I’m a massive fan of Guillermo del Toro, and in particular I LOVE his 2004 film adaptation of Hellboy, so much so that I bought the giant, three disc, “Director’s Cut” box set on DVD. (I’m extremely poor, so I almost NEVER buy the extended box sets with all the special features… In fact, the LAST time I bought a special set like this, it was for a VHS release of Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma ½ animated show, back in the 1990s!) HOWEVER, and for reasons that I really can’t explain, until I bought this omnibus collection (through Comixology), I’d only ever read two or three issues of the comic series, and I’d never OWNED any of the books! So—how well does the comic hold up to the film? Let’s find out!
Mike Mignola – Hellboy Omnibus Volume 1 – Seed of Destruction (2018)
Hellboy, the character, is the creation of writer / artist, Mike Mignola, and this book collects his stories going back to 1993, as well as early concept art and the first few published Hellboy short story appearances. This book includes the graphic novels Hellboy: Seed of Destruction and Hellboy: Wake the Devil, as well as a few other individual stories. The first graphic novel presented in this book, Seed of Destruction, is listed as having been scripted by comics legend, John Byrne. I’m pretty sure that all of these books were originally published by Dark Horse Comics, aside from some of the earliest concept art and short-shorts, which are included at the end of the collection. I’m just going to say this now, at over 350 pages, this collection was a FANTASTIC buy, and the next time I’m rich, I’m certainly going to throw some money at the second omnibus collection!
For those who have never read the comics, seen the three live action films, or any of the animated features, here’s a quick overview of what this series is about. (I’m going to TRY not to give away too many spoilers because part of what’s so much fun in this series is experiencing the various revelations with Hellboy as he discovers them.) First off, I want to try to describe what TYPE of story this is, but that’s not exactly that easy to do, as what Mignola has crafted is something unique—and that’s saying something! I’ve read a LOT of genre fiction, and aside from (maybe—a bit—in some ways) DC Comic’s The Doom Patrol or Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (neither of these titles is EXACTLY the same thing, but there are similar elements in both), Hellboy is definitely doing its own thing. The story combines occult / supernatural elements, a noir / detective feel, secret agent tropes, Lovecraftian horror, folklore concepts, and VERY strong characterization, and not only in the primary protagonists, be also delving into the thoughts and motivations of the “bad guys”!
I don’t want to spend too much time talking about the film, which I remind you, I loved, but I’m going to say this—as wonderful as the del Toro production was, Mignola’s comic is absolutely EPIC! It has a very different mood from the film version (I’m talking specifically about the 2004 movie, here—I like the 2006 sequel, but it’s different, and I haven’t seen the 2019 version, yet), and I was surprised at just HOW different the overall tone was. The film has a comedic tone, lots of action, a bit of drama, and some excellent monsters in it—whereas the COMIC is based solidly in the HORROR camp. It combines elements of other genres, as I mentioned above, but the TONE is primarily dark, haunted, and serious, though with the occasional lighter moment, usually as a result of the dialog and interactions between characters. Although, Hellboy himself is less silly in the comic than he was in the film—more of a hard-working, hard-boiled detective, who knows he has an important job to do, a dangerous job with lots of lives at stake, but additionally, he’s also a very HUMAN character in the comics (especially for a demon or devil or whatever sort of entity he’s supposed to be.) I think Ron Perlman’s character in the movies is fun and entertaining—but the comic character is much deeper, with a well-developed, introspective personality. It helps that we have access to his thoughts through the comic text boxes, so we know exactly what he’s thinking—something that the on-screen character lacks. This is not Perlman’s fault, of course, but the advantage definitely goes to the comic, in this case. In addition, Professor “Broom”, played by John Hurt in the film, is barely in the comic, and the firestarter character, Liz, (who was well acted by Selma Blair), is more of a sober, serious character, as well.
It’s actually kind of strange… Somehow, the comic is LESS cartoony than the live action adaptation.
In this comic series, the reader learns that Hellboy is some kind of an elemental creature, something like a demon or devil, who was brought to Earth at the tail end of World War II by a sorcerer, Grigori Rasputin, who is working with a team of Nazis to supposedly enact a magical ritual that will turn the tide of the war in Hitler’s favor. Though Rasputin completes the ritual, it ends up NOT being the miracle that the Nazis had hoped for, but something far darker—and Rasputin, his secret plans complete, disappears into the icy Arctic, and the Allied forces win the war.
