COMICS RETROSPECTIVE: The gothic expressionism of Hellboy

Hellboy Vol 1, Seeds of Destruction, Created and art by Mike Mignola, Script by John Byrne, Colours by Mark Chiarello.

Like many people, I’ve found time as of late to catch up with books I’ve not read. I’ve also wanted to give a chance to books that I hadn’t had time for. Previous to this week, my only exposure to Hellboy was the two Ron Perlman films, which I thought were fun action/adventure films. I had no idea that what was on the page was so radically different to the cheesy one-liners that made the films fun.

For anyone who doesn’t know. Hellboy is about the adventures of a demon from Hell raised by occult members of the Third Reich, to help bring about their victory in World War II. The book then jumps ahead 35 years to see a Hellboy grown up, working with the American / English team that were sent to investigate what the Nazis were doing. Quickly establishing the bonds that Hellboy has with these characters, before circumstances force him to look into some very strange events.

The first thing I noticed about the book was the creators. Normally having written by and art by…however this book was rather different in that the book was by Mike Mignola but the script was by John Byrne. This to me says that Mignola both pencilled and “drew” the outline for the book yet wanted someone else to write the dialogue.

What caught my eye next was the incredible artwork. Like nothing I’ve seen before on page (or screen if digitally). The colours by Mark Chiarello were subdued, gothic and muted, yet not compromising on detail. The colour gels incredibly well with Mignola’s art work which is also gothic, comparable to expressionist films, where shadows are distorted and overgrown to make things more eerie.

It is evident from panels such as this, that despite the tone of colours being more muted than what we would normally see for an explosion, you still get the same result. I would even argue that this is made even more visceral by the use of muted colours contrasted with the heavy black. The image made even more shocking with the use of the crucifix.

The use of the religious symbol is interesting because just two pages later we get the first reveal of the titular character. Thereby balancing both ends of the religious spectrum. Showing Jesus on a cross, where the bible states he died for our sins. Then we get to see the Devil who was supposed to be brought here to help the Germans win the war; however, he becomes a saviour in his own way. Could Mignola have wanted to use this as a passing the torch moment from one to another? If so, it’s interesting as when we do see Hellboy, he is in a position that’s opposite to the crucifix. He is sitting with legs crossed.

I find this intriguing as I wouldn’t normally think too much about religious symbolism within comics, with the name of the character and nature of his background, there must be something to this. I don’t think I’d like to know for certain as I find it more interesting where we have to make our own mind up about these things.

So much can be extracted and gotten out of this book. After only reading one volume, I’m hooked on finding out more.

Hellboy Vol 1 was initially released in 1994. You can purchase it from local comic shops, and it is also currently available free on comixology

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