“I like not knowing” – Looking back at 20 years of Hellboy

pIt’s incredibly difficult to say what exactly made Mike Mignola’s Hellboy such a breakout success when the character first appeared 20 years ago today. In those early appearances, whether in the first issues of the “Seed of Destruction” story arc and in the earlier appearances, it’s the little moments which define the character but there’s so much to unpack, so much richness that it’s somewhat unsurprising to see the character become such a multimedia phenomenon.

Much of the success of Hellboy as a character and as a media franchise are in the details. Physically, there’s no character that looks like him. Hellboy pops off the page, alternatively lithe and burly, with a distinctive color scheme often used in contrast with washed out backgrounds. He’s alien and the other, even moreso than the other bizarre characters in the series. Mignola never shied away from giving these characters a sense of place as well, through consistent visual characterization, such as the otherness of the aquatic Abe Sapien to the mentally and physically scarred Liz Sherman.

Rasputin-HarpoonedWhen Hellboy began appearing on comic shop shelves in the early ’90s, its art style set it so far apart from its competition for good reason. Mignola’s work is heavily inspired by Jack Kirby, the hard chins, defined features and taste for outre alien creatures with inhuman details. It’s a style which has inspired legions, from David Aja’s minimalist designs which character specific details to Francesco Francavilla’s moody and evocative renderings of altered worlds and larger than life personalities.

Part of what made the Hellboy franchise so appealing from the very beginning was an authorial voice that was as distinctive as the art. In a series full of Nazi occultists, soul crushing deals and a consistent, creeping sense of doom, Mignola’s characters are often charming and even funny. Hellboy quips like Spider-Man while smashing like Hulk and the intersection between fairy tales, Lovecraftian horror and good old fashioned dime-store pulp often creates situations which are ripe for a couple of cutting quips. Hellboy-The-Corpse-and-the-Iron-Shoes-01-1996-06The key to the franchise and really the key to any piece of media is the way Hellboy had a true sense of history, even from right out of the gate. From Rasputin’s rebirth in the early part of the century to Hellboy’s summoning in 1944 to constant references to past adventures readers weren’t always privy to, this was a series that felt like it was going on before readers found their way there and one that felt like it was still going to continue to exist after they left. The mysteries of the series, from Hellboy’s lineage and role in the future to Abe’s past and the various adventures and secrets hidden throughout the world, never felt like a gimmick or something reader were waiting to learn about it. It always seemed as if the clues were there, as if someone knew the arcane horrible truths but dared not speak them. It’s an exciting, powerful sort of world-building that’s still rare to see, even in creator owned books.

In an interview with USA Today, Mignola said his goal with Hellboy was just to do an occult detective series, something he’d wanted to do without the trappings of an established universe. What came out of that was so much more and looking back, it’s amazing to see the way the entire franchise grew and expanded building off of a host of secrets and details, both dangerously arcane and wonderfully mundane.

The Second Annual Vulcan Quiche Awards: Part 4

Screen shot 2013-08-30 at 10.39.32 PMI know this is (holy shit) three months into 2014 but at long last, here’s the top 20 series of 2013. This was an intensely contested category and I really had to whittle the list down to the very best of the best of the best. Let’s get into it.

The Next Generations – Awarded to the finest series of pictorials of the year.

Runners UpANXMEN2012013_int_LR-2-3
This was tough. All New X-Men somehow overcame a limited premise, several overly complicated story arcs, a tie-in to the underwhelming “Battle of the Atom” and some rickety character work to be a fantastic look at the X-Men through the ages and a reflection on how the series has changed. The Allred family overcame some rocky plotting by Matt Fraction and fixed FF, making it one of Marvel’s most unique and recognizable books on the market. Bringing Rafael Albuquerque onto Animal Man took it from an impressive title to one of DC’s finest off-key horror books and a consistent source of nightmare imagery and heartwarming scenes of characters fighting for what’s important.

Twentieth PlaceBruce-Banner-in-Indestructible-Hulk-2Indestructible Hulk

Mark Waid is a man who can redefine a character. Focusing on Banner, the jealous, hopelessly petty, intrinsically flawed monster underneath another monster is the focus and like in Waid’s Daredevil, he’s a character who finally wants to change his place in the world. While stories like “Agents of TIME” dragged along, Waid positioned Banner and Hulk as separate, albeit linked, characters looking to change, even when the world and the people they surround themselves with aren’t so sure they’re ready.

Nineteenth PlaceuxmUncanny Avengers

Uncanny Avengers isn’t a perfect book. It’s often barely a good one. What makes this story unique is that it’s always bold, always pushing the envelope, always relentlessly putting the characters in the worst possible position and watching them hopelessly crawl back from the brink. It’s a technique Rick Remender perfected on Uncanny X-Force but it’s given new weight in Uncanny Avengers with a team who can’t afford to let its secrets stay locked away. Each issue is an event, a talking point, an upcoming Twitter firestorm and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Eighteenth PlaceScreen-Shot-2013-10-05-at-8.33.07-PMStar Wars

If there’s a better introduction to the Expanded Universe than Brian Wood’s Star Wars, I don’t know what it is. Taking the familiar bits of the canon and slowly bringing in the looser character relationships, motivations and world building, Star Wars is a master class in how to make a licensed book work for diehard fans and newcomers alike. Evocative, recognizable and classically nostalgic, it’s a book that makes a galaxy far far away feel never more reachable.

