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The Great Hellboy Re-Reading Project Part IV: The Conquerer Worm

I have recently begun an epic project: re-reading Mike Mignola’s complete Hellboy saga from the very beginning!  What began as a series of sporadic mini-series and short-stories featuring the big red occult investigator has deepened over the past twenty years into what is, for my money, the richest and most consistently entertaining comic book universe of stories out there.  Click here for part one, in which I discussed the very first Hellboy tale: the four-part mini-series Seed of Destruction.  Click here for part two, in which I discussed The Wolves of Saint August, The Corpse and the Iron Shoes, and Wake the Devil.  Click here for part three, in which I discussed a variety of Hellboy short stories including The Right Hand of Doom and Box Full of Evil.

Onward!

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Conquerer Worm (2001) — Back in 1939, the vigilante adventurer Lobster Johnson was killed while destroying a key installation of the Nazi space program in Austria.  But now, sixty-one years later, a capsule the Nazis shot into space returns to Earth, with a very dangerous passenger.

Conquerer Worm could be my very favorite Hellboy mini-series.  I just love it.  It’s got all the now-classic Hellboy elements: Nazis, crazy creatures/monsters, and a World War II back-story.  But this mini-series also feels like a huge leap forward for Mr. Mignola and the series.  It is short, only four issues, but holy cow is each issue jam-packed with all sorts of wonderful, original, truly unique weirdness.

The series opens with the death of Lobster Johnson in 1939.  I have now realized this has become something of a delightful trait of Mr. Mignola’s Hellboy stories — starting with the end of a character and then, over the years, going back to slowly flesh out that individual’s character and history.  (Just like Mr. Mignola did with Professor Bruttenholm and, later, Sir Edward Grey!)  It’s a fascinating story-telling device, and it makes a re-reading project like this phenomenal fun as I work my way through these stories and discover all sorts of connections.  Dr. Manning’s briefing about Lobster Johnson in issue #1 is short but wonderfully dense with details, and over the years as the Lobster Johnson story has progressed, I have often returned to these pages to try to parse whatever secrets and details I could find.  (I love Manning’s comment about “weirder stuff,” while we see a panel of the Lobster fighting a living brain.  It’s funny, for years I thought that was just a one-off joke; I had totally forgotten, until this re-read, that we actually saw that specific Lobster Johnson adventure back in Box Full of Evil!)

Von Klempt and his monkeys appear!  I love this crazy villain, it’s great to see him step into the spotlight here (after having seemed less important relative to Rasputin and the other Nazis like Kroenen in the previous mini-series.)  I love how, despite Von Klempt’s seeming demise at the end of this story, we’ll nevertheless see more of him over the years.

In issue #2, we get our second appearance of the alien who first appeared back in Seed of Destruction!  (Maybe not the same alien, but someone of that same alien race.)  Wow, I can’t believe I had pretty much forgotten all about these guys, they really seemed important in these early mini-series.  I wonder when we’ll see them again.  (If my recollection serves, we see this alien race one more time.  Looking forward to seeing what I discover as my re-read continues.)  The alien’s appearance here is wonderfully enigmatic.  At first he seemed like a ghost or spirit, the shade of one of the American G.I.s who died back in ’39.  He mentions watching lillies grow from Hellboy’s blood, which is an awesome reference back to The Nature of the Beast (though in going back and re-reading that story I am not sure which character this alien was disguising himself as).  Since he talks about having watched Hellboy since H.B.’s birth, maybe he was among the group that we’ve seen watching Hellboy all this time?  (Future appearances over the years of that group watching Hellboy don’t seem to bear out that theory.)  I am not sure, I have quite a few questions that remain.

I also love the connection to Goodbye Mr. Tod, as the alien discusses the vast and terrible creatures out in the deep dark of space that the Nazis had been trying to contact.  (The alien calls them the same species as the creature the unfortunate Mr. Tod contacted.)  I like this expansion of the mythology.  These aren’t exactly the same creatures as the Ogdru Jahad, though there are similarities.  Seems there are LOTS of big bad creatures out there who mean human-kind no good!

