Celebrating 20 years of Hellboy: A [moral] compass for modern comics

Today, March 22nd, has been declared “Hellboy Day” by Dark Horse comics in celebration of 20 years of one of the most celebrated characters in comic-dom.  In the spirit of this most illustrious of feast days, I decided to reflect a little on just what I have found so special about Hellboy over the years.  I think I nailed it…but maybe that’s just my ego.  Comments and criticism are welcome, as always.

Mike Mignola’s Hellboy first came off the presses in 1994 (I believe there was a few-page promo at Comic Con in ‘93, if we are splitting hairs).  And while it took me a bit longer to discover the do-gooding demon–six years in fact, whilst in eighth grade–the timing was perfect; I was at the nexus of childhood and I’m-not-an-adult-but-think-I-am-hood.  With that came the need for more substance in my hobbies, and at least a modicum of discernment for some of life’s complexities.  So as a lover of folklore and mythology, I was sucked in by the complex Hellboy mythos.

A protagonist of presumably ancient and evil origin brought about to end the world, but who instead chooses a higher path? Yes, please. Red skin, trench coat, giant gun, right hand made of stone and cloaked in mystery?  Yes, please!  I dove into Mike Mignola’s universe and never looked back. To this day, Hellboy is my favorite protagonist of any comic I’ve ever read.

A demon who’s also the “good guy,” the irony of Hellboy is cool as all get-out. Plus, the thrill of the macabre and Mignola’s exploration of mythology and the occult make for some fantastically creepy stories. The true intrigue of the Hellboy title, however, lies in its morals, which are as cryptic and conflicted as the titular character himself.

In too many stories, unambiguous good and evil are commonplace because they’re easy. It’s a piece of cake to root for the hero when his origin and mission are noble and just. But what if the that hero is literally from Hell (or some distant, ominous equivalent)? What if a story’s antagonist has a truly tragic past, one begging some measure of pity?  This is Mike Mignola’s style.  He challenges notions of good and evil with Hellboy, and gives us complex antagonists and a brazen anti-hero as a central figure of integrity.

The anti-hero figure as an archetype goes back at least to the Homeric epics and was utilized to great effect in the stories of the serial pulp magazines age, up on through the film-noir era.  While it’s hard (for me at least) to tease out clear antecedents to Hellboy as an anti-hero, I suspect that Mignola’s development of his flagship gumshoe–and a gumshoe he is–may well have been the influence of those old pulp detective stories and characters like Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) and Joe Gillis (Sunset Boulevard).  Outwardly, he certainly lacks the “hero” facade as a good anti-hero should, but that isn’t what makes Hellboy an anti-hero.  Because he lives in an unfair world without clear resolution, because he’s conflicted, world-worn and unappreciated, but continues on that higher path in spite of it all, Hellboy exhibits the anti-hero through and through.  His appearance and origin actually have little to do with it.

The dichotomies we see in more traditional superhero stories are great at what they do, which is to set up a clear conflict for clean (and yes, sometimes thrilling) resolution at the end of the issue or story arc. But those stories aren’t truly representative of good and evil or right and wrong the world.  Then again, traditional superhero stories aren’t supposed to be, are they? They are feel-good escapes, and serve their purpose well. But their moral bases–their foundations in one-dimensional right and wrong–haven’t satisfied me for years. There’s no profound reason for this; I’m an adult, and I need more than that now. It’s both ironic and impressive that in Mignola’s stories of the supernatural that we find so much stark reality and muddled morality–something many comics try to do today, but too often fail to strike the chord so well as Hellboy does; he ultimately chooses humanity and hardship over dominion and power out of a basic sense of righteousness, even when it’s conflicted (which is often).

The golden age of comics is gone, and with it the shiny hero and goateed villain. More so today than ever, comics cater to mature audiences, and as a non-child myself (that’s arguable, I suppose), I love the comics I do because they don’t have to dumb it down.  Layered characters and stories as morally complex and loaded as real life itself pull me in like sexy unitards, capes and martial arts never could. Nowhere is this reflection more clear to me than in Hellboy. Mignola’s world illustrates perfectly that the nature of good and evil are nebulous at best, just as in ours.  And you know, I prefer that world to the one I knew as a little boy, even with all its complicated trappings.

If you’re new to Hellboy, not a fan, or just not a fan yet, head over to your local comic shop today to celebrate Hellboy Day and give Mignola’s wide universe a chance.  Tons, if not most stores are celebrating in some fashion, and will likely have discounts and/or special promotional material available!  To download an official “20 years of Hellboy” poster click here (or the top image), courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

Oh, and HAPPY HELLBOY DAY, ONE AND ALL!

Images from Dark Horse Comics.

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One thought on “Celebrating 20 years of Hellboy: A [moral] compass for modern comics

  1. Pingback: Appreciation Post: Hellboy | The Maltese Geek

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