There is something that always comes through with any Hellboy story: How much fun it it must be to play ‘what if’ with common horror conventions and turn them on their ear. For those unfamiliar with Mike Mignola’s iconic character from either the long-running comic series or the movie franchise it has spawned, he is a hero and a devil at the same time. Found as an infant during World War II, Hellboy was raised by a scientist as part of a covert agency, the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, and works as an agent to protect America and the world from occult and paranormal threats. The genius of Hellboy is that he’s far from what one would expect, i.e. a tortured soul always grappling with his evil nature – he’d honestly rather just forget it – but instead a gruff regular joe who would much rather enjoy a good brew and watch TV than go off and save the world.
The other thing that’s fun to read is how deftly Hellboy can be inserted into popular culture and confront everything from urban legends to mythical folklore, and monsters from practically any source. In the case of House of the Living Dead, it’s a tip of the hat (according to the dedication) to the stable of Universal Movie Monsters, as well as Mexican wrestler-vs.-monster movies. The story takes place in 1956, and is explained on the first page as happening after Hellboy disappeared for five months after an assignment in Mexico. We soon find out that he has joined the Mexican wrestling circuit, becoming friends with three wrestling brothers. Told in the first few pages as captions narrated by Hellboy, the brothers receive a vision from the Virgin Mary that they should fight monsters and Hellboy joins them, with the youngest ending up being turned into a vampire. All this action takes place off panel, with only scenes of a statue of the Virgin Mary and faded photos and wrestling posters indicating Hellboy’s memories. The captions end with Hellboy admitting that, being forced to kill his former friend, he doesn’t remember much more. Of course that’s when the real story starts.
We see Hellboy still wrestling and drinking copiously to try and forget what he just went through, when he is approached by a nervous man. The man offers him $500 to fight his master’s champion. Hellboy, sensing something’s not right, refuses, only to be shown a picture of a tied-up girl who will die if he doesn’t fight. Forced by his own grudging morality, Hellboy is soon driven across the desert to a lonely, dilapidated estate where he finds in the basement lab of the stereotypical mad scientist, complete with hunchback assistant and the champion. Guess what? It bears a striking resemblance to the Frankenstein Monster. What follows is typically Hellboy, and includes not only the Monster champion, but yes, more vampires and a werewolf as well. His acerbic acceptance of horrific turns, the matter-of-fact way he deals with some foes, and the way he broods over missed opportunities when the action is done is what makes him a character that is fun to read even when the story isn’t all too profound or revealing.
The artwork is ably executed by long-time horror and sci-fi/fantasy illustrator Richard Corben. No stranger to Hellboy, having done a few stories for the title before, he captures the hero’s expressions and moods possibly better than any artist besides creator Mignola himself. And the slightly exaggerated features of the human characters, detailed with intricate pointilist inking, convey not only their own moods, but reveal unspoken traits of their characters. Aiding Corben with his art is the subtle and beautiful coloring by industry veteran Dave Stewart, who enhances the style of Corben’s drawing with the exact right dark and moody tones. The only regret a reader would have would be a desire to see what Corben’s Hellboy would look like if he painted his panels like he did for stories in Heavy Metal and other adult titles in the 1970s and 80s.
So Hellboy: House of the Living Dead could honestly be described as horror fluff. It’s none too deep, and won’t reveal any new traits of the main character. But it’s such fun and well-drawn fluff that no one should mind all that much. It fits right in with the other titles in the series on either teen or adult shelves, depending on community standards. While hardly a title that will be necessary to any but completists, any fan of Hellboy will appreciate delving into his underworld once more.