnings: Mention of violence, racism, transphobia, gender dysphoria.

Star Rating: ****

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Part One: Whispers in the Dark

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The structure of this book is a bit unusual, but it serves as a good opening to talk about the deeper themes of the series. It’s essentially split into two halves, the front half more loaded with story, and the second with atmosphere and visuals. Both are good, but for different reasons.

Like the first book, this one contains multi-chapter main stories and several shorter ones. Hellboy starts off in the same position as in Book One, solving supernatural mysteries and snaring monsters with his friends. However, he’s running into more encounters with demons who call him by his demon name and foretell his fall. These encounters get under his skin, but he refuses to open up about them to anyone, directly obfuscating any of these ominous confrontations in his case reports. While he tries to maintain appearances, he’s under a lot of internal pressure, and eventually the valve bursts.

The breaking point comes about halfway through the book, when the B.P.R.D. treats its newest agent, Roger, as an active threat and plants a bomb on him. They give Hellboy the trigger with the instruction that he is to use it if Roger gets out of hand, and despite his disgust at them, Hellboy takes it. Over the course of the mission, Roger becomes possessed by an ethereal space worm and lets on that he knows about the bomb. He instructs Hellboy to use it to destroy the worm, but Hellboy refuses and finds a work-around. Once everything is cleaned up and Roger is back safe, Hellboy returns the trigger to his boss and quits the bureau.

As he puts it, it’s not just about Roger, it’s cumulative. During the mission, he ran into old ghosts from his past again, and several figures claiming to know him or know things about him even he doesn’t know. He doesn’t like being reminded that he’s not human, but he also needs room to explore and address that other side of him a bit, and he’s feeling increasingly that as far as the B.P.R.D. is concerned, anything inhuman is unwelcome. He doesn’t really know how to handle any of this, so he opts to take a breather for a bit. He’s also perhaps hoping that if he goes far enough away, his troubles won’t follow him. You can imagine how that goes.

There’s a lot to discuss about the artistry of this particular book, but it’s that turning point that draws my attention upon re-reading the series. Hellboy has quit the B.P.R.D. before, or at least gone on extended absences, so his choice here isn’t that unusual. There’s an unspoken assumption that sooner or later, he’s going to come back.  Roger looks up to Hellboy, and Abe, Liz, and Kate are all good friends to him, so he has plenty of reason to return. Liz has actually gone through the same thing many times. As she puts it, even if there are parts of the operation of the B.P.R.D. that she resents, there isn’t really anywhere else for her to go. The same is true for most of the non-human members of the B.P.R.D. Hellboy knows this, his friends know this, and presumably his boss knows this, too. As far as any of them is concerned, this is a vacation. When Hellboy feels ready, he’ll go back to fighting monsters and everything will be the same as before.

Suffice to say, that’s not quite what happens.

The scene where Hellboy quits is small, but even if you don’t know where the rest of the series is going yet, it catches you off-guard. The initial setup for the series as a monster-of-the-week procedural is so well-established that Hellboy going off on his own feels like a stark change of direction. It’s not a bad direction, but there’s a weight to it that kind of underpins the significance of the scene. It’s a major paradigm shift, and nobody realizes it yet.

Then again, isn’t that how life-changing events always go? The day before is like any other.

I am comfortable spoiling this part a bit: the latter half of this book, where Hellboy is on his own, running into specters and nightmares and the like, that’s what the rest of the series is. Normally I would be disappointed that a story with such potential for long-term character relationships would opt to isolate its protagonist and focus on him exclusively, but I think it’s a testament to the strength of Hellboy’s character that I’m not opposed to it here. He’s complex enough on his own to pull it off, and as we’ll see, his encounters with his inner demons provide more than enough grist for the incredible art of the series.

——-

Part Two: Roger

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In order, the stories in this collection are The Right Hand of Doom, Box Full of Evil (and can I just say, that name is marvelous), Being Human, Conqueror Worm, The Third Wish, The Island, and Into the Silent Sea. The first two take the form of typical Hellboy short stories that happen to converge strongly with the main plot, and the last three feature his time at sea (and also in the sea). It’s the middle two, though, that end up defining a lot of what this whole book is about to me. It’s no coincidence, either, that those are the two stories that feature Roger.

