I think we all knew it would end here, didn’t we? Hell’s inhabitants have lingered in the background as puppet masters throughout Hellboy’s adventures, and with how fond Mignola is of demons and monsters, I frankly would have been disappointed if we didn’t have at least one decent tour around the place. And decent tour indeed! Though I have to say, the title of this book is not… well it’s a bit on the nose. Then again, maybe that’s the point.
Whatever the title conjures for you, I can guarantee its pages hold something else. Hellboy and his namesake are intertwined in many ways, making the smoke and shadows of the landscape of Hell a reflection of his own battered psyche. The world is gone, for him at least. This is his home now, and he doesn’t know what to do about that. There are new enemies to fight and old enemies to fight, and for the most part, Hellboy sticks to what he knows. However, if there’s any consistency here, it’s decay. All lights go out in the end, even the fires of Hell. That’s how the story ends, for Hellboy and the rest of the world: softly, despite everything. Just as it feels like it should.
3P Reviews Series: Hellboy (graphic novels), Omnibus Volume Four – Hellboy in Hell
Audience Assumptions: Familiarity with my other Hellboy reviews helps.
Content Warnings: Mention of death, violence.
Star Rating: *****
Part One: End Times Everywhere
This book is not about Hell.
It takes place entirely in Hell, it shows us this series’ version of Hell, it goes through the regular rigmarole of souls and demons and eternal damnation. But trust me, it’s not about Hell.
It can’t really be about Hell, because of who the main character is. This book is, first and foremost, about Hellboy.
Hell in the Hellboy series is just a place. It’s a fantastical place with rivers of blood and a lake of fire, but it’s still just a place. It has rules, it has neighborhoods, it has an economy and a system of government. And just like every other place at the moment, it’s a wreck.
The princes and dukes of Hell have all but abandoned their positions and are cowering in a hideout. The capitol city, Pandemonium, is empty except for Satan, who lies dormant beneath it. Hell is surprisingly vacant, with the streets of ashen towns inhabited by fading ghosts and dusty skeletons, with a few scavengers here and there to stir up trouble and in doing so, self-destruct. Hellboy is now one of these inhabitants, slowly fading into the background with everything else. The place is in dire disrepair, and Hellboy is here now, to do… something about it. Maybe. Despite all of the talk of Hellboy leading legions into battle and ruling the world, all evil and powerful, you very much get the sense that this is not a place that is ever coming back. It is vanishing, like a ghost town crumbling into the sea. As far as Hellboy is concerned, he’s just here to watch it happen, even as conniving figures try in vain to push him toward fulfilling a destiny long past its relevance.
The book is episodic, structured around ten chapters which detail Hellboy’s escapades, if that’s the word for them. Several of the chapters are connected, but readers who have followed the series as omnibus volumes, as I did, may be surprised that this one is less cohesive than they might have imagined. Some of the episodes are linked, but others are much like Hellboy’s original adventures, just focused around single monsters or events.
The first follows Hellboy’s entrance to Hell and encounter with an angry demon he killed in the previous book. Rescued by the mysterious Edward Grey and sent along on his own, Hellboy runs into a puppet show of A Christmas Carol, which bleeds into reality. In the second chapter, one of the ghost from the play takes Hellboy on a tour around the place, showing off the throne and dormant army waiting for him to rule, the pit where Satan sleeps, and finally the house where he himself was born. Chapter three reunites Hellboy with his uncle Astaroth and his jealous brothers, all of whom are consumed by a monster as they fight for Hellboy’s crown. Afterward, passing demons inform Hellboy that Satan has been assassinated, and Hellboy was the one holding the knife. In the fourth, Hellboy reunites with Edward Grey and they sit and chat about their fates and a painting called Death Riding an Elephant. At the end of it, Edward tells Hellboy he’s free of the burden that has plagued him his whole life, and this is a chance to forge something new.
Grey sets Hellboy off into the world, and for the next few chapters, Hellboy wanders through a ghost town on the outskirts of Hell. He helps a dead man out of a bargain with a demon, and fights an old vampire foe. At one point, he realizes his body is falling apart and soon he too will be a ghost. He sees what has become of England and his friend Alice in a vision. England is long gone, now an ephemeral paradise that awaits the new world. There is no Earth to go back to. When he awakens from his vision, Hellboy seeks help from a long-dead alchemist with an angry nemesis. The alchemist takes him to the Fates, and Hellboy runs into his sister, who like his brothers meets a nasty end of her own design.
