“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 1

WHATIFAVX2013002_int_LR-3-4It’s the end of the year and so that means it’s time to look back at this year in comics with the returned Vulcan Quiche Awards. There are new categories this year, many of which will be looking at the top ten issues or books of the year but it’s time to recognize the best miniseries or one-shot of the year.

The Shorties  – Saluting excellence in a limited series or one-shot.

Runners Upthanos-rising001
Jason Aaron and Simone Bianchi really tried to give the titular character a strong origin story in Thanos Rising but just sort of made him look weak, pitiful, whiny and uninteresting, despite some standout moments. In the same way, What if…Avengers vs. X-Men stuck the landing and hit massive high points but didn’t have the time to really sell the dangerous insanity of Magneto’s schemes. Batman Black and White is exactly the kind of artist and writer showcase DC needs to be doing much more often but the series massive shifts in quality couldn’t land it a top spot.

Fifth PlaceAssassinationofadandookuStar Wars: Agent of the Empire – Hard Target

It’s rare that Star Wars books get into the gritty details of how the Imperials maintained control of a vast and diverse galaxy but the Agent of the Empire series has always looked at the politics and compromises which go into control through the lens of Jahan Cross. The grizzled and ethically compromised spy, assassin and much more is dispatched to Alderaan to install a regime which will be supportive of Emperor Palpatine but the scheming of Adan Dooku and a double cross on Boba Fett make the operation much more difficult and bring many of the universe’s power players together to decide the fate of a planet which will soon be destroyed. It’s not a heady series but it’s a great, focused look at one of the most venerable pop culture franchises.

Fourth PlaceScreen Shot 2013-08-28 at 4.09.47 PMBatman Incorporated Special #1

The message of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman Incorporated is the idea that Batman is an eternal force, always in place to battle corruption and crime. He’s there, unchanging and unwavering but by series’ end, Bruce Wayne’s life and Batman’s empire is in shambles. There’s nothing left to build from. Taking some of the writers and artists intimately familiar with Morrison’s epic, Batman Incorporated Special #1 shows the effect Batman Incorporated has had on the DCU and the inspiration Bruce’s fight has had for a new generation of worldwide crime fighters. It’s a slightly more optimistic ending for one of the best Batman stories ever.

Third Placetumblr_mju3dz0CmO1s5k9amo1_1280Sledgehammer ’44

While Mike Mignola’s franchises have always had a great reverence for the sacrifices made by soldiers in World War II, Sledgehammer ’44 humanized and focused the death and destruction of the conflict to one man’s decision. After the Allies drop a steam-punk Iron Man in occupied France, one soldier has to decide if his soul is worth the cost of saving his comrades in arms. It’s a beautiful, wonderfully rendered series which focuses on the results of destruction more than the violence which caused it and with Sledgehammer ’44: Lightning War just starting, it’s nice to see the Hellboy franchise continue to focus on one of its most human and most tragic heroes.

Second PlaceBullseyes-booze-DDEOD4Daredevil: End of Days

“Matt Murdock was my best friend. I don’t think I was his best friend.” This line, part reverence, part obligation and part self-pity define the quest of once famed journalist Ben Urich as he goes about trying to recreate the legacy of the slain Daredevil in this exceptional series. Like the surviving villains and heroes, Ben is haunted by the memories of the angel of Hell’s Kitchen and defined by his actions, long after Matt meets his bitter end. Daredevil: End of Days is all about collapse, the fall and changes in a city, characters and world but it’s hopeful and willing to look to the future and influences one man can have in a world which seems to eternally resist such change. It’s some of Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack’s defining work on the character and the legacy The Man Without Fear created but it’s also a fitting end to the series defining run these two creators had.

First PlacemaxresdefaultAmerican Vampire – The Long Road to Hell

Scott Snyder doesn’t spend a lot of time on the innocent victims in American Vampire. While the series is mostly the tale of a vendetta between the psychotic Skinner Sweet and his once victim-turned-hunter Pearl, it’s also a retelling of American culture in the 20th Century, namely how “The Other” is viewed. More often than not, The Other in the series are the vampires themselves, but The Long Road to Hell focuses on a recently turned couple, slowly figuring out how and if they can feed themselves ethically on the blood of human cattle. Unbeknownst to them, their moral barometer, vampire hunter Travis Kidd, is coming and no one can survive. It’s a single issue bold enough to cast one of its premier heroes as a cold, remorseless serial killer and it does so confidently and with aplomb, making the wait until the new miniseries in March even more difficult.

Coming Up: 2013 was a year defined by characters and relationships, with all the companies angling to invest readers in their icons. Let’s recognize the characters that defined the year and broke barriers over the last 12 months.