I always approach a Hellboy story with great anticipation to see how effectively the reworking of traditional folklore, most often Russian folklore, has been accomplished. I am particularly fond of the ambiguity of the Baba Yaga figure in the body of traditional tales where she may be an evil mother figure or good mother figure, depending on her mood and the intent of the storyteller. Hellboy’s Baba Yaga does not disappoint and I was equally delighted with the focus on one of another of my favorite East Slavic villains: Koshchei the Deathless.
Although he does not appear in as many tales as the Baba Yaga, Koshchei is equally ambiguous in his appearance and his background. He has been described as an ogre, an evil sorcerer, a father of dragons (not the adopted son of a dragon as in the Hellboy tale), and a husband to the fierce Baba Yaga. Seduction, deceit, infidelity, secrecy, and betrayal are consistent leitmotifs associated with him as is his immortality. Hellboy and the reader discover that Koshchei is only deathless because his mortality is kept hidden outside of his body. His death is hidden inside an egg and nested further in a series of objects and animals which vary from one tale to another. The egg is most frequently inside a duck, inside a hare, in a chest and buried under an oak tree. He is also well-known as an abductor of maidens.
The storytelling session with Hellboy at a pub in Hell offers an opportunity for Koshchei to recount his long and horrific journey from an ordinary warrior, with exceptional fighting skills, to the evil entity used and abused by the Baba Yaga in her ascent to supremacy. She took advantage of his fear of losing his soul (death). One of the escalating quests assigned to him is to slay the last dragons including all the hatchlings. She proclaims that this effort will spare the defeat of mankind but, in following her directives, he kills the family of his adopted father. Koshchei’s latest mission is to kill Hellboy. “The Baba Yaga came to me and promised me my soul back if I would kill you and bring her your left eye.” In a previous encounter with the Baba Yaga, Hellboy had shot out her left eye and, in this volume, he recounts the encounter to Koshchei, over several pages of atmospheric combat in a graveyard. After Koshchei shares all his tales of anguish, the two antagonists part ways with Hellboy leaving Koshchei to his horrific memories and Hellboy to his somber and sincere sadness for his ill-fated and extremely miserable adversary.
The six-issue story arc compiled in this volume pays homage to oral storytelling along with the Russian folklore and the long association between Hellboy and the Baba Yaga in previous stories. The storyline includes guest appearances from other Russian folklore characters such as the Leshi, the spirit of the forest and hunting. Traditionally, the Leshi is masculine and humanoid, surrounded by packs of wolves and bears, and is occasionally shown with horns. All these elements are exemplified in this story as is his power over his forest domain. Vasilia, possibility the best-known story of a young stepdaughter and her doll in all folklore, also plays a pivotal role in the stories Koshchei tells Hellboy. Koshchei reminds Hellboy, and the reader, of Hellboy’s previous encounter with this young woman. Mike Mignola frames this story to make his Vasilia an ancient ghost.
Koshchei’s stories are vividly brought to life through the bright colour palette and atmospherically dynamic illustrations. The multitude of close-ups of facial expressions adds to the immediacy of the horror, terror, revenge, and remorse of all the characters involved. There is, indeed, a great deal of violence as well as melancholy that is totally appropriate for both the Hellboy universe and the world of medieval Russian folklore. Beyond the ever-present bloodshed lies the story of an individual spiraling out of control through bad decisions, evil associations, and the never-ending quest for ultimate power, his own and others. There are several bittersweet romantic episodes, surprising for this traditionally unrepentant seducer of maidens. His passion for women, of course, is ultimately one of his downfalls.
Along with my admiration of the reworking of traditional folklore in this volume is my appreciation of the power and role of oral storytelling and the art of active listening demonstrated by the two main characters. Well done!
Koshchei the Deathless
By Mike Mignola
Art by Ben Stenbeck, Dave Stewart
Dark Horse, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 14