Dylan Dog vs. Hellboy: A Study of Pulp and Pop Pastiche

Dylan Dog and Hellboy offer fascinating examples of pastiche in storytelling. They mine similar territory for their strange and macabre tales, but twist and develop their inspirations in different directions: where Hellboy hearkens to the pulp magazines and ‘weird fiction’ of the 1920s and 1930s, Dylan Dog is practically obsessive in its allusions to films.

As characters, they could be satanic siblings, or infernal in-laws: Hellboy, the Hades-born offspring of a witch and a demon; and Dylan Dog, in love with an undead woman who was likely his mother, and battling his nemesis, the devil, who could be his father. Despite their fantastic and often horrific circumstances, at heart each character is a working-class hero, just trying to get the job done.

Dylan Dog and Hellboy wear their inspirations proudly, making references that range from subtle to blatant, and creating an entertaining, often brilliant farrago of horror, fantasy, comedy, philosophy and other traditions: pulp fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, horror comics of the 1950s and 1960s, horror films of the 1970s and 1980s, mythology and folklore from around the world, historical events and figures, and countless pop cultural touchstones.

In Hellboy’s case, the ties are predominantly to pulp fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, folklore and mythology, and classic ‘weird fiction’, along with comic book icons (notably Jack Kirby), and fantasy art legends (Frank Franzetta being a key early influence). With Dylan Dog, the references lean heavily on filmmakers.

“My stories try to display the light touch of an Ernst Lubitsch film, the brilliant dialogue of a Neil Simon comedy and the visionary hallucinatory force of films by George Romero,” says Dylan Dog creator Tiziano Sclavi.

Hellboy gained a wide audience thanks in large part to Guillermo del Toro’s two films. On this side of the Pacific, fans of Hellboy may not know as much about Dylan Dog, who is a phenomenon in his home country of Italy. This article will explore the history of Dylan Dog in English, and the comic’s similarities (and possible shared influences) with Hellboy.

“My name’s Dog. Dylan Dog”

Dylan Dog’s origins date back to the 1970s, when Scalvi was using the name as a placeholder for the stories he wrote at the time. The “Dylan” came from Dylan Thomas, and “Dog” from the title of a Mickey Spillane novel, about which Scalvi adds, “I’ve never read [it], I’ve only ever seen in the window of a bookstore: it was entitled ‘Dog son of'”.

The character officially launched in 1986, seven years before the first-ever Hellboy drawing (a “hasty convention sketch,” according to Hellboy: The Companion), and eight years before the first Hellboy comic in 1994.

Dylan Dog was a phenomenal success, quickly becoming “Italy’s no. 1 comic-book hero,” and regularly “entertaining over a million Italians per issue,” according to one critic. It has been translated into several languages, and since 1999, Dark Horse comics has published seven Dylan Dog graphic novels in English: six in 1999 and another in 2002.

Possibly realizing the kinship the series had with Hellboy, Dark Horse tapped Hellboy creator Mike Mignola to draw the covers. This year, Dark Horse republished all seven graphic novels in one volume this year, most likely to coincide with the announcement of a new Dylan Dog movie, Dead of Night.

With at least 275 issues of Dylan Dog published in Italy to date, the seven English translations represent only about 2.5% of the title’s run. There isn’t a wealth of information about Dylan Dog available in English, making it difficult to judge how well the translations represent the entire series. Among these seven stories, there are several notable elements, the influence of film being one of the strongest:

1) Dawn of the Living Dead: The first Dylan Dog story from October 1986, it makes many open references to films, with Dylan taking his client to see Dawn of the Dead and then American Werewolf in London (which he’d already seen 14 times) for inspiration in cracking the case.

2) Johnny Freak: Possibly the most EC-Comics-esque story in the collection, this tells the tragic tale of a medically disfigured child and his horriffic (but outwardly “normal”) family.

This story also bears resemblances Lon Chaney and Tod Browning’s exploitation of “disfigurement anxiety” in their films, and Browning’s fascination with disfigurement, possibly as a result of a drunk-driving accident he was involved in.

“With no fixed reality or nature, he was the fragmented, relativistic Everyman created by the war, existentialism, and modern physics”, writes David J. Skal in The Monster Book: A Cultural History of Horror, and this description fits the Dylan Dog stories well. “Chaney’s plastic experiments on his own body shadowed the concurrent efforts of cubist, dadaist, and emerging surrealist painters to stretch the human form into increasingly bizarre configurations.”

