This contains major spoilers for the main Hellboy series
Late last week I finally accomplished what I’d set out to do about six months ago: I finished reading all twelve volumes of Hellboy by Mike Mignola. It’s a series I’d been slogging through for the past six years, barely acquiring and reading a volume each year, if that. I started over again with volume one, Seed of Destruction, back in October and went from there. This isn’t a review of the series, but a personal look back on and it sharing some feelings I have about it as a whole, having read them all as close together as I could manage.
It’s a series that mixes a Demonic, pulpy hero with diesel-punk Nazis, robust folklore, thrilling action, and Lovecraftian horror in a way I’ve always gravitated to, but never truly fell in love with until I really dove in. I’ve always found the setup for Hellboy and these stories peculiar — in a good way — in how some of the more typical tropes and predictable plotlines get sidelined. The idea of a special individual being a part of a secretive organization that fights things that go bump in the night is not the most original idea, but it’s the way Mignola executes upon it that is so unique.
Hellboy’s story is not about finding a place in the human world. Despite literally looking like the Devil he can move among even the most common of folk without them batting much of an eye at him. We learn there are those that did seek to destroy him as an ill omen (which he is), but he is also publicly recognized by the United Nations. He’s not a secret and the story isn’t concerned with his treatment in the human world, but with the paranormal forces he deals with on their behalf. I’ve always liked how it’s a factor that doesn’t feel overlooked, but to me Mignola clearly wasn’t interested in that being a focus either.
The Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.) is another interesting factor. Hellboy is an agent of this bureau, which facilitates him combating these supernatural forces. We do see bits and pieces of it, glances at its facilities and its agents, but it’s surprisingly absent from this story as a front-and-centre setting . Less than halfway through this series Hellboy quits the bureau outright. It functioned more as a frame to explain why Hellboy is where he is in concise terms, emphasizing the case on hand more than the organization dealing with it. This also puts the spotlight on Hellboy himself. We do get to know important characters related to the B.R.P.D., whom I love despite their relatively brief appearances, but the series only occasionally dwells on Hellboy’s relationships with these people.
I bring these things up because they would otherwise be an easy go-to for the story. My first experience with the character was with the Hellboy film, and while I like it in its own right, the movie is predominantly concerned with these factors that are starkly absent in the actual books. We do get to see Hellboy on numerous standalone cases throughout the series, but what it’s really about is a much more internal, personal conflict for the character.
The series approaches the character in two ways, as I’ve perceived it. We have one-shots or brief miniseries, and the arc of Hellboy dealing with his destiny. The former type allows us to see Hellboy doing what he’s best at. Sometimes he’s more actively involved, others he’s tagging along as a vehicle for the audience to follow. We know why he’s there because he’s with the B.R.P.D., and that’s all we need to know. Despite my love of the main arc, some of my favourite Hellboy stories are found in these shorter pieces. Some of the weirdest disturbing ideas, stranger places, oddities, and even poignant moments are told in these little asides, often decades into Hellboy’s past. One of my favourites, “The Corpse,” evolves from a macabre yet humorous story into one of the most significant incidents in the entirety of the series.
Even the more tangential Hellboy volumes telling the story in the series’ present moment at least felt like they were progressing the character. As the main arc started ramping up toward a climax and conclusion, I did find the one-shots and unrelated stories distracted a little too much from it. Before the final volume there are two volumes of collected stories that hurt the momentum of everything coming to a head, regardless of how much I enjoyed them on their own.
The Myth Arc itself (the ultimate story the series is concerned with from beginning to end) is tragic yet elegantly simple. From volume one Hellboy, a seasoned agent against malevolent paranormal forces, is forced to confront the fact that his very existence is meant to bring about ruin to the world; a world he enjoys being a part of. He fights against it, trying to continue his life as is while different forces, be they Nazis, goddesses, witches, or demons from Hell itself, try to get him to fulfill this destiny by inheriting power in some way. I like how this develops into inaction on the part of Hellboy, though that doesn’t stop trouble from finding him.
Hellboy wanders the Earth just drifting along — at one point literally — and holing up in different places and getting drunk among ghosts. This lack of action is deeply understandable. The biggest favour he could do for the world is to just die, and that’s painfully unfair. This is an option he refuses to take as well, but it leaves him stuck. It has to be dealt with, he seemingly cannot escape what he was born for, but he is truly immovable about fulfilling it. Rarely does he waver, and that’s what makes him so great beyond the more superficial monster-clobbering and mystery solving that he gets up to. So many forces and primordial powers of the world tell him that its his destiny, even trying to move it along without him, but still he refuses and stands in their way at every turn, even when the unrelenting consequences prove ultimately fatal.
I still have Hellboy in Hell to get to, along with other side volumes and the B.P.R.D. series, but the twelve volumes of Hellboy will definitely stay with me. I always liked the series, but it really did amount to something much more to me than even my first impressions from when I first started years ago. It has expanded my interest in weird fiction in such a way that’s got me thinking a lot more closely about what I precisely want to be writing about myself (hopefully sooner rather than later). I hope this wasn’t too much of a dump of thoughts and feelings. I didn’t want to do a formal critique of the whole series, I just had a lot of thoughts about the story as a whole that I wanted to share.
Thanks for reading.