Seventeenth Placehooded-figure-green-lanternGreen Lantern

After years of guidance and hundreds of issues of wonderfully realized worlds, Geoff Johns handed over the franchise he resurrected in a single issue of Green Lantern. While Robert Venditti has done a commendable job moving the series forward and keeping the book a must-read, Johns’ deliberate, wonderfully realized moments between Hal Jordan and Sinestro in Green Lantern #20 made this book an instant classic and cemented his place in the Corps’ history.

Sixteenth PlaceNova's_lifeNova

Casting off years of complicated backstories and Marvel’s often arcane space baggage paid off by bringing Sam Alexander home in Nova. A wonderfully realized, empathetic and true portrait of growing up young, poor and without much guidance, Sam is the perfect character to try to fight for what he believes is a galaxy worth saving and his attempts to right intergalactic wrongs are touching, bold, attention grabbing and often hilarious. Nova often achieves the impossible, being a well written, fun and passionate book, as well suited for first time readers as Marvel junkies alike.

Fifteenth PlaceScreen Shot 2013-08-23 at 12.41.31 PMWonder Woman

A rare example of a writer and artists’ voices defining a DC character, Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s take on Wonder Woman is the boldest book by a traditionally conservative publisher and the results are often stunning. Focusing on Diana’s twisted family dynamics and her attempts at creating a more stable home, Wonder Woman is a deeply human story on the way we reflect and deny the families who define us.

Fourteenth PlacesagaSaga

Last year’s winner, Saga continues to be one of the biggest success stories in independent comics and one of the best examples of the diversity of stories the medium can tell. A “Pulp Fiction”-esque storytelling device brought all the characters together in 2013, letting them bounce off each other and haunt their actions until only love can define them. Saga continues to be an electrifying read and the wait for the next issue is always far too painful.

Thirteenth Placebatman-242Batman

In 2013’s Batman #21, an unmasked Bruce Wayne raises a youthful middle finger to the man who will one day be his archenemy. It’s a defiant wonderful moment but it might as well be Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo flipping off the established canon. “Year Zero” has been a wonderfully realized, exuberant and fresh take on the early days of Batman, both respectful to Frank Miller’s “Year One,” and willing to critique, prod and kill its idols. Snyder’s Batman is everything the New 52 should be: fresh, respectful, modern, hip and unbelievably ready to slash and burn.

Twelfth Placeku-xlargeHawkeye

Matt Fraction and his stable of artists went bigger, more ambitious and infinitely more complicated in their second year of Hawkeye and that’s why it’s on the list but also why it’s not higher up. While the investigation into Gil’s death, Kate’s trip to California and the return of Barney were all great character driven beats, an inconsistent shipping schedule, missed deadlines and switching publication orders left fans wanting more and not in the most friendly way imaginable.

Eleventh Placegg1Guardians of the Galaxy

Brian Michael Bendis skills are all in display in his revamp of Guardians of the Galaxy, his whip smart dialogue, wonderful characterizations, fight choreography and gripping story telling. Like Nova, Bendis built on the past without being enslaved by it and made the Guardians more than just a team of space pirates but a group of heroes like no one else in the Marvel Universe.

Tenth Placeaaron-02Wolverine and the X-Men

What defines the X-Men? Is it their deep history, their very recognizable and personal struggles, their complicated romantic lives or the ongoing stories which define a race and people? Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men takes all of those disparate bits and brings them together into a single cohesive package. Wolverine and the X-Men is the perfect look at why the X-Men work as a franchise and despite some missteps (I don’t think anyone will look back favorably on the Frankenstein’s Murder Circus arc), it’s a stunning, beautiful book, always ready to surprise and remind readers why they’ve invested so much in these characters and this world.

Ninth PlaceAstro-City_1_PanelAstro City

The return of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is more than just the return of a series which redefined comics. It’s the culmination of all the ways the medium has grown and changed since the series went on hiatus in 2009. Astro City is a wonderful reminder of how a deconstruction of  comics can work, not stripping down and destroying the characters and world but celebrating the way the medium works and how people exist within it.

Eighth Placetumblr_mtyn4dOw4m1qj97xmo1_1280Fatale
In the wake of murder and madness at the end of Fatale #10, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips had a chance to go bigger and broader with their tale of Jo and the monsters who pursue and they made a splash in a huge way. Going back through the past and ending the year in the ’90s Seattle Grunge scene gave the title the same amount of freedom and energy Jo has found. It’s a book mercilessly in command of the story and characters it slowly unravels, pushing Jo and the Bishop closer and closer together into what is sure to be an Earth shaking conclusion in the final year of Fatale.

