[7 March 2013]
To call the Hellboy in Hell mini-series a turning point for the character would be both an understatement and would be to completely miss the point that Hellboy creator writer-artist Mike Mignola has been trying to make since the character’s debut just shy of 20 years ago. Hellboy’s is a story of almost constant change with a “turning point” at just about every hoofstep he takes. Yet he remains the same humanized demon who sarcastically rejects corrupting power at every turn and selflessly does just the exact opposite of what he was created to do on Earth. Or he did until he was killed by a dragon and sent to Hell, thus paving the way for this series.
Issue four of Dark Horse’s new ongoing saga is another example of the antithesis of Hellboy. For one thing, our title boy has proven over and over again that the last place he belongs is Hell, yet (as the none-too-subtle title suggests) he has now spent four issues as Hellboy in Hell. In the three preceding issues we’ve seen our man guided through “The Abyss” by three Dickensian ghosts, shown around the kingdom he has so frequently rejected and introduced to a few violent and ambitious members of his family, still bitter over his being gifted “The Right Hand of Doom” (for which, Hellboy is quick to remind us, he never asked).
However, for all of the pulpy, Lovecraft-reminiscent grotesquery and bloody horrors of the first three issues, the fourth is a much more pensive and introspective tale. This story is centered not around Hellboy fighting his demonic brethren or facing familiar choices of salvation vs. power (even in death, he remains resolute in this), but around a long, detailed conversation with deceased paranormal investigator Sir Edward Grey. This slower-paced conversation with the Kolchak to Hellboy’s Mulder is not only intelligent and revealing but gives the reader something of an exhale from Hellboy’s harrowing of the lungs of hell for the last few tense episodes.
At the same time, Mignola (who does without any additional artists or writers in this series) reminds the reader of just why Hellboy has remained successful and acclaimed for as long as it has. Mignola has consistently delivered the unexpected in the many Hellboy books over the years. While Hellboy remains the stalwart good guy who could (and very easily should) become a villain, he continues to drive through his constant change to keep his stories consistently fresh and unpredictable. Sure other comicbook heroes go through rises and falls to keep their readers interested, but it’s hard to imagine Wolverine leaving the X-Men a full twelve years ago as Hellboy has with the B.P.R.D. Similarly, Mignola never apes the descents into Hell we’ve seen in Spawn or Sandman and this fourth issue comprised almost entirely of expository dialogue is a treat for the high minded reader who is as enticed by the comicbook that makes one think as they are a good old gridded-page donnybrook.
Mignola’s gothic, thoroughly 2D art is as exemplary as some of his best on his most famous character, now more slouching toward Bethlehem than hulking over his enemies. With the moody and drab greens, grays and burnt oranges colorist Dave Stewart brings to the palate, the frames of Hellboy in Hell #4 go from richly detailed (in Mignola’s own expressionistic way) to boldly eye-popping when the faded darkness surprisingly turns to bright red. With these frames of dark figures in front of full-colored but otherwise empty backgrounds, the comic often looks like some kind of classic, minimalist poster advertising a vacation in the underworld.
These colors are at their most intense during the sparse flashbacks of action detailing both Grey’s descent into the Abyss (paved, as you could guess, with good intentions) and Hellboy’s recent and possibly most significant foray into violence (in a recent issue he may or may not have actually murdered Satan). Again, this is no “action” issue. These brief frames constitute exciting, but mostly informative fillers of gaps or reminders of this expanding plot. Like any good expository episode, Hellboy in Hell #4 certainly answers a great many questions surrounding this saga, but also introduces several more unraveling mysteries. This is a hint that Mignola is nowhere nearing an end with Hellboy (the series taking place in Hell is ongoing) and that everything remains on the table except formula.