Dylan Dog and Hellboy offer fascinating examples of pastiche in storytelling. They mine similar territory for their strange and macabre tales, but twist and develop their inspirations in different directions: where Hellboy hearkens to the pulp magazines and ‘weird fiction’ of the 1920s and 1930s, Dylan Dog is practically obsessive in its allusions to films.
As characters, they could be satanic siblings, or infernal in-laws: Hellboy, the Hades-born offspring of a witch and a demon; and Dylan Dog, in love with an undead woman who was likely his mother, and battling his nemesis, the devil, who could be his father. Despite their fantastic and often horrific circumstances, at heart each character is a working-class hero, just trying to get the job done.
Dylan Dog and Hellboy wear their inspirations proudly, making references that range from subtle to blatant, and creating an entertaining, often brilliant farrago of horror, fantasy, comedy, philosophy and other traditions: pulp fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, horror comics of the 1950s and 1960s, horror films of the 1970s and 1980s, mythology and folklore from around the world, historical events and figures, and countless pop cultural touchstones.
In Hellboy’s case, the ties are predominantly to pulp fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, folklore and mythology, and classic ‘weird fiction’, along with comic book icons (notably Jack Kirby), and fantasy art legends (Frank Franzetta being a key early influence). With Dylan Dog, the references lean heavily on filmmakers.
“My stories try to display the light touch of an Ernst Lubitsch film, the brilliant dialogue of a Neil Simon comedy and the visionary hallucinatory force of films by George Romero,” says Dylan Dog creator Tiziano Sclavi.
Hellboy gained a wide audience thanks in large part to Guillermo del Toro’s two films. On this side of the Pacific, fans of Hellboy may not know as much about Dylan Dog, who is a phenomenon in his home country of Italy. This article will explore the history of Dylan Dog in English, and the comic’s similarities (and possible shared influences) with Hellboy.
“My name’s Dog. Dylan Dog”
Dylan Dog’s origins date back to the 1970s, when Scalvi was using the name as a placeholder for the stories he wrote at the time. The “Dylan” came from Dylan Thomas, and “Dog” from the title of a Mickey Spillane novel, about which Scalvi adds, “I’ve never read [it], I’ve only ever seen in the window of a bookstore: it was entitled ‘Dog son of’”.
The character officially launched in 1986, seven years before the first-ever Hellboy drawing (a “hasty convention sketch,” according to Hellboy: The Companion), and eight years before the first Hellboy comic in 1994.
Dylan Dog was a phenomenal success, quickly becoming “Italy’s no. 1 comic-book hero,” and regularly “entertaining over a million Italians per issue,” according to one critic. It has been translated into several languages, and since 1999, Dark Horse comics has published seven Dylan Dog graphic novels in English: six in 1999 and another in 2002.
Possibly realizing the kinship the series had with Hellboy, Dark Horse tapped Hellboy creator Mike Mignola to draw the covers. This year, Dark Horse republished all seven graphic novels in one volume this year, most likely to coincide with the announcement of a new Dylan Dog movie, Dead of Night.
With at least 275 issues of Dylan Dog published in Italy to date, the seven English translations represent only about 2.5% of the title’s run. There isn’t a wealth of information about Dylan Dog available in English, making it difficult to judge how well the translations represent the entire series. Among these seven stories, there are several notable elements, the influence of film being one of the strongest:
1) Dawn of the Living Dead: The first Dylan Dog story from October 1986, it makes many open references to films, with Dylan taking his client to see Dawn of the Dead and then American Werewolf in London (which he’d already seen 14 times) for inspiration in cracking the case.
2) Johnny Freak: Possibly the most EC-Comics-esque story in the collection, this tells the tragic tale of a medically disfigured child and his horriffic (but outwardly “normal”) family.
This story also bears resemblances Lon Chaney and Tod Browning’s exploitation of “disfigurement anxiety” in their films, and Browning’s fascination with disfigurement, possibly as a result of a drunk-driving accident he was involved in.
“With no fixed reality or nature, he was the fragmented, relativistic Everyman created by the war, existentialism, and modern physics”, writes David J. Skal in The Monster Book: A Cultural History of Horror, and this description fits the Dylan Dog stories well. “Chaney’s plastic experiments on his own body shadowed the concurrent efforts of cubist, dadaist, and emerging surrealist painters to stretch the human form into increasingly bizarre configurations.”
3) Memories from the Invisible World: With references to Claude Raines as The Invisible Man, this story has the feel of a 1980s slasher film, as well as Dylan’s Kolchak-like investigation.
4) The Return of the Monster: Another story with slasher elements, this story takes them in the direction of classic Hammer horror films of the 1960s and 1970s: the English country estate, and it’s families dark (and sexual) secrets.
5) Morgana: The most highbrow, post-modern/meta of the stories here, it refers back to Dawn of the Living Dead, and can draw comparisons with Grant Morrison’s legendary storytelling run on Animal Man, in the way that it features self-referential elements not only of the Dylan Dog universe, but also of its own existence as a comic book, along with Albert Camus quotes and references to (capital-A) Absurdity.
This is the story that seems most likely to have inspired the Umberto Eco cover blurb on the English reprints: “I can read the Bible, Homer, or Dylan Dog for several days without ever feeling bored.”
6) After Midnight: The plot is reminiscent of the Martin Scorsese film, After Hours, with Dylan spending a bloody night on London’s mean streets while trying to get home.
7) Zed: This is the story with the most outright fantasy-horror elements, and features a main guest character who looks exactly (and I mean precisely) like Christopher Lambert in his heyday.
“Despite the raging storm of references Sclavi and his illustrators never cease to take their character Dylan Dog seriously, even if artistic breaks and crossover/mutational elements meander throughout the stories,” writes one critic. “Dylan Dog represents the antithesis to all the imitation artworks of the Tarantinos of this world, for which it’s only ever about the clever, tongue-in-cheek inventory taking of one’s own hollow pop-cultural world, be it in film, literature or music”
A “nightmare investigator,” Dylan Dog takes the role of a supernatural detective, a rich tradition in popular culture that puts him in the company of such TV shows as Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The X-Files, characters such as Harry Dresden and John Constantine, and hearkens back to Dr. Martin Hesselius, Sheridan Le Fanu’s “philosophic physician” from In a Glass Darkly, along with the stories of Edgar Alan Poe, and the character Sherlock Holmes.
Dylan is in his thirties (and has been so since 1986). He lives in London with his sidekick Groucho, a Groucho Marx impersonator (or perhaps he is a reincarnation of Groucho Marx: it’s hard to tell. Dylan says of him in the first issue: “He used to be a comedian. You might’ve seen him in the movies.”) In the English translations, Groucho has been changed to Felix (and had his moustache removed) due to legal issues.
In his lavish home at 7 Craven Road (a reference to horror maven Wes Craven), which features a doorbell that screams, Dylan seems to always be just scraping by, waiting for cases and working on a model ship that he hasn’t completed in over 20 years. He used to be a Scotland Yard detective, and left after his wife died.
The stories feature several recurring themes and motifs. Like many popular heroes, Dylan always the same outfit: black jacket, red shirt, black jeans, and Clarks shoes. He drives a VW bug with the liscence plate “DYD 666.” There’s that model ship, and he plays the clarinet to help himself think, but he only seems to know one song: “The Devil’s Trill,” or “Sonata for Violin” by Giuseppe Tartini.
Dylan Dog is published in black-and-white, written at first by Scalvi alone, but with a rotating crop of artists, and as the series continued, other writers joined the production. The Dark Horse collection showcases five different artists across seven stories, with the visual style ranging from the Egon Shiele-inspired work of Angelo Stano, to Andrea Venturi’s E.C. and Warren comics stylings. Other visual influences must include the long tradition of Italian comics, notably the work of Hugo Pratt, and titles such as Corto Maltese.
“From its first year on the series enjoys unprecedented success; in part due to the extraordinary (standing out from other, more generic fumetti) darkness of the black and white panels and the general cinematic feeling that pervades the entire series,” writes one critic. “The latter can occasionally devolve into a veritable orgy of movie references and film quotations, but it never threatens to overshadow or even endanger story integrity - let alone to over-ironize it”.
There are also several intriguing Freudian issues at play: Dylan’s apparent Oedipal relationships with Morgana, with whom he had an ill-fated, and extremely meta, affair. She may be his mom, or his true love, and she may be over 300 years old. Dylan too may be older than he knows. In the first issue, Groucho/Felix says of him, “He’s a reincarnation. The real Dylan Dog died in 1686.” Then there’s Dylan’s apparent dad, who appears to have been the Devil himself, called “Xabaras” (a variation of “Abraxas”) in these stories.
The series plays with these uncertainties and psychological horrors, and throws in plenty of surrealism, existentialism, social satire, and lots of dark, bleak humour.
“An anti-hero, then? Not at all: simply a man,” says Sclavi. “A man who, unlike so many, does not reject the unknown but seeks instead to penetrate it and understand it, specially when mystery and horror are buried deep in the unconscious”.