Better to Rule in Hell?

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. ‘

  • James

    We might also add that up through vol. 8, it's been the villians who primarily speak the truth. The problem is that they always seem to draw the wrong conclusions from it or only grasp part of the truth but not the whole. “The Wild Hunt” is the first comic where the forces of good speak back. Vasalisa confronts Hellboy with the other side of the story, reminding him that the people he's cared for have always told him about the good in him. We've only seen heaven peaking into Hellboy's world up until this point, but vol. 9 suggests that at some point it will speak and that will be decisive. It's interesting that Hellboy as the Pendragon is now also linked with one of English literature's most powerful Christ-types. -never mind the image of him with a spear through his side. Food for thought at any rate.

  • Joi Weaver

    Agreed! Heaven generally is silent in Hellboy, but never inactive. The amazing short story “The Island” (Volume 6, “Strange Places”) shows how powerfully Heaven works, even when it chooses not to speak. God acts through others in Hellboy's universe: through Hellboy himself, his friends, saints, relics, and even the natural world itself. Mignola is obviously a big believer in moments of eucatastrophe, and it will be interesting to see how the forces of Good act now that Hellboy has taken up the sword of Arthur.

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  • James

    Interesting. Do you see the idea of God working in these ways as tellingly R.C.(I seem to remember hearing that Mignola had grown up Catholic), and/or as a way of mediating some sort of artistic problem; say avoiding the “flat” feeling of heaven in Milton's “Paradise Lost?”

  • Joi Weaver

    I don't know if it's “tellingly R.C.,” but it's certainly an incarnational and perhaps sacramental way of thinking. It also provides more drama: if Heaven can always act, then it either gets boring very quickly (like most of Superman's powers) or the author has to come up with some reason why Heaven can't act in that one situation (like the constantly malfunctioning superior technology on some episodes of Star Trek.) Having Heaven act through others, however, keeps that dramatic tension–the forces of Good in the world may choose to be only as strong as we are. The Good is always at a disadvantage, because it can't play dirty.

  • Coryjameson

    I always knew Mignola was a religious psycho. It’s ruined the quality of his stories. Everything from “Darkness Calls” to the present has been unreadable.