Comics: Hellboy in Hell!

Although it’s a typically fraught comics week (new X-Men mania! a new team of Avengers!), the brightest nugget is pure gold: Mike Mignola returning to write and draw a mini-series starring his great creation, Hellboy. The series is called “Hellboy in Hell,” and its first issue kicks off this week with a synopsis page guaranteed to bewilder just about anybody in the world:

On December 23, 1944, Hellboy appeared in a fireball in the ruins of a church near East Bromwich, England. In 1952, he was granted honorary human status by a special act of the United Nations and began working as a field agent for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. He quit the B.P.R.D. in 2001 and traveled to Africa, where he was abducted by mermaids. After several years lost at sea, he returned to England, fought some giants, fell in love, and learned that he was a direct descendant of King Arthur and therefore the rightful King of all Britain.

Shortly thereafter he fought a dragon and was killed.

This first issue of “Hellboy in Hell” has a letters page at the end, and one of those letters, from Adam Paxman over in Liverpool, goes like this:

Just a quick note to say the latest Lobster Johnson versus zeppelin gas attack caper looked especially fantastic. All hail the evocative art of Tonci Zonjic!

I’m also pleased to hear rumblings in the latest letters column that the wendigo, jaguar spirit, or Daimio may make a return to B.P.R.D. in some form. Daimio the twice-cursed man? Or Giarocco the jaguar vessel? Place your bets! Can’t wait to see more!

And so the problem becomes obvious: Mignola followed the stunning success of his handful of Hellboy mini-series years ago by overseeing something now called the “Mignolaverse” and farming out the writing, editing, and artwork chores to other people, almost inevitably lesser-talented people (all hall Tonci Zonjic indeed). Stories were spun and elaborated, long-percolating plot-lines carried forward, etc. – in other words, business as usual in the comics world.

But the fact that “Hellboy in Hell” plunks readers down squarely in the middle of that business as usual (sparing time only to issue that incoherent and frankly insane paragraph quoted above) creates problems that stem mainly from the apparent – and lunatic – belief on the part of Dark Horse Comics that everybody who read and loved Mignola’s original Hellboy series then loyally stuck around through the years and derivative years of water-muddying by his surrogates, imitators, and employees. Or worse: that the stuff generated in those years was just as good as Mignola’s original, fantastic work.

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, and it’s a little awkward that the good folks at Dark Horse couldn’t take Mignola aside and say, “Look, Mike, we respect the effort you’ve put into shaping the ‘Mignolaverse,’ but let’s face it: fifty times as many people are going to pick up ‘Hellboy in Hell’ as ever even thought of reading ‘Lobster Johnson v.s. the zeppelin’ – any chance we could throw those people a life-vest or something?’”

Instead, readers who want to savor Mignola writing and drawing the character who made him immortal must, in the first issue of “Hellboy in Hell,” just sort of tread water as one incomprehensible after another is heaped upon them. It’s annoyingly egotistical of our beloved writer/artist, but, amazingly, it’s actually worth it: the sheer mastery on display here – not just the artwork but the perfect evocation of Hellboy’s rumpled, work-a-day nobility – is so thrilling it allows even the worst-intentioned reader to float above all the in-jokes and fanboy non-context. Hellboy goes to Hell’s anteroom, is saved by a mysterious sorcerer, and winds up squarely in the middle of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – non of it makes a lick of sense, but it’s faintly possible some of it will, by the time this mini-series has concluded.

In the meantime, this issue, despite its nasal tones and pocket protector, was a joy. Certain comics pairings – Curt Swan/Superman, Frank Miller/Batman, Joe Kubert/Tarzan, Steve Rude/Nexus, etc. – always will be. It would be nice if Mignola weren’t expecting his followers to be chapter-and-verse familiar with ten years of what amounts to fan fiction, but ultimately, a little (or a lot) bewilderment is an acceptable price to pay for watching a true comics master at work on his greatest creation.

A direct descendant of King Arthur, though? Yeesh.

 

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