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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Hellboy: The Seed of Destruction

Title: Hellboy: The Seed of Destruction

ISBN: 9781593070946

Price: $17.95

Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2003

Artist: Mike Mignola

Writer: John Byrne, Mike Mignola

Collects: Hellboy: The Seed of Destruction #1-4, San Diego Comic-Con Comics #2, Comics Buyers Guide

Rating: 4/5

Hellboy is, of course, a red skinned, cloven hooved demon...who was raised by humans, and so, as an illustration of nurture over nature, appearance and super strength aside, is actually just a regular joe who investigates the paranormal as an agent of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense.

Seed of Destruction collects the first Hellboy story arc (as well as a couple of even earlier short pieces that were published as promos for the new property). In it we learn of Hellboy's genesis in the waning days of World War II, then cut to modern times as the now adult Hellboy investigates the murder of his mentor, which leads him to the cursed Cavendish family on a forlorn peninsula of the American coast, and a showdown with an evil that ties into his origins.

Creator Mike Mignola was already receiving good notice for his art, but with Hellboy he arguably cranks it up a whole other notch, and it was his first major project as storyteller, not just a drawer of someone else's story. Mignola was presumably a bit insecure about that, because for this first arc, he brought veteran John Byrne on board to actually write the dialogue (Mignola would subsequently fly solo). What's interesting is that you can't necessarily detect Byrne's influence. I don't mean that as either good, or bad. I just mean you don't read this and detect much sense of Byrne's style, or much difference from this and the later Hellboy stories Mignola wrote on his own. Well, except there may be fewer of the trademark dry quips the series would later employ. But that may simply be because, as the first story, they wanted to establish a serious tone. After all, a red skinned demon investigating monsters could so easily slide into self parody that it was probably important to establish the serious tone before letting its hair down -- in much the same way that TV's The X-Files worked hard to establish a serious tone at first.

And the X-Files was, no doubt, very much in Mignola's thoughts doing Hellboy, being as both are about paranormal investigations, with a lot of deadpan talking heads and expository scenes as if ghosts and demons are no stranger than a burglary.

Visually, the story is richly rendered with lots of dark, brooding shadows, and landscapes that manage to be both minimalist and yet hauntingly evocative. The panels reek of atmosphere, so that you can fairly hear wind whistling spookily in the distance. Mignola's style is at once craggy and even cartoony...yet oddly realistic, suiting a story that tries to make the unbelievable seem almost commonplace, where as veteran investigators, Hellboy and his comrades, Liz Sherman and Abe Sapien, have seen it all before, occasionally dropping cryptic references to past investigations. The colors beautifully complement the drawings, being both sombre and brooding -- yet not oppressively so. While Hellboy himself stands out on the page, a blazing red beacon of hope.

Yet for all the genuine mood and unsettledness, this is generally a clean, fun horror. People die, and dark things are afoot, but this isn't some nihilistic, grisly horror comic that can leave a bad taste in your mouth ala Hellblazer.

The story is paced out well, managing to mix a slow building, creeping spookiness with some bombastic action scenes as Hellboy proves that when it comes to battling monsters, he can give as good as he gets. The story manages to tease us along, not playing all its cards at once, so there can be bizarre happenings, and cryptic comments, that only make sense in a later context. Because this is the opening story in what is, after all, a series (albeit an irregular series, told not in an on going comic, but in various mini-series and one-shots), it ends with some threads left dangling, including a final epilogue meant to hint at things to come. Yet with that being said, it does tell a story with a beginning, middle and end, and one that ties back into Hellboy's origin, making it satisfying as a story to be read for itself.

There can be a tad superficiality at times, the scenes maybe trying too hard to evoke a kind of deadpan cool. The catalyst for the investigation is the murder of Hellboy's mentor, Trevor Bruttenholm (pronounced "Broom"), yet Hellboy never quite gets that worked up over the death of a man he regarded as a father figure. And his relationship with Liz Sherman is strictly platonic.

Which brings us to reflecting on the comparison to the original motion picture. This trade was subsequently marketed as having inspired the motion picture. I was a bit skeptical of that when I saw the movie (having forgotten this plot), but re-reading it, I can see that the movie both followed it...and diverged from it (indeed, the movie, where it stays faithful to the comics, actually borrows from both this, and the next mini-series, Wake the Devil -- as well as lifting scenes from other Hellboy stories).

Both this and the movie detail a similar WW II origin for Hellboy, and both have the main plot climaxing with a modern day attempt to summon an apocalypse by the instigator of that war time incident. Yet in the details it's interesting how both versions are better -- and lesser -- than each other. The movie cranks up the emotion/human factor, giving arguably more character to Hellboy, establishing a romantic tension between him and Liz, and giving more weight to his relationship with Bruttenholm. Arguably rendering the movie more sophisticated, more adult, than the comic. At the same time, the movie Hellboy was an embittered outsider, his very existence kept secret from the outside world. Yet there's something almost more intriguing, and endearing, about the comic book Hellboy...whose a much more level-headed, easy going guy -- and one whose existence isn't a secret. There's something wonderfully weird -- both comic booky yet eminently human-- about the cigar smoking, trenchcoat wearing Hellboy casually interrogating witnesses as if there's nothing odd about a seven foot tall red demon dropping by for tea.

And in concept, in style, the comics are arguably more ambitious, or at least, more literary. The movie was very much a Hollywood movie, chock full of bombastic action scenes, chases through city streets, big budget fights on subways, where the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense is a hi-tech, James Bond-y style organization -- much of it taking place in New York city. But Mignola's influences are clearly more literary and traditional than that, the Hellboy comics rooted in a gothic milieu of cursed family trees, deserted castles, and ancestral homes crumbling, generation by generation, into the sea. In fact, I'm not sure a Hellboy story comes to mind that ever took place in a big city! Mignola is drawing upon a literary provenance of Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraftian lore and ancient fairy tales (some later Hellboy stories were, literally, reinterpretations of old folk legends). He also captures the essence of such tales with a story where we're not sure if we'll ever understand all that occurred -- while explaining enough that it doesn't feel like he was just too lazy to come up with a logical plot. At one point, a ghostly figure intercedes in the events, and Hellboy remarks they might never know why the apparition acted as it did...but that doesn't stop them from at least positing an explanation (unlike some comics that come to mind where the writer will toss in a convenient solution, then simply have the characters shrug it off with no explanation whatsoever).

Of course, the down side to traditionalism is there can be elements of cliche, such as the chief villain being the resurrection of the real life Russian monk, Rasputin -- a guy who has been conjured up as the villain in a zillion supernatural tinged stories over the years. (And, honestly, given all the real life monsters and creeps and serial killers throughout history, how did Rasputin get typecast as the ultimate evil?)

The movie was a big -- and yes, enjoyable -- Hollywood summer action flick. But Seed of Destruction is, arguably, a more stylistically ambitious tale, going as much for a low-key eeriness as often as it is super hero hijinx -- and there is a super hero flavor, of course, with Hellboy a decidedly more formidable protagonist than Mulder and Scully ever were, as if The Fantastic Four's Ben Grimm moonlighted as a ghost buster (Mignola's style even slightly evocative of Jack Kirby). But the comics have a spookiness the movie didn't.

As the opening arc in the Hellboy saga, Seed of Destruction is effectively sure footed -- even if those feet have hooves!

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