Hellboy – Volume 1 (Review)

Hellboy Volume 1

I don’t really like the Hellboy films. They’re somehow too cartoonish. I don’t have anything against cartoons, but I do have an issue with films that have no consistency in their tone. Hellboy is a film that can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a dark and broody Gothic film, or a zany slapstick one – Sin City or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I also take issue with the horrendous characterisation, particularly in the second one. Hellboy being a brash goon I dislike, but can deal with – I have a much bigger problem with a main antagonist suddenly switching sides with a throwaway line.

So after sitting through two poorly plotted films of a wise-cracking demon thug punching things whilst shouting out quasi-witty catchphrases, I was less than sold on the whole “Hellboy” concept. It seemed dull and two-dimensional. I had no intention of ever reading the source material.

But fate conspired against me, and I found myself stuck in a tiny train station for an hour with nothing else to do. My book had been left behind, and the only other book I had access to was annoying me. Prepared to be unimpressed, I borrowed Hellboy: Seed of Destruction from the person next to me.

Towards the end of the second World War, Nazi occultists led by a mysterious monk (no prizes for working out who) perform a ritual on a remote island. There are complications, but the end result is that a portal to hell spits out a baby demon. American soldiers secure the imp, and he is raised to become a paranormal investigator.

Named “Hellboy”, he breaks off his horns, and sets about punching supernatural threats with his supernaturally toughened right arm. Hellboy 1 focuses on the return of the aforementioned Russian monk, decades later, and the fulfillment of his dark plotting.

The comic has the same issues as the films, but to a lesser degree – it’s still all broody and Gothic, with stone heads delivering cryptic warnings and characters going on metaphysical jaunts. And then in the middle of it all, is Hellboy: loud, brash, uncomplicated and so quintessentially the stereotypical American. But the art style is consistent, so he fits in a little better, and occasionally you can see that there is some thought put into the contrast.

Overall, I like it better as a comic series – it fits the medium more neatly, and comics can play with time and space in ways that films can only do expensively or tackily. The tone is generally more serious, and the plot-lines (so far) are more detailed and have clearer links to mythology and traditions.

It isn’t a slow-starting series: there is no working up to larger threats. The whole origin story takes a couple of pages, and then the narrative plunges straight into the apocalypse. Rasputin is trying to summon seven god-dragons who are also the essence of chaos, and the Nazis are coming back.

It has something of the floaty, self-conscious depth and metaphysics that Sandman and Hellblazer do so often, which I don’t generally mind, but it can get rather wearying when everything is meant to be deeply symbolic and cosmic. Characters refer obliquely to unecessarily complicated concepts and so on. Hopefully the writers don’t go too far down that route – in the end, their hero punches things, rather than being the essence of dreams.

One minor thing that bugs me is that the writers seem to think that “Ragnarok” is two words: “Ragna Rok”. I’m aware that etymologically, it is constructed from two separate words, but it isn’t anymore, and the specific concept of Ragnarok is named with one word. Similarly, a seahorse is a different thing to a sea horse, despite the etymology.

I’ve borrowed and read the next two, which is some form of endorsement – I’ll write about them when I next have the time. In summation, I like Hellboy the graphic novel better than Hellboy; it is a little darker, a little more serious, and that is something I appreciate.

Buy it here.

This is a significantly shorter post than normal, for two reasons. Firstly, it focuses on a single volume of a graphic novel, which isn’t that long. I could go into massively more detail, but the overview and initial opinions do not take up that much space. Secondly, excluding my first ever post, everything I’ve written on here so far has topped a thousand words. Those posts take ages to write, and are unlikely to be fully read – consider this an experiment in shorter, more frequent posting.

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