Roger the Homunculus is back, and he plays a surprisingly pivotal role in Hellboy’s arc. I don’t think his return invalidates my impression of Almost Colossus, especially as elements of that story have a habit of re-circulating around Roger in an interesting way. (Believe you me, we will be talking more about Roger in later books.) But this book gives us a new look at the character as a fully fleshed-out, sympathetic figure.

Part of what makes Roger so appealing is that he’s nice. He feels bad about fighting people, he gets upset when people are mean, and he’s extremely self-conscious. He’s a puppy. He’s not ignorant or unintelligent, but he’s direct in a way that sometimes comes across as naive, like in Conqueror Worm when, in the midst of a discussion about mythical giants, Roger blurts out, “My brother was a giant.” I love characters like that, especially when the story they’re in doesn’t  use them as the butt of the joke, but rather relies on particular quirks of their thought process to lighten the mood. As the most junior member of the organization, Roger’s soft-spoken nature goes hand-in-hand with others like Hellboy showing him the ropes.

In the first of Roger’s stories, Being Human, Hellboy takes Roger out on a test run as a prospective B.P.R.D. agent. This story has a lot of weak points, namely its harsh conclusion and unflattering portrayal of its antagonist (the vengeful daughter of an abused Black servant). At some point, probably when I get to the short story collections, I’ll set aside some time to talk about how this series addresses racial topics. Here, it’s not so great. You can very much tell that the artist and writer were both white men, and I don’t think at this point they have the personal experience or awareness to discuss the moral complexity of villain with nuance they need.

Despite that, the story does give a decent introduction to Roger as a member of the team. He feels guilty about his actions in the first book; the higher-ups in the B.P.R.D. see Roger as a monster, and Roger doesn’t disagree with them. He knows he’s not human, and he doesn’t feel worthy of being treated like one. Hellboy shows him compassion, aware of his own unique situation. It’s a rare instance where Hellboy embraces his inhumanity to show Roger it’s nothing to be ashamed about. The story ends with Roger killing the villain to stop her from torturing her dead relatives, insisting to Hellboy that even though her intentions were sympathetic, her actions were immoral. There’s a touch of irony to the story when Hellboy calls Roger’s actions “just the kind of thing a human being would do,” even though both of them admit that it feels wrong.

It’s like man is the real monster, or something.

I kid. As I’ve mentioned before, the series presents a dichotomy between those who act monstrous and those who merely look it, but I do think it goes quite a bit deeper than the obvious comparison of the well-meaning monster and the evil humans what want to destroy the things they don’t understand. The comics have a lot of time to explore the subject, and many of the human characters are not actively malicious. In fact, most of them accept Hellboy to the point where they actively avoid mentioning that he’s a demon with a big stone hand. One of my favorite recurring jokes in the series is that ordinary rural people will ask Hellboy where he’s from, he’ll explain that he was summoned from Hell in the ruins of a church in England, and the person he’s talking to will be like, “Oh, so you’re English, huh?”

But that sort of acceptance isn’t always as benevolent as it seems on its surface. Hellboy is treated as though he’s fully human, but with that comes limited opportunity for him to explore his other side. He’s taught from a young age that monsters are bad, and feels pressure to uphold the standard for “good” monsters; he’s allowed to look inhuman, and he’s allowed to be tough so he can take down the big beasts, but as soon as he starts growing horns himself, that’s when the tables turn. At least, that’s how Hellboy feels. He doesn’t have space to come to terms with who or what he really is. Not among his friends, at least.

The role Roger fills, then, is someone willing to lend a sympathetic ear. This is even more apparent in the second of Roger’s stories in this book, when he and Hellboy are sent on a mission because of their unique durability. By this point, Roger has figured out his role in the B.P.R.D. He’s a fully-trained agent, he’s got a little vest, and although he continues to maintain that he isn’t human, he likes his name a lot (it’s adorable). Roger knows himself, and is comfortable with who he is. Not many of us can hope for as much, certainly not Hellboy. He’s proud of Roger and glad to treat him like any other junior member of the team, but he’s also increasingly protective of Roger, especially when the B.P.R.D. mistreats him.