In the penultimate chapter, Hellboy has arrived in a barren forest, travelling in a sort of reverse of Dante as he moves further and further from the central city. Hellboy stumbles upon some demons who talk amongst themselves about the last holdout of the demon dukes. They skirmish with Hellboy and pin him to a tree, but he is saved by another old foe, his former wife. She was a monster who seduced and then tried to kill him, and Hellboy defeated her in the usual fashion. After dying, she became a snake, and it was her whispering in his ear for him to kill Satan. She looks on him pinned to the tree and reminds him he still has something he must to do. There is no one left to hold him to it, but if he wants a chance at a new life, he needs to finish the old one first.
In the final chapter of the book, Hellboy lets loose and destroys the last stronghold of the demon dukes, snuffing out the last fires of Hell once and for all. He returns to the ghost town when the dust has settled and finds an old house with some glowing shapes, and that’s where he waits. That’s the end of his story. It’s quieter than most.
Part Two: Be Careful What You Wish For
When you hear the title “Hellboy in Hell,” this is not the story that comes to mind. When I first finished it, I didn’t really know what to think. I felt that kind of emptiness you get from a disappointing ending, but at the same time I liked it. It returns to Mike Mignola’s art style, and it’s a pleasure to just flip through and absorb. But if you’re engrossed in the story and characters — which is expected by this point — it’s a bit of an odd experience. It’s not incomplete, exactly; it’s just different than you’re used to this sort of series going. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, though.
Mignola explains in the afterword that his intent was for this series to go on for a while as its own thing, but after a few chapters, he felt it had already reached a culmination and there wasn’t much more Hellboy could do here. He says it felt like the right place to end. I have trouble arguing with that choice.
The book largely justifies itself, and as with the previous book, I’m tempted to pick a chapter and discuss its intricacies. There is a lot to love, from the muted colors to the breathtaking scale of some of the creatures and locations. While the previous book was fantastical, this one trades in the surreal.
But the thing is, I would do a worse job of expressing the book than it does on its own. Instead, I’d like to do something a little different. I’d like to offer a run-down of the ambient thoughts that ran through my head, specifically the things that rubbed me the wrong way and made me question whether the book was really what I wanted. I want to propose that this book is full of problems, and that these problems seem to weaken the story, with further contemplation, I’ve come to appreciate them as part of its texture. Perhaps I might convince someone who is less enthusiastic about it.
So, Problem 1: The prophecy… went nowhere.
The thing about prophecies is, they kind of suck, don’t they? Either they’re true and you’re stuck waiting for them to just happen, or they’re optional, in which case, what was the point of the damn thing in the first place? I tend to think that characters’ reactions to prophecies are much more interesting than whether those things actually happen, but on the whole I kind of hate prophecies in the first place.
However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed that Hellboy doesn’t get to ride a rad dragon. I mean, that was hyped up a bit, and I was looking forward to it.
To go into more detail about Hellboy’s kaiju moment, essentially what happens is he turns into a giant, complete with fire and wings. (I really like the wings. I have a vulnerability for body mutations like that, and it’s a neat little touch since most of the other demons have them and Hellboy rather conspicuously doesn’t.) He defeats Leviathan and Behemoth in combat, and destroys the dukes’ hideout, leaving the lesser demons to tear any survivors to pieces. Then he breaks off his horns and leaves.
There are obvious parallels to the version of the prophecy we’ve heard before, which usually accompanies an image of a bloodthirsty demon Hellboy with a sword and crown atop a dragon. But there’s no sword here, nor crown. Leviathan’s a sort of dragon I suppose, but he kills it. And of course, it’s not Earth he’s destroying, but Hell.
I would say the prophecy is fulfilled as much as it needs to be. We got giant Hellboy smashing stuff. I’m pretty dang happy with that. There’s also something satisfying about Hellboy finding a way to fulfill the prophecy while simultaneously ruining it. It’s almost a sort of retribution for characters like Astaroth who thought to use him to their advantage. You thought that this guy would become king of Hell and restore it to its former glory, and you would come out on top? You were wrong.
Hellboy is meant to cause the apocalypse. No one said it had to be the apocalypse for Earth.
Problem 2: Hellboy spends half of the book ambling about a town helping nobodies, right after many important characters die.
Admittedly, the book slows down rather considerably here and seems to get a bit lost in itself. The Hellboy series is fond of introducing minor characters and coming up with stories for them to tell, and this book is no different. Let’s be clear, though, the stories aren’t bad. I really like the one about the three gold whips — it has the qualities of a classic fairytale. There are two stories attached to the afterword that have a similar feel, and I like those a lot, too.
