3P Reviews, Hellboy/B.P.R.D.

Fun in Jolly Old England – Hellboy, Book Three

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Hoo boy, this is going to be a long one.

I should be up front and admit that I’m not going to get around to all of it. This book is massive, and it’s dense on top of that. I’d be here all week if I tried to address every moment I felt deserved attention, because I truly love this one — it’s easily my favorite of the main Hellboy series. But we have a lot to get through after this one as well, so I’ll try to condense my review-essay-thing down into its critical points.

Hellboy is aground again, returned to the shores of his birth, or one of them anyway. In the British Isles, war is brewing; the faeries and the druids and the witches are tensed for war, requiring only a leader to guide them. And, hey, who do we know who’s part witch and recently declined that other offer to rule the world?

As Hellboy is courted on all sides by those seeking to make him a king, he stumbles through fantastical visions and lashes out against the impending prophecy that seems eager to come true regardless of how many times he resists it. With the apocalypse on the horizon and giants rumbling under the earth, he’s going to have to face his future sooner or later. Even now, it’s hard to say if he’s ready for it.

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3P Reviews Series: Hellboy (graphic novels), Omnibus Volume Three – The Wild Hunt

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Spoilers: Yes

Audience Assumptions: None

Content Warnings: Mention of violence, mass death, suicide, gore.

Star Rating: *****

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Part One: Transformations, Good and Bad

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Instead of starting with a summary, I would instead like to dive straight into a specific sequence from this book, because it’s the part that sticks with me whenever I think about the book. All you need to know for context is that Hellboy is in England.

At one point in the story, the titular Wild Hunt calls him up and invites him to hunt giants with them. The party, a hunting masquerade composed of England’s nobility, leads Hellboy out to a field and stabs him in the back, leaving him to die. But he doesn’t. Instead, the giants they were supposed to be hunting attack the Wild Hunt and destroy them, leaving Hellboy the only survivor. A faerie seeking to recruit him for another group gives him a flower to turn him invisible and sneak away from the giants, who are hanging around munching on the Hunt’s horses. Hellboy, still rankling from his recent betrayal, is itching for a fight and decides to test the limits of the faerie’s flower instead of escaping. The giants notice him, and that’s all the excuse he needs to go after them.

We don’t see the end of the fight for a while. It’s not unusual for this series to interrupt fights to show what’s happening elsewhere in the world, but the next time we see Hellboy, he’s in Ireland with an old friend, Alice, the fight with the giants apparently concluded. We can imagine how it went. However, as Hellboy and Alice run into various beings of Arthurian and Celtic legend, we start to realize that something happened during the giant fight that Hellboy isn’t keen to share. Eventually, we learn that during the fight, he picked up a piece of broken sword and went to town with it, destroying the giants and losing control so fully that his horns grew back. No Hecate or Rasputin or dark incantation forcing it this time, just him on his own. He came around in the end and got himself back under control, but not before leaving the giants all dead and hacked to pieces. He feels guilty about picking a fight when he didn’t need to, but what’s shaken him more is the realization that at the time, he didn’t care. In fact, in the moment, he loved it — loved the violence, the bloodshed, loved the fight and all it entailed. Now, more than ever, he’s uncertain about himself, and likes what he sees in the mirror less and less.

For Hellboy as a character, the reason this matters is that he’s used to compartmentalizing, and being told that’s fine. When fighting monsters, he views them as adversaries he must destroy because they’re bad, and he’s good, so destroying them is a good act. He’s come across enough gray situations to know this is a false dichotomy, but it’s what he was raised on, and that good-bad binary is persistent. Accepting himself as anything other than good risks him slipping in the other direction. The fight with the giants forces him to acknowledge that he’s already there; it doesn’t matter if he’s fighting monsters, either way, it ends in blood.

Hellboy’s various villains often fail to realize the same applies to them. The cycle of destruction erodes everyone in the end.

This book is about overcoming, to some extent, but the victories are small and brief. There are over a dozen antagonists through the story, and all of them save the last are brought down by their own hubris, or else random chance. Hellboy, despite spending much of the book fighting, does little to stop his own villains. In fact, many of them could barely be called villains in the traditional sense; they are a motley crew of monsters Hellboy has scorned and irritated, or who want to use him to their advantage. He doesn’t even know who half of them are.

I won’t go through all of them, but I do want to take a look at some of the more prominent villains in the story and examine how they end up mirroring Hellboy’s own path at times. I might as tell you the plot while I’m at it.

