The Phenomenal Lovecraftian Prestige in Hellboy’s Abstraction

Scott D. Yarbrough

Scott D. Yarbrough

Michael Joseph Mignola established himself as an artist at DC Comics and Marvel Comics, gaining a reputation for moody, dark illustrations with the Batman book ‘Gotham by Gaslight’ (1989). His creation of the character Hellboy was inspired by a variety of sources, including the works of horror fantasist Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Michael Joseph Mignola found humour in matching a large, all-red character fitting the conventional depiction of a devil with the concept of a rough-and-tumble paranormal investigator who approaches dilemmas with a gruff humour and steady resolve.

Hellboy debuted in a black-and-white short in a convention publication for the Comic-Con International: San Diego in August of 1993. A second untitled story (both were referred to as ‘World’s Greatest Paranormal Investigator’) was released alongside with ‘Seed of Destruction’ in the Comic Buyer’s Guide. Michael Joseph Mignola had initially conceived Hellboy visually, and after plotting the early stories, he asked veteran comic writer John Byrne to help him script the two untitled shorts as well as the first series, ‘Seed of Destruction.’ After ‘Seed of Destruction,’ however, almost every Hellboy story has been written by Michael Joseph Mignola. ‘Seed of Destruction’ was published in March 1994.

Hellboy is not a series character in the conventional sense of appearing in monthly issues. Rather, Michael Joseph Mignola has largely told Hellboy’s stories in extended arcs as actual graphic novels that span four or more instalments as well as in short stories told in one or two issues. Additionally, a number of Hellboy works (such as ‘The Wolves of Saint August’) were initially serialized in Dark Horse Comics anthologies and specials such as ‘Dark Horse Presents.’ From the start, Dark Horse Comics intended to release trade paperback volumes of the longer stories as well as collations of shorter pieces. Many of the shorter pieces are not in the chronological order of the longer novels but instead take place at different times in Hellboy’s career, beginning in the late 1950’s.

The trade paperback collection of ‘Seed of Destruction’ is dedicated to pulp horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft and comic book artist Jack Kirby. Michael Joseph Mignola displays both these influences broadly in his work. ‘Seed of Destruction’ is set in 1944, when the occultist monk Grigori Rasputin assembles a coterie of like-minded Nazis (including Ilsa von Haupstein) on a small Scottish isle. Grigori Rasputin believes that circumstances are right for him to summon the Lovecraftian Ogdru Jahad (seven elder gods of great evil, imprisoned in another dimension, similar to the evil deities in Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories) and bring about Armageddon on earth.

At the same time, English paranormal investigator (later the founder of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense) Trevor Bruttenholm has assembled a team in East Bromwich, in the United Kingdom, where the psychic Alice Cavendish has foretold that something momentous is about to occur. Grigori Rasputin’s Project Ragna Rok, his secret group of Nazi scientists, believes his ritual has not succeeded because of the result of his summoning — a toddler hybrid of demon and human — appears at East Bromwich instead of on their small island.

Hellboy is raised by Trevor Bruttenholm and becomes (as billed) the “World’s Greatest Paranormal Investigator.” Fifty years later, Trevor Bruttenholm reappears at the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense after a failed mission and is killed by strange frog monsters. Investigating Trevor Bruttenholm’s last case, Hellboy, Elizabeth Sherman, and Abe Sapien travels to Cavendish Hall, where they must contend with Rasputin, who reveals to Hellboy that his purpose is to bring about the end of the world. The three manage to kill Grigori Rasputin’s physical body, although his spirit returns to task the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense.

Hellboy’s origins are explained further in the story ‘The Chained Coffin.’ Returning to Bromwich, Hellboy is given a vision by spirits and learns how a woman named Sarah Hughes, a witch, had bargained with the demon Azzael, having sexual relations with him to gain power. In death, her soul is forfeited to him, and he comes to claim it. Hellboy is born in Hell from this union before Grigori Rasputin summons him to earth.

Hellboy’s stories fall roughly into two categories. Although many stories build upon each other, developing the story of his possible destiny, others are placed at different times in his long career. Those stories that occur out of chronological order are not necessarily stand-alone stories as such because, at times, characters will often appear in multiple tales, further developing the overarching long plot.

In ‘Box Full of Evil,’ Hellboy must contend with a powerful goblin, Grugach, whose enmity he earned in an early story, ‘The Corpse.’ Grugach allies with an occultist named Igor Bromhead. During his combat with the two, Hellboy is once more informed that he is to be the harbinger of the apocalypse. This foretelling of Hellboy as the eventual avatar of the doom of humankind and civilization is heightened further in ‘The Third Wish,’ when a powerful undersea witch, the Bog Roosh, warns him he must die to save the world.

Hellboy’s destiny makes a significant turn in ‘The Wild Hunt,’ which delves into Arthurian legend, introducing the sorceress Morgan le Fay. Even as Grugach tries to force Hellboy to assume the role of the destroyer, the hero instead takes up Arthur’s famous sword, Excalibur, proving yet again he is a hero, not a monster.

Although the graphic novel form precedes Hellboy, the conception of the ongoing story as a series of novels intermixed with shorter tales constituted a transformation in the way comic books worked. While Hellboy was clearly influenced by Neil Richard MacKinnon Gaiman’s work on ‘The Sandman,’ Michael Joseph Mignola does not work on a monthly deadline. Secondly, where as many paranormal comics strive for a forced bitterness and dark cynicism bordering on melancholy, Hellboy has clung happily to its pulp roots. As in most superhero stories, the tales come down to winning a fight. The series has shown that a variety of elements and sources can be combined in new ways to make for new reading experiences.

More than the building plot and gothic, Lovecraftian nature of his stories and mythos, however, Michael Joseph Mignola has established himself as one of the most important artists of his generation. As he has matured, he has transcended the influence of Jack Kirby and accomplished great shifts in tone and mood through shadow and minimalist designs. Contemporary artists look to him as one of their prime influences, just as Michael Joseph Mignola once looked to Jack Kirby.

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