However, I think the point of this section, or the point I take away from it at least, is its atmosphere. These are exactly the sort of stories that the Hellboy series used to be made up of, back before all of the weightier elements took center stage. There’s a bit of nostalgia in there — more so for anyone who read the series in real-time. It returns to a simpler format. However, the art in this section is ominous, even more so than usual. There are constant references to things Hellboy has done, and the stories beat past in a rapid pace, jumbled together in a dream-like chaos. These sections are less about the individual characters Hellboy comes across and more about how he interacts with them. The town, like much of the rest of Hell, is a parallel to his own mind. These encounters feel repetitive and distorted, because they are. And while Hellboy seems to almost enjoy himself here, it eats away at him. This is a town of the dead after all. Memories are ghosts as much as anything else here.
Problem 3: Who the hell is Edward Grey?
I’ve read quite a bit of this series and I still don’t really know this guy’s deal. I’ll be honest, I don’t really like him. It’s unreasonable, I know, but I kind of wish we had Baba Yaga here instead. He’s supposed to fill the role of a knowledgeable character who can guide Hellboy without ulterior motives, but we don’t know enough about him to ever fully make sense of his guidance, and the book isn’t too concerned about clarifying what his deal is or what he’s doing. As a result, he’s a bit of a deus ex machina. I realize those usually come at the end of the story, but I think that’s the right term to use here. He gets Hellboy out of dire straits and precipitates important events, but the audience doesn’t know how or why he does that, other than because he’s ambiguously powerful. As much as I would like to think Edward Grey has a deeper function in the series, I’m not sure he does. I think Mignola just needed a friendly wizard who could teleport around to get Hellboy from one place to another so that cool scenes and plot could happen. I’m not sure there’s much more to him than that.
However, if it’s any consolation, I do enjoy the chapter Death Riding and Elephant. The conversation between Grey and Hellboy is organic and weaves in little tidbits of backstory with excellent craftsmanship. Grey’s backstory is ultimately very dry and boring, but their conversation about it is not, especially as Hellboy has just received word that he, you know, murdered Satan. They dance around that and other more pertinent topics throughout. I like the quieter moments in this book. They set its tone beautifully, and the impact of the ending hits all the harder for it.
Problem 4: Where are Liz and Abe? And, more importantly, where is Roger?
I came to this series from the Hellboy films. I like the Hellboy films. They’re lovely. I wish Guillermo del Toro had made a third one. If you’ve seen the films, you probably expected the Hellboy comic series would follow more of the outline of the first issue and have Abe and Liz as secondary characters. By this point, it should be clear that they are not. Well… not technically. Even the Hellboy short stories, which I intend to review after this book, only feature Abe and Liz a few times.
I don’t want to jump too far ahead, but I’ll tell you that those characters and Roger do have complete story arcs of their own. Mostly they’re in the B.P.R.D. series, which spun off from the Hellboy series after Conqueror Worm and ran parallel to Hellboy for several years. It is perhaps a bit frustrating to get these tantalizing glimpses at what the other characters are doing, only for none of that to really matter in Hellboy’s own arc. We’ll talk about this when we get to B.P.R.D., but I think I can offer a few pieces of comfort here. First, what Hellboy is for that character, B.P.R.D. is for Abe, Liz, and Roger. If what you want is more of them, B.P.R.D. does not disappoint.
Second, depressing as it is, I think Hellboy’s story is more complete if he isn’t reunited with his friends at the end of this book. Given the way the series has complete flexibility to play with character death, after the last book, I figured Hellboy would putter around in Hell for a while only to be reunited with his friends later for the grand finale. Clearly, that doesn’t happen. Well, it sort of does in another series, but not here.
This series has many endings. This isn’t the only one, but it’s evoking on its own. Hellboy’s contribution on Earth is over, and the world has moved on without him. Maybe his friends are dead by now. Maybe they’ve been dead for centuries. It certainly seems that way from the chapter that has Alice in it — we see the Earth as a new place, and it’s nice, but it is foreign to Hellboy. His friends are gone, and any chance he had to return to Earth to stop the end times has long since passed. He no longer has a home to go back to. The decisions he makes from that point on are with this mindset in tow.
Problem 5: Since when does Hellboy have a wife?
I mostly read through the Hellboy short stories trying to answer this question. And as far as I can tell, Hellboy’s wife (who I’m not even sure has a name) was a one-off character who was never a big part of the series. It’s a bit weird for her to come back, then, especially since her story isn’t in the omnibus volumes, but I honestly think the quick exposition panels we get in this chapter are more than enough. I like her role as an influence for Hellboy, and I like the implication that she’s been following him around, maybe for a long while if she’s Astaroth’s snake as implied. There’s a lot of allusion to Macbeth in this book, especially around the bit involving Satan, so this character is here playing the role of Lady M.
There also might be a bit something more to do with snakes and the way the series uses them. I have thoughts on that, but you’re not going to hear them for a while. I need time to mull it over, but something’s going on with the snakes.
Problem 6: I… I don’t know if I like that ending.