The gist of it is that they see Roger as a tool, not a person. They’re happy to have him on their team and talk to him like they would anyone else, yet they also have no qualms about destroying him if they think they need to. They don’t even have the excuse of ignorance; they know he’s a person, they know he’s a nice person, and they’re willing to blow him up anyway. When Hellboy finds out, it’s probably the angriest he gets in the series, and we the audience are right there with him. THEY PLANTED A WHAT?!? ON OUR BABY CINNAMON ROLL!?!

Roger is sometimes a surrogate for Hellboy, especially Hellboy when he was younger and just getting started as an agent. They end up in different spots, both because their personalities are different, and also because Hellboy was raised by humans. He didn’t have anyone like himself to look up to. Now seeing the same process from the viewpoint of the mentor, Hellboy is coming to the realization that he kind of resents the B.P.R.D. He’s seeing that they raised him to be a human, not because they wanted him to fit in, but because, in their eyes, a monster is a monster. Roger embraces being a Homunculus, and that scares them. It also affirms Hellboy’s own fears that coming out about his recent demon encounters will be met with similar rejection.

So, uh… you may have noticed I’ve been using a particular sort of loaded language here and there. That’s partly intentional. It is somewhat difficult to describe the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. comics without talking at least a little bit about identity and preferred names or pronouns, and it will definitely come up again, but I thought I ought to give it its own section early.

Guess what? This comic has queer themes out the wazoo.

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Part Three: Hat. Are You Implying Hellboy Is Gay?

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No, of course not. I’m implying Hellboy is trans.

Trans-coded, anyway.

Okay, let me get the fine print out of the way first: I don’t think any of this was intentional. Not really. Queer characters do appear in the more recent books from the series, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the creators started to lean into it a bit more as they became more socially aware, but there’s nothing explicitly queer about the earlier entries that would indicate to me these were intended themes from the start. I don’t even think there’s any reference to gay characters until the second B.P.R.D. cycle. Queer themes are very old and baked into the mythology of many cultures, so one might expect a series that draws from those mythologies to pick up some queer subtext along the way. I mean, unless you’re actively trying to remove them, you can’t get very far into Ancient Norse or Greek texts before running into the gay bits.

Moby Dick, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, all of Shakespeare’s work, just all of it — even if the authors of these stories weren’t queer themselves (some of them were), queer themes pop up all over the place in classic literature, especially anything related to horror or fantasy. Gothic horror, for instance, often deals with surreal forces that brush up against a person’s most intimate being, making them question themselves or their persona. There is this contrast between the ordinary, which is God-fearing and pious, but also bland, and the Other, which is a lot sexier, if more dangerous. The Other, whether it’s a person, place, or object, tempts the ordinary protagonist and throws them into the exciting corners of the world ordinary people aren’t usually privy to. It’s frightening to a newcomer, but also eye-opening. Sometimes they find they like it.

This isn’t to say that classic horror stories, even those with more explicitly queer themes, really count as good representation. As per the social norms of the early 20th century and before, traditional values would have been upheld as the gold standard for human behavior, meaning even open-minded forays into the darkness were only temporary ventures. Eventually, every good person must return to the light.

But times change. As a more modern text, Hellboy is content sitting in the pit with its lovely little monsters and has zero intent of returning to the light any time soon.

Hellboy‘s themes fit somewhere between the classic horror story’s fear of the unknown, and many more modern narratives which sympathize with ostracized or outcast characters. This means that in addition to importing queer subtext from its sources of inspiration, the Hellboy series is also readily willing to embrace this subtext from an empathetic standpoint. As a result, if we are to read queer subtext into the series, we will find it to be overflowing.

So, Hat, how is Hellboy trans?

Again, I think that there are many ways that you can read this character, and there isn’t necessarily a one-to-one translation between queer (specifically trans) concepts and literal elements within the book, but it’s worth exploring nontheless.