Seventh Placenew-avengers4-strangeNew Avengers

One of the masterstrokes of Marvel’s soft relaunch has been the company’s decision to pay attention to the past without being beholden to it. In New Avengers, past relationships haunt a team of Earth’s most brilliant minds and the odds the group is up against weigh heavy on their hearts. While dealing with the extraplanar incursions is the narrative thrust of the series, Jonathan Hickman’s writing is sharpest when delving into the minds and motives of his characters. Black Panther and Namor’s tense declaration of war, Reed Richards tentative, inquisitive interrogations of the unknowable Black Swan and Stephen Strange’s slow descent into a power he doesn’t know if he can control create a perfect mix of internal and external tension. These are characters with a history and presence in the Marvel Universe and by pushing them against a threat they don’t understand and have never faced has let all of what makes them icons shine.

Sixth Placemanhattanproj-13-review-9_copyManhattan Projects

In Manhattan Projects, absolute power doesn’t corrupt absolutely, the illusion of absolute power corrupts everyone absolutely. As the team secures its place as the defacto leaders of Earth’s future by killing, bribing and dominating anyone who stands against them, their reach finally extends their grasp. It’s just a matter of time until every unleashed horror collapses in on this team of opportunistic scientific schemers and their grand plans and grander delusions make every issue a tragic, stunning, revolting must-read.

Fifth PlaceincBatman Incorporated

Everything ends and everything begins again. It’s a maxim Grant Morrison has often repeated in his mainstream comics but it’s never been so vivid, so dark and so wonderfully daring than in the conclusion of Batman Incorporated. It takes a ruined Gotham, the death of his son and a final battle with the only woman who could have stopped him to take Batman and Bruce Wayne from a child fighting for the wrongs his parents suffered to a father fighting for the children he’s losing and it’s pulled off with aplomb. Morrison’s operatic conclusion to his years of Batman stories is a perfect end to one of the best DC stories of all time and like the ever-present serpent eating its own tale, the last moments of Batman Incorporated show a future for Bruce Wayne that will only begin again, eternally and forever.

Fourth PlaceScreen-Shot-2014-01-26-at-2.52.42-PMEast of West

Every issue of Jonathan Hickman’s masterpiece in progress, East of West, contains the same line: “We did this to ourselves.” East of West is singularly focused on an apocalypse of our own making, a far flung, splintered dystopia not so different from the world we live in. The end of the world isn’t an act of God, despite the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, it’s an act of very mortal hubris, of greed, blind faith, betrayal and xenophobia and between layers of post-modern myth, biblical apocrypha and buckets of blood, it’s a strangely prescient warning of the doom and divisions we still blindly build for ourselves.

Third PlaceBoomerang07The Superior Foes of Spider-Man

Failure is very, very funny. I guess let’s back up from there. Failure is only funny if it’s backed with delusion, if a person only believes they can’t possibly fail or doesn’t even recognize their failures as such. Fred Meyers doesn’t think he can fail. He’s created a new Sinister Six (with only five members), broken his friends out of police custody (which he put them in), killed the traitor in his organization (actually, that didn’t really work out) and planned a daring heist against one of the most dangerous men in New York (under false pretenses). He’s falling apart at the seams and doesn’t even seem to realize it and the rest of his team of narcissists, functioning alcoholics and has-beens are always taking falls and hits they don’t quite deserve. It’s a series which could fall into tragic melodrama just as easily as it lands its humor and that’s what makes The Superior Foes of Spider-Man so special.

Second PlaceXML2X-Men Legacy

X-Men Legacy is indefinable. It’s neither superhero comic nor deconstruction, neither celebration nor character study. It’s something in between but also separated from. Through David Haller, the man once known as Legion, Si Spurrier and a host of artists have examined the nature of heroism with a character who would reject that label. X-Men Legacy is supremely confident in the story it’s telling, one with both world spanning and very personal consequences and stakes and that care shows in every moment. This is an opening statement from Spurrier and a cult classic in waiting, a wonderful story about what being a hero means and the sacrifices and choices that need to be made to get there.

First Placedaredevil_30_panelDaredevil

“Try the red one.” Spoken by the super-sensitive ninja, Ikari in Daredevil #25, it’s a line that walks the balance of horror and humor, of weakness and strength, desperation and victory. It’s the line that made me fall hard for Mark Waid’s Daredevil. Focused on giving Matt Murdock a chance to escape the sadness, death and desperation which has embodied the character since Frank Miller’s turn at the helm, Waid gave his characters a chance to be more than the sum of their parts. Murdock isn’t just a hero when he puts on the suit. He’s a hero when he sits in a cancer ward, a hero when he tries to rebuild his personal life, a hero everytime he reaches out to someone in need. No longer is Matt Murdock defined by tragedy, he’s defined by how he averts it, how he shapes his life and the lives around him with passion, zeal and a never-say-die attitude. Neither indebted to the past nor embarrassed by it, Daredevil soars by letting a character take control and make a difference, or at least let him try.