Graphic Novel Review

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Mike Mignola writes and illustrates with the confidence of a master.

By Jason Henderson     July 26, 2000

Host: Mr. Lu tells very funny stories.
Mr. Lu: A farmer met a ghost woman who gave him a golden box, but said, 'You must never open this.' He took it home and hid it from his wife. But one day she looked inside. It was full of gouged-out human eyes,
and at that moment the farmer dropped dead in his field. The wife went mad and lived the rest of her days like an animal. The end.
Listner: Tee-hee.
Hellboy: Wow, that is a funny story. You know, I just realized I'm awfully tired...

Mike Mignola writes and illustrates Hellboy with the confidence of a master. He has constructed an ongoing storyabout a demon summoned to Earth who for various reasons becomes a government agentthat constantly mixes familiar mystical motifs with hard-boiled noir stylings and a witty voice I find utterly unique to comics. Hellboy: The Right Hand of Doom collects eight Hellboy stories, some only a few pages long, some drawn out, and with every one of them I had to put the book down and wonder why I waste time with poor work. There are days when I think I could read no more comics but Cerberus; now I would add Mignola's Hellboy to that list.
It's all a joke, even as we grow to care for Hellboy, and luckily Hellboy is in on the joke. No one else in the series is. One trick Mignola likes to pull over and over againalways successfullyis to have all the characters around Hellboy spout Lovecraftian words of deep import, only to have Hellboy take the wind out of their sails.
In one story, ' The Varcolac' an ancient Rumanian legend of an absurdly powerful vampire inspired Mignola to craft a story in which Hellboy tracks down a female vampire who seems to call the famous creature into being. Mignola allows the descriptions of the awful power of the Varcolac to go on and on, until it becomes funny enough that Hellboy realizes something is very wrong with this picture. It's a wonderful moment, up there with the best of Sim. In another story, 'Box Full of Evil,' Hellboy again faces a character who drones endlessly about her powers, and Hellboy's exasperation of the drama of the supernatural beings he faces is palpable.
Understand: Hellboy takes demons, Hell and Satan very seriously. He just gets irritated when people talk like Doctor Doom. Hellboy himself, for no reason in particular other than that he's a tough kid raised in America, talks like Mike Hammer.
We learn that Hellboy was summoned by a group of eminent scientists and mystics in the 1940s and raised by a prominent parapsychologist, Trevor Bruttenholm. In 1952, Hellboy joined the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense and became a field agent, globe-hopping and chasing ghosts, demons, and the like. Hellboy himself is a literal demontall, red all over, with sawed-off horns that grow back whenever Hell beckons, and a giant, mysterious stone right hand. The dates of the stories are '40s, '50s, '60s, and '70s, but it doesn't matter in the slightest, because Hellboy inhabits a world made entirely of old, wood-paneled rooms and the fussy necromancers who inhabit them. He wanders in, wearing a long, brown trench coat that renders him about as anonymous as the Incredible Hulk, and usually ends up the focus of a double-cross by people too stupid to know better. And yet he retains a sweet disposition. Hellboy shoots to kill, but his gruff language hides a simple and fairly gentle soul. There's a crushing innocence to the respect with which Hellboy treats those in authority over him, at the same time that he treats those around him with cynicism.
Mignola has pulled something wonderful off in making Hellboy a loveable character. There's a delightfully episodic feel to the first stories in the collection. Pancakes is a tale of the moment the citizens of Hell realized Hellboy would not come back to them, as wailing and gnashing of teeth becomes part of a complete breakfast. Others like King Vold and Heads allow Mignola to play with the concept of Hellboy as amused wanderer. When he's set upon by a family of disembodied heads, he finds them a little disgusting, but one senses that Hellboy thinks it's all part of the comedy of life.
The final stories take a more serious turn, as the nature and destiny of Hellboy continue to pursue him. 'I don't think about that stuff,' he says. 'I stick my head in the sand.' The strong suggestion of every demon Hellboy meets is that he is destined to oversee Armageddon, but Hellboy's not interested. He wants to do good, have friends, save the innocent-- all that. Keep his adventures on a less than cosmic level, whether his destiny requires it or not. It's a wonderful dilemma told astoundingly well, and good for reading and re-reading. Where most stories give us a reluctant hero, Mike Mignola has given us a hero who's a hero because he's a reluctant villain.


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