First (well, second), we need to broadly define what trans themes even are. I don’t talk about it much, but this is an area I have at least some personal experience in because, hi, I’m nonbinary. The experiences of trans men, trans women, nobinary people, and other folks under the trans umbrella are all rather specific to each individual and the subgroups they identify with, but what unites them all is that the gender they are assigned at birth does not fit who they are as a person. Gender can likewise mean many things, but for our purposes, we’ll define it as a cultural concept often historically linked to people’s expected reproductive roles, but which manifests as abstract societal expectations (for instance, clothing and hair style). I’ll be focusing on the Western gender binary and it’s modern assumptions about femininity and masculinity. That’s the culture I grew up in and it’s the one the Hellboy series originates from, but it’s important to keep in mind that gender is culture-specific.

Cisgender people (those whose gender identity and pronoun preferences match up with the ones they were assigned at birth) tend to construct the gender binary in a rigid way that they rarely have to think about because they usually conform to it. Trans people, however, inherently exist on a spectrum outside of the gender binary, and so often undergo a period of having to realize they lie outside of this construct and come to terms with it. Common trans experiences include harsh persecution for not adhering to the gender binary, dismissal by others that one’s gender exploration is “just a phase,” dysphoria (a medical condition denoting unease or discomfort with one’s body), overcompensation to clearly fit one of the binaries, constantly having to explain oneself, exploring different physical presentations outside of one’s assigned gender, adopting a preferred name and/or pronouns, feeling alien, finding comfort among others who are social outcasts, having to hide one’s true nature (especially from conservative relatives), a “coming out” process to reveal oneself, and constant internal wrestling that frequently crosses over into self-loathing and apathy.

Not every trans person experiences these, nor are they things only trans people can experience, but they’re often part of the package. Being trans in a cis world is like treading cement. It’s exhausting. Doubly so for anyone who’s trans and also a person of color. Although the trans experience is gender-based and nominally has nothing to do with sexual orientation, it’s included as a major branch under the larger LGBT+ umbrella because of shared cultural spaces historically used by both gay and trans people, and because of shared experiences with prejudice. In literature and other narrative media, trans coding often looks very similar to other sorts of queer coding, like how flamboyant, effeminate men are often presumed to be gay. The differences are subtle, but in stories with trans-specific coding, there’s usually more of an emphasis on physical presentation, the process of transformation, details surrounding the terms one goes by (pronouns are a big one), and deeper exploration of gender associations within the story. If a the story emphasizes gendered concepts, and then shows characters walking the line between those concepts, you can bet there’s a trans reading in there somewhere.

So, Hat, trans Hellboy. Please explain.

Okay, fine. The reason I got this impression was because of the names. Self-identification is a huge thing in this series, and names come up a lot as a part of that. Characters don’t always make their own names, but they choose the ones they want to go by. Hellboy is Hellboy. He’s somewhere between a demon and a human — mostly human, but the demon part matters, and it shows physically in his appearance. Hellboy does not pass. He files his horns down because that’s an easy part of his appearance to change, but even then, he distinctly does not look human. So he compensates for it; he has an easy-going personality and a good sense of humor, making him relatable to his human colleagues. He’s just “one of the guys” to them. But something about his mannerisms and self-effacing jokes suggests lasting scars of what was probably a very difficult childhood. He doesn’t like to talk about it. But he does like fighting monsters. He knows he’s tougher than just about any bastard out there, and he knows that’s because he’s not human. He’s well-aware of that when he’s being chewed up and spat out by some beast or another, but it’s the one part of his inhumanity that makes him an asset. Other people like him for it, and though he may not show it much, he kind of likes it too.

That’s who Hellboy is. However, he has difficulty convincing people to accept the entirety of him.

I don’t know if you would call it a deadname, since he’s always gone by Hellboy, but he has this other name that some people call him that he dislikes. Others consider it his “true” name, but Hellboy doesn’t, and the books don’t either. He’s Hellboy. That’s just who he is.

It would be easy to claim that if Hellboy is read as trans, then being a demon is like his assigned gender and being a human is like his actual gender, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. For one, there is certainly a gendered association between the human and demon characters, but it changes over time.