The witches are the first.

The story starts in earnest* with a bunch of witches grabbing Hellboy during a mid-afternoon stroll, and flying him to their local council meeting in an abandoned church. They tell Hellboy, who is not in a listening mood, that with Hecate gone, they need a new ruler, and they want him for the job. Given his track record when confronted with offers to rule legions of the damned and sit on thrones, absolutely no one is surprised when he declines, but the witches are desperate. They, along with the fae and other magical creatures of the British Isles, are on their last legs, aware that their time on earth is quickly drawing to a close. They’re scared. And they need someone to rule them, so with Hellboy unwilling to take up the mantle, they turn to the next best offer that comes along, and in doing so, pit themselves in direct opposition to Hellboy.

There’s this changeling, Gruagach, who has a beef with Hellboy over some iron-and-pig-giant-based shenanigans, and seems hell-bent on getting revenge. He’s been around since the last book, but this is the first time in the main series we’ve really seen him do anything. Gruagach has been waiting in the shadows, voicing his anger at Hellboy to any who will listen, until finally someone hears. The witches fall in with Gruagach’s misplaced confidence, and help him revive the war goddess Nimue. As Nimue damns several of the witches for their part in keeping her locked away, and starts to transform the land into a battlefield for a coming war, Gruagach slowly realizes the chaos he’s unleashed. When he voices his own doubts about Nimue, she shows him no more mercy than any of her other victims.

The Baba Yaga is similar to Gruagach in the way she’s introduced. She’s been around since Book One, lingering in some parallel fantasy world near a large tree, overseeing the earthly affairs of Hellboy and the other characters. There are several figures that gather around said tree (I think it’s supposed to be Yggdrasil from Norse mythology), and though they present the guise of watchers who are beyond mortal affairs except when they choose, this book reveals them to be on the same playing field as everyone else. The Baba Yaga lost her eye to Hellboy in an encounter some years ago, and she also happens to be Rasputin’s grandmother, so she has a bone to pick with him. When Hellboy leaves the witches, the Baba Yaga directs him into her world, a cold Russian forest where she sends an immortal assassin after him. As he keeps evading the assassin, Baba Yaga’s impatience leads her to give up her magic to make the assassin stronger, to no avail. Eventually, when she has nothing left, a Death-like figure who has been cautioning her against killing Hellboy finally tells her that no matter what she does, she can never kill him. Hellboy isn’t hers to kill.

Many of the antagonists — many of the protagonists, too — overestimate their own power. Even those with tremendous amounts of magic, godlike in their own respect, are merely pieces in a vast game that seems to be directed by chance more than any conscious player. Hellboy bounces between minor enemies, from Baba Yaga’s assassin to a bridge demon to a hedgehog orc, and countless others. There is a difference between these grunts and the people directing them, but not nearly as big of a difference as the greater villains think. The Wild Hunt invite Hellboy to hunt giants with them and think they have him in a trap, but like Baba Yaga, they learn too late that Hellboy can’t die yet, and the giants destroy them to a man.

Not all of the antagonists are keen to see Hellboy killed, of course, but even then, when they try to control his actions and manipulate the plot to their own advantage, it always backfires. Among other figures from Arthurian legend, Hellboy runs into Morgan Le Fay, who, like everyone else it seems, tells him he’s fated to wear a crown. As it turns out, his mother was the last descendent of King Arthur, making Hellboy the real heir to the throne of Britain (he’s thrilled, as you can imagine). But while she eventually gets Hellboy to take the sword, he abandons it soon after, and the world still falls to pieces. Despite her imperial tactics, Morgan Le Fay is stuck with the same fate as Gruagach in the end.

Hellboy’s uncle, Astaroth, also appears as a guiding force, and like Morgan Le Fay, he finds Hellboy resilient to much form of guidance. We’ve actually seen Astaroth on a few other occasions — he appears regularly in the main books and the short stories, a sort of shapeshifter recognizable by his snake staff. As he explains here, Astaroth is frustrated by Hellboy’s lack of ambition, and seeks to direct him toward what he sees as Hellboy’s true calling. “Manipulate” is probably a more accurate word, as Astaroth clearly hopes to maintain his control over him when Hellboy comes into his own. However, Hellboy sees right through his ruse and regularly tells him to fuck off. This isn’t the last we’ll see of Astaroth, but let’s just say for now that his fate isn’t much different than that of the other antagonists in this book.

