The new collection initiative from Dark Horse is, potentially, a chance to give us a fresh outlook on Hellboy – already one of the most reprinted and talked-about comics of the last twenty-five years.
The Hellboy Omnibus series will include six collections: four following the major Hellboy storylines in ‘chronological order,’ from “Seed of Destruction” up to “Hellboy in Hell” and two more dedicated to various short stories, from “The Body” through “The Midnight Circus” and dozens more. The main problem for such an initiative is that not only is the Hellboy saga ongoing, but that it also moves both forwards and backwards in time: with a recent group of mini-series such as “Hellboy and the BPRD 1955” showing us the adventures of titular protagonist before the events of “Seed of Destruction.”
Looking at the various stories for these collections as announced via the solicitations we can see that the name Hellboy Omnibus is a bit misleading. They would have been better called Hellboy by Mike Mignola Omnibus, focusing on stories authored solely by Mignola (and in the case of the longer storylines only choosing those in which he was the artist). Mignola is, naturally, the creator of the character and the leading voice throughout the title’s (and its various spin-offs) existence. I have no problem with the idea of doing a line of collection focusing on his meta-narrative, though it does end up feeling a bit dismissive for the work other creators poured into this this project, if anything my problem is different: this does not feel curated enough.
These stories have seen print in several different forms already, in single issues and as pages in anthologies, in regular trades and in the massive “Library Editions.” Each of these forms tells a somewhat different version of the story simply by dint of presentation. A strong editorial hand in presenting these stories once again would have given us something extra; and I’m somewhat disappointed that we ended up with is just another collection, slightly heftier than its elder brothers. There are a dozen pages of sketches in the back – wouldn’t this initiative be better served by giving us some pages on the timeline of the stories in relation to the other collections? Or on why certain stories were chosen?
Still, there are worse ways to pass the day than to read Hellboy, even if it is for the nth time. While never a huge fan myself, more of a respecting distant admirer, reading these first stories again knowing how it all ends up is certainly a different experience: you can see him throw around all sorts of ideas in the air, some of them will be picked up later and some them remain in limbo to this day, and then appreciate how masterfully he catches them. G.R.R Martin once spoke of the two approaches to writing, architects (who plan everything in advance) and gardeners (who go with the flow, as it were); the magic of Mignola is that he is a gardener, no way he knew when he started “Seed of Destruction” how long and large this story will become, but he is so good at directing the various plots that it becomes easy to believe he was an architect all along.
Think of the Hellboy saga like a sculpture: Mignola starts with a block of granite and chips away at it for years, making various forms along the way. and when he is done we might think that he was always aiming for the final form – but it was as much of journey for him as it was for us. Angles and demons and aliens and witches and fae and tentacled monsters from beyond – it should be horrible clash but it ends up in near perfect harmony.
Still, he is far from faultless as a creator, especially in his earlier and rougher days. That the art would improve is only natural, especially when he begins to work fully with Dave Stewart as his colorist, but the art is not the problem: already in his early days he shows a natural ability not only to find a striking stand-alone visual, the first issue of “Seed of Destruction” ends with a creepily effective shot of a frog in a tea-cup, but to weave that image into the tapestry of the page in a way that strengthen both the individual panel and the page as a whole.
Mignola is not a perfect storyteller. the fight scenes after the first story, whose end anti-climactically involves very little action from Hellboy himself, feel and more and more like an afterthought, a collection of striking poses as Hellboy is either tossed around the ether or leaps through backgroundless air ready to punch. Mignola’s writing is a product of his desires as an artist – he wants to draw scenery, weird creatures, silent panels of shadows falling, people telling (or rather, shouting) their ancient stories. Mignola gets better the more he approaches his purer self, such as the dreamlike quality of “The Chained Coffin” (which contains no action other than recollection), or the moody horror that is established in the beginning of “The Wolves of St. Augustine.”
As for the writing: enough had been written about the problems with John Byrne-scripted first story, “Seed of Destruction,” whose noir-esq detective monologue feel out of place in the extended Hellboy canon. But I feel the biggest issue I have with series, and the reason I always had more intellectual and esthetic appreciation for it rather than true emotional connection, is Mignola’s own: there’s a lot of distancing going around here, which lessen the emotional impact of moments. The Hellboy movies, mawkish as they were, established actual resonance with the characters – so when Hellboy’s dad dies we feel it as he feels it, when he rejects his demonic legacy for the ones he loves we cheer with his triumph.
Here the same moments pass without much comment: I recognize that they occur, and that they have narrative significance, but I don’t really feel them; I just notice them. Hellboy of the comics starts of so world-weary, so experienced and knowing, that it’s hard to get a rise out of him. It’s another reason why the short stories set in the early days of the canon work so well – the terror the child experience in “The midnight circus” is true and immediate because it happens to a young person, to whom everything has the intensity of first time experience.
Still, for all its faults, either as (and highly affordable with only $25 per collection of over 300 pages) collection or as a story, there is much to love in the “Hellboy Omnibus” experience. Old time readers have no reason to double-dip, the extras are not worth it, but for people who were wary about dipping their toes for the first time to the deepening ocean that is the Hellboy-verse this might be an ideal entry point.
Writers: Mike Mignola, John Byrne
Artist: Mike Mignola
Colorists: Mark Chiarello, James Sinclair, Dave Stewart
Letterer: Pat Brosseau