I’ve come to a peace with this feeling, at least as much as I can right now. In a series that is otherwise beautiful or meaningful, an ambiguous or unsatisfactory ending is okay. I think we get complacent with perfect endings sometimes. They’re hard to nail, but when a series hits it right on the head and delivers a heartwarming, fulfilling ending, it tends to give you such elation that you can’t imagine a series wanting anything less. There is appeal in endings that give you something to chew on for a while after, but a series like Hellboy doesn’t feel like the sort of psychological thriller or surreal short story that should have an ending like that.
And it doesn’t. It ends on its own terms. The final chapter is told from a third-person perspective, as the last surviving demon of Hellboy’s attack relays to his grandmother what happened. But the book doesn’t end with Hellboy snapping off his horns. Nor does it end with the demon and his grandmother dreading their fate. The story continues for a few more panels, with Hellboy back to normal, walking through the town, with a voiceover echoing dialogue from the first Hellboy comic. The voiceover serves to bookend the series, but it also reaffirms the thesis of the whole character.
Hellboy is a person. That’s the most important thing about him. Whatever else he’s been through, he’s still a flawed, confused, uncertain person. His story is about identity, and he’s not some god or monster. He’s just Hellboy. And that’s what he’ll always be.
Sometimes stories take on a life of their own, and you have to respect the shape they end up with. They don’t have to be perfect or happy or even satisfying. They just have to be themselves.
Part Three: Nothing Ends Forever
So, that’s the end, right?
Well, obviously not. If you’ve spent more than two seconds on the Dark Horse website, you’ll realize that not only is the Hellboy series still going in some fashion, it also has a metric ton of prequels, sequels, special issues, spinoffs, one-offs, spinoffs of spinoffs, and everything else that you could possibly do with a comic franchise. This universe is expansive and it’s not going away any time soon. Just among the series I know, in addition to Hellboy, you have Hellboy: The Complete Short Stories, B.P.R.D., Hellboy and the B.P.R.D., B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs, B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth, B.P.R.D.: Vampire (there are a lot of different B.P.R.D. series), B.P.R.D.: The Devil You Know (which is somehow different from Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.), B.P.R.D.: 19-something-or-other (not to be confused with Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: 19-something-or-other — as I’ve said, these books have a naming problem), Abe Sapien, Lobster Johnson — and those are just the ones I know about. Apparently there are like, at least eight more of these. One of the others is called Joe Golem: Occult Detective and I must read it immediately.
And I’m going to introduce you to all of them.
I lie, I’m not going to do that. I mean, I might, but, let’s at least pretend I’m more grounded than that. My point is, even though it’s taken me a while to even get through these four books, my ambitions aim high. I mostly want to go through this series in the order in which I read it, because that’s what my experience combing through this series has been like, but before we get too far underway, I want to say that if you have an interest in this series, there’s nothing wrong with stopping here.
One of the things I admire about the Hellboy series is that it is generous with its exit points. I’m not a big fan of DC or Marvel series, especially those connected to their expansive superhero canon. Those universes are over fifty years old at this point, and spread out between hundreds, if not thousands of writers, artists, and creators — not to mention they’re not always confined to the realm of comics, either. Even if I could read through all of them, I don’t think the experience would be worth it. Expanded universes sound fun, until you realize you’re going to have to wade through fifteen different arcs, most of which feature characters you don’t care about, just to find a cohesive story. There’s a reason I like series that are one and done.
The Hellboy series, and whatever you want to call its expanded universe, is a strange beast as far as comics go. Even reading through the omnibus volumes, you can tell it’s starting to get squirrelly like the DC/Marvel comic lines, as it tries to direct you to the B.P.R.D., Abe Sapien, and Hellboy Short Stories series. But it doesn’t reference outside series very often, and more importantly, the main series is complete. In fact, it’s complete to a degree that I think a lot of comics would envy. Many of them are shut down in the same way as television series and only make it to a few issues, or else have to wrap up abruptly. It’s rare to see a series that initially wants to be open-ended turn into something structured. Yet, this one does just that. And the spinoffs do too. Even the longer-running spinoff series follow narrative paths that change their worlds and characters to degrees I often don’t see even in novels and television series. For comics, which are usually released issue by issue and highly episodic, that’s exceptional. This is a series that is worth diving deeper into.
All the same, you don’t have to. Hellboy’s story can just be what’s contained in books 1-4, plus vague knowledge that there’s something more out there. It’s a good story all on its own. It’s the sort of thing you can sit a while contemplating. It’s the sort of thing you can recommend to your friends, and they won’t resent you for giving them a twenty-book reading assignment.
Even if you never end up reading these books, I intend to share with you what I love about them. I hope for the Hellboy series at least, I’ve done that well enough.
Characters and Character Development: 9
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Main Plot: 7