In fact, only the Baba Yaga seems to actually learn from her mistakes. She wants Hellboy’s eye in exchange for her own, but when she can’t take it from him by force, she concedes to her role in the story. At the end of the book, with Nimue’s army swollen and on the brink of war, the Baba Yaga approaches Hellboy, not as an enemy, but as a neutral party. She offers to take him to Nimue in exchange for his eye — she no longer wants it to hurt him, just to watch the world end. She knows now that’s the best she can hope to do. And Hellboy makes the trade.

Nimue herself is a perplexing figure. Based on the Celtic triple deity of the Morrigan, she appears for the first time in this book and seems to have no real connection to Hellboy or any of the other characters right up until she’s over here about to destroy all of existence. At some point in the future, I might get to talk about the symbolic parallels between several characters that include Nimue, as I think her role here is more predictable than it seems at first glances, but story-wise, she remains an odd choice for Hellboy’s big antagonist. Nimue is an imposing figure, though — a witch covered in blood, carrying so much authority that she can command a person to kill their king and he’ll do it, weeping. It’s believable that she could raise an army as large and merciless as the one we see in the finale. Yet, it’s also believable that she would not be the actual final boss of the story.

While Nimue is the catalyst for the climax, she’s not actually the one Hellboy fights in the end. Her lust for power attracts the attention of the Ogdru Jahad, who seeks to use her as a vessel, and turns her into a rather spectacular dragon during the battle. However, it’s not Nimue Hellboy fights; by then, she’s little more than a skin for the dragon. She’s none too happy about it, and even seems a bit frightened as she’s transforming, but her ability to take charge is all but gone by then.

The dragon makes a spectacular final villain, as all dragons do. I have a particular weakness for dragons in stories, even as antagonists. If you want one surefire way to end a story, end it with a dragon. But of course, as this book is taking inspiration from British and Celtic mythology, the dragons of Europe have a habit of dying at the end of their tale. This book is no different; while Hellboy struggles against the Ogdru Jahad for some time, in the end, he does slay it with a sword. The Ogdru Jahad is not entirely gone, just as the story isn’t done by the end of this book, but the fervor of the battle is certainly spent. The dragon dies, Nimue dies, Astaroth retreats to Hell, the Baba Yaga retires to her own world, the Wild Hunt is torn to shreds, Gruagach and Morgan Le Fay depart for where people like them “must always go in the end,” and the witches who have not been killed by Nimue drown themselves to bypass the apocalypse. Everyone dies, even Hellboy.

Hellboy is killed by the last flash of Nimue, who opts to drag him to Hell with her. As you might imagine by the nature of the protagonist, we are not done with this series yet, but there is a finality to the ending of the book that leaves you winded. It shows the wake of destruction throughout Britain, and it’s comparable to the same sort of quiet horror you get looking at the aftermath of a hurricane or fire. It’s horrible, but it’s still the aftermath. Things were worse before, in the heat of the chaos. Now that’s over, so we can pick of the pieces and start to fix what’s broken. What’s gone is gone, but you can always rebuild, right?

Right?

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Part Two: Choice

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Fate versus free will is a common theme in this series, but I think it comes to a unique conclusion on the matter. Plenty of stories dredge up the concept, but they usually seem to fall on one side of the line or another — that all things are fated and that some divine plan will make sense of the chaos of life, or that a person can take control of anything if they try hard enough. I think that regardless of your personal beliefs, for most people, life at least feels a lot more complicated than that. It would be great if the world worked in simple binaries, but (trust me on this), it doesn’t.

For the Hellboy series, characters seem to be paradoxically both constrained by their fates and also free to break from them. The big overarching prophecies — like how Hellboy is supposed to become a big dragon-riding demon overlord and destroy the world — are set in stone, but as is often the case with prophecies, there’s some wiggle room. A lot of wiggle room, in fact. There are plenty of different ways that the prophecy can be made more metaphorical than real, the timeline is unclear, there’s ambiguity to how exactly the whole demon overlord mechanics work, so the plot is free to go pretty much wherever it wants.

Yet, it’s still grounded by the simple truth that sooner or later, that prophecy has to happen. It’s specific enough, and we get enough images of it, that it looms over the characters like a ticking clock. Just as there are some realities like our own deaths we will never be able to escape, the story has a pre-determined end.

