Many people expressed surprise when World Magazine gave the first Hellboy movie a positive review: what could possibly be edifying in a story about a demon who smokes cigars, totes huge guns, and smashes up other demons? If they’d been reading the graphic novels, they wouldn’t have needed to ask.
The Hellboy series, created by Mike Mignola , is unique. Hellboy is a half-demon, born of a witch and a devil. He was brought to earth by Rasputin and the Nazis, and destined to be the Beast of the Apocalypse. There’s just one problem: Hellboy is found and adopted by Catholic Trevor Bruttenholm, and raised in a loving home. He repeatedly denies his infernal nature—despite being told time and time again that there is a crown waiting for him in Hell—and makes the choice to fight evil. Mignola’s artwork is distinctively Catholic-flavored: almost every page shows paintings and carvings of saints looking on as Hellboy battles his way through the monsters. (Artist Duncan Fegredo has now taken over the art for the series, and while his drawings are very similar to Mignola’s iconic images, he does not generally include the insets of saints.)
The most recent volume, The Wild Hunt, is arguably the best yet. Mignola is not afraid to pull from the folklore of any culture, and Hellboy has contended with creatures out of tales from Russia, Africa, Malaysia, and Celtic Britain, just to name a few. The lurking evil in the back of most of the stories is the Ogdru-Jahad, a seven-headed “elder god” inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft.
These disparate bits of myth and fable often seemed disconnected, but in The Wild Hunt Mignola begins to tie the strands together. The book opens with a funeral: fey creatures are languishing as magic slowly leaves the earth. But some are not content to slip into the shadows: Gruagach, a warped elf who thinks himself wronged by Hellboy and all humanity, is determined to wreak havoc on the earth and take it back from the humans. To acheive this end, he restores Nimue, queen of witches; but Nimue is out for her own revenge, and declares herself queen of war. She serves the Ogdru-Jahad, and plans to spill the blood of humanity in war in order to call them down to earth.
Hellboy is the only hope, but he must constantly fight those who seek to end his life. While some, like Gruagach, want revenge on Hellboy, others want him dead out of a desperate desire to avoid the apocalypse that he is prophecied to bring. Hellboy himself wants nothing more than to escape his demonic nature and smash the bad guys for as long as he can. But when the secret of Hellboy’s maternal line is known, he can no longer escape the call to rule. Hellboy’s mother was the direct descendant of King Arthur’s only living child. This makes Hellboy, Arthur’s only direct male descendant, the Pendragon and true King of Britain. He must take up Excalibur in order to fight Nimue, but taking on that sword, he is told, will lead him to claim his role as the Beast of the Apocalypse. He has twice refused a crown in previous volumes, but now takes up the sword of Arthur. (On an interesting note, he does not take Arthur’s crown: he accepts the deeds of a king, but still refuses the glory.)
The Hellboy stories draw significantly in tone and content from Lovecraft’s tales of Cthulhu and the elder gods. Unlike the narrators of Lovecraft’s stories, however, Hellboy does not fall into helplessness or madness, nor does he throw himself into the evil that is said to be inescapable: even when all may fail, Hellboy still chooses to do the good thing, at any cost to himself.
In The Wild Hunt, Queen Mab remarks, “I think that may be the curse of your life–that the ruin of things will come from your good works.” The story is still unfolding, and no-one (save perhaps Mignola himself) knows yet whether or not Hellboy will bring about the end of the world, or make a final denial and pay whatever price it demands. In the end, he may have no choice in the matter at all. But he has a choice of his actions in the present moment, and chooses to fight as best he can. The final images in the book are telling. On the left page, a goblin weeps as he fashions an iron war helmet for Nimue, Queen of Blood. On the opposing page, Arthur’s skeleton sits erect, golden crown gleaming in the surrounding gloom.
Which will win: the crown of blood or the crown of the king? Will either survive the coming fire? No-one knows, but one thing is sure: we’ll follow Hellboy’s story to the end, whatever that end may be. ‘