He’s been lurking at the edges of our popular culture for 16 years now, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. An inspired creation that harkens back to the thoroughgoing inventiveness of early superheroes, Hellboy tells the tale a Prince of Hell, reborn on earth to usher in the Biblical Apocalypse. But prophetic foreshadowing proves an inconvenience for Hellboy. Mignola redeems the notion of choice trumping destiny. Rescued by Allied forces on the night he is summoned to Earth, Hellboy turns his back on his occult origins and finds himself socialized in the attitudes of a blue-collar ‘average joe’. Hellboy just hates Nazis (ironic in that Nazi occultic covens were primarily responsible for summoning him), and he’d rather fight with demons than join in their manipulations.
The true cultural impact of Mignola’s creation however, is its evergreen appeal. Hellboy has dated gracefully, still holding popular appeal long after the politics of its formative crucible have faded. In part this is due to Mignola’s elegant narrative architecture. In having Hellboy don a paranormal investigator’s cap and integrating folklore from the four corners of the world, Mignola has set a new standard in comics storytelling. It was this high fidelity redefining of the character that saw Mignola’s fiction launched onto the big screen, in 2004 and again in 2008.
Over the course of the following week, PopMatters offers an in-depth cultural analysis of the Hellboy phenomenon. In “The Boy Who Would Be the Beast of the Apocalypse”, Sara Cole examines the overarching mythography of the Hellboy setting. In a unique twist on the modern American gothic (wherein government agencies and intelligence gathering networks abound), Hellboy provides both an occult-dimmed vision of our world, and a strange and eloquent whimsy. Cole’s piece explores the full scope of the ostensibly contradictory creative impulses in Hellboy.
In “Build to Suit”, Ian Chant offers a close-reading of the collaboration between director of the Hellboy film projects, Guillermo del Toro, and Mignola’s original work in the comics medium. Chant notes the adaptability of Mignola’s work, suggesting itself perfectly for film adaptation while simultaneously allowing for darker explorations in the comics.
In “A Study of Pulp and Pop Pastiche” Oliver Ho explores the cultural impact of Hellboy and its origin in myth and folklore. With this discursive piece on Hellboy and Italian character Dylan Dog, Ho explores the connection between horror and mythology.
Because complexity is not a vice, Emmet O’Brein offers a dissenting view on the filming of Hellboy. Arguing for a clear divergence in creative directions between the Hellboy of the comic books and that of the summer blockbusters, O’Brein questions the cultural authenticity of both projects.
In “The Horror of Science and Magic in Hellboy”, C. E. McAuley suggests that Hellboy‘s perennial appeal and its ability to transcend the cultural politics of the early ’90s lies in its unique grappling with science and mysticism as tools for human rationalism. Both being inaccurate, McAuley argues, science and mysticism both have a role in humanizing our experience of the unknown.
Wednesday’s Iconographies provides a review of Mignola’s cultural project that attempts to archive classical traditions by using popular media.
While Mignola’s Hellboy has done more than simply weather the storm, it has haunted the periphery of mainstream comics culture. In this way it has blasted apart the typical ’90s debate which seeks to resolve between either mass publication with a major or independent distribution. Hellboy strides both worlds, by avoiding publication as an ongoing monthly series. These numerous cultural, literary and publication negotiations have helped the character grow beyond all expectations. Sixteen years down the line thus becomes the perfect time to take stock of a cultural phenomenon that continues to captivate and grow its dedicated audience.
— shathley Q