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Oh Crap! The Continuing Adventures of Hellboy and the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense

October 27th, 2008
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Since the big red guy first appeared in John Byrne’s Next Men #21 back in 1993 (and I am proud to say that I read that issue when it came out!), I have been hooked on Hellboy.  The creation of writer-artist Mike Mignola, Hellboy is, on its simplest level, about a monster who keeps the world safe from all the other monsters.  But there’s so much more to it than that!  To borrow some text from the back of the recent Hellboy Companion, “since 1994, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy has been one of the most evocative comics on the stands, slowly revealing a bizarre world of Victorian occult societies, prehistoric gods, arcane Nazi experiments, and layer upon layer of enigmas.”  Yeah!  Beautifully illustrated, very literate and a heck of a lot of fun, Mignola’s various Hellboy limited series that have been released over the years are some of the best American comic books out there.

For those of you who may have discovered Hellboy through Guillermo del Toro’s two recent films, there are so many great comics out there for you to enjoy.  Seed of Destruction is the first miniseries, and while one can see that Mignola is still feeling things out, this is a great introduction to the world of Hellboy.  The first movie drew a lot of its inspiration from this tale.  But Hellboy really starts to become the Hellboy that I know and love in the next bunch of (superior) stories.  First there’s Wake the Devil, in which a murder in a wax museum leads Hellboy to vampires, Nazis, and possibly the end of the world.  Then there’s The Right Hand of Doom, which is probably my favorite Hellboy collection.  This volume actually contains a ton of terrific short stories (most notably the classic “Pancakes,” about young Hellboy in 1947 eating breakfast), and two tales that are absolutely to the Hellboy saga: “The Right hand of Doom” and “Box Full of Evil,” both of which shed a lot of light on questions of Hellboy’s origin and ultimate destiny (storylines also hinted at in del Toro’s two movies — in particular the scene with the Angel of Death in Hellboy 2).  All that back-story rushes front and center in The Conquerer Worm, which to me is one of Mignola’s masterpieces.  A remnant from the Nazi space program causes trouble in present day, as a space capsule launched back in 1939, containing something very, very bad, makes its return to Earth.  This series also introduces one of the great characters in the Hellboy world, the enigmatic World War II hero Lobster Johnson, whose full story remains untold (although we’ve gotten a LOT more information lately).

Those are, to me, the “classic” Hellboy tales, the ones that made me fall in love with the goofy guy and all the weird, wonderful fish-men, homunculi, and other strange folk inhabiting these stories.  But part of the fun of Hellboy comics in the past few years is the way Mignola, and an increasing number of talented collaborators, have been able to broaden that world.

The end of Conquerer Worm saw Hellboy at the same point as he was at the end of the second movie (albeit due to ENTIRELY different circumstances) — quitting the BPRD.  This allowed Mignola to launch a new series of miniseries focusing on all the other characters in the B.P.R.D. (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense), struggling to get by and keep the world safe without their biggest heavy-hitter.  The first two collections of B.P.R.D. tales are OK, but the series found its footing with Plague of Frogs, due in no small part to Guy Davis’ becoming the regular artist.  A menace dating back to the very first Hellboy mini-series comes back in a big way, and Abe Sapien finally begins to learn just who and what he is.  The answers are very very strange, and wonderfully intriguing — though quite diffficult for poor Abe to handle.  The story continued to build over several mini-series that followed, each one better than the last:

The Dead — In which the B.P.R.D. get a new team leader (Captain Ben Daimio, a man who was once mysteriously dead for three days) and a new headquarters (complete with a creepy guy buried in the sub-basement with a rather dangerous idea about how to open a gate to the kingdom of heaven).

The Black Flame — In which the B.P.R.D.’s war with the frog creatures explodes across the world, resulting in terrible devastation.  Liz Sherman begins having awful visions; another Nazi menace rears its head; and the team suffers a devastating loss.  This story is one of the best of the B.P.R.D. run, and served to let readers know that Mignola and his collaborators were not messing around with this series!!  In many ways, The Black Flame made B.P.R.D. (rather than the continuing Hellboy miniseries), the centerpieces of the ongoing Hellboy story.  In my eyes, at least!

The Universal Machine — In which we learn fascinating tidbits about the pasts of Daimio, Liz, and Johann Kraus; and B.P.R.D. agent Kate Corrigan considers making a dangerous bargain to restore life to the colleague who fell in The Black Flame.  The epilogue illustrated by Mignola is heartbreaking.

Garden of Souls — In which the remaining details of Abe Sapien’s origin come to horrifying light; the mystery of Captain Ben Daimio deepens; Liz’s nightmarish visions worsen; a bunch of Victorian men preserved in bizarre technological outfits plot the end of the world; and the key to salvation rests in the shrivelled hands of an Egyptian mummy, restored to life back in the 1800’s.  Wonderfully bizarre and filled to overflowing with innumerable fantastical ideas and images on every page, this series rivals The Black Flame in my mind as the highlight of this series.  There is no other comic like this out there!

Killing Ground — I thought Garden of Souls was the climax to the B.P.R.D. storyline, but things keep building to a fever pitch in this series, in which a violent creature breaks loose in B.P.R.D. headquarters and almost every character finds him or herself at an emotional turning point.  One of the wonders of this series is the way each chapter seems to have its own tone — and this one is definitely horror.  This is one of the best “page-turners” of the bunch, as things quickly turn very ugly for our heroes.  It is also the chapter, along with Garden of Souls, in which so many of the seeds of story-lines planted in earlier series really come to fruition.  And the conclusion is jaw-dropping, both for its emotional punch and for the stunning return of the last character I ever expected to see.  

The Warning — Coming out as we speak, in which we learn more about Lobster Johnson (well, a little more, anyways) and also about the man haunting Liz’s dreams; and little red gnomes release enormous ancient robots on Munich, Germany.  

There have also been a variety of other mini-series and one-shots released in the past few years, all of which are a lot of fun.  The most notable are B.P.R.D.: 1946, in which we learn how the Bureau was formed in the ashes of the second World War; Abe Sapien: The Drowning, a story about Abe’s first solo mission for the B.P.R.D. that connects in striking ways with his origin as revealed in the B.P.R.D. series; and Lobster Johnson: Iron Prometheus, which starts as a fun-filled pulpy romp about this hero fighting Nazis in the 1930s, then becomes something much more in the closing pages.  All of these are terrific series in their own right, but what’s really incredible about them is how each serves as another piece in the every-growing puzzle of Mignola’s Hellboy world.  The villain in Lobster Johnson, for instance, at first seems to be nothing more than an interesting foil for the adventurous Lobster… but attentive readers will note the connection with the mysterious figure who has been haunting Liz Sherman in the last several YEARS worth of B.P.R.D. series. There’s nothing obvious here — no editorial notes, nothing to help underline the connections — but suddenly an attentive reader is rewarded with some huge answers.  (And, of course, lots more questions!)  Same thing with a creature seen in a vision by Abe at the end of The Drowning.  In the context of that particular series, it seems a throw-away detail… just one more bit of weirdness.  But for those of us who have been following Abe’s story over in B.P.R.D., its a staggering AH HA moment.  

So what are you waiting for?  If you enjoyed either of the two Hellboy movies, there’s an enormous universe of great stories out there!!!  Give one of ’em a try, and I guarantee you won’t look back.

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