Speaking of human-kind, in issue #3 we see Inger’s men turned into creatures who strongly resemble the frog-men from Seed of Destruction.  There’s no direct connection to the events at Cavendish Hall, though Von Klempt intriguingly refers to them as “the final race of men.”  As I have written in previous posts, with everything going on in current Hellboy/B.P.R.D. issues with Abe Sapien’s transformation, I am very alert to any references to the first or the final race of men.  Is this how humankind began, and is this truly where humankind is going in the Hellboy universe?  We’ll see some-day, I guess, when Mr. Mignola’s story concludes (hopefully a long ways down the road).

Von Klempt’s apocalyptic vision, that he describes to his grand-daughter Inger at the end of issue #3, is also very intriguing.  There are a lot of similarities to what Kroenen had said to Von Klempt back in Wake the Devil #4.  Von Klempt found those ideas laughable at the time, it’s curious that he now seems to have come around.  Even more interestingly, as I noted back when discussing Wake the Devil, much of what he describes has already come true in the currently-running B.P.R.D. “Hell on Earth” story-line!  The creature we see in the first panel on page 23 resembles very strongly the creature we’ll see unleashed at the very end of B.P.R.D.: King of Fear.  Does that mean that this madman’s vision of the end of the world is really going to take place?  Where is this all going?

Is the answer found in Rasputin’s speech to Ingber in issue #4?  (I think it’s Rasputin.  The silhouette also resembles Astaroth, as seen in Box Full of Evil, but we can see the wound where Abe impaled Rasputin.)  Rasputin gives us a tantalizing glimpse of the Hellboy universe’s pre-history (the Hyperboreans, a “golden age” of mankind whose civilization eventually fell) while also predicting its end.  He says: “The Ogdru Jahad will break out of their prisons.  They will burn the Earth and kill everything, true, but out of all that death… out of the ashes… new life… a new race of man… and a new world.”  Again with the references to a new race of man!  (In a panel in which we see a frog-like creature.)  Will Hellboy and his B.P.R.D. teammates find a way to avoid this destiny, in the stories that have not yet been published??  We’ll see!

My only complaint about Conquerer Worm is Hellboy’s quitting at the end, which feels very abrupt to me.  The moment feels too rushed in the last 3 pages of issue #4, it feels like it needed more time to breathe.

At the time, I didn’t expect Hellboy’s departure to last long, so color me amazed that today, a decade-and-a-half later, Hellboy still has not returned to the B.P.R.D., and in fact his story since this split has been almost entirely separate from all of the craziness that his former colleagues and friends have been dealing with.  (I very, very, VERY eagerly await the time when those story-lines finally re-connect and Hellboy and his friends are reunited.)  It’s incredible that, of Hellboy’s twenty year publication history, he has now spent far more time separated from the B.P.R.D. then he did a part of it.  Weird!

My last comment about Conquerer Worm is to discuss the epilogue.  Many of these Hellboy stories were given an additional epilogue in the trade paperbacks.  Because I mostly collected the original monthly issues, I have missed reading many of these epilogues, which is something of a bummer.  I’d heard for years that Conquerer Worm had an important epilogue, and for this re-read project I finally tracked it down.  Holy cow.  In this epilogue we see Rasputin again, vowing to return.  But he is confronted by Hecate who derides him for his repeated failures and destroys what remains of his spirit.  The Baba Yaga captures the final spark of his essence and places it in an acorn that she wears around her neck.  If that acorn business isn’t the most gloriously bizarre thing I have read all year then I don’t know what is.  But more importantly: I can’t believe that this HUGE plot twist — the final ending of Rasputin — was found in this epilogue I had never read!!  For YEARS now I have been wondering why Rasputin — so central in the early mini-series — had dropped out of the story, and I wondered when he would return.  Now I finally know.  Wow.

