I know I’ve written about this before, but Mike Mignola and Hellboy are largely responsible (with the instigation of writer/publisher/former boss/long suffering friend Dan Fleming) for me being a comic reader of any seriousness. Oh, sure, I’d flipped through the occasional stapled together bit of fluff, typically purchased out of the bargain bins because some element of the art struck a note with me. And sure, I read Heavy Metal here and there. But other than a brief time in my youth reading G.I. Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the Archie series, even!), comics just weren’t my thing. Superman? Batman? X-Men? Blah! They might make cool movies (sometimes), but weren’t anything I enjoyed reading about, even with pictures.
So, when Dan kept after me about comics, I’ll admit, I was a tough nut to crack. He finally did it, though. With a barrage of Crossgen, Metabarons, Tom Strong, and the real secret weapon, Hellboy. I first read The Conqueror Worm, and that was it. I was in for the long haul. Lovecraft, pulp heroes, occult obsessed Nazi villains, European folk tales. If he’d thrown in some naked ladies, he’d have had pretty much everything I like to read about, all in one package.
When Dark Horse started releasing Hellboy in their “Library Editions,” handsome hard cover volumes collecting two previously released trade paperbacks each, along with some notes and sketches, I knew it was a series of books I’d have to have for my bookshelves, and I’ve not regretted a one (while constantly looking forward without much patience, to the next). It felt like volume 4 took forever to come out, and annoyingly, when it did, my comic reading had hit a kind of deep lull. I’d gotten into a kick of reading about technology and medieval history (with a few forays into the roaring 20s and the wretched 30s) and while new graphic novels kept springing up on my shelf, few came back down to be read, and most of those were very short, quick reads. Volume 4 sat there, still wrapped in plastic, promising me something special, but also giving me pause, which I don’t fully understand. I think something broke a week or so ago when I found out from co-Dork Brad that volume 5 had a release date. I had my excuse to crack the plastic, and this morning I did just that. I ate my breakfast, drank my cup of coffee, and sat down with the book, thinking to just read the introduction and maybe the first story. Two hours later, found me flipping through the last few pages of sketches and commentary with a smile on my face.
It all starts with The Crooked Man, set in the horror haunted hills of the American wilderness, in 1958. Hellboy’s still a young man, not yet aware of the terrible destiny set before him. So, when he wanders into some backwoods devilry, he’s an innocent, afraid of nothing. Meeting another, less innocent wanderer, a quick and easy friendship is struck, with the common goal of righting wrongs. Heavy dread and the shadowy antiquity of early weird tales lend the story strength. A horrible figure of evil, witches, and ancient secrets try to consume all. But Hellboy and his friend have other ideas.
Following a couple very short stories, we get to one of my favorites, The Troll Witch. It’s a sad story rooted in Norwegian fairy stories, but with typical Mignola twists. I like how the series so often features brief glimpses of hope and joy, even when the overall essence is of impending, grinding doom.
A few stories later we find Hellboy visiting a haunted house in Long Island. The crazy twist in this one is beautifully right of the series, but I won’t reveal it here. Suffice to say, long time readers should not be taken aback by what he finds when he opens that mysterious door.
The last two stories, The Chapel of Moloch and Makoma make for a strong finish. Moloch captures not only Mignola’s own feelings of artistic frustration (it was his first time drawing Hellboy in some time), but that loss of control and sense of otherness Lovecraft often associated with artists of various sorts. The sculpture, squatting like a horrible toad, could easily have been in Pickman’s basement studio.
All together there are ten tales of varying length contained in this book, spread over many decades of Hellboy’s career. From Europe to Southeast Asia to the hill country of the States, Red is where the action is, even if he doesn’t know why. This is the first of the hard covers to feature artists other than Mignola. Richard Corben, P. Craig Russell and others all put their mark on the series, but none bends too far away from the overarching spirit of pulp infused horror and grimly humorous musings before the Apocalypse. With two introductory essays and a concluding one, as well as the amusing commentary throughout the sketch pages in the back, one learns a little more about how the stories and the volume itself came about. All very cool background for long time fans.
If you haven’t read Hellboy yet, this probably isn’t the best place to start, though the story The Crooked Man might be a nice intro for fans of old time American folk tales. But for those familiar with Mike Mignola’s creation, this is a must read, must have. The Library Editions should find its way to your bookshelves, as these are works you’ll take down again in the years to come, to pore over the beautiful art, haunted characters, and grand adventure.
Hellboy continues to be among my very favorite comic literature. Reading it makes me want to read history, folk tales, pulp novels, and classic weird tales. It makes me want to write and makes me wish I had some talent in drawing. It makes me want to absorb more information and it inspires me to tell stories. Mignola has crafted something special, built it upon the broad red shoulders of a doomed hero, and infused it with wonder and horror and so much joy.
Hellboy Volume 4: The Crooked Man - The Troll Witch
Author: Mike Mignola
Artists: Mike Mignola, Richard Corbin, & others
Publisher: Dark Horse Books