With that in mind, the story seems to feel like whether people have control over their lives or don’t is not the important thing. In order to grow, Hellboy has to accept his own limitations, but more than that, he just has to know himself. He is complete when he can come to terms with who he is and what he wants. Life isn’t going to comply with his wishes, and he needs to realize that. But that doesn’t mean he has to be antagonistic toward the paths he finds himself on, either.

One of the most emotional moments in the book falls around the midpoint, around the time we learn the full story of what happened to the giants. Morgan Le Fay has brought Hellboy and one of his friends, a sort of love interest for him named Alice, to her castle. She tells them about how Hellboy will become King of Britain. Her ultimatum is simple: either pick up Excalibur and lead humanity, or the world ends. Nothing else will defeat Nimue’s army, except perhaps the army in Hell waiting for Hellboy to take up a similar mantle.

Hellboy of course recognizes that this prophecy is no different from any other he’s been told about over the years; one way or another, he’s going to end up with an army, a sword, and a crown, and once that happens, there’s no going back. What he’s starting to realize is that the apocalypse is coming, with or without him, meaning any choice he makes feels pointless. For a long while, Hellboy has rejected or ignored any call to action on the grounds that doing so would lead him toward becoming something he doesn’t want to be. His thought process seems to be something along the lines of, “You can’t lose if you don’t play,” but there are ramifications for inaction. People get hurt.

Hellboy decides to leave Excalibur where it is at first, but is haunted by the specter of these prophecies that keep coming up. There’s an increasing sense that no matter how hard he tries to stay out of the fight, he’s going to get dragged into it sooner or later. In a nightmarish vision, he ends up fighting with a fully-realized version of himself, the sort of thing he wants to avoid at all cost. When the vision fades, he realizes he’s accidentally set the castle on fire, and when he goes to check on Alice, she’s burned to death in the blaze. A spirit ally named Vasilisa appears beside him, and he tells her about the giants. He confesses that he’s afraid that taking up any amount of power will turn him into that creature that’s been showing up in his nightmares. He’s not good at avoiding fights, and he wants to do something to face Nimue and her army, but he doesn’t trust himself to keep from slipping.

Vasilisa tells Hellboy that he doesn’t have to bear that burden alone. That even if he doesn’t trust himself, maybe it’s enough that others trust him. Alice knew him and thought he was better than that. She suggested he should take the sword, that it would be all right if he did. Alice is gone now, but Vasilisa tells Hellboy to trust her faith in him. So he does, and when he pulls out the sword, for the first time in a long while, things get better. The illusions fall away entirely; the burning castle was a part of the nightmare, and Alice is fine. Hellboy now has the sword, but he’s not turned into some giant monster, he’s still just himself.

Even though we eventually learn that the visions and Vasilisa are another of Astaroth’s machinations, her words hold true. Hellboy sees through Astaroth’s ploy when he pushes him too far, but there is absolutely something cogent to the idea of leaning into your problems, at least a little bit, when paralyzed with fear about the consequences. Being petrified about the worst possible outcome of the future and doing nothing out of fear anything you try will lead you closer to it is a terrible feeling. It makes an outcome that perhaps has only a small chance of happening become an everyday reality. Once it takes up residence in your mind, there’s no escaping it. Taking action is hard, but the crucial step is recognizing that having the worst possible scenario play out regularly in your head is not much better, if it’s even better at all. It’s part of how exposure therapy works; you confront some part of the thing you fear so that you can break the internal feedback loops it creates.

Seeing Hellboy finally make at least some sort of headway and finally gain something after a seemingly perpetual stream of losses is important. The sword is almost meaningless (it gets wrapped in a blanket and shoved in the trunk of a hatchback for a good while later); it’s getting Alice back that Hellboy actually cares about. Seeing that he has at least some choice in the matter, that merely touching Excalibur won’t end the world, it’s a good feeling. It makes you at least a little optimistic that maybe there’s a way out of this whole mess that doesn’t mean the thing everyone seems to think it does. That’s the sort of catharsis the series desperately needs right now.

It’s also short-lived.

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Part Three: Learning the Wrong Lessons

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I think more than anything else, this book is about failure.

There’s no getting around the fact that Hellboy dies in the end. A lot of people do. Even with the dragon and the other various villains defeated, Britain is still in tatters, and the battlefield is covered in corpses. Maybe it’s not as bad as it could have been, but there’s a genuine question of who’s victory the fight was, if anyone’s.