Fast forward several decades, and Hellboy, who fell into Allied hands, has grown up in military custody and, showing an aptitude for fighting threats that would easily destroy the average human, he becomes an agent of a secret organization, the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. The stories from this point in the book take off in a variety of interesting and strange directions, although the true threat, beyond all of the various monsters and vampires and ghosts and harpies that Hellboy and the other BPRD agents encounter, is the question of who Hellboy REALLY is, and what sort of dark destiny is hanging over his head.
Each of the stories in this book are INCREDIBLY well told. The characters are developed and convincing, the mood is PITCH PERFECT, including horror, mythology, and folklore elements with a grim and gritty, hard-boiled detective noir feel. And the book IS still funny, even though the tone is MUCH darker than the film. There is a lot of action, some very creepy, dream-like, haunted sequences, and an atmosphere dripping with black magic that makes the reader feel as though they have somehow slipped into a deep, dark, dream-world that they are exploring through Hellboy’s eyes.
As a huge fan of gothic horror, folklore, mythology, and Lovecraftian cosmic madness, I truly appreciate the nods to classic literature and the attention to DETAIL that Mignola brings to this book. He has a vampire character, Giurescu, who, when killed, can be revived if his body is laid in direct moonlight—just like the vampire in the 1819 work, The Vampyre by John Polidori. The Russian folklore figure, Baba Yaga, a witch who supposedly lives in a strange hut with chicken legs (!!!), plays a significant role in the story, and the Lovecraftian trope of calling on ancient Titanic monsters, which slumber in a dimension tangential to ours waiting to be summoned back to Earth to wreak havoc, is one of the primary goals for the sorcerer, Rasputin. If nothing else, Mignola and I have read a LOT of the same books!!! (Ha!)
It would also be criminal for me to wrap up this review without mentioning Mignola’s stunning artwork. He has a stylized, almost blocky line, (not completely dissimilar to Jack Kirby’s), which he utilizes to create some fantastic noir effects, particularly shadow, silhouettes, and dark, gothic compositions. His panels are absolutely beautiful, often countering expressive close-ups of faces with images in which the characters are tiny, overshadowed by some massive, threatening architectural structure, like a rotting church, or a crumbling ruin, or an old, gothic, haunted house. His sense of light and dark, his framing of the characters in his scenes, his extremely expressive faces (often created with just a few, well chosen lines and dripping with shadow and general menace), and his dynamic and powerful action scenes all work together to create a living (or, I should say, “undead”), breathing, terrifying world… In the same vein as masters, like King Kirby and Will Eisner, Mignola has a distinctive, unique style, which works perfectly with the noir tone of the story he’s telling.
For any sensitive types who might be considering reading this book, I have to mention that this is a dark, mature title. There is some cussing, quite a few violent scenes, and a TON of occult and Nazi and nightmarish / supernatural imagery. There are some theological concepts at play here, which also might upset any religious folks who (for some reason) accidentally wander into the book (although, beyond looking for things to complain about, I can’t imagine why a person sensitive about religious concepts would even TOUCH a book called Hellboy.) It’s not as gory or violent as something like From Hell, but it’s certainly not kid-friendly, by any means. As I mentioned above, this is first and foremost, a HORROR title—albeit one that also incorporates detective and (maybe just a bit) some superhero tropes, as well (if you consider books, like Doom Patrol or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen superhero titles.)
My personal opinion: I LOVE IT. I’m a huge fan of the del Toro movie, but I have to say, this collection really presents a MUCH more developed story. It’s much darker, gives us more insight into the characters, (especially Hellboy and Rasputin), and it just has a more EPIC feel, but it also has a lot of PAGES over which the story can unfold, whereas the film version only gets 132 minutes—and that’s the extended DIRECTOR’S cut! (I would compare the world that Mignola has crafted here, favorably, to Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, as far as both depth AND weirdness are concerned.) The story might not be for everyone, as it is a strange mash-up of several weird genres, plus some of the imagery and concepts might freak a few people out, but as I said, I love all of the elements that went in to this stew, and I think what Mignola has created with this series is exceptional. I will absolutely be reading more of his work in the near future!
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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