The initial gender association the series takes is perhaps most obvious in The Chained Coffin, which contrasts Hellboy’s mother and father. His mother is depicted as a frail matron, a witch in her youth, but in the end, a pious repenter; his father, on the other hand, is a brute, a literal monster from the bowels of Hell, a powerful, imposing figure with malicious intent who frightens Hellboy to his core. Hellboy dreads becoming like his father, and that image of masculinity becomes associated with demons and senseless violence. This concept of demons as representatives of masculinity, especially toxic masculinity, continues through a lot of the story. While there are occasionally succubus-style figures in the series, these are rare (we will eventually explore why that is), and when they do appear, it’s usually because the story is using sexualized women as a shorthand for temptation, not because it considers these lady demons to be a glimpse at what Hellboy will become if he chooses the dark side. (I mean, unfortunately.)

The human characters, though, are less clear as analogies. There isn’t an explicit femininity to the human side of the story, and indeed, the B.P.R.D. is as masculinized as any branch of the military. While it seems to be more equal opportunity for women than this sort of organization is usually depicted as in fiction, characters like Kate, and later others in the B.P.R.D. series, are rarely presented as traditionally effeminate. They’re usually tough, quippy characters that, aside from their appearance, are much the same as any of the male ones. In terms of traditional feminine values like empathy, gentleness, and sociability, Roger is probably one of the more feminine major characters in the series. I have many screenshots of him hurling boulders at things, though, so I’m not sure “traditionally feminine” is the most appropriate descriptor for him. Indeed, as the series goes on, the B.P.R.D.’s militaristic nature tends to take on more of the typical masculine associations with authoritative forces, such as violence, cold logic, and impulsivity.

These usually aren’t portrayed as good or admirable qualities, though, and you can see the seeds of that in this book, especially in Roger’s chapters. It might be more accurate to say the idea of humanity is feminized within the series, as opposed to actual humans, who can be just as violent as the demons at times. One’s humanity is defined in the series by conscientiousness, empathy, and cooperation. These are the things that make the protagonists relatable, and they’re distinctly lacking in the antagonists, human or otherwise.

Hellboy himself doesn’t really fit the binary all that well. Of course, he is a big, burly action figure, and his main way of dealing with problems is by punching them in the face. It’s important to keep in mind that he’s not opposed to any of that, either. While Roger is a precious baby duckling in the body of an orc, Hellboy is less open about his feelings and hardly has any qualms about spilling blood.

At the same time, the series’ portrayal of Hellboy distinctly skews away from the masculine ideal in many prominent ways. He isn’t constantly chasing tail or showing off his muscles, and the series is rather explicit in preferring to frame him in a comic light than an impressive one. He is impressive, but he’s also a big fuckin’ nerd who shouts, “BOOM!” when he hits something real hard. He has a favorite comic book character. Batman does not have a favorite comic book character, he is a favorite comic book character, but Hellboy is more than willing to drop everything, mid-conversation, to fanboy over his favorite superhero movies from the fifties. And unlike in Ready Player One, this is not intended to show off how cool Hellboy is. It is very much the opposite.

Let me put it this way: most action series are not keen on their audience pausing mid-fight to go, “OMIGOSH, LOOK AT HIS L’IL BOOTS, HE’S GOT HIS L’IL FEET IN ‘EM!”

And this one, weirdly, does not lean away from that. At all.

I’m biased, I tend to read Hellboy in a nonbinary light, as someone who stands in two cultural boxes that most would consider rather firmly sealed shut. I know pretty personally what it’s like to grow up with people treating you as one thing or another, and knowing you aren’t really either of those things on their own, but having to choose because there isn’t really a third box for people like you. I know what it’s like to have your body change against your will, and maybe you don’t even mind that much, it’s more you just want to be able to direct the process, that’s all. You eventually decide to let the cards fall where they may, acting one way and looking another, and hoping it’ll all even out enough so you don’t have to think about it any more. You just want to be treated like a damn person, is that so much to ask?

And there’s always this thing in the back of your mind, this fear that’s unfounded, but it’s always there, prodding you, the fear that one day, somebody else will force you into one of those boxes against your will, because you’re a fraud and a fake and you’re just pretending and you don’t actually even know who you really are.

That’s a feeling I can relate to a bit.

Sometimes it’s comforting to see someone who’s going through the same sort of thing as you, albeit in a slightly more apocalyptic way.

——-

Breakdown Rating:

Characters and Character Development: 9
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Mood: 8
Main Plot: 7
Subplots: 7
Sum: 39/50

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