[27 August 2009]
In 1993 the so-called New Age had started to peak – not quite, but almost. The mid-nineties however were, for all intents and purposes, a beautiful time. The Hippies were still middle-aged. Psychics could be found on just about every corner, eager to give a past-life reading for the right price. Healing crystals, incense and talismans of all sorts could be found in this fusion of east meets west, meets normal meets paranormal. Some folks even wore fairy wings to festivals, flowed freely to the vibe of the universe and still left their doors unlocked.
Fascination with the supernatural had been a long-standing trope of comics, film and television but would see a bold flowering in such shows as The X-Files and the birth of the world’s greatest paranormal investigator, Hellboy. But, like the much touted optimism of the hoped for Age of Aquarius, the neo-Hippie Renaissance that crested by the mid-1990s came crashing down in a hail of self-help bullet-style books and largely became a money-machine monster far more insidious than any horrific evil coming from the other side. By the publication of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, the New Age had come to a close even before millennial madness could start.
Hellboy however, not directly tied-in with directly espousing the philosophy of the New Age or Scientism, became one of the great artistic and cultural products to survive the era.
It is not surprising that in the supernatural foment that permeated much of the mindset of the 1980s and early 1990s, Mike Mignola would give birth to Hellboy, a joyous play on mad-Nazi scientists, secret government departments, other dimensional beings, mad Russian monks and paranormal friends. The Hellboy stories would not only survive, but flourish, seeming ever more relevant than many other works that share that cultural crucible.
In Hellboy: Seed of Destruction Mignola and John Byrne put forward a fusion of the paranormal and evil Nazi science. This first graphic novel not only provides Hellboy’s origin, but also establishes a dynamic between magic, horror and science that would continue throughout the series. Hitler’s dalliance with the supernatural and Nazi attempts to harness that power are well documented. Often parodied, they form the basis for such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark. With the Nazi construction of the Ragna Rok Engine in Seed of Destruction (a machine meant to bring about Hitler’s triumph) the commentary on science itself is fairly negative. Science and technology, in this case, are used as a means for harnessing evil supernatural forces to work in concert with the earth’s ultimate evil. and, yet, from that we get the surprising birth of Hellboy in the earthly realm.
In fact, nowhere in Seed of Destruction is there any positive benefit of science shown. Though readers do see the American-based Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense investigate any baddies that may come from the other side that, ostensibly, threaten American interests or, generally speaking, life on earth. However while science, at least in the wrong hands, is always depicted as something evil, paranormal creatures such as heroes Hellboy, Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman are shown as being different but characters of freewill who have chosen to use their (super)natural powers for good and the benefit of others. There are other, far less positive, supernatural role models as well.
By the time Mignola reaches 2001’s fan favorite Hellboy: Conqueror Worm there is a full-flowering of the evil science versus benign (though power-punching) paranormal beings as heroes. Now, it would be a gross oversight to say that paranormal beings in general are treated as warm and cuddly in Mignola’s world of Hellboy. The worst foes of the world’s greatest paranormal investigator are, ultimately, always supernatural in origin. Between the Nazi lab, a destruction-bringing space capsule, Doctor Von Klempt (literally a brain in a vat) and his mechanized ape Kriegaffe Number Ten - Conqueror Worm shows readers science as once again in league with evil and the evil aspects of the supernatural.
So where does this leave Hellboy and its commentary on the magic and the supernatural, and the potential horrors or mysteries of the paranormal and the world of science?
While Mignola depicts the paranormal as having both good and evil sides, in Seed of Destruction and Conqueror Worm science is purely in league with evil. The Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense is based mostly in the scientific paradigm. Investigation of the paranormal usually involves the most useful form of tech just as it usually involves explosives when Hellboy and friends get in over their heads. Scientists are not the heroes in the Hellboy setting – the compelling characters with abilities beyond those of average humans have that honor. Often, Hellboy himself is at odds with the Bureau and at the end of Conqueror Worm he, in fact, quits. Hellboy himself is not about science. The Hellboy stories are about good triumphing over evil. And with his choice made to discard rather than embrace his role as Beast of the Apocalypse, these stories are equally about the capacity of the individual to chose their own destiny.
It has often been said that the paranormal or the supernatural are aspects of nature that human beings simple do not yet understand. There have always been those who either, based on their own alleged experiences or open-mindedness, have embraced some or all claims of the supernatural while others rejected most or all aspects of the paranormal as being unproven by science. Rational skepticism and secular humanism provide worldviews that do not take the so-called paranormal into account. Scientism holds an iron-fisted grasp on the dominant world view in science: if it cannot be proven quantitatively and replicated, then it does not exist. However, research into the paranormal continues as the so-called fringes of science and scholarship.
Hellboy presents readers with a world where science and the supernatural interact; where they coexist and one can be used to influence the other in powerful ways. What we as human beings do not understand is always mysterious at first. It can be labeled as paranormal or supernatural or it can be simply called what it is: the unknown. Hellboy helps keep the magic and horror of these unknown realms alive with artistry and spunk. Happy Birthday, Hellboy.