3) Memories from the Invisible World: With references to Claude Raines as The Invisible Man, this story has the feel of a 1980s slasher film, as well as Dylan’s Kolchak-like investigation.

4) The Return of the Monster: Another story with slasher elements, this story takes them in the direction of classic Hammer horror films of the 1960s and 1970s: the English country estate, and it’s families dark (and sexual) secrets.

5) Morgana: The most highbrow, post-modern/meta of the stories here, it refers back to Dawn of the Living Dead, and can draw comparisons with Grant Morrison’s legendary storytelling run on Animal Man, in the way that it features self-referential elements not only of the Dylan Dog universe, but also of its own existence as a comic book, along with Albert Camus quotes and references to (capital-A) Absurdity.

This is the story that seems most likely to have inspired the Umberto Eco cover blurb on the English reprints: “I can read the Bible, Homer, or Dylan Dog for several days without ever feeling bored.”

6) After Midnight: The plot is reminiscent of the Martin Scorsese film, After Hours, with Dylan spending a bloody night on London’s mean streets while trying to get home.

7) Zed: This is the story with the most outright fantasy-horror elements, and features a main guest character who looks exactly (and I mean precisely) like Christopher Lambert in his heyday.

“Despite the raging storm of references Sclavi and his illustrators never cease to take their character Dylan Dog seriously, even if artistic breaks and crossover/mutational elements meander throughout the stories,” writes one critic. “Dylan Dog represents the antithesis to all the imitation artworks of the Tarantinos of this world, for which it’s only ever about the clever, tongue-in-cheek inventory taking of one’s own hollow pop-cultural world, be it in film, literature or music”

A “nightmare investigator,” Dylan Dog takes the role of a supernatural detective, a rich tradition in popular culture that puts him in the company of such TV shows as Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The X-Files, characters such as Harry Dresden and John Constantine, and hearkens back to Dr. Martin Hesselius, Sheridan Le Fanu’s “philosophic physician” from In a Glass Darkly, along with the stories of Edgar Alan Poe, and the character Sherlock Holmes.

Dylan is in his thirties (and has been so since 1986). He lives in London with his sidekick Groucho, a Groucho Marx impersonator (or perhaps he is a reincarnation of Groucho Marx: it’s hard to tell. Dylan says of him in the first issue: “He used to be a comedian. You might’ve seen him in the movies.”) In the English translations, Groucho has been changed to Felix (and had his moustache removed) due to legal issues.

In his lavish home at 7 Craven Road (a reference to horror maven Wes Craven), which features a doorbell that screams, Dylan seems to always be just scraping by, waiting for cases and working on a model ship that he hasn’t completed in over 20 years. He used to be a Scotland Yard detective, and left after his wife died.

The stories feature several recurring themes and motifs. Like many popular heroes, Dylan always the same outfit: black jacket, red shirt, black jeans, and Clarks shoes. He drives a VW bug with the liscence plate “DYD 666.” There’s that model ship, and he plays the clarinet to help himself think, but he only seems to know one song: “The Devil’s Trill,” or “Sonata for Violin” by Giuseppe Tartini.

Dylan Dog is published in black-and-white, written at first by Scalvi alone, but with a rotating crop of artists, and as the series continued, other writers joined the production. The Dark Horse collection showcases five different artists across seven stories, with the visual style ranging from the Egon Shiele-inspired work of Angelo Stano, to Andrea Venturi’s E.C. and Warren comics stylings. Other visual influences must include the long tradition of Italian comics, notably the work of Hugo Pratt, and titles such as Corto Maltese.

“From its first year on the series enjoys unprecedented success; in part due to the extraordinary (standing out from other, more generic fumetti) darkness of the black and white panels and the general cinematic feeling that pervades the entire series,” writes one critic. “The latter can occasionally devolve into a veritable orgy of movie references and film quotations, but it never threatens to overshadow or even endanger story integrity – let alone to over-ironize it”.

There are also several intriguing Freudian issues at play: Dylan’s apparent Oedipal relationships with Morgana, with whom he had an ill-fated, and extremely meta, affair. She may be his mom, or his true love, and she may be over 300 years old. Dylan too may be older than he knows. In the first issue, Groucho/Felix says of him, “He’s a reincarnation. The real Dylan Dog died in 1686.” Then there’s Dylan’s apparent dad, who appears to have been the Devil himself, called “Xabaras” (a variation of “Abraxas“) in these stories.