There are a few references to the B.P.R.D. and Hellboy’s friends there, and we’ll see in the B.P.R.D. series what’s happening concurrently in the rest of the world. The scene where the Wild Hunt members probe Hellboy’s complete inattention to the news takes on a bit of a different meaning now that I know what they’re really talking about when they say, “certain rumblings.” But even just within this book, several characters foretell this to be the beginning of the end, even as Hellboy is on the brink of defeating the dragon. Hellboy is not fighting to win, he’s fighting to buy time. There’s no delaying the inevitable. Maybe there once was, but not anymore. And the books hold to that.

After everything he’s been through, after the experience with the giants and Excalibur, Hellboy still leaves it all behind and continues as he always has, opting to fight the dragon mostly by punching it. He leaves Alice behind too, along with everyone else. When given the chance to lead an army for the team he wants, he still refuses.

That may not be as surprising as it initially seems. Hellboy has plenty of reason not to lean fully into his prophesied fate. He call Astaroth out when the latter suggests he call up that army in Hell, and he makes peace with Baba Yaga, suggesting he’s learned some. However, he’s only about halfway there, and that’s not enough. Hellboy thinks that the choice is between fighting with a sword and fighting with his fist, but he’s still stuck in the mindset of defeating his problems in physical combat. He doesn’t know how to rely on others, so he opts to go alone, and yet, the outcome doesn’t change.

Every time he hits the dragon, it gets bigger, more dragonish, and the whole while, Britain burns. The dragon taunts him, telling him their fates are intertwined, and that he can no more defeat it than he could defeat time itself, and that he, Hellboy, is a mere dust spec by comparison. The dragon is wrong, of course, but only partly; like the Baba Yaga trying to kill him earlier, Hellboy can’t defeat the dragon in battle. Even when he kills it — using a sword, just like he wanted not to do — it’s not over yet. Not by a long shot. This is the sort of fight that won’t be hindered by anything as measly as the death of its participants.

And for what?

Hellboy is initially confronting the dragon to save the world and those he loves. Suffice to say, he’s failed. We’ll see what happens in the next book, but the overwhelming sense at the end of this one is that the world’s lost either way. Alice is still alive, and presumably Hellboy’s friends at the B.P.R.D. are too, but whatever happens to them, Hellboy’s not going to be there to see it. This is largely by choice, as he was the one to leave them behind under the belief that he had to face his fate alone. He’s still not figured out how to rely on others, but that’s something that won’t likely come naturally to him. Even before all of this mess with dragons and demons and the end of the world, Hellboy’s toughness has always made him a prime candidate for solo missions. He gets along fine with people and makes friends quickly, but when it comes to combat, he’s the one who’s going to get tossed around, swallowed, or stabbed by some large creature. And that’s how he prefers it; on numerous occasions in this book, Hellboy loses allies who aren’t in the crosshairs, simply because they got too close. Part of the reason he fears becoming that world-ending creature is the fear that his friends will suffer for it.

Well, he’s in Hell now, so there aren’t many friends there to get burned anymore.

I suppose there’s something comforting in seeing a character come so far, only to reach a stalemate, or at best a hollow victory. We’re so used to seeing the defeat of the monster as the end goal, and living with that as a job well done. The hero dies in the process? A tragedy, but still a complete ending.

You could stop the series here, and it would feel complete. However, it doesn’t leave you on a satisfied note. It leaves you drained, much like real war can. Death, violence, bloodshed — it’s exhausting. If it goes on for long enough, what does it matter if one side technically won? It’s a different feeling than the end of something like Beowulf or The Hobbit. There, the sacrifice of important characters in the end battle feels meaningful. There’s time to mourn, to say goodbyes, and we know where the other characters will go in the aftermath. The deaths feel like an experience, not a loss. Here, they’re empty spaces that people once filled. How do you move on from that scale of loss? How can there be a “next” at all after that? It’s not just relevant in the context of the narrative; unlike in stories, loss doesn’t always have clear meaning. You can ascribe it significance in retrospect, you can tell yourself it was necessary, but those are ways to cope, and they don’t always work. Sometimes you run into something like a field of the dead, and can’t see anything in it but chaos.

I don’t know how to reconcile this reality. It hurts. The series is interested in exploring that feeling, among many others.

But I do know one thing: time continues, for better or worse.

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Breakdown Rating:

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

* Actually it starts with an excellent short story called The Mole, in which Hellboy dreams about having a mole on his hand that starts to grow. It’s excellent, and I’d love to talk about it more, but like I said, I’d be here forever if I talked about everything. Maybe one of these days I’ll take a look at one-offs like this, but today is not that day.

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