3P Reviews, Graphic Novels and Comics, Hellboy/B.P.R.D.

Sandman, Take Note – Hellboy: The Complete Short Stories, Volume One

Young Hellboy looking out over circus grounds at night

About two and a half years ago — Jesus, I’ve been at this for that long? — I was working on my Sandman reviews and I kept running into the same issue: constant short stories interrupting the flow of the main narrative. They weren’t bad short stories, necessarily, and I understand why the series did this. It’s largely how the comics were originally released — a few one-offs in between bits of a more continuous story. But I still felt the need to complain about it constantly.

Hellboy has a lot in common with The Sandman. They were both released as single-issue comics that came out at regular intervals, they both started as auteur-driven pieces which have since expanded into more collaborative works, they’re both fantasy-horror themed, they feature well-known mythological figures as major and recurring characters, their protagonists have very distinct character designs, and, most importantly for our purposes, the various issues were either short stories or part of a larger arc.

What Hellboy figured out, though, is that it’s okay to separate the less relevant asides into their own volumes.

It’s more complex than that, obviously. I’m sure some edition of The Sandman exists that collects all of the short stories together. But I talk about the books I have access to, and for Hellboy, that means two thick collections of all of the short stories from the original comic line that were excised from the omnibus volumes. This is the first of them. If you’ve finished the main series and still want more Hellboy, trust me, there’s more to be had.

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3P Reviews Series: Hellboy: The Complete Short Stories, Volume One

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Spoilers: Yes

Audience Assumptions: Familiarity with my other Hellboy reviews helps.

Content Warnings: Brief mention of violence, death, racism, torture.

Star Rating: ****

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Part One: Pancakes

Some demons of hell discuss Hellboy's eating of pancakes

I think the best way to introduce this book is the way the book introduces itself: with pancakes. Pancakes is the first of fifteen (-ish) short stories, and at two pages long, it is the shortest by far. It is also probably the best Hellboy short story in this or any of the books. It is delightful, just two pages of baby Hellboy eating pancakes. I love it.

Pancakes sets the tone for the rest of the volume, and it’s a strong start. It shows that this series knows where its appeal lies, and if two pages of Hellboy eating pancakes doesn’t make you laugh or smile even a little bit, there’s no need to bother with the rest of the book. From there, the stories are arranged in chronological order, starting with Hellboy as a child and moving through some of his early missions, with the last short story set in 1961. Volume Two continues this trend with one-off issues that run up through 1993.

If you came into the Hellboy series through the movies, like I did, this is probably more of what you expected the series to look like: episodic adventures where Hellboy arrives at a town, investigates some supernatural mystery, fights a monster, and walks away needing a new trench coat. Because these stories are set before the main series really got underway (Hellboy’s encounter with Rasputin was in 1994), these books don’t contribute to the four Hellboy omnibus books.

— Mostly.

But even though the short story collections aren’t as plot-focused as the main series, that doesn’t mean they’re devoid of plot or theme. Allusions to the main story come up regularly, and the issues Hellboy faces, especially on a personal level, persist throughout many of his stories, even those that appear frivolous at first glance. This first collection contains many famous Hellboy stories, introducing villains that come up in the main series as well as iconic one-offs. Pancakes is one of them, and gets referenced in many of the Hellboy comics that feature him as a child.

And can I say, baby Hellboy is the absolute best? I want more of him. I want an entire baby Hellboy series. We very rarely get to see anything of Hellboy’s childhood growing up in the B.P.R.D., with Professor Bruttenholm as his adoptive father. Every glimpse we do see of him, though, is rewarding. Hellboy’s childhood is largely what you might expect based on hints the character drops occasionally as an adult — he was raised as a human, got to know a lot of the classic agents, had a complicated but loving relationship with his father, joined the bureau as soon as he was able to, and has always felt a little bit weird about it. There isn’t really anything actively surprising about Hellboy’s childhood, which is perhaps why we don’t get a lot of comics about it. However, the little details that flesh out his character in these flashbacks are so satisfying. Every time we get a bit of baby Hellboy, I can’t get enough of it.