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B.P.R.D.: Hollow Earth (2002) — I was very dubious of this spin-off three-issue mini-series when it was originally published.  Was I really interested in reading B.P.R.D. stories that didn’t feature Hellboy?  At the time, I didn’t think much of this mini-series, it felt like a not-that-interesting digression.  Over the years, though, it has been remarkable to discover just how critical this story wound up being to the larger Hellboy saga.  I have subsequently gone back and re-read this story many times, and I think much more highly of it upon my re-readings.

Take the Agartha monk’s words in issue #1, when we see the monks studying while Liz is there.  I didn’t think anything of this scene originally, but now I re-read it super-carefully.  The monk has so many interesting things to say, mentioning the Watchers (we will learn more about them and their role in the Hellboy universe’s pre-history); the new race of men; the King of Fear (there will be a B.P.R.D. mini-series with this title several years down the road), etc.  When this issue was published, readers didn’t have the context to understand any of these phrases, but going back now it is super-cool to see just how well Mr. Mignola had all of this back-story (and hints at future story-lines) planned out.

This whole mini-series is chock-full of details that will prove so important down the road.  Those creatures under the earth.  Their huge machines.  That distinctly-shaped sword.  How cool and how crazy is it that this story that, at the time, felt so much like a stand-alone weird adventure, has turned into one of the most important stories of all?!

It’s nice to see Liz Sherman back in the center of things, and to get a ret-con explanation of where she’s been for the past few years.  Re-reading these stories now, it’s surprising how little Liz had actually been developed in the Hellboy comics before this point.

This mini-series is also notable for introducing Johann Kraus, one of the most central Hellboy/B.P.R.D. characters!  It’s easy to forget that this important character wasn’t introduced until after Hellboy had already left.

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Hellboy: The Third Wish (2002) — Following Conquerer Worm, the pace of new Hellboy-focused stories would begin to decrease dramatically.  This gloriously bizarre two-issue story would be the only Hellboy adventure we’d get for a while.  This also marks a shift in the style of the Hellboy stories being told.  They started to get weirder and darker. The stories began to become slower and more contemplative, and less-likely to be resolved by Hellboy punching something (or someone).

In  issue #1, we get another vision of the end of the world, this time from the Bog Rosh.  But this one is slightly different than what we’ve seen before.  In this one, it’s not Hellboy who unlocks the key to Hell.  In the Bog Rosh’s vision, Hellboy is dead and his Right Hand of Doom is used by another to destroy the world.  (Actually, we have seen this version once before: it’s what Father Adrian Frost describes to Hellboy back in the short story The Right Hand of Doom.)

In issue #2, we get the most lengthy scene yet of the figures who we’ve seen observing Hellboy.  They are clearly rooting for Hellboy.  As Gruagach wonders, WHY?  I am not yet sure.

Speaking of Gruagach, here’s yet another character who seemed unimportant when he was first introduced, way back in the short story The Corpse.  But here he is again, and a few years further down the road, in Darkness Calls, he will wind up being SO important!

But getting back to the three figures who are observing Hellboy, I notice that the masked figure is referred to here as Sir Edward.  That was meaningless to me at the time.  I totally missed any connection to the Sir Edward Grey mentioned so briefly in Manning’s briefing back in Wake the Devil, so many years earlier.  But now this is a super-cool detail to catch.

Sir Edward suggests that Hellboy, through his actions, is re-writing his fate.  So now we have, perhaps, an alternative to all the apocalyptic visions of the world’s doom that we’ve seen so far.  Is it possible that none of these visions we’ve seen so far will actually come to pass?  In an ordinary comic I’d say, of course!  The world’s not really going to end!  But in Hellboy, who knows?

I’ll be back soon with more!  See you then!

The issues discussed in this post are collected in: Hellboy vol. 5: Conquerer Worm; B.P.R.D. vol. 1: Hollow Earth and Other Stories, and Hellboy vol.6: Strange Places.

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