The series plays with these uncertainties and psychological horrors, and throws in plenty of surrealism, existentialism, social satire, and lots of dark, bleak humour.

“An anti-hero, then? Not at all: simply a man,” says Sclavi. “A man who, unlike so many, does not reject the unknown but seeks instead to penetrate it and understand it, specially when mystery and horror are buried deep in the unconscious”.

Hellboy’s “seamless gestalt”

Hellboy’s “seamless gestalt”

Similar to Dylan Dog, Hellboy features standalone stories, but there’s a greater emphasis on the grander story than in Dylan Dog, and the Lovecraftian universe created by Mignola: the sacred, mystical, and ancient land of Hyperborea, and its relationship to events in our world.

Dylan may be the son of the Devil, and his parental relationships can be called complicated at best. Same goes for Hellboy: with the help of a demon, a young witch conceived a child, delivered decades later in hell, who is summoned to Earth by Rasputin (not dead, and working for the Nazis), and then taken by the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Development (with funding by the U.S. government), and given the name Hellboy, where he learns of his destiny to become the Beast of the Apocalypse.

“[A] careful reading of Hellboy reflects in part the history of American comics, and the pulp heroes that preceded them”, writes Stephen Weiner in Hellboy: The Companion. “In the pages of Hellboy, Mignola as created a seamless gestalt of old pulp novels and classic comics, folklore and myth, fine art and fantasy art.”

In his exploration of the Hellboy comics, Weiner elaborates on other literary, visual art and comic book forebears of Hellboy, including Jack Kirby, Frank Frazetta, N.C. Wyeth, and various characters from mythology and folklore. Mignola contributes a short chapter, too, where he cites the “‘big three’ of the golden ages (1920s and 30s) of Weird Tales magazine”: Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, among others.

Dylan Dog touchstone Robert Bloch (Dylan’s father figure throughout the series is a police colleague named “Inspector Bloch”) refers to Hellboy’s highbrow aspirations in his introduction to Seed of Destruction, and this can be applied accurately to Dylan Dog as well:

“Hellboy is a brilliant example of how to elevate the comic of the future to a higher literary level while achieving a higher pitch of excitement,” Bloch writes. “Its story line combines traditional concepts with modern frames of reference, the whole being swept along by a virtuoso treatment of dazzling artistic effects.”

A common stereotype portrays Americans as brash and unsubtle, with Europeans being more cerebral and sophisticated (albeit fragile), and some of this comes into play when comparing Hellboy and Dylan Dog.

“Hellboy’s response to danger is decidedly American — a wisecrack followed by a powerhouse right”, writes Weiner.

Along with the nods to Ernst Lubitsch and Neil Simon mentioned earlier, Sclavi also seems to enjoy Dylan’s apparent inappropriateness as a hero. He has no special powers, doesn’t appear to be exceptionally smart or deductive, and among other traits, Dylan’s various phobias (everything from claustrophobia to fear of bats) often hamper his progress.

“Basically, he doesn’t even seem to be the right type for a comic strip hero,” Sclavi says. “My stories are never comforting because the horror never finishes. It always starts all over again”.

So, if Hellboy is the all-American, indestructible demon with the Right Hand of Doom, then Dylan Dog is his handsome, eccentric, phobic (and horny) European cousin, with a penchant for the clarinet.

D-Dog and H-Boy at the movies

Another common trait shared by Hellboy and Dylan Dog is their transformation from comic book to big screen. Hellboy’s incarnations in two hit films by Guillermo del Toro are well-known. Dylan Dog has two forays into feature films: the first remains a cult classic, and the second is beginning to rev up its hype machine, with a release planned for next year.

Dylan Dog the comic lives off of its references to film, and with Italy’s tradition of horror movies, it must have seemed like a natural fit. In many ways, the film Cemetery Man represents an accurate representation of the comic’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as a near cosmic alignment of opportunities.

His name may have been inspired by Dylan Thomas and Mickey Spillane, but the comic character’s face was drawn from the actor Rupert Everett. Guess who plays the main character in the movie.

“Rupert Everett didn’t know that there was a successful comic book featuring his face”, says director Michele Soavi in an interview featured on the Cemetery Man DVD. “Once he got a script on the table, he was very enthusiastic.”