Take The Midnight Circus, for instance, the second short story in this collection. The Midnight Circus is one of the longer stories, and another one of those famous Hellboy issues I was talking about. It follows Hellboy at a few years old, roughly equivalent to a little kid about seven or eight I would say, as he runs off to smoke a stolen cigarette and gets lured away to an enchanted circus set up by his devious uncle. The story draws many overt parallels to Pinocchio and is beautifully illustrated to look almost like a surreal painting. There are some lovely transitions and dramatic fantasy scenes, and the story plays out as Hellboy’s first real glimpse into his future and that pesky prophecy that will come to dog him at every turn. The story isn’t without its clumsier elements (Hellboy’s sister, Gamora, makes one of her only appearances in a role I am genuinely not sure what to make of), but it’s impressive.

Most of the subsequent stories are not as strong as these first two, though I might be a bit biased. Several of the stories are about a stint in Mexico where Hellboy blacked out a lot, and those stories are a bit hit-or-miss for me. Each of them has intriguing elements, and the story about Queztalcoatl (Hellboy Versus the Aztec Mummy) is infinitely more interesting now that I’ve finished the B.P.R.D. series. However, a lot of them are pretty long, and despite briefly bringing Abe into the mix, we don’t get much characterization of anyone aside from Hellboy in the Hellboy in Mexico sequence. It’s under-utilized is all. I suspect one of the Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. books might revisit it, but I haven’t gotten into those ones yet, I’m afraid.

But even as the short stories start to become more variable, if you like Hellboy, they have something to offer.

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Part Two: A Change of Scenery

Hellboy and the Virginian arrive at an old hut

The Midnight Circus is long, coming in at 46 pages, but it pales in comparison to the longest story in the collection, The Crooked Man. The Crooked Man is 70 pages long. The Crooked Man does not need to be 70 pages long.

The story follows Hellboy as he helps a Virginian man who once dabbled in witchcraft save his soul when the devil comes a-calling. Hellboy factors into the tale, having a vested interest in devils and moral grayness, but he’s really just a side character in this tale. Of all of the short stories, this is the one that feels the least Hellboy to me.

I don’t hate it, but I think the length combined with the different art style and the narrative choice to focus on a one-off character (who, when it comes down to it, isn’t nearly as interesting as he sounds) makes this part of the book drag a bit.

I feel obliged to talk about it for that reason, and also give a heads-up to potential readers that some of the antagonist depictions come across as unpleasant caricatures. However, the story itself doesn’t really have a lot of substance to dig into – it’s atmospheric, but not as original as it wants to be. So instead of talking much about this particular story, I’d like to address the variable art styles throughout the volume and what they bring to the table.

About half of the short stories in this volume were drawn by Mike Mignola, while the other half are guest artists. Richard Corben worked on a few short stories in this collection (including The Crooked Man) and is actually one of the more frequent Hellboy guest artists. Another regular, Duncan Fegredo, also makes a contribution through The Midnight Circus. Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá pair up for the two-issue Coffin Man storyline, each of them contributing to one of the comics, and Mick McMahon worked on the one-off Hellboy Gets Married comic that was part of the Hellboy in Mexico sequence.

I have a bit of a bias toward Bá, Moon, and Fegredo – I love Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá’s other collaborative works, and Fegredo’s illustrations are familiar after his contributions throughout Hellboy Book 3. Corben and McMahon’s styles are distinct and certainly contribute the elaborate visuals that you would expect in this series, but they’re also very different from Mignola’s original style, which is probably even more of a defining trait of the Hellboy books than the monster designs. Bá, Moon, and Fegredo’s styles blend in a bit more, which means the other artists’ styles feel more out of place by comparison. I like the texture detail in Corben’s shading, and McMahon’s take looks like it has late Goya and pre-cubist Picasso influences, which is very cool, but neither of these on their own quite feels the same as the main Hellboy comics. I feel like I might enjoy their work in its own context, or with a story more tailored to their respective styles. I don’t think the comics in this volume do that.

Part of what puts me off of the occasional guest artists in this volume is honestly just that: they’re occasional. This isn’t a showcase of different artists’ takes on Hellboy. The frequent juxtaposition with Mignola’s original style creates an expectation of how the characters and environment should look, such that anything markedly different stands out and is subject to increased scrutiny.

Whatever the case, this book is stylistically all over the place, and that variation works better for some stories than others. I do wonder whether the book would have been more successful if, instead of formatting the stories according to the in-universe timeline, they were curated to show off the guest artists who have worked on the Hellboy short stories. I think you might sacrifice some existing merits of the book, and it certainly wouldn’t make The Crooked Man any shorter (though to be fair, that’s more of a writing than an art problem).

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Part Three: Spanning the Gaps

Hellboy argues with a belligerent corpse

I think the legacy of this book is not in its whole, but rather a select few stories. There are some heavy hitters in this collection as far as their contribution to the series’ image.

Aside from Pancakes and The Midnight Circus, we have The Nature of the Beast, which introduces flowers that spring from Hellboy’s blood; Hellboy Gets Married, which introduces that mysterious wife I was talking about in Hellboy in Hell; and of course, perhaps the most famous Hellboy short story, The Corpse.

I wanted to devote a little bit of time talking about The Corpse, because it’s pretty distinct. The image of Hellboy carrying the titular corpse (Tam O’Clannie from Killarney) as he points out directions is all over the place once you start paying attention. There are memes of it.

I quite like this story. It’s Hellboy dropped into one of those folk tales where the hero has to accomplish some task with multiple parts to it. It’s simple, but not basic, if that makes sense. Actually, if you were reading along in the main series with me, you’ve heard bits of the story before. A small family in a house in Ireland think their baby has been kidnapped and replaced with a changeling. Hellboy finds this to be true, and interrogates the changeling by torturing it with iron. It directs him to a set of faeries who send Hellboy on a quest to bury a quickly decaying but not quite dead corpse. He travels to several different burial sites, only to be turned away by the inhabitants already buried there. A few monsters interrupt his journey, including the changeling from before, which is the Gruagach that becomes deadset on getting revenge on Hellboy throughout the main series.

By the end of it all, Hellboy is 110% done with all of these faeries and this unhelpful corpse and various monsters, but it’s all for a good cause and he gets the baby back in the end. The story isn’t necessary to understand the Hellboy series by any means, but it’s a nice little microcosm of what Hellboy is all about. We see the full range of what he does, from punching monsters to negotiating with them. It’s well-written and deserves the praise it gets.

I wish I could say the same for the rest of the book.

If I’m honest, my earlier comment about the book being “more like what you would expect the Hellboy comics to be” was not entirely intended as a compliment.

The characterization and writing are sharp as ever for the most part, but there’s something fundamentally missing in this book and its sequel. They fail to capture some of the things that made the main Hellboy series insightful and poignant.

I think it comes down to plotting. The main series feels like the story works regardless of whether the plot is moving forward in a given chapter, but thinking back on it, I do think that some sort of larger plot development is a big part of what makes the series special. If you compare the short stories in this book to the differentiable short stories in the main series, there’s a difference beyond just relevance to Hellboy’s personal arc.

I won’t pretend that all of the short stories in the main series hit of perfectly either, but the one-offs in the main series build upon the main themes in a way that makes them feel like they matter. The main series short stories tend to be about Hellboy’s interactions with other important characters, or else deeper explorations of his psyche. We get hints of that in this short story collection, but many of the stories struggle to conjure much of an image other than what would go on the poster. They don’t all need to be original, but more of this book is forgettable than I would like it to be.

I feel like monster-of-the-week series run into this problem a lot. It’s not that any one of the encounters is unimportant, just that they end up feeling very similar after a while. Unless something critical happens in a chapter, or it plays around with a new format, a new approach to the story, the focus tends to be on the most obvious differences between the episodes – usually the monster design and maybe a dramatic image to go along with it. The progression of an encounter is generic, and thus repetitive.

I’ve seen worse, of course. Much worse. I still like this book, and there are several stand-out chapters like The Corpse and Pancakes. More than anything, I think I’m a bit spoiled by the main series being so damn textured. These are the side stories that didn’t make the cut, and so in some respects, these stories being weaker and condensed all in their own spot made the main series all the stronger. It’s unreasonable to expect every episode to fit your tastes and follow through without a hitch, especially in a series where the episodes are often developed sequentially.

I know this series can do better, and in re-reads, I’ll probably spend much more time with the main books. It’s nice to have this, and I’m glad to have read it, but I’m covering it more for posterity than because I really want to talk about it. I got something interesting out of writing this, though, I think.

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Series Breakdown Rating:

Characters: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Mood: 8
Plots: 7
Composition: 7
Sum: 36/50

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