[23 August 2009]
During the 1980’s Mike Mignola was an inker and illustrator for both DC and Marvel comics, and while he began to gain attention for working on more high-profile projects in the late 1980’s like Batman: A Death in the Family and Cosmic Odyssey, he still wasn’t exactly what you would call a big name in the comics world. Fast-forward about 10 years later, and suddenly Mignola finds himself with a handful of Eisner awards and a project of his own creation: Hellboy.
What is it about Mike Mignola’s character, Hellboy, that is so endlessly appealing? After its first issue was published by Dark Horse Comics in 1994 (following on from the character’s creation at San Diego Comic Con a year prior), it has since spawned three films, a couple different video game incarnations, a card game, countless toys, loads of apparel, and accessories. How is it exactly that a comic could achieve such success despite being released without the help of more commercial comic publishers like DC and Marvel? Perhaps the answer rests on the fact that few comics series prior to Hellboy have been as ambitious in scope of the subject matter that they treat and the issues it tries to address.
While most comics function along their own mythological structure, few have as elaborate a structure as Hellboy. In fact, it might be said that Hellboy’s mythological structure functions both inside as well as outside the comic itself. That is to say, while there is a personal mythology contained within the comic that illustrates Hellboy’s genesis and ongoing adventures, the stories, too, employ larger cross-cultural mythologies and histories that exist outside the pages of Mignola’s strip.
As far as personal mythologies go, Hellboy’s is certainly an interesting one. As Hellboy himself explains in The Right Hand of Doom, “I appeared in a fireball in an old church in England”. From there, Hellboy traces his childhood which involves his extremely quick maturation that has essentially plateaued since, and he has more or less ceased to age. Raised in a New Mexico Air Force Base by members of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (namely Professor Trevor Bruttenholm), Hellboy’s rearing comes off as surprisingly unremarkable. In the short strip “Pancakes,” a young Hellboy throws a tantrum when asked to try the eponymous breakfast treat. Lo and behold, like many other unadventurous toddlers, after some cajoling he finds that he loves the taste of pancakes.
Much of the rest of the series functions on this conceit of Hellboy as a sort of “average joe” everyman, despite his auspicious beginnings and the plain fact that he is indeed a demon from hell. Usually it is Hellboy’s extreme appearance as a giant, seemingly invulnerable, bright-red demon with a gigantic stone right hand that is most strongly contrasted with his terse, common utterances and ideas held about the world around him. Nevermind the fact that he was born of a witch and a demon prince and summoned to earth by Rasputin, Hellboy has a job (at the Bureau of Paranormal Research where he was born), fought with the Allies against the Nazis, and seemingly talks and acts as if he were any other average American.
While, as noted before, Hellboy’s mythology within the comic is not necessarily novel, creator Mike Mignola’s heavy usage of larger cultural mythologies is. The range of mythological and folk tales that span the Hellboy series are actually quite expansive, both through the multiple countries and centuries that are utilized. Norwegian folk tales are the basis of both short strips ‘The Troll Witch’ and ‘King Vold’, while ‘Heads’ utilizes a Japanese folktale for its framing. ‘The Vampire of Prague’ and ‘The Varcolac’ are focused on vampire mythologies in different parts of Eastern Europe, and even Malaysian folklore is given a treatment in the story of the supernatural creature, ‘The Penanggalan’.
What is of note is that in nearly all of Mignola’s deployment of different folk tales a strange, inhuman other is usually central. For instance, ‘King Vold’ is about a phantom hunter king while ‘Heads’ tells the story of a strange breed of demons whose heads detach from their bodies at night and attack people. Despite his status as a demon himself, Hellboy is always portrayed as distinct from these other undead or non-human creatures. Not only does he not seem like them, but is usually charged with the task of fighting or subduing these mythological creatures in one way or another. Hellboy’s constant comparison to other demonic features makes a powerful argument as to what it means to be human. Hellboy essentially argues that biology indeed need not be destiny, and that to exist as a human means something more than possessing a certain normative appearance. This idea as central to the Hellboy series becomes apparent when Hellboy is granted “honorary human status” as a token of thanks for helping the Allies after the war during some of Mignola’s earlier strips. It is in this sense that we come to understand character and behavior as that which provides the evidence of humanity rather than form or figure.
What is perhaps the most visible sign of genius in the series, however, is how Mignola makes this argument implicit in the frames of Hellboy. Mignola’s general palette is composed of muted colors, grey, blacks, browns, and mossy greens. This color scheme choice draws explicit attention to Hellboy in every frame as he is bright red in color. Against a dull background, it is Hellboy’s physical form that is consistently most apparent, constantly asking the reader to consider it. His body is always, in some sense, a spectacle, despite Hellboy’s seemingly normal persona, reminding the reader that form does not always embody or belay a certain type of character.
In the episode ‘Box Full of Evil’, Hellboy’s ultimate humanity, despite his frightful form, is perhaps most obviously brought to the forefront. When Ualac, a powerful demon summoned by human mage Igor Bromhead, confronts Hellboy after stealing the crown of the apocalypse from him, he tries to insult Hellboy by claiming “Once, maybe you were fit to wear this crown, but no more. You have been living too long among them…You have become almost human”. While he is saying this, Hellboy is in the foreground, back turned away from the reader. In almost dead center of the frame are Hellboy’s horns, a marker of his demon-hood that he usually tries to down-play by filing them down. The next frame shows Hellboy in profile gripping his horns, responding to Ualac with “Well, that [becoming almost human] makes me a lot better than you.” Following this declaration, Hellboy violently rips off his horns in the next panel, literally tearing from himself that which makes him most distinct (besides his color) from typical human appearance, and effectively rejecting the fact that he is a demon.
What is equally interesting about this panel is the color choice. Hellboy, as he is ripping off his horns, becomes engulfed in what seems to be a bright light and seems for a moment at least to appear flesh-colored as opposed to red, suggesting at this moment when he rejects his supposed duty as a chaos-wreaking devil that he is most like a human. In this sense, Hellboy suggests, too, that choice is an integral part of the answer to the question of “What does it mean to be human?”
In his groundbreaking work on the creation of truth through history, the 18th century Naples-born philosopher, Giambattista Vico, claimed that the creation of myths is the primary way that humans come to understand the world around them. Through the Hellboy series, Mike Mignola does almost the same in reverse: through the usage of myth (both personal and cultural) he argues that we can begin to understand what it means to be human, and how that meaning is constructed. The character of Hellboy is a challenge to those who emphasize physical form as constitutive of humanity, and instead suggests that choice, character, and action all might be better criteria for whether or not an entity should be considered a human.