Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format — please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.
What’s it about?
Hellboy is the “World’s Greatest Paranormal Investigator”. His expertise stems partly from being a demon himself. Summoned into the world by Rasputin for a world-ending Nazi scheme, Hellboy has seen his share of extraordinary things. Fortunately for our world, Hellboy is not very interested in jump-starting the apocalypse.
Hellboy was discovered and sheltered by his adoptive father, Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, founder of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD), a global agency with field agents who are trained for dealing with the impossible. Though some are human, many of the agents have their own abilities that make them best equipped to deal with the supernatural, just like our eponymous hero, Hellboy.
Hellboy is good at his job. It’s hard to hurt him and he has ridiculous strength as well as a right hand of impervious stone. While he does work with agents from BPRD on and off, often his stories show Hellboy dealing with all sorts of sorcery and monsters. Because he could meet demons or fairies or Egyptian gods, he is prepared for anything, especially since so many creatures seem to have it out for him. He tries to joke and punch his way through life without having to confront the realities of his origin, but too many monsters don’t let him leave it entirely alone.
Readers can’t get enough of Mignola’s universe. Since Hellboy doesn’t really age, Mignola can drop the reader off anywhere, anywhen. If Hellboy makes anything clear, it is that Mignola is an intelligent man. Folklore is at the heart of Hellboy, and Mignola uses his knowledge to throw Hellboy into the middle of obscure stories and monsters of the month.
When Mignola wants to immerse you in a world, you’re not dipped in, you’re dunked. If he’s dealing with vampires or werewolves, he goes much deeper than the usual pop culture interpretation. There are curses and cycles and incantations and betrayal, all well researched and placed in an accurately depicted setting. More often the featured creatures have such unknown names and origins that the rich history Mignola draws on becomes a fantastic discovery for the reader.
Hellboy treats all of these horrors with an amazing deference. Though Hellboy is haunted, he is also a funny and likeable guy. Dragging corpses around and punching stories-high pig monsters is just another day at work for him. All of the ritual and reverence that goes into so many of these legends isn’t something he subscribes to, and interactions between what may be centuries-old beings and a wise-cracking, hornless demon highlight how mundane events are for him.
The fact that the story can veer between chilling and hilarious is a testament to Mignola’s abilities. What makes Hellboy the masterwork it is, though, is that the art matches it stroke for stroke.
Since it’s inception, the book has a haunting beauty. If you want to see how to use contrast, pick up a Hellboy trade. Mignola indulges in blacks as much as possible, to stunning effect. A line through a shadow can become Hellboy’s hulking form or a battle between monsters or a solitary character deep in thought. There’s a minimalism to the art than lets Mignola’s meaning assault the reader. There’s such great action and framing variety that Hellboy is one of the most engaging comics hands down.
Designing a world that takes so much research, writing, and art is not the recipe for a quick comic. The world of Hellboy is vast and Mignola is just one man. That is, until he realized that he could find some help.
Mignola’s fans weren’t just readers, but contemporaries. When he asked around to see if people would be interested in drawing stories he scripted, he got a response. In the first few collections, you’ll see different artists, the most frequent guest being Richard Corben. Then, starting with the Darkness Calls mini-series, Duncan Fegredo became the series artist. Taking on new artists allowed the Hellboy universe to expand in ways it couldn’t with only Mignola behind the pen. In addition to Hellboy, there’s the ongoing BPRD, and several mini-series featuring key characters from the Hellboy universe including Lobster Johnson and Abe Sapien.
All of the artists do their own interpretations of Mignola’s style, but throughout the collections there’s little departure in tone. Fegredo in particular does a great service to the series by taking it out of the shadows slightly, and instead giving a more illustrious look to the inks.
Recently, Mignola took back lead art duties for the current mini-series, Hellboy in Hell. Every time it’s released, is one of the most anticipated titles on the stacks.
When it comes to audience, it’s a horror comic, so don’t pass it around to elementary school kids. It’s hard to pin down an exact age because you need to be mindful that some enemies are ancient beings, and they just don’t care about wearing clothing. A lot is hidden in shadow, and there’s never anything lurid in Hellboy, but you still might want to use discretion. Depending on your area, that might mean the Adult section, but I’ve seen it on Teen and Adult shelves, so flip through a volume and make your decision.
Why should you own this?
Like most of the Classic Fantastics, you should give this to everyone. It’s not just a solid comic; it is one of the cornerstones of comics. When you want to argue about high art and comics, this is one of the works you reference. With that caveat, this would be a particular treat for anyone who loves the paranormal. Mignola dredges up fantastic stories and creates captivating images – it won’t disappoint.
Dark Horse has specifically made hardback library editions, so they’re very convinced that you need to collect it. Currently there are six library editions and they typically contain two standard volumes apiece. Otherwise you can collect the twelve paperback volumes that are currently out.
by Mike Mignola
- Volume 1: 978-1-59307-910-9
- Volume 2: 978-1-59307-989-5
- Volume 3: 978-1-59582-352-6
- Volume 4: 978-1-59582-658-9
- Volume 5: 978-1-59582-886-6
- Volume 6: 978-1-61655-133-9
- Volume 1: 978-1-59307-094-6
- Volume 2: 978-1-59307-095-3
- Volume 3: 978-1-59307-091-5
- Volume 4: 978-1-59307-093-9
- Volume 5: 978-1-59307-092-2
- Volume 6: 978-1-59307-475-3
- Volume 7: 978-1-59307-860-7
- Volume 8: 978-1-59307-896-6
- Volume 9: 978-1-59582-431-8
- Volume 10: 978-1-59582-477-6
- Volume 11: 978-1-59582-740-1
- Volume 12: 978-1-59582-827-9