Film

The Horror of Science and Magic in Hellboy

While the popular imagination often depicts science and magic as locked in a fundamental opposition, Mike Mignola's Hellboy depicts the true horror that lurks beneath.

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.