Mike Mignola’s work is hugely influential on me. His beautiful drawing style, which looks so effortlessly dynamic as it finds just the right mix of details and simplification to stand out, has been inspirational to me since I first laid eyes on it, and I still struggle to find my own way to match his marvelous shading. His story telling, which draws on both old folklore, classic literature, and modern pulp sci-fi and horror in equal amounts, gave me a model to follow when a young me was trying to do the very same thing in his own writing. His ability to blend horror, humor, and action into a single story – sometimes in a single comic panel – is something I aspire to in my own work. And I have to acknowledge that my first novel, which is all about demons, owes its existence in no small part to Mignola’s most famous creation, Hellboy, who was the first character I encountered in fiction that showed me how complex and interesting demons can be as characters.
Like a lot of comic book characters, Hellboy seems deceptively simple at a glance. With an on-the-nose name (he’s a demon and a guy, so he’s a hell boy), a great big rock hand, and a nice pulp hero trenchcoat a la the Shadow, you’d expect him to just be a big palooka who beats up monsters, and yeah, in some of his shorter, sillier stories that’s basically what he amounts to. Yet, like other comic book characters, there’s more beneath that surface once you dig into the mythology – and in Hellboy’s case, you have to take the word “mythology” in a very literal, very primal sense.
Hellboy’s first full story arc lays out the basics of his character: summoned to earth by Rasputin (who, in Hellboy’s world, is a powerful sorcerer) to aid a Nazi plot to bring about the end (and rebirth) of the world, Hellboy is found as a young demon by the allied forces instead, and raised to be a good hearted hero by the somewhat shady paranormal task force known as the B.P.R.D. Being a demon, Hellboy is remarkably resilient, supernaturally strong, and has a great big stone right hand that he uses to whallop monsters something good. At first, Hellboy’s life is pretty simple. He’s raised to protect humanity from other monsters, and he does it with gusto because he truly cares about humanity, and hey, monsters have a tendency to eat humanity. The fact that Hellboy himself looks like these monsters (on account of literally being related to them by blood) is something he does his best to ignore. He succeeds, too, until Rasputin comes back to finish the plan.
In fighting Rasputin, Hellboy discovers why he was summoned: that his stone right hand is actually the key to a cosmic prison that contains the Ogdru Jahad, i.e. the seven headed dragon of the apocalypse, which, when awakened, will usher in the end of the current world and the birth of a new one. Hellboys’ entire existence has been crafted for this purpose, and Rasputin expects him to accept it as his destiny. Yet, against all expectation, Hellboy refuses.
That conflict in the first story arc – the one between what Hellboy was created to be and what he wants to be – is ultimately the central conflict of his entire tale. It’s the reason why he’s Hellboy despite most of his adventures taking place while he’s in an adult body. You may look at my little summary up there and see a bunch of fantastical pulp fiction nonsense, but at its core that story – and ALL Hellboy stories – are bildungromans, i.e. coming of age stories. Hellboy’s tale is one of adolescent development, where the hero starts as an order-following child, only to realize he has his own will independent of the various authority figures trying to control his life. It’s the story of a young person fighting all the pressures of a myriad of condescending older tyrants to make his own way in the world. It is, in short, a long and fantastical tale of teenage rebellion.
While there are several Hellboy arcs that take place before this event (the comic isn’t strictly linear – while you should read it in the order the stories were released, some are written to take place before the others, i.e. as flashbacks), the first story arc/trade paperback, Seed of Destruction, begins in a way that is particularly important to setting up what type of coming of age story this is. It starts with (SPOILERS SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE STORY YET) the death of Hellboy’s father figure Trevor Bruttenholm. A lot of coming of age stories begin with the death of a parent, because it immediately sets up the problem our hero will face: the stability, order, and general simplicity of the hero’s life that the parent provided is destroyed, leaving the hero alone to recreate that order from the new and terrifying chaos that is their burgeoning adulthood.
Hellboy’s journey to adulthood and independence is fraught with perils. While you might think a demon with a rock hand would be hard to threaten, there are many monsters in Hellboy’s world that are just as strong as he is an a hell of a lot nastier. Witches, vampires, dragons, demons, and even ancient gods all provide him a hell of a challenge, and our stalwart red hero has died twice in his story’s run. Worse still, like any good teen, Hellboy has a group of like-minded misfits and weirdos that are just as lost and alone in this world as he is, and some of them aren’t as fortunate as he is in surviving all the horrors life throws at them.
Perhaps this is me getting a little too personal and projecting a bit onto the comic, but I find the struggles of Hellboy and his friends to be very relatable. His relationship with Liz, a pyrokinetic woman whose fiery powers constantly threaten to consume her and others, reminds me of some of my own friends from my adolescence who struggled with destructive impulses caused by addiction and/or depression. His friend Roger, a homunculus who is often treated as just an object despite thinking and feeling just as strongly as any person, reminds me of students I’ve had who were likewise regarded as less than people by their peers because of disability. These and several other characters – Hellboy chief among them – prove time and again that despite what some of the more narrow-minded humans and monsters may think of them, they aren’t defined by their supernatural natures. Being strange and treated like an outsider does not mean you deserve to be ostracized – or, as one of Hellboy’s friends puts it, “To be other than human does not mean to be less.”
(for the sake of clarity, a reminder that “other than human” in Hellboy is pretty clearly a metaphor for “other than what is socially considered ‘normal’.”)
Which, of course, adds another wrinkle to the plot. Hellboy begins his story feeling the world is pretty black and white – monsters bad, humans good, destroy monsters and save humans – despite being living proof that it’s more complex than that, as he is a good human. In time he learns to have more sympathy and understanding of the monsters he faces, as he comes to realize he’s been killing things that look and act a lot like him. Eventually there are monsters he saves, and others that he relies on for help, just as he soon learns that some humans aren’t necessarily the good guys in the conflict (and no, that’s not just the Nazis that keep anachronistically popping up to end the world). Hellboy eventually comes to understand that the human and monster worlds are very similar, and his task transforms from destroying one side or the other into protecting as many innocents and saving as many lives as he can, even if that means being an outcast in both worlds.
Hellboy challenges a wide range of authority figures in his fight to protect the weak and downtrodden, from human bureaucrats, nazi warlords, and witch queens to goddesses of the night and even the rulers of Hell itself. He fights countless heroic battles against bone crunching werewolves, blood drinking vampire lords, and legions of the damned, even taking down one or two eldritch abominations every now and then. While his name may harken to a pulp fiction icon, he ultimately becomes a mythic figure in his own right, and as he transitions from child to man, he transforms the world into something new, breaking down every screaming, blood thirsty monarch of the old order that tries to stop him for its own selfish ends. His story is Gothic, mythic, scary, and fun – an utterly unique tale that pays homage to countless older ones. Do yourself a favor and give it a read.