Called the “savior of Italian horror” (on the DVD, at least), Soavi credits three infamous filmmakers as his teachers: Joe D’Amato, Dario Argento, and Terry Gilliam. He also cited Sergio Leone as an inspiration, and there are echoes of all of these filmmakers in Cemetery Man (and once noticed, they seem more apparent in the comic book too).

Under the original title Dellamorte Dellamore (a play on words that could be literally translated as “of death, of love”), Everett plays Francesco Dellamorte, caretaker of the cemetery in an Italian town named Buffalore. The film is not a Dylan Dog comic per se, being based instead on a novel written by Sclavi, but everyone involved (and the fans) saw it as the first Dylan Dog movie.

Along with Everett, who looked and dressed exactly as Dylan Dog, there are countless common elements: movie references, zombies, the goofy/absurd sidekick (here named Gnaghi, described by Sclavi as “a degraded version of Fedor Dostoevskij’s (sic) ‘Idiot'”), a near obsession with sex, and reams of broad, black humor.

A smash hit in Italy, the film tanked in North America, building a reputation instead as a cult favorite since its release and distribution in 1994-through-1996. There was talk of a remake shortly after the film’s initial release, when Everett gained more fame in the U.S., but that faded. Now, 15 years later, there’s a new film, and this time it’s an official Dylan Dog story.

Dead of Night features Superman‘s Brandon Routh as Dylan Dog, and “it pays plenty of homage to the comic,” says one of its stars. Early photos from the production make it difficult to asses, and the storyline that includes “a Gap for zombies where they can buy new skin and new eyeballs and so you get to see a little bit of the vanity of the zombies” doesn’t seem especially connected to any of the Dylan Dog comics in the Dark Horse reprints. However the movie turns out, if a big-budget Dylan Dog movie prompts more reprints/translation of the original comic, then that would be a success.

Common ancestors on the family tree

Common ancestors on the family tree

One final similarity that’s worth touching upon is the influence on Hellboy and Dylan Dog from the classic horror comics of the 1950s and 1960s, namely E.C. Comics and Warren Comics.

“What set E.C. apart from the other comic-book houses was the sly sophistication of its stories, the supreme quality of product, and that macabre, twisted sense of humor…oh, and the fact the stories were incredibly — often delightfully — gruesome, gory, and downright gutsy”, writes Jon B. Cooke in his introduction to Warren Comics’ Creepy: Volume One. “Warren horror mags (which came roughly ten years later) were more than a pastiche of a defunct comics line. The writing and art were less dense than their ’50s inspiration, made crisper visually perhaps due to the stark black-and-white presentation, and the quality of drawing was often sublime”.

All of these elements are at work in Hellboy and Dylan Dog, and it’s interesting to note how each turns them in different directions. Hellboy takes the macabre elements and the humour, but adds significant influence from Jack Kirby and Frank Frazetta, among the other forebears mentioned earlier. By comparison, Dylan Dog seems more of a direct descendent of E.C. and Warren, bent and reshaped by a love of horror films and the pop cultural elements discussed earlier.

E.C. artist Graham Ingels seems to haunt several of the faces in the Dark Horse reprints. Ingels “specialized in faces that were like Daumier caricatures from hell”, as Skal writes in The Monster Show, and was dubbed “‘Mr. Horror’ himself” by E.C. Comics chief Bill Gaines (described in Foul Play: The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s E.C. Comics). Ingels’ work resonates strongly in Dylan Dog, especially in the story “Johnny Freak”, described earlier.

Another way to describe it could be with reference to the infamous Grand Guignol theatre. As Skal explains it in The Monster Show, the method of the original Grand Guignol theatre could be another early ancestor of Hellboy and Dylan Dog:

“The Grand Guignol intensified the emotional impact of its programs through a deliberate strategy of the douche ecossaise — a “Scotch” shower of alternating emotional temperatures, i.e. rapid shifts between humour and horror”.

Skal also draws comparisons between horror comics and Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death woodcuts.

“Social satire was a strong component of the classical Dance of Death, and was prominent in the horror comics as well”, he writes.

Another icon of horror, Stephen King sums up the effect of the horror comics in his book Danse Macabre: “Those horror comics of the fifties still sum up for me the epitome of horror, that emotion of fear that underlies terror, an emotion which is slightly less fine, because it is not entirely of mind”.

That visceral emotion, “not entirely of mind” seems to be at the heart of Hellboy and Dylan Dog. It’s in the brilliant artwork of both comics, in their use of pastiche and synthesis of their